Copyright © 2012 Paul McDonald
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SOMEWHERE OVER THE MEDITERRANEAN



This sortie was flown in Canberra PR7 WT530 on 22 March 1978. The crew were Flight Lieutenant Paul McDonald (pilot) and Flight Lieutenant Fred Stokes (navigator).


I looked at my watch again. It hadn’t stopped, but it must have been the fifth or sixth time that I had looked at it within the last twenty minutes. It seemed as if we had been airborne for hours yet my ever-faithful RAF aircrew watch showed that only ninety minutes had elapsed since that take off. We continued our search, scanning the distant horizon, but there was no sign of our elusive quarry.  


Fred, as was normal for him on low level sorties, had unstrapped from his ejection seat and come forward. Some navigators preferred to sit on the fold-down rumbold seat, alongside the pilot on the right, but Fred much preferred to crawl down the narrow, claustrophobic tunnel to lie flat and look out of the Perspex nose of the 25-year old Canberra PR7. A navigator’s lot on Canberras was all about mastering claustrophobia; if Fred had remained in his ejection seat he had a bulkhead to look at directly in front of him and only two tiny windows through which he could occasionally snatch fleeting glimpses of the outside world as it moved swiftly past. Above his head was the frangible hatch through which his ejection seat would travel if he had to use it in earnest. If he had remained strapped in his ejection seat, Fred would have been no help to me on this sortie; I needed another pair of eyes, not that I ever had to ask Fred to come up front. Of course if we had a problem he would have to look sharp reversing down the tunnel, feet first, so that he could then get up, turn around, and move to the rear of the cockpit behind my ejection seat and then turn around once more before quickly strapping into the double harness of the Canberra’s elderly Martin Baker ejection seat. We often practiced doing just that; you never knew when you might have to opt for a Martin Baker letdown.  


We flew on varying our height between 250 and 2000 feet, both of us scanning as far as we could see, but to no avail. It was blowing quite a gale outside and had been all morning. The sea was running very high, with deep rolling waves and white surf being lifted and thrown across the wave tops by the gusting wind. I shivered inwardly at the thought of having to eject in such conditions. Despite being in the relatively warm environment of the Mediterranean there would be little chance of survival for long even if we could board our tiny single-man dinghies. With the wind as it was, boarding our dinghies would be a very big ‘if’. There were no search and rescue helicopters based in Malta; the nearest were in Italy but we were a lot closer to Libya.  


I reflected again, as I had done many times that morning, on the decision to launch us: our mission must have been considered to be very important, although in the end the final decision to take off had been mine. And if anything went seriously wrong, the final responsibility would also be mine; I was the aircraft captain. Aircraft captaincy could sometimes be a lonely place.


We simply must find her. Visibility was good but it reduced quickly to only a few hundred yards in the frequent squalls which passed by. Could we have missed her? We were in the area that the intelligence staffs had suggested but there was no sign of her at all. Could the intelligence have been wrong? It wouldn’t have been the first time. We pressed on.

Nor would she be on her own; she should also have her faithful escorts, a Kara and a Krivak. How could all three of them hide from us? But there was not a sign. In fact we hadn’t seen a single ship since we took off. Perhaps our maritime brothers were a little wiser than we had been venturing so far from land on a day such as this. If our quarry had any sense she would have sought shelter from the fierce north westerly gale in one of the nearby bays in Tunisia or Libya. We continued our search as I hauled the heavy PR7 around the sky looking far and wide to see if we could spot a silhouette against the skyline that might give us a clue as to where our target might be.  


The day - Wednesday 22 March 1978 - had begun like any normal working day for an operational crew on XIII (PR) Squadron based at RAF Luqa in Malta. Fred and I lived a few doors apart in the small town of Balzan. We often shared cars, sometimes driving through the main site of RAF Luqa before crossing the runway to reach XIII Squadron’s HQ. It always brought a wry smile to my face when one of the Armed Forces of Malta Super Frelon helicopters took off and flew slowly past our dispersal directly opposite the International Airport Terminal. The helicopters had come from Libya which had close links with Malta’s ruling Labour Government under Dom Mintoff. We were unsure of the nationality of the pilots.  

It had been one of those rare wild and windy nights in Malta and even at 0700 hours as we drove across the runway the wind had not abated. We had both remarked on the windsock which showed the wind’s direction and approximate strength. It had been horizontal. It was also at 90 degrees to Luqa’s Runway 24/06 which was the worst it could be for aircraft operations. It was gusting too. We both agreed that there would be no chance of flying and an ‘early stack’ was most likely on the cards. Perhaps we would be able to call in at the Officers’ Mess on our way home for one of the Maltese barman’s renowned brandy sours or for a refreshing glass of the Maltese lager, Cisk. In that, we were not far wrong, we would indeed enjoy a Cisk in the bar that day but it would be a lot later than we anticipated and the day would turn out to be one of the most difficult, the most exciting, of our operational careers until then, or since.  


