Thank you to Paul Chaplin for sharing the following dit written by Fleet Air Arm veteran Keith Jones.

‘Keith passed away 3 years ago. Just before he had been writing his memoirs to pass on to his son and had asked me to check through his recall of the FAA part of his life. I am forwarding one part of that record.

Keith was on the last fixed-wing pilot course 142 to graduate from RAF Linton-on-Ouse in 1969. He spent a short time on Sea Vixens 899 and Eagle, medically disembarked then later retrod on the Gannet. He joined Mission Aviation Fellowship as a missionary pilot after RN, rising to CEO Europe and UK. I think he thanked the ‘Hand of God’ for his survival from the ditching!’

Paul Chapman
Gannet ditching, HMS Ark Royal-Caribbean 1973 by Keith Jones

‘It took place off the coast of Puerto Rico, actually just within the Bermuda Triangle. It was, of course, a night flight, and I attended the normal brief. As it happens Prince Charles was on board to experience life aboard our one remaining carrier. He later returned to HMS Devonshire to watch proceedings. Because Gannets need only half the pressure required to launch the heavier Phantoms and Buccaneers the Gannet always went first, allowing the pressure within the steam catapults to build up to full pressure. We were to engage in an exercise with an American fleet with the usual brief; incoming attacks to be intercepted by our fighters directed by the observers in my Gannet. I was hurled into total darkness and I climbed away, levelling off at 4,000 feet. My first indication that something was different was an odd smell in the cockpit. Not unusual when night flying, but this time it was a smell of coffee! I never got an answer to that but next I noted that the starboard engine RPM had run down to 60%. The Gannet can manage well enough on one engine provided that the propellers of the failed engine could be feathered and braked. On this occasion it could not and neither could the engine be relit. The subsequent enquiry concluded that the most likely cause was a disconnection of the HP fuel cock linkage which also forms part of the propeller control. Thankfully it was not the dreaded ‘disc’ referred to earlier where the aircraft simply drops out of the sky, but height could not be maintained in this configuration and I set up a rate of descent of 200 feet per minute in order to maintain a speed that allowed me to maneuver the aircraft. Oh, give me banking any day – why did I ever leave? I put out a ‘Mayday’ call, something I had always wanted to do, and told the observers to check their harnesses and to run through their emergency drills, as it was almost certain that they would have to bail out. I ordered them out as the aircraft descended through 2,000 feet and called each observer by name to ensure that they had gone. For the records, this must have been the first time that an observer had ever obeyed a pilot without question. I noticed that the Rate of Descent indicator (RODI) kicked twice suggesting that two observers had passed the small static pressure apertures on the side of the aircraft just aft of the observers’ hatch, and I concluded that they had gone. Just to make sure I called each man by name, ‘Alan? Don?’ Silence! I was now on my own and it was my turn to follow suit, easy peasy! Oh Yes! And the rest! I’ve been through this many times before in practice and I was eternally grateful to those who had regularly taken me through the emergency drills – they were now second nature.

I lowered the seat, jettisoned the canopy (no ejector seats in the Gannet) pulled the lever that would detach me from the aircraft and cut off all radio communications, leaving me with parachute and dinghy-pack. I was truly alone, but did I care, because I would soon be floating to earth at the end of a parachute. I pulled back on the control column raising the nose, rolled the aircraft over and attempted to fall out hoping not to hit the tail fin or anything else as I dropped from the aircraft. The aircraft stalled but I was still in it! ‘WTF happened, or didn’t happen?’ I should have been parted from this lump of useless metal by now. I righted the aircraft and tried again. Same result. Same profanity. I guessed (wrongly) that the slipstream from the good engine/propeller was preventing me from escaping. One third go and putting all my strength into getting out of what might soon become my coffin I again failed. Clearly there were more problems and it took me a few seconds to discover that the negative ‘G’ harness had not released and I was not, therefore, able to free myself from the cockpit.

