The Day The Royal Air Force Lost Six Jet Fighters In Just 45 Minutes

As bad weather closed in on their base, eight Hawker Hunters diverted to an alternate location. It didn’t end well. 

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The early days of jet fighter operations were notoriously hazardous, especially when the rate of non-combat losses is compared with today’s accident rates. But even by the standards of the 1950s, the loss of six aircraft in a single peacetime mission was highly unusual.

At 1050 hours on the morning of February 8, 1956, eight Royal Air Force Hawker Hunter F1 jet fighters began taking off from their base at West Raynham, Norfolk, for a routine four-versus-four aerial combat exercise that would be conducted at around 45,000 feet over the airfield. The jets belonged to the Day Fighter Leader School, part of the Central Fighter Establishment, the RAF unit responsible for the development of fighter aircraft tactics. Two of the jets were flown by instructor pilots, while the other six had student pilots at their controls. 

TERRY FLEMING

The eight Day Fighter Leader Squadron Hunter F1s lined up at RAF West Raynham before their fateful flight.

 

After around 20 minutes’ flying, the pilots had completed their maneuvers and, with the Hunters starting to run low on fuel, it was time for them to return to base. However, the weather over West Raynham had now deteriorated, and they were instead diverted to RAF Marham, approximately 20 miles south. At this point, the jets had sufficient fuel left for around 20 minutes of flying. 

Once at Marham, the Hunters were running critically low on fuel. Compounding matters, the weather at Marham had now worsened, too, with cloud and fog sweeping in from the North Sea, meaning visibility was reduced “alarmingly quickly,” and the base’s air traffic controllers were unfamiliar with the Hunter. 

The fighters now dropped down to around 2,000 feet and formed up in pairs separated by 30-second intervals. 

The first pair of Hunters emerged from the cloud to find fog and quickly lost sight of each other. The lead jet overshot the runway while his wingman touched down safely at Marham — total flying time, 42 minutes. The lead also got down safely, but it required three more circuits and the jet’s fuel tanks were empty by the time it rolled off the runway. 

The next pair was less lucky. The pilot of one Hunter struggled to find the runway through the fog, before making the decision to climb to altitude and then eject. The pilot of the fourth jet elected to continue his approach to the runway, but his jet crashed in a field a couple of miles from the airstrip, and he was tragically killed.

Of the next two fighters, one was down to the last few gallons of fuel in its tanks and, after an aborted approach, the pilot also made the call to eject. His wingman, meanwhile, made a low approach before spotting trees in his path, forcing him to pull up. He made another circuit around the airfield at 150 feet and was on approach before the Hunter’s engine flamed out. The fighter overshot the runway and then belly-landed beyond it. 

TERRY FLEMING

The Ground Control Approach caravan at RAF West Raynham at the time of the incident. 

In the chaos that ensued, the pilots of the two remaining fuel-starved aircraft abandoned their approaches and then ejected in quick succession — from 4,000 feet and 2,500 feet. Their aircraft came down in open country, around the area of Swaffham, where local firefighters dealt with the flames. 

The four pilots who had ejected didn’t suffer any serious injuries and there were no civilian casualties.  

Questions were soon asked in parliament as to what exactly had gone wrong. Of particular concern was the fact that limited fuel loads had also been a factor in an accident the previous November, when three out of five jets, two of them Hunters, crashed in southeast England. In this incident, too, the jets had run out of fuel after poor weather forced them to divert to another airfield.

THE AVIATION HISTORIAN

A pre-delivery photo of RAF Hunter F1 WT594.

The day after the accident, a Labour member of parliament, George Wigg, noted in the Commons that “there has always been a suspicion that [the Hunter] Marks I and II are liable to be deficient in fuel if a crisis arises” and then questioned whether the Ground Control Approach (GCA) system used to aid landings in poor weather at the two bases had broken down.

The Secretary of State for Air, Nigel Birch, confirmed that it was indeed the problematic Rolls-Royce Avon-engined Hunter F1 that had been involved. “I would point out that all modern fighter aircraft have quite short flying duration, and the difficulty is that the lower they get the higher is their fuel consumption,” he noted and confirmed that all aircraft had taken off with full fuel loads. A member of parliament (MP) from the Labour Party, John Strachey, commented that “There is increasing anxiety in the House at the apparent fact that the modifications which have taken place in the Hunter aircraft have not made it capable of flying effectively in the conditions of service life.”

