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West Coast interceptor page 4

STORY by DICK BENTHAM

Four-thousand-pound IFR fuel reserves were fine if you headed off for Calgary or Larsen before trying an approach into the Comox weather. The prospect of making an approach at Comox and not getting in wasn’t so acceptable. Now the engines were gobbling fuel at low altitude. There was insufficient fuel to climb back up and cross the mountains. The options became very limited. As the Comox winter wore on, from time to time some of the crews got a little edgy contemplating the potential for serious recovery mischief on almost every flight.

The CF-100 fuel system had an ugly little ambush in the abnormal procedure for feeding fuel directly from the wing fuel tanks to the engines. For normal operations the system was innocent enough. The two fuselage fuel tanks fed the engines, and the two wing tanks fed their contents into their respective fuselage tanks.

But there was a Normal/Wing mode to bypass the fuselage tanks and feed fuel directly from either wing tank to its respective engine (to cater to possible failures in the normal fuselage fuel supply condition). In this mode the fuselage tanks were bypassed, which meant that also bypassed was the low-fuel warning system, which sounded an alarm when there were just 800 pounds of fuel remaining in either fuselage fuel tank.

There were two 2-position Normal/Wing fuel switches in the darkness of the left-hand console by the pilot’s elbow, out of easy view. As part of a prestart check, the pilot was supposed to confirm that these switches were in the Normal position. They were difficult to see and were guarded by a simple hinged metal flap. If they checked these switches at all, most pilots just felt with their fingers to see that the metal flap was down, indicating that the switches were in the Normal position.

The trap was that these switches always seemed to be in the Normal position, and it didn’t take long to become careless about checking them. Pre-flight checklists were not used much on fighter squadrons. There was no cockpit indication of being inadvertently in the Wing mode. The total fuel quantity gauges appeared to be completely normal, and there was no warning of the wing tanks running dry as they fed the engines. Both engines would suddenly flame out with the fuel quantity gauges indicating some 4,000 pounds remaining. The surprise would be complete.

The cause of Cudgel 55’s double flame-out was never established, as the aircraft disappeared forever into the Strait of Georgia. But the double flame-out at about the time when the wing tanks would have been used up pointed at the wing direct system. If it was so, most of us also figured that it could have been any one of us, the luck of the draw decided who got ’499 that night. There but for the grace of God go I, summed it up.

How could the switches get into the wing direct position? There seemed only two possibilities: a routine maintenance check in which the switches were inadvertently left in the Wing position, or a deliberate act of sabotage. Neither possibility was very digestible.

It is hard to believe that this all happened more than 37 years ago. I remember joining the search parties struggling through the Vancouver Island rainforest looking for any sign of Red McLaren downwind of his ejection seat found in the henhouse. The Roman Catholic padre, Father Reg MacNeill, dropped everything else. He never missed a shift, and encouraged us all with his cheeriness and good humour. Red was not a member of his flock, but it made no difference.

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