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Summary: An Air Ministry film detailing the procedures to be adopted for ditching an aircraft in the sea, as illustrated by the successful ditching of an Avro Vulcan and the rescue resources initiated by the Vulcan’s Mayday signal. The work of the Ditching Section of the Structures Department at RAE Farnborough is also featured, together with a debriefing of the crew of the ditched Vulcan.
Description: Vulcan XA891 (call sign Pedro Zebra) develops a fuel leak flying over the Atlantic and consequently has insufficient fuel to return to the nearest airfield, RAF St. Eval on the Cornish coast. The navigator informs the Captain, Squadron Leader Foxall, they will run out of fuel 90 miles from the coast at Land’s End. Orders are issued for the crew to prepare for ditching and the emergency signal ‘Pedro Zebra pan-pan pan-pan pan-pan is repeatedly issued by the Captain. The signal is received by the duty air traffic controller at St Eval who orders the Search and Rescue (SAR) crew to immediate readiness. The SAR crew assemble and take off in Avro Shackleton WG556 and proceed to the ditching area. The Wing Commander of Rescue Group 19 initiates a radio transmission (RT) listening watch and requests for a helicopter to be put on standby at RNAS Culdrose. Air Sea Rescue (ASR) launch 2579 is dispatched to sea, and the Land’s End coastguard alerts shipping in the area.
The film then switches to footage of a training session about ditching which stresses the importance of determining the sea state and ditching parallel to the swell. The training session incorporates the screening of a short film ‘Sea States When Ditching’.
Returning to XA891, the Vulcan Captain readies the crew for ditching, ejects the flight deck canopy and ditches the aircraft whilst transmitting Mayday and their final position. After a casualty free ditching, the life raft is launched, the five man crew transfer and begin transmitting with the SARAH radio beacon. St Eval try to contact the Vulcan without success, and assume the aircraft has ditched. A weak SARAH signal is received by the Shackleton who advise St Eval of the coordinates and are instructed to maintain visual contact. The Rescue launch is directed to the life raft and the Vulcan crew brought home.
A few weeks later Squadron Leader Foxall arrives at RAE Farnborough to visit Mr A R Till, head of the Structures Department, Ditching Section, to discuss his recent experience. Mr Till explains the value of working with scale models of the different types of RAF aircraft to determine their ditching characteristics. The work is illustrated using footage from ‘Design for Ditching’, a film produced by the Instrumentation Department, Cine Section. During 1941, the Americans lost 50 Hudson aircraft due to ditching and in an attempt to discover why, test ditched a real Liberator which suffered a fractured fuselage behind the cockpit section.
At Farnborough, a series of tests with the scale models determined that minimum forward speed, low rate of descent, air brakes in, and undercarriage retracted gave optimum results when ditching. The Javelin flipped over at higher speeds; the Hawker Hunter was more favourable, the Beverley Transport and the Canberra nose dived under the water at higher speeds, whilst the Vulcan displayed excellent ditching characteristics, similar to those of a seaplane. The ability of a bomber aircraft to keep the bomb doors closed as the aircraft landed on the water is critical to prevent an inrush of water. A short film clip, featuring a Hawker Nimrod flown by Flight Lieutenant Frank Whittle (designer of the jet engine) illustrates the danger of ditching with the undercarriage down when the aircraft flips over immediately as the undercarriage enters the water.
The film ends with Squadron Leader Foxall and Mr Till concluding that close liaison between Farnborough and those having experienced a ditching would be beneficial to all concerned.
Production Country: GB
Production Details: Air Ministry (Production sponsor)
Merton Park Studios (Production company)
Hoare, Frank A (Production individual)
Mallinson, John (Production individual)
Jones, Jonah (Production individual)
Parry, Leslie A (Production individual)
Rider, Sidney (Production individual)
Abbott, Ron (Production individual)
Personalities, Units and Organisations:
Physical Characteristics: Colour format: B&W
Sound format: Sound
Soundtrack language: English
Title language: English
Technical Details: Format: 35mm
Number of items/reels/tapes: 5
Footage: 3600 ft; Runtime: 40 mins
Notes: Remarks: The signal “pan-pan pan-pan pan-pan” is universally used to signify that there is a state of emergency onboard an aircraft, ship or boat. This is different to a “Mayday” call which indicates that there is an immediate risk of injury or death to those onboard or to the aircraft or vessel itself
Extracts from ‘Design For Ditching’ are held by the IWM as MTE 4016
The Frank Whittle ditching film is held by the IWM as MTE 141
The acronym SARAH stands for Search And Rescue And Homing.