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.
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?
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.