Sixty seconds was all Lieutenant Commander Chris Götke had to save a rare, important Hawker Sea Fury T.20 from destruction. Fortunately this highly experienced former test pilot was exactly the right man when things started to go wrong. Now, three years after the incident that could so easily have ended in disaster, on 1 September the Navy Wings aircraft has flown again, in the hands of the man who brought it safely down after its Bristol Centaurus engine failed.
Lieutenant Commander Chris Götke AFC performing pre-flight checks on Sea Fury VX281, and the moment the Bristol Centaurus engine bursts into life
I interviewed Lieutenant Commander Götke in 2016 when the Royal Navy Historic Flight moved to a new hangar and offices at RNAS Yeovilton, signalling a new chapter for the RN’s aviation heritage arm. Götke was well into the Sea Fury’s smooth, dynamic display on 31 July 2014 when spectators saw smoke burst from the cowling and the pilot felt a vibration through the airframe. Exactly one minute later, the aircraft touched the ground, landing on its belly.
During the research for a piece on landing accidents aboard HMS Illustrious it had been clear that the Sea Fury could sometimes nose over during forced landings. I asked Lieutenant Commander Götke how aware of this he was as he was attempting to bring the aircraft in to land – “Massively aware,” was the answer. Lieutenant Commander Götke went on to describe the incident, moment by moment – the thought-processes he describes seem astonishing for a non-pilot to hear, reflecting total calm, a thoroughly systematic approach in the face of considerable danger and a constant assessment of the risks and the necessary actions:
“It was basically a sixty-second event, from initiation to being on the ground. I thought the first fifteen seconds was a vibration through the airframe – a magneto issue or a fuel control issue. There was no way I thought there was a lump of metal the size of a small saucepan bouncing around on the inside of the engine forty times per second. The first fifteen seconds, the aeroplane wasn’t decelerating, the RPM was still there. It was only when I got to fifteen seconds when I put the nose over – I’d obviously gone behind the crowd by then, and was in a lovely, low-key position to come round the corner, with power available if I needed it.
“So I put the gear down.”
“As soon as I put the gear down, the nose went lower and lower and lower. And this was probably the engine destroying itself inside, it couldn’t maintain twenty-four-hundred RPM. Because RPM maximum is twenty-seven-hundred, in display is twenty-four-hundred, and it cruises at fifteen-hundred.
The graceful but imposing sight of VX281 in flight
“So twenty-four-hundred RPM, and that’s the final engine speed, so I know I can just get round the corner. But then the nose went through the horizon massively – I could see, forty-five degrees nose down, where I was going to hit, and it was kind of like ‘oh’. Because the gear was down, you will tip over as you’ve said, so we don’t actually land Sea Furies on grass. We can, obviously we did in the old days, but now we don’t have the experience to. We could, but we don’t. So I just ended it at that point in time, because I had to jump out because it would flip over and I’d be trapped.
“And it was then back into gear back up again, into auto for the RPM. It was probably the RPM that made the biggest difference, not really anything to do with the landing gear. I mean, the gear went ‘clunk’, and that fixed my decision at that point – I’m staying, because that’s when the aeroplane started flying, and around she came.
“There were different places I was thinking of going. At the beginning I was thinking I was going to jump out, then it was going to go into a small field, then I could make the grass. And it was only at forty-five seconds when I thought I could cruise that half-mile to the runway and nine-point-five seconds was available for the gear to travel, and I needed ten and a bit. Another second and it would have locked out, I would have rolled down the runway and everything would have been OK.
“I must say I thought I’d got away with it, and at the touchdown at sixty seconds, it was on both wheels, but obviously it rolled. And it literally was that, one more second and it would have locked out. There was quite a long discussion in the warbird community… you know, we go to events, a warbird symposium normally between ourselves and whoever else wants to do it – BBMF, some of the Duxford operators and so forth, and it was quite interesting talk, do you put the gear down, do you put the gear up? It was ninety-something percent of the way there.
“I had all the highs and the lows! The exhilaration of flying the aeroplane through not too bad, through to ‘oh my golly, I’m going to have to jump out,’ to ‘hmm, I think I’m going to get away with it,’ to ‘ooh I think I can get to Culdrose,’ through to ‘I think I can just about get the runway, wouldn’t it be nice to put down its wheels, let’s give it a go. I think I’ve got away with it… no I haven’t.’”
The aircraft sustained relatively light damage to its airframe and was repaired at North Weald. The Centaurus engine, the cause of the incident, took a little longer to rectify as a new engine was needed. This was obtained via a £200,000 appeal by the Fly Navy Heritage Trust, which owns the aircraft and loans it to the RNHF. The actions of the Trust and the generosity of supporters made the return to flight possible.
VX281 taxies safely back to her hangar after a test flight
A video is available online showing the incident, which bears out Lieutenant Commander Götke’s report to the second. It’s somewhat shaky and taken from outside the fence, but shows the whole incident without edits so the timings can be seen:
0.43 – smoke appears
0.59 – undercarriage down, angle of descent steepens
1.09 – steepness of descent lessens, undercarriage up
1.27 – flaps down but undercarriage up, Sea Fury lines up with runway
1.36 – undercarriage doors beginning to extend
1.40 – port undercarriage leg extended
1.41 – starboard undercarriage leg extends
1.43 – wheels touch, starboard undercarriage leg begins to fold
It was an astounding piece of flying which won Lieutenant Commander Götke the AFC, and ensured the Sea Fury could be returned to flight and be seen once more in the skies as a tribute to Fleet Air Arm aviators.
The Navy Wings charity, which supports the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s activities, held a Sea Fury Day at RNAS Yeovilton on 22 September to mark 65 years since the Sea Fury first met jet-powered MiG 15s in combat and emerged victorious. The event commemorated the outstanding flying skill and courage of young pilots in the Fleet Air Arm, including Brian ‘Smoo’ Ellis who was present as a young Sub Lieutenant that day in 1952 and contributed to the shooting down of a MiG, and who attended the event at Yeovilton.
Many thanks to Navy Wings and the RNHF for their assistance with this article
Navy Wings website https://www.navywings.org.uk/
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