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Reconstruction


Interview with Flying Officer David Chambers, Chesham, Bucks, Sunday, March 4, 2001.

Ch: Dave Chambers; DC: Dave Clarke; SP: Steven Payne

CH: We were equipped in those days with Venom NF-3s

DC: When you say the squadron do you mean 23 Squadron?

CH: 23 Squadron, yes.

DC: When did you first meet John Brady?

CH: I first met, or teamed up with John at RAF Luffenham which was the night fighter conversion unit in those days, and this is where we sort of went to our night fighter training conversion as a crew…I can’t remember how long it was, possibly three months training. I don’t know precisely but could find out by looking at my log book…is that what you want?

DC: Yes, please.

SP: My role is now going to be a microphone stand! [laughter]

CH: [referring to log book] Went to North Luffenham in July 1955 to start the night fighter conversion course, and that is where I teamed up with John Brady and the course was completed around the middle of October 1955, and then obviously after a matter of a couple of weeks leave or so, reported to RAF Coltishall to join 23 Squadron. I actually began flying with them right at the beginning of November, the first flight was on November 3, 1955.

DC: So what do you remember about this Operation Fabulous, which was ongoing at the time of the events we are going to discuss; do you remember anything about it?

CH: Not a great deal…each night fighter squadron was committed to a week’s standby or that sort of period, as being the front line squadron in case there was any intrusion from the Eastern Bloc.

DC: This was the Battle Flight?

CH: Yes, to my recollection the Air Force had a Day Squadron on permanent stand-by during the daytime for the day role and a night squadron, or a night, all-weather squadron was allocated to look after the night hours, and it was our squadron’s turn at that particular time to go down to Waterbeach to take up that particular role.

DC: You don’t happen to know where the day squadron would have been based at that time, do you?

CH: Not a clue. No, I couldn’t tell you. I’m pretty sure that there was a specific airfield allocated for…I’m pretty sure there was for the day squadron because that was the case for the night squadron…Waterbeach was the base that the night squadron was on stand-by went to..so the squadrons were rotated through Waterbeach on a weekly basis.

DC: So your average day then, what would it entail…what sort of time would you report for duty at night…would there be a time you would start.

CH: Yes there would have been and I’m just trying to think what the take over time would have been. I would have thought because it was winter time, or getting towards winter time when this occurred, we would have taken over at dusk or just before [circa 9-10pm?]…this is really dredging the memory!

DC: It must be difficult because it is a long, long time ago…

CH: It sure is!

DC: Do you have an entry in your log for this particular incident we are discussing?

CH: Yes [searching through log]…OK, well I’ve got it down as a night flight recorded on August 13th, with myself and John Brady. We had obviously completed a normal night exercise before this…a practice interception, you know we’d send up a pair and we would practice intercepting each other under radar control initially and then under the flight navigator’s guidance once contact was made.

DC: What time have you got down for the practice?

CH: I didn’t actually record the time of take-off but it was obviously earlier that evening and I’ve got an entry later on, again on August 13th that myself and Flying Officer Brady were scrambled, and that is all it says, with a flight time of 55 minutes for that particular exercise. [Note: John Brady’s log records the earlier practice interception as occurring at 2150 hours GMT, 13th August, under the description H.L.P.I’s - High Level Practice Interceptions - with a flight time of 1 hour and ten minutes, therefore returning to Waterbeach at 2300 hours, DC]

DC: John Brady’s log has got 0200 hours for the scramble.

CH: Oh yes, so I see…I’ll go along with that. My flying logbook, or the one I was issued, does not actually have provision for recording the time of take-off.

DC: But it does say the 13th and presumably everything that happened after midnight on the 13th would be recorded in your log as happening on the 13th itself?

CH: Yes, it was the night of the 13th as far as I’m concerned.

DC: There’s no mention of the word USAF in your log, as John has got that in his log…

CH: Yes he has, yep, scramble, and then he’s put USAF. All I put was scramble in mine. Normal practice was to record day flights in blue and night flights in red, or night-flying.

