Phantom Girl!: the story of Penny Wild, the fighter controller who became the RAF’s only female Phantom driver

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Phantom Girl!: the story of Penny Wild, the fighter controller who became the RAF's only female Phantom driver

Penny Wild found the lightness of the hydraulically-operated controls to be a little unnerving at first but soon, when the two aircraft split for practice interceptions, she was exhilarated to think that this was no dream but that, yes, here she was in real life actually handling the potent, famous Phantom…

The following article contains excerpts from the story titled Fighter Controller appeared in Richard Pike’s book Phantom Boys Volume 2.

A newspaper headline stated: ‘Penelope in a Phantom’, another said: ‘Penny joins the jet set’, comments that, for Flight Lieutenant Penny Wild, encapsulated the thrill she’d felt during her one-hour flight in the back seat of a Phantom based at Royal Air Force Coningsby. As a fighter controller, she was used to the orange glow from the radar screens in a darkened room, the muted light from the operational tote board and the hushed tones of the operations room personnel. The chance to fly as a passenger in one of the fighters she normally knew only as a blip on a radar screen, a flight in which the pilot allowed her to handle the controls for much of the time, was a rare opportunity and one which she’d relish for years to come.

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Her confidence started to grow as she settled into the IWI course which included an armament practice camp (APC) at RAF St Mawgan. During her time there she was given opportunity to fire an Aden 30-mm cannon against a target towed by a Canberra — although she hit neither the target nor (perhaps more to the point) the towing aircraft. Towards the end of the course, when she was interviewed for a radio programme, the interviewer’s first question: “What’s a pretty girl like you doing on a course like this?” seemed so ridiculous that Penny began to giggle and the interviewer had to start again. Shortly after this, a final dinner was held for course members who presented the staff with toy aeroplanes — replicas of the real thing to thank the instructors for their stalwart efforts despite numerous problems caused by aircraft unserviceabilities during the course.

One afternoon, when she was back in the chief controller’s chair at Neatishead, she had to explain the goings-on to a visiting Phantom crew. Perhaps a little overwhelmed by the unfamiliar surroundings, the crew said little at first although the stiffness of the atmosphere eased eventually. With a finger held high as if about to draw an exclamation mark, one of the Phantom men said: “There’s a lot to handle.”

“Yes,” said Penny, “but you learn how to manage it with practice.”

“There are so many different things to co-ordinate,” said the Phantom man who made Penny smile when he went on: “It’s like a circus juggler trying to keep a dozen plates spinning on sticks.”

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In October 1973 Penny was detached to RAF Coningsby as a student on No. 2 Phantom Qualified Weapons Instructors’ Course (Air Defence). The following year she returned for a further detachment to assist instructors with the training of fighter control students. It was at this time that the opportunity arose for her to fly in the back seat of a Phantom at Coningsby. However, she was faced with an unforeseen dilemma. She’d anticipated flying in a twin-stick aircraft designed for pilot training, but in view of her experience on the airborne intercept radar (AI) trainer the senior navigator instructor suggested that she might like to fly without the rear-cockpit’s stick thus enabling her to operate ‘for real’ the AWG-11 intercept radar. Penny found this to be a head versus heart conflict. In her head she knew that it would be good to apply the skills learnt in the AI trainer, on the other hand her heart told her that for this once in a lifetime opportunity it would be wonderful to have a chance to handle the flight controls of a Phantom. She chose the latter and to this day she can recall the senior navigator’s look of disappointment.

The aircraft for her flight, Phantom XT893, was lined up on the Coningsby dispersal pan as she walked towards the machine with her pilot, the squadron commander of the operational conversion unit. He guided her while she climbed the access ladder into the rear cockpit, then helped her to strap in before he stepped down again to carry out external checks. Standing nearby, a ground crewman placed a fire extinguisher to one side of the aircraft ready for the engine-start procedure. Before long, she saw the pilot climb into the Phantom’s front cockpit and strap in after which he spoke to warn her about the racket heard during engine start – a shrill sound followed by an abrupt crashing noise which indicated the first engine’s start cycle. This process was swiftly repeated for the second engine. Meanwhile, the leader of their two-ship formation obtained clearance from air traffic control to taxi out to the runway take-off point.That time a RAF Phantom shot down a RAF Jaguar: the unknown story of the British Phantom's only air-to-air kill