That morning everyone at the Squadron was pretty relaxed having come to the same conclusion: there would be no flying that day. The flying programme had been ‘scrubbed’ and as XIII Squadron was the last operational squadron based in Malta there would be little else happening on the airfield. We could see that the International Airport was a hive of inactivity too with all civilian take-offs and landings having been cancelled; even profit could not argue with Mother Nature that morning. The weekly RAF VC10 aircraft from RAF Brize Norton had also been diverted to the Italian Air Force Base of Sigonella in Sicily.  


Strong winds weren’t necessarily a problem and it was possible to take off and land with a wind speed of 40 knots providing that the wind was not too far off the runway direction. But if the wind is across the runway it becomes more difficult and is at its worst when it is at right angles to the runway direction. Gusting winds are even more troublesome. It is relatively simple to work out the headwind and the crosswind component. For most aircraft, including the Canberra, the maximum crosswind component for take-off and landing was 25 knots. On 22 March the wind was from the north-west, 90 degrees off Luqa’s runway. With an average wind speed of 30-40 knots and with gusts to 50 and 60 knots it was well outside our limits. So Fred and I adjourned to the crewroom for a coffee and a chat with the boys as we looked forward to that beer in the bar on the way home and perhaps another on one of our respective balconies overlooking San Anton Gardens and the President’s Palace.  


But the calm was soon shattered. That most irreverent of squawk boxes on the crewroom wall burst into life and interrupted the calm stilling our conversation:  

“McDonald and Stokes, report to Operations.”  

Fred and I looked at one another and wondered what we had done, what had been found out. Nothing immediately came to mind so with a shrug and joint looks of resignation we headed upstairs to the Operations Room. We were met at the top of the stairs by my Flight Commander, who was the Acting Squadron Commander at the time. With a smile he said:

“It looks like there may be a job for you two, you may be getting airborne. Grab your hats; I’ll see you in my car.”

Fred and I looked at each other in amazement and soon found ourselves in the Squadron Commander’s RAF Ford Escort Estate heading back across the runway. The windsock was still horizontal - we looked at one another even more questioningly. If anything the wind was actually stronger than it had been earlier. But my Flight Commander was keeping his thoughts to himself. All would be revealed no doubt when we entered that very private, inner sanctum of Operations Wing, the Station Intelligence Squadron.


It was Kiev. The very latest and immensely powerful addition to the Soviet Union’s already impressive navy. She was thought to be heading west once more for the final time having completed sea training and trials with the Soviet Black Sea Fleet and was now thought to be on her way to join the Soviet Northern Fleet at Murmansk. My first thought was ‘so what?’ What was so special about Kiev today of all days? She had first entered the Mediterranean in January and I had already flown two full missions photographing her from every angle and height imaginable. While this would probably be the last opportunity for us to get more photographs of Kiev, didn’t we have enough already? What about the weather? Didn’t the somewhat extreme wind conditions scotch any thought of getting airborne? Apparently they did not.  


It soon became apparent that it wasn’t about getting airborne despite the weather; it was about getting airborne because of the weather. The gale force winds and the very high seas meant, according to the Intelligence staffs, that it might just be possible to get some photographs of parts of Kiev’s hull that were normally underwater. My eyebrows lifted a little at this. The Station Intelligence Officer was not a pilot and I am not sure whether he fully understood what I would have to do to our ancient and heavy aircraft to achieve such photography. Our low level cameras were not mounted horizontally, but at an angle of 15 degrees below the horizontal and they were fixed. And he wanted photographs of parts of the hull that were normally below the waterline?  


He went on. He was particularly interested in what looked like some sort of gate that was low on Kiev’s stern. If we just happened to be flying past the stern as it came out of the water because of the sea state we might, just might, be able to get a picture below the waterline he thought. There were lots of ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’. I toyed with the idea of inviting him to come along for the ride but dismissed the thought almost as soon as it occurred; he would get in the way. All I would be able to do was try and manoeuvre the aircraft to be in the right place at the right time. We would also have to fly at very low altitude, perhaps at 100 feet or less, to try to get the shots that he wanted. This was no easy matter as the Canberra PR7 was a heavy old beast and it did not have powered flying controls. So this would be a very physical mission. And of course all of our low level cameras were pilot operated too; once we had found Kiev Fred could do little except watch. To cap it all, the Intelligence staff had no real idea of where Kiev or her escorts were, the last sighting having been the previous day with Kiev and a mighty Kara cruiser and a Krivak escort heading in Malta’s direction. It was suggested that that we search to the south of Malta toward the Libyan and Tunisian coasts where Kiev may seek some shelter from the gale that we could still hear blowing outside. Seeking shelter from the gale sounded like a very good idea to me.  


