Ejection from a Harrier
Air Commodore Peter Taylor AFC
At about midday on May 4,1972, I ejected from Harrier GR1 XV794 in northern Germany. I was not hurt and, on the face of it, that could have been the whole story. Except that it wasn't. There was a bit more to it than that, and as this month's Today's Pilot features an article on ejection seats, Editor Dave Unwin thought you might like to read the whole story.
Casting my mind back to the early 1970s, the Harrier had only recently been introduced into the RAF. In 1971, the Wildenrath Wing in RAF Germany had been formed with 3, 4 and 20 Squadrons and I was posted to 4 Squadron as a Flight Commander. The early Harrier was a tremendous aeroplane, albeit a bit of a handful. I think most of us had great respect for her and simply couldn't get airborne often enough. However, a combination of a novel aircraft, demanding operational flying, and a general lack of experience resulted in occasional accidents and incidents. We had our share at Wildenrath, and the Station Commander, Gp Capt George Black, would 'encourage' us to the effect that while we could and should press on operationally, we should do so with care!
Denmark, for a ten-day exchange visit On the morning of May 4,1 was tasked to lead a four-ship attack mission on several targets in the Flensburg area of Northern Germany. The formation was also to be attacked by two other Squadron Harriers which were acting as enemy defensive fighters armed with simulated air-to-air missiles and guns. The planning and briefing for this type of sortie was lengthy and very thorough. I remember filling at least two blackboards with administrative and operational detail.
At the appointed hour, six aircraft were allocated to us and the four attack pilots and their two defensive counterparts gathered for the briefing. This lasted about an hour. However, as the briefing progressed, kept getting messages that first one aircraft, then another, then another had all become unserviceable. In the end, there was just one available:
mine! There was no alternative but to go on the sortie by myself, converting the profile to a solo attack/ recce mission. So much for planning!
At about midday, I got airborne in XV 794, turned south and headed for my first target, flying at 420 knots and 250ft AGL. All went well until I was preparing to attack my second target. I had just looked into the cockpit to re-arrange my maps, when looking up I saw a formation of three large (they have got much larger over the years!) birds flying straight at me. Instinctively, I pushed forward. I missed two of the birds, but the third went straight into the intake.
There followed an almighty bang, followed by some rather worrying mechanical noises from the normally robust Pegasus 100 engine. Clearly, it did not like what was going on. I noticed that the RPM was just below idle, the JPT in the middle of its range, height 200ft and speed about 400 knots, although rapidly declining.
Generally, I was in open country, which was fairly flat with a few houses in my path. I opened and shut the throttle, but nothing much seemed to happen. I broadcast a quick 'MAYDAY' but since I was quite low, I had no great expectation that anyone would hear me. Since I had made up my mind that the engine had suffered what sounded like catastrophic damage, I turned my mind to what to do next. (In reality, I said to myself: "I'd better jump out quite soon or I'm going in with the aeroplane!") Then, exactly as you read it in books and newspapers, I saw that I was still close re to houses, and steered the aircraft away from them towards open ground as best I could. Time was now getting short, and as I reached open ground, I saw a small hill ahead with trees at the summit. I pointed the aircraft at the hill, took one last look at the height and speed (100ft and 200 knots respectively) trimmed the aircraft straight and level, tightened my straps, and pulled the handle.
I recall everything working perfectly in my Martin-Baker Mk9 seat. I was quickly in my parachute and heading for a field full of cows. Also in the field were some quite large concrete blocks, and remembering a parachuting technique I had learned some 17 years previously, I steered myself away from the blocks, and executed a hard, but perfectly serviceable, 'side-right' landing.
The whole event had taken less than 60 seconds.
To my astonishment, I saw the aircraft continuing to fly beautifully in a slight climb away from me to the north. I cannot tell you the feelings I had as I watched what now seemed to be a perfectly serviceable aircraft leaving the scene of my ejection. Indeed, the aircraft eventually flew into cloud at about 7,000ft and disappeared from sight.
Except for the cows, I was now completely alone in a field in Northern Germany with no means of communication, a used parachute, the remains of an ejection seat and no method of transport. I had also forgotten in the heat of the moment that on ejection, a radio signal was initiated on the emergency broadcast frequency, so that the emergency services were becoming aware that there was an aircraft in distress.
I gathered myself together and began to walk across fields until I could find a road. After about 20 minutes, I found a road, absolutely deserted, and eventually came upon a farm. My German wasn't too good at the best of times, and my attempts to explain to the farmer's wife what had happened to me took some time. Eventually, and mainly through a combination of sign language and the sight of my parachute, I managed to explain my predicament and persuade her to let me use her telephone to contact the Squadron at Skrydstrup. The resulting conversation with 4 Sqdn Ops, about an hour after my ejection was surreal.
The phone was answered by Flying Officer Andy Bloxam. The conversation went something like this:
"4 Sqn Ops, Fg Off Bloxham speaking." "Hello Andy, Pete Taylor here." "Oh! OK, aren't you still airborne? Anyway, I'll get Roger Austin." That was it. No questions, no 'How are you?', 'What's happened to the aircraft?', or 'Where are you?'. Andy just put the phone down and took about five minutes to find Roger. After that, things moved fast. Roger Austin established what had happened and the rescue process was put into action. Apparently XV794 had climbed to over 20,000ft and continued to broadcast on the emergency frequency. Because the aircraft was close to a Warsaw Pact border, a German F-104 was sent to intercept and was, I understand, mildly surprised to find a Harrier flying very nicely, but with no-one on board. Shortly after that, the aircraft ran out of fuel and glided into Southern Denmark, where it crashed in an open field, narrowly missing a farmhouse. The Harrier had stayed airborne for 38 minutes after my ejection. Apparently, the reason for XV794's 38-minute solo trip was that the bird which I hit had spread itself quite thinly across the engine's compressor. The flames and gases from the Martin-Baker ejection seat dislodged the bird as I left the aircraft. The engine heaved a sigh of relief, drew a deep breath and started working normally again. As it happens, I had trimmed the aircraft rather well and XV794 flew until she ran out of fuel! For my part, having given Roger an idea of where I was, the German Air Force sent an S-65 helicopter to pick me up. However, as I was apparently difficult to find, I had to use my SARBE beacon and flares to direct the S-65 to me. As far as I know, I was at that time the only person to have used my SARBE beacon on land, and the company very kindly presented me with a silver pot.
At Skrydstrup I met up with the rest of the squadron, was given a brief, but thorough, examination by a lady doctor, and went back to the Officers Mess. Life was never dull at Wildenrath in those days. I have a SARBE silver mug, membership of the Caterpillar and Martin-Baker clubs, an ejection seat handle and my log book to prove it all.
(c) Peter Taylor, Today's Pilot , Key Publishing Ltd