Copyright © 2012 Paul McDonald
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This sortie was flown in Canberra B2 WJ635. Flying Officer Paul McDonald was the pilot. Prior to this sortie Paul had only experienced practice asymmetric flying in the Canberra during the day, never at night. His first experience of flying on one engine ‘for real’ would be at night.    

Night flying took some getting used too. If it was a clear night, with a moon and a well-defined horizon, it was little different to day flying. If the weather was poor, much of the sortie could be spent flying totally on instruments so the fact that it was at night made little difference. Most sorties however involved a mix of visual and instrument flying and the transition from one to the other, and back again, was often sudden. With no moon visible, disorientation was never far away. Over or close to towns on clear nights, it was normally easy to tell which ‘way was up’ but over open countryside with some lights on the ground and no definite horizon it was possible to mistake the stars for lights on the ground and vice versa. So the technique was to blend visual flying and instrument techniques together using whichever was appropriate at the time. Even completing a simple 360 degree turn could mean flying half of it visually and the other half on instruments. Many of us considered night flying to be something of a ‘dark art’

In January 1974 I flew a night check with my Flight Commander and it went very well. The only aspect that we did not have time to cover was night asymmetric which was to prove a little unfortunate. Almost inevitably, my first real incident as captain of an aircraft would occur when it was particularly dark, and of course it was just bound to involve asymmetric flying.  

On 24 January 1974 I flew a day-into-night general handling sortie to the Scillies to practice an approach to the runway at St Mary’s. On our way back an unusual noise could be heard coming from one of the engines. Which one? Surprisingly, it was sometimes difficult to identify the troublesome engine unless an engine instrument could offer a clue. Thankfully, in this case, the engine instruments showed the jet pipe temperature of one engine to be 60 degrees higher than the other. All was clearly not well. What to do I wondered? The Training Officer was airborne so I asked his advice. He agreed that something was amiss and suggested that it would be best to shut down the ‘hot’ engine; better that than allowing it to possibly seize which could result in a much more difficult approach.

I was very comfortable about the idea, or I thought that I was, until the moment that I actually closed the high pressure fuel cock and the engine stopped. My heart then leapt into my mouth, and I had a great deal of difficulty even speaking. I felt acutely embarrassed and had to switch off my microphone now and again as I thought that my navigator would hear my heavy breathing and my quivering voice. I even had trouble transmitting the distress call, a PAN call.  

I asked for radar vectors for a precision approach radar, as a long straight-in approach was recommended when on one engine. During the descent I regained my composure a little, although in the descent the live engine was at low power so I did not have an asymmetric problem at that stage. Once I levelled off I had to increase power on the live engine to maintain speed and it seemed to need a lot more power than I expected. It was bound to, of course, as the B2 was heavier than the T4, while the other important factor was that the dead engine was exactly that, it was shut down and produced no thrust at all; during simulations it would have been at flight idle. As we got closer and closer to the glide path I began to feel that I was beginning to lose control; the speed kept reducing, I needed more and more rudder, and it was so dark, so very dark; it was absolutely pitch black with even the stars obscured by cloud above us. As we flew over Bodmin Moor there were very few lights on the ground either. I couldn’t believe that my navigator hadn’t noticed that all was far from well but he sounded his normal confident self. I was barely in control of myself, let alone the aircraft and was having to work desperately hard.  

As we were handed over to the Talkdown Controller for the final approach, I almost completely lost control. I could feel the aircraft beginning to go, and I glanced at the all important ball which was supposed to be in the middle of the turn and slip indicator. It wasn’t, it was well out to one side and the aircraft was way out of balance. I pushed hard, very hard on the rudder pedal to get it back. I was just in time, in another second the aircraft would have departed from controlled flight. And then the Talkdown Controller began giving his final instructions. I recognised his voice.

At the same time, I was able to reduce power on the live engine as we started to descend on the glide path. This eased the pressure on my leg that had been holding almost full rudder up that point. The Controller lived in the Mess and had a room near mine; we had also met in the bar a couple of times. And he recognised my call sign, so he knew it was me. He was so calm and his clear voice, the voice of a friend, was exactly what I needed during those last few miles to touchdown. As we landed, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and thanked him over the radio. Looking back, I think that it was him that got us safely down that night, not me. But, alas, the drama was not yet over.  

We stopped at the end of St Mawgan’s single 9000 foot runway and shut down; the Canberra could not be taxied on one engine. As we got out, I was mightily relieved although I said little; I was barely capable of speech. My navigator gave me a big smile and a cheery:

“Well done mate!”

I couldn’t reply.

The fire crews arrived quickly and the fireman driving Crash One, the lead vehicle, offered to give us a lift back to the Squadron. We clambered on board but did not notice that one of the other firemen accidentally put the bag containing the aircraft’s ground locks onto his vehicle along with our flying helmets and other assorted paraphernalia. Without the ground locks the groundcrew were not allowed to tow the aircraft so there it stayed blocking St Mawgan’s only runway, while various Nimrods and Canberras flew around in the overhead waiting in vain for the runway to be re-opened.

Crash One set off at high speed down the taxiway with us on board. The vehicle had a long front seat, the driver was on the right, my navigator was in the middle and I was on the left. Except that I hadn’t closed the door properly. As we turned sharply to the right, the door flew open and I fell out! My navigator’s reactions must have been very finely tuned that night. His left hand shot out and he grabbed part of my immersion suit; by then I was half way out of the door almost parallel with the ground and my head was only inches above the tarmac. I was hauled me back in. What else can go wrong, I wondered?


But there was more. It was a much shaken Flying Officer McDonald who entered the Operations Room about twenty minutes later. The Duty Authoriser was fulsome in his praise - an asymmetric landing for real on my first night sortie as captain. I was hugely embarrassed and could barely look him in the eye. Then there was a loud crash as the door into the Operations Room was flung open. It was the Station Commander. He threw his hat from the door, and it landed perfectly on top of the Operations desk, something that in 34 years I have never been able to master. Then he turned to me and with a piercing stare said:

“It was you, was it?

“Yes sir,” I said.

“Well done,” he replied. “Now, would you care to explain to me why you have put our only runway out of action for the last thirty minutes?”                

It is strange how reputations can sometimes be built on very tenuous foundations. Mine undoubtedly was that night and I only ever shared how I had felt with one other, and that was months later. He listened carefully before saying not to worry, that how I had felt was normal but few pilots ever truly admit to what they actually felt inside during an incident. He went on to tell me how, when he was a young fighter pilot flying Vampires in Germany he had suffered an engine failure at night. The Vampire only had one engine and at night the drill was to eject. Against all the rules and advice he made a successful glide landing. And the reason he didn’t eject? He was too frightened.  

Copyright © 2012 Paul McDonald