There was then some discussion about the wind and the difficulties that it would present during take-off and landing. I was glad that aspect got a mention. I wasn’t particularly uncomfortable about taking off in such a strong crosswind; we could sit at the end of the runway with the engines running at high power for as long as necessary listening to read-outs of the crosswind component from air traffic control. I could then release the brakes during a lull and go for it. Landing though might be a different matter and I said so.  


It was then announced that the long-disused airfield at Hal Far would be re-opened for us for landing. It had a 6000 foot runway, the minimum safe length for a Canberra, but crucially it pointed virtually straight into the prevailing wind. While it was 1500 feet shorter than Luqa’s runway and it began virtually at the cliff face, it should not be a problem. Runway sweepers, crash crews, an ambulance and air traffic controllers would also be despatched from Luqa just as soon as the decision was made for us to launch. I was a little taken aback by all this; Hal Far had been disused for years, clearly our mission was considered to be of the highest importance. It also seemed that all eventualities had been carefully considered and each one had been covered. But no pressure was exerted on us whatsoever. That was the way of this particular Flight Commander; he was a good man to work for.


As we drove back across the airfield I reflected a little on what had been said. It was quite an accolade to have been selected for this mission, after all XIII Squadron had upwards of a dozen operational crews available that day. Fred and I had been crewed together since we arrived on XIII Squadron nearly 3 years earlier in August 1975. Fred was on his fourth flying tour and his second on Canberras. I was on my second tour and had close to 1500 flying hours on Canberras. We also were pretty competent as a constituted crew and had a deserved reputation for being able to get the job done and come back with the goods, usually. But I also figured that there was something that had been left unsaid during our briefing. Since the withdrawal of the Nimrod squadron from Malta, XIII Squadron was the only RAF source of real intelligence in the Mediterranean and we too would be withdrawn to the UK within 6 months as part of the UK’s final withdrawal from Malta. Was the presence of Kiev today seen as a last opportunity for XIII and the RAF in Malta to once again prove our worth?  


Fred and I were quiet on the journey back to the Squadron. As we crossed the main runway the wind had not abated. It was clear that the go/no go decision would be ours. If we were prepared to go, my Flight Commander was sufficiently confident in our ability to authorise the sortie. A glance at Fred and a nod from him was all that was needed. The mission was on.


The aircraft chosen for the task was WT530 and it was fitted with a 12-inch F95 low level camera on the starboard side and 4-inch F95 on the port, both mounted in the forward camera bay. We would not be using any of our many other cameras on this sortie. There was very little else to cover in the pre-flight briefing except a reminder to include the codeword ‘X-Ray’ when we returned to Luqa if we felt that we had photography that merited immediate exploitation. My Flight Commander then signed the authorisation sheet and I signed afterwards as aircraft captain. A few minutes later Fred and I strapped into the aircraft and then a towing vehicle arrived; the wind was too strong for us to attempt to taxy.

 

We were towed to the end of Runway 24 with the aircraft controls locks fitted to prevent any movement of the aircraft controls in the frequent gusts of wind. Even the engine intake blanks were fitted to prevent any debris being blown into the engine intakes. Malta had a bit of a reputation for ‘debris’. We were positioned well to the left of the runway centreline not pointing down the runway but at an angle of 30 degrees into wind. The control locks and blanks were then removed and we started the engines. Once the after start checks had been completed our groundcrew moved to one side of the runway to watch and to wait. I checked in with air traffic control and we were cleared to “take-off at your discretion”. I accelerated the engines to the maximum continuous RPM of 7600 and then held the aircraft on the brakes. We were then given a continuous read-out of the crosswind component from the Visual Control Room on top of the air traffic control tower. I could also see that we had something of an audience on the balcony of the XIII Squadron HQ outside the first floor Operations Room.


When the crosswind component dropped momentarily below 30 knots I released the brakes, applied full power, and with a big boot of left rudder the aircraft slowly turned onto the centreline and off we went lumbering up the gentle incline of Runway 24. Slow accelerations on take-off were a feature of the Canberra PR7. At 48,000 pounds all-up-weight, the PR7 was a heavy old beast, even without wing-tip fuel tanks fitted. Thankfully as it was March the outside temperature was quite moderate; on hot days, take-offs concentrated the mind. The take-off was surprisingly uneventful. Shortly afterwards Fred unstrapped, and crawled forward into the nose of the aircraft. We then began our search.  


