declared March 2008. An account of an alarming incident in early training and an ejection (accident ID35) 24th March 1966 is described.
This describes two incidents from what was a typical Sea Vixen course at the Naval Air Fighter School (766 squadron) RNAS Yeovilton at the height of Vixen aircrew pipeline training.
I joined No 117 Course at Yeovilton in November 1965 after finally finishing my basic Observer training at Hal Far in Malta (out there for the good weather)and jet familiarisation on the Sea Venom at Lossiemouth in Scotland (pretty good weather there too). I say 'finally' because up to that point in my naval career I had spent almost 4 years in the training system owing to a serious illness followed by a nasty road accident. Looking back perhaps someone was trying to tell me something! Even during this time the possibility of meeting an untimely end at some future date was ever present. I recall every incident on the list during the 1963-65 period whilst recovering at Yeovilton and on one occasion took charge of the Funeral Firing Party for two Vixen aircrew killed during training.
To return to No 117 Course; there were 3 pilots and 3 observers, crewed up Pilot/Observer as follows: Ian Mckechnie/myself, Paul Latham/Tony Stevens and Graham Peck/Paul Jewell. (Graham's testimony is also on this site). All pilots were fresh from advanced and weapons training on the Hunter at Brawdy, already wearing 'Wings'. Paul Jewell and myself had recently completed about 35 hours of Venom flying and would be awarded our wings at the end of the Vixen course. Tony was already a qualified Observer converting from AEW Gannets.
It was normal to crew up right from the start as mentioned above and it should be remembered that there was no dual control Sea Vixen, only a fixed but functioning cockpit mock-up type 'Simulator' which served mainly as a procedures and emergency drills trainer, supported by regular instrument flying checks for the pilots in the 2-seat Hunter T8. For the observers there was a classroom Airborne Intercept (AI) trainer with an AI18 simulator on which the radar intercept techniques were learnt and practiced. The object of this being to con the pilot into flying the aircraft into a position relative to the target where the missile infra-red detector could see and acquire the target.
This meant that the pilots flew the Vixen for the first time for real, accompanied by a brave and experienced Fighter School Staff Observer. After a further similar sortie the pilot's third was flown with the assigned observer crew who by this time had clocked up just over 1 hour with a staff pilot. Thereafter checks were made of Pilots and Observers with staff aircrew at strategic points during the course. At the time of No 117 course, 766 operated a mixture of Mk 1 and Mk2 Sea Vixens and the course provided experience on both types.
And so it was that Ian and I took off at 0805 on 3 Dec 65 in Sea Vixen Mk1 XJ522 for familiarisation sortie (FAM) 4, Ian's fourth and my third Vixen flight. After about 30 minutes airborne a flashing attention-getter and ominous red light on the Standard Warning Panel (SWP) indicated that all was not well. Ian immediately glanced down saying 'starboard engine fire' and went into the well-practiced series of actions for this eventuality which mainly involved shutting down the appropriate engine. Whilst reaching for my Flight Reference Cards (FRCs) to read out the immediate and follow-up actions I looked again more closely at the SWP light, it was still on and said not 'FIRE S' but 'FIRE A'.
At this point I should explain that the Vixen had 3 fire zones each with its own fire detection, warning and extinguisher systems. Port and Starboard Engines and Zone A which was a bay in the fuselage between the two engines full components containing highly flammable hydraulic fluid. In fact a Zone A fire was potentially a bigger disaster than an engine fire. Illogically the Zone A fire SWP caption was not located between the 2 engine fire captions but to the right, hence Ian's immediate response.
To return to the story, Ian had also realised the mistake and so because the warning caption remained on continued with the drill for dealing with a Zone A fire which was to shut down the remaining (port) engine. I recall popping the Ram Air Turbine (RAT) at this point to provide emergency power for the flying controls but by this time we were without electrical power and had lost intercom and radio, in fact we were quietly gliding earthwards with no engines. The only good things were that the SWP Zone A caption had gone out and we were still airborne.
