THIS IS THE WAY IT HAPPENED …
The unguided missile
by Jonathan Brett Young
(This article was first published in NOCN83, 1 December 2010.)
It was the last opportunity for the frigate to carry out a live missile firing in the Far East before returning to Australia and a major refit. The gunnery officer was keen that one particular aimer, who had not yet carried out a live firing, be given the chance to demonstrate his ability to hit a target before a posting ashore.
The missile was the Seacat, a close-range self-defence weapon that had replaced the 40 mm Bofors gun in the fleet. Its control involved the aimer keeping a flare in the tail of the missile in line with the incoming target, then controlling it laterally and vertically by means of a thumb joystick. Well, that was the principle anyway.
The weather was closing in. It was one of those afternoons in the Far East that ends in a violent thunderstorm and downpour. “Get on with it Guns,” muttered the captain, who was not known for his love of things that go bang. In any case, he was an aviator and had had experience of towing targets for live gunnery practice. Perhaps he even knew the unpleasantness of TTBs (target-triggered bursts) moving along the towing wire towards the towing aircraft, which usually resulted in the frantic call to the ship that “I’m pulling this thing, not pushing it!”
The whole ship’s company had assembled on deck to watch the firing. The towing aircraft and target turned towards the ship. The target was acquired and after getting the captain’s permission to fire, the gunnery officer ordered “Seacat engage”.
There was a thunderous roar and a huge cloud of smoke as the missile set off towards the target. All eyes were locked onto the fast-receding missile as it sped away. All, that is, except the two pairs of eyes that mattered most: the Seacat aimer and the Seacat controller. Both had failed to pick up the flare in the missile’s tail. The aimer pressed the thumb-stick fully UP in the hope that he would sight the missile – and kept it there.
The missile climbed steadily until it was directly over the ship – and kept going into the disengaged side where the motor burnt out and it started to plunge back to earth (or, in this case, the sea).
The ex-aviator captain was by this time jumping up and down. The gunnery officer said: “The towing aircraft is clear of danger sir, but I am a bit concerned about that tanker on the horizon”.
At this everyone turned to look at the disengaged side. And there, large as life, and steaming at about 20 knots without a care in the world, was next year’s gross profit for the Shell Oil Company.
The missile entered the sea with a big splash, well short of the tanker but dead in line with it. The navigator, who had a sort of sense of humour, remembered something from his sub’s gunnery course and muttered, just loud enough for the gunnery officer to hear “Up 800”. The gunnery officer gave him a black look.
The captain stormed off to his cabin, demanding as he went the gunnery officer’s reasons in writing, before he went ashore again, for the spectacle just witnessed. The ship’s company returned to their duties, agreeing that it was great entertainment but another spectacular example of a gunnery cock-up.
The gunnery officer set about gathering all the records required for the analysis, wondering how he was going to explain this one away. He consoled himself with the thought that the bar would be open in three hours time, when the ship would be safely alongside in Singapore.
A Short Seacat launch: a sight to raise the pulse-rate of any red-blooded
gunnery officer? Seacat was fitted in the RAN’s Type 12 frigates:
HMASs Parramatta, Yarra, Stuart, Derwent, Swan and Torrens.