Short Story (Military)
Aircraft 6205 was the last operational Skyhawk in the Royal NZ Air Force. Its last flight should have been routine, but it wasn't! Coarse language.
Photo: RNZAF Official.
The heat came off the concrete in waves, distorting the air and making the control tower shimmer in the haze. A trickle of sweat ran down Paul’s back as he walked across the apron of Ohakea Air Force Base, towards aircraft 205. Even after two thousand hours flying A-4K Skyhawks, Paul felt his pulse quicken as he walked towards her. She looked ready to leap off the hardstand and take to the air. The front landing gear was a little higher than the main gear under the wings, giving her a slight nose-up attitude of barely restrained violence. The green, khaki and brown camouflage paint was designed to hide her from high flying fighters as she flew close to the deck, seeking ground targets for her bombs and missiles. No ordnance today though, this was a ferry mission. The last flight of a Royal New Zealand Air Force Skyhawk. 205 was heading to Woodburne to be mothballed. Just thinking about it brought bile to the back of Paul’s throat.
Three years ago, back in 2001, the NZ government had disbanded the Air Combat Force. Too expensive. Bollocks! Where’s the threat, they said. Let the Aussies defend us, more likely!
Paul nodded to the groundies as he started his pre-flight walk around. The flight sergeant held up two hands, three fingers held up on each, indicating the hydraulic pressure in both systems was correct. Paul waved in acknowledgement and after completing his own checks, climbed the ladder to the cockpit, three metres above the concrete. Paul settled himself in the seat, wrapped in a narrow hot cocoon of metal, plastic, oil and from outside, the smell of kerosene. It was so tight Paul needed help to put on his seatbelts, provided by the flight sergeant who’d followed him up the ladder. But Paul knew the location of every switch by feel. Start-up complete, Paul called the tower and received clearance to taxi.
205 surged forward, eager to be off. The A-4K didn’t have a steerable nose wheel and Paul used the brakes on each of the main gear to follow the turns of the taxiway by braking one wheel more than the other. He was number one for take-off and paused on the runway threshold for a Hercules transport to land. Then it was his turn. Lining up on the runway centreline he pushed the throttle to the stops. No afterburner on a Skyhawk, but the 8,500 pounds of thrust from the single Pratt & Whitney jet engine felt like being kicked in the back by a small donkey. Paul couldn’t stop himself from grinning as 205 left the earth behind, returning to her natural element. He banked west, heading for the designated low flying zone along the coast. He had approval for some final fun before heading south to Woodburne.
It was a clear sunny day, the light streamed through the Perspex canopy. Paul let his mind wander back to another beautiful day, thirteen years ago; his first day on the squadron. He’d spent nearly two years training to get there. Basic training, wilderness survival, officer cadet training, propeller flying training and finally jet training on the Strikemaster. Of the one hundred and fifty trainees who started, only five passed the course. And only he made it into Skyhawks.
Pilot Officer Paul Rivers; it had a nice ring to it. He’d never flown a Skyhawk before although he'd been at Ohakea for most of his training and had watched them on the flight line. He wasn’t scared, not really. Anticipatory nerves. Yes, and they’re normal. Adrenalin to keep him on task without spilling over into jitters. Before he had to fly the single-seat A-4K, he’d receive training in the two-seat TA-4K. How tough could it be? Sure it’d be hard work, but he’d come this far.
He was about to knock on the door to the squadron ready room but stopped himself in time. I belong here. He grasped the cool chrome knob, twisted it firmly and walked in. Three other pilots were there watching TV news of the first coalition airstrikes into Iraq. It was 17 January 1991.
A guy with a 1970s porn moustache looked up and said, “Ah, fresh meat.”
The second pilot was too intent on the TV to notice. He said, “And that’s how you use a paveway ladies and gentleman, look at those babies go.” He was watching footage of GBU-12 Paveway II 500lb bombs blowing the crap out of the Iraqi command, control and communications network. Skyhawks were equipped with the GBU-16, the 1,000lb version from the same family of guided munitions. So watching this war unfold was on every Skyhawk pilot’s to-do list. Especially as NZ’s other Skyhawk squadron, No. 2, based in Nowra Australia, was already on its way to the middle-east.
The last pilot present looked at Paul. “You must be Rivers. I’m Flight Lieutenant John Packer, your conversion instructor and flight leader.” Paul offered his hand but Packer had already turned away to pick up a personnel file he’d been reading.
“I see you failed more than half your Strikemaster check flights on the first attempt. You’ll need to do better than that if you want to make the grade here.”
Oh shit, thought Paul. Those were one-off mistakes that I corrected in order to pass. But all he said was, “Yes, sir.”
“If you pass,” continued Packer, “and from what I’ve read, that’s a big if, then you’ll fly as my wingman. That means you’ll have my life in your hands, as well as your own. And I won’t put you in that position if you’re not up to it. Dismissed.” Paul turned and left, closing the door carefully behind him. This was nuts. He’d made sacrifices to be here. Worked his guts out. And this guy had made up his mind before even meeting him. There was no-one else in the corridor so he slumped against the wall and rubbed both eyes with the heels of his hands. And what’s this “dismissed” shit? It was the ready room for Christ’s sake. He had every right to be there. Maybe he should have asked to fly helicopters!
Paul’s first flight in the Skyhawk ended in a huge grin. The second almost ended in disaster.
“That’ll get you killed, and me with you if you're leading,” shouted Packer. “What were you thinking?”
