Hell hath no fury like a radar engineer scorned

More than four decades on, we can finally shine the light on this tale

Who, Me? As the weekend disappears with the speed of a Phantom flung off an aircraft carrier, it is time to console ourselves with another tale of decades-old hijinks in The Register's weekly Who, Me? column.

Today's adventure comes courtesy of a reader we shall refer to as "Harry", who served aboard HMS Ark Royal ("the really big carrier that had catapults," he told us by way of clarification).

Harry's time aboard the giant ship coincided with the production of a BBC documentary series of the mid-1970s called Sailor.

"A piece of tripe really," sniffed Harry, "but it had good ratings at the time."

Our man's task was maintaining the Gannet Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft, which were fitted with an APS-20 radar. He told us: "This beast had a peak power (pulsed) of about 2.5MW (well, it was a 200 nautical mile search radar) although the average power was much less." The average was actually 25kW.

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Harry explained how the team tested the thing after a repair: "We radiated into a dummy load which provided about 70dB of suppression so the average radiated power was about 4.5dBm (about 3mW)."

To clarify, this was "hardly life threatening so we did not have many restrictions on where and when we could do these said tests."

"Even the Royal Navy," said Harry, "does not want unqualified idiots working on something that can fry a person if not done properly."

The BBC had a team on board to film Sailor and a few of the media types had attracted the ire of some of the crew: "One of the cameramen was a total asshat" who "thought aircraft maintainers were stupid because they weren't officers."

Oh dear.

"One fine day this asshat decided to take some pretty pictures from the flight deck and had a very large bag containing a lot of flash cubes. I (and a couple of others) were in one of these aircraft conducting tests on the radar and we were toward the stern of the flight deck."

Flash cubes, for those born too late to enjoy them, contained four flashbulbs arranged at 90 degrees to each other on four faces of the cube. Each flashbulb was filled with oxygen in which magnesium or zirconium were burned, giving a brief, bright light when detonated. Advancing the film would rotate the cube to the next unused bulb.

Oh, and the things got hot. All of this is important.

Without a trace of guilt, Harry told us: "We succumbed to temptation and set the radar to the dummy load, wound up the power and then proceeded to sector scan the cameraman."

"Now a couple of mW may not sound much, but the peak power he (and his flash cubes) were subjected to was closer to 200mW… easily capable of firing a flash cube by irradiation."

He added: "Irradiation by a 3GHz source causes electricity to flow in unprotected circuits.

"That is precisely what happened, and he suddenly had a large smouldering bag with many expired flash cubes and a large trail of smoke."

Harry told us: "There were very few aircraft on deck as it was a non-flying day, but a smouldering bag around even where aircraft might be is not viewed positively."

And the unfortunate cameraman?

Harry's team had "the added pleasure (from our perspective) of seeing him hosed down to prevent a more serious fire hazard" before "he was given a right royal bollocking for carrying 'flammable equipment' on the deck without permission."

The whole thing, said Harry, was "naughty and quite satisfying".

"There are some things that just need to be done on occasion."

Ever punished an affront with fire? Send an email to Who, Me? and extinguish your not-so-guilty conscience. ®

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