On May 30th 1953, I was a Flying Officer with 112(F) Squadron RAF, flying Vampire Mk V's and based at Jever in northern Germany. Sharks' teeth painted under the nose distinguished our aircraft. Our squadron badge shows a black Egyptian cat and the motto underneath reads: 'Swift In Destruction'. I was 21 and midway through my first tour on a fighter squadron. For the last ten days we had been detached to the Armament Practice Camp at Sylt, flying two or three sorties daily, trying to punch 40mm cannon shells through a fluttering fabric flag towed by a Tempest. Using the old ring and bead gunsight, the flags were no easy targets. My best score to date was 4 hits from 50 rounds. It was considered I might benefit from some dual instruction under a PAI (Pilot Attack Instructor).
A Vampire T.X1, WV477, had recently arrived on station for that very purpose. On the morning of the 30th I had flown two solo sorties, registering 2 hits out of 50 rounds on each occasion. In the afternoon I was to fly with a PAI, Flying Officer Jenner, in the T.X1. The ranges were two miles out to sea, requiring us to sit on rock-hard dinghy packs rather than the soft sorbo-rubber cushion we were used to. Most of us ignored the rules and dispensed with the dingy, figuring we always glide to the nude bathing beach and plop down among the sand dunes should the need arise. Since we wore little but underpants beneath our lightweight flying overalls we would soon be able to mingle in with the crowd. I did not wear the dinghy pack on this occasion, and it was not until we reached the ranges and extended the retractable gunsight that I realised the error of my ways - I could not see through it without standing on the rudder pedals - all because, said Jenner, I wasn't sitting on a dinghy.
The result was an aborted sortie. You cannot fly a decent curve of pursuit while standing on the pedals - the shells are spread over a wide arc of sky. Jenner was most displeased and the atmosphere in the cockpit on the short return to Sylt was distinctly cool. Down came the wheels at 600 feet on finals - two greens, one red! Since we were not talking at the time, I failed to mention the missing green until we were down to 100 feet and a red Very light issued from the caravan.
At circuit height, several recycles failed to resolve the problem. I was instructed to pump down the offending wheel using the emergency hydraulic pump. The handle was inconveniently positioned at shoulder height between the two pilots and proved to be locked solid. Away from the circuit, considerable 'G' was applied to no avail. By this time we were low on fuel, having been airborne for over an hour. Getting desperate now, Jenner said I should unstrap myself and kneel on the seat facing aft to allow both hands to work the lever. It still would not budge. Jenner turned his head and tried to assist with his right hand. For a moment his eyes met mine as we strained to move the lever. I saw them widen with alarm at the roar of approaching engines. Before he could take any action, the cockpit darkened as the underbelly of a Valetta flashed past on a reciprocal heading and no more than ten feet above. Our closing speed must have been 300 knots or more.
By now we had only sufficient fuel for one circuit; we would have to land wheels up on the crash-strip. The tower was informed, the crash crews ready and waiting. We unfastened our parachutes and released all connections between ourselves and the aircraft other than the safety harness. Jenner briefed that he would close the HP cock just before touchdown. My job was to press the fire extinguisher button, located on the centre coaming, when we hit the ground.
The approach and landing on the grass of the strip was copybook, marred only by the fact that the grass had not been cut for months and was 18 inches high. My finger, poised over the fire button, waited till we hit terra firma - and firm it was. On contact with the ground the button became a blur, pitching wildly up and down, constantly evading my probing finger. We slithered to a halt. I pressed the button, punched the quick release of my harness, opened the top hatch and grasping the windscreen frame hauled myself out of the cockpit. As a single-seat fighter pilot I didn't sit around in a crashed aeroplane waiting for it to burst into flames.
The fire truck and blood-wagon were already in attendance and the Station Commander driving up in his Opel Kapitan to park by the stricken Vampire's wing. Jenner had still made no move to vacate the cockpit. On someone's orders, the fire crew sprayed the lot, including the Station Commander's Opel, with foam. Seconds later a bedraggled Jenner emerged, covered with foam and sporting the brightest and bloodiest nose-bleed I had ever seen.
At first I thought his injuries must have been caused during the landing, but he soon informed me of the true facts. When I had hauled myself upright, my harness had flailed out, a metal buckle striking him smartly across the nose.
We were never firm friends after that and, of course, my scores did not improve. It was only after another session with a different PAI that I occasionally managed to get 25% of my shells to make holes in the flag. That was considered to be pretty good for air-to-air in those days and I finished that detachment with a 'Good Average' assessment.