Written notes/interview notes compiled from discussions with Flying Officer Grahame Scofield, 23 Squadron, 17-19 May 2001.
Although it was some 45 years ago, the day was a memorable one and my recall of the progress of events is still mostly clear.
You rightly confirm that we were on quick readiness duties at Waterbeach having flown down from our base at Coltishall on 10th August. On 13th August we had undertaken two training exercises in the afternoon which made us eligible for night flying duties. The nature of the quick readiness alert was that the duty crew would be at cockpit readiness on the tarmac awaiting a scramble order. We then had two minutes to start engines, taxi to the runway and take off.
[Scofield explains that both 'A' and 'B' flights were operational from dusk on the 13th until 6am on the 14th. All those taking part in night-flying would have taken a flight test at 2pm on the 13th. He was present at Waterbeach airfield until 6 am on the 14th August.]
I seem to recall that we were on standby for about an hour before we received the scramble instruction. The time recorded for take off was 2120 p.m [21.20 GMT on the 13th August] when it was fully dark.
[This timing coincides with the initial radar trackings by USAF personnel at RAF Bentwaters - suggesting this led to an immediate 'scramble' order via the USAF/RAF/Sector control. However, Scofield is clear that no specific instructions were given as to the reason for the scramble - ie nature of mission etc. It may therefore equally have been unconnected with the radar trackings. ]
We took off in a westerly direction and were vectored onto a heading of 045 degrees, which involved a climbing turn to the right. I do not recall whether we had more precise instructions regarding an intercept but the usual drill was to be sent to intercept incoming bombers, either Russian on probing missions or allied doing training exercises.
It would have taken about 20 minutes to reach maximum operating height and it was in the course of this climb that we discovered that our two wing tip tanks were missing. This was a severe matter as without them our airborne endurance was reduced from about an hour and a half to 45 minutes. We took some time verifying that the tanks were in fact missing as we always flew without lights and in the dark it was difficult to see the silhouette of the wings.
We had three concerns: firstly, whether the tanks had been inadvertently dumped using the emergency release; secondly where they had become detached; thirdly how much endurance we had left to return to base. On the first issue Flying Officer Arthur was adamant that he had not inadvertantly dumped the tanks. On the second issue I had a real concern as our climbing turn had taken us perilously close to Cambridge city centre, which was an exclusion zone. I had a fear that the tanks might have bombed one of the historical buildings! On the third issue we realised that we had no alternative but to abort our mission and return and return as soon as possible. The entry in the log 'DNCO' meant 'Duty Not Carried Out' and reflected a failed mission, which we felt bad about.
We returned to Waterbeach at 2200 pm and our aircraft was segregated for close inspection. My recall was that we were not allowed to disembark until all the cockpit instruments had been very thoroughly inspected by the duty flight commander and the senior ground staff. We were then separately taken for interrogation regarding all aspects of the flight. My chartboard which would have shown my navigation fixes was impounded. Neither of us could provide much useful information and fortunately the emergency release handle was found to be intact. Nevertheless we both felt that we were in serious trouble, just as if we had bombed the wrong target.
It would have been about 1100 p.m. when we were released to the crew room. Our first question to our colleagues was whether any report of damage had been received. To our relief and amazement all was silent and we heard no more of the incident. However I saw an accident report filed some time later to the effect that the probable cause of the loss of the tanks was a malfunction in an electrical circuit. As for the tanks, they were found intact in a cornfield three miles outside the Cambridge City boundary!
[Note- this is another intriguing detail as there must have been some recovery operation to the remove the tanks ejected so close to a City boundary. Was this reported in the Cambridge newspapers, and if so what was said by the RAF? Is it possible also this scenario might explain the observations by John Killock at Ely of a low-level jet aircraft that same evening?]
The drama of the evening had not yet ended...[because]... two other crews were on standby and received instructions to scramble
[Scofield is unable to be specific concerning the precise time the other crews were scrambled - only that it would have been from midnight onwards. He is clear however, that no other aircraft were involved from the QRA squadron other than these two in addition to his own 'I would absolutely discount that suggestion,' was his answer to the question 'could any other aircrew have gone out between yourself and the two other crews.' He has a photograph taken of the 23 Squadron aircrew from 1956 listing all the names of those present and has agreed to supply a copy the photo and the list. ]
I cannot recall precisely but I think they went either together or one shortly following the other. We had a receiver in the crew room turned to their airborne frequency. So we were able to monitor the talk between the ground controller and the crews.
