One of the less pleasant things any pilot has to do is take an aircraft on its final flight. I had to do that several times during my last few months as OC VSU when the Victor Mk 1 aircraft reached the end of their service life. Most ‘final flights’ were rather mundane but two were special.
On 29 March 1976 I took XA939 (then belonging to No 55 Squadron) to RAF Catterick in North Yorkshire where it was to be used for fire practices by the RAF Fire Training School. At that time Catterick was no longer an active airfield but there was still a disused runway only 3,300 feet long, with an avenue of tall trees at right angles to the runway just short of the easterly end, and the very busy A1 dual carriageway at the westerly end. The A1 southbound carriageway was only about 30 yards from the start/end of the runway with just a low wooden fence and a narrow taxi-track separating the two. The Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for Victors laid down a minimum runway length of 7,500 feet for landings so Catterick presented quite a challenge. Although the aircraft was going to be used for fire-fighting practices, it was no consolation for me and my crew to know that it would not really matter if we crashed on landing. My Group HQ laid down only three rules:
(1) The landing was to be made from east to west because an approach over the A1 would have caused major trouble had I undershot and landed on the main road.
(2) There had to be a westerly wind with a minimum of 15 knots headwind component along the runway.
(3) There had to be a maximum crew of four: captain, co-pilot, navigator and AEO.
That last proviso suggested to me that the staff at our Group HQ were not 100 per cent certain that I could land the aircraft safely on such a short runway, and meant that I could not take with me the Crew Chief who had worked on the aircraft for several years. I learned on the day before the delivery flight that there had been one other Victor delivered to Catterick some months earlier; on that occasion the pilot managed to run the aircraft’s main undercarriage legs through the trees at the eastern end. The aircraft wasn't damaged but two very prominent channels were gouged through the trees. I assume Group HQ didn’t know about that otherwise they would have warned me. It was left to me to work out my own landing technique.
There had been quite a few Victor aircrew who had been angling to get a place on 939’s final flight – I couldn't think why. I could understand why they might have wanted to be at Catterick to watch my landing from a safe vantage point - but to want to be on board seemed rather odd. The Station Commander, Group Captain David Parry-Evans decided that he wanted to come along for the ride as my co-pilot and I decided that my navigator Dave Ellis and my AEO Bob Northwood, both members of the VSU deserved to come along.
We had to wait about 10 days before a suitable westerly wind and good visibility presented themselves. There was no air traffic control at Catterick so before setting out from Marham I spoke to the Operations Controller at Catterick to brief him that I would approach visually from RAF Leeming, a few miles to the south of Catterick, and that I would then make several low approaches and overshoots to burn off fuel until I was down to the lowest possible landing weight. I told him that I would give him 10 minutes warning of my final circuit so that he could arrange for the traffic on the A1 to be halted, just in case I ran off the end.
The arrival overhead was uneventful and I carried out my first practice approach using the standard technique. I paid particular attention to the avenue of trees across the approach at the touch down end that was likely to impede the last half mile of my final approach if I wanted to touch down on the very first few feet of the runway – and I did want to do that. The two channels gouged through the trees were clearly visible but I didn’t fancy my chances of aiming the Victor so that our wheels would pass through them. If one undercarriage leg passed safely through the channel but the other one didn’t, there could have been a nasty end to the flight. I decided that I would have to ‘throw’ the aircraft onto the ground (that’s a technical expression!) by making it fall out of the sky as soon as the Victor’s main wheels had passed over the trees.
On the overshoot from that first approach, I saw that all traffic on the A1 had already been halted and considerable queues were forming north and southbound. I told the ground controller that I would not be landing for about 15 minutes but he replied that a senior traffic policeman had decided to halt the traffic because many vehicles, having somehow heard about the forthcoming landing, were starting to park illegally along the carriageways while other vehicles were slowing down to see what was going on. The senior policeman had insisted that if he did not halt all traffic there was likely to be a road traffic accident.
I did two more short circuits with full flap (high drag) extended all the way around to burn off the excess fuel as quickly as I could and then I made the final, final approach. When I was about a mile from touchdown and committed to landing, I put the aircraft into an exaggerated nose up attitude, much higher than for a standard approach, thereby creating maximum drag. This technique required a high power setting - about 85% on all four engines instead of the 70% that would have been needed for a more orthodox approach. The disadvantage of that technique was that had I been forced to go around there would have been little spare engine thrust to take us back into the air. It was definitely a make or break technique.
As we passed over the avenue of trees at an indicated air speed of 125kts, 25 kts lower than recommended for that weight, I ordered the co-pilot to close all four throttles and extend the airbrake. I deliberately streamed the tail-brake parachute myself just before we touched down. The aircraft did in fact 'fall out of the sky', as I had planned, from a height of about 10 feet. I pushed the control column fully forward, applied maximum wheel braking, and we came to a halt about 300 feet from the end. My faithful crew members were considerably relieved but I have a suspicion that all the drivers standing outside their vehicles on the A1 were left disappointed and wondering what all the fuss had been about.
We then had to turn about and back-track the runway. After turning to the right at the end, I was instructed to taxi towards the burning pan that had been set aside as the final resting place for XA939. There was a very pronounced up gradient on that part of the taxiway. I stopped short of the rise so that Group Captain Parry-Evans and I could discuss the problem. So abrupt was the initial upslope that there was a very real danger that the Victor would rock backwards on its 16 main undercarriage wheels as we started up the slope. That would have lifted the nose-wheel assembly off the ground and then I would have been unable to steer the aircraft. There was also a possibility that the aircraft might rear up so far that the tail fuselage would strike the ground and not recover, leaving the aircraft (and the crew cabin) pointing skywards. We could not leave the aircraft where it was because Catterick had no means of moving it once the engines were shut down.
I decided to pump what little fuel we had remaining on board as far forward of the Centre of Gravity as possible even though there was a slight risk that the fuel pumps might be uncovered when we started up the slope. Then there remained only one thing to do: take a run at it. I increased power to about 90% and then, when the engines had stabilised, released the brakes. The faithful Victor surged forward like a sprinter off the starting blocks. As we moved up the slope, sight of the taxiway disappeared from my windscreen. For a second or two I think the nose-wheel might have left the ground but then we breasted the top of the rise. I put all throttles to idle and allowed the aircraft to coast gracefully into the dispersal. XA939 had arrived.
My thanks to RAF Catterick who supplied this picture - and the champagne!