Author Topic: Expensive Bird - My eject story - by Chrisg  (Read 1231 times)

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Expensive Bird - My eject story - by Chrisg
« on: July 14, 2009, 03:42:25 AM »
Expensive bird....My eject story..

by

chrisg


For those who asked for it, this is how I came to have to leave an airplane in flight via the roof....

Harriers should not exist.

Back in the 1950's Sir Sydney Camm had an idea for a VTOL fighter whilst he was working at Hawker.

Half the aviation world was playing with that idea at the time, but just about everyone else was using separate lift engines, all very well, but it meant you were carrying those motors around as dead weight for most of the flight.

Camm and his team had a different idea - rotate the jet nozzles so the exhaust pointed downward and you could use the main engine for all power requirements.

Bristol became interested in this and from there began the development of the Pegasus engine, a powerful jet with its exhaust vctored through four rotatable nozzles. There were many problems to overcome but by the late fifties they had a test bed in trials at Boscombe Down, the UK's equivalent of Edwards Air Force base in the US.

The Hawker, later Hawker Siddley, team meanwhile designed a prototype, the P-1127, and in 1962 Bill Bedford stole the display at the Farnborough air show with very, very short take-offs in the 1127. This led to a tripartite squadron of nine 1127's, re-named Kestrels, which did a thorough evaluation of the concept using British, German and US crews. This however was still thought of as a development aircraft, the production design would be the P-1154, supersonic V/STOL aircraft, until a mis-guided Defence Minister, Dennis Healey, cancelled that project in 1963.

Meanwhile the Germans had decided not to proceed, Whitehall was in its usual state of confusion, unable to see what a gem it had, and only the Americans really caught on. In 1967 the US Marines unilaterally ordered the "Harrier" and a still reluctant RAF also placed orders. (Since then it has been sold to Spain, India, and the Royal Navy of course.)

So, what had been purely a development airframe evolved into a warplane.

Which explains many things about the Harrier, especially its limited internal fuel reserves, lack of internal weaponry and initially somewhat poor cockpit visibility. All of this slowly improved, with endeavours such as the "Big Wing" Harrier, that provided more fuel storage, growth in the Pegasus engine, now a Rolls Royce project since the government forced the merger of Bristol into RR, and the development of the external 30MM ADEN cannon pods. Nonetheless the RAF still could not see the aircraft as anything more than a maybe useful toy that could be operated out of rough strips in Europe to at least harry the anticipated hordes of Russian tanks that might one day stream into Western Europe through the Fulda Gap. That was always somewhat bemusing, for a long time the Harrier had no decent anti-tank missile, its primary ground attack weapons were 2.75 inch Matra unguided rockets in underwing pods and CBUs, cluster bombs. Both of those are highly effective against thin-skinned targets, like flak tanks and APCs, but would pretty well bounce off of a T-72 Russian Main Battle Tank. Besides, it was becoming recognised that helicopters operating in nap-of-the-earth with anti-tank missiles, and the emerging A-10 Warthog, were better tank busters. So the Harrier remained a bit of an anomaly.

Except to the US Marines, who loved them. An aircraft as manouverable and rugged as the Harrier, able to operate off their small carriers and put enormous fire-power right over any amphibious landing force, and keep doing it, Harriers are nothing if not reliable, was just what they had been looking for since Korea, and before.

By the late sixties the Marines were starting to look at their Harriers in another light; How effective might they be in air-to-air combat, especially if you could exploit the vectored thrust in flight? To find out they developed some beefed up valves for the Pegasus themselves, and came knocking at Boscombe Down.

Whilst all of that was going on I'd been beginning my career in the RAF.

I'd done a tour on Lightnings, been off to Israel and racked up an impressive amount of combat time on the Mirage, come back and done a tour on Phantoms that included a lot of air combat exercises, then I'd been sent to Vietnam to observe US tactics. I was enjoying myself, but it was rather obvious that the RAF had very little idea of what to do with me. I didn't fit their mould, hadn't been through the sort of career path that readied me to run a squadron, deliberately, I didn't want to run a squadron, that mainly involves flying a desk, and meanwhile I'd learned more than most of their paper tigers were ever going to know about aerial combat, by doing it. Any other air force on the face of the earth would likely of treated someone like me as a rare treasure. The ageing grey haired moustashed hierarchy in Whitehall saw only a junior officer who had a disquieting habit of contradicting them on matters of tactics and policy, with frequent internal reports and papers that doubtless they failed to understand, and all too often he was right. Or at least that's what their allies in NATO kept saying. All very disturbing to a hide-bound organisation like the RAF.

