Vampire Bail-Out (A true Story)

By Gerry Gilroy Edited by Michael Minich

It started out as a standard RCAF Auxiliary air-to-ground gunnery exercise back on a February morning in 1955. The shooting was routine. What happened next definitely wasn’t.

Back in the deHavilland Vampire jet-fighter days in the RCAF Auxiliary in Toronto, one of our periodic requirements was to fly east to the gunnery range just south of RCAF Trenton on the shore of Lake Ontario to practice air-to-ground gunnery with the Vamp’s nose-mounted quartet of 20mm cannons.

One such exercise was announced for Saturday 12 February 1955. On the preceding Thursday evening, at our normal parade at 1107 Avenue Road in downtown Toronto – the squadron offices were there, not up at the airbase at Downsview, where our aircraft resided – I had some flight commander duties to attend to, so I phoned F/L Frank Gilland at Downsview and asked him to throw my gear on the truck that was going to Trenton.

When I got to Trenton Saturday morning, I found to my dismay that only my flight suit and helmet were there: no parachute, no boots. I sought out F/L Barry Howard – who, as squadron engineering officer, wasn’t on flying duty at the time – and asked if I could borrow his parachute. He agreed, on the condition that I not adjust the harness (Barry was larger than I was). As far as footgear, I decided my service oxfords (actually, they were a design called “eighth Wellingtons”) would do. After all, the gunnery range was only a five-minute flight south of Trenton….what could possibly go wrong?

Now, although it was a delight to fly, the Vampire was definitely a “first-generation” jet fighter, and since parts of the forward fuselage were literally made of a hardwood/balsa-wood composite “sandwich” surrounding the metal-braced gun compartment – and the 3100-lb-thrust “Goblin” engine was situated behind the cockpit -- a wheels-up crash landing in case of engine failure was fairly risky, since the pilot could get crushed between the nose section and the engine. Further, due to that engine location, the aircraft had a split-boom tail to accommodate the engine exhaust. A horizontal tailplane containing the elevator joined the two booms…and therein lay another serious concern.

You see, these early-model aircraft didn’t have ejection seats, and if the pilot needed to bail out of a “Vamp”, he was quite likely to be struck and killed by that horizontal stabilizer just after he’d jettisoned the canopy, unstrapped, and went out the side. The summer before the flight in question, I’d read an article in the RAF’s Air Clues magazine that described the recommended method of abandoning a Vampire in the air: once you had jettisoned the canopy and unhooked and unbuckled everything connecting you to the aircraft, trim the elevator fully nose-down while holding the control stick back (to stay level), then half-roll the aircraft inverted and let go of the control column.

In theory, the “bunt-up” that the aircraft would perform due to the elevator trim setting would help throw you clear enough to avoid getting sliced by the tailplane as you tumbled through the air in the first few seconds. Once clear, you’d pull your parachute ripcord in the normal manner and survive to join the “Caterpillar Club”.

After I read that I tried the aircraft handling part of it with the harness tight, canopy in place. When approaching the inverted position, it is necessary to pull back a little harder on the control column to stay in the seat. When I released the control column the aircraft jumped up very quickly, giving the feeling of being thrown into the harness.

A couple of pilots have expressed concern about being hit by the descending tail plane. For those pilots; remember your Principals of Flight- the change of lift is proportional to the change in angle of attack and to the square of the speed. Thus, if you keep your speed up, the aircraft will jump up quickly as soon as the angle of attack starts to change.

The weather that Saturday morning was overcast, cold and gusty…not great, but acceptable for a young fighter pilot. We were to fly to the range in formations of two. I had no more than started-up the Vamps engine when a ground crewman signaled for me to shut down: a valve was stuck open underneath the aircraft, and fuel was pouring out. After he resolved that, I fired-up again, the crewman pulled the wheel chocks, and I taxied out and took off.

(From here on, I’m going to relate this adventure in the present tense…because that’s certainly how I remember it!)

After take-off, I need to change radio frequencies to the range freq. Silence. I change back to tower frequency…same result. Looks like I have a radio failure. I decide to carry on and lead my wingman to the nearby range…visibility is acceptable, and, after all, this is just a simple, short exercise.

I know that the range safety officer, F/L Al Milne, should have an Aldis lamp in addition to his radio, so I can still get a signal from him if I’m OK to do gunnery runs (green light: clear to fire; red light or no signal seen: assume I’m not cleared to fire).

At the entry point for the range, my wingman drops back and I fly a left-hand circuit. I see no Aldis light until I’m on final, but then, there it is: a green light. I focus on the target, fire a burst from my 20mm cannons, then pull up for another circuit. It’s unfortunate that my wingman and I can’t coordinate our positions by radio as we normally would, but I keep an extra-sharp lookout for him, and our individual gunnery passes work out OK.

