892 NAS at RAF Leuchars about to deploy to HMS Ark Royal – 1976
On the 15th of February 1976 I strapped into Phantom FG1, XV 590, of 892 NAS on Fly 4 of HMS Ark Royal. It was a dark and moonless night in the Western Mediterranean and I was about to experience my first night sortie of my work-up to become fully night qualified. This followed 14 months of flying with the RN on an exchange tour and although day flying from a carrier could never be termed routine, flying from the deck at night, including night air to ground bombing and rocketing under a “Lepus” flare, was an altogether different kind of experience.
Start up was as normal, as was the taxi forward to the waist catapult, even on a dimly lit deck. It was only when the nose gear extension was set then the difference from day carrier and land based night flying started to sink in. Perched on the catapult with the nose extended by 40 inches meant that nothing but pitch blackness could be seen over the nose. My enduring thought was that I now realised just what Christopher Columbus’ crew must have felt as they headed west in 1492 to what they thought was the edge of the world! Still no time to ponder as the FDO waved his wand to wind up the engines to full afterburner. Once the engines were settled I gave the commit signal, the FDO dropped his wand, then after a 2 second pause the catapult fired and off we shot. Within 1.9 seconds we cleared the catapult at 150 knots, the nose rotated and was held at +10 degrees, the aircraft was cleaned up and we climbed away – slightly startled but relieved to be in one piece – all we had to do now was to get back on board!
80 minutes later we were in the “wait” to meet our nominated “Charlie” (recovery) time. All went well until at 375 feet, 3/4 of a mile, after a carrier controlled approach (CCA), I looked up for the deck landing sight but what confronted me was seriously frightening. Only a centre-line of lights plus the sight were visible. Depth perception was non-existent, as was any real attitude reference (no head-up display (HUD)). Maintaining line up was extremely difficult as there was no natural wind that night which resulted in an insidious 8.5 degree x-wind (due to the angled deck) which made maintaining line up very difficult. So with all this going on it is unsurprising that I was over controlling in bank whilst struggling to maintain the glide slope. This resulted in me taking an early wave off and going around for another CCA!
Next approach was better, with my back seater helping by calling out any bank angle changes, but again I went high at the last moment, missed the wires, “bolted” and went around for another attempt. Again as I got in close I started to drift a little high and missed the wires – so off again for a final attempt. This time though I carried out a visual pattern, something very unusual as normally all night approaches were from a CCA. However, fuel was getting low so it was decided that I should try a visual pattern. All appeared to be going well until at the very last stages I again started to drift a little high. This is when I did something very foolish – I took a slight cut in power in an attempt to stop going high, but again missed the wires. The hook actually hit short of the first wire but skipped over all four as it had caught the lip of the aft lift. We then experienced what is known as a “whispering bolter”, i.e. off the angled deck with the engines not at full military power but winding up. This meant that as we cleared the deck the aircraft settled by some 50 feet before we accelerated away. As the deck is 57 feet above the water line this resulted in us spraying the deck with heated sea water and causing the powers that be to fear that we had hit the sea. I swear to this day that I saw the water glistening just below my eye line. We now “bingo’d to the beach”, in this case Gibraltar, which turned out to be miles further away than we thought – and the ship had informed us!
We were told that we were some 90 miles from Gibraltar, but during our climb to 15000 feet for the transit, our TACAN gained a lock which indicated that we were actually 145 miles from our destination. A quick look at our fuel gauge showed that we would indeed be tight, but just then our low level fuel light illuminated on the warning panel which meant we would be really tight! The F-4 fuel gauge was inaccurate towards the low end of capacity; the fuel light was a much more accurate indicator of the actual fuel remaining. I was now concerned as we realised that rather than landing with minimums (800 lbs) we would actually be lucky to make it with 400 lbs, which was very tight to say the least, especially as the approach into Gibraltar was procedural due to the politics between Spain and the UK. This became clear as we made contact with RAF Gibraltar. The conversation went along the following lines:
“Gibraltar this is 014 on diversion to you from HMS Ark Royal, request a priority approach”
“014 you are loud and clear and are cleared to make a precision approach for runway 27. You are reminded that in the case of a missed approach you are to make a climbing turn through south (around the rock) for a further approach from the west”
“Gibraltar if we miss the approach we can only at best make a visual circuit to the north as we are short of fuel. If required to make a full missed approach pattern we may well have to eject into the bay”.
“014 you are not permitted to make such a visual circuit. Are you declaring an emergency?”
“Gibraltar – 014 affirmative”.
After a pregnant pause “014 acknowledged, call Gibraltar radar for your approach”.
We then carried out a radar approach, which because of the airspace rules, was offset to the south requiring a sharp left turn at about 2 miles out to line up with the runway. As we were visual at some 3 miles we changed frequency to the tower and concentrated on landing as close to the edge of the runway as possible as Gibraltar’s runway was only some 6,000 feet long which was rather shorter than normal for a Phantom (7-8,000 feet).
I slammed the aircraft in hard, just passed the 15 foot sea wall which marked the edge of the runway, deployed the brake-chute and started breaking. However, as half way down the runway it sticks out into the bay it was difficult to judge just how well the landing roll was progressing as all that was visible were parked yachts flashing past. I therefore decided to drop the hook and if necessary engage the over-run wire. This triggered the following exchange with air traffic control:
“014 you are on fire”
“Gibraltar negative it is just my hook sparking on the runway as I may have to take the over-run wire”
“Don’t take the wire Harry we are coming in behind you”
– this from a Buccaneer, call sign 031, from 809 NAS, the only other aircraft to launch from Ark Royal that evening and unknown to me was now also diverting.
I immediately brought the hook up, stood on the brakes even harder, and managed to stop in time. I then called “clear” at which point air traffic called:
“031 you are on fire”
“Gibraltar, negative it is just my tailskid sparking on the runway”
– the Buccaneer has no brake parachute! And so the Fleet Air Arm “arrived” at RAF Gibraltar!
We both taxied to the parking area and on dismounting were met by a rather harassed looking Wing Commander Ops you had just witnessed two fuel priority approaches, a threatened ejection and two aircraft fire alarms all within 5 minutes at 2300 hours on what should have been a normal quiet evening!
The Wing Commander seemed to quiet down as we made our way to the bar for a well earned drink. In the bar two mess members kindly volunteered to nip downtown to fetch some fish and chips so that we 4 naval aviators could settle down to some serious refuelling, solids and liquid. Just when all seemed settled, it was now after midnight, the Wing Commander came bursting back into the bar carrying a signal instructing us to recover to Ark Royal by 0730 in the morning, which required us to take-off from Gibraltar at 0700 – some 6 hours hence. He seemed to think this very early, but the Buccaneer crew (both RN Lt Cdrs) re-assured the Wing Commander that this was normal RN routine. So after some sleep we departed Gibraltar at 0700 hours and 30 minutes later landed back on board.
I was met by my boss, taken aside, and asked if I was ok and would be up for another try that evening. I said yes and was sent off to my cabin to rest. However, my back seater was given a completely different welcome. He was met by the senior observer and told off in the strongest possible terms for not ejecting on the third bolter! I remain eternally grateful to my Observer for not leaving as if he had done so, I would most probably not have successfully completed the bolter.
Needless to say I never missed an approach again! In fact this was the only time I missed a “land on” in over 150 deck landings covering the two years I spent with the Fleet Air Arm.
With thanks to David Hamilton RAF