Cold War Era

That time a RAF Phantom was nearly shot down by its own Skyflash air-to-air missile

“May I ask, sir, how far behind the Phantoms?” interjected John. “Oh…not too far,” the commanding officer said hesitatingly. “At the airspeeds you were flying, the Skyflash was less than five seconds from your position.”

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

In the crush, a hand plucked at his sleeve: John…you’re wanted over here…” The debrief-ing room was crowded with people, more so than normal, but then, thought Flight Lieutenant John Megarry, the situation they faced was far from normal. In an atmosphere of high excitement, earnest conversations took place within various groups. “Hogwash!” someone muttered. “Now, now,” came the riposte, “calm down. Well get to the bottom of it.” The room, flavoured with the dusty odour of cigarette smoke, had a disorderly ambience which John found faintly obnoxious. Retrospective judgements were all very well, he reckoned, but it was he and his navigator as well as the other two crews who’d had to deal with the potential disaster at the time. He was certain of one thing: since joining the Phantom force three years ago in 1980 he’d not seen anything like this before. It was not as if there’d been any form of warning; the event itself and the subsequent heated discussions could not have been predicted even in his wildest dreams. Neither could he have anticipated any of this when he was selected for the qualified weapons’ instructor (QWI) course, a course which he’d started quite recently. The course was known to be complex and onerous although not quite in the way, John ruminated, that he’d just experienced.

It had begun with the need for a test firing of a Skyflash air-to-air missile. The Skyflash, manufactured by the British Aerospace Company, was a medium-range, semi-active radar homing missile derived from the United States’ AIM-7 Sparrow. Brought into service on some marks of Phantom from the late 1970s, the Skyflash, unlike some earlier generations of air-to-air missile, could function successfully in hostile electronic-countermeasure environments. The missile was nothing if not flexible: it could be launched from as low as 300 feet against a high altitude target, or from high altitude against a target as low as 200 feet. Such flexibility was revolutionary, perhaps a little too revolutionary as John would discover.

With his QWI course well underway, John and his navigator were tasked one day to carry out a Skyflash test firing with a difference. This firing, for which their Phantom would operate from the Strike Command Air-to-Air Missile Establishment at RAF Valley in Anglesey, was designed to test the missile’s backup, manually-sighted mode. The target, an unmanned Jindivik Mark 2 drone towing a radar reflector, was powered by an Armstrong Siddeley Viper turbojet engine similar to the type used in the British Aircraft Company’s jet Provost training aircraft. The Jindivik could achieve airspeeds of nearly 500 knots and offered, therefore, a suitably challenging target for the likes of Phantoms. A not-altogether uncommon problem was for the missile to ignore the towed reflector and to shoot down the expensive Jindivik instead. For John’s experimental test firing that day, the Skyflash warhead had been removed and replaced with a telemetry package to allow sundry scientists to see how well the missile guidance system performed in its backup mode.

Before the flight itself, John had received detailed briefings. He was, in any case, used to these for there’d been much to learn on the QWI course. Sometimes he would stay up long into the night to study notes, bone up on technical manuals, and absorb details on operating procedures. If fatigue caused the light to swim before his eyes, he’d remind himself that standards were high and that there’d be no shortcuts if he wanted to pass the course. Perhaps, therefore, his head was brimming with new-found knowledge that day when, together with his navigator, he walked out to his Skyflash-armed Phantom. Unusually, they were accompanied by two other Phantom crews; arrangements had been made to deploy two aircraft as photo-chase machines tasked to record the day’s special firing. Thus, with six members of aircrew, there were plenty of well-qualified observers even though not one of them realised the peril about to be faced.

As John performed the routine of a pre-flight walk-around to check his Phantom, he was aware of British Aerospace Hawk training aircraft in the airfield circuit. These aircraft had first arrived at Valley in 1976, the year that he had joined the Royal Air Force, and it was here that he had been a student on the Hawk as part of his advanced training.

Before long, with start-up procedures completed and with all three Phantoms ready to proceed, the local air traffic controller ordered the Hawks in the circuit to hold dear while the revered Phantoms lined up and took off. Procedures were slick, however, and the three Phantoms soon roared down the runway before assuming a loose ‘vic’ formation after take-off as they headed east towards the Menai Straits.

When instructed, the three Phantoms changed radio frequency to speak with the radar controller at RAF Aberporth, a military base north of Fishguard. This controller now gave instructions to John as he manoeuvred to intercept the Jindivik which had taken off from Llanbedr, a Royal Air Force station north of Aberystwyth on the coast of Cardigan Bay. “Maintain your altitude and turn onto a heading of one seven five degrees,” said the controller in his lilting Welsh accent. On John’s right side, the Llyn Peninsular, which formed the northern boundary of Cardigan Bay, stood out clearly. Inland, he could spot various lakes including Lake Bala which, at four miles long, was a distinctive navigational feature for aircraft. “The target’s at low level crossing left to right,” said the controller, “maintain your present heading.”

John glanced around his cockpit…engine instruments…fuel…oxygen…weapons switches… his experienced eye took no more than a second or so to check the indications. The controller’s calm voice continued the countdown: “Target still on your left, currently approaching ten miles range.”

“Okay, you can call Judy,” said John’s navigator. This call, which John now made to the ground radar controller, indicated that his navigator would assume control of the intercept. “Turn right ten onto one eight five degrees,” said the navigator after a pause. John searched visually but the small Jindivik was hard to make out, especially at low level.

“Target’s now at seven miles on your left side, standby for starboard turn,” said the navigator.

