Fighter All Weather (FAW) of the Fleet Air Arm.

Lt. Cdr. Bob McCulloch RN. was the Commanding Officer 899 Squadron. January 1967.

The following statement was made in 2003

From 1948 to 51 I was an engineering apprentice with De Havillands.One of the jobs I worked on was the second prototype DH110 WG240.This was the aircraft that went U/S at the Farnborough airshow in Sept 52 and was replaced by the first aircraft WG236. This inturn broke up during its flying display killing pilot John Derry and navigator plus a number of spectators.

My next contact with the type was on 5 October 56 when I went to Hatfield to fly with Lt Cdrs Peter Barlow and Nigel Ducker in WG240, the prototype 110/Sea Vixen. My main task was to comment on the observers cockpit (later correctly called the coalhole!). At that time I was with 766 Sqdn the Sea Venom training outfit prior to joining 894 Sqdn, Sea Venom 22s. Whilst I had no problems from an airsickness point of view I was less than impressed with the view out, a small window about 25cmX25cm from memory (more about this later). During these flights we made a number of supersonic dives so maybe I was the first RN observer to break Mach 1.

On leaving 894 Sqdn in April 58 Steve Stephenson and I were sent to RRE Pershore to fly in a Varsity and Canberra aircraft to evaluate the GEC AI 18 airborne intercept radar fitted in these aircraft but destined for the Vixen. My main memory is that it was a much more powerful stabilised radar with a lock on feature, big improvements over the AI 21 fitted to the Venom.

After Pershore I was seconded to the Naval Test Sqdn (C Sqdn) at RAF Boscombe Down to help progress the development of the radar and associated weapon system (Vixen XJ 476). Other Vixens at C Sqdn at that time were XJ 474 which was involved with flying control development and 477, with was the armaments aircraft. As an aside, 474 had what was the latest (phase 2) flying control system fitted and carried high expectations of much better flying control performance, particularly in the landing configuration. Vixen 476 on the other hand had the earlier phase 1 controls. One day Cdr Pridham Price (the boss of C Sqdn) scheduled himself to fly on one on "my" AI18 development flights. On our return to Boscombe he carried out a number of dummy deck landings on the runway which led to the comment that in his view phase 2 was not any better than phase 1!. Later, in August/Sept 58, Danny Norman and I embarked in HMS Victorious (Vixen XJ474) for a period of deck landing trials. Besides the Boss, Pete Reynolds was the other pilot involved.

In October 58 I joined 700Y, the Sea Vixen intensive flying trials unit at Yeovilton. Vixens in the IFTU included XJ482, 484, 486, 489, 490 and later XJ491. In July 700Y became the first Vixen front line squadron 892. Malcolm Petrie was the CO and Jack Carter the Snr Obs. It was around this period that I aired my thoughts about the lousy observer’s cockpit layout commenting that it was NBG for any other activity that airborne interception. Jack took me to task with the comment that this was the prime role of the aircraft so he saw no problems. About a year later, when flying with David Hamilton (by now the CO 892), embarked in Ark Royal, carrying out low level navigation/strikes at 450 knots over Sicily, close air support for the Army in Cyprus and North Africa etc etc., I had many dark thoughts about Jacks comments. By the time I rejoined the Vixen world in 1967 with 899 Sqdn, these tasks had expanded to nuclear strike, low-level tactical photographic recce and in flight refuelling. In my view and based on my long Sea Venom experience, if only the Vixen 2 changes had included a Hunter T8/Venom type cockpit I am sure observer morale and crew co-operation would have benefited. It might have also enabled the aircraft to retain its Aden cannons for close air support operations and gladden the hearts of the pilots!

As mentioned above, I joined 899 Sqdn as the CO in January 1967 equipped with 14 Sea Vixen Mk2 aircraft. The Vixen 2 was heavier than the Mk1 and was fitted with a number of improvements. Most notably the Red Top missile system and additional fuel in the boom extensions. Unlike the early Mk1s the aircraft also had inflight refuelling facilities including the ability to act as a tanker aircraft; later the ejections seats were modified to include an underwater ejection capability. Other improvements including the basic but very useful wideband homer, an X or S band radar detection and homing system. At this time, following ideas from Ron Holley (AEO) and other maintenance staff, the new 899 "flying fist" tail insignia was adopted, I think it has been retained by all subsequent 899 squadrons.

Shortly after taking over command of 899 the recommendations of the confidential report by Lt Cdr J F (Nobby) Hall into the high rate of Sea Vixen accidents at sea were accepted and put into place. If I recall correctly, the major finding was that pilots were being asked to undertake such a large number of different roles/opertaions off carriers without having sufficient opportunity to maintain "currency" in all aspects of carrier operations, particularly night deck operations. This placed an unacceptable load on the newer less experienced pilots. For example, by 1967 the majority of 899 pilots were on their first tour and at times we had to use a first tour pilot to act as leader of a flight of four aircraft.

