Ramblings from my time in the RAF
Seventeen thousand feet. Two hundred and twenty miles per hour. Fuel consumption seriously compromised by the thirty-foot long white target banner which we tow behind us.
I am flying the Gloster Meteor in a very lazy circle, a circle which takes twelve minutes to complete. Below us, sparkling in the late summer sunshine, is the North Sea. Forty miles distant is the island of Sylt, just off the Danish-German border.
For the moment, all is peaceful. I mentally rehearse the almost impossible procedure for abandoning the aircraft. As the “meatbox” has no ejection seats, if it becomes necessary to leave the aircraft to find its own way home, one must jettison the canopy, undo the seat harness, check that you haven’t undone the parachute harness by mistake, stand on the seat and hang on to the windshield then dive over the left side, hoping to avoid the engine then the tailplane. A frightening series of events.
The radio shatters the silence of contemplation.
“Wheelbarrow, Barn Owl, flight of four at ten miles, ready to engage target on your command.”
The RAF proved more than capable of providing silly call signs.
“Barn Owl Flight, be advised that I am towing the banner, not bloody pushing it,” I respond. “You are cleared to fire on the target at your discretion. Please try not to hit me.”
I look over to the right and can just make out the specks that will soon materialise into four Gloster Javelins. One by one, they will fly at ninety degrees towards the target and fire short bursts of thirty millimetre rounds at it. It is the fervent hope of tug pilots that such rounds will not be more than three thousand feet to the right as that is the length of the towing cable.
“Barn Owl One is in. Stand by.”
Four seconds later and I clearly hear the staccato rattle of the Javelin’s guns. Automatically, I check the flying controls. Thankfully, all good.
“Barn Owl Two, you are cleared to engage.”
For seconds. Nothing. Ten seconds. Still nothing.
“Leader, Two is aborting this pass. I…ah… had the guns safe. Sorry about that.”
A sigh of exasperation from the boss.
“Roger Two. After Barn Owl Three, you are clear to try again. Get it right this time. Break. Three, you are cleared to the banner.”
Four seconds, then the sound of Three’s thirty mill guns. Subconsciously, I check the controls. It’s a bit frightening being on the wrong end of substantial firearms.
“Three is clear.”
“Barn Owl Two, are you ready for another try?”
“Yes, Leader. Two is in.”
Four seconds is a very long time if you are waiting for something which might or might not happen.
I hear the rattle of the guns. Twice. There is a shudder and the Meteor lurches to the left. I try to correct but the rudder pedals have no effect. I fight the aircraft with the ailerons and thankfully a semblance of straight and level flight is restored.
“Barn Owl flight, Call it off. Say again, Call it off. I think a stray round went through my rudder. I am returning to base.”
“Wheelbarrow, roger. Barn Owl flight, return to base. I will escort the tug.”
I switch to the Sylt frequency.
“Pan, pan, pan. Wheelbarrow is thirty miles west of Sylt, flight level one seven zero, returning to Sylt with rudder control problem. Crash crew required.”
A radio call prefixed with the word “pan” indicates that a problem has arisen and that assistance may be required. As an emergency call it is less urgent than a mayday but nevertheless takes priority over other radio traffic.
“Pan Wheelbarrow. Roger. All copied. Crash crew is standing by and you are cleared for a straight in approach to runway zero-six. Advise field in sight”
“Wheelbarrow roger. Zero-six and field in sight.”
I hit the banner release, and the meatbox, freed from the drag of the target, is almost as controllable as a rudderless aircraft can be. Unless we now lose an engine, we are in pretty good shape. A Meteor, although a great aircraft to fly becomes uncontrollable with an engine out mainly because the engines are a good distance out from the fuselage and full rudder is required to keep the aircraft straight. With no rudder, if the fire went out on an engine, I would have no option other than to get out.
Barn Owl One is behind me and low on my right.
“How you doing, Al?”
“Okay so far Steve. We’re cleared straight in on zero-six.”
Eventually I see the island and the airfield. Thankfully, the runway is only a few degrees off my present heading so no serious turns will be required. Both engines perform smoothly as I go through the preparations for landing.
“Sylt Tower, Pan Wheelbarrow has field in sight.”
“Roger Pan. Cleared to land number one. Surface wind zero nine five at eight knots.”
I ask Steve to check that the wheels are down. He replies in the affirmative.
The slight crosswind would present no problem with an operative rudder but without that, there is a possibility of running off the runway.
“Sylt, Pan is final approach, three greens.”
I hold my breath as the runway threshold flashes below me. To compensate for the crosswind, I increase the power to the left engine.
The mainwheels touch the ground. The aircraft starts to veer to the left. I add a bit more power to the left engine and blissfully we stay on the hard asphalt instead of the nice green grass.
I come to a stop and tell the tower that I am clearing the runway and stopping so please send the tractor out.
Steve roars overhead, waggling his wings.
The tractor roars out across the airfield, the aircraft towbar bumping over the grass closely followed by the squadron Landrover carrying the engineering chief technician.
The engineering chief is looking at the holes in the rear fuselage and rudder of the Meteor. He shakes his head.
“Four inches lower and it would have taken the elevator cables as well.”
That would have made an abandonment of the aircraft inevitable as the elevators are the one control that is essential as they control the nose up or down attitude of the aircraft.
I think that I know who was flying Barn Owl Two and he will be buying the drinks in the mess tonight.
It later transpired that he had inadvertently held on to the firing button as he turned off the target.
The next time I am rostered to fly the tug, I have already decided who will be in the back seat.