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Gannet display gains a Royal seal of (dis)approval!

Arthur 'Chalky' White re-lives a very eventful trip to RNAS Lossiemouth with Dai Rees in 1963.


In July 1963, although only a very junior sub-lieutenant on 849 A Flight, and never having been to sea on an operational tour, the flight Commander asked me would I like to fly up to RNAS Lossiemouth in Scotland to do an air display for the Base open day on the 13th of that month. As they say in the classics, is the Pope a Catholic? Lossie was renowned for its hospitality and good looking girls. I immediately went to my best friend, Dai Rees, and asked him if he would like to be my observer. Silly question really!

We immediately began planning the display. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a great deal you could do with the Gannet AEW 3 but the Senior Pilot of A Flight, Dennis Lucas, was the authorising officer and he gave us the briefing. We were to fly the aircraft past the crowd at 200 feet at ‘high speed’, about 250 knots, with both engines at maximum power and no flap or undercarriage down. We were then to do a tight circuit to the right climbing to about 800 feet and extending the flap, undercarriage and the hook. As we came back onto the display heading we would descend back to 200 feet in the turn and roll out to fly past the crowd at slow speed. Accelerating away from the crowd we would clean up the aircraft and do another tight circuit. This time we were to let down to 200 feet and as we passed the crowd we shut down one engine. After one more slightly larger circuit on one engine we were to make a descending turn to 200 feet relighting the engine we had shut down and rolling out to fly past the crowd. Relighting the engine made an impressive noise and allowed for quite rapid acceleration and departure having completed the display.

We did several practices of the display at Culdrose with Dennis Lucas, Commander Air and the Commanding Officer of 849 Squadron and A Flight watching. Everyone was satisfied that we performed as briefed and gave a safe display. We were cleared to depart for Lossiemouth.

On the day there was a great number of people on the airfield to look at the aircraft and to watch the flying. The spectators included Prince Charles who was a student at the nearby Gordonstoun Private School. Of course he was in the front row.

We took off and departed to an area several miles away until we were called in. Eventually we were given clearance and we commenced the display. Everything went extremely well until the final circuit. We started the right turn onto the display heading and commenced descent to 200 feet. Just before rolling out and levelling off I moved the high pressure fuel cock to on and pressed the relight button. This action would start the propeller rotating and move it towards fine pitch, allow fuel into the engine and set off the igniters to light the fuel. In theory the engine would light up and accelerate making a great roaring sound and away we would go. The stationary propeller would have been fully feathered during the shut-down so that it presented only a fine edge to the slipstream. As it un-feathered during the relight it would start to rotate and turn so that it presented a flat surface to the slipstream. If the propeller moved to its maximum position then it would present a completely flat face to the slipstream. While this was OK on the ground, in the air the flat blade would present a spinning disc that produced no thrust and was in effect a flat plate preventing air going past it. This was a very dangerous situation that was called ‘discing’. To prevent this happening in the air, when the undercarriage was retracted flight fine pitch stops were engaged. The pitch stops prevented the propeller from fining off too far and thus prevented the discing situation.

At Lossiemouth, as we started the relight of the engine the propeller commenced to rotate and to fine-off towards the flight fine pitch stops. However, as we rolled the wings level at 200 feet and levelled off it became clear that the engine was not going to start and the airspeed was rapidly decreasing. Although not entirely sure what the problem was I immediately moved the fuel lever to ‘close’ to stop the relight process and turned the aircraft further away from the crowd. By now we had descended below 200 feet and it was clear that we were rapidly losing flying speed and were going to hit the ground. Although we were still doing about 180 knots there was little control response as the discing propeller was blanking off the elevators. Having turned away from the line of the display, and well clear of the crowd, I reversed all of the controls, full left aileron, full up elevator and full left rudder to try to get the wings level and reduce the rate of descent. The aircraft was banked about 45 degrees to starboard. The aircraft started to roll straight, but not quickly enough. Fortunately, the corner of the starboard aileron and the starboard drop tank touched the ground and helped the aircraft to roll level as we actually touched down. The aircraft then skidded in an upright position along the ground for several thousand feet shedding both drop tanks and the radome as the propellers were bent backwards and ceased to rotate. It was actually quite a smooth ride.

Many people have asked me what went through my mind and whether my relatively short life passed before my eyes. The short answer is no.

Prior to touching down my mind was totally focussed on resolving the emergency and taking the correct actions. Once we were on the ground and I was simply going along for the ride all I could think of was ‘Oh shit there goes my career'. When the aircraft came to a halt my training took over again and I shut the aircraft down completely before jumping over the side and running a short distance in case it burst into flames.

During all this time, which in reality was only seconds, Dai Rees had said nothing. As we came to a halt I told him to get out which he acknowledged. When I was clear of the aircraft and looked back to check he was OK he waved from the other side. By this stage, although the dust was still going up, we were both half way through our first cigarette. Neither of us was even bruised, apart from my ego.

Because this was an air display a Chief Petty Officer from the Photographic Section had been in the control tower taking photographs. He had managed to get still photographs of most of the accident. It was several years before a friend of mine was able to illegally get copies of some of these for me.

As I previously mentioned, Prince Charles was in the crowd and there was immediate panic amongst the hierarchy, even though he was only about eleven. The government put a ‘D’ notice on any reporting of the accident. A ‘D’ notice was usually only used for matters of extreme security and the newspaper editors were forbidden to print anything about the topic. Unfortunately for the government the Scottish Daily Express just beat them to the punch and their first edition had the story on the front page. After that it was kept totally secret.

