Suicidal Jet Mission That Cost Kristin's Father His Life; as Actress Kristin Scott Thomas Is Made a Dame, We Reveal Tragic Cold War Death of Her Brave Dad

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), March 22, 2015 | Go to article overview

Suicidal Jet Mission That Cost Kristin's Father His Life; as Actress Kristin Scott Thomas Is Made a Dame, We Reveal Tragic Cold War Death of Her Brave Dad


Byline: Adam Luck

IT HAS been a bittersweet week for Kristin Scott Thomas. On Thursday the acclaimed actress was at Buckingham Palace to receive her Damehood from the Queen, a reward for a lifetime of achievement - and almost a dress rehearsal for her new West End role playing the Monarch in The Audience.

But her delight at the presentation must have involved a moment of quiet reflection, too. For last week was also the anniversary of the death of her father, taken from her in a dramatic fighter plane accident almost half a century ago on March 17, 1966. She was just five.

Dame Kristin, 54 - nominated for an Oscar for her mesmerising role in The English Patient - has said little about the loss in public, but recalled that 'Mummy was pregnant at the time and I can remember when she told us. In one breath it was, "Daddy has had an accident and won't be coming home and I'm going to have a baby." So it sort of took the sting out of it'.

The exact details of his crash, however, have remained shrouded in secrecy - like so much else associated with the Cold War - until now, thanks to the release of a recently declassified air investigation report.

It reveals that Lieutenant Commander Simon Thomas was flying a Sea Vixen jet when it exploded after crashing into the sea off the Dorset coast. He was taking part in a training exercise for a type of mission that has since been described as 'perhaps the most stupid, and potentially suicidal attacks ever invented'.

The Sea Vixen was in the vanguard of a new generation of high-speed jets that relied on swept wings and two Rolls-Royce engines to achieve near-supersonic speed. They were designed for aircraft carriers for night-time flying and one of their tasks would be to attack Soviet ships in the event of a war.

Astonishingly, of the 145 Sea Vixens built, 54 were lost in accidents and 55 crew members killed during the 13 years of frontline service with the Fleet Air Arm from 1959 to 1972. This was a worse rate of attrition than the notorious F-104 Starfighter, which became known as the 'Widowmaker' in Cold War West Germany because 30 per cent were lost to accidents.

Lieut Cmdr Thomas, the report reveals, was the designated leader when he and three other Sea Vixen pilots lined up on the runway on the night of March 17. They were tasked with taking off from air base HMS Heron, in Yeovilton, Somerset, and attacking a target being pulled by a frigate, HMS Zulu, off Portland in Dorset.

With classic military understatement the report states that they faced 'unpleasant conditions', which included poor visibility, fog patches and a pitch black night. Furthermore, it was believed to have been Thomas's first attempt at firing Glow Worm flares since he had returned to frontline duties after working as a Vixen flying instructor.

The notorious flares were designed to illuminate the target prior to attack but had already been involved in a succession of accidents. As the leader, Thomas was expected to fire off the flares above the frigate so that they would illuminate the target in silhouette. The following three Sea Vixens were then tasked with attacking the dummy ship in quick succession before the leader himself would launch the final attack. All four were supposed to roll into a dive before firing off their rockets at the target at a pre-ordained angle and altitude.

However, the training mission was dogged with bad luck from the outset, with one of the Sea Vixens failing to make it off the runway. The three others took off and assumed the attack formation, with Thomas in the lead, to a point 20 miles south of HMS Zulu.

But then Vixen No2 lost his radar and, after trying to maintain his position, was instructed by Thomas to return to base. …

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