ALAN WILSON/CREATIVE COMMONS

Hunter WT680 is one of a handful of surviving F1 variants, now preserved outside a motel in Lincolnshire, England.

In April 1956, the results of the inquiry into the accident were made public. It became clear that the decision to take off that morning from West Raynham, despite poor weather, was based on a forecast suggesting that “an improvement was likely.” This prognosis had been confirmed by a weather reconnaissance flight by a Hunter from West Raynham at 0930 hours. However, the co-located Air Fighting Development School had canceled its flying operations for the day.

It was found that while West Raynham’s GCA was unserviceable, that at Marham was working normally. The Secretary of State for Air then recounted what happened next:

“Bad weather procedure was in force from the commencement of the exercise and pilots had been briefed before the flight to return overhead West Raynham at 20,000 feet by 1115 hours. This timing took into account the endurance of the aircraft. Sufficient time was allowed for controlled descents to be completed by 1130 at the diversion airfields. By 1100 hours the weather at West Raynham had deteriorated, and it was therefore decided by West Raynham that, at the end of the exercise, the aircraft should be diverted to Marham, where visual landings were then practicable. The aircraft returned overhead 20,000 feet [at] West Raynham in accordance with their flight instructions just after 1110 hours. When they started to descend from this altitude under the control of West Raynham the weather was, in fact, still suitable for visual circuits and landings at Marham.

Visibility deteriorated very suddenly during the few critical minutes when the descent and handover of ground control from West Raynham to Marham were in progress. This rapid change in the weather made Ground Control Approach landings imperative, but insufficient time was available to make the necessary change in procedure. The pilots were already approaching Marham prepared for, and committed to, visual landings, and were consequently so closely spaced that it was impossible to effect individual identification and to establish effective Ground Control Approach control. At this stage there was no time or fuel left to bring the aircraft under Ground Control Approach control in order to carry out the landings.

At the time of the accidents the weather conditions at Marham were cloud base 600 feet with visibility 800 to 1,000 yards in slight rain and drizzle with fog, and deteriorating. As far as it is possible to tell, the sudden deterioration was due to the presence of an extensive sheet of stratus cloud which spread into Norfolk unexpectedly from the sea during the late morning. The evidence taken at the Court of Inquiry indicates that the accidents were primarily caused by the sudden and unexpected deterioration in the weather. The question then arises whether, notwithstanding the deterioration that had taken place at West Raynham, the decision taken to divert the aircraft to Marham, spaced for visual landings, was correct. This diversion was ordered on the assumption that visual landings would be possible. The Court of Inquiry came to the conclusion that this assumption constituted an error of judgment on the part of the Control staff at West Raynham who failed to appreciate that, because of the relative positions of the two airfields, it was probable that any deterioration in the weather at West Raynham would affect Marham shortly afterwards, thus necessitating Ground Control Approach landings there.”

After a review of all the facts, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, RAF Fighter Command, decided to take disciplinary action against the officers responsible for flying operations at West Raynham at the time. One officer was removed from his position and three others disciplined. 

“I am satisfied that, having regard to the meteorological forecast, confirmed by a special weather reconnaissance flight, it was a proper and reasonable decision for the exercise to take place. I am also satisfied that the pilots were competent to undertake the flights; that the aircraft were serviceable and had adequate fuel for the exercise, and that the endurance of the aircraft had no direct bearing on the accidents — this factor having been provided for in the flight arrangements,” the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief concluded. 

The loss of six jet fighters in a single day, let alone in the space of 45 minutes, seems incredible now, even more so the fact that these Hunters were among the latest and most sophisticated equipment to have been delivered to the RAF. The reason for their loss — simply running out of fuel — makes the event all the more extraordinary. It’s a reminder, however, of a very different time in military aviation, in which the loss of aircraft — and the loss of human life — was a sadly regular occurrence. 

Thanks to West Raynham Control Tower.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com