Cold War Era

That Time a Crewless RAF Tornado Flew Away After the Navigator Ejected Himself and his Pilot from Their Serviceable Aircraft

We may only imagine the front-seater’s feelings as, from his parachute, he watched his Tornado disappearing over the horizon

The following article contains excerpts from Group Captain Ian Hall’s story titled Blind and Deaf which appears in Ian Hall’s book Tornado Boys.

Over the years there have been all sorts of odd instances of aircraft being left without the optimum number of crewmembers. I recall a Phantom navigator ejecting, believing his aircraft to have some kind of terminal unserviceability, only for the fault to rectify itself and for the pilot to return to base solo. Early in the Harrier’s life in Germany a pilot suffered a catastrophic power loss following a compressor stall. Try as he might he was unable to clear it, so was left with no option but to eject. As he floated down in his parachute you may imagine his surprise when he saw his Harrier merrily accelerating away. Presumably the rocket eflux from the ejection seat had restored order to the airflow through the engine intake. As soon as he’d returned to earth our sharp cookie phoned base from a nearby farmhouse to inform them that an unmanned aircraft was now powering its way around Germany. As you would imagine this caused consternation; would it crash onto a city? So much so that the authorities considered launching a QRA Lightning to shoot it down. But, given that it was impossible to predict exactly where it would land after being shot down, this option was discarded. Eventually the wretched aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed happily without any catastrophic consequences. The staff recommendation after this? If pilots have time, they should shut down the engine before ejecting.

The Tornado wasn’t exempt from similarly unfortunate events, and a notable occurrence derived from one of the aircraft’s foibles. Not for nothing was it know the ‘electric jet’, and one of its primary systems was the CSAS — the control stability augmentation system. This was designed to make an airframe that was somewhat unstable into a flyable machine. But when the CSAS failed it was a real handful.

Early in the Tornado’s career crews became aware of occasional unexplained control inputs, and after a while and a bit of data analysis these perturbations pinned down to the CSAS reacting to transmissions from radio masts. So much that low-flying charts began to sprout avoidance circles around the worst of these — known as HIRTAs — high intensity radio transmission areas.

A chap on my squadron had previously fallen victim to this, in combination with another of the jet’s peculiarities — its command ejection system. The Tornado has a system whereby, in just such an eventuality (it was designed primarily with combat damage in mind) the nav may eject both crewmembers. But pilots are a conservative bunch and enabling this system had not, at that time, been standard, practice.

Naturally, that event prompted much head scratching, and its aftermath caused a change in procedure, with the command ejection system subsequently being enabled as a matter of routine. But the law of unintended consequences was never more apparent than in my friend’s accident. One fine day he was trundling happily down through Germany at low level when he became aware of a USAF A-10 Thunderbolt crossing his nose at fairly short range. Short enough, in fact, to cause him to take evasive action. His trusty back-seater, surprised by this violent manoeuvre, glanced out of the window. Spying a large transmission mast nearby he assumed that the CSAS was being interfered with and that the jet was out of control. Whereupon he decided that the only way was out, and without further ado he pulled his yellow and black handle.

It now being the standard operating procedure, his command ejection lever had been selected to ‘both’ — so his pilot followed him out in short order. We may only imagine the front-seater’s feelings as, from his parachute, he watched his perfectly serviceable Tornado disappearing over the horizon. Whether or not the A-10 pilot claimed a kill we may only surmise. But the lesson from that accident was obvious; technology is a marvellous thing, but crewmembers still needed to talk to each other.

Photo credit: Kate Yates, BAe Heritage Centre and Mike Freer – Touchdown-aviation via Wikipedia

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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