Tragedy and survival in the Fleet Air Arm

In 1958,  one of Britain’s best known aircraft carriers, HMS Victorious, had just completed a 20 million pound refit and was at sea to demonstrate her capabilities to the world’s press. One of the interesting things to be demonstrated that day was the very first deck-landing of a Super-Marine Scimitar aircraft onto the flight deck of a sea-going ship.

The Victorious turned into wind and built up speed, whilst the press photographers and television men trained their cameras astern where a tiny dot soon materialised into an impressive Scimitar aircraft, flown by a very senior pilot, Commander J D Russell. As the aircraft approached, the press photographers witnessed the pilot lowering the flaps to slow the approach, then the undercarriage and arrester hook came down.

Commander Russell made a perfect landing as the arrester hook engaged with one of the arrester wires strung across the flight deck, abruptly slowing the Scimitar. But then, just as the aircraft should have come to a complete stop under the restraining effect of the arrester wire, tragedy struck.

As the arrester hook of Commander Russell’s aircraft had engaged the arrester wire, a strange phenomenon had occurred that hadn’t been known before or since: the hook had stranded the wire. In other words, instead of the hook picking up the whole wire, it actually struck the wire with such force and at such an unusual angle that it parted the strands of the wire and only connected with a few strands.

The result was inevitable. When the wire was at full stretch and maximum strain, the few strands restraining the aircraft parted, allowing the Scimitar to carry on, rolling down the angle deck and over the front edge into the sea.

The accident was a great shock to everyone, but the crew recovered quickly. The helicopter that was flying as ‘plane guard’, waiting for just such an incident, moved in above the floating Scimitar and lowered down a rescue crewman on a winch wire. In theory, the rescue crewman’s job was to assist the pilot to get out of the aircraft by, if necessary, operating the external ‘hood jettison’ handle to release the hood and pulling it clear. Then, if the pilot was unconscious, he could undo his seat restraint straps and pull the toggle on his life jacket to inflate it, then assist him out.

The helicopter hovered low over the top of Commander Russell’s cockpit and the crewman was able to quite clearly see the very shocked pilot pull back the hood manually and then commence undoing his straps. But then the hood closed electrically.  The pilot had decided that instead of jettisoning the hood he would simply pull it back manually, which should have been adequate to allow him to escape the aircraft. But by that time the nose of the Scimitar was being swamped and salt water had got into the electrics and shorted-circuited the ‘hood close’ switch. The aircrewman did make an attempt to reach the external ‘hood jettison’ handle, but by then it was some distance underwater and out of his reach.

The hard-pressed aircrewman found himself, because of the heavy swell, 3 meters above the cockpit one moment and floundering under the water the next. After only 2 minutes floating on the surface, the heavy aircraft sank from sight with the hood still firmly closed, taking the unfortunate pilot to his death.

Commander Russell could have had one last chance at life, if he had attempted to eject from the aircraft using his explosively operated ejection seat.

There had been a very successful underwater ejection from a Westland Wyvern aircraft sometime earlier, when that aircraft’s engine had suddenly failed as it was catapulted off the front of the carrier. The Wyvern was one of the few piston-engined, propeller-driven aircraft ever to be fitted with an ejection seat, and as soon as the aircraft hit the sea it sank just ahead of the carrier’s bows. The pilot, in almost total darkness, kept his head and kept the wings level to keep the aircraft’s nose up and prevent it from diving into the depths. He deliberately waited until he heard the ship’s propellers pass above him, then he reached up and pulled the ejection seat handle with both hands. He ejected through the hood, came up to the surface, automatically separated from his seat, and with his life jacket inflated, floated in the sea until the ‘plane guard’ helicopter picked him up.

Whether Commander Russell considered that option can never be known. But because of the helicopter hovering right above him, right in the path of any ejection, an attempt would have been fatal for all concerned. So the option to eject, if he ever considered it, was denied him.

The Wyvern pilot had pulled off something that no one had previously even considered: an explosive ejection from an aircraft that was underwater. But with that success and Commander Russell’s sad failure the navy began looking closely at what was possible and what they could realistically achieve to help pilots whose aircraft came down in the sea.

The navy did learn a lot of lessons from the two accidents and made many changes to assist pilots to exit downed aircraft. They trained aircrew divers to no longer remain tethered to the end of a winch cable, requiring the helicopter to remain in the path of an ejection, but to jump from a helicopter and stay with an aircraft for some time and depth, as it was sinking. They also developed ‘frangible’ cockpit hoods, which would explosively disintegrate a fraction of a second before the ejection seat passed through them. Over the years many other innovative modifications were made to make getting safely out of an aircraft in trouble easier for aircrew, so it could be said that Commander Russell did not give his life in vain.

The year Commander Russell was killed, I was in the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet Diving School at Manoel Island in Malta, training to be a shallow water diver. At that time the navy had three types of diver, the first of which was the standard, or salvage, diver with the large copper helmet, rubberised canvas suit and lead-weighted boots.

The other two types, clearance and shallow water divers, were similar and both wore closed-circuit oxygen re-breathing systems. These were designed to give off no bubbles in order to allow those divers to approach and attack enemy ships without making any disturbance on the surface that would give them away. The clearance divers were further trained to use oxy-helium mixed-gas diving to allow them to go deeper. Pure oxygen divers are restricted to a depth of 33 feet (10 metres). Beyond that depth, life-sustaining pure oxygen becomes poisonous to the human metabolism. That’s why the third type of divers, the most numerous type in the navy, were known as  shallow water divers.

The following year, 1958, after I qualified, I was attached to the Med. Fleet Torpedo and Anti-Submarine Experimental Establishment Dive Team at Kalafrana, Malta. Our team were given a task concerned with the developments taking place to assist downed pilots.The Admiralty had decided that instead of an aircrewman in the rescue helicopter, they needed a shallow water diver who could jump into the sea and, unhindered by a winch wire, complete the task of assisting the pilot to get out. We were tasked with trialing one aspect of the concept: jumping from a helicopter.

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Shallow water divers using oxygen re-breather sets practise jumping from a helicopter. Image by Royal Navy, Photographic Section, HMS Seahawk.

The theory was good and looked like it should work. But the practice soon revealed a number of unforeseen difficulties connected with the diving sets and the tight fitting ‘frogman’ style dry diving suits we were using. With the diver sitting inside the helicopter until he was needed, he obviously couldn’t be breathing from his set all the time, which had a limited duration. So once the diver was required, he had to go through the quite complicated starting-up procedure, which couldn’t be rushed and took several minutes. Then, before he jumped he had to go through another time-consuming procedure to expel all the oxygen from the counter-lung breathing bag as well as any air trapped inside his diving suit. If he didn’t do this efficiently, as his body entered the water all the trapped air in his suit would be violently forced up into his rubber hood and split it, or excessive oxygen would be forced into the top of the counter lung, which could burst that too.

In initial training, divers are taught these procedures and do practise jumping into the sea from a height, in my case from the side of a destroyer, which isn’t that high. But when we started jumping from the helicopter at 10 and 20 feet we had lots of problems—burst hoods, burst counter-lungs and physical injuries, including two burst eardrums. At this point the trials came to an end and we heard no more of helicopter divers for a while.

However, as air diving sets and wetsuits came on line in the navy, the modern aircrew diver developed and became established as a very important life saver for not only downed aircrew but also other types of seafarers and for so many members of the public who increasingly get themselves into difficulties at sea.

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