Eventually Ian restored electrical power via the emergency system and we were able to assess the situation. Also to radio the tower at Yeovilton where a 766 staff member was stationed to offer advice during all the early FAM flights. Sir, we had a Zone A but it's OK now, the warning has gone out. Oh, by the way, both engines are out. The FRCs said that if a Zone A fire warning goes out 'a relight may be attempted on one engine as a last resort'. Feeling that our predicament justified a last resort, and since shutting down the port engine had appeared to cause the caption to go out Ian re-started the starboard engine, happily without recurrence of the fire warning.
Ian then made an immaculate single-engined recovery to Yeovilton and was subsequently awarded a well-earned Green Endorsement for his skill and airmanship. I was awarded a Horse's Neck later in the bar. As it turned out we had saved XJ522 for a sad end later in the course.
After that memorable start the course continued for Ian and I without further major incidents. Tragically, though, in February 1966 Tony Stevens was killed when XJ567 crewed by Paul Latham and Tony suffered a Main Reference Gyro (MRG) failure and crashed on a night instrument approach to Yeovilton.
The month after that we had progressed to fighter tactics and at 1540 on 24 March took off again in XJ 522 for a fighter tactics and Combat Air Patrol (CAP) sortie. The scenario was that a section of Vixens would fly a pre-planned route to strike a given target. As I recall the day's target was the dam at Fernworthy reservoir in Dartmoor. Opposing this strike were 'the enemy', a number of Hawker Hunters courtesy of RAF Chivenor. Our mission was to follow the strike slightly above and to one side in order to deal with any Hunter attempting to attack the strike en-route. We were stationed to the left of the strike whilst another Vixen XJ513 flown by 766 staff Chas Hussey and Ralph Magnus (a cigar-chewing US Navy officer on exchange) took the opposite side.
A similar sortie had been flown successfully at low level earlier that day but the weather over Dartmoor had deteriorated by the afternoon and so a decision was made to fly a similar sortie at medium level.
It should be recorded that this was an intensive stage of the course involving both day and night flying, with a constant battle against the bad weather of a typical Yeovilton winter. The previous day we had flown two sorties, landing from the last at 2210, probably debriefing until 2330, and briefing for the this day's first sortie at 0900. As is stated elsewhere in these testimonies 'if you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined'. We were training to be all weather fighter aircrew after all.
All went well and about 20 minutes into the mission the strike was bounced by the opposition. With the strike aircraft countering and us joining in the fray an almighty battle was soon in progress. I was later told that more Vixens returning from other sorties joined in (not sure on which side!) but there must have been at least a dozen aircraft involved at the time of the collision. The collision? I was coming to that.
At 1620 two pilots were heard claiming a 'splash' or 'kill' on Hunters, Ian and Chas. Unfortunately both pilots had chosen the same Hunter and so Vixens XJ522 and XJ513 were simultaneously in the same bit of sky. Although we were both fortunately heading in same direction our nose came down heavily on the tailplane of the other causing sufficient damage to our aircraft for Ian to shout 'eject'. That was not the sort of order you stop to question so I duly pulled the face blind. The height was about 25,000 ft.
Immediately there was the rushing of a mighty wind as the hatch jettisoned followed by a rapid exit upwards into the open air and an excruciating pain as a couple of my vertebrae ground together. No time for that, though, what's happening, shouldn't the seat be floating down to 10,000ft where I will be gently released for my parachute to open? Unfortunately the seat seemed to be tumbling and/or spinning which was very disorientating so I started to manually separate myself from it and pull the parachute handle. Before I could complete the separation there was a loud bang as the barostat release worked and I was pitched from the seat followed by the parachute opening with jerk automatically as advertised. My immediate relief was tempered by more pain, this time from lower down where the parachute straps tightened up between my legs.
