Fighter aircraft are designed and built to be fighting machines. The pilots who fly them are highly skilled in delivering many different weapons: bombs, rockets, missiles, 30 mm cannon… but killing was not the aim when we bombed a Northern territory airport in the early 1960s. As the wingman in a fighter pair for this mission, it was an experience I have held in my memory for decades.
Being a fighter pilot is not necessarily just a fun game; it is demanding, always serious, sometimes dangerous and particularly for when you deploy with hot guns and missiles – with no clothes in the ammo bins – just 30 mm canon ammunition as we did a very short time later… and went ready for war.
Recently my memories of earlier days were rekindled during a chat with a friend regarding wheels-up landings. It emphasised to me again, no matter how often you fly and how long you have been doing it, there is always something to learn, particularly in a demanding aircraft, as was the Gnat in an engine-out forced landing.
Sometimes the most thorough of checks and vital actions done before takeoff don’t always prevent an unwanted surprise later when the checks themselves are not developed to the full extent needed. Such was the case when shortly after takeoff in an RAAF Australian Sabre I encountered a significant control problem.
Pilots are taught to use their initiative and to expect surprises. There was certainly a surprise in store for me one dark and stormy night a little over 35 years ago, but the use of initiative came in a most unorthodox way ― and not from the crew on the aircraft, but from a quick-acting van driver.
I had previous experience in RAAF Fighter Squadrons and was familiar in the use of air-to-air missiles from tours in the Australian Sabre’s sidewinder-equipped aircraft. However, this mission was different where my aircraft was, itself, to become a “missile and see if they can shoot you down,” was the brief by the squadron Intelligence Officer.
In the corridors of power many aviation decisions are made that do not normally affect those of us on the flight deck responsible for a successful flight. But sometimes they do. Such was the case of the Rarotongan Voters Project, where two separate governments intervened mid-flight.
So I taxied to the threshold following a “Follow Me” jeep as I could not see the taxiway. Meanwhile my Flight Commander went to the tower to watch. Maybe he expected a spectacle – but as it happened he gave me good advice and by all accounts he got a spectacle too!