‘In the early sixties I once heard the Fleet Air Arm described as ‘The World’s Greatest Flying Club’, and to a great extent it seemed to be so. On reminiscing, I remember having a great deal of independence. I was on the last Scimitar Squadron based in Lossiemouth. It was a complex and exciting beast for a young lad such as myself to be given to fly. The only fly in the ointment was that we were sometimes a little short of flying as far as I was concerned. My target was a minimum of thirty hours a month which was something of a challenge. I was on good terms with the Hunter squadron C.O. and maintenance officer. They would occasionally call to ask me to fly one of their Hunters for a maintenance flight. In return if I was at a loose end, I would call them to see if I could borrow one of their Hunters for a bit of a jolly. It was all very relaxed and pleasant. Headquarters Squadron would let me borrow one of their Vampires to have a bit of a play.
I have always enjoyed the tranquility of night flight and loved it. The Hunter was always my favourite aircraft. For those who have never had the pleasure of flying one, Messrs Hawker really got it right. I imagine that it could reasonably be called the Spitfire of the jet world.
One evening I called them to ask if I could borrow one of their Hunters for a night navex. Off I went on my trip, climb through cloud into a beautiful night sky. I did my triangular trip as planned, then needed an instrument clearance to get back down.
Now for a little history for our younger readers. The Government of the time, decided to save money and elected not to equip these short range expensive aircraft with any kind of navigational radios. This was before VOR.s, Some aircraft had TACAN, mostly the RAF I believe, but not in ours. What we did have was a CRDF in the ATC. (Cathode Ray Direction Finder) This was an excellent aid to get us back to overhead the airfield. Once overhead we could safely descend on a prescribed heading, to half our altitude plus 2,000 ft. then turn inbound, to be collected by the CCA (Carrier Controlled Approach) controller. Those controllers were excellent, and gave a tremendous feeling of confidence and security. Enough for some of us to practice zero/zero approaches.
On return from my trip I called for a CDRF approach to get through the cloud cover, and was given a heading of west. This didn’t give any concern since after an hour of dead reckoning at altitude, I was quite content if I was within 10 or 15 miles of the airfield. The controller continued to give me the steady westerly heading, which eventually gave rise to a little concern. Even for my navigation this was unusual. I was also noticing that the fuel level was becoming a little marginal, he then reported me overhead, and gave me a descent clearance, also reading the weather to me. He told me that they had heavy cloud cover with tops around 20,000ft. I looked down and could see that everything was black below, indicating no cloud. He assured me that it was the latest weather, so I told him to walk outside and look up! Yes, said he total cloud. I immediately turned East and called the emergency frequency. I have forgotten the organisation now, but in those days we had an excellent very accurate location service over northern Europe.
The very nice man said that I was overhead the island of Raasay. Where in the world is that I wondered. “Give me the position relative to Lossiemouth’ was my next request……” 90 miles West” was his somewhat depressing reply. I was puzzled, but too busy working out fuel requirement at the time to spend any time thinking about the ‘WHY’ of the situation. I calculated that I didn’t have enough fuel to make it back to Lossiemouth, but could just make it into Kinloss. I then called Kinloss only to be told that they wouldn’t accept me. I declared my PAN, expecting them to be impressed enough to allow me in. “So sorry, our runway is closed for repairs”.
This now became a real puzzle for me. I was at something over 35,000ft at the time. Lossiemouth was 90 miles away. I explained the position to the Lossiemouth controller, and told him to get a supervisor on the radio. I wasn’t too happy with him at that time, and decided that the only way that the situation could be resolved without a great deal of embarrassing paperwork for all concerned, was to shut down the engine and glide back landing on the nearest runway. I hoped that for the actual approach I would be able to restart the engine, but starting the glide from just over 30,000 ft. it should be possible. The Hunter had a glide angle of almost 3 miles/1,000ft. similar to most swept wing aircraft as it happens.
It was very quiet in that cockpit for a while! In any event it was not a problem in the end. When the CCA controller picked me up I was able to restart the engine, and flew the approach in the normal fashion. I even had enough fuel left to taxi back to the squadron. I tiptoed away without mentioning that it might take a tad more fuel than usual.
I now had enough time to have a heart to heart chat with the initial controller. As it happened I knew him very well. He had failed the late part of his pilot’s course and remustered as a controller under training. I learned later, that apparently this CRDF system gave a trace on the screen pointing either TO or FROM the aircraft. Once overhead the trace dot just described a circle on the screen. Unfortunately, once out of range the CRDF just described this same circle on the screen. The controller could select either a TO the station or FROM the station. In my case he had inadvertently selected FROM. Thus when I arrived back very close to overhead, but a little to the west, his selection of FROM thinking he had it on TO, led him to give me vectors west, until I was out of range, leading him to believe that I was overhead.
He was very, very apologetic since had I followed his clearance to descend, we may have ploughed into high ground, or at the very least left me too low to get back. He had already been chopped from flying, so I assured him that this was just between the two of us. Every story has its own silver lining….Ever after, whenever I met him in the bar, I never was able to buy my own drinks!’
Fleet Air Arm veteran Brent Owen