Declared 8th May 2007
I was lucky enough to be in the FAA during the last decade of the real Navy. When I joined there were four or five carriers and plenty of old codgers from WWII including some non-commissioned aircrew serving their final years. I wish there had been time to hear their stories.Carrier tours at the time were mostly showing the flag around the final remains of the old empire allowing a glimpse of the great days of the past.By the time I left only one doomed carrier remained.The rapid decline was a sad thing to see.
An observer's life began with a year at BRNC Dartmouth.The requirement for a sense of humour was immediately apparent.Conservative as the Navy was, the college was still geared towards thirteen year old cadets, despite the fact that cadets were now anything up to thirty years old.The fearsome woman who supervised the meals was still telling men with their own children to "eat their greens up, naughty boy".Training to be an officer and gentleman seemed to mostly consist of a lot of running up and down steps carrying a large oar, or perhaps I was just a 'naughty boy'
Flying training commenced at RNAS Lossiemouth flying in Sea Princes doing rudimentary navigation.Luckily it turned out that not a lot of navigation was required in the Vixen as the training did not go well. Having completed the course I was asked to give my choice of aircraft to fly in.I nominated to fly in anything except Sea Vixens.Naturally, the next day found me on the Jet Conversion course destined for Vixens.A Vampire was provided for this, a wooden aircraft with an antique Jet engine.It did not inspire confidence on climbing in to see the wooden floorboards rotting away with large holes in them.To experience some radar work the next step was a clapped out Sea Venom.This had a disconcerting habit whereby the ejection seat would fall off its mountings now and again precipitating you forwards against the radar set.Stuck in this position, not being able to see anything while smoke from an unknown source started filling the cockpit made me wonder if I had chosen the right profession.
And eventually to RNAS Yeovilton, the home of the Sea Vixen, to join the Pilots on the Vixen course.Despite my earlier fears I grew to like flying in this beast and credit must be given to the pilots I flew with who were normally willing to explain exactly what they were doing, or was it my very rusty dividers?The only event of note I recall on this course was receiving a huge rocket from the CO for keeping the Captain's daughter out too late.Most unfair as I think it was the other way round.A great deal of time was spent on radar interceptions, both in the air and on a training machine.The technique of watching a small blip on the radar and, from it's movement, getting a picture of where it was going in relation to yourself, then directing the pilot to manoeuver the aircraft around and then behind the target to end up one mile directly astern was hard to learn, but once mastered was extremely satisfying (if you got it right).
We were then sent out to HMS HERMES to replace recently lost aircrew.What a pleasant surprise to find what an extraordinarily happy ship she was, partly due to her senior officers who made sure there were interesting port calls, and also that she was comparatively modern with excellent accommodation for the aircrews (by Navy standards) and good air conditioning,most operations taking place in very hot climates.The only snag was that the cabins were directly under the flight deck so sleep was interrupted by huge crashing noises from the ceiling.Unlike a shore based aircraft the Vixen is not flared on landing and is driven solidly into the deck, 20 tons at 130 knots makes a lot of noise.The aircraft handlers also used to take great delight in unshackling the aircraft in the morning and dropping the heavy chains on the deck, rather a rude awakening.
A day's work would begin by jumping down from your bunk and throwing on flying overalls and desert boots, it was too hot for anything more. A quick shave, no point in a shower as you were about to get very sweaty and covered in paraffin fumes. Bleary-eyed breakfast was followed by a walk forward on the catwalks along the side of the ship, watching out for 'green ones' coming over the side if it was rough.Briefing on the sortie followed amidst a cloud of cigarette smoke.The weather and the ships position and intended movement were given. The last being given close attention as finding the carrier again after an hours flying was not always easy. This general briefing included all the aircraft types so we had a hazy idea of what everyone was up to and was followed by a squadron briefing where our own particular sortie was discussed.
Time for a quick coffee and then the tannoy call for "Aircrew man your aircraft".Going out from the air-conditioned Island into the heat of the day, blasts of hot paraffin fumes from jet exhausts and unbelievable noise made sure you were finally awake.Avoiding moving aircraft, tugs and ringbolts especially placed to trip you up, you mounted your steed for the day.Mostly a ladder was attached to the side to climb up but it was not unusual to have to scramble up over the wing.Opening the hatch to the 'coal hole' you peered into its gloomy depths to inspect the ejection seat.Quite what we were supposed to be looking for I'm not sure, but as long as it wasn't too rusty I assumed it was OK.There were not many successful Observer ejections anyway, the problem being the interlock between the solid steel canopy and the firing of the cartridge with an interminable one second delay between.The interlock at sea became quickly corroded and inoperable.A great advance, for peace of mind anyway, was the introduction of under-water ejection by compressed air, although this had its snags.I remember on landing seeing a vixen alongside in which the Observer's underwater seat had fired for some reason and the poor guy was pushed right up under the steel roof with his life preserver automatically inflated, most uncomfortable.I then watched in horror as his pilot leaned over and opened the canopy, presumably to relieve his suffering.I don't know how he did not loose his arm as all I saw was a blur as the seat shot out of the hole.I learned later that the observer had sailed over the Island and landed back on deck still strapped in his seat miraculously only suffering heavy bruising.
