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Peter Cope

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C1Peter Cope: 

Peter Roland Cope was born in Croydon, England on December 7, 1921, and thus shares a birthday that with the date that now lives in infamy, for its being the day of the Pearl Harbour attack in 1941.  As a boy, he developed an intense interest in aviation as Croydon was then the location of London’s main airport.  At a young age he became determined to make a career in the Royal Air Force, hopefully as a flier, after completing college.
The fact of Britain being at war with the Axis as of September, 1939 forced a change in his career plans.  He enlisted in the RAF and, due to the pressures on pilot training in the UK, exascerbated by the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, was sent to the United States for pilot training in 1941.   As such, Cope learned to fly with the U.S. Army Air Corps in the American Deep South.  After successful training at Craig Field, Alabama, he was bestowed with the coveted silver wings of a USAAC pilot on May 16, 1942.  Thus his RAF battle dress perhaps became an intriguing symbol of the new wartime alliance between the United States and Britain. 


He flew North American P-51s, Hawker Tempests, de Havilland Mosquitos and other types during WW II and went through the Empire Test Pilot school in Britain.  After returing to England and completing advanced fighter trainin, he was posted to 170 Sqn., RAF.  Here he undertook operations on another symbol of allied cooperation; the P-51A Mustang, designed and built in the United States for Britain’s express (and immediate) needs, over a 143 day period by North American Aviation. 

      Peter flew low level combat reconnaissance missions in the fabled Mustang, as Flight Lieutenant and later as Acting Squadron Leader, photographing all kinds of targets in Hitler’s Festung Europa, or Fortress Europe.  Due to the early Mustang 1s (or P-51As) being powered by the non-supercharged American Allison engine, this series of the fighter only allowed the Mustang to show its high-speed potential at low level, before receiving the US license-produced version of the engine in Britain’s top fighters and bombers, the Rolls Royce Merlin.  The aircraft Peter flew initially carried six 50 calibre machine guns, an armament that seemed very potent in its effects compared with the early British Hurricanes and Spitfires.  It certainly seemed dramatic in effect to a 20 year old bearing down on trains and other military targets in France and the Low Countries at near record speeds—often below treetop height, while attempting to accurately bring guns to bear.  This represented the secondary aspect of his duties, his primary responsibilities included navigating at extremely low-level, often under very low cloud ceilings in dubious weather, to arrive a very specific destinations at precise moments in time, to bring his ‘primary armament’ (consisting of oblique and look-down cameras) to bear at the proper angle and height. To provide crystal clear photos of Nazi installations and formations these fighting ‘pilot-navigators’ faced the added demand of handling the aircraft very smoothly, at the time that the enemy would be concentrating any available guns of their own what amounted to Britain’s belligerent spying eye. 

    Cope’s reconnaissance photography was consistently of high-calibre.  When he received a new Mustang with armament of considerably higher calibre than the A model carried (four 20mm cannon vs. six .50 cal.), he has related experiencing a somewhat enhanced effect when brought accurately to bear.  Returning from a photo assignment one day a train came into view ahead of Peter and he gave the engine a long blast of cannon fire.  The very next day he was returning again on the same track and saw the train was where he had attacked it, with the wheels and other heavy steel casting shattered and broken from his fire.
Peter served what amounted to three consecutive combat tours of duty before the administrative system caught up with him and posted him to training duties.  On the intellectual level Cope justified his ‘overtime’ on photo-recce operations because he felt, obviously with the support of his immediate superiors, he was making an excellent contribution to the war effort—otherwise squadron staff officers would have ensured his normal rotation. As a young flying enthusiast however, he was certainly enjoying some of the more visceral aspects of riding over 1,000 horsepower at 400 mph, aquiring intelligence that helped the Allies plan and execute the defeat of Naziism, with the bonus of being able to take out his share of Nazi forces in more direct ways.
Since Cope had demonstrated particular skill in ground attack, he was posted to various operational training units, where he earned the Pilot Attack Instructor qualification on aircraft such as the Spitfire, while teaching the boys how to shoot and blow the right things up.   Peter’s ability is indicated by his gaining the specialist qualification for armament development.  On these postings Cope was moved around a considerable amount as the RAF appears to have wanted to spread his particular expertise around. 


Copyright 2005, Randall Whitcomb.

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