On that memorable day flying from RAF Jever over 54 years ago, my second sortie of three that day started quite normally. With two full inboard drop tanks the F Mk 6
took 7 minutes, so an extra 75 seconds from wheels roll to make 40,000ft. Within when what seemed to me both then and now like some slowly developing Hollywood film, drama rapidly unfolded, literally out of a bright blue sky but way above a lot of clouds. The opening scenes had merely been a normal pair take-off and climb-out through these many layers of cloud, some thick, deep and bumpy with tops just below 30,000 ft.
Fg Off Tony 'Bugs' Bendell
was leading this particular sortie. At that time, from our general estimation, we all respected 'Bugs'
as a fascinating example of someone often deceptively diffident on the ground, who immediately he lifted his Hunter's
wheels up, seemed to become a different and highly focused, switched on individual. This shared view of mine helped save several precious seconds and maybe even saved another's life that day.
Fg Off Tony 'Bugs' Bendell
being briefed during a Sylt APC
by Fg Off Alan Pollock
(in dark green dyed 26 (AC
) Sqn flying suit) probably in March 1958 - at one stage in 1957 the Squadron
had its Commander Sqn Ldr Ray Chapman
, Lt Parkinson RN
and Flt Lt John Sutton
(later AM Sir John Sutton KCB
) and 22 Flying Officers - a few months later there were only two married men on the squadron aircrew strength, both slightly different mixes compared with today's RAF!
About this time a few of us began speeding up the first part of our 'one versus one' simulated combat initiations by carrying out our 45 or 60 degrees outward split manoeuvres for one minute near the top but still in our .9M
climb. I believe this was not the case on that day...
Absolutely nothing untoward or any intimation of anything being wrong in Bugsy's
leading occurred until after our outward split above 40,000feet and the subsequent inward turn from our 15 mile separation before the often critical first two scissor crossovers. Far too easily I was about to take film as he rolled quite lazily and inverted, when I instantly realised his aircraft
was being flown neither aggressively nor defensively. Thankfully in an instant and without any required brilliance, it was obvious to me that anoxia could well be his problem. I called "Red Lead from Red Two" but absolutely no reply came back.
It was imperative for me to get Bugs
down fast but there were many layers of quite deep clouds below us. I ordered him to check his oxygen connections and select his emergency toggle and straight away told him to level his wings and begin a dive on that heading. To my great relief he began to obey my instructions, albeit slowly but without one squeak of any reply. I realised we would have to go down in set stages on particular headings so as to end up over the sea to allow maximum clearance for his personal consciousness recovery, if we managed to break out and emerge there OK below the cloud base.
What was necessary straight away was to get his throttle back but not so far that I had nil power to play with, for me to stay formating safely on him, for his airbrakes to be put straight out and our jointly going straight down as fast as we could without his losing control or my losing my close formation position on him in the cloud. Quite miraculously every time I instructed him to bank left or right, ease or steepen his descent, Bugs
did whatever I ordered but never with even one whisper back on the R/T
. Now obviously I had to formate safely on him out in close echelon starboard, call instructions and reassurance to him about what he was to do and simultaneously carefully, whenever I could, keep his wings level in the descent and thus my wings the same. This required the totally unorthodox procedure of those few regular but so vitally important cross-checks straight out of my sideways, rapid glances, back into my cockpit and own master instruments, away and instantly back to his wingtip and the standard formation position along Bugsy's
starboard wing's aileron hinge line.
For the safety of both of us it was obvious we would have to complete any descending turns in the clear, as we went through those brief gaps between the thick dark cloud layers but always we had to have our wings unbanked or very nearly so before each next IFR
stage. Three times we had to change direction between cloud layers and we went through at least four deep layers of cloud. At this stage this whole developing plot seemed to be, as it would to anyone else, like a corny, or maybe not so corny, Hollywood film as I kept rechecking his wings level in the descent or reminding him once more to re-check his oxygen flow and connections. All the way down there was not one iota of response except those slow but obvious responses to my soothing but firm instructions, as his bank thankfully came on and off exactly as requested. On the way down I thought that, Hollywood film drama or not, are we going to manage a happy ending - all the way down I was not at all sure on that specific point.
Then and quite suddenly we broke out through that very last layer with our both pointing pretty steeply downwards at the grey-green texture of the lightly ruffled sea state, some miles off the German coast and below our pair of diving Hunters
. As I eased out slightly, I had a second surprise and one with a slight barb in its tail. As we passed through 7,000ft exactly, Bugs
awoke abruptly from his dumb lack of consciousness - not only that but he had the amazing instant ability to rather haughtily say he was resuming leadership of our pair!
All the way back, I inevitably watched every move of this reincarnated Bugs Bendell
like a hawk but all seemed to go surprisingly well. We did end up with a much foreshortened sortie, for once with plenty of fuel to spare, but I certainly was not going to quibble as we ran back in to break into the circuit and land at RAF Jever's airfield expanse, carved out in stark contrast to its surrounding forest west of Wilhelmshaven.
extract of his SOR
and beyond within his book "Never in Anger"
"During the climb I noted that all oxygen indications were satisfactory, the flow was normal and 100per cent oxygen was selected. Shortly after levelling at 37,000ft we split for air combat and the next thing I remember was regaining consciousness at 7,000 ft. descending, with the throttle closed, air brakes out, and oxygen selected to emergency. We continued the sortie below 10,000ft. I made a normal approach and landing at base.
, my No.2, was able to fill in the details: after too easily gaining the ascendancy in the dogfight and seeing my aircraft
roll inverted into a steep dive, Al asked if I was OK. Receiving no R/T
reply he immediately suspected anoxia, and using my own name instead of the official call-sign, he instructed me to pull my emergency oxygen supply and re-connect my main tube, which I apparently silently obeyed. Formating on my wing tip, and flying on instruments through three separate cloud layers Al
brought the formation safely down to 7,000 feet over the North Sea."
What was useful for the Hunter
force, after this additional anoxia incident, its Special Occurrence Report and the subsequent medical inspection of Bugs
, was the train of urgent actions which followed quite quickly. The dog clip connection soon came in, which we all soon used to prevent possible loss of our oxygen tube connection as one stretched one's head around, particularly in combat. Also our aviation medicine specialists brought in after this the other oxygen modification which immediately alerted one by instantly stopping one's breathing at all, if one's mask became disconnected from the oxygen supply. These rapidly introduced alterations provided extra supply security and an instant major wake-up call to urgently reconnect and switch to one's emergency oxygen supply. This improved oxygen system must have prevented further loss of life.