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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Blackburn Beverley C.1

Beverley landing rough

The Blackburn Beverely was a high wing transport aircraft designed to operate in the most austere locations throughout the British sphere of influence in the 1950s and 1960s. Its somewhat ungainly appearance was the result of its unique internal layout that was designed to maximise its carrying options with a compartment located in the tail boom for additional passenger seats and for use in dropping paratroopers. The aircraft was one of the few large aircraft designed in the late 1940s to have a fixed undercarriage. This reflected its requirement to operate from rough and semi-prepared airstrips with the undercarriage being very sturdy and resilient to the hard landings it could expect under these conditions.

Blackburn Beverley InternalPower came from four Bristol Centaurus 18-cylinder rotary engines fitted with reverse pitch propellers each developing 2,850hp each. This was sufficient to pull the Beverley along at a comfortable 173mph and to a top speed of 238mph with a service ceiling of 16,000ft. The boom section could carry up to 36 people on rearward facing seats or 30 fully equipped paratroopers. The seats were positioned this way as it was deemed safer for the occupants if the aircraft crashed during landing or take-off. Interestingly, RAF Comet transports were configured this way also but it was unlikely they would be expected to operate off the kinds of airstrips that the Beverley would be expected to. The main freight bay could be configured to carry another 94 people if needed or alternatively a wide variety of heavy equipment could be carried. Access to the cargo area was through two large removable clamshell doors at the rear beneath the tail boom. In the paratrooper insertion role the aircraft could unload troops through these doors while the paratroopers in the tailboom jumped through a hatch in the floor. During the course of it’s career Beverley’s carried trucks, fuel drums, drilling equipment, helicopters and disassembled aircraft including the fuselage of a Canberra bomber.

The ungainly looking aircraft entered service with the RAF’s No.47 Squadron on the 1st March 1956 and eventually a total of 47 aircraft would serve across five squadrons plus an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) providing crew training for the type.

  • No.30 Squadron  (April 1957 – September 1967)
  • No.34  Squadron  (October 1960 – January 1968)
  • No.47 Squadron (March 1956 – October 1967)
  • No.53 Squadron (February 1957 – June 1963)
  • No.84 Squadron (May 1958 – September 1967)
  • No.242 OCU (???1957 – ???1967)

During the course of its career the Beverley changed very little. A single aircraft, XB249, was retained by Blackburn for a series of tests that included the fitting of Rocket Assisted Take Off (RATO) bottles to reduce the take off distance even further but these were never fitted operationally. The aircraft primarily served in the Middle and Far East theatres where its rough field performance was essential. A regular location for the Beverley to operate out of was RAF Khormaksar in Aden where it was tasked with resupplying local garrisons; an extremely dangerous task given the poor runway facilities the heavy aircraft often encountered. In these areas the aircraft was painted in a sand/brown scheme but with the cockpit area painted white in an effort to keep the internal temperature down for the pilots.

Beverley-3

The Beverley also has the distinction of being the only RAF aircraft to have flown missions during (but not in support of) the Vietnam War when aircraft from No.34 Squadron flew humanitarian supplies into South Vietnam following heavy flooding in the region. When asked by their USAF counterparts what tactics the RAF would use to avoid getting fired on by the Viet Cong forces they are reported to have responded that since the Viet Cong have never seen anything as ugly as the Beverley before they will probably spend so long wondering how it can fly that they wont have time to shoot it down. This kind of remark was actually meant with a lot of  affection.

The aircraft was finally retired in 1967 being replaced by Andovers in some cases and C-130 Hercules in others. The retirement came as the RAF’s commitments to the last corners of the Empire also came to an end and so no real replacement aircraft with the same capabilities was sought.

  • Crew: six (two pilots, flight engineer, navigator, signaller, air quartermaster)
  • Payload: 44,000 lb (20,000 kg) for 200 mi (322 km
  • Length: 99 ft 5 in (30.3 m)
  • Wingspan: 162 ft (49.4 m)
  • Height: 38 ft 9 in (11.8 m)
  • Wing area: 2,916 sq ft (270.9 m²)
  • Empty weight: 79,234 lb (35,950 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 82,100 lb (37,240 kg)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 135,000 lb (61,235 kg)
  • Powerplant: 4 × Bristol Centaurus 173 18-cylinder radial engines, 2,850 hp (2,130 kW) each
  • Performance
    Maximum speed: 238 mph (208 kn, 383 km/h)
    Cruise speed: 173 mph (150 kn, 278 km/h) at 8,000 ft (2,400 m)
    Range: 1,300 mi (1130 nmi, 2092 km) with standard 29,000 lb (13,154 kg) payload
    Service ceiling: 16,000 ft (4,900 m)
    Rate of climb: 760 ft/min (3.9 m/s)
    Wing loading: 28.2 lb/ft² (137 kg/m²)
    Power/mass: 0.138 hp/lb (228 W/kg)
    Takeoff roll: 1,340 ft (410 m)
    Landing roll: 990 ft (300 m