A Conspiracy of Luck – the final flight of Scimitar XD239

air-Scimitar-4Little could Sub-Lieutenant C.D. Legg know as he took off in Supermarine Scimitar F.1 XD239/R-103 on May 22nd 1962 that the powers of luck were conspiring against him and his aircraft. His aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, was steaming through the Gulf of Aden carrying out training with the Royal Air Force squadrons based at RAF Khormaksar in Aden when Legg and his Scimitar took to the sky.

Naval aviation is one of the most challenging forms of military flying. Not only do naval combat pilots have to do everything their land based counterparts do but they have the added challenge of landing their aircraft back aboard what is effectively a small, constantly moving runway. To make matters worse they only have a very narrow area of the ship they can aim for in order to catch the arrestor wires that bring the aircraft to a stop before it goes off the end of the deck. Even with innovations such as the mirror landing system which greatly improved the chances of a pilot achieving a good landing back aboard ship it was still an inherently difficult task with the risk of the deck suddenly pitching up and down on the waves and catching a pilot off guard an ever constant problem even today.

Under these circumstances therefore even the most skilled and experienced naval pilot can still have a “bad day” when it comes to landing back aboard the carrier. The young and relatively inexperienced Sub-Lieutenant Legg was about to have one such bad day. Four attempts to get his Scimitar back aboard Ark Royal all ended with failure and his aircraft was now beginning to run low on fuel. Rather than allow him to keep trying to land on the off-chance that he made it back aboard the ship before he ran out of fuel and crashed in to the sea, Legg was instructed to abandon a fifth attempt and was instead ordered to divert to RAF Khormaksar; a frustrating and somewhat embarrassing prospect for a proud Fleet Air Arm fighter pilot.

But if his pride was hurting a little bit on the way to Khormaksar then things were about to get a whole lot worse. The Scimitar F.1 was a remarkably complex aircraft for its time and this led to a tendency to leak fuel and hydraulic fluids due to the rigours of carrier operations. The attempted landings on Ark Royal had now taken its toll on Scimitar XD239 and Legg was noticing the aircraft was becoming less and less responsive due to intermittent hydraulic failures. He was able to keep control of the aircraft and made it over the shore in to Aden but incredibly his troubles were far from over.

His radio had decided to join the hydraulic system and start failing as well leaving communication with Khormaksar almost impossible. While the controllers at Khormaksar knew he was in trouble and made preparations for him to land the visibility at the base had greatly reduced and he was going to need careful instructions to land on the unfamiliar runway. As Legg’s aircraft arrived over the base it was now dangerously low on fuel and after passing over the airfield to try and get his bearings for his approach Legg made his attempt.

It was not to be however. The poor visibility over the runway coupled with Legg’s unfamiliarity with the airfield caused him to approach the runway too far down to land safely and thus he had to abort and try again. His aircraft’s fuel tanks were now almost totally dry and in an act of desperation, Legg shut down one of the aircraft’s two Rolls-Royce Avon engines to conserve what fuel he had left. However, he forgot to shut down the “blow” – the engine augmented lift device which blows air over the wing to decrease the aircraft’s stall speed which makes it easier to land and take off from a carrier. The one remaining engine was now having to do the work of two in providing the “blow” which reduced its thrust that it badly needed to keep the aircraft in the air.

Thus as Legg turned rather tightly over the sea near the coast and at low level to get back on course for Khormaksar the lower thrust and the hydraulic failures both finally conspired to end the flight. Legg lost all control and with no alternative left open to him he ejected coming down near an Arab “Dhow” – a small boat – which went rushing somewhat enthusiastically to his aid. Scimitar XD239 flew on its death descent for a short while before skimming across the water and then sinking in six feet of water near the beach. Khormaksar launched a rescue helicopter to retrieve Sub-Lieutenant Legg and quickly arrived over the Dhow but there was a further problem. The crew of the Dhow refused to hand Legg over unless the helicopter crew paid a reward. Having no choice, the helicopter crew put together what they could, some cash and a few bits and pieces they could spare, and paid the reward. With Legg freed the helicopter crew then had to drag him across the water for nearly 50 meters because they found they could not hoist him aboard without the transitional lift produced when the helicopter enters forward flight. Legg finally arrived at Khormaksar soaked and shaken up but quite alive.

If one subscribes to the belief that the concept of luck is some cosmic force in the universe, then whatever formula conspired to create this unfortunate story was not finished just yet. With Scimitar XD239 laying quite intact not far from the beach it was decided to simply drag it out of the water and transport it by road to Khormaksar. A tractor pulled the aircraft through the mud and sludge of the beach and after an inspection of its undercarriage to confirm it was safe the recovery team then proceeded to tow the aircraft along the dusty Aden roads on its own wheels. However, the roads in Aden weren’t used to having Royal Navy combat jets on them and the heavy weight of the aircraft being pushed down on to its wheels caused bits of the road to break underneath it. On a particularly weak bit of road the port side main undercarriage broke through road and ruptured the water mains underneath.

Supermarine Scimitar XD239

Having finally been recovered, XD239 was shipped to RNAY Fleetlands for repairs but an inspection saw these plans abandoned on economic grounds. It was struck off charge as Cat.5(c) on September 23rd 1964 and used for spares before being sold as scrap to Unimetals Ltd of Birmingham in March 1967.

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7 responses to “A Conspiracy of Luck – the final flight of Scimitar XD239

  1. Pingback: Defence of the Realm – Royal Navy | Defence of the Realm

  2. This reminds me a bit of some stories a former RN guy told me when I was still back in my native canada. He came to where I worked sometimes as his company was under contract to repair and service some of our eqipment.

    He had worked as an electric systems technician and served from the mid 60s to a year prior to the Falklands War. He had some great stories about Buccaneers and Sea Harriers, but not a single good word to say about Scimitars or Sea Vixens.

    I recall how he told me the Scimitar was a notoriously leaky aircraft and they had taken to nicknaming it the “Spewer”. He said everyone hated it because the first order of business when one landed was to run out on deck and get buckets under it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the gazette 23rd Dec 1975 a LT C D Legg is shown as released from active list. It wouldnt make sense for him to have faced a court martial at the time.

      Like

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