DC: But the time airborne is the same, isn’t it? What’s that there …HLPI’s?

CH: HLPI’s, high level practice interceptions. Whether we actually carried out any HLPIs don’t know…it was just to generate flying hours for the squadron, in those days was the sort of a thing that happened even if you had a single aircraft, well normally you would send off a pair so that you could do practice interceptions on each other…depending upon the serviceability of the aircraft, if you’d only got one aircraft you might send it up just to get some flying in.

SP: What a hardship!

CH: Yes [laughter]

DC: Now what was the procedure then if you were on this Battle Flight…would you be sat on the runway waiting for orders?

CH: Well the aircraft was parked in a special dispersal which was fairly close to the runway on Waterbeach and then there was a sort of a Nissan type hut which was sort of sat…there was a coffee bar and the whole squadron would be down there.

DC: Moving on to what actually occurred, do you remember anything about the circumstances in which this particular….

CH: All I can remember is that you rotated crews throughout the night as to who was the number one to go, and at that particular period John Brady and I were No 1 and obviously Ivan Logan and Ian Fraser-Ker were nominated as the number 2, and so on. And all I can remember is that whoever was sitting on the end of the telephone waiting for any calls to come through said ‘right, you know…scramble…we’ve had a call from, I assume, Neatishead, contact, and then off we went.

DC: Do you remember the role played by the Americans in this?

CH: All I can remember is that once we were airborne we were passed over to Lakenheath Control…

DC: That would have been after take off?

CH: Yes.

DC: Do you remember anything that was said? Would it have been yourself who was in contact with the Americans or would it have been the navigator?

CH: No, basically I would have been doing the talking, and I can’t remember what would have been said except, you know, being directed overhead and they were saying ‘we’ve got a contact overhead’ and that would be it and we would ask for their directions as to where it was, the Nav would then look out, and we would talk backwards and forwards. I don’t recall exactly what the conversation with them was, obviously they were asking us if we had got to “contact” and we’d be saying ‘no we didn’t’, ‘where was it now’ and that type of thing. We were directed by them in the general direction hoping that we might pick something up on our radar, or the nav would.

DC: Who would have given you the order to contact the Americans at Lakenheath?

CH: Whether it was Waterbeach or Neatishead I honestly can’t remember.

DC: But you would have been given a specific frequency at which to contact them?

CH: Yes.

DC: And the Americans would then have given you some general idea about where this thing was and which direction to vector….

CH: Yes, precisely.

DC: Going from that point then, what is your memory of what occurred?

CH: Well basically we didn’t have any firm contact at all. Er, on either one or two occasions John said ‘I think I have got a contact on the edge of the tube…I think I can see something on the edge of the tube…’ that sort of phraseology. And to intercept it we would obviously then try and turn towards it in order to bring it more to the centre so that we could carry out an interception or whatever, and that never happened. It either stayed on the edge of the tube until it disappeared or he lost it, and I suppose, talking between us we might have said ‘What do you reckon it was John?’ and he might have said ‘Oh, I think it must be a ground return’..I don’t know, I honestly can’t remember. But certainly no visual contact on anything, and certainly no firm radar contact either for any length of time.

DC: Do you remember how many runs you actually made?

CH: I haven’t a clue to be quite honest, we must a circled round there…well looking at this, 55 minutes airborne, I should think that 35 or 40 minutes was spent trying to get a contact on this thing…I can’t think of the actual distance between Lakenheath and Waterbeach but, you know, reasonably close together.

DC: According to the Americans you actually flew over the base…

CH: Oh yes!

DC: So you remember that?

CH: I remember being told that we were overhead Lakenheath, I didn’t see it from above, not that I recall anyway…

DC: Now while John was trying to get a fix on this thing on his radar, would it have been possible for you to have been looking out to find a visual contact?

