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A Valiant Ending

Brian Sidebotham (Branch Chairman 2004 - 2010)

The morning in question, in August 1964 at RAF Gaydon, Air Traffic Control Squadron was expecting an average number of Victor and Valiant departures, mainly flying 232 OCU training sorties, which would return several hours later, usually to fly circuits before finally landing. A mix of visiting aircraft types was also likely. I was in our darkened approach control room, on a radar console providing departure services to the Gaydon four-jet stream. We will give the Valiant in this story the call-sign Tango Echo; the airframe number was WP217, I believe.

The tower building was about 1200ft north of the runway, roughly equidistant from each end.

Soon, and despite our sound-proofing, double-glazing and well padded headsets, Tango Echo

audibly roared past on R/W 27. As the engine noise diminished, the captain's voice came up

in my headset for the usual exchange of pleasantries and business before he settled into a

climb heading for mid Wales. The captain was Welsh, a well-experienced pilot and a popular

and respected flight lieutenant. I recognised his unhurried, deep, Welsh voice immediately.

Before long, I used our direct line to Mersey Radar, a long-range 'area' air traffic control radar unit, situated in a bunker under the Cheshire meadows. (One never asked, "Is that Mersey Radar?" because in deference to the Beatles they would usually say, "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!") They were expecting Tango Echo. I identified the radar track to their controller and, there being no other aircraft near the Valiant, I was about to pass handover instructions when the captain called me: "Gaydon, Tango-Echo, we've just had a hell of a bang in this aircraft. We all heard it, but the strange thing is everything seems to be OK! We're coming back to Gaydon, it was a very loud bang indeed!" Could they have hit another aircraft....: under the nose perhaps? I was certain nothing else was painting on our radar and Mersey Radar wouldn't have accepted the handover if they could see any other traffic conflicting. A high flying glider, perhaps? Gliders could be 'stealthy', although we didn't call it that in those days.

The Valiant was turning, somewhere near Welshpool, to roll out on a heading spot on for Gaydon. On the way down Tango Echo reported that the crew had made a thorough check and inspection of the aircraft, as far as possible from the inside, and could find nothing amiss. They wondered, therefore, if the dinghy hatch had jettisoned from its location above and behind the crew compartment, an area they could not inspect from inside the aircraft. Our radar director (or marshaller) accepted control from me.

As departing traffic was now light, I was able to observe the progress of the Valiant. I climbed the stairs to Aerodrome Control where a small group of senior officers, engineers and aircrew, were considering the problem. It seemed that they, too, thought the dinghy hatch might have been the cause of the bang and a run past the tower, so that we could see the upper fuselage surfaces, was suggested and accepted by Tango Echo.

Before long, the white painted WP217 came into view and cruised gracefully over Gaydon, to take up a downwind easterly heading, 2000ft above the airfield. We could hear developments as the radar director's frequency was selected on a spare loudspeaker. The aircraft would go some 10 miles downwind, before being turned left onto a northerly heading and then left and left again onto the duty runway heading. Whilst downwind the necessary checks would be carried out by the crew.

Soon the aircraft captain spoke again, "Gaydon, Tango Echo, when we selected some flap just now the aircraft started to roll - so we've put the flaps up again. It looks as if the flap torque shaft might be broken?" Those in the tower seemed a little relieved to hear this possible explanation for the bang. They conferred before saying to the controller, "Tell him we think the torque shaft could have caused the bang, but we'd still like the low pass to have a look at the dinghy hatch." This was duly passed to Tango Echo, who replied, "Roger, but we didn't have any flap selected when we had the bang - there was no load on the flap torque shaft at the time?"

A flapless approach by a Valiant with a heavy fuel load would be a fast approach, but otherwise

a fairly routine procedure from our viewpoint. Tango Echo turned onto the final approach heading

at a range of 8 nms to overshoot R/W 27. The weather was fine, a typical summer's day in fact,

and we could see the aircraft from several miles out. It levelled very low over the runway threshold,

dipped the starboard wing slightly, sufficient for us to see more of the upper surface of the fuselage

than usual, before sweeping past the tower in a majestic roar of jet noise. The dinghy hatch was

firmly in place. I don't think the aircrew were surprised to hear this news; the whole business of the

bang was an absolute mystery, compounded by the flap complication. It was decided that Tango

Echo would fly flapless instrument circuits until down to a safe landing weight.

We did not know it at the time, but, before long, WP217 was making its very last approach to land. The crash/rescue vehicles were ready to follow the aircraft down the runway from the halfway point (4500ft), so that they could immediately attend if needed. Two staff cars were waiting at the upwind end with the executives, alongside a minibus carrying technicians. The aircraft landed, touching down fast but gently; soon to be followed by the red vehicles, all in radio contact as a 'combine' with the tower. The landing run was long and when the aircraft stopped, firemen moved in to look after the brakes, which would be very hot. The executives and the technicians walked to the aircraft and we could see people pointing up at the starboard wing root. The captain radioed the tower to say they had shut down all four engines and would be towed back to their dispersal. I never saw the aircraft again, however I was later told that the rear wing spar had broken at the root and was visibly 'sagging'. Many rivets had popped out and the aircraft skin under the wing was corrugated in places!

Investigations began immediately and most Gaydon Valiants were grounded. Nobody really believed that the aircraft would be withdrawn from RAF service, but gradually it became known that this was, indeed, the case. Before many months had passed the Gaydon aircraft were stripped of useful components and handed over to the salvage men. My last, very sad, recollection of these once proud and elegant aircraft was to see them lying on different dispersals, upside down, wings clipped and with wheels down (so up! - they looked like dead turkeys) and at the mercy of the breakers.

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