My Martin Baker tie club certificate confirms that, as user number 5616 of one of their seats, I ejected on 16 March 1984. I was flying Sea Harrier XZ496 from HMS Illustrious and suffered an engine failure in the circuit.
I cannot believe that it was so long ago as I have total recall of the event. Although non aviators are impressed, I never really considered that I had had a close encounter with death as a safe ejection was, to me and my contemporaries, always guaranteed by the Mk 10 seat. Now, 36 years later, things will be even better, with more automatics and improved technologies.
At the time I was flying with the Sea Harrier Foreign Training Unit at Yeovilton when a request for aircrew to participate in an exercise was received from HMS Illustrious. Aircrew were in relatively short supply as the South Atlantic campaign had taken its toll. Shortage of airframes equally had restricted the training effort. I had recently left 801 Squadron embarked in HMS Invincible after nearly 2 years and was slightly grumpy about going back to sea. However the request from the ship had been translated by Authority into a more definite requirement by the time it reached a junior Lieutenant Commander.
I flew out to the ship, which was heading towards the Lofoten Islands, in an extra aircraft which was also required and settled in quickly. HMS Invincible and Illustrious were very similar at that time although significant differences were apparent in external appearance and internal layout which reflected both operational experience and changing requirements. Each ship also operated its aircraft slightly differently as the standardisation, to which the Admiral’s staff were devoting much effort, was still developing. HMS Ark Royal, the third of the class, was still building.
As we progressed northwards towards the Arctic Circle I flew quite a few sorties with the embarked squadron, the usual Air Intercept training, Air Defence Exercises and surface searches. On several occasions I had also intercepted Soviet Bear aircraft which commonly monitored NATO exercises at that time.
On 16 March 1984 I was programmed to lead a pair of aircraft on a Combat Air Patrol sortie which would be combined with a surface search and Air Intercept practice sortie. I never fully understood why the ship needed to send aircraft around the local area to see where everyone else was but it was a quite normal tasking in the early morning and late evening. I suspected that it was seen by the watchkeeping ship’s warfare officers as a means of keeping aircrew out of the bar and out of their beds whilst they themselves were working. My No 2 on this sortie was the affable Dougie Hamilton, the embarked squadron’s Commanding officer.
The ship was positioned somewhere not a million miles from Bardufoss and the weather was clear but cold. The sea temperature in the Arctic, although warmed by the Gulf Stream, was still pretty cool in March. Whilst one should always have ensured that one wore sufficient clothing under the “goon suit” (dry suit) to ensure that core body temperature could be maintained if one went swimming, there was a compromise to be made between this and the ability to move about in a cockpit. Particularly for the less athletic officer. Besides, you weren’t going for a dip, were you? I was well enough equipped and the old Sea Jet was pretty reliable anyway.
Dougie and I got airborne at around 0600, droned around for half an hour or so reporting ships positions back to mother, then continued with a few intercepts. To get the fuel state down to a comfortable landing weight, we continued the last intercept into 1v1 combat. With about 10 minutes left before “C” time and a comfortable 2500lbs or so of fuel we descended towards the ship. Everything was routine, it was nearly time for breakfast and the sun was well up on a pleasant day.
We descended as a pair, lazily down into the “slot” at 600 ft abeam the island heading straight out on the ships flying course at about 300 knots. Pedantically one would extend on this track for 12 seconds to provide the correct interval on the aircraft in front, but we were the only pair recovering so, as leader, I could afford to be a bit more sporty. Zip, Flair and Panache were highly prized qualities amongst the pilots.
I broke left into the circuit, throttled back and extended the airbrake and flaps. Having rolled out downwind at about 220 knots, with wheels down, I selected 20 degrees of nozzle, countering the normal pitch up. Specifically checking the reaction control duct pressure, I also ensured that the Nosewheel steering (NWS) was engaged.
The NWS switch had the dual function of turning Anti-skid off and was a vital setting for deck operations. When disembarking however, landing on a runway normally requires anti-skid so the nose wheel steering would be manually engaged when required. Failure to select Anti Skid “on” when going ashore was an unfortunate trap for the unwary, frequently sprung, and typically requiring new main wheel tyres. Very embarrassing for the culprit.’ `
With the checks complete, about 80% set, speed decaying nicely to 8 units angle of attack in the Head Up Display and the ship passing nicely down my port side I happily waited to commence a nice punchy final turn from which I would roll out about 100 yards behind the ship. I did not want to seem lacking in the Z,F and P department. I rolled into the final turn and took 40 degrees of nozzle.
My sense of expanding timescale starts around this point. What follows until the time I am swinging in my parachute would, I estimate, actually occupy about 5-6 seconds.
