So, you want to fly Phantoms do you?

Phantom Pilot Royal Air Froce 1973 documentary

A fascinating look at the journey one pilot took from civilian street to being on the squadron flying an RAF Phantom in the early 1970s. Narrated by the distinctive Patrick Allen who is perhaps best known for narrating the notorious Protect and Survive films, the documentary contains some stunning glimpses at the RAF’s training aircraft of the time including;

  • De Havilland Chipmunks and Jet Provosts introducing the new pilot to flying.
  • Folland Gnats flying low through the Welsh valleys.
  • Hawker Hunters carrying out some impressively accurate shooting with SNEB rockets.
  • Finally, of course we get a look not just at the Phantom FG.1 but of life on the squadron for a newly qualified pilot.

Enjoy.

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The Jaguar that got “foxed” by a Phantom

RAF Phantom FGR.2 (projectoceanvision.com)

RAF Phantom FGR.2 (projectoceanvision.com)

It’s hard to imagine now but in the 1980s the airspace over West Germany was alive with British warplanes. The Cold War was entering its final and perhaps most tense phase with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 putting the West on the defensive. Royal Air Force Germany (RAFG) was on the frontline of the Cold War in Europe maintaining constant readiness for a Soviet thrust across the Rhine and that meant constant training.

Sadly, the very nature of the military means that often this training puts service personnel at almost as much risk as if they were in a war. This was dramatically highlighted in an incident that occurred on May 25th 1982. At that time much of the British public’s focus had shifted from the nuclear armed showdown with Moscow to the unfolding situation in the South Atlantic as British forces fought the wholly unexpected Falklands War. On that same day the Royal Navy lost HMS Coventry in an Argentinian air strike.

SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1 XX963

SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1 XX963 (geas-web.nl)

For the RAF forces in Germany it was business as usual however and May 25th was just another day of intense training to hone skills in preparation for World War III. During the course of the day two SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1s belonging to No.14 Squadron based at RAF Bruggen were returning to their base after another training flight over the German countryside. The number two aircraft was Jaguar GR.1 XX963 flown by Steve Griggs who spotted a dot on the horizon ahead of them that he quickly identified as belonging to an RAF Phantom; it was not unusual to spot other RAF aircraft in the dense airspace of Cold War Germany.

Griggs reported his sighting to the lead Jaguar as the Phantom appeared to be coming head-on. The Phantom broke away and passed by them without incident. The two Jaguar pilots then spotted the aircraft in their rear hemisphere as the Phantom pilot turned back on to the same course as them. Again this was nothing unusual as Phantom crews often practiced interception on their colleagues flying Buccaneers and Jaguars.

Suddenly, there was an immense explosion behind Griggs sat up in the Jaguar’s cockpit and he found that the aircraft was no longer responding to his control inputs as it began to buck and twist. His radio crackled to life in his helmet with his flight leader’s voice instructing him to abandon the Jaguar which was flaming from the rear fuselage and very obviously no longer able to fly. Griggs ejected from the aircraft which went tumbling down on to farmland approximately 35 miles North-East of RAF Bruggen. He landed nearby suffering the usual minor injuries from an ejection and was later picked up by an RAF helicopter; shaken but very much alive.

A short while later a horrified Phantom crew landed at RAF Wildenrath to face the consequences of having shot down the Jaguar with an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. An investigation was immediately launched and the Phantom crew would eventually stand before a court martial.

So how did the Phantom crew inadvertently shoot down Griggs’ Jaguar?

RAF Phantom armed with AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles (massoss.com)

RAF Phantom armed with AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles (massoss.com)

The Phantom was engaged in training that called for the aircraft at RAF Wildenrath to be operated under simulated war time conditions. This required the aircraft to be armed with live weapons to both familiarise ground crews with handling such weapons and to allow the aircraft to carry out a real interception should the Soviet or East German air forces stray across the border during the exercise. A number of safety procedures were in place to prevent a live firing of a missile during the exercise and the investigation looked in to why this was not enough to prevent loss of Jaguar XX963.

The investigation found that shortly after the Phantom crew took off from Wildenrath they went through their pre-attack checks that would effectively ready the aircraft for combat including arming the weapons. Normally, both Phantom crew would be aware of the fact that weapons had become live but in this instance the navigator in the rear seat had become preoccupied in his own duties to realise that the pilot had armed the weapons. Had the navigator been aware of the situation then later safety precautions that failed may have saved the Jaguar.

