( Navigation Exercise Radar Bombing System )
Having transferred fuel from one wing tank to another to bring the Vulcan aircraft’s centre of gravity within the required tolerance, I set the calculator aside and relaxed. The soft lights from the instrument panel reflected onto the cabin windows and little could be seen of the darkened sky beyond, although an arc of faded sunlight was just about visible along the earth’s horizon, well below us. Our sortie profile was nominated as a navigation exercise (Navex) and it terminated with a simulated nuclear attack on a previously specified target within Liverpool’s urban sprawl using the radar bombing system (RBS).
It was warm in the aircraft’s cabin, and I glanced idly at the outside temperature gauge, – minus 70 degrees! Ouch, this was not the night to have to abandon the aircraft! Training had suggested that once the ejector seat had thrust its occupant clear of the aircraft, it would free-fall to about 10,000 feet before tipping out its passenger and deploying the parachute. Just imagine free-falling from our cruising height of 45,000 feet having first suffered the trauma and shock that necessitated you to eject in the first place. The prospect of exposure to the bitter ambient temperatures alone was more than enough to switch my mind to consider other things.
I needlessly scanned the instrument panel in an attempt to prevent my mind dwelling on the scary side of flying. The auto-pilot was set on a heading of 330 degrees, we continued to fly at 45,000 feet; the speed registered at 0.89 indicated mach and the control surfaces indicators and the artificial horizon meter confirmed that were in level flight. The compass bearing hadn’t varied in over twenty five minutes and showed that we continued to head towards Iceland, having left RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire earlier that evening. The Skipper had control, and as the co-pilot I had time to allow my mind to wander. Iceland was not our destination that night. After travelling 1000 kilometres in a northerly direction our flight plan was to turn sharply south and head back towards Liverpool. Mark Hacker, our Navigator Plotter was testing his skills at navigation assuming that the aircraft’s automatic positioning avionics were not available to him. He sat with his maps alongside the two other rear crew members on the lower deck. Whereas the two pilots occupied eject seats on the raised upper deck, the rear crew members sat in-line facing rearwards on static seats. On the starboard side was the Navigator Radar, Tim Clarke, who wouldn’t be doing much on this trip until we undertook a simulated bombing attack on the city of Liverpool; our last activity before returning to base at RAF Waddington. On the port side sat John Dean, the Air Electronics Officer; John would be monitoring the aircraft’s electrical systems and reporting our position back to Bomber Command Operations Centre every 15 minutes; but again, we were not in hostile territory and so he would not be operating the aircraft’s electronic counter measures. Mark Hacker was the only crew member totally preoccupied trying to determine precisely where we were using his basic dead-reckoning skills; that’s pencilled track-lines on maps, rulers, protractors, wrist watch and all that. It was a necessary part of his annual qualification as a V-Bomber navigator. There would be other sorties when the specialist skills of the other crew members would be tested, but tonight it was exclusively the Nav Plotter’s show.
Without warning the four fire warning lights illuminated, bright red; all four engines were on fire! Or so it seemed! They immediately went out! Because of the relative darkness, those red lights were bright enough to light up the whole cabin. Having overcome my shock, I glanced across to the Skipper, whose eyes had practically popped-out of their sockets. His hand hovering near the fire warning display panel; his forefinger extended ready to press the button lights and fire off the engine extinguishers. We looked at each other in disbelief. In my experience so far, engine fires only occur on the flight simulator, they don’t happen half-way to Iceland, over the cold North Atlantic Sea, at 45,000 feet with an outside temperature at minus 70 degrees! And then the four engine fire lights illuminated again! This didn’t make sense. I turned and looked rearwards to find that Mark (the clumsy) Hacker had left his seat and the other two showed no sign of the expected panic!
‘Mark,’ called the Captain over the intercom. ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m taking a star shot using the sextant, Skipper. Did you need something?’
‘Yes! I need you to take your bloody elbow off the fire warning light test button!’