Plane crashes and other near misses
FORMER Royal Navy man David Rees has spent 51 years working for the Government in a career with some stunning highs – and a couple of terrifying lows.
He started as a flyer and is today a defence consultant analysing information from helicopters on missions in Afghanistan.
His long service has taken him around the world many times on, and flying from, some of the Navy's most famous ships.
David's career nearly ended almost before it had begun, though, in the less glamorous surrounds of a military base in northern Scotland.
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It was 1963 and Midshipman David was the navigator in the Gannet propeller plane being piloted by an equally "green" sub lieutenant.
They were doing a display to a crowd at what was then Royal Navy Air Station (now RAF) Lossiemouth in Moray, not far from one of Britain's most famous public schools, Gordonstoun.
"We were at about 300 feet when there was a problem with the engine," he recalls.
"We fell out of the sky."
The pilot had two choices: to try to pull up and out over the crowd in the hope the engine would come back into proper operation or he could go for a crash landing.
It's probably just as well the pilot chose the latter option.
Had the plane plummeted into the crowd at the air show there would have been carnage – and possibly a change in succession to the throne.
"Prince Charles, who was a student at Gordonstoun, was in the crowd," says David, able to manage a wistful smile now at the distant memory.
"We were very close to cartwheeling – the tip of a wing nearly hit the ground.
"We got out OK. I probably said '****' or something, and the pilot said, 'there goes my Navy career'."
Neither career suffered, though. The real flak was reserved for the officer who assigned two novices to a prominent role in a public air show. That Gannet pilot would eventually become a senior officer in the Royal Australian Air Force.
And David – "Dai" to his colleagues – is still going strong in service. He spent 26 years with the Royal Navy and now, aged 69, he is a civilian specialist at HMS Collingwood, Fareham, Hampshire.
The crowning moment for the Plymstock man's career came in the New Year Honours when he was awarded the MBE.
"It is totally unexpected," he says, "To be given the award as a civilian for services to the defence industry is a fantastic honour. I must have been nominated by somebody in the Royal Navy."
The senior service was actually only one of two options when he left school.
"I had always wanted to fly. I applied to both the Royal Navy and the RAF. When the RAF said 'come to an interview' I was already in the Royal Navy."
He grew up in Kent and joined the military after leaving Dover Grammar School.
He was 18 when he headed to Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. Part of his training was done from Roborough in what to today's eyes looks like a wonderfully quaint flying machine: a de Havilland Tiger Moth bi-plane dating from the 1930s. He was soon behind the controls of a helicopter, the Westland Dragonfly.
Other training was done in Malta and at RNAS Culdrose before his Navy career proper took off in Fairey Gannets. The carrier-borne planes were used mainly in anti-submarine and airborne early warning roles. He spent the bulk of his Navy flying time in the machines which had folding wings for ease of storage on the aircraft carrier.
As the navigator – the Fleet Air Arm term is observer – David's tasks including controlling the radar.
His early service took in east Asia on the carriers HMS Victorious and HMS Eagle.
He flew operational missions over the Malacca Straits watching Indonesian forces. They were threatening Malaysia, newly independent from British colonial rule.
Later service included becoming an instructor training other observers and being based at RAF Brawdy in Pembokeshire where he met his wife-to-be, Shelagh, who is from Milford Haven.
They were married in 1967 and have a daughter, Amy, who is studying at Plymouth University to become an ambulance paramedic.
Another child, Clare, died from a blood clot on her brain, aged nine.
While serving on HMS Hermes in the Pacific off Japan he cheated death for a second time in a Gannet crash.
The plane missed the braking wires on the flight deck while coming into land in the dark.
"The pilot should have put the power on to lift us clear but he didn't.
"I shouted 'power! power!' but it was too late and we went into the sea.
"There were three of us – I was a lieutenant by then and there was second observer, a midshipman – and we all got out quite quickly and were picked up by a destroyer.
"The midshipman wanted to get his confidence back and volunteered for the next mission. The wings folded on take-off and all three on board were killed."
David recounts the stories of the crashes as if they were spills off a bicycle.
His calmness, then and now, is down to his training.
"You don't think, you just go into what you've done in training," he says.
"You are shocked, obviously, afterwards."
Does he count himself unlucky to have crashed twice – or lucky to have survived?
