Flying the Canberra . . . by Ralph Swift

All Material on this page is Copyright © Ralph Swift 2003 

I disliked flying the Canberra, I had got bored and uncomfortable during the longer flights made possible by the greater range of the Canberra over the Meteor. On top of that, the Canberra just did not fit me. It had the same problems on one engine as had the Meteor, but in addition to that, I simply could not see very well out of it. I stand barely five feet and five inches in my stockinged feet and I sit very low, so that even with the seat at it’s maximum height I was having to peer through the lower left corner of the Canberra’s canopy. If I lowered the seat, to be able to get most leverage from the rudder pedals for asymmetric flight, then I was quite literally flying on instruments since I was unable to see over the cockpit cowling. The ejection seat seemed much too upright for me, on flights of three hours or so I developed an exceedingly painful backache that I was unable to relieve. Whilst stationed at Watton I had had to go to Headley Court near Dorking in Surrey for remedial back exercises to try and straighten me up and strengthen the muscles in my back.

Whilst at Watton I had an experience that illustrates the difficulties of flying these aircraft on one engine. This was no training exercise, it happened for real. I was taking off at night, it was a very dark night and as I came off the ground and went onto instruments I hit the “up” button for the undercarriage and at the same time had a starboard engine failure. It just stopped, and there I was, barely airborne at about 100 feet and at minimum control speed and in serious trouble. We had the slightly older type of ejection seats that required a good deal of height to use successfully, ejecting was not an option. I warned Mike Thomson, my navigator, of the situation and told him to prepare to eject but only at my command. I managed to more or less stabilise the aircraft, I had as much power on as I dared to use and as much rudder as I could cope with, even then the aircraft was in a gentle right turn at absolute minimum speed. I was desperate not to lose height and although I was on instruments I was aware that we were still just skimming the treetops. Slowly, just slowly I was gaining a little height, about ten feet a minute but definitely in the right direction.

My left leg was killing me as I applied all the rudder pressure I had the strength for. In this slow right turn we continued over a very black Norfolk gaining height inch by inch. I knew that the land rose slightly to the north but I was unable to do anything about changing course so I just concentrated every bit of my attention on maintaining control. Perhaps I could keep it going sufficiently to get to a height where we might stand some chance of making a successful ejection before this whole thing got out of hand. We coasted out near Cromer and that gave me the opportunity to trade a little height for speed as we began to fly over the sea. This was successful and I could begin to relieve a little of the pressure on my leg. This was just as well, since I had no idea how much longer I would be able to hold the rudder. Situations such as this give superhuman strength for a short duration but I was beginning to tire.

The speed slowly built up and each passing minute meant another sixty seconds toward our salvation. I began to breath more easily as I realised that not only could I maintain a little more speed I could also gain a little more height. Our minimum ejection height came and went and now I could angle back toward the coast. I had been keeping Mike informed of our progress and he was quietly navigating in his black hole behind my seat, keeping me informed of our position, unable to see a thing and putting his blind trust in me to cope with the situation. From now on things began to improve and I headed back for base and did an asymmetric landing making sure that I kept the speed well up until I was damn sure that, engines or no engines, I could glide in. No more minimum control speed games for me this night !!

I went back to the bar and had a stiff drink before going home to bed. I limped for about two days afterwards as a result of the strain I had put my left leg through.

On another occasion at Watton I had a total hydraulics failure at night. Having managed to pump the undercarriage down by use of the emergency hand pump with the help of my long suffering navigator, Mike, I let down into the circuit. I could only get partial flap and knew that I would be landing a little fast. This in itself did not present much of a problem, we should have plenty of runway. With a hydraulics failure you can only squeeze the brakes one time and then hold them on. If you release the brakes it exhausts the emergency bottle and then you are in an unbraked roll.

That once again should not present too much of a problem, or so I thought, the aircraft had antilock brakes anyway. The circuit and landing went well enough, I touched down slightly fast but right at the beginning of the runway and applied the brakes taking care not to release the pressure. I am not too sure what happened next except that about two thirds down the runway the brakes burned out.

The fire equipment was in place at the side of the runway and they had a tow truck at the far end waiting to tow me in. Now I was brakeless and still rolling, not fast but fast enough for me to know that I was going to roll onto the grass at the far end and had no way of stopping it. I ruddered the aircraft to one side in order to avoid hitting the runway approach lights that were mounted on poles on the centre line beyond the runway. All went well and I came to a stop on the grass slightly off to one side of the overshoot area. Mike and I made our ejection seats safe and then exited the aircraft by the side door and walked away from it. The fire truck had come screeching up and a fireman, seeing the brake discs glowing bright red and threatening to set the tyres alight, directed a co2 bottle onto the starboard wheel.

Now CO2 comes out of the bottle as a freezing spray and as it came into contact with the almost white hot brake disc it caused it to contract explosively. The explosion blew the wheel to pieces, burst the eardrums of the fireman and propelled him through the air. The hydraulic undercarriage leg sank into the ground and the starboard wing came to earth with a thud that bent the wingtip. Mike and I were standing a good thirty yards away and got sprayed with molten rubber. My wife who was obviously aware that I was night flying, heard the explosion from her bed a mile away from the scene and started to get worried. In a matter of seconds, what had been a minor incident had turned into a fairly major accident. Maureen, my wife, said that when I eventually arrived home I absolutely reeked of burnt rubber but she was awfully glad to see me, so these little incidents do have their compensations !!.

Ralph Swift. May 2003

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