Now this posed a problem and presented two options, but if I was to survive then split-second thinking and action was essential. I was in total darkness other than a few illuminated instruments, one of which told me that I had four minutes before I hit the sea, or to put it another way, before I died. And I now had no radio contact to tell Mother what was happening. Pilot error?! I was now too low to bail out. Given more height I could have cut through the offending strap that tethered me to the aircraft and gone through the procedure again, but at 800 feet I was now too low. On reflection I find it hard to believe that I even considered releasing all my straps, parachute pack and dinghy pack and simply jumping out of the aircraft, hoping that I would survive when I hit the sea, but with a terminal velocity of about 120 mph, hitting water would have probably killed me, or at least made me considerably shorter. This idea went as quickly as it came, because had I done this and survived – highly unlikely – I would have had nothing to attract the attention of search helicopters. The remaining option was to stay with the aircraft and fly it into the sea, the one I chose. Nevertheless, I released all the straps, keeping my dinghy pack, in the faint hope that when I was killed I might come free from the aircraft and my body would be found. I jettisoned all external stores, lowered the seat and prayed. During those two to three remaining minutes of my life I wondered how Lin, my wife, would take the news that her husband had been lost at sea, presumed drowned. I turned the aircraft into wind thus reducing my ground speed. It was one of those very dark nights and I could see nothing. I tried the landing lights hoping that it would give me sight of the sea as I approached it, but they simply illuminated the wind-milling propeller creating a huge white disc ahead of me. I quickly turned them off judging my height above the sea by reference to the barometric altimeter. With these there is a degree of error, partly because of the instrument itself and because the sea-level pressure when I launched from the carrier could well have been different from my present location. Nevertheless, it was all I had, but if I was to stall into the sea I had to be no more than a few feet above it otherwise I would have nose-dived in. If I misjudged it by assuming that I was higher than I actually was then I would simply fly into the sea at high speed with a catastrophic result. It had to be perfect.

I was descending at 200 feet a minute and had reached a reading of 250 feet. Just over a minute to live. As I approached what I guessed, or indeed hoped would be sea level I came back slowly in the stick gradually reducing the speed. One hundred feet, 75 feet, 50 feet, 25 feet all the time gently pulling back on the stick and reducing the speed. Because I had no harness this had to be perfect or I would become part of the instrument panel. The altimeter was about to reach zero with the stick back as far as it would go and the aircraft stalled and violent juddering ripped through the airframe. Now was the time of reckoning. The vibrations were very quickly accompanied a loud bang as the radar cover struck the sea. Water momentarily poured over the windshield into the cockpit, then a further dousing as a second crash tore through the aircraft. Then all was still. I was under water as the aircraft had settled in a nose down position at an angle of 60 degrees. ‘I’m alive!’ is all I could think, ‘I’m alive!’ But the crisis was still not over. I needed to get out of the aircraft quickly before it sank and the risk of something catching and dragging me down was a real danger. I stood up on the seat and the water was around my chest. Standing on the combing I fell into the sea, turned and back paddled away. Five seconds passed when the dark shape of the aircraft reared up above me and quietly sank beneath the surface.

The dinghy pack was part of my seat and was fastened to my inflatable life vest by three lanyards, two holding the pack tight to my body, the third, about 3 meters in length which remains fastened at all times to ensure the dinghy is not lost, until that is, the pilot is rescued. I released the two short lanyards and maneuvered the dinghy pack in front of me. One pull on the CO2 bottle and the pack burst open as the dinghy inflated. I clambered in with fond memories of the exercise in the New Forest, initiated my SARBE (search and rescue beacon), located the flares and waited. On the first sight of the red flashing lights in the distance I set off my first flare – I’d always wanted to do this, my own personal firework display. I was now beginning to enjoy myself, but this was not to be the end of the crisis.