His answer speaks of an era when Navy crashes were not uncommon and not only because there was a lot more flying. In the 1960s the UK had six aircraft carriers. Today there are none flying fixed-wing aircraft.
"Crashes used to happen. We used to lose about one Gannet a year. The majority of times the crew got out.
"Lots of other things happened to me," he volunteers, and ticks off a list of other mayday (emergency signal) incidents that came close to crashes, four of them in Gannets.
They included a fire warning at 20,000 feet and an explosion in the engine on take off, which forced an immediate emergency landing back on the carrier. Perhaps the most alarming of all was a cockpit warning that a wing was about to fold. "We were 150 miles south of Hong Kong and had to fly back knowing that at any second the wing could fold and we would crash. That was hairy."
Another incident happened in a twin-engined Percival Sea Prince. "One engine blew up, and bits showered through the wing leaving holes. Fortunately they missed the aileron (flap). We were very lucky."
He sums up the spills, near-things and emergencies as "all very exciting".
Less exciting but more enjoyable was his time in Californian helping train US Navy personnel on the Northrop Grumman Hawkeye airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft for a couple of years form the late 1960s.
AEW and other electronic warfare roles characterised the next part of his Navy service on RAF Shackletons, and there were spells as an operations officer on HMS Ark Royal, training observers at Culdrose, with the Flag Officer Naval Air Command Staff and on the ill-fated Nimrod AEW project (which was later scrapped after huge cost overruns).
His been-there, done-that career also took in the RN staff college at Greenwich and three years' work on Awacs – Airborne Warning and Control System – planes at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, the Nato command centre in Belgium.
He left the Navy in 1987, as a lieutenant commander, although served with the RN Reserve until 1992.
Since then he has been a consultant for the military. Much of that work in the years after leaving the Navy was on AEW analysis, also working with the US military, which involved flying the world. He was based in northern Italy when the former Yugoslavia broke up leading to a series of civil wars in the early 1990s.
His current role is at the Maritime Warfare Centre at HMS Collingwood, analysing data picked up by Royal Navy Sea King helicopters operating in Afghanistan.
"The Sea King radar was upgraded in 2000," he explains. "It became clear that the new radar, for use at sea detecting aircraft and ships, could also detect vehicles on land.
"The helicopters work with ground forces, finding vehicles running drugs across the borders and bringing weapons back in to Helmand.
"The Sea Kings can alert ground or air forces to intercept them.
"The immediate analysis is done in Camp Bastion (the main British base in Afghanistan, near Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province).
"We do the deep, forensic analysis."
That kind of remote, long-distance work is a world away from the days he took the controls of a bi-plane in the sky above Plymouth.
It is a reflection, too of the vastly increased complexity of the role of the "other person" in a Royal Navy plane.
"It is much more demanding now because there are so many more things going on. There are more sensors, more communications. The observer's work is even more vital."
Still, he joined the Royal Navy because he wanted to be a flyer. Doesn't he regret that he did not have the glamour role of pilot?
"Pilots are very good taxi drivers," he grins. "The guys in the back, the observers, are the ones doing all the work."
Besides he did get to take the controls and do the "taxi-driving" bit occasionally. He has flown gliders, Tiger Moths, E1 (the Grumman Tracer, the first purpose-built airborne early warning aircraft used by the United States Navy), a de Havilland Vampire (a jet) and the Sea King.
Despite the spills he rates the Gannet as one of his two favourite planes, "for the fun"; the other is the Hawkeye "for the sophistication". "I used to love the low flying when I was an observer," he says. "That is what it is all about.
"When you were in the Gannet coming in to land on the carrier at night you could hear the pilot hyper-ventilating. As you came in through the funnel smoke you would get thrown around the by turbulence."
Of the many places he has visited – which includes most of the world – his favourite is San Diego, California, for the weather and the landscape.
And, although he turns 70 in February he remains as enthusiastic for the Royal Navy today as he did when he joined 52 years ago. He has no thought of stopping working "because I enjoy it".
Plus he is looking forward to collecting his MBE later this year and hopes that Prince Charles will be the Royal he receives the medal from so that he can bring up the subject of their first encounter when that Gannet hit the deck.
"I don't suppose he will remember it," says David. "But it is etched on my mind."