The engine made a noise like a Merlin does in the films when the Wingco stops a cannon shell and the glycol and oil goes all over the windscreen, or like a Formula 1 car with intermittent complete ignition failure. BRRRR-BR-BRRR-B-BRR. Almost simultaneously the smell of hot oil came through the air conditioning/pressurisation system. (Is this really happening?) Most alarming however was the instant increase in angle of attack to “off the scale”. With 40 degrees of nozzle there is a significant amount of lift being provided by engine thrust vectoring alone. I had just lost this thrust and the throttle was ineffective. I know because I tried it briefly, as you would expect. To regain control of the angle of attack (and thus to keep flying) I shoved the nose down. Hard.(Yes it is really happening) At this stage I was probably at about 400 ft with a massive downwards trajectory, I was piloting an anvil. From my seat all I could see out of the front was sea. Quite close it was too.
I had a moments regret that the Royal Navy was about to lose another valuable Sea Harrier and, reaching down, pulled the handle.
Instantaneously, incredibly I saw the Miniature Detonating Cord (MDC) in the top of the canopy turn into a haze of brown smoke and small bits flying towards me. My head was forced onto my left shoulder and I felt a terrific vertical acceleration which was accompanied by a roar like that of a Saturn rocket. The thought actually crossed my mind that I would be in orbit if it continued for much longer. I believe the rocket actually fired for 0.3 sec. Suddenly it stopped, I felt that I was travelling feet first now at high speed. I thought to myself that I would just have to trust the seat automatics to sort it out and I tried to remember how the sequence continued. Behind my head there was a loud click. Aha, the scissor shackle. I know what happens next! There was a crack as the parachute opened and I did a midair star jump as the parachute immediately slowed my forward velocity from about 200 knots to a gentle 25ish. That was a bit uncomfortable, as expected. I felt myself swing down into a normal parachuting position, i.e. underneath it. I was at about 250 feet. Due to the time constraint prior to water entry I didn’t bother to check the canopy – it seemed to be working. More important was to get rid of my mask and inflate the Mae West. The Mae West was immediately covered in blood but it didn’t seem to matter at that moment. Must do those drills. I had to find one of the green connectors so that I could drop my life raft thus releasing it from the parachute harness. This was always easy enough in pool drills but with my weight in the harness these connectors were not in the expected position. While I was groping for these I unexpectedly hit the sea.
I bobbed to the surface quite quickly and inflated my dinghy. I could not work out what to do about the green connector problem and its potential effect. So I climbed aboard the dinghy and started thinking about survival. My hands were rendered just about useless by the effects of even a short immersion in the cold North Atlantic. Very fortunately of course the ship was quite close and the plane guard helo was soon on its way. If one has to eject from a Naval aircraft, the circuit to land can be recommended as a convenient location.
By the time the helo was approaching me, the front of the dinghy was disappearing beneath the waves as the still-attached parachute pulled it down. I had no idea what to do and was happy that the aircrewman from the helo who appeared beside me on the end of a wire, smiling, seemed to know. I let him get on with it.
Once inside the helo, I remembered about the blood and confident that a first-aid trained aircrewman would know how to re-assure and comfort, I asked him had I cut myself?
“’kin ‘ave you Sir” says he.
Back onboard, the sickbay had run a hot bath for me – a facility never seen on board by those below the rank of Captain except under circumstances of a similar nature. After an uneventful medical examination, whilst l was luxuriating in the bath, the PMO said that Commander Air would like to see how I was. The Doc. indicated that he would refuse Commander Air permission to enter until I had reviewed my position and consented. It was very kind of him but unnecessary as my accident had been a technical failure. The PMO said that he had stressed to Cdr(Air) that he should only enquire about my welfare and not the causes of the accident, to which Cdr(Air) had agreed. In he came and hovering over my immersed naked form said “Righto Soaps, what happened?” Good old Ted, I liked him a lot.
My face had been blasted by the lead sheathing around the MDC and I had raw skin where it had not been covered by my glasses or oxygen mask. I was very well aware that eye injury had been suffered by two pilots who had ejected from Sea Harriers and that the instruction was that one should always have one of the two available visors lowered over the face. I believed that the visual clarity so essential in air combat was hindered enough by 1.5 inches of bulletproof front screen (sometimes salt laden) and 0.5 inches of Head Up Display. I was loathe to use a visor as well – I could always lower it in a hurry if necessary.(!)
Fortunately, apart from this, I was generally serviceable. My glasses had taken the force of the MDC firing and were destroyed but my eyes had been protected. I went up to the crew room from the sickbay and was greeted by US Marine corps Captain Bill O’Hara. “Christ Soaps you look like a panda”. I did not have a spare pair of glasses with me and could not take any further part in the exercise.
The subsequent Board of Enquiry found that there had been a massive engine failure, probably a High Pressure turbine failure. Dougie said he had seen bits come out of the nozzles. The aircraft was not recovered as it was in 6000 ft of water.