Later in the flight the Phantom spotted the Jaguars and under the operating principles of the exercise which dictated that other RAF aircraft in the region could be considered “hostile” the Phantom crew began an attack unaware that their weapons were armed. The Phantom crew declared their intention to attack the Jaguars to the Sector Operations Centre (SOC) at Wildenrath. At that time, as part of the exercise, Wildenrath was seemingly in chaos as a simulated emergency was being carried out. As a result of this the operator communicating with the Phantom was either not told that the Phantom was armed or had forgotten in the confusion of the exercise. Had the operator been aware of the real situation that was unfolding in the sky then the operator would have given the order “check switches safe” to the Phantom. This would have made the crew realise their weapons were live but this did not happen. The result was the shooting down of Griggs’ Jaguar.

The investigation did not lay the blame entirely at the feet of the crew (and to a lesser extent the operator at SOC) although the investigators couldn’t fathom how an experienced Phantom crew could have failed to identify the real situation they were in. Further investigation revealed that ground crews did not put a safety tape across the master arm switch before the flight which would have prevented the live arming of the weapons during the exercise (the tape could be removed if the aircraft was called in to a real situation with a hostile aircraft). Perhaps even more worryingly was the discovery that a circuit breaker in the rear of the aircraft that was intended to render the arming system inert was defective and could make the weapons live even if the switch was in the off position.

The incident highlighted how a number of factors had a part to play in the shootdown and it is extremely fortunate that Griggs was not killed. Safety procedures governing armed aircraft during training exercises were reviewed and rewritten after the investigation was published in 1984 but it was clear that the crew not fully realising the condition of their weapons on their aircraft was ultimately to blame for the incident.

In the spirit of the RAF’s macabre sense of humour the Phantom involved, Phantom FGR.2 XV422, received nose art depicting a Jaguar GR.1 silhouette with the title “Jag Killer” underneath which the aircraft wore until it was scrapped in 1998.

Jag Killer (Todd Pormealeau via sepecat.info)

Jag Killer (Todd Pormealeau via sepecat.info)

McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1

Phantom_FG.1_of_892_NAS_launching_from_HMS_Ark_Royal_(R09)_1972

  • Crew: 2
  • Role: Fleet defence fighter
  • Length: 57 ft 7 in (17.55 m)
  • Wingspan: 38 ft 4.5 in (11.7 m)
  • Height: 16 ft 1 in (4.9 m)
  • Empty weight: 31, lb (14,061 kg)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 56,000 lb (25,402 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Spey 202/204 turbofans (12,140 lbs dry thrust/20,500 lbs afterburner each)
  • Maximum speed: Mach 1.9 (1,386 mph) at 40,000 ft (12,190 m)
  • Ferry range: 1,750 mi (2,816 km)
  • Service ceiling: 60,000 ft (18,300 m)
  • Armament:
    4× AIM-7 Sparrow/4 × AIM-9 Sidewinders on wing pylons;
    1× 20 mm M61 Vulcan 6-barrel Gatling cannon in SUU-23 gun pod

The Phantom FG.1 was the last conventional fleet fighter operated by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. It was ordered in 1964 as part of a modernization plan for the Royal Navy’s carrier force after the cancellation of the P.1154 supersonic V/STOL fighter. The initial order was for 140 aircraft to replace the De Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.2 on the Navy’s new carriers that were expected to be operational by 1970. After the order was placed however the plans for the new carriers were scrapped leaving only two operational vessels, HMS Eagle and HMS Ark Royal, large enough to handle the heavy fighter. Ultimately Eagle suffered a boiler room fire and was withdrawn before it could embark any Phantoms.

The British Phantom FG.1 differed from the US Navy F-4J Phantom II version primarily in its powerplant which consisted of a pair of Rolls-Royce Spey turbofans. This resulted in a deterioration of performance at higher altitudes but actually improved range and had slightly better acceleration at lower altitudes compared to the US version’s J79 engine. The fitting of the Spey required a redesign of engine intakes to accommodate their wider diameter. Another major difference was the fitting of an extendible nose wheel to increase the angle of attack on take off from the smaller carriers of the Fleet Air Arm (previous aircraft such as the Blackburn Buccaneer S.1 and Supermarine Scimitar F.1 actually had to launch with the tail dropped so the nose wheel dangled above the deck). Some aircraft were fitted with the sighting system from a Chieftain tank to help with long range visual identification.

With the cancellation of the new carriers such a large order of Phantoms was no longer needed and only 48 were actually delivered. Of these 48, 20 went directly to the RAF as it was announced that the Royal Navy would be suspending conventional carrier operations by 1980 after which the remaining 28 aircraft would follow suit. The first use of the Royal Navy’s Phantoms was actually aboard the US Navy carrier USS Saratoga in the Mediterranean. The following year Ark Royal embarked her first Phantoms. 767 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) acted as the training unit for the only operational frontline squadron, 892 NAS. In 1978 Ark Royal was finally withdrawn and with no carrier to operate from the remaining Navy Phantom FG.1s were transferred to the RAF.

A single example can be viewed at the Carrier Experience Exhibit at the Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm Museum.