An important lesson about birds and jet engines

A Jet Provost T Mk 3.
A Jet Provost T Mk 3.

In 1964, JOHN BROWN was an Acting Pilot Officer doing his flying training at RAF Acklington, from where he graduated in April 1965. He was involved in an incident which saw him eject over the Borders. Here is the first part of his story. Part two in next week’s Gazette.

As an Acting Pilot Officer, I began my flying training at RAF Acklington on May 26, 1964, having previously completed officer training at No 1 Initial Training School, RAF South Cerney.

A contemporary newspaper picture of the plane crash.

A contemporary newspaper picture of the plane crash.

Acklington, at the time, was the home of Number 6 Flying Training School equipped with Jet Provost T Mk 3 and T Mk 4 twin seat training aircraft. I was assigned to Number 1 Squadron and was at the stage of the course where half the day was spent in the Ground School on academics and the other half flying.

The weather in the Northumberland and Borders area on September 30, 1964, was dominated by an anticyclone centred just to the east of Hull. There was some scattered clouds, base 1,000 to 1,500 feet with a light south-easterly wind and good visibility. Pretty good flying weather and excellent for a student pilot about to embark upon his first experience of low-level navigation – Nav 6 as it was designated in the Jet Provost flying training syllabus.

Lunch was either sandwiches, if on the first wave of the afternoon, or a more leisurely affair in the labyrinth of huts that had been arranged as an Officers’ Mess. I must have enjoyed sandwiches and even a generous allowance for flight planning before departing Acklington at 1400 hours local time in Jet Provost T Mk 4 XR664.

My instructor was Flight Lieutenant D J Philips (Phil), actually an engineering officer who had gained his wings and was now doing his operational tour as a ‘creamed-off’ Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI). He had accumulated 263 hours on Jet Provosts, including his own basic training and the QFI Course at Central Flying School (CFS).

Our first track took us to Eyemouth along the coast – we passed Alnmouth, Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh, by which time my instructor had finished his instruction sequence and had handed control to me to continue northwards. Passing Holy Island there was, unsurprisingly in retrospect, a lot of birds about.

Noting my apprehension, Phil took control and demonstrated that sea birds were pretty pathetic creatures and, when confronted by a growling Jet Provost, would immediately descend. All that I needed to do was just to tweak back on the stick, pass over the terrified bird, and resume my low-level navigation. I’m not sure if he had also remarked that birds of prey reacted differently, but he should have done.

Back in control, I was obviously doing quite well because the atmosphere relaxed and I was encouraged not to pay too much attention to always being above 250 feet above the ground all the time – the odd excursion below was okay, provided conditions were suitable.

Similarly, the 180 knots Indicated Air Speed (IAS), at which the exercise had been planned, seemed rather pedestrian after I had got the hang of things and we may have tacitly agreed to speed up a little. And so it was, heading 057° towards Coldstream. I think we must have generally been following the course of the River Teviot, descending down a spur, the apex of which was the junction of the A68 and A698, into the Teviot valley with higher ground both to left and right.

It was at this point that I saw a bird shape almost directly ahead. Remembering my training, I twitched back on the control column, but, to my horror, the bird reared up and was neatly hoovered up by the port engine intake. It was not a soppy sea bird!

After the initial vibration died down and, with Flt Lt Philips now in control, there followed a surreal period where, for me, time seemed to stand still and everything seemed much larger than life. “Should I eject?” I suggested. “No, hang on a bit,” was the reply and then, shortly after, “OK, off you go!”

During the time between the impact and Flt Lt Philips’ decision to abandon the aircraft, he had converted excess speed to height, attempted to relight the engine and put out a Mayday distress call. The casualty report narrative notes that, following my departure, Flt Lt Philips attempted another re-light and made a final Mayday call before ejecting himself.

I pulled the top handle and waited the ‘eternity’ while the various clockwork devices ticked over and canopy jettison mechanism operated. I wasn’t aware of the canopy going but do remember the tremendous bang as my seat started to rise up the rail. I’m pretty sure I lost consciousness momentarily.

The ejection seat was a Martin Baker Mk 4P. This was a development of the Mk 3 seat, but both used the same ejection gun – 80 feet per second.

As Officer Cadets, at Initial Training School, we had received some training to help prepare us for emergency evacuation using an ejection seat. There was a mobile rig with an extending rail, probably 30 feet in length, rather like a fire engine ladder. A representative seat, complete with harness, could be fired up the rail using a small explosive charge and braked at the end of the travel.

The idea was to prepare us intrepid students for the sensation of ejecting in a controlled environment. I remember being very apprehensive as I was strapped in and awaiting the order to ‘Eject, Eject’. On pulling the face blind handle, there was a moderate kick up the backside as the seat shot up the rail but, in retrospect, nothing like the real thing.

What it did do, however, was instil a confidence in the mechanism which would make its operation almost second nature in the real event, at least for me.

The next thing I remember is tumbling forward; face down towards the earth and a tremendous yank across my shoulders as the parachute opened. I now know that about two to two-and-a-half seconds would have elapsed from firing the seat to finding myself suspended in the parachute.

This seems incredible but is put into context by the most modern seats which achieve all that in just less than a second! I do not remember feeling any sort of emotion of relief and just got on with the various jobs I had to do on the descent.

I concentrated on the oxygen mask first, attempting to release the clip of the H Type rubber mask which was attached to the inner helmet inside the ‘bone dome’ on the right side with an adjustable strap and fastened on the left with a tricky-to-operate clasp.

I had difficulty detaching it but, having been successful, I reasoned that since this was not going to be a landing into water, and hence no danger of drowning, I thought that it might be better to use what additional protection to my face it might afford. I re-attached it!

While looking down, it was the apparent rush of the ground towards me that concentrated my mind on the landing. As with the ejection seat, we had received quite a lot of instruction in parachute landing techniques.

We didn’t actually jump out of anything, like a balloon or training aircraft. Indeed, I recall the longest ‘training’ descent as being the height of a gymnasium bench!

I think I realised that I was drifting backwards and to the right. The surface wind was about 15 knots from the south east. Recalling my instruction, I attempted to arrest the drift by pulling down on the opposite lift web. Two alarming things happened. Firstly, there was a noise of rushing air as it spilt out of the canopy and secondly, and more worryingly, the rate of descent increased appreciably. This, combined with the rush of the ground towards me, convinced me to abandon the steering technique and I gingerly relaxed the pressure on the lift web.

I had just completed that aspect of on-the-job training and put myself into the landing position when I hit the ground – hard.