The day the Air Force lost 6 Mystery IVs

It takes place in March 1966…

…within the 2/8 “Nice” Fighter Squadron in charge of transforming young pilots out of the Fighter School in order to make them fighter pilot team members. Here, there is no longer any question of students and instructors… there are only leaders and team members!

The young pilots are released on Mystère IV (there is no two-seater version of the machine) … a plane that is not easy, especially when taxiing! The first lap was, moreover, limited to one… lap of parking and it was not uncommon for the young pilot, all pride swallowed down, to be obliged to call for help to get out of a humiliating situation… the wheel of nose stuck across and the plane refusing to move…

In this month of March therefore, the promotion is progressing normally and everyone is starting to think about their future assignment…when an end-of-course navigation is organized…destination Seville! The mission will not be done with 4 planes as usual but with 6! 3 leaders are therefore designated and 3 team members are drawn…

Navigating abroad no longer presents any particular difficulties. Documentation is easily available, the advent of the internet makes it possible to know real-time updates, weather developments and aeronautical English are known in (almost) all control towers. It was more complicated in those years. More rare documentation, random updates, English the same, in France as in adjacent countries.

Profile of Mystère IV by Jacques DAVY

For a young driver, the preparation is therefore done in a mixture of feverishness and enthusiasm! The leader, squadron commander prepares the flight and distributes the tasks…and everyone traces the navigation on a “radio nav” 2,000,000 as well as on a “million”. Callsign of the patrol: Riquet Noir.

The weather forecast on the course and at the finish are perfect.

Each team member must remain in a tight “loose” formation on his leader until the planned arrival in visual flight at the end of the descent. Nevertheless, a bad weather procedure is provided for in the event of an unforeseen aggravation. This is a Radio-Compass procedure…the only means of navigation in case of bad weather on Mystère IV…everyone knows the Morse codes of the beacons needed in this case (to check that the Radio-Compass is indeed on the right beacon, the pilot had to listen to the Morse code of the beacon by voice).

The briefing is “square”, everyone knows what to do and knows how to react in the event of the unexpected…at least, it is with this feeling that everyone leaves for the planes.

Taxiing was done on time…only number 4, a crew member, was missing at the start…too bad for him! It was not expected to wait for a plane that would have a problem…it finally manages to join the patrol at the maneuvering point…just before the alignment for takeoff.

The navigation begins like a walk at high altitude in good weather…the pilots are content to check that they remain on the airway, that the Radio Compass switches well vertically to the beacons…the controller has a different accent from the usual but as long as we stick to standard procedures, everyone speaks the same English!

The only incidents come from changes in radio frequencies. Indeed, the frequency changes on Mystère IV were particularly laborious and it was quite common for someone to be missing when changing control centers…this will only add to the imbroglio that will follow …

Indeed, approaching Seville, the patrol descended to level 230 with Madrid control before the transfer with Seville control… The last beacon before Seville passed, change of Radio Compass frequency…course 190 towards the arrival area…

Suddenly, various parameters transform this quiet flight… the Radio Compass picks up the Seville beacon very badly, the Morse signal is inaudible and the bearing is unstable…

Seville’s radio frequency is malfunctioning, the leader is struggling to make himself understood. It lacks a frequency team member.

In front of the patrol, an unexpected cloud layer pushed the leader to ask to descend to level 170 to stay in VMC. Seville grants it and understands that the patrol is finishing its visual flight and orders to switch to the Seville tour frequency. The leader gives his instructions to recover the one who is not in frequency then to adapt the formation in order to face a possible passage in the clouds. During this time, heading 190 is maintained, oblique visibility is very poor…only the view of the ground vertically is preserved…and it is impossible to place one on the Seville Tower frequency…it speaks in English, in Spanish, someone gives weather information…the patrol advances without too much visibility, does not manage to be heard, and advances…return to Seville, control which does nothing better than give new frequencies to pass on the tower of control…without result and without radar guidance, no more than an operational navigation aid…the tension rises…the frequencies called remain silent or saturated and no one seems to receive the black Riquets!

In Leader’s Mystery IV, the radio compass suddenly indicates that Seville has passed! Nothing suprising ! with all that time spent trying to contact a tower that doesn’t want to answer, picking up crew members who missed the frequency change, trying to locate some characteristic point outside to find out where the landing field is…Seville is behind ! U-turn and set course to 330 towards this bearing…which did not hold and disappeared…Riquet black 3 does receive one but offset by 20° and black 5 does not have one either but does receive the callsign in morse code…there are 6 planes in trouble! This is what the leader announces to the entire patrol, making the inexperienced team members aware that “something” is happening that the leaders do not control…a surprising feeling for young pilots, given their confidence in themselves leader is anchored in them…the oil is decreasing and they cannot contact anyone, do not know exactly where they are, have no other means of finding their way than their visual navigation chart…except that they do not see the ground only vertically under them!

The leaders discuss among themselves, the team members keep their training as best they can so as not to add a loss of visuals to a situation that is starting to worry everyone! The Moron tower is called with no more result than with Seville…the Mystery IVs have all switched their IFF to Emergency and the distress frequency is now on “Keep”, which the pilots try to make themselves heard…but that is saturated with calls in all languages…on the ground, everyone has finally understood that the situation is deteriorating very quickly…the leader announces his “MAYDAY”, calls in English then in Spanish for a position and radar guidance, while veering to the east… the responses fuse, intertwine, remain inaudible… it even seems for a moment that an American controller mingles with the cacophony, orders a turn to the south before disappearing from the frequency as brutally as he had come there…

Desperate, the leader checks the remaining oil…nothing much more…he then tries to take a westerly course to reach the coast and thus find his bearings…a river is seen, the leader believes it is the Guadalquivir…which passes by…Seville! A glimmer of hope is reborn despite the remaining autonomy…5 minutes! But the river reaches the sea… without having seen Seville… it is the Guardiana… much further west!… desperate turn to the east to try to reach Seville…

“Riquet noir 3, I’m turning off…” everyone knew it was going to happen…without really believing it…Number 3 will only be the first of the 6 Mystery IVs to eject. The next 5, the last drop of kerosene burned, will follow the same path… Like all the pilots who had to eject with a little time to prepare, none of them wanted to leave this cozy and welcoming cockpit. …even if the plane no longer works! The leader is knocked out. Stunned by the speed with which a simple high-altitude navigation flight was able to tip over into a hell from which he hopes all his crew members will come back…stunned by the immense weight of the responsibility of his load…6 planes in the heap…what a fiasco!

The 6 planes fell without causing any casualties…the 6 pilots returned unscathed…strongly improving the statistics of successful ejections on Mystère IV! A huge media controversy followed this accident… it is even said that the person who announced the accident to General de Gaulle was wrong and announced the loss of 6 Mirage IVs, the brand new flagship of the nuclear air forces of the time, triggering monstrous anger on the part of the Head of State…legend or reality? The reality was however very fierce for the leader of the patrol… implicated, he will be excluded from the Air Force and returned to civilian life…

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