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RAF Binbrook

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Lightning F Mk 6

Hunter F Mk 6

 

19th September 1985

1st June 2003

 

Craig Penrice

 

 

Recent photograph of Craig Penrice in front of Typhoon

 

At 17:35 (UK local)  on 19th September 1985 26 year old Flt. Lt. Craig Penrice ejected from his single seat RAF English Electric Lightning F Mk 6. XS 921 coded BA at a heigh tof 19,000 feet travelling at 540 knots. The aircraft that had taken off from RAF Binbrook in fine weather conditions was in a near vertical high rate spiral dive when he ejected over the North sea 100 miles north east of Grimsby. Flt. Lt. Penrice had initiated the ejection but remembers little of what happened. He sustained flail injuries to right elbow and left knee due to high speed at ejection and  severe hypothermia. After "I pulled the handle and the next thing I recall was being in the rescue chopper over an hour later."

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Eighteen years  later as a civilian Craig Penrice, now 44 years old, he had the dubious honour of ejecting for a second time.  He was flying a single seat Hawker Hunter F Mk 6 G-BVVC, XF516 "19" Owned by Mr Peter Hellier, and operated by Hunter Flying Club. He had taken off from Blackpool, destination Exeter via a display at Port Rush.

At 16:00 (UK local) unable to rectify the problems that had occurred with the aircraft, flying  Straight and Level, altitude 2000ft and travelling at 250 kts Craig Penrice ejected from "19", codenamed Tarnish 6, over the shallow tidal estuary, Mid Wales coast north of Aberystwth.

He experienced difficulties, "Realising late on that seat had not separated, I initiated a manual separation just before hitting the ground."  Craig suffered a shattered vertebrae, ". . .not positive as to the cause, but had been seat recently serviced and new carts installed.  I used seat pan handle - modern day advice for rocket seats. Old Hunter pilots I have since spoken to tell be that they would have used the face screen as primary for better posture. .

 

My First Ejection

EJECTING FROM XS921
19th September 1985

A good pilot is defined as one who has the same number of take-offs as landings.  Well I guess the events of 19th September I 985 between myself and XS921 contrived to make sure that I will never be able to lay claim to the title of being a good pilot.  The trouble is that once you have managed to accumulate one more take-off than landing in your log book it is nigh on impossible to redress the balance.  Try as I might, I have been unable to come up with a foolproof plan of achieving it.

 

This article is about one of the times when things did not go quite as planned, but thanks to the wonderful invention of Sir James Martin I am at least in a position to tell the story of how I became one of the nearly 5,000 people he has cast into the realms of 'not-good' pilots.

 The day started all very normally, this was my second day back at work following a wonderful 10 days of leave spent in a cottage on the West coast of Scotland opposite Skye.  Well-deserved leave, I might add having just returned from our annual 6-week detachment to Akrotiri, Cyprus for the squadron's APC (Armament Practice Camp).

 It was just before 5pm when I took off as number two of a pair of F-6s on our way to undertake our normal bread and butter training sortie of medium level P.Is (Practice Intercepts).  We would each take it in turn to act as Target (bad guy) and Fighter (good guy).  The fighter controller on the ground at RAF Boulmer would vector us apart by about 40 miles then turn us towards each other, the fighter would then have to use his AI 23 radar to first detect the bad guy and then, through some nifty mental gymnastics work out the target heading and altitude before making corrections to his own course to achieve the correct point in space from which to start a turn to end up in a missile firing cone behind the target.

 The sortie all went as we had planned it.  We were almost down to recovery fuel and I was acting as the target.  Once the flight leader had completed his turn to end up behind me and was closing to finish his attack I started a gentle turn to the left so that we were heading back more directly to Binbrook.

Things went downhill from here.

 Having moved the control column to the left to roll the aircraft into the turn, the aircraft thought it would be a jolly good wheeze if it kept moving the stick of its own accord.  Despite my best efforts the stick continued to move all the way to full deflection left and the aircraft duly did as it was told and kept rolling left.  As the aircraft passed the inverted position the nose started to drop and very quickly I found myself in a near vertical spiral dive (Not a spin).  The ailerons had gone to full deflection (normally they were limited to half deflection with the gear up) so the aircraft was rotating very quickly and as I was going downhill the speed was also increasing rapidly.

