During my time flying Mirages I did have a few close calls. The first was while I was in 3 Squadron in Butterworth Malaysia. The Squadron was running a ground strafe program on the air weapons range known as Song Song. Song Song was an island to the North of Penang and on its Eastern side was a combined bombing and strafing area with a scoring facility for both. The bombing target was a marked raft of sorts in the water some 200 meters off shore. The strafe target was a series of nets strung between two poles each. These were situated on a spit of sand that ran for about 150 meters out from the scoring hut which was manned by a range safety officer and two scoring senior non-commissioned officers [usually sergeants] of the Royal Malaysian Air Force.
For most exercises a flight of four aircraft would conduct their operations on the range. The pattern flown by the aircraft was a rectangular pattern much like a circuit pattern for landing. The pattern consisted of the attack leg followed by a crosswind leg, a downwind leg and a base leg where the aircraft was setup accurately for the attack. The pattern altitude for strafe was 2,000 feet. Each aircraft was required to maintain visual contact with the aircraft in front and therefore safe separation, this ensured that attacks were completed safely. In Malaysia the visibility wasn’t always ideal particularly during ‘rice paddy burning season’. The standard operating procedure for having lost visual contact with the aircraft in front was to fly the correct ground track for the pattern but 500 feet lower than the prescribed pattern altitude, this would prevent any collisions should all go wrong.
On the day of my close call I was flying as Number #3 in the formation, the Squadron Commanding Officer was lead, Number #2 was a newly arrived pilot on the Squadron doing his first mission to Song Song and Number #4 was another experienced pilot with a lot of time on the range. The visibility was poor in smoke haze but otherwise clear of any other weather.
Following one of my attacks I heard the inexperienced Number #2 call “lost visual with lead”, this was answered by lead giving his position in the pattern. Number #2 could still not see lead and a couple more position calls by lead were given with the final one calling that he was on the base leg. At this point I was established on the crosswind leg at pattern altitude. Number #2 then called “visual”. Unbeknownst to me Number #2 had not followed the correct pattern track, he had flown South of the pattern and at pattern altitude, as soon as he regained ‘visual’ with his lead he made an aggressive manoeuvre to catch up and regain his position in the pattern. In doing so Number #2 crossed the nose of my aircraft approximately five meters in front of me. The jet wash of his aircraft at this range was incredibly violent and I subsequently lost control of my aircraft at only 2,000 feet above the water with it ending up in a very steep dive attitude.
I knew that I was well outside the safe ejection envelope with such a steep dive so all I could do was to pull sharply back on the stick and hope that I would miss the water. I actually thought that an impact was inevitable however, after what seemed like a very long time I was relieved to realise that the aircraft was climbing away from the water. A quick look at the altimeter horrified me as it was just starting to indicate above zero feet. Being manly men in those days I just informed Number #2 of his mistake and not to repeat it or else and continued with the mission regaining my position in the pattern. In the mission debrief I made the Number #2 acutely aware of the ramifications of not following Standard Operating Procedures, giving him a detailed description of what had happened to me. He was genuinely shocked, apologising profusely and swearing to be much more aware of his actions and the likely affect on other formation members in future.
In those days almost all Mirage pilots had or would experience a close call of some kind and tragically many good men lost their lives as well. The mind set of a fighter pilot was to put these experiences behind you and get on with the job, the only time you discussed these happenings was in the back bar on Friday afternoon when you were pretty drunk and full of bravado. The usual response was “that’s nothin’ mate I had….” and so any attempt at sympathy was diluted with another round putting it all completely behind you. I had a few more close calls during my five years of flying the Mirage but I’ll put those up another time.