18 Dec 23. Roger Lowrey: How Close Can You Go
The story of a Mirage incident that occurred in 1968 at Butterworth. ......It was written quite some time ago but I never distributed it as it points to a major mistake on my part!!!!! However, that’s all in the past now and I guess we have all made mistakes.
How Close Can You Go!
“Cladosporium resinae was present in 78% of all fuel samples from aircraft tanks examinated in Australia (Hazzard, 1963) and in 80% of all fuel samples examined in California (Engel and Swatek, 1966). It is probably the most important micro-organism in contamination of fuels and in corrosion at the present time (Parbery, 1968)”.
On the 14th of February 1968, I was flying A3-34 (assigned to Brian Sweeney) as wingman to Sqn Ldr Allan Taylor on a strike mission against the ‘enemy’ forces based in Singapore. Our Mirage aircraft were the RAAF’s original 111 0/F models, lacking the control automatics, air to ground radar, doppler, etc. that were added to this great little fighter at a later date. Our jets were configured with a C/L 286 tank, two 110 supersonic tanks, gun bay and rocket bay tanks and, of course, the normal internal tanks. However, this was the first time we were carrying the centre-line 286 gal. tanks that had recently arrived as deck cargo from Australia and this gave us far more strike planning options. We were fully briefed on the cockpit indications associated with this new tank configuration.
So we lit burners on time and climbed out to FL360 heading for Kuantan where we turned south to follow the coast and descended to 500’ at 420 K for our final approach to the Singapore target area.
At Tanjung Sedell we turned SSW for our target Seletar; our eyes now out on storks looking for hostile Hunters or Lightnings that could be flying CAP or, unlikely, had been guided towards us by Singapore radar. As we approached Johor River, we spotted a Lightening crossing our path some two miles ahead and at about 1500’. It was almost certainly a CAP aircraft but he didn’t see us and we passed behind and began accelerating to our strike speed of, as I recall, 500kts.
Our dive-bombing pass on the runway at Seletar was performed with the elan and precision expected of us sterling fighter pilots without another hostile aircraft being sighted. From Seletar we formed back into pairs-patrol as we commenced a burner climb to FL360 again as we headed NW for Butterworth. The burner climb was performed to make it almost impossible for any hostile aircraft to successfully intercept us on the way out and was made possible by the addition of the centre-line 286 tank. Again, our eyes were out on storks looking for any RAF aircraft that might somehow get into our six, but any opposition that did so would have stood out like the proverbial sore thumb against the white background as we climbed through many layers of broken cloud. As expected, we reached cruise height without hindrance and settled down to concentrate on the remaining flight home.
But Sh-t, my fuel needles were indicating lower than expected. After the first shock I remembered that I need not be too alarmed by this as it was a common enough occurrence after prolonged AB use. But shortly after, not only had the fuel needles not returned to normal, they had dropped further and if the indication was true, I could not reach Butterworth. I checked everything that could control fuel from the cockpit but all switchery was as required. Then, to my horror, calculations showed I could not return to Singapore either!
I notified my leader and put out a PAN call; although with such a sparse UHF network, I doubted anyone would receive it.
What options remained? We were now over 8/8 coverage and below that I could expect cloud layers extending to quite low level – and the cloud was increasing as we progressed. But the only airfield within my fuel range was KL, a small civil/military airfield without UHF. All Taylor had done the same sums and reached the same conclusion and then indicated he could see what looked like an RAF Andover way below us, just above the cloud, that might be doing a holding pattern for KL
As I neared the position of the Andover, I started a teardrop pattern to the SW using my AI radar to show me the coast (Remember, I had only a 25nm AI radar and no navigation aids). Then I heard Allan talking to Denis Stenhouse who was airborne out of Butterworth in a Sabre. Denis, I think, realised that our distress call had not been received by control authorities at the time and he passed them on; and realising that I only had one option, he passed on some very useful data on the KL airport; data that did nothing to improve my growing concern.
My descent took me through some thick cloud initially, giving way to layers of cloud. At 15,000’ I turned left to again position the coastline image across my screen so I could safely descend to low level over water before crossing the coast. Allan now advised me of his need to continue on to Butterworth, stating that he wished me luck, that he would upgrade my distress call to Mayday and get Butterworth ATC to contact KL ACT by landline and advise them of the situation…………..Thanks Al!