The practical effect of this action was that we formed small aircrew groups within the squadron who, whilst maintaining currency in their prime roles also developed specialised expertise in such roles as photo-recce; flight refuelling tanking; nuclear planning and delivery and, most importantly, night operations at sea. Back to the "black flight" concept of earlier times. This latter move was very important because the reality of life at sea was that the opportunity for night operations was not great so it was important to give the "black flight" priority. It also meant that the first tour pilots acquired a good grounding in day carrier operations before they were considered for night operations, if I recall correctly two of the new pilots eventually joined the black flight. I might add that having 16 pilots was a bonus when scheduling day and night operations.

The style of operations had also changed since the days of 892. Battle formation and air combat manoeuvring ACM) in 1v1 and 2v2 situations was now the form. In this latter context my predecessor, Rip Kirby, had set up a wonderful unofficial arrangement with the French Navy F8U Crusader squadron based in Brittany. Each squadron would take it in turn to fly over and carry out ACM against the other. This gave us invaluable experience against modern supersonic aircraft and enabled both sides to learn many lessons. We were later to employ some of the tactics we learnt against RAF F6 Lightnings (with Firestreaks!!) and RAAF Mirages. A major lesson from these operations was that provided the ACM took place at lower altitudes the Vixen could keep turning until the single seaters started to run out of fuel, the Red Top caught many as the tried to break away using afterburner.

On the subject of Red Top, an early decision made by us was that we would make every effort to make the system work; even at the expense of having otherwise serviceable aircraft "grounded" and my having to deal with criticism from certain Commanders Air about 899s aircraft availability. I am aware that a number of my predecessors will object and claim that they also adopted the same priority for Red Top but in the end we were the first Vixen squadron to successfully carry out live firings of Red Top at sea. Here I must mention Ron Holley (AEO), Mike Layard (AWI) and the armament/electronic members of the squadron who put in the hard yards to achieve the successful outcome.

Another weaponry matter worth mentioning resulted from a large percentage of bombs dropped on the Torrey Canyon failing to explode; the Admiralty bean counters substantially raised all squadrons inert and live practice allowance. As a result at sea we always did 2" R/P on the splash target at the end of each sortie with greatly improved results. Another tale relating to Torrey Canyon arose from the "panic" that followed when the RAF failed to ignite the oil released by Navy Buccaneers bombing of the ship. A number of very creative people at Yeovilton somehow recalled how to make a certain witches brew which when poured into some old 150-gallon drop tanks enable 899 to dramatically set fire to the oil slick – and no questions asked!

I will only briefly mention our actual commission in Eagle 1967/68. The dominant feature was in the Indian Ocean off Aden where Eagle /Hermes/ Bulwark etc covered the British withdrawal, later just Eagle on standby, in case the locals became difficult. However, the earlier part of the commission was in the Far East where many interesting varied events/operations were undertaken including execises with the RAAF and RAF as mentioned earlier. In retrospect one amusing event occurred at RAF Gan. Whilst using Gan as the diversion one of the Vixens had to divert to the airfield. The pilot F/O Lewis RAF (another development at that time) on finding that one of his wheel brakes unserviceable, and remembering his airfield briefing, asked for the "barrier" to be raised. On being told that this had been done he landed but could see no barrier, there followed a series of "where is it", "its up" etc before the aircraft gently rolled into the sea at the end of the runway. The irate Wing Commander Flying was more than a little taken aback to find two RAF officers climbing out of the Vixen and an irate John Lewis asking where hell was the barrier; the RAF "barrier" was in fact an arrestor wire! So much for interservice co-operation, the RAF later changed the name to hook wire.

I am pleased to say that at the end of the commission all our hard work earned the squadron the Australia Shield. It was for being the most effective front line squadron but the precise reason escapes me

More general comments on the Vixen are that to a large extent the Navy managed to make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear. I have already aired my views on the cockpit layout, other limitations were its flat lift/drag curve leading to speed instability on the approach, not helped by the engine IGVs opening/shutting at approach settings; limited view of the carrier deck; a weak undercarriages for deck operations in heavy weather; a maintenance philosophy that reflected its fifties origins compounded by the fact that the Mk2 Vixens were a mixture of new aircraft and modified Mk1s, which presented other maintenance compatibility problems. However, I would not have missed all that happened for quids, when I look back and compare the Eagle commission of 1967/68 with that of 1952/53 I can truly say "we" had really got it all together by then.

Remember that my memory of events that occurred over 35 years ago is not that good!

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