Moments after Steve Griggs, the pilot of the second of the two Jaguars (XX963/AL) saw Phantom XV422 pass behind his aircraft there was a loud explosion and the Jaguar rapidly lost control…
The U.K. operated the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II as one of its principal combat aircraft from the 1960s to the early 1990s.
Two variants were initially built for the U.K.: the F-4K variant was designed from the outset as an air defence interceptor to be operated by the Fleet Air Arm from the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers; the F-4M version was procured for the Royal Air Force (RAF) to serve in the tactical strike and reconnaissance roles. In the mid-1980s, a third Phantom variant was obtained when a quantity of second-hand F-4J aircraft were purchased to augment the U.K.’s air defences following the Falklands War.
The Phantom entered service with both the Fleet Air Arm and the RAF in 1969. In the Royal Navy it had a secondary strike role in addition to its primary use for fleet air defence, while in the RAF it was soon replaced in the strike role by other aircraft designed specifically for strike and close air support. By the mid-1970s it had become the U.K.’s principal interceptor, a role in which it continued until the late 1980s.
It’s hard to imagine now but in the 1980s the RAF Phantom ruled the skies in Germany – it boasted a fearsome weapon load and a very capable pulse Doppler radar. In those carefree yet tense days standard operating procedures allowed NATO fighters to roam freely around the low flying area of Germany intercepting Targets of Opportunity from any NATO air arm.
As told by former RAF Phantom navigator Ian Black in the article Big Cat Hunting appeared on Key Publishing special publication British Phantoms, loose rules allowed the aircraft and their ‘targets’ to engage each other at low level in mock combat – with two 360° turns and one reversal turn permitted. Nevertheless, in the thick of mock combat the actual figures got lost and full blooded air battles took place – training was never more realistic!
According to Black “these were un-briefed dogfights with no communications apart from the unwritten rule that either side could waggle their wings meaning the engagement was terminated.”
Sadly, as reported by Tony Wilkins in the article The Jaguar that got “foxed” by a Phantom appeared on Defence of the Realm, 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 (the same day Atlantic Conveyor transport ship had been hit by Exocet missiles en route to the Falkland Islands).
For Royal Air Force Germany (RAFG) May 25th was just another day of intense training to hone skills in preparation for World War III (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). On that day McDonnell Douglas Phantom FGR.2 XV422, on strength with 92 Sqn at RAF Wildenrath as an air defence fighter, was to become one of the RAF’s most famous Phantoms – for all the wrong reasons.
On May 25, 1982 RAF Wildenrath was engaged in one of the many ‘generation’ exercise (actually in-house exercises to prepare the units for Tactical Evaluation, or TACEVAL, by NATO). During this kind of drills the ground crews were tasked in ‘generating’ aircraft – meaning that they have to repair unserviceable aircraft and arming as many Phantoms with a full war fit in as short time as possible. Once 70% of the unit was on state armourers had to unload all the missiles and returning the aircraft to a ‘training fit’ (normally centre line gun with no bullets, a training Sidewinder with a seeker head to acquire targets but no rocket motor or warhead and a small ‘plug’ that simulated the carriage of an AIM-7 Sparrow).
However, on May 25, 1982, for reasons that are unclear, the Commanding Officer at Wildenrath decided not to disarm the Phantoms but scramble them off to perform training missions in the low flying areas.
As Black explains “under normal circumstances air defence crews only flew with armed aircraft on Battle Flight scrambles, missile camps or gunnery camps but on this day safety procedures were also in place to prevent accidental firing. In the cockpit the armourers were supposed to apply a cross of white tape over the Master Arm switch to prevent the pilot from finally arming the aircraft. Furthermore, in the rear cockpit the navigator was responsible for pulling a Circuit Breaker (CB) using a special tool to render the armament circuit inoperative. Finally, the GCI (Ground control Interception) would be alerted that they were working with live armed aircraft and prior to each intercept the controller would ask: ‘confirm switches safe?’ ”
Once XV422 was scrambled it started a hard turn through 180° to avoid Dutch Airspace (Wildenrath was literally a few kilometres from the German Dutch Border) and then the crew quickly ran through what they had done hundreds of times before.
Black continues “it was highly unusual to be scrambled with live weapons but the crew were both experienced air defence operators and thought little of it. In accordance with procedures the navigator pulled the relevant CB and assumed the Phantom was now unable to fire weapons in anger.
“The backseater pulled out his radar and started looking for ‘trade’ (the term for unknown targets) whilst the pilot focused on guiding the aircraft to its designated Combat Air Patrol (CAP) area. Changing frequency they soon established contact with the German GCI known as ‘Crabtree’ and while the pilot was busy navigating the aircraft the navigator in the rear cockpit was unaware that he had made the Master Arm safety switch live.
“Around 35 miles (56km) from base the backseater detected a pair of contacts on his radar and the decision was taken to engage the targets. Normally, for the purpose of evaluation, the engagement would be filmed and the ‘kill’ verified post-flight by looking at the navigator’s radar camera. This recorded the target’s range and the moment of trigger press by an event marker.
“On this occasion, the pilot quickly identified the targets as a pair of RAF SEPECAT Jaguars which had fortuitously pulled up to around 1,000ft (305m) as they approached their base at the end of a mission and were focusing on their recovery checks.”
As the Phantom crew started to turn towards the Jaguars, the latter’s pilots saw the fighter but being low on fuel they chose not to engage in a dogfight. However, moments after Steve Griggs, the pilot of the second of the two Jaguars (XX963/AL) saw Phantom XV422 pass behind his aircraft there was a loud explosion and the Jaguar rapidly lost control.
Black: “Assuming some sort of catastrophic failure the Jaguar pilot instinctively pulled the lower Martin-Baker ejector seat handle and swiftly found himself in a field 50 miles from base, while his aircraft crashed onto open farmland.”
According to Black “the Phantom navigator is adamant that he had pulled the vital CB to render XV422’s weapon system inert – but there was a catch. The bank of CBs was located on the right hand wall of the rear cockpit and it is very possible that under ‘G’ his leg may have been pushed against the wall causing the CB to pop back in. In fact, after landing XV422 was impounded and the engineers found that the CB was faulty – it only needed to be pushed in slightly and contact was re made.
“So how did the pilot forget that he had live missiles? Training was relentless during the Cold War, to such extent that actions became autonomous. But what about the cross of white tape applied to Master Arm switch? Shouldn’t this have made it impossible to physically squeeze the trigger and fire the missile? It would have done – but for some unknown reason the tape was not applied to XV422. Finally, the GCI controller was not told the aircraft was ‘live armed’ and therefore didn’t remind the crew to perform this vital check.
“At a lengthy and public board of enquiry the blame fell squarely on the crew who had pulled the trigger and achieved the RAF’s only air-to-air kill with the mighty FGR.2. Both crew were found to be guilty and punished, though both continued to fly fighters.
“A breakdown of safety checks led to the pilot getting the ‘growl’ in his headset, squeezing his trigger…and getting the ‘Kill’.”
In the spirit of the RAF’s macabre sense of humour 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.
Photo credit: Mike Freer – Touchdown-aviation and Anthony Noble via Wikipedia, Crown Copyright, Maj. Dennis A. Guyitt and MSgt. Don Sutherland / U.S. Air Force, Pinterest, Todd Pormealeau via sepecat.info