CH: Yeah, you look out…but no I didn’t see anything. No, not a thing!

DC: Well the story about this incident which has evolved over the years has it that you - the pilot - had a visual sighting of a light.

CH: [laughter]…Not a clue where this came from. They might have said: ‘Can you see any lights?’ If I did see any lights they would have been ground contacts, but certainly nothing airborne, no airborne lights.

DC: Well that disposes of that one, doesn’t it!

SP: Indeed, absolutely.

DC: This would have been something you would have remembered if it had actually happened?

CH: I would have thought so, yes!

DC: At what altitude would you have been at this time?

CH: Again it’s my recollection that it would have been three or four thousand feet but I don’t know.

DC: Very low.

CH: Comparatively so, yes. We would normally be at high level for practice interceptions. And this is why I say that that contact which John picked up could have been a ground contact because, obviously, the beam of our search radar was, you know, they weren’t really designed to pick up contacts at that particular level, not on radar.

DC: Do you remember anything about what the Americans were telling you about the reasons why you were scrambled and why they were so concerned?

CH: No, they didn’t. To my recollection we weren’t told. As far as I remember we were just told that they had a contact somewhere in the area of Lakenheath, either overhead or in that general vicinity, which they wanted investigating or intercepting or whatever, but they didn’t say more than that. Maybe they said ‘We’ve got a contact and we want you to investigate it’ and that’s as far as it would have gone. That’s what I remember, I don’t know whether John….

DC: What he said was very similar. How did this come to an end, at what stage did you say there was nothing more you could do?

CH: Well when we looked at the fuel state and saw that…we were obviously burning a lot more fuel at low level than what we would normally and we would have said it was now time to call a halt and get someone else to take over, if that was what they wanted. That’s what they wanted. That’s what they wanted, so that’s what they got.

DC: So were you made aware that as this was taking place, another Venom was being scrambled?

CH; Yeah, because he was No 2 on our squadron. They said well, what do you suggest and I said, well get another aircraft, or words to that effect.

DC: Do you recall communicating with the other aircraft as you were returning to base?

CH: No….I can’t recall. I might have said something, but I honestly can’t remember. Maybe Ivan can remember.

DC: The American version is that they overhead you talking to the crew of the second aircraft as it was approaching….but presumably you would have been talking to ground control approach…

CH: Not necessarily, because we would have passed in transit, so to speak. At one stage I’m sure we must have been on the same frequency, i.e. the frequency that we had been speaking to Lakenheath on.

DC: That’s interesting. What would have been the procedure, you know you were scrambled by Neatishead?

CH: I would have thought we were scrambled by Neatishead, yes.

DC: What would have been the procedure for switching frequencies between Neatishead and Lakenheath while this was going on, would you have had to sort of, would someone have given you the order to switch back to Neatishead?

CH: Yes, what would have happened was Neatishead would have said to us, assuming that we were passed to Neatishead initially, Neatishead would have said right, ‘change to Lakenheath control’ and then they would have given us a particular frequency, and the frequency as far as I remember would have been a coded frequency, Alpha 2 or Alpha 3, or something like that. They wouldn’t have spelled out a frequency and you’d dial that up.

DC: While all this was going on presumably you would have used set code-words to communicate with Neatishead? You know, words like Contact, that sort of thing?

CH: Yep.

DC: Do you recall using that word?

CH: No.

DC: What sort of conversation would have gone on then, because you must have given Neatishead a commentary whilst you were trying to get a fix on this thing on your radar?

CH: Well you wouldn’t give a constant commentary. You would say, I could have said, we’ve no contact and I would think at this stage that would have been from us to Lakenheath because they were saying this is where it is, that’s where we want you to go in relation to yourselves, so you’d say, well, no contact or whatever. Sorry to sound so vague on this on but…

DC: Anything you can remember would be useful.

