A Spot of Bother with the Royal Air Force
This article first appeared in MiG Sweep Magazine, albeit without the occasional translations to American English.
In the mid-1970’s I was a fighter pilot on exchange duty from the USAF, seconded to the Royal Air Force. I was assigned as a fighter weapons instructor in the Anglo-French Jaguar aircraft, tasked with the low-level, ground attack mission. Once, flying as Number Two chasing a student on a check ride, I was at 250’ altitude, 480 knots (550 mph) over Northeast Scotland when we were bounced by RAF F-4K Phantoms.
I broke hard right, pulling down and behind my flight lead’s tail to clear his six o'clock and to give the F-4’s more angle-off to convert. In full reheat (afterburner) and with 4 G’s on the aircraft, I sailed through my leader’s jet wash, his wake turbulence. My jet flipped inverted, rolling 180 degrees right in less than a second.
I was looking back over my right shoulder with my left arm jammed hard against the throttles for more leverage to better see aft towards five o’clock when the Jag went inverted. The canopy rail rammed my left arm, already under the strain of 4 G’s, and snapped my elbow 30 degrees over center. As when you hit your thumb with a hammer and you have a second to think about it before the pain starts, I knew this was going to hurt big time shortly before it did just that. I pushed forward on the control stick, unloaded the aircraft to -1 G, and rolled back right side up before the pain hit. Fighting the fog of pain, I managed somehow to get the nose above the horizon to prevent flying out of the sky and into the world.
The Jag, like the RAF’s classic WWII Spitfire fighter, had a stick that only moved fore and aft. Aileron control was achieved by pivoting the top of the control stick left and right, like a Spit. There was no autopilot. I clamped the stick tight between my thighs (insert the joke of your choice here) to keep the jet steady and laid my reverse-bent left arm on the left consol. With my right hand, I gave the inside of my left elbow a karate chop, which snapped the joint back over center bending it the correct way. However, all this trauma inflicted on my elbow paralyzed my arm; it was limp as a dishrag, useless.
The next item on my things-to-do list was to adjust the airspeed. The head up display showed we were accelerating through 600 knots (700 mph), the two engines howling in full reheat. We were in imminent danger of going supersonic. The resulting shock wave would have likely broken every window in Aberdeen, very bad form indeed. With my right hand, I reached across and pulled the throttles out of reheat, back to the dry power range.
One of the many human-factors deficiencies of the Jaguar was the inability to adjust the throttle friction from the cockpit. If you drew a jet with slack throttle friction, the throttles would creep back to flight idle if you let go of them for any length of time. Once at idle, it took forever for the Adour fan engines to spool up, if they didn’t flame out, which wasn’t at all unusual. The Jaguar was a two-handed airplane and I had only one serviceable arm.
Jaguars came in two sizes, single-seat and with two seats. The good news was I was flying a two-place jet. The bad news was the rear cockpit was occupied by a RAF Flight Surgeon on his first fast jet orientation sortie. The poor bloke was sitting there enjoying the airplane ride and trying to keep his breakfast down when suddenly he was hanging from his lap belt watching the Scottish countryside blur by 200’ over the top of the canopy.
The Doc heard me scream when I snapped my elbow back in place and he came on the intercom ever so cautiously.
“Ed, are you all right?”
His voice was clearly fighting for control, that British stiff upper lip coming through loud and clear. It would have been funny if I wasn’t so damn busy.
I replied, “Doc, how would you like to learn how to fly a Jaguar, RIGHT NOW?”
I coached him where to find the RPM gages and asked for 89% power on each engine using the throttles.
I went on, “See that little yellow handle on the left wall, that’s the flaps. The longer one with the wheel on the end is the undercarriage (landing gear). Put each of them down when I tell you to.”
I figured we’d collectively fly back to our base, RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland, and try a pass or two at the runway. If that didn’t work out, we could always eject and walk back to the Officers’ Mess for a wee dram, or six, although I wasn’t entirely in favor of banging out with a broken arm.
But, with the intrepid Doc working the levers, we landed without too much drama and taxied back to the ramp. By this time my left arm was returning to some semblance of function.
Back in the squadron crew room, the Doc politely suggested that a visit to the infirmary with him for me and my bum arm might be in order.
After the x-ray exam (bone chips, but no break), I asked him, “Doc, you aren’t going to ground me, are you?”
He looked me in the eye and said, "I won’t ground you if you promise never to involve me again in such a close-run thing.”