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23 November 2015

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RAF Coningsby Gate Guardian, Phantom FGR2, XT891

Some aircraft hold a special place in RAF history and XT891, the RAF Coningsby Gate Guardian is certainly one. It was not the first Phantom delivered to the UK as that accolade goes to a prototype YF-4K which first flew on 27 June 1966 at the McDonnell Douglas plant in St. Louis. XT891, however, was the first delivered for operational service to the Royal Air Force.

Group Captain Stanley Mason formally accepted XT891, an F4M designated the FGR2 (Fighter, Ground Attack, Reconnaissance) in RAF service, in a ceremony at RAF Aldergrove on 20th July 1968. After acceptance, it arrived on 228 Operational Conversion Unit, or OCU, on 23 August 1968.

A twin stick variant, the rear cockpit had a different configuration to the normal Phantom. The layout of the cockpit consoles was revised to accommodate the throttles which were mounted on the left. Although these operated normally in the military power range, reheat could not be selected in the back. An enhanced flight instrument cluster sat at eye level in the back seat, although it restricted the forward view considerably. The floor mounted control column allowed the flying instructor in the rear cockpit to take control when needed. The “stick” could be removed to allow the radar scope to be pulled out from its housing, otherwise impossible if a stick was installed. For intercept training sorties this was the preferred configuration, although occasionally it remained fitted, allowing the staff navigators some “stick time”.

The trainer configuration was less common and each operational squadron had only one twin sticker although a much higher proportion were operated by the OCU at Coningsby because of the increased training task as pilots converted to the Phantom. In all other respects it was fully capable operationally.

Soon after its arrival XT891 moved across to 54 Squadron in the ground attack role remaining at Coningsby for some years serving another short stint on the OCU. When 56 Squadron reformed with Phantoms it became the Squadron “two sticker” serving as “Zulu” at RAF Wattisham before returning to the OCU at Coningsby and, eventually moving to RAF Leuchars where it wore the tail letters “Charlie Zulu”. Another stint at RAF Wattisham as “Sierra” on 74 Squadron ended its service career and it returned to its spiritual home at RAF Coningsby.

Once retired, officially, it adopted a ground instructional airframe number, 9136M, although it continues to wear its operational registration marks. Soon after being placed on display as the Station Gate Guardian it was repainted in the colours in which it first served in 1968. The square fin cap for the radar warning receiver was removed to return it to its original configuration and it reverted to the grey and green camouflaged pattern with red, white and blue roundels reminiscent of its early service during the Cold War. In subsequent years both 6 Squadron and 41 Squadron, both of which operated the type but not the actual airframe, laid claim to the airframe adding their own squadron markings.

Phantom Gate Guardian

Not all of its history has been incident free and its most infamous episode was when it demonstrated its “off road” capability when it left the side of the runway and the crew ejected. With the runways being resurfaced at RAF Coningsby the flying squadrons had detached to RAF Waddington on Operation “Bolthole”. On 6 March 1984, the instructor crew briefed a practice interception sortie to be flown over the North Sea and, having completed the mission, both aircraft recovered to RAF Waddington. The sortie was a “crew solo” so the instructor crew were flying together in XT891with the student crew in the accompanying Phantom. As they landed on the south westerly runway the pilot experienced an uncommanded deflection of the nosewheel steering and the jet left the side of the runway pointing at a group of buildings occupied by the 29 Squadron detachment. With little control over the aircraft and fearing a collision with a building the crew ejected. Their ejection sequence was normal, albeit brief, and they landed on the airfield after only seconds under their parachutes. Startled aircrew in the 29 Squadron complex scattered as the aircraft bore down on them but it veered back towards the runway coming to rest adjacent to the short runway. With no canopies, poles which had guided the seats from the cockpits and its engines still running, the emergency services gathered around the Phantom. The fire crews shut down the engines and made the aircraft safe before the engineering staff extracted the stricken jet from the grass where it had come to rest. Once it was recovered to a hangar for repairs, remarkably undamaged, new canopies were fitted and the aircraft was returned to service a few months later.

XT891 proved to be a little temperamental in its latter years. It developed a persistent problem with the fire warning circuitry and a number of crews experienced heart-stopping moments when combinations of fire lights illuminated. A fire warning was particularly significant in the Phantom as there were no fire extinguishers fitted. The emergency drill in the flip cards was particularly stark:

“If warning remains on or Fire test abnormal:

Check for other signs of fire.

If fire confirmed: EJECT.”

Luckily on both known occurrences the crew of a chase aircraft was able to offer reassurance that the warning seemed spurious, there were no external signs of fire and the crews landed safely at a diversion airfield. Technicians have since recalled that there were indeed signs of heat damage in the engine bays and that it had been lucky that a fire had not developed. The fault proved very difficult to eradicate at the time but XT891 survived. One of the incidents proved to be the navigator’s final flight on the Phantom but it was untrue that XT891 caused a premature end to his Phantom career as he had already received a posting to the newly arrived Tornado F3.

Unlike many of the unique Spey powered Phantoms, XT891 was saved from the scrap yard and is preserved as part of the RAF’s proud heritage. So next time you see the Gate Guardian you will know just a little more about its unusual history.

Editor Yvonne Masters

Thanks to Dave Gledhill

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