After a few runs, my wingman depart back for the airbase. I check my fuel gauges (the Vamp had five of them, believe it or not). While my two outboard tanks in the wings indicate empty, the other three show the needles at 12 o’clock (i.e., about half full), so I figure I’m safe to do several more gunnery runs.

Just after I pull up from the final run and head back to Trenton…my engine stops. Flame-out due to fuel exhaustion. Suddenly today’s exercise becomes anything but routine.

My altitude is too low to spend much time looking for a smooth area to crash-land….and soon I’ll be too low even for a successful bail-out. Back when I would idly speculate about what I’d do if I ever lost my engine in a Vamp, my inclination had always been to try to use my parachute. Now that theory was going to be put to the test.

There is an airport on the island, but I do not take time to look for it since I’m only 500 feet above ground. I disconnect my oxygen mask and headset, release the safety harness, duck my head and jettison the canopy. Then I wind the trim fully forward as I hold the nose up with the control column and bring my feet back onto the shaft at the bottom of the control column.

I start to roll the aircraft to the right, but my right knee prevents the control column from going far enough over to roll fast enough. I straighten my right leg, continue the roll. At about 135 degrees I started to lift off the seat. (Try to convince yourself to pull the nose down towards the ground when you are upside-down and at 500 feet!) I bring my foot back onto the bar and jump as I release the control column. There is nothing for my feet to push on. The airplane is gone!

Since Barry’s parachute harness is too loose, the shoulder straps start falling off my shoulders and I am upside-down. I pull my shoulder straps up onto my shoulders and pull the ripcord. The parachute opens. Even though my shoes and helmet are gone and my heart is racing, it’s an exhilarating feeling. Yet so quiet, so peaceful . . . and I still have all my body parts!

I turn the parachute canopy so I can see the aircraft impact. Out of the corner of my eye I see a fence coming up. That ends my moment of reverie. I try the side-slipping procedure so I will land on this side of the fence. Compared to the wind speed, the procedure does little, so I reverse the side slip to go over. I am 15 feet above the fence when I cross it so I would have gone over it regardless of what I did. Wasted adrenalin!

The landing is painless, and I pull the bottom risers; the canopy collapses; I collect the chute. The landing did not hurt my feet, but trying to run on a frozen ploughed field in my stocking feet sure does. So I walk . . . very carefully. There is not enough snow to bury the chute, so I pile it by the fence. There is a good stiff wind, but the parachute does not move.

I head for the closest farmhouse, a half mile away. Fearing frostbite if I spend too much time with my stocking feet on the frozen ground, I gingerly try jogging again. I argue with myself all the way to the farm house.

At the farm house, I go to the back door and knock. No answer, so I go to the front door and knock. No one comes to that door, either, so back to the back door and knock again -- if necessary, I figure I’ll break in before I get frostbite. The inside door opens and a farmer, dressed in traditional bib overalls and heavy work shirt, sleepily looks at me through the small window in the storm door. He says nothing, and gives no sign that he is going to open the door.

“May I come in? I don’t have any shoes,” I say as I point at my feet. He seems a little bewildered. After all, anyone coming to his door in the middle of winter in his stocking feet must be a little strange. After a pause, he opens the door and I go in, closing the door behind me.

“I bailed out of an airplane. Did you hear a noise, like a bang?”

“Yep.” (Well at least he can talk.)

“May I use your phone?”


I look around but do not see it.

“Where is it?”

“Over there.”

I still do not see it, so I walk in the direction that he had indicated and finally see the phone. I phone the station and ask for Squadron Leader Ettles, the commanding officer of 400 Squadron. Now, what do I say? The missing flying boots were annoying. The missing parachute was irritating. Normally a false start would not bother me. The lack of radio communication while doing air-to-ground gunnery certainly caused a preoccupation. Frustrations, irritations, upset, preoccupied; none of these can justify running out of fuel. Best no excuses: just apologize.

“Squadron Leader Ettles here.”

“Gerry Gilroy here, I’m sorry, sir but I wrote off one of your aircraft.”

“What happened?”

“ The engine quit and I bailed out.”

“Are you all right?”

“ Yes, I’m fine”

I ask the farmer to give the CO instructions on how you get from the range to his farmhouse, and within 10 minutes Al Milne is at the door. Back at the station I borrow some shoes and am taken to the hospital. I keep insisting I’m all right, not even a bruise or a scrape. However, the press later decides that I have a sprained ankle.

A few months later, I’m paraded in front of Group Captain Z.L. Leigh, who says some nice things about my conduct during and after the bail out. Then he adds “However, you did cause the loss of one of Her Majesty’s aircraft, so you will have a ‘severe reprimand’ put on your record.”

I resist the temptation of suggesting that, since the RCAF has decided to retire the Vampires, I’ve just saved the Government a portion of their disposal problem.

The only thing S/L Ettles says to me is, “I am going to put an alarm clock in your aircraft!”