The indigo blue of the Arabian Gulf sparkled before them as they crossed the coastline of Afghanistan at three thousand feet. Thunderbird 1 was bringing them home, albeit on a wing and a lot of prayer from inside the cockpit. Both aviators kept checking their instruments and listened for any untoward noises from the straining port engine. Brains kept looking in his rear view mirror, amazed that the damaged fuselage and tail plane surfaces fluttering in the slipstream were still holding together. He gazed down at the white horses of the wave tops below. Since a young lad he had feared swimming out of his depth, after his best friend who he had been fishing with on the banks of the River Thames swollen by winter rain had slipped and drowned in the fast flowing waters. He prayed to himself they would not have to ditch and would make it back to base.
‘Land ahoy!’ reported Falcon over the intercom, tired now from his struggle with the heavy, damaged controls, the sweat saturating his flight suit as he fought to keep the crippled jet flying. He knew of his partner’s dread of deep water when they had swam in the warm waters of the Gulf in the holiday resort of Doha, close to the base. Brains craned forward looking at the coastline of Qatar in the distance and sighed with relief.
‘That sure is a beautiful sight, Falcon.’
‘Shame, it would have been a lovely day for a swim!’ Falcon found time to joke.
‘Up yours’ retorted Brains.
Falcon began a low-speed handling check in preparation for landing, to assess the jet’s flight characteristics, cautiously experimenting with a forward wing sweep position and MID flap configuration. He had to take into account the damage they had sustained and the fact they were flying on one engine, which would give them a high angle of attack on the approach to the runway. Keeping his eye on the air speed indicator, he calculated that the final approach speed would be 190 knots, far over the normal approach and touch down speed of a Tornado. Falcon hoped that the lift dump system, which deployed the spoiler panels on the upper surface of the wings to kill the aerodynamic lift, had not been damaged in the attack and would slow the aircraft sufficiently, together with the all-important reverse thruster of the remaining engine, during its fast landing roll. The condition of the undercarriage was also on his mind, and how it would stand up during the jet’s transition from fast jet to formula one car once back on the ground. He cycled the gear and breathed a sigh of relief as three green indicator lights showed the gear down and locked. Even if things went ‘tits up’ he knew they could both rely on the sophisticated Martin Baker ejection system fitted in the cockpit, which had saved many pilots and crew in similar scenarios in the past.
In the rear seat, Brains went through his own landing checks and confirmed those made by his colleague. The central warning system on the instrument panels in front of both crewmembers continued to flash their warning lights, showing abnormal and emergency situations and system failures. All though all the lights were now showing amber, indicating secondary alerts. The crew’s combined actions had extinguished the initial red captions accompanied by the annoying warbling audio tone by rectifying and cancelling out the flashing ‘attention getters’.
Both crew knew that the Tonka was only staying in the air because of the powerful thrust of the remaining engine overcoming the enormous drag of the battered airframe. Brains wondered what would happen when Falcon reduced power for the landing approach. They could always bang out using the ejection system, he thought, providing the Tornado did not stall or drop its nose and roll, taking the ejection procedure out of its safe parameters and ejecting them both at too low an angle and height from the ground. He cringed at the thought of Thunderbird 1 crashing into the ground in one gory mess.
The heavy jet wallowed and sank in the turbulent air, as they got closer to the ground, accompanied by soothing remarks from the front as the Falcon cajoled the jet to stay in the air. Brains sighed with relief as he came to one of the last items on his checklist, and then looked in horror at the red light that had just started winking at him. The red light showing that his ejection seat was unserviceable!
‘Hells bells!’ he hissed through clenched teeth and pushed the button to re-arm the ejector seat. The warning light flashed amber for a second but then continued its mocking red wink. He curbed a deep sense of foreboding as he stabbed the button in frustration, but to no avail.
‘Shit!’ he cursed
‘What’s up?’ queried Falcon
‘My bloody ejector seat won’t arm!’
‘Don’t worry, I’m getting this baby down in one piece. Well, most of it, anyway!’
Brains marvelled at the coolness of his young colleague, reassured by the pilot’s superb efforts in keeping Thunderbird 1 flying. ‘Sunray, Sunray. This is Thunderbird 1 inbound for emergency landing.’ called Falcon on the airfield’s approach radio frequency.
‘Thunderbird One, you are cleared straight in on Runway 27. Wind is SSE at 15 knots.’ replied the air traffic controller from the RAF base.
‘We have an engine out and structural damage to the rear of the airframe from a missile strike.’
‘Affirmative Thunderbird One. What are your intentions?’
’A long final approach with a high landing speed. We are bringing her in and be appraised that we have no option of command ejection.
‘Affirmative Thunderbird One. Emergency services are standing by.’ confirmed the controller.
Falcon saw his wingman keeping formation on his right and went through his landing checks, performing each procedure with his eyes glued to the ASI. He must keep the speed up at all costs. To let it drop would be fatal. The runway stretched ahead, simmering with heat waves from the hot desert sun as he lined the Tornado up with the centre line. He lowered the undercarriage, reduced power on the remaining engine and raised the nose to bleed the speed off. The gear clunked down and he juggled with the damaged controls to compensate for the change in pitch and drag from the lowered undercarriage. Thunderbird 1 shot unsteadily over the piano keys at the start of the runway as he fought to put the jet on the ground. He wanted as much of the available length of the runway as possible, remembering one of the old adages from his flight training being the most useless thing for a pilot the runway left behind him.
The Tornado is unusual among modern jet fighters because it employs reverse thrust as the main aid to deceleration after landing, and the operation is only possible once on the ground with the right main undercarriage ‘weight on wheels’ switch made. As Thunderbird 1 touched down hard and fast on the runway, a shard of sharp metal from the Sam missile casing stuck in the “weight on wheels” switch shook free. Falcon moved the power lever to select reverse thrust on the port engine to slow the speeding jet and then looked in dismay at the red REV warning caption illuminated on the CWP, indicating that there would be no deployment of the port engine thrust reverser. Looking out he saw that the spoilers had deployed on the wings but he needed the reverse thrust to slow the speeding jet before reaching the end of runway, which was approaching fast. He knew he should eject, but had already decided not to leave Brains to his fate in the rear cockpit.
‘Oh shit. Brace, brace, brace!’ Falcon shouted, booted in right rudder and selected up on the undercarriage lever.
From the airfield’s control tower, the operations staff watched in horror as the jet slewed down on the runway in a shower of sparks. Sliding off the edge of the runway, it threw up clouds of desert sand, undercarriage legs, wheels and debris as fire streamed back from ruptured fuel tanks. Coming to a halt right way up there was a short silence before, with a loud bang and a whoosh, the front seat fired in an un-commanded ejection and smashed straight through the canopy, sending Falcon high into the sky. The airfield’s large crash tenders chasing the jet down the runway caught up and began smothering the fire with foam. Crash crews leapt up on the fuselage, smashed the jammed and shattered rear canopy free with axes and dragged out an unconscious Brains as the limp body of the pilot floated down under the deployed parachute, swaying as it got caught in the jet wash of his wingman’s Tornado as it climbed away. Hanging lifeless in his harness with blood streaming down his face from a jagged splinter of Perspex embedded in his eye, Falcon hit the ground with a thump.