After another flare then a smoke signal to give the pilot an idea of where the wind was from. To my surprise it was not the SAR Wessex helicopter, but a huge Sea King that was now positioning itself above me. The down wash was incredibly strong throwing up hard pellets of water into my face as I struggled to reach the strop dangling from the Sea King. Whether the pilot was struggling to keep the helicopter still or simply the downwash, I cannot be sure but the strop was all over the place and like some impossible fairground game I tried to grab it. After some time I held it in my hand and pulled it over my head and shoulders. The procedure now was to pull the toggle down, extend the right arm and give a thumbs up whereupon the winch-man hoists me out of the dinghy – well that’s the theory. What actually happened was that, instead of lifting me out of the dinghy the helicopter dropped its nose and headed back to the carrier at neck-breaking speed, literally. I was yanked violently from the dinghy and dragged through the water, my head downwards beneath the surface followed by the dinghy which was still attached to me by the three meter lanyard. Exactly what was going on above me I never found out but I am assuming that the winch-man called to the pilot, ‘He’s still in the water!’ In any case, the Sea King came back to the hover above me and began to pay out yards and yards of cable which wrapped itself around my neck and body. Had the pilot done the same, for whatever reason (there was no love lost between fixed wing and rotary wing aircrew) then I would have been cut into several pieces so, now in the water, I removed the strop and the cable from around me and swam clear. The Sea King having sorted itself out by winching in the cable returned for a further attempt to kill me, or that is how it felt – I just wanted to get out of the water and getting back to Mother, the ACRB (Aircrew Refreshment Bar) and my pit (bunk). Again the strop was lowered and once more the pellets of hard water hit my face as I tried for some time to grab it. Eventually I got hold of the thing and ignoring all procedures managed to get the thing around me, the wrong way around! My right hand gave a thumbs up to instruct the winch man to lift me out of the water, then I released the lanyard attaching me to the dinghy and gave a second thumbs up this time with my left hand, and up I came, arriving at the opening of the Sea King not exactly rejoicing, with the strop the wrong way around, the toggle behind my neck rather than against my chest. This pushed my head forward and forced my arms outwards giving the impression that I had been crucified on an invisible cross.

The winch-man was surprised to see this Jesus look-alike appearing at the opening of the helicopter, but unlike the real thing who was prepared to forgive all and sundry for what had befallen Him, I was spitting all sorts of profanities! Nevertheless, I was grateful to have survived yet another attempt on my life. Thankfully I did not see the sharks that were showing an unhealthy interest in my now abandoned dinghy, something that was later reported to me some time later by the diver of the SAR Wessex. So, once again I had fought off the Grim Reaper, during this incident alone, three times.

My return to Mother was greeted with a mixture expressions and, dare I say, typical Naval comments from the disbelieving over what I had done, to the grateful (from the pilot who had previously flown my now submerged aircraft and had overheated one engine upon landing) to annoyance because I had screwed up the entire night-flying programme! I mentioned earlier Captain Cassidy, a not so easy man to please. His ONLY, yes his only communication to me was via my senior pilot, ‘If Jones was on 100% oxygen (a night flying requirement) how did he smell fumes within the cockpit. In fact I had removed my oxygen mask very briefly to unstick the breather valve, a common fault.

A brief report in Cockpit, Q4 1973, concerning the accident:
“A Gannet was launched at night from Ark Royal and climbed to 4,000 ft. Shortly afterwards the starboard engine ran down to 60%. Attempts to feather and brake the engine, and a subsequent re-light were unsuccessful and the aircraft was unable to maintain height. (It is considered that the most likely cause of the accident was disconnection of the HP cock linkage). Both observers bailed out at 1,800 ft, but when the pilot, Lieutenant Keith Jones, tried to bail out he could not free himself from the ‘Negative g’ strap. However, the rest of the harness had fallen clear and so the pilot was committed to a ditching without any restraint from shoulder or lap straps. This was successfully accomplished and the aircrew were all recovered safely and uninjured

Although the ditching was successful, the most disturbing factor of the accident, was the inability of the pilot to release himself from ‘Negative g’ strap’.