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December 2012, Archive Story

Ejection in Saudi – Memories of ‘Magic Carpet’ and the RSAF

One of my errant sons drew my attention to a couple of the stories on your website, which led to my wandering around the site and looking at what you guys do and what records you have kept etc.  Somewhere I noted that you were looking for stories, either for your magazine or on line. My history is by no means noteworthy but I was in Saudi Arabia on 6 Squadron for about 7 years which enables me to see a few details of your stories which could have some additional info added.  Also I had the misadventure to have to eject from an F Mk 52 in 1970 while operating out of Khamis Mushayt.

In your section devoted to individual aircraft histories you mention XN796 under F2/F2A.  This aeroplane crashed at Riyadh in September 1966 on take-off, as stated. The pilot was Peter Hay and he was not uninjured as stated.  He hurt his back badly from the ejection and landing immediately after it, and ended up in Headley Court for a long time.  He never returned to Saudi Arabia but completed a successful career with BA flying the Jumbo and now lives near Cambridge.  Under the same heading is XN729 which crashed near Khamis Mushayt in May of 1970. That was me, suffering from a double power control hydraulic failure. More of that later.

XN796 was recoded 52-659 when it went to the RSAF and later became ‘612’ (but not 52-612)  When the Lightnings moved to Khamis Mushayt with 6 Sqn they were given what were effectively codes, ie 612 = a/c 12 of 6 Sqn. This was a practice that was later adopted with 2Sqn and 13 Sqn Lightnings (and I believe is current to this day).  These shots are of 610 having an engine change, but show the numbering system clearly.  (Stewart Scott)

In your section about the Guinness Book of Lightnings and all the records, you mention the guy who flew the most Lightning hours being a 5 Squadron CO who later went to Saudi Arabia.  I can confirm that to be Tony Winship.

I was one of three civilian pilots on 28 course at Coltishall.  Looking at my course photo I see we were a motley band of miscreants, mostly RAF of course but containing the three civilians, an American and probably a Canadian.  The other two civvies were Don Creswick, an ex-Javelin pilot who was currently with Airwork's Fleet Requirements Unit at Hurn Airport near Bournemouth, and Peter Hay, an ex-Red Arrows Gnat pilot.  Peter and I were both at Valley as instructors at the AFS there and were given early release from the RAF to go out and help the export drive by providing interim crews for the Magic Carpet part of the big Lightning order contract in Saudi Arabia.  So yes, we pitched up at Coltishall in April of 1966 and did an abbreviated conversion at 226 OCU.

No 28 Course Photograph.  Charles Wightman can be seen on the back row left.  Some wag has drawn a hat on the head of Sqn Ldr Barraclough.  The inked-on destinations of the course graduates can be just made out, with Charles, Don and Pete going to Airwork, Wolf and Davis to 92 Sqn, Karass to 111 Sqn, Collins to 23 Sqn, Ruth to 226 OCU and Sqn Ldr Farwell becoming OC FW-LEC.  The destination of Flt Lt Evans is not recorded.  (Ed.)

Coltishall was a splendid station with the RAF Historic Flight there, and Roger Topp of 111 fame as the CO.  It was a show place and seemed to embody all that was good about the RAF of yesteryear.  However, Don Creswick, Pete Hay and I were largely spectators, being disallowed on parade at the AOC's inspection. One of my weapons instructors was Flt Lt Mike Graydon. Who would have guessed?  (Mike Graydon later became an Air Chief Marshal and Chief of the Air Staff.  Ed.)

On arrival in Saudi we found Dick Ingham as chief pilot.  He is a Kiwi who had served on 19, 29 and 92 Squadrons I think.  So he, Don, Pete and I made up the Lightning team, complemented by a similar number of ex-RAF/RN Hunter pilots who flew the Hunter Mk 6s which went with the Magic Carpet contract.  Our role was mostly flag waving and escorting the royal flight in and out of Riyadh.  During this time we had frequent visits by Roland Beamont, who thrilled us with his antics around the circuit in a Lightning

Eventually came the time when we had to adopt a more operational stance and our numbers were swelled by the arrival of Don Brown, Vorn Radford and Bob Driscoll, all ex-RAF pilots.  After moving to Khamis Mushayt, this number was added to by Tony Porrier, an ex-RN pilot who had been flying the Hunters in Riyadh and who went back to Coltishall for the full treatment, and somebody Williams, an Airwork stalwart who did a conversion at Warton including a landing during which the undercarriage broke off, breaking his leg.  Other than the landing, how did you enjoy your flight Mr Williams?

When the two year Magic Carpet contract finished, the RSAF offered Vorn Radford and me direct contracts.  Dick Ingham returned to England and served with BAC at Warton doing production test flying and ferry duties until he returned to NZ, where he saw out his working life with an airline.  He is retired in Auckland.

Thomas Vaughan (Vorn) Radford was a most astonishing, talented, versatile and entertaining personality.  There can be few people associated with Lightnings, at least of the old school, who have not heard of him.  He used to do the illustrations and cartoons for the Fighter Command Flight Safety magazine and was a founder member of the team of new Lightning pilots on 74 Squadron, the first to be equipped with that aeroplane.

We lived cheek by jowl in adjacent married quarters at Khamis Mushayt for a number of years, although to be honest we had very little time at home.  Most of our life was spent on standby at the end of the runway in a tent.  The longest time without a break was period of 150 consecutive days in which we didn't see our houses in daylight.  Can the modern 'elf and safety brigade even begin to comprehend what that was like?  Five months without even half a day off?  Our furniture in the tent consisted of two beds and rickety table and upright chairs. Mostly we lay on the beds with our boots off, reading or sleeping, but this was interspersed with some picture painting by Vorn or typing of procedures on an old style typewriter.