CH: It wouldn’t be continuous. You wouldn’t have had the transmit button pressed continuously saying this is what we are doing, that’s what we are doing, all the rest of it. You would make comments as and when you needed to and ask questions as and when you needed to.

DC: In the published material, what has been described as having been said dosen’t quite fit with what you remember, does it?

CH: No it dosen’t [laughter]…yes…not wishing to be unkind, yes, I think it’s nonsense.

SP: When we get to this stage in the discussions, it’s always marked by a burst of laughter, it’s quite noticeable, isn’t it?

DC: Now, there is no chance, is there, from what you’ve said, that we could have got the wrong Venom crew..that there could have been someone else scrambled from Waterbeach between 12 midnight and 2am of whom you would not have been aware of, that could have gone up, seen a light and said the things the Americans claimed had been said?

CH: None whatsoever. We were the only squadron on that particular duty that night.

DC: So from dusk, it would have just been yourselves and the second aircraft?

CH: It would have been our squadron and whatever activity there was would have been from our squadron.

DC: What I’m getting at is that it has been suggested that because this was a 2am scramble, that does not fit with the radar trackings made by Lakenheath before midnight, and it has been suggested that maybe there had been some activity before that, perhaps from another base…

CH: No. Ours was the duty night squadron and ours would have been the only one that would have been scrambled.

DC: Right, fair enough. So when you returned to base, what went on then, do you remember that?

CH: Not really, possibly someone said ‘What went on?’ and we’d say, we didn’t see anything or John might have said we had the odd contact on the edge of the tube but couldn’t make an interception on anything, basically that there wasn’t anything there that we could sort of see either on radar or visually.

DC: Do you remember being debriefed?

CH: I can’t to be quite honest. I would have thought one might have had to fill out a report, or maybe it was just a verbal debriefing, I just can’t remember.

DC: So basically it wasn’t something that was treated in anyway out of the ordinary, there wasn’t anyone from the Air Ministry that visited the base and asked you questions about what had happened?

CH: They certainly didn’t question us. Whether anyone bothered ringing up the squadron and asked I believe you had a couple of aircraft scrambled last night, what went on, and possibly the duty flight commander would have said well yes we were, but nothing came of it, nothing to report, I don’t know.

DC: Do you remember discussing what had happened with the other crew?

CH: We possibly did yes. Well, did you see anything, No, we didn’t see anything. That would be the sort of thing, you know. Waste of bloody time, that sort of thing!

DC: It would have been forgotten about quickly?

CH: Yes.

DC: Would you have said the whole thing itself was unusual?

CH: Certainly, it was the only time I have ever been scrambled and I think as far as I can remember it was possibly the only time the squadron was scrambled, certainly whilst I was on it, you didn’t very often get things like this happening, I can’t ever remember whether we were ever scrambled to take a look at a high level target which could have been an aircraft coming in which…

DC: So it was the only time you were ever scrambled?

CH: Me, yes.

DC: That would cover which sort of period?

CH: From October 1955 until September 1961. Normally you would do a three year tour on a squadron and a lot of guys came for three years and then you would go off somewhere else. It was unusual that I did an eight year commission, most of the other guys were either permanent commission or 12 year…So I think with me they thought there is no point posting him we’ll hang onto him…

SP: So you did a tour…

CH: I did 6 years on the squadron which was very unusual…

DC: Were you partnered with John for most of that time?

CH: No, John moved on..the last time I flew with John according to my logbook was March 1959…we had moved from Venoms to Javelins between then, but same role, same sort of job.

DC: Presumably most times you would be out flying you would be over the North Sea, at high level.

CH: Yes. That’s where we did most of our practice interceptions. That was our role, to get out as far as we could if someone spotted a strange object coming in from the East.

DC: But that never happened.

CH: Not to me, no.

DC: So with this incident in 1956 for something to have come in from the East and gotten over Lakenheath without it being spotted by our radar, it would have been too late by the time you intercepted?

