Peter Randall re-lives the incident that inspired one of PAF’s fantastic linebook entries. The dit was first published in ‘Gannet’ by Simon Askins.
One fine September morning in 1964, with ground frost carpeting the grass around the squadron buildings, I as pilot, and Ian Neale and John le Dieu as observers walked out to an AEW3 on the hardstanding and prepared for a three-hour detail off The Lizard. Before we could proceed with the main task, however, there was the small matter of a taxi test to perform, as the aircraft had been subject of a brake pad change during the night. Pure routine, one would have thought, but little did we know how exciting the next hour would be?
Pre-flight checks and engine start up were completed in the normal fashion and we moved off carefully (always carefully after work on brakes) to commence the taxi test which merely involved a ten minute trial to see if the brakes worked correctly. This they did initially, but after about three minutes there was suddenly no response from the foot pedals located on the rudder pedals. Now, in most aircraft fitted with a nose wheel this would not have been too problematic as the nose wheel is used to steer - but not in the Gannet! The Gannet has a fixed nose wheel and steering is achieved by locking the wheel briefly on the side towards which the aircraft is to be turned by means of pressure on the appropriate foot brake. Thus it follows in the Gannet - no brakes equals no steering! As if that were not enough, the aircraft was actually pointing slightly downhill at the time, and to my horror, it was beginning to accelerate. In desperation I grabbed hold of the parking brake and pulled it fully ‘on’, but the acceleration continued.
The awful truth now dawned that there was no way of stopping this machine in its headlong rush down an ever steeping incline, and, to make matters worse, the ground was hard, for by now we were on the grass which was mown short and covered in frost. A great flurry of arms and legs then ensued in the cockpit as I shut down the engines. This was positively the last card I could play, but it was to no avail as the speed continued to build up. We sailed past the engineers’ office with the starboard wing very close to the windows, which were now filled with a row of little white faces all looking up at me. Bizarrely I had an overwhelming urge to give them a cheery wave, but I was far too busy!
Another building hove in sight and this time it was dead ahead. It was the ratings’ crewroom, and I realised that our journey was about to end. I could see the off-duty watch playing cards around the table with a chap standing up, dealing; he looked idly in my direction and then carried on with his task. We were by this time very close, and suddenly he understood the imminent calamity and the place erupted. They could not all get out of the door, and so some hid behind clothing lockers, other jumped out of windows, and I actually saw a grown man wriggle out of a fanlight window.
The effect was very Laurel and Hardy and now affords me a grin every time I think of it, but during the event it was difficult to raise a laugh. When the crunch came it really wasn’t too bad, but it resulted in a severely shock-loaded Double Mamba and a crumpled starboard wing tip. Importantly, no one was hurt. Later it was realised that it was very fortunate that we had hit that building, because the next stop would have been a drop of about ten feet on to the main road from Helston to The Lizard. Just imagine the surprise of the motorists!
Subsequently, it was discovered that the problem had been caused by a faulty batch of brake pads that burned out instantaneously, but there was to be one more irony. When the aircraft hit the crewroom, one propeller was still revolving, and it sliced through the roof and ended up less than two inches from a 440-volt cable. Had it connected the result would have sharpened us up no end.