Occasionally we would get a training flight or air test, but it was barely enough to keep current.  In seven years I accumulated the grand total of 500 hours.  But we became proficient at leaping into the air in a hurry when a radar target appeared down at the radar station.  My fastest time from asleep on the bed to wheels in the well was three and a half minutes though usually it was a bit longer than that because the straps don't always go into the quick release box so readily and the PEC doesn't always mate up with the seat under the guidance of the trembling hand.

In all those years I only ever intercepted one stray aeroplane, an AN12 from a neighbouring country which had the words 'Air Force' hastily and clumsily painted over with 'Airways'.  It was bristling with guns at all the turrets.  The pilot initially ignored my signals to follow me but it was amusing to see the speed at which his wheels came out after a quick burst of 30mm cannon past his windscreen.

Vorn's wife had their first daughter during our time there.  My wife and I already had three small children.  It was tough with no school or medical services of the sort we were accustomed to, so when my wife became pregnant again in 1973, we had to move on.  But it had been a most interesting period in our lives, flying with some very talented people, ex-RAF and Saudis.

On the 2nd of May 1970, Vorn and I were tasked with staging a demonstration high level interception for a visiting dignitary.  My assignment was to lurch off into the distance and return on a heading for the airfield, to be picked up by the radar unit.  Vorn was to be scrambled and the ensuing interception would be witnessed by the visitor from the radar room.


XN729 'L' serving with AFDS, 1963-6, later to become F-52 52-659 when it went to the RSAF on 10 May 1967, later crashing near Khamis Mushayt on 2 May 1970 .  (Stewart Scott)

After take-off, one of the checks is to make sure the ventral tank fuel is flowing into the wings.  On this occasion it wasn't, which likely meant a sticking fuel/no air valve.  This malfunction could normally be cured readily by application of a bit of positive and negative G, but on this occasion the initial result was that the Hyd 1 warning lit up on the AWP, followed shortly by Hyd 2 and HYD on the SWP complete with bells and clangers.

I continued the climb with minimum use of controls to gain some distance from the ground, but the elevator accumulator gave out almost straight away.  It was relatively easy to maintain pitch control using differential engine power settings, however when the aileron accumulator exhausted at 26,000 feet the aircraft slowly rolled over and pointed at the ground.  Faced with a supersonic vertical descent and no control, I issued a hasty Mayday and pulled the face blind handle.  A hiss of air and sudden decompression was followed by what seemed an age before a severe kick in the pants sent me into the 460 knot airstream.

Discarding the face blind, I noticed the seat and I were doing about 120 RPM in an uncontrollable spin.  No amount of arm and leg waving made the slightest difference, and as I felt like vomiting I started mentally going through the manual separation procedure, when suddenly the chute opened with a jerk and I was left dangling at 16,500 feet with a lovely view over the desert.  Making a note of the time, I started to prepare mentally for the landing which would occur exactly ten minutes later at a height of 7,000 feet AMSL.

This area to the east of Khamis Mushayt is made up of gentle hills with no visible vegetation, but covered with sharp, spiky rocks 6 feet or more in height like a Martian landscape.  On this day the surface wind was 20 knots which, combined with the 10,000 foot density altitude, filled me with some misgivings about the landing, particularly in view of the rocks.  Needless to say I was swinging like a pendulum in about an 80 degree arc despite my best efforts at pulling on the shroud lines and hit the ground right at the bottom of the arc ensuring maximum downward speed.  But my luck was in because I landed smack in the middle of a smooth, hard goat trail between the rocks.

It was a bad landing, legs astride, knees up around the ears and with my face planted firmly in the dirt, giving me a bloody nose, a manoeuvre I have not been able to replicate since and which no doubt was the cause of one rib to break off at the spine.  Right in front of me on the path was a shepherdess and her raggedy flock.  With my strange costume and bloody face she probably thought it was the second coming of a prophet or a visitation from another planet because she shrieked, threw her arms into the air and sped off up the path followed by her sheep.

She must have told her experience to her husband or father because in no time a red Ford pickup truck came bouncing across the desert in a cloud of dust with a friendly man who asked if I needed help.  I explained that it wouldn't be long before my friends arrived with a helicopter to pick me up and sent him on his way, an action which I nearly came to rue very badly because my SARBE was set to a training frequency and nobody picked up the signal.  It was only by luck that I was spotted some hours later by a helicopter.

After taking leave of the truck driver, I spread out the parachute under a circle of stones and struggled up a small hill to plant the SARBE as high as possible, intending to return later for the survival pack so that I could play with the heliograph and eat the goodies.  But by the time I reached the top of the hill I couldn't walk, and realised that both ankles were sprained. 

So there I sat, watching Saudi Airlines, air force C130s and other aircraft all obviously doing a search.  How easy it would have been with the SARBE working or even if I had had the heliograph.  As I was pondering my folly of not keeping in touch with the truck driver, I heard the thrumming of an Augusta Bell 212, and to my great relief it plopped down next to the parachute.  From there I was able to hail the pilot, my friend Farouk, and his crewman who carried me down the hill.

Strange to relate, the aircraft remained airborne for 15 minutes after the ejection, 5 minutes longer than I was on the end of the parachute, and it landed the right way up in a very shallow descent so that it was sufficiently undamaged to discover at least one of the control hydraulic systems was still full of hydraulic fluid.  So, it looks as though if I had stayed with the aircraft I would have been able to make a relatively normal recovery to base.  If only - I would have been spared a sore back.  Anyway in exactly a fortnight I was back in the air and life went on.

Vorn was born in 1938, one day before me.  He died about 5 years ago, so young and with so much more to offer the world.

Best wishes,

Charles Wightman

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