I came back from 'Nam, holed up in an office in London to prepare my report, not a particularly glowing document in respect to US tactics of the day, and to contemplate my future. There was the possibility of an exchange posting in the USAF, or perhaps a staff job at SHAPE, not as bad as it sounded, plenty of flying to be had, but nothing around looked likely to put me back into much in the way of action anytime soon. Sad to say I'd become an adrenaline junkie, but I was young, fit, and not particularly upset by that particular addiction.

I was looking at all of this, in a somewhat frustrated frame of mind and wondering if it wasn't time to toss in the commission and see what the open market had to offer, when the telephone rang.

Down at Whitehall I had precisely one champion, an older Air Commodore who was a friend of the family and had been a wild boy himself back in his youth. It was him on the 'phone.

"Hello old boy, finished that report yet? Yanks making a mess of it as usual are they?"

"Pretty much Sir, what can I do for you?"

"You can come to a meeting tomorrow morning 8.AM sharp, my office."

"Yes Sir, do I need to bring anything?"

"Just your happy-self, see you then!"

Odd.

Well, I put the finishing touches to the report, might as well deliver it at the same time so they could file it and forget it, then took the rest of the day off.

Next morning I arrived early at the office and found a full house, more scrambed egg (Officer Braid) than I had seen since the last Queen's Birthday parade.

There was a small amount of chit-chat and then a Wing Commander took the floor.

"According to your record you've not yet flown a Harrier, that correct?"

"Yes Sir, I've always been on interceptors."

"Quite. well there's a programme starting up with the Yanks to see if the Harrier is any good at that, John here (The Air Commodore) thought you might be well suited to the job, what d'ya think?"

Hmm, that was a surprise. Beyond professional interest I'd not taken a lot of notice of the Harrier until then, it was a mud-mover so far as I knew, not what I did.

Then the explanations came out.

The Marines thought the Harrier might be a damned good dog-fighter, and since their dollars were calling the shots on the programme the manufacturer had to take notice, and had asked the RAF for assistance. Specifically they wanted a pilot who knew a thing or three about air combat. That certainly described me, and probably no other line pilot then in uniform in the RAF. It also sounded like another hole Whitehall could shove me into and forget about me for a while, but that didn't bother me. A US Marine Major took the floor and began explaining what they had in mind, and I was discomfited to see the other RAF types around the room all glazing over and progressively taking their leave until only I and the Air Commodore were left listening.

The Air Commodore grinned: "Well Major, seems the RAF is not that interested, but young Chris here is still awake, I guess he's all yours."

I took the Major away for a coffee and we got chatting. The more I listened the more interested I became. they were modifying a couple of GR.3s for the investigation. nothing too radical, the valves to allow VIFF, vectoring in forward flight, some wiring to carry Sidewinders, the ADEN packs and from there it would be up to the evaluation crews what other mods might be required. Oh, they weren't bothering to install the LMTS, Laser Marked Target Seekers, in the noses of the GR-3s for us, hardly needed, they could always put them in later.

So who were the eval crew? Him and me it turned out, although Hawker Siddley was happy to provide other company pilots if required.

Well first things first, I needed to get checked out on a Harrier. We took care of that the next day down at Boscombe where all of the work was to be done. The GR.3s weren't ready yet and Hawker Siddley had not long before managed to write-off the then only two seat Harrier in existence, but my friendly jar-head, Steve, quickly introduced me to a GR.1 and after a few hours of ground instruction I headed out for my first flight.

Interesting.

The Harrier proved to be near viceless, after a STOL take-off and landing and a few circuits I worked up to a Vertical landing and was amazed how easy it was. By the end of about ninety minutes of flying time I began to see why Harrier pilots were so enthusiastic about the little bird. Once refuelled I couldn't wait to get back in the air again, starting now to wring the airplane out a little and put the finishing touches on these new things called Vertical Landings. Next day I was feeling sufficiently at home in the Harrier that we took a pair and headed off to the free-flight area out over the Bristol Channel for some informal one-on-one where I discovered that not only did the Harrier airframe have all the makings of an excellent dogfighter but Steve knew a thing or three about tailchasing as well.

We weren't able to do too much in the way of VIFF in the GR.1s but they were cleared for a simple nozzle-pull in forward flight so I set up a straight run at about 20,000 feet, a little over 500 knots, and taking a deep breath pulled the nozzle lever, the only extra control in a Harrier cockpit, smartly down. Astonishing. It felt as if the Harrier had run into a massive pillow in the sky, hauling me forward in the straps, but because there had been no change to the throttle setting as soon as I flipped the vectoring lever back I was immediately slammed into my seat as the Harrier accellerated again, having lost well over 100knots of forward speed without bleeding much in the way of energy or having to spool back up.