Meanwhile, Dai Rees and I retired to the bar for a few quick beers to steady the nerves. While we were there the Commanding Officer of Lossiemouth, an old and hoary captain, came and bought us a drink and he said to me ‘Who the hell recruited you?’ I took great delight in replying ‘You did Sir.’ It was Percy Gick, the famous World War II pilot involved in the Bismark incident who had been the president of my recruiting board. He then decided that I couldn’t be all that bad and bought us another beer.

Surprisingly, the aircraft was not that badly damaged. The engineers lifted it up with a crane, cleaned the dirt away from the belly, selected the landing gear down and towed it away on its wheels. This can be seen on one of the photographs. The aircraft was repaired and returned to service. I subsequently flew it again numerous times. After retirement it was given to Newark Air Museum, Winthorpe, Nottinghamshire where it is now on display.

After the accident Dai and I had no means of returning to Culdrose so we spent several days twiddling our thumbs, enjoying the Scottish beer and whisky and of course meeting a few young ladies. Finally, their Lordships decided that we should go back to Culdrose, so they gave us first class rail passes. This was in the days when Officers were not permitted to travel on public transport such as buses and trams as it was not fitting for an officer and a gentleman. We even had one captain at Brawdy in South Wales who would not permit officers who lived close to the base to ride a bicycle to work or to drive dirty cars. However, we were allowed to travel by train so long as it was first class.

We began the long train journey the length of the United Kingdom, from the north of Scotland to the south of England. I forget how long it took us but it was well over a day’s travel. We arrived back at Culdrose tired, dirty and dishevelled to be greeted by the squadron administrative officer clutching travel warrants for us to return to Lossiemouth the next day. I asked to fly a Gannet up but there were none available, so we grabbed some clean clothes and set off back to North Scotland.

The Board of Enquiry was headed by a Lieutenant Commander pilot who had flown jet aircraft and was not at all familiar with the Gannet. He was assisted by two others, one of whom was an engineer, and neither of whom had any Gannet or turbo-prop experience.

Naturally, I was the first witness and they took me through my initial briefing for the display, my subsequent practices and the display itself. They were under the impression that I had been briefed to wait until the aircraft was straight and level before starting to relight the engine I had shut down. However, I assured them that Lieutenant Dennis Lucas, who was my Senior Pilot, had briefed me to commence a rate one turn onto the display axis, to descend to 200 feet and start the relight procedure in the turn. I told them I had done this in all the practices and the display itself. When I had finished my evidence I asked if I could remain in the room to listen to the other interviews. The President gave me special approval but told me I was to sit on one side and keep quiet.

The next witness was the Commander Air from Culdrose who said that he knew what I had been briefed to do and he had watched my practice displays. The President asked him if I had been briefed to relight in the turn or straight and level. He said I had been briefed to relight straight and level and this was what he had seen me do in all of the practices. Of course I protested at this blatant lie but was told to keep quiet.

The CO of 849 Squadron was the next witness and he gave the same story as Commander Air. Again I protested and again I was told to keep quiet or I would be removed.

The last witness regarding the actual display was my Senior Pilot, Dennis Lucas. Dennis went through the briefing he had given to me and said he had watched all of the practices. The President, obviously leading the witness prompted him that I had been briefed to relight the engine when the aircraft was straight and level and that I had done this in the practices but not in the actual display. Despite all of the prompting Dennis was adamant that he had briefed me to start the engine in the turn and that was precisely what I had done in all of my practices.

What the President of the Board of enquiry was driving at was that if I had been straight and level when I started the engine, when it failed to start I would probably have been able to stop the sequence and fly away on the remaining engine. Given the previous examples of ‘discing’ accidents this would have been impossible. However, Dennis stuck to his guns about briefing me to relight in the turn.

The outcome of the enquiry was that they blamed the Senior Pilot for not briefing me properly and deducted six months from his seniority. This was a common punishment in the RN and usually meant a loss of pay as any promotion was subsequently delayed by six months. I was found not to be blamed for the accident.

However, the interesting point was that if the Senior Pilot was found guilty of briefing me incorrectly, and not picking this up by watching the practices, then the Commander Air and the squadron CO must have told lies when they said they saw me relight straight and level. What happened to them? Nothing.

The other interesting aspect was the evidence given by the investigating engineer as to why the engine hadn’t started properly. He said that they had inspected the starboard engine and discovered the igniters were not working properly and the engine could never have started. At this point I interrupted once again to point out that the starboard engine was already running and I had actually been starting the port engine. There was some disagreement among the Board and the engineer until I pointed out that if they looked at the photographs there was un-burnt fuel streaming from the port jet pipe as a white vapour. They accepted this and asked the engineer about the port engine. He said he hadn’t looked at that one. So ended a most appalling travesty of justice.

I had proposed my own theory regarding the crash to the Board which was that I had experienced ‘discing’. However, as none of the officers on the Board were familiar with the Gannet they did not know what I was talking about and ignored this aspect.

It was nearly 50 years later in 2009 that my wife, Cindy, bought me a book about the Gannet. There were many interesting facts in the book, which was written by a Royal Navy test pilot, Simon Askins, including a description of my crash. Simon Askins’ theory agreed with mine that the pitch stops had failed. I had experienced discing and consequently total loss of control of the aircraft. This was a known problem with the Gannet propeller system and he mentioned several other crashes that could be attributed to the same cause including one that killed a good friend, Tony Light, after l left the RN.

I believe I survived because I was so low. The drop tank and the radome hit the ground first and bounced the aircraft straight. Plus, I had managed to arrest the rate of descent until it was almost zero so we touched down very smoothly. Tony Light for example was at 1,000 feet and the aircraft plunged nose first into the ground as he had completely lost control due to the discing propeller.

As it turned out I was not blamed for the accident and it did not harm my career at all. The aircraft was not badly damaged and I subsequently flew it on numerous occasions.

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