[This was a practice that came about not as a result of prior warning, but something they would do to relieve boredom whilst on QRA. He says the R/T set was taken from the cockpit of an aircraft. Using the set, only the transmissions made by the aircrew could be heard - not those made by the ground station.]
We heard them instructed to intercept a target at, I believe, 20,000 ft over East Anglia. The procedure on such intercepts was that the ground controller would vector the aircraft into the vicinity of the target and the airborne radar would be used for the final intercept. The radar navigator would confirm contact and then broadcast his intercept commentary, which would be tape recorded for subsequent study. In the crew room we could hear the various voices and recognised the distinctive voices of the individuals.
[This is something Scofield puts great emphasis upon - the fact that he recognised the distinctive accent of one of the pilots as being Irish or part-Irish; in fact, Ivan Logan was from the Isle of Man and, according to his interview, had recently joined the RAF and so would have had a distinctive accent at that time. ]
The first crew made radar contact and closed rapidly on to the
target. I seem to recall that they tracked it down to within
about three miles and then lost contact. This could have been
either because they had a height difference or that the object
was stationary and they simply overflew. Recall that it was a
dark night, they had no navigation lights and the target also
appeared to be in darkness.
They were called off and the second crew instructed to make an intercept.
[Scofield believes the 'second crew' were Chambers/Brady 'but cannot be precise'. In actual fact, they must have been Logan/Fraser-Ker.]
They also reported radar contact at about ten miles dead ahead. The navigator called off the distance as the target rapidly closed. At one mile there was a shout of confusion from the pilot who had seen nothing. We then heard 'I think they are now on our tail!' Almost immediately both crews were told to break off the engagement and return to base.
[ This evidence is so similar to the version of the 'tail chase' commentary provided by Perkins and Wimbledon it must suggest it must relate to the same intercept. Scofield cannot say who the ground controller was as his transmissions could not be heard. However, he does say all interceptions of this kind would have been under the control of a British G.C.I. unit (although he did not mention Neatishead in this context). Scofield's memory of the action appears to be a inversion of the actual sequence of events as appears in the aircrew logbooks, ie the Chamber/Brady was the first Venom, Logan/Fraser-Ker the second.]
Again there was a detailed debriefing and the crews were told to report exactly what had happened.
[Scofield says a debriefing of the two crews did take place, but not by external Air Ministry visitors - rather, it was done by the Squadron Intelligence/base intelligence officers and sent to Air Ministry. ]
Both navigators reported clear radar signals at the location seen from the ground radar. Neither crew had made visual contact and both were shaken up by the whole episode.
[This details dovetails with the statement I have received from Flying Officer Colin Campbell Smith, also on 'A' flight, who was present during the evening of 13/14 August but did not take part in the action. He writes: ' ...I have a recollection of Dave Chambers and the others returning to the crew room after the sortie with a look of bafflement on their faces which told us something odd had happened even before they said a word...' ]
The other duty crews started teasing them about flying saucers and little green men and the usual aircrew banter, but because we all had been part of the experience we all had a distinct feeling that something unusual had happened.
[Scofield says the incident was so dramatic that it stayed with him ever since. He says they were all 'charged up' following the Suez crisis and were expecting an attempt by the Russians to 'test' their defences - hence the concern. He says he is convinced a file on the night's events does exist and would not have been destroyed because of the importance of what occurred. He says 'it must be amongst the X-Files'.]
There were of course a number of theories offered up, such as the presence of a large flock of birds, unusual at midnight and at 20,000 feet. The more probable one was that one of the Lakenheath upper air weather balloons had been released and was making for the upper atmosphere. The scramble was a training exercise to see if we could make contact. The downside to this theory was that the controllers would have known about such a target and were unlikely to have risked two extremely expensive aircraft to go blundering into a balloon in pitch darkness.
The third theory which most of us were inclined to hold to was that the Americans were up to something and had not notified ground control about one of their strange craft. Remember that this was the time when craft like the U2 long range reconnaisance aircraft were being developed. As most of us were disinclined to attribute it to extra-terrestrials, this seemed to be the most likely conclusion.
As you would imagine we spent the night hours in considerable excitement wondering if a further summons would be forthcoming. However all was quiet and no further mention was made of the incident until your letter arrived to renew memories.
If you have additional information from other sources, official or unofficial I would be interested to receive a copy of your findings. These matters seem remote from the events of these days. I am just grateful that there were excitements such as these to reflect on, as once in a while I turn the pages of my flying log.