 At this point I did a number of things, the first was to make a call on the radio in which I said "I've got a very bad control restriction".  At the same time I swapped hands on trying to move the stick and used my right hand to switch off the auto-stabs in the hope that they were the source of my problems. (The auto-stabs effectively had the job of smoothing out the ride for the pilot at high speed around the transonic region, where, if it were not for the auto-stabs the aircraft would exhibit a pronounced nodding tendency).


After what seemed like an eternity, but was actually in the order of 3 seconds, the flight leader came on the radio and asked "is it better now?" I answered "No" - about 4 octaves higher than my normal voice. Immediately after that I ejected, there was no thinking about it or time to prepare, the situation was obvious, the aircraft was rotating rapidly, and going downhill like a train.
I was now in cloud, speed was increasing, my one action that I could think of to make it better had done nothing and answer to the question "is it better?" was quite definitely NO!  So I ejected.

 I can remember pulling the lower ejection handle with my left hand while simultaneously throwing my head and shoulders back against the scat with as much force as I could manage and trying to grab my left wrist with my right hand in order to secure it against the wind blast.  As you will see subsequently, this latter action proved somewhat futile.  The next proper recollection that I have is sitting facing backwards on the cabin floor of the Wessex just as the side door was being closed and feeling very very cold, nothing, else, just very cold.  This was about 50 minutes later. I wish I could fully describe how cold I felt, but in all the times I have recounted this story I have never been able to satisfactorily describe the intense, all encompassing cold that I felt then.

 Some interesting things are worth a mention at this point.  This was a Thursday; on the Monday of the same week the entire fleet of Binbrook Lightnings had had a modification embodied to the Erection seat such that the PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) would be activated during the normal ejection sequence at the point when man-seat separation occurs, rather than having to be manually operated.  This was considered to be a great improvement if the pilot were incapacitated the beacon would still be operative. In addition, with the beacon transmitting from I 0,000 ft its range could be increased and transmission was more immediate than previously.  The PLB was stowed in a pocket in the life jacket we wore all the time and auto-activation was achieved by means of a sticker strap incorporated into the existing lanyard, which attached the dinghy pack to the life jacket. As man separated from the seat the lanyard pulled taught and a cam rotated the power switch of the beacon to ON.

The only drawback of this arrangement comes under the heading of "old dogs and new tricks".  Previously there had been no big deal when getting out of the aircraft if you stood up having not disconnected the dinghy lanyard; you simply felt a tug (and a bit of a fool), which reminded you to undo it.  The same was not now the case, all the above was true except in addition the PLB was set off and a transmission was going out on the distress frequency, until you scrabbled around and managed to extricate the beacon from its pocket and switch it off.  This in turn resulted in three things: some work for the safety equipment fitters who had to rebuild the jacket. The rescue system initiating a scramble for the nearest helicopter unit until they had obtained confirmation through the ATC network that the beacon they had observed near Binbrook was in fact an inadvertent activation; and much embarrassment for the individual pilot concerned.

 In my case, the rescue helicopter unit at Leconfield were in the process of walking out to their aircraft for the umpteenth time in the week, cursing those idiots at Binbrook who were incapable of extracting themselves from an aircraft without alerting the safety coordination system.  However, it soon became apparent that the signal from this PLB was much stronger than previously experienced, and by the time the rescue crew were in the aircraft and in radio contact with their control centre they were getting the message that this was a real scramble; this probably saved me about 5-7 minutes, time that would become invaluable.

 

My Second Ejection
1st June 2003

Ejection from Hunter
G-BVVC 

On the afternoon of Sunday the first of June 2003 I had reason to part company with Hunter Mk 6 G-BVVC before I had otherwise intended to.

 Previously I had said that a good pilot is defined as one having the same number of take-offs in his log book as landings, that was on recounting the story of my ejection from Lightning XS921 on September 19th 1985.  Now that I have 2 more take-offs than landings in my log book, I can add some more wisdom to the tale; having ejected once does not make you exempt from further intervention by the fickle finger of fate.

 The flight in question was supposed to be the end of a fine weekend’s flying displays at the Portrush Air Show in Northern Ireland.  The jet had been operating out of Blackpool to assist in the overall logistics.  Following the display the intention on this day was to fly directly back to Exeter where the jet was normally based before driving back to my home near Warton in Lancashire. 