CH: [laughter] Yes! The damage would have been done if anybody wanted to…

DC: Do you think the order to scramble was taken reluctantly?

CH: I’ve no idea.

DC: What I’m trying to get at is how did you view the information that the Americans were giving you?

CH: It was very unusual, logically, for a thing to appear over there at low level, where had it come from? It obviously had not come in from somewhere over the North Sea because it would have been picked up long before it ever arrived there, even if it was coming in at low level I’m sure the radar on the east coast would have picked it up because it’s a lot easier to see something over the sea at low level than it is over the land and all I can think of is that they got a contact somewhere overhead, their base, without seeing where it had come from or whatever, this is why it appeared so strange in hindsight because where the hell did it come from in the first place!

DC: It’s not possible to say what it was, but using your knowledge of other targets and interceptions that you have been involved with, what would you have said was the most likely explanation; you have mentioned ground returns.

CH: Yes we have said that, that’s from our point of view. I’m assuming that they were looking from the ground upwards [Lakenheath]…

DC: Then there is this idea that you were trying to intercept it and it was looping behind the aircraft…

CH: No…no. As far as one could tell it was either stationary or in a fairly confined area. It wasn’t sort of whizzing off or coming back or anything like that, well supposedly well I mean we didn’t know, as far as we were concerned it was supposed to be somewhere just over Lakenheath airfield. It could have been stationary, i.e. a balloon or something like that, although I would have thought they would have known if they had launched a weather balloon…you know, where would a weather balloon have been launched from, and if it had been launched then you know the thing would disappear upwards you know not stay low…

DC: There are also weather returns, such as anomalous propagation…how likely was that?

CH: Yes, but at low level I wouldn’t have thought very likely at all.

DC: But it wasn’t a good radar return was it?

CH: No..it was a case of I think I’ve got something, or I’ve got something on the edge of the tube, I don’t even know whether he said I’ve definitely got a contact on the edge of the tube or it looks as if I’ve got a contact. I can’t remember exactly how it went. But then again if he had got it fixed, as we turned towards it it should have started coming across. It didn’t. It was there and then it just disappeared, which is what made me think it was just a spurious ground return or whatever.

DC: So was there a stage at which it did ‘disappear’?

CH: Well as we turned towards it we never got it, it just you know possibly stayed on the edge of the tube for a matter of seconds and then had gone.

DC: But this alleged conversation with Lakenheath where they said it had got behind you, what happened there?

CH: Well then we would turn round and go to see if we could see it from the other direction, or whatever. If you had asked me the week afterwards I could have given you a better idea!

SP: The impression is that if you have got a return there [using hands]…sorry Dave this isn’t going to work very well on the tape…but if you have got a return and you are trying to turn and its in the radius of your turn as if it is a ground echo and it stays on the side of your tube and then you lose it…

CH: Yes.

SP: That’s the impression, because you have got the radar which is looking straight ahead and might get some slight side lobes, but because the radar is looking straight ahead you will get it on the edge of the tube turning towards it but because you are moving towards it you go round it…

CH: Yes, that’s right!

DC: Now when all this was over, and forgotten about, when was the next time that it arose in your consciousness?

CH: I think when you rang me up! [laughter]

DC: Really?

CH: Yes, yes!

DC: How much contact did you have though when the BBC made that little film about it?

CH: Little or none. Nothing at all, no. Some years ago, again Ivan was involved in this, they were making some documentary, and he said would you be interested in coming along, and I said yes I’ll come along, but anyway something happened and I didn’t want to go, can’t remember why, and I wasn’t around, so that was that.

DC: Didn’t you say you were out of the country or something?

CH: Yes because that was while I was still flying, and if I was scheduled for something…

DC: Did you speak to anyone at that time, did you remember being interviewed by Jenny Randles?

CH: No.

DC: This is the first time then that you remember talking about what had occurred, with us today?

CH: Yes.

DC: How do you feel about what has been said and written about this incident…presumably you must have been completely unaware of all the fuss?

