SENIOR AVIATOR RECALLS SURVIVING HELICOPTER FIREBALL
A senior Royal Navy officer has spoken of how he nearly paid with his life for membership to an exclusive club – granted only to those who have ditched at sea.
Commander Jason Phillips, the former commander of Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, survived to tell the tale after he was engulfed in a fire which caused his Sea King helicopter to splash down in the North Sea.
The 55-year-old of Helston, Cornwall, said he genuinely thought his last day had come when he became trapped in the submerged aircraft.
His remarkable escape meant he was granted membership of the Goldfish Club, a fraternity of military and civilian men and women who have all survived aircraft crashes at sea.
Commander Phillips spoke of the incident, back in 1998, as he retires from the navy after 30 years.
He trained as an observer, the aircrew member in charge of tactics, navigation and weapons, in Sea King helicopters. In September 1998, the-then Lieutenant Phillips was flying with Culdrose’s 820 Naval Air Squadron.
His four-man Sea King crew were flying back from Holland, having taken part in an exercise, when they were asked to locate a Jaguar jet which had crashed in The Wash off the coast of Norfolk the previous day.
They brought their helicopter down into a hover and lowered their sonar into the water, to locate the aircraft’s emergency beacon.
It was then that a hydraulic leak caused a fire on board their Sea King - which at first Commander Phillips admitted he thought was a practical joke by his pilots.
“Flames just started to appear all around my radar screen,” he said. “I remember thinking: ‘that’s a really neat trick by the guys up front – how have they done that?’ Then the flames spread everywhere and I looked round to see the aircrewman covered in flames.
"The fire extinguisher was in the back of the aircraft beyond my reach, so I tried to put the flames out with my hands. Now, the flames were caused by burning hydraulic fluid sparking on the electronics – so I was never going to put it out with my hands. That just meant both my hands were now on fire.
“By this point, the fireball entered the cockpit and pilots decided the only option was to go for a positive water landing – that means to ditch. We were only at about 40 feet and we soon hit the water. The back door buckled and water started to come in. The pilot in control then decided to roll the aircraft to put the fire out.”
As the helicopter flooded with water, Commander Phillips pulled himself through one of the windows frames, used as an emergency exit, but then he became stuck.
“It was then I realised I was going to die,” he added.
“You know, I was very relaxed about it all and I felt completely at peace. It absolutely felt like I was there for ages. Then I felt that jolting thought of my wife and my children – I had three children at the time.”
He realised he was still strapped to his emergency seat pack, containing his inflatable life raft, which had become jammed in the frame behind him. Reaching behind to free the pack, he was able to pull himself free of the aircraft and break to the surface.
“Three of us came up but one of the pilots was missing,” he added. “Then he came up and that was a better-than-sex moment – all four of us were safe. I thought the aircrewman must have been badly hurt but he didn’t have a scratch on him. In fact, I was the one who was most badly burned.”
The Goldfish Club suddenly found itself with four new members. It’s a club that Commander Phillips has now embraced, having joined the committee and writing the club’s newsletter.
“In the Club, it’s all about how long you were in the water for. I remember on my first meeting saying, oh about 40 to 50 minutes, and this old boy saying he’d been an air engineer in Lancasters (bombers) and had been in the sea for three days, five miles from the Dutch coast with the Germans shelling him. That made me think.”
The club meets each year for a formal reunion weekend. There are around 400 people in the club and, as many are elderly, there are about 250 active members.
After his ordeal, Commander Phillips returned to flying and was soon posted for three years to Australia. He returned to Culdrose and converted to the Merlin helicopter before promotion and command of his old 820 Naval Air Squadron. He led the squadron for three years, becoming the longest serving front-line squadron commanding officer in Fleet Air Arm history.
His interest in history and the battle honours of the squadrons at Culdrose, most notably with his own 820 squadron, led Commander Phillips to begin promoting heritage displays. It is now common for each squadron to proudly display on their walls pictures and stories of past glories, reprising the role of the helicopter force within the Fleet Air Arm.
Commander Phillips was appointed an OBE in 2012, in recognition for his leadership, and returned to Culdrose in 2014 to take responsibility for all flying and training at Culdrose, in a role known as ‘Wings’. His last position was as the executive officer, second-in-command of the station.
He added: “I’ve loved my time in the Royal Navy and would do it all again if I could. I could not have done any of this without my wife Fiona, who has raised our six children virtually single-handedly and has been an absolute rock.”