John swiftly verified that the other two Phantoms were in position. Then he applied a high angle of bank at his navigator’s next call: “Target’s range is five miles, turn hard right onto two eight zero degrees.” As he turned, John noticed the roughened surface of the slate-grey sea below then, suddenly, his peripheral vision picked up movement above the sea’s surface. “I have visual contact with the Jindivik!” he cried to his navigator.

“Okay. Check manual mode selected.”

“Manual mode confirmed. Missile live.”

“Standby to fire!” yelled the navigator. Heart thumping, John had a final check of cockpit switches. The navigator’s next call soon came: “We’re in range…when ready…fire!”

John’s finger clasped the firing trigger. Maybe some last second thoughts flashed through his mind…this has to be right….I’ve double-checked the switchery…the photo-shoot aircraft are in position…there are no surface vessels visible…

As John squeezed the firing trigger he was aware of a slight thump as the Skyflash left its housing. Then he saw a streak of flame followed by a line of smoke as the missile accelerated away from the Phantom. Adjacent to the missile’s path, the air seemed to shake visibly, like the mirage above hot desert terrain. Observing the smoke trail, he found it relatively easy to see that the Skyflash was guiding correctly for he could identify a series of small flight path corrections. If a radar-guided missile such as the Skyflash malfunctioned it was likely to dive towards Mother Earth. That day, however, the missile tracking looked good and John could discern a very close miss with the jindivik which, in a real situation, would have been destroyed as the warhead detonated.

Satisfied that the test firing had been a success, John initiated a gentle climb with the other two Phantoms still in loose formation. Perhaps lulled into a state of complacency by the smooth progress of planned events, he looked forward to a routine recovery to Valley before a gratifying debrief where admiring boffins would be anxious to express their high esteem for the skill and dedication displayed by the Phantom aircrews. It must have felt all the more shocking, therefore, when, suddenly, John realised that something was amiss. The ground radar controller’s voice sounded unusually high-pitched and panicky when he exclaimed on the aircraft radio: “It’s coming back!” For a moment or two, this peculiar, non-standard call caused a stunned silence to dominate the airwaves. A large thought bubble might have appeared above the cockpits of John and his navigator. A swift, tense conversation ensued:

“Coming back? What’s coming back?”

“He must mean the Jindivik.”

“But the Jindivik hasn’t turned.”

“Maybe it’s about to…”

John now pressed his radio transmit button to speak with the controller: “Aberporth, repeat your last call, please.” The controller, his voice now even more high-pitched and progressively more panic-stricken, cried: “It’s coming back…the missile’s coming back!”

John’s mind went into overdrive. If random thoughts fled through his head these were brief for he understood only too well the need to focus urgently on immediate issues. With insufficient time to regain sight of the missile, he figured that the best chance lay in the ‘big sky’ theory: with plenty of open space above, the three Phantoms would present a relatively small object in the sky. Then John remembered something else: his aircraft’s continuous waveform (CW) transmitter was sending out a non-stop missile illumination signal — an ideal homing aid for the Skyflash. With adrenalin charging through his system, at once he reached for the CW transmitter switch, flicked it off and simultaneously applied a high angle of bank in an attempt to throw off the missile and to escape the likely impact area. Even without a warhead the Skyflash made a potent weapon as its twelve-feet-long body, 425-pound weight was hurtled through the sky at airspeeds up to Mach 4.0 by the solid propellant Rocketdyne motor.

Now, as the other two Phantoms followed, the crews’ anti-G suits inflated to maximum while the aircraft were hauled round in a series of aggressive turns and climbs. In the helter-skelter of movement, the navigators, thrown around in the back cockpits, had to rely on the pilots’ commentaries to warn them of the next violent manoeuvre. In an instinctive, if futile, reaction, John tried to duck down inside his cockpit. With his mind still filled with many thoughts, he may have experienced heightened awareness of surrounding detail…marks on the Phantom’s windshield…scattered clouds that chased each other in a whirl of different shades…light then dark then light then dark…the sea below that appeared blurred and hostile, the aircraft radio that seemed to produce an unfamiliar hissing sound as if disturbed by a nest of angry snakes…

Suddenly, as if jerking him back to reality, John was aware of the controller’s voice: “Skyf lash down…the missile’s hit the sea…”

“Confirm missile down?” said John.

“Affirmative. You’re clear to return to base.”

And with that, as if at the flick of another cockpit switch, the crews’ ordeal was over. The sense of relief was great. Further explanations just at that moment seemed superfluous so John, his tone subdued, merely acknowledged the information as he turned towards Valley and initiated a descent to lead the others back for a much-anticipated debrief.

Within the small debriefing room, now crowded with specialists who were shocked and bemused by what had occurred, intense conversations persisted until the commanding officer stood up to speak. He explained that investigations were ongoing, however initial information suggested that the Skyflash had performed as designed: when at its closest point to the target, a maximum control input was demanded so that the warhead was placed as close as possible to the target. Because the missile had passed directly under the Jindivik, the control demand had caused the missile to pull sharply upwards, almost to the vertical. The Skyflash had zoomed up to a height of some 20,000 feet before turning back to plunge down to the sea, impacting the water just behind the Phantoms. “May I ask, sir, how far behind the Phantoms?” interjected John.

“Oh…not too far,” the commanding officer said hesitatingly. He paused before he went on: “We reckon that the missile missed you by around half-a-mile. In other words,” he looked anxiously at the faces around the room, “at the airspeeds you were flying, the Skyflash was less than five seconds from your position.”

Photo credit: Crown Copyright, Rept0n1x via Wikipedia and U.S. Navy

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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