CH: Absolutely, yes.

DC: What’s your feelings about it? Do you think it has been exaggerated?

CH: Completely. Yes, my feeling is that there was nothing there, it was some sort of mistake or whatever. Or at least they thought they saw something, or they were thinking ‘let’s test the Limey’s first line of defence and get em airborne and see what happens,’ I don’t know. We might even have said this at the time, John and me, like ‘what the hell are they on about, were they just seeing if we could respond to something like this…”

DC: So there was no follow up then?

CH: Not that I recall.

DC: No one rang from Lakenheath to say did you see anything?

CH: Might have done but unlikely because we made it clear at the time on the radio from the aircraft that you know, we didn’t have a firm contact, couldn’t see anything, nothing was visual, and that’s about it.

DC: You mentioned that you left in 1961, what did you do after that?

CH: I went into civil flying. You want a whole list of the people I flew for?

DC: Well give us a summary up until your retirement.

CH: My first civil job was with British Eagle International based at Heathrow, when they went bust and the fleet captain was co-opted by Zambia airways as their chief pilot, they had two BAC 111 which Eagle had had from news, the aircraft were originally going to go to Rhodesia airlines, but because this was about the time of the split between north and south Rhodesia, Zambia at that stage could neither afford the aircraft or something went wrong, so we got them from BAC and eventually they went back to Zambia Airways when it was found…Air Italia co-opted our fleet captain and chief pilot and they wanted some experienced pilots to go down there and I went down there as a first officer which I was on the 111s, spent a year down there..they then lease-purchased a DC8 from Air Italia, they were doing a service from Lusaka to Nairobi, Athens, Rome, London…I was one of the people selected for DC8 training and I was a DC8 first officer for them. From there I joined a company called Air Sontrafrique on a DC8 and my contract lasted for about 9 months before they basically ran out of money, then I joined Courtline Aviation on a BAC 111 as first officer and eventually became a captain until they went bust, then joined a DC8 freight operator that was starting up at Gatwick as DC8 captain. From there offered a job with Air Ceylon as a trainee captain on their DC8s, that did not work out and I went to another cargo operator at Stansted as a DC8 captain. Around that period I made approaches to Shell Aircraft as I had decided I needed a job with a pension at the end of it. They wanted a captain so I left Stansted and went flying for Shell…flying 1000s and 800s until I retired six years ago.

DC: So you retired in 1995?

CH: Near as damn it.

DC: In your entire flying career did the subject of UFOs ever raise its head?

CH: Well you read and heard about them but not as far as I was concerned, no. All this happened to other people.

DC: So basically you did not associate this incident in 1956 with UFOs?

CH: No. No, never even crossed my mind. It was just some sort of strange contact that the Americans had got and which they had wanted investigating. It was put down to something that was on their radar that shouldn’t have been there, or wasn’t really there, you know what I mean, either a malfunction or possibly, as John said, either a weather balloon or something like that.

DC: Have you got any opinions on this subject?

CH: Not really, I’d like to think that there possibly were these things, it would be interesting, but I have got no strong feelings one way or another.

DC: Just to get this recorded on the tape, you have had no contact with the RAF Controller at Neatishead who actually scrambled you?

CH: No, none whatsoever.

DC: Did you ever come across any rumours about aircraft such as the U-2 flying around in secrecy over East Anglia at this time? Is that something that registers?

CH: No, not at all. I would have thought if this had have been a real aircraft then I would have thought we would have been able to get a firm contact and brought it to interception, possibly.

DC: You know we were talking about the code-words that might have been used at the time of this attempted interception, do you recall the word ‘Judy’ being used?

CH: No.

DC: You don’t think this would have been likely based upon your memory of what happened?

CH: No really, I can’t remember the conversation or any conversation, it was just a night trip. I’m sorry if I haven’t been of much help to you…

SP: No, no, on the contrary!

Dave Clarke


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Reconstruction