 The aircraft had been troubled with some electrical problems, but these were suitably mitigated it was thought.  Nothing in this mitigation however could cope with the fact that at 25,000ft over the middle of Wales the engine flamed out.  Prior to the flame out the electrical system had packed in completely and the battery had become exhausted leaving me without communications.  In anticipation of this happening, ATC had been warned that I might loose the radio and as a result I was following my flight planned route with the intention of a landing at Exeter without radio using visual signals only.

 Out of the blue the was a slight shudder felt through the airframe not too dissimilar from the normal IGV (Intake Guide Vane) chatter familiar to all “big engine” Hunter operators.  I thought this to be somewhat strange as this shudder was not at the normal RPM where one would expect it; indeed the engine was in essentially steady state cruise conditions.  It took some time before the realization dawned that the engine had actually stopped.  I guess I had always imagined that when the engine stops in a single engine aircraft it will all go very quiet (like it does on the ground after shutdown).  However, the noise level in the cockpit was essentially unaltered.  This was due to the fact that the engine was windmilling satisfactorily and predominate noise was from the pressurization system and external wind rush.

 Anyway, on acceptance of the fact that the engine had quit and I was now in a brick, the following events unfolded.  First off I set course for the general direction of Llanbedr in the hope of a dead stick attempt onto the runway there.  It quickly became apparent that I had insufficient altitude to glide that far.  I discounted jettison of the external tanks primarily because I could see the banner headlines if they landed in someone’s back garden or worse.  I really didn’t want to jeopardize future ex-military jet operations following an outcry about my tanks landing somewhere inappropriate.  The same concern was true when it came to planning my exit from the jet – which was slowly beginning to dawn on me as inevitable.

 My previous ejection from the Lightning had been a bit of a rushed affair, a control restriction had robbed me of the ability to control my destiny and in a very short time (less than 10 secs) I went from flying along happily to going for the handle.  Since that experience I have said many times that I was thankful that I didn’t have a long time to think about things, but here I now was with a long glide running up to an inevitable ejection.

 There was very little thought involved with attempts to get the engine going again, I had no electrical power therefore now way to get the flame lit again – its kind of hard to get a jump start for a plummeting brick!  My attentions were then focused on the best course of action for me, the jet and the unsuspecting population below.  Having determined that Llanbedr was out of the equation I set about making for the coast line in an effort to jump and dump into Cardigan Bay, it looked like this would be possible.  I elected to stay with the jet below the recommended height for a premeditated ejection of 9,000 ft for the reasons of potential third party damage I have already mentioned.

 As the glide progressed it became clear that it was going to be a very close run thing, but I had the consolation that there was an estuary running along my flight path, just prior to the coast.  My personal preference has always been the water landing rather than smacking into the ground, or trees, or buildings.  We get dropped into the water twice a year for practice, but we don’t get the same exposure to the risky ground landing.

 The time during the glide was taken up with tightening straps and going through in my head the drills, posture and a lot of swearing.  Why was this happening to me… again.  I think I was really annoyed at the fact I had a lot of time to think about it, but the inevitable was fast becoming a reality.

 In the end the final moment came a bit sooner than I expected.  I quite suddenly spotted a village coming into view from behind a mountain spur.  The village was Borth and it was clear to me that my ejection point at or near the coast was going to leave a pilotless aircraft to make up its mind as to its final resting place in close proximity to the village.  As I was currently over the estuary and could see some sparse marshland ahead, that was my subliminal message to go for it.  I pulled the seat pan handle.  I had descended from 25,000 ft to 2,000ft during the preceding 5 or 6 minutes.

 In comparison to my previous experience where I have no recollection from the point of pulling the handle until the time I was sat in the helicopter, this one is in crystal clear Fuji Colour.  There was a huge, massive explosion and the most enormous force acting on my behind.  There was a pain in my back like I had been hit by a plank of wood.  I watched the cockpit disappear from around me and I watched from above as the jet flew on without me, I saw it pitch up steeply and I saw it start to wing over at the apex of its short climb, that was the last I saw of it.

 During this time I was aware of the various seat mechanisms operating and being jerked around like a rag doll as the drogue and then the main chute left me hanging.  This was accompanied with a feeling that my legs had swollen to enormous size and the pain in my back was now excruciating.  I did what I could manage of my parachute descent drills and managed to reason that as I could still wiggle my toes the pain in my back could not be that serious.  I was aware that the water below me was rushing up at quite an alarming rate, it was at about this time I realized that I was still attached to the seat, man seat separation had not occurred.  I was able to release the appropriate harness and the seat fell away I could not have been at more than 300 ft when this happened.  I will return to this fact a bit later.