As the two Phantoms progressed along the taxiway, she tried to absorb all that was happening around her. In the Coningsby air traffic control tower she thought that she could spot the local controller, a distant figure behind long panes of darkened glass. She had fleeting memories of her own aspirations all those years ago to become an air traffic controller. This was no time for reverie, however, for the take-off point was looming and the controller had given clearance for the formation to enter the runway-in-use. The lead Phantom pilot moved smartly to one side of the runway centreline while Penny’s pilot positioned his Phantom judiciously, ready for a formation take-off. As both aircraft came to a halt, Penny looked across at the pilot of the lead Phantom. He made a circling signal with one hand — a visual order to increase engine power. Both aircraft began to lean forward against the brakes, like greyhounds ready for the ‘off’. Penny knew that this was it. There was no turning back now. Her heartbeat racing, she saw the lead pilot give a positive nod of his head. At once, both Phantoms leapt forward as their pilots released the aircraft brakes.

Penny was aware of small, rapid movements of the flight controls as her pilot maintained his formation position. She saw the lead pilot give another emphatic nod of his head and she was conscious of a firm forward movement of the twin throttles next to her left hand. She noticed a slight hesitation, then an abrupt roar and a powerful punch in her back…the Rolls-Royce engines’ reheats had lit. While the rate of acceleration increased, her peripheral vision picked up a blur as the runway edges rushed by. Her main focus, though, was on the lead Phantom whose every move her pilot followed with precision. As the lead Phantom’s nose wheel lifted from the runway surface, shortly followed by the main wheels, and as her own aircraft followed, she felt a surge of adrenalin and a strange sensation of freedom as if at the release of earthly bonds.

Her pilot held close formation for a while longer before he moved away to take up a looser ‘battle formation’ position. It was at this stage that he invited Penny to take the Phantom’s flight controls. She found the lightness of the hydraulically-operated controls to be a little unnerving at first but soon, when the two aircraft split for practice interceptions, she was exhilarated to think that this was no dream but that, yes, here she was in real life actually handling the potent, famous Phantom. The sortie that day involved three practice interceptions for which her aircraft was permanent target. These were flown at low altitude with her pilot at the controls although between interceptions he climbed to a safe altitude so that Penny could resume control for a while. By the end of the sortie, when the two Phantoms re-joined in close formation for the recovery to Coningsby, she was mindful of her privileged opportunity, one that she would never forget.

Not long after this flight, the time approached for Penny to retire from the service. In February 1975 she was offered a job with Hawker Siddeley Dynamics (later absorbed into British Aerospace) to assist with trials conducted in California, USA on a new air-to-air missile to be known as Skyflash, a medium-range semi-active radar homing missile derived from the US AIM-7 Sparrow.

By the end of the three years of trials she was engaged to be married to an American. Following marriage and motherhood, Penny was widowed in 1990. Her son was just seven years of age. Six years later she remarried and in the year 2003 she was anxious to share a little of her past life with her new husband and her by-then twenty-year-old son. The three of them visited Neatishead and the adjacent RAF Air Defence Radar Museum, an experience that brought mixed emotions. The fighter control branch of the Royal Air Force no longer existed in its Cold War form. With more compact, mobile equipment and with radar data transmission, the branch had become part of an integrated system of battle management. There were no more ‘nodding horrors’, no more spewing of hydraulic fluid, no more massive radar antennae. The world had moved on.

Penny felt humbled when she thought about the significance of radar for the country’s defence and for the part that she herself had played. Before she and her family left Neatishead, no doubt she had a sense of nostalgia when she walked outside where, for a brief moment, while gazing at the faint horizon, she saw the sun diffused through trees and a halation of the light reaching across. The effect expanded, captured everything in a sudden flash, and quickly caught her thoughts too. As the sun sank below the horizon, the Norfolk countryside became engulfed in shadow.That time a RAF Phantom shot down a RAF Jaguar: the unknown story of the British Phantom's only air-to-air kill

Photo credit: U.S. Navy 

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