After squeezing oneself into this little cubby hole it was on with the helmet and attach all the fittings, parachute, oxygen and intercom.By this time the sweat was really breaking out.Close the lid and you were in a very dark, very hot little box.Eventually engines would be started and you began trundling forward in the queue for the catapults, in the meantime the sweat is running down your back.Not much could be seen by the observer of the proceedings so patience was required. The various bumps and jolts could be interpreted as being loaded onto the cat.Finally - engines run up, flaps down (unless the pilot forgot, as my first one did a few times),the director with his green flag could not be seen but the tensing of the pilot gave you a clue something was about to happen and then a mini blackout as the catapult hit you in the back.The air speed indicator is the first thing you see as your wits return and occupies your attention until flying speed is reached. Out of the corner of your eye you can see the surface of the sea getting disconcertingly close.But the best time is now upon you as the aircraft's air conditioning starts to work and great clouds of what looks like steam, but is in fact cold air, envelops you.Time to relax and get all the systems working.
If you were not on operations against 'insurgents', as I think the favourite term was in those days, the sortie might involve half an hours rocketing followed by some practice interceptions.For the observer rocketing and bombing was quite stressful.Running into the ship at very low level all the observer could see was the waves looking very close and a barometric altimeter often showing less than zero.Fairly high g manouvers to climb up to get into a 20 degree dive followed, very few observers were issued with g suits so strong stomach muscles were required.In the dive the pilot was concentrating exclusively on the gun sight so the observer called the speed and height and when to pull out of the dive.There was little margin for error so the rusty dividers were an essential tool to gain the pilots attention.After the observer had worked out the corrections to the sight from the last fall of shot it was back to do it again, and again, and again.
Moving on to interceptions after this was usually a relief although the observer now had more work to do.The ships radar was used to direct the aircraft into a reasonable position for an intercept, ideally about 30miles directly ahead of the target.The radar was not awfully good and picking up the target at 20 miles was average. With the aircraft closing at about 700mph there was not a lot of time to set up a good intercept.The targets course had to be assessed and then your aircraft directed to pass the target about three miles abeam, a turn would be started towards the target, keeping your aircrafts centerline just ahead of the target blip so that you did not fall too far behind.The ideal was to roll out on the same heading as the target, at a similar speed and height and about one mile behind. This involved giving the pilot continuous commands to turn, change speed and adjust height as well as telling him where the target was to enable him to get visual.
If a strike on land was required it would be planned with a low-level penetration to the target at 420 knots at 250ft or lower.The observer was tasked with navigating by map reading yet could not see out at all!How was this seemingly impossible tasked carried out?Before the flight the observer carefully drew out the proposed track to the target on a large scale map taking into account the terrain and other features.Intervals of one minute's flight at the proposed speed were marked on the map.Starting his stop watch at the beginning the observer would call out to the pilot the features he should be seeing as depicted on the map, such as "river crossing left-right, small road bridge with church on left, turn to 340 over the church".With a bit of luck what the pilot could see tallied with the description but it required intense concentration and quick thinking from both crew.
While all this was going on of course a careful check of the fuel and the time that the carrier expected you back had to be made.An unpleasant interview with Commander Air would result if you were over 10 seconds late.Returning to the ship, the fuel state became important since there was a maximum weight that the arrestor wires could handle depending on the conditions.At the same time you needed to keep as much fuel as possible in case there was a problem on the deck.It was a fine balancing act to arrive over the ramp with the maximum permissible fuel.Many times you were conserving fuel by shutting down an engine and then a minute later frantically jettisoning to get down to weight.The ship was so small and the aircraft so heavy, that about fifteen minutes fuel remaining was often the norm.
For the observer the landing was a question of listening intently.Nothing could be seen from his cockpit so the LSO's comments, the ADD warble, and the pilot's heavy breathing were all that told you how it was going.Needless to say both hands were on the ejection seat handle.A huge crash and deceleration announced that you had survived again.A bolter was not at all unusual and just prolonged the agony.All that was left was to unstrap and nervously look out of the window and see, not the deck, but the sea, as they parked you very close to edge.Climb out, back into the blessed air-conditioning and grab a coffee and a fag with shaky hands.Do it again in the afternoon and so onto the next day.I won't talk about night flying.
Finally, would I do it all again?You bet.
|767 Squadron||1971 Phantom F4k|
|892 Squadron||1971-1972 Phantom F4k|
|RAF Leuchars||1972-1974 Phantom F4k|
|Sea Vixen Hours: 1134|
|Cat Shots: 369|
|Deck Landings: 367|