Tornado Down

 

Commodore Mike Heath,50, is a Ministry of Defence planning director. Married to Margaret, a teacher, he has two children and lives in Maidenhead, Berkshire.

Mike says: In 1990, during the Gulf War, I was with Squadron Leader Peter Eatson, known as Batty, on a night-time sortie, leading a formation of eight Tornados on a bombing run to Iraq. We had a full bomb and fuel load, got airborne, then hit a snag: the control column wouldn’t move to the right.

We were flying out of Tabouk in Saudi Arabia; a classic Saudi town in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of the Empty Quarter — the bit of the desert everybody saw in Lawrence of Arabia. So we handed over the lead of the sortie and went south to jettison the bombs and a bit of fuel, the idea being that if we light­ened the plane, we might be able to tip it upside down:

if there was something just jamming the controls, we would shake it out. I was annoyed because as a squadron commander leading a wartime sortie, I should not have been wondering what the hell had gone wrong with the plane I was flying.

We shook the plane around for about half an hour, but couldn’t fix the problem. So we flew back to base and tried to land — but every time we lined it up, the  wind blew us off. We’d been trying for about an hour ~ by the time we decided to throw the plane away. The Saudis launched a rescue helicopter and we went to a pre-designated ejection point. Every airfield has one: in the UK, they’re mostly over the North Sea. It’s a safe place where you can take the plane where it won’t kill anyone after you eject. A Tornado costs something in the region of £98 million, a lot of money to throw away, but that’s not really on your mind. You put the controls in position to make the plane crash quickly after you eject. I tightened my straps and said, ‘On a countdown of ten.’ I remember getting to five and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I hope I’ve got the courage to do this.’ It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my career, it was so premeditated. When we ended up in hospital, Batty said, ‘For goodness sake, next time you count down to ten, pull the handle at eight and surprise me.’

I remember it as if I were watching a slow motion film. It seemed like a lifetime before anything happened — although in fact it takes only 0.6 seconds between pulling the handle and the cockpit canopy flying off. There was an enormous bang; then I remember that although it was pitch black, there was this enormous pool of white light from the flash of the ejection rocket’s explosion. I was just watching the plane disappear beneath me. I’ve only ever done three parachute jumps. We don’t train; we used to, but we were breaking too many arms and legs. The next thing — and this was a moment of sheer fear, was that the rescue helicopter seemed to be flying straight at me. I was still looking up when I hit the desert and landed on solid rock. I catapulted forward, hit my head and knocked myself out. When I came to, the helicopter was a few miles away; it hadn’t seen us.

Batty was about 400 yards away. He’d hurt his knee. On our hand-held radios we checked that we were both alive. We didn’t chat the war was still going on and it’s the same frequency for anybody else in trouble. Then we fired off our flares. The helicopter was actually flying back to base, because it was low on fuel, when it went over the top of us and saw us.

They flew us back to hospital at Wroughton, near Swindon. I was home for two weeks, but I felt I had a moral obligation to get back to my men. I was back there for five days when the war ended. I flew again on the last day. Normally, there would have been a full board of inquiry, but the Air Force decided that with a war on, there wasn’t an opportunity to recover the plane. However, the guns were full, there were missiles on it we couldn’t jettison, and there were Bedouin all over the desert, so they sent a junior officer out with a huge box of Semtex to blow it up. I swear he’s still got a grin on his face. Unfortu­nately, the Air Force had second thoughts and rescinded the order, but had no way of getting hold of our man. He reduced the plane to very small pieces. As I understand it, the plane is now in several hundred cardboard boxes at Farnborough.