 Just prior to hitting the water I took a deep breath and closed my eyes and placed my hands in position to release the parachute harness on water entry.  I next recall being desperate to release my breath, but not being aware that I had floated back to the surface.  I opened my eyes to find that I was in all of 8 inches of water.  I had hit the water as the tide was out and all my best intentions of a soft landing were gone in an instant.  I was dragger for a short distance before I released the parachute harness.

 It was a lovely warm afternoon.  The pain in my back was awful, but if I lay still it was bearable.  I could not move my legs, but I could once again wiggle my toes, I could therefore believe it was not a broken back – but it was.  I was able to remove my helmet at after some time managed to get myself into a position that was “comfortable”.  I was now lying on a sandbank with the water receding, the sun was shining, my back was broken and I was about a mile from the nearest shoreline.  I got out my Oakleys and even got out my mobile phone.  I had the intention of calling my wife to let her know I had banged out (again) but was alive – luckily the phone was soaked and did not work.  I could do nothing but wait to be rescued.  I could here sirens from various directions around the shoreline, I had no worry that I would be rescued, I had no place to go and no way of getting there.

 It was about 45 mins before the first person arrived on scene.  A man out walking had seen the jet and my ejection and had waded, swam and walked from the shore over to me.  We established that he could do nothing on his own but he did have some water which was a gratefully received.  Next on the scene was an off duty policeman who had called the emergency services before he too had made his way to me.  Shortly thereafter I could hear the sounds of a boat repeatedly getting grounded on the sandbanks as the estuary continued to drain, this was the RNLI from Borth making their way to me.  Very soon the sky was filled with choppers and the RAF Valley and Chivenor aircraft arrived on scene closely followed by the North Wales Police helicopter.  Quite soon there was a fairly large group of people on the sandbank to keep me company and get me to hospital.  As you would expect the professionalism of this bunch and in particular the winchman was exceptional and I was strapped to a back board and winched into the helicopter and on my way.

 Without going into vast reams of medical details about the days, weeks and months that followed, the force of the ejection resulted in a burst fracture of one of my vertebrae.  The fragments of bone embedded themselves into my spinal chord.  The result of this was to effectively paralyze me from the waist down.  The spine was fixed by the introduction of yet more metalwork in the form of a supporting cage around the burst vertebrae.  I have been able to regain the use of my legs but am still devoid of feeling and function below the waist.  My days of flying bang seat equipped aircraft are over, but I guess it was time to grow up and find a proper job.  As those of us who fly know all too well, it could have been worse.  I’m still here to tell the tale.

 Returning to the fact that I found myself still attached to the seat at a late stage of the descent and the apparent failure to achieve man-seat separation this was investigated.  This appears to have been a result of my tightening of the lap straps possibly a little over-zealously.  The mechanism worked as advertised and released the lugs in the seat pan, but the tension from the straps acting at 90 degrees to the release direction has resulted in a geometric lock being set up.  This was only released when I was able to activate the QRF and the seat dropped away.

 The AAIB said this accident was a salient reminder to those operating old aircraft that any snags which are being carried must be carefully considered and that my injuries may have been lessened if I had elected to use the face screen handle instead of the seat pan handle.  This, they suppose, would have given me a better posture.  An interesting observation, most modern seats have only a seat pan handle.  I presume the move away from “bang” seats to “rocket” seats has resulted in a transition from good posture afforded by the face screen handle against the more rapid access of the seat pan handle.  With gentler (relative term only) rides from rocket seats the importance of posture has diminished in favour of more rapid egress.  I never even contemplated the face screen handle as an option.  My routine training has always been to use the seat pan handle.

 I have many people to be thankful to in getting me from there to here.  The rescue services, the surgeons, nurses and physiotherapists who helped to patch me together physically.  My friends and work mates who helped keep my spirits up. But most of all to my wife and family who once again I am forever indebted to, without their love and support this would have been far, far worse than it already was.

Craig Penrice
August 2005

 

 Sincere thanks to Craig Penrice for submitting his experiences and photographs and allowing them to be used on this website