At 5000’ the layers became broken. The 130 gallon warning light was on - I don’t remember when I first saw it - and the fuel needles indicated that I had no time for searching!
The coast line flashed underneath but as I only had a high-level map of this area, and my radar was useless for overland navigation, and I had no nav aids, I could not determine my position with any accuracy. The broken cloud below me certainly didn’t help.
I saw the usual Malaysian landscape flitting through the breaks with a river out to my right. I needed to go lower and get more forward visibility. A fairly major looking road appeared just on my right heading NE and I prayed it would lead me to KL and its airfield; so I risked getting lower to follow it – I was down to 1000’ and made sure I was all ready to eject at a moment’s notice. The breaks in the cloud were still quite small and my greatest fear now was flying into ground hidden by the cloud layers. That fear was not helped by the fuel needles which now appeared very close to zero!!
Suddenly a larger gap appeared in the cloud layer below me and the Malaysian landscape opened up around me. There, out to my left, and poking out from under another patch of cloud, was a large runway threshold. Astonished, I quickly turned left to line up, pointed the nose at the threshold, extended the gear and touched down heavily at just under 280K. If I deployed the drag chute at this point, I would simply loose it; so I waited with hand on the ejection handle as the aircraft crested a small rise and there was a runway extending forever into the distance through the flattened countryside.
I couldn’t believe it! The runway went on as far as I could see. At 170 k I deployed the chute; only to kick myself for doing so, as no chute was required to land on this runway. I found an exit on my right and jettisoned the chute, taxied over to an impressive taxi way and stopped to get my bearings. I also needed to lower my blood pressure, get my breathing under control and somehow get my head to understand what had happened and where I was!
In the distance I could see a concrete pan with a few huts around it and, thank God, a truck with two people standing beside it; both looking in my direction.
I taxied my way to this pan where I shut down my trusty Mirage; surprised that it hadn’t given up beforehand, and prepared to meet these guys. Then as I carefully examined the aircraft for any sign of fuel leaks, I discovered that the CL 286 still appeared to be full of fuel!
BTW: The experts calculated that I shut down with 7 gallons remaining in the Inverted Flight Accumulator!
My two observers turned out to be contracted to QANTAS, examining the site of the still under construction KL International Airport for appropriate QANTAS facilities locations. They were quick to point out that the airfield was not open for service and that I was the first aircraft to land there, and by what authority had I done so. After explaining my situation, their attitude changed completely and they could not have been more helpful. Then as I looked around with a little more knowledge, I could see in the distance that another huge parallel runway was in the throes of construction; but no buildings had yet been started and, no work appeared to be in progress.
This story ended well for A3-34! The workmen phoned Butterworth to put them at rest; they organised a fuel tanker from KL airport as it was held there for visiting RAF Andovers, etc. They filed my flight plan to Butterworth and they put me in touch with 75SQNs engineering people who advised me to fly her home after performing a bunch of procedures they devised and ensuring that I knew the appropriate refuelling and checklist procedures needed for starting the jet away from ground support. This I did and Sweens got his jet back.
I latter found out that the cause of the incident was Cladosporium Resinae. If you haven’t heard of it don’t be to surprised; I had never heard of it before Feb.1968! It is a fungus which rapidly spreads when Kerosene fuels are contaminated with water. It can block filters, screens and other small apertures, even the drain points of fuel tanks and pump screens. Fungal growth may also become attached to the fuel tank walls and prove difficult to dislodge during cleaning.
Apparently, these 286 gal. tanks shipped to us in Malaysia were cleaned out with pressurised water and left to dry before being prepared for shipment. However, in this tank, small amounts of water were retained in the baffles. On arrival at Butterworth the tanks were flushed out thoroughly with avtur and, in this tank, concealing water in the baffles, the Cladosporium spread quickly.
Although I’m no fan of the Mirage’s fuel system, and always thought this system may cause problems throughout the life of this little fighter, I have not heard of any similar fuel system problem that almost resulted in the loss of a fighter or the ejection of its pilot. At the time, I was shattered by the thought that I had almost ejected from a perfectly serviceable jet brought to its knees by a microscopic microbe!