Before thinking about the next phase there was just time to look around and I was relieved to see one more parachute, presumably Ian, floating down, but what about the aircraft we had collided with? Looking down I could see patchy cloud cover over the moors and I was soon in what turned out to be a snow storm. This was not very thick but there was a strong wind blowing and I hit the ground with thump. Fortunately my parachute caught on some gorse bushes and I was saved from being dragged across the moors. Ian was not so lucky and a down-draught caused his chute to collapse and give him quite a violent landing in which he damaged his knee, adding to the back injuries which he also sustained during the ejection.
I had barely time to gather my parachute, and thoughts, before a tractor and trailer appeared with Ian on board. Some Dartmoor forestry workers had seen our descent and so we were transported, rather painfully, but grateful, to a nearby farmhouse which I believe was Collihole farm a few miles SW of Chagford, Devon, where we were given cups of tea. Our hostess the farmer's wife had seen the whole thing through the patchy cloud and remarked that it was just like the Battle of Britain with contrails, parachutes and crashing aircraft. On ascertaining where exactly we were and being more mobile than Ian I telephoned Yeovilton and asked to speak to Wings (Commander (Air). The Wren on the switchboard replied that Wings was busy dealing with an emergency and could I ring back later. She took some convincing that I was a major player in the emergency but eventually I got through and discovered that they were still trying to figure out what had happened since Chas had not felt the full impact of the collision and was not aware of the extent of the damage to his aircraft until after landing. Fortunately he was short of fuel and did a gentle straight-in approach. With the damaged elevator and tailfin a run in and break would have been quite spectacular. Ralph's comments on seeing the damage are recorded but not printable!
Yeovilton organised for us to be picked up by RAF Chivenor's SAR Whirlwind helicopter which eventually arrived at the farm with a doctor on board. Safely but uncomfortably secured inside we waved goodbye to our rescuers and set off for Yeovilton. It was now becoming dark and the wind we had experienced earlier had increased, giving the Whirlwind crew cause for concern. After some earnest discussion with his Aircrewman the pilot decided that he could not make Yeovilton with 5 on board and so turned right heading for a landing spot near Exeter General Hospital where he planned to leave us in the capable hands of the NHS. This he did and after a quick consultation between the RAF doctor and an ambulance crew departed for Chivenor. It later transpired that the Whirlwind had actually diverted to Yeovilton because of the weather at Chivenor.
A short ambulance ride and Ian and I, still in our immersion suits and lifejackets, were soon lying uncomfortably on trolleys in a corridor of Exeter hospital, trying to explain to an Asian junior doctor what was probably wrong with us and how it all came about. Eventually we gave up and I managed to telephone Yeovilton again from where the Captain's car was dispatched to collect us. It eventually arrived and after a most uncomfortable ride back to Yeovilton we were taken to the sick bay, given knock out jabs and passed a fairly peaceful night. It had been a long day.
The following morning we were flown to Lee-on-Solent in the Admiral's blue Sea Prince Barge then driven by ambulance to RNH Haslar for X-rays which confirmed that we had both suffered spinal vertebrae compression fractures plus Ian's damaged knee. Treatment for the spine consisted mainly of lying on a hard wooden board for a week or so until the orthopaedic Surgeon Commander went on leave and his more enlightened junior send us both off to recover at home.
Exactly 3 months later on 24 June I returned to 766 to complete No 117 Course alone flying with staff pilots. Graham and Paul had by this time graduated and were on 893 Squadron as a crew. On graduating myself I immediately caught up with them, embarking in HMS Victorious on 8 July with my new pilot Nigel Burnside. Ian's injuries were more severe than mine and he returned to complete the course some time after. I think he joined 890 Squadron, not sure about that but we never flew together again.
As a post script the following cutting from a local North Wales newspaper was sent to me by my parents who by this time were somewhat concerned by my choice of career. The press and to some extent the public have always had difficulty in grasping that the Royal Navy flies aeroplanes and what they don't know they make up.