Anyone who ever flew the Lightning landed short of fuel at some stage in their career, but that's not surprising really in an aircraft that on average burned 100lbs of fuel per minute in a low level cruise. The story begins with me, just qualified Limop, flying on my first exercise. No matter how many briefings one may have had from the Senior Pilots, there was nothing quite like the real thing to explore one's own limits. All went well until the recovery. I had passed Spurn Head inbound with 1100lbs a side, I even had the required BINGO plus five fuel (ie. sufficient to hold off for five minutes should an exercise air raid develop at Binbrook), when, while still with Staxton Wold, I picked up a couple of contacts just north of Spurn, heading for Binbrook.
Well, a fighter pilot always has a go so a quick 180°, there they are, a couple of Jags, no problem. A bit of a tight turn, OK, a bit of reheat, one Fox 2, might as well have the wing man as well, alright, a tad more burner, Fox 3 - still at Spurn, back to base here we go. Ah, 600lbs a side now (normal landing fuel was 800lbs a side). Well, heck, its only ten miles to base, on runway 21, and everybody's landed with 500lbs a side, or better still 1,000lbs transferred to the No 1 engine. Pull up to 2,000ft, start transferring fuel, call base for recovery. Back comes the information "No precautionary landings, chute less to Coningsby" - in fact to be honest it had been that on take-off. For the uninitiated, the Lightning had two types of landing: normal, where if the brake chute failed you went round for a further approach, and precautionary, where the throttle handling was different and even if the chute failed, you stayed down and, if necessary, took the cable or barrier.
On this day the crosswind meant that a chute less landing would involve a cable barrier/engagement, the ODM gave no chance of stopping on the 7,500 feet, so the plan was to go to Coningsby with more runway into wind). At this stage a quick calculation revealed that an approach to Binbrook, landing, chute fail and transit to Coningsby would leave me desperately poorly placed for fuel. I took up a mean holding between Binbrook and Coningsby, contemplating the next call when, "Binbrook Combine, air raid inbound, all aircraft to hold off". Well, that settled it - no chance now - I told Binbrook I was diverting to Coningsby and off I went.
A quick bit of MDR now - 30 miles from Spurn to Coningsby, should get to Coningsby with 600lbs total fuel - in fact, I am halfway there now, the No 2 engine has just about transferred the lot. I kept it running as advertised until it flamed out at gauged zero and continued on the No 1 - should make a bit of fuel now, up to 30% better range on one engine. Already talking to Coningsby, no-one ahead when - "PAN PAN PAN, two F4's inbound to Coningsby fuel priority" followed shortly by "Lightning 24 you are number three in the pattern". Great! I don't know what fuel priority in an F4 means but I'll bet it's nothing like mine. But what can I say - I told nobody about all this, and the ramifications of a MAYDAY out of the blue were too horrible to contemplate. By now I was visual with Coningsby, a quick look at the TAP - as I thought, a sort of two thirds parallel taxiway, well, that will have to do if one of the F4's blocks the runway. I flew a 'sort of' circuit, taking the gear 'pretty late' and landed with 500lbs.
It was still only six minutes from the last Fox 3 on the Jaguar, and I had been so busy I hadn't really had time to worry. However, I can remember sort of crawling out of the aircraft and collapsing in the visitors line hut until about half a packet of cigarettes later. The ground crew as ever were totally obliging - nothing was said, nobody ever knew, and I'd even recovered enough to 'rotate' out of Coningsby on departure - well, we always did. It was only much later that the full horror sank in - 500lbs of fuel and one engine, with up to 400lbs unusable straight gauge error meant that I had only minutes flying time left. And 400lbs of that fuel had been transferred from the other side - a note in the Aircrew Manual stated that up to 400lbs might not be transferable/gauge error on that side. Work out the implications of that for yourself. All this is now some years ago, but the lessons still apply:
Air Defence Crews - If you are recovering on minimum fuel and a target appears, then either ignore it or accept that if you do engage you are going to have to tell someone about it. If you then find yourself below minimum circuit landing fuel (as opposed to exercise fuel) you must declare some kind of emergency. Had I started out with a fuel priority call I could have contemplated upgrading it later without embarrassment.
Any crews - an exercise constraint (for example the air raid) should not impinge on actual flight safety. I would have done much better going to Binbrook with more fuel and accepting a cable/barrier engagement if necessary. Of course, again I would have had to tell someone.
Finally - a note for superiors. My whole game plan on that day revolved around my not wanting to tell anyone what had happened. Why? Because I had just seen another junior pilot get an absolute roasting for coming back on a fuel priority. I was too scared to admit to my mistake, and the further it developed, and the worse it became, all I could think of was the trouble I would be in if I did call a MAYDAY. The fact that I could have lost the aircraft (and/or my life, I suppose) was secondary. Now, as a superior myself, I still see my fellow pilots handing out massive admonishments to young lads over what are, in the grand scheme of things, very small mistakes. Every single experienced pilot in the RAF has some skeleton in his cupboard, we have all made mistakes of our own. So, the next time a young pilot comes up to you and confesses to a mistake, you don't have to bring out the heavy artillery. I learnt about flying on that day, and no amount of extra punishment could have improved on the lesson. I never landed that short of fuel again - but then later I was prepared to call a fuel priority or PAN. I just wish I could have shared my experience with others a little earlier.