All of that had been nearly two hours ago and we continued to search in vain. Finally with about thirty minutes of fuel remaining Fred suggested that we swing toward the east of Malta and then head north-west between Malta and Sicily before calling it a day. I agreed. While this was not the area suggested by Intelligence it would be our last throw of the dice.


We could tell by looking at the sea that it was still blowing a gale, the conditions outside looked very bad. Thank goodness I wasn’t a sailor. But even the hardiest of sailors would have been uncomfortable on a day like today. Soon we were within 25 miles of Malta. We were on the point of giving up when we spotted something ahead. Was it our quarry?  

As we got closer, it was apparent that it was not, but it was definitely a warship. And it was Soviet. It was also struggling, not making any headway at all simply pointing into wind and maintaining steerage. It was a Soviet destroyer, of the Krivak class, and we knew that she was one of Kiev’s escorts. She was pointing north-west so, after taking a few photographs, we headed in the same direction. The trail was getting warm. Then we found the Kara class cruiser and she too was making very little headway. The Kara was a magnificent looking vessel with so much firepower crammed into her 580 feet. Capable of well over 30 knots even she was struggling with the high seas often swamping her low stern and helicopter deck. But the trail was now getting hot, we had to be close.

    

A few miles further on, even closer to Malta, we found her. We learnt later that RAF air traffic controllers at Luqa could see Kiev on their radar and had done so since long before we had taken off. She was virtually on the centreline of the approach to Runway 24 about 20 miles out. Of course they had no idea what the vessel was nor did they know the precise nature of our mission until after we were airborne. Only when we began to fly around Kiev itself did they realise that the blip on their radar screen was the target that had been eluding us for so long.

 

Kiev was an amazing sight. Over 900 feet long with a displacement of 42,000 tons, she was the pride of the Soviet Navy and was a credit to her designer. She was also very heavily armed. No doubt conditions below decks would have been cramped for the majority of her crew of 1612. Conditions below deck on that day must have been grim indeed. Even the might of Kiev was being dwarfed by the enormous waves crashing over her.  


We had no time to lose and immediately set about taking as many photographs as we could. We had very little fuel left and we needed to have some reserve in case it took us a while to get down. We concentrated on the stern but also made numerous low runs alongside and over her deck. The Soviets totally ignored us; they had their hands full. With luck our 12-inch F95 camera should produce some good quality close up shots but all I could do was try and put our aircraft in the right place, I couldn’t point the camera, and we wouldn’t know anything of our results until after landing when the film negative was eventually rolled out on one of our large light tables. The flying was exhilarating but it was also tiring and we had little time to enjoy the thrill of the very low passes that we made, sometimes even below deck level. Fred said nothing throughout, nor did he need to.


In no time at all we had used up all of our film and we headed back to Malta by now only two or three minutes flying time away. I was confident that we would have the ‘goods’ so included the crucial word ‘X-Ray’ in our recovery radio call. That would ensure that our skilled team of ‘photogs’ and photographic interpreters would meet the aircraft on landing at Hal Far and get the film exploited within minutes.


As we approached Luqa and Hal Far, the wind if anything was even stronger than before and we were told to go immediately to Hal Far. I very much looked forward to this and approached Hal Far from over the sea at 250 feet and 420 knots. We flashed over the cliffs and then over the runway before I broke to the left and upwards, closing the throttles, selecting airbrakes out, and also opening our large flare (bomb) bay to reduce our speed. Fred was by now back safely strapped into his ejection seat. I turned finals at 1000 feet and began a descending turn onto the final approach rolling out at about 300 feet with the speed now reducing toward 110 knots. That’s when I realised that we had a problem, a big problem. We couldn’t land.


For most of the time that we had been airborne we had been flying at speeds of between 300 and 350 knots and visibility through both the canopy and through the Perspex nose had been good. But as soon as we slowed down to approach speed for landing, I had to raise the nose of the aircraft to maintain the correct approach path. We were also heading directly into sun toward the cliff with the threshold of the short runway starting just beyond the cliff face. While there was no crosswind problem, I simply couldn’t see anything. The lower part of the canopy was completely encrusted with salt; it was totally opaque. At higher speeds this had gone unnoticed. I overshot and Fred scrambled back into the nose to see if he could talk me down onto the runway. I hadn’t asked him too, he just came forward. Fred was not short of guts. But the lower part of the Perspex nose cone was just as bad. I tried a couple more approaches at higher speeds but it was hopeless. In order to see the runway I had to fly so fast that I couldn’t put the aircraft on the ground. Fred wisely crawled back out of the nose and strapped himself into his ejection seat. I overshot and explained my problem to air traffic control.


What were we going to do now?

Copyright © 2012 Paul McDonald
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