All you Top Gun afficianados don't need me to tell you the implications of that, but this was just straight line, well, sort of, an odd feeling, being crushed forward AND down, the interesting part was going to start when we used that to improve turn radius.

There was a week to spare before the GR.3s would arrive which gave me time to set up some DACT (Dissimilar Air Combat Training.) A little play with some Phantoms out of Yeovilton and my old Lightning squadron out of Marston kept us amused, and reminded me yet again that speed was by no means everything, all very well to get you somewhere, or run away, sod all use in a turning fight. Where the Harrier excelled was in rate of climb, rate of accelleration, turning circle and roll rate, where it lacked was in range and rear visibility, something we were assured they were looking into on our aircraft, a couple of blu-tac'd mirrors probably, was our rueful summation of that. One day I'm going to have a tete a tete with a cockpit designer, it won't be pretty.....

Came the Thursday of the bedding-in week and nothing was scheduled. I'd been hearing all week what a ball the Harrier was down low, so Steve and I agreed to take a run through the low level area near Boscombe, out over Salisbury Plain. We planned it out early, suited up and were on the pad at 8am for the walk around. Two clean birds and we were in the cockpits in ten minutes, running pre-flight checks before spinning up the Pegasus' and taxiing out to the runway - we ddn't need it of course, but the protocols were still catching up at that time.

A typical Harrier STOL take-off, roll maybe 50 metres and cycle the nozzles for a kick into the air, gear away and out over the fence, staying low, play time.

Five minutes later we were at sixty feet angling down a shallow valley at about 500 knots when something large and dark whipped past my canopy and the whole world went insane. In my cockpit every alarm there was seemed to go off at once, behind me there was a solid *crump* of an explosion in the Pegasus engine and the Harrier pulled hard left of its own accord, the wing angling down to the earth.

No time to do anything except react, I pulled the blind on the Martin Baker Mk9 zero-zero rocket ejection seat and was thrown clear of the aircraft in an instant as the blast-cord took out the canopy a fraction of a second before I passed through it.

I must of been unconscious for a second or two as I have no recollection of the following events, the next thing I remember is my boots hitting the ground, the reflex action of releasing my 'chute as I sat down hard on the grass, wondering what the noise was, turning and seeing the fireball of my Harrier erupt over the edge of the valley......

I'd been very, very lucky.

I'd gone out of the aircraft almost parallel to the ground with nowhere near enough altitude for a 'chute to open, but the seat threw me over the edge of the valley and the drop off gave me just enough....We worked out later the 'chute was maybe open for a second before I hit.

I was suddenly very, very tired. I laid back, took off my helmet, looking with little interest at the deep gash it wore. I was externally totally unmarked, but for that helmet I'd of been scalped by the canopy shards....Overhead a Harrier screamed by, Steve, I saw his wing dip, he'd seen me, I waved weakly and lay back on the soft grass.

Ten minutes later the arthritic clatter of a Wessex 5 SAR chopper roused me, circling in to land and two parajumpers ducking and running out to look me over. It started to rain but they wouldn't move me until they had fetched a stretcher and eased me onto it before carrying me to the Wessex for the quick hop back to Boscombe and the infirmary.

I was quickly given a clean bill of health. Perhaps a little too quickly, years later it was found I'd compressed a couple of disks and my back is inclined to give me a bit of trouble now and again, although no worse really than other people my age who have never done more than brake too hard in a mid-life crisis sports car.

The post accident investigation was a very quick affair. They recovered quite a bit of the wreckage, although not the core of the Pegasus, once it shed its fan it had gone drilling at some horrendous RPM. There was a hole....it went down a long way, they filled it in. I'd had a bird strike, a not uncommon occurrence, not even my first, but this time I'd hit a larger than average avian, ironically some variety of Kestrel, and not only that but it had impacted in the worst possible place, on the outer edge of the huge fan that front-ends the Pegasus. That had stripped away a few blade tips, which had unbalanced the fan and the huge centripedal forces at work had torn the engine apart behind me in miliseconds. Meanwhile pieces of blade had ripped through the body severing control lines. There wasn't a pilot this side of Jesus Christ himself who could of saved the aircraft, in fact the court recommended me for a mention in despatches for saving myself.

Years later I heard a Formula One driver during the mad turbo era talk of what it felt like having an engine go off behind him; "like a grenade at the back of the neck" Yeah, well a Pegasus is bigger than an F1 car, with more power than the first two rows on the grid, Nuke-in-the-neck anyone?

I'll talk later maybe about where the Harrier programme took me, although part of it is already recorded in another story here, but now all you inquisitive ones know how I came to eject from an airplane. Not in combat, nobody I ever went up against was ever that good, (there speaks a true fighter pilot :-)

Cheers
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