This time we have two connected dits and they benefit from a short introduction.

The first dit is by Lt Cdr John Dixon, one of our stalwart Supporters who designed the Wings badges that the Navy Wings Flight Store has been selling so many of recently. Here he is talking about meeting up with Cdr Geoff Higgs, who is the father of David Higgs, currently embarked on an amazing fundraising challenge for us.

The second dit was published by an unknown pilot, also talking about Cdr Geoff Higgs (the slightly greying FAA Commander he refers to) and together, these dits tell a great story about tests on the paint for Concorde! We hope you enjoy the read.

Navy Wings CEO, Jock Alexander

Phantom Testing

‘Although I joined the RN in 1957 it wasn’t until early 1973 ’till I actually came into contact with him, although I knew of him. At that time, I was Senior Pilot/ QFI on the Phantom Training Flight based at RAF Leuchars, although we were basically a Naval outfit. One day, sitting in my office I had a call from Geoff Hunt, Staff Officer to FONAC at Yeovilton.

“John”, he said, “can you possibly fit into your programme a couple of test pilots from Boscombe Down sometime in the next 3 months or so for 3 or 4 fam flights each?”

“Well, I expect so. What gives?”

” It seems they are going to take a Phantom out to Singapore to do a few tests for Concorde. Call Geoff and he’ll give you the lowdown”.

And so I did. Turned out that they needed to fly the F4 through Cu.Nb clouds at supersonic speeds to check if the BA paint scheme retained intact. BA was expecting to gain clearance to fly supersonic to Bahrein and the Far East. (As you are no doubt aware thunderstorm clouds in the tropics are a lot higher, more severe, and at some times in the year as regular as clockwork, therefore the ideal place to be).

I put the phone down and gave this some thought. The task seemed simple enough but also dangerous in the extreme. In large tropical build-ups with severe vertical sheers, ice crystals can build to the size of tennis balls at 50,000ft or so which can spell death at Mach 2 if encountered. Why would any BA pilot deliberately fly through such extreme weather? In fact, any pilot? I called Geoff Hunt at VL again.

“Sir, I understand the reason for the request but has this been thoroughly thought through? This could be extremely dangerous and with all respect two or three fam flights will not equip the two test pilots concerned with the best knowledge to cope with the worst of the worst. Would it not be better to send experienced F4 pilots to do this?”

David, at his point I must stress I am not belittling the skill of your father or any test pilot. As pilots, we all have our strengths, but when it comes to something like this, experience in the aircraft is paramount. It doesn’t take the particular skills that test pilots have to complete this particular task.

“Yes John. I understand what you are saying but the decision has been made. At the moment there is little test flying going on and they don’t have much on so I’ll leave it to you and Geoff to set the programme”.

I made arrangements for your father and one other pilot to come up to Leuchars in September 1973. In the meantime, I had a few weeks to do some testing myself. Whenever there was severe weather in the North Sea I took advantage of it and hit Cu.Nbs at anything up to Mach 2 and thoroughly scared myself to death! But after a few weeks of this I noticed that there was no deterioration to the paintwork on the aircraft I was using! In fact, with a bit more testing I deduced that the shockwave when supersonic protected the paintwork and the worst scenario was when high subsonic!

I called Geoff again, explained my findings and suggested that BA use the same paint that we did. He laughed and said he thought this all along, but would still like to come up to Leuchars and have a week or two in Singapore at government expense! And so he did and I flew in the back seat of a two stick F4 with him. No problemo, he was a fine pilot as I expected. He did send me a postcard of Sembaweng market as well.

David, your father was an exceptional pilot but more important he was an engaging and thoroughly likeable man. I enjoyed my time with him. Also, to set the record straight, your father’s obituary in the Times headlined that the trip to Singapore was to test parts of the Concorde ready for supersonic flight in the Far East. It wasn’t exactly that. It was purely the paintwork. Extraordinary, isn’t it? Could only happen in Britain.

Lt Cdr John Dixon

My Favourite F4 Story

In early 1974, I was the pilot of one of a pair of aircraft (not F4s) going on detachment to Tengah, Singapore. The old Tengah, with Singapore AF Hunters, RAAF Mirages, and RNZAF Bristol Freighters!

At Masira, in the Gulf, we met up with a formation of 4 aircraft also travelling to Tengah, a Nimrod and two Victor tankers supporting a F4 Phantom. We all arrived in Tengah on the same day. Later, during conversation over a pint in the ‘Swill’, we found out that the Phantom was from Boscombe Down, and it was there to carry out paint trials at high speed, for the Concorde.

After a couple of days, the Phantom appeared on the Flight Line but minus the normal pointed underwing tanks that it had flown in with. In their place were two specially prepared underwing tanks, that instead of having the pointed fronts, had chisel shaped upper and lower frontal surfaces, with about 6 facets, each at a slight angle to the other. These modified tanks were painted white, with Concorde paint, but because they were modified, they could not carry fuel.

The pilot of the Phantom was Commander in the Fleet Air Arm, going slightly grey, and the navigator was a youngish RAF Flight Lieutenant. For a few days they flew up over Malaysia, but with only internal fuel, their sortie lengths were limited. After a couple of days, they came to our detachment and asked if we could help. It seemed that they really wanted to fly these tanks through quite heavy rain, and at quite a speed.

The next morning, my navigator and I were off the west coast of Malasia, when we saw a really big cumulous formation (it really was a big b****r), so, as arranged, we called up Singapore Flight Watch on the HF. They advised us that the Phantom would be getting airborne shortly, and could we keep an eye on the Cu and update the crew as they approached us. This we did.

After a short time, the Phantom crew radioed us to say they were at FL410 and about to enter the Cu. We could almost hear the ‘banzai’ as the phantom pitched in and accelerated. After a minute or so we heard a faint voice calling to say they were recovering to Tengah, and could we follow them.

The Phantom landed at Tengah before us, but we parked on the pan adjacent to it. When we looked at it, we thought it looked a little ragged.

The front of both underwing tanks had split open, assuming the look of a pair of large forward-facing white daffodils, and the perspex radome was missing from the front of the fuselage, so was most of the radar. The front of the fuselage was plate shaped.

My nav and adjourned to the Swill, where we met up with the Phantom crew. The Commander had a gin in his hand and was admiring the aviation cartoons on the ceiling of the bar; the Flight Lieutenant was drinking a Tiger beer, but about a quarter of it had been spilt due to his rather shaky hand. He also had rather a glazed expression on his face. The Commander said that today’s sortie was a bit of a setback, but not to worry, they had some spare modified tanks, and had signalled Boscombe to send out a ‘tin’ nose for the Phantom. A little more beer was spilt.

The ‘tin nose’ duly arrived on the next VC10, and was fitted, along with some new ‘modified’ tanks. After a couple of days, the F4 was airborne again, following directions for another big Cu. The result was predictably similar. By now, we thought the pilot was definitely greyer, and we thought the navigator must be getting very thirsty, as most of his beer was going on the floor. Also, his eyes were getting rather large and staring. They did a few more sorties, until they ran out of modified tanks, and then gave up. The entourage duly disappeared off to the West.