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s different to the Strikemaster and I’d just received the call from the controller and I guess I missed it.”
“Not good enough. We’ll debrief fully at 1630 and we’ll do it again tomorrow. Fail it again and you’ll be as welcome here as a fart in the cockpit. I’ll bounce you back to the training squadron so fast it’ll make your head spin.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I will, sir.” But Packer had already stormed off.
After a gruelling debrief, Paul collapsed into a chair in the ready room. The air war was playing out on CNN for the people at home. The new US F-117 stealth fighter was bombing the Iraqis into oblivion with impunity.
“Tough hop?” asked porn moustache.
“Brutal. I made a minor blue during Instrument Flight Rules familiarisation. I set the compass heading incorrectly and didn’t pick it up. Packer reamed me over it three times; cockpit, flight line and debrief!”
“Yeah, well, that’s a quick way to get dead. Do that to the northwest and we’ll be scraping you off of Mount Taranaki.”
Paul just stared at him. He’d been too busy feeling hard done by to properly analyse his mistake. Shit! It would be easier to take if Packer wasn’t right. He needed to lift his game! Didn’t make Packer less of a prick though.
Two months later Paul sat in the debriefing room after his final evaluation hop.
“Okay,” said Packer, “that was adequate. Looks like you’ll be my wingman after all.”
Adequate? Fuck me!
“Sir, are you saying there were mistakes that you were unhappy with?”
“No, I’m saying your performance was passable. You still have a long way to go, but the basic building blocks are there. I believe we can make you into a strike pilot after all.”
Paul’s cheeks coloured. “With all due respect, sir, what errors did I make that allowed me to only scrape through? My performance felt better than that to me. Tell me what you were unhappy with so I can work on it.”
Packer cocked his head to one side and stared at him across the desk. The silence unnerved Paul who said, “It…it seems like you’ve been riding me from day one and no matter how well I do it’s never enough.”
Packer snapped, “Damn right I have. This is 75 Squadron. The best of the best. It’s my job to make sure you measure up. Your performance might get you a pat on the head and a steady figure on civvie street, but here you need to bring your A-game, all day, every day. You can’t cruise!”
That was such an unreasonable statement, it made something snap inside Paul. “Not once have you seen me cruise. I recognise the honour and privilege, but I deserve to be here … sir!”
The corner of Packer’s mouth twitched. He said calmly, “Yes, you do. Strike pilots need more than just skill. We need to be aggressive, something I haven’t seen from you until now. That passion you currently have in your guts, recognise it, harness it. Now get a good night’s sleep, tomorrow is your first day as a full member of the squadron, and there’s a ground attack training mission to prep for.”
Paul smiled at the memory. The beach flashed by only fifty feet below. He felt totally alive, master of his fate.
Surprisingly Packer’s advice had been on the money, and he’d become more of a mentor to Paul after that.
A wall of seagulls appeared in front of him. Oh shit! Paul pulled back hard on the stick to climb above them, but there was no time. Birds were sucked into the engine. There was a loud bang and the plane shuddered as the fan blades shattered and the compressor stalled. The cockpit was filled with caution lights and audible warnings. He knew the engine was dead even before he scanned the instruments. He was climbing at about 45° and quickly pushed the stick forward into a slight pitch up attitude. With 350 knots airspeed, the Skyhawk would fly for a few more seconds before it turned into a brick, and a very slight climb would make his ejection a little safer.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday. Skyhawk 205, going down over Foxton Beach.”
Time to go. Paul pulled his calves back against the seat, pushed his head back and tucked his elbows in. He reached for the yellow and black handle above his head and pulled down. Nothing happened. Oh fuck! Without moving his head he reached between his legs and pulled the secondary handle there. Bang! The canopy shattered and the slipstream whipped at Paul’s face. Another bang and the ESCAPAC ejection seat leapt out of the plane with Paul attached. The rocket motor carried him clear of 205 which dropped its right-wing and crashed into the sand, erupting in a ball of flame.
Paul’s parachute opened, pulling him away from the seat. And there was the ground coming straight at him. No time for the post-ejection checklist. He glanced at the canopy and was relieved to see it fully open, then tucked his feet, bent his knees and prepared to hit hard. His left foot hit the ground and he let himself collapse with the momentum, rolling over in the sand. He lay on his back looking up at the blue sky. It didn’t seem quite so beautiful after trying to kill him.
Paul stood up and pulled the parachute release. His entire body ached!
The wup wup of the rescue helo made him turn to look, and then twist away as the UH-1’s downwash pelted him with sand.
Squadron Leader Packer ran over to Paul. “Are you all right, Rivers?”
“What the hell happened?”
“Bird strike, sir.”
"Well, shit!" Packer removed his uniform cap and rubbed his face. "That aircraft was supposed to become a museum piece."
Paul gave a thin smile. "I guess the birds had other ideas, sir."
This story is fiction based on historical facts. Aircraft NZ6205 was the last operational A-4K Skyhawk in the RNZAF. It was flown from Ohakea to Woodburne on 30 July 2004, to be mothballed, by Flight Lieutenant C.L. “Undies” Underwood. It arrived safely and was transferred to the Air Force Museum of NZ in October 2012. Of the 24 Skyhawks that saw service in the RNZAF over 31 years, seven aircraft were destroyed in accidents and, sadly, three pilots lost their lives.
I wrote a piece of music about The Last Skyhawk and you can listen to it here.