Allan Tarver (M 54)

24 August 2023

Commander Allan Tarver GM, naval pilot, was born on June 29, 1938. He died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on March 23, 2023, aged 84.

One morning in May 1966, Lieutenant Allan Tarver from 890 Naval Air Squadron was flying his Sea Vixen from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. They were 100 miles off the coast of Mozambique, taking part in the Beira Patrol to enforce an oil embargo on Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) which, under Ian Smith, had issued a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain. Tarver, then aged 27, had carried out an operational patrol and was heading to the carrier when he heard a loud “clunk”. One of his two engines had failed. Worse, the aircraft was losing fuel through the damaged engine. He contacted the Ark Royal and a Scimitar fuel-tanker aircraft was dispatched.

He tried refuelling at 12,000ft while flying on one engine. Yet before any fuel could be transferred, his second engine also failed and the Sea Vixen began to drop. Now unable to reach the Ark Royal, Tarver told his observer (navigator), Lieutenant John Stutchbury, to prepare to eject at 6,000ft and began a countdown. Yet when they reached that height, Stutchbury did not eject. Tarver again called for him to go, but Stutchbury’s automatic ejection equipment had failed and he was stuck in his seat. In a desperate race against time, Tarver tried to help him to bale out manually. By delaying his own ejection, Tarver was reducing his own chances of survival. However, as they hurtled towards the sea he remained in the aircraft assisting his friend. Jettisoning the hatch cover, he twice inverted the aircraft in the hope that Stutchbury would simply fall out, but he appeared to be trapped by the legs, half in and half out, and soon lost consciousness.

Tarver recalled: “We did a Cape Kennedy-style countdown and I told John, ‘Go now’. But his ejection seat never fired. It meant a manual Second World War-style bale-out. Behind me I saw John get about two thirds of the way out but seemed to be held in by his feet. We were gliding at about 200mph and I turned the plane upside down twice to try and pitch John out. But he never budged. Then I reached behind me to try and push him out. But by then he was unconscious. He was a big chap, very strong and a good rugger player.” They were down to 400ft before Tarver finally fired his own ejector seat. A split second later the aircraft hit the water. “I landed only ten yards away from the plane as it crashed into the sea,” he said. Stutchbury was drowned.

The Scimitar pilot was the only eye-witness to the crash and had been watching from above. He reported that the Sea Vixen rolled over on its plunge into the sea and Tarver’s body was seen ejecting from the cockpit and hitting the sea directly. There was no sign of any parachutes and the pilot concluded that there was no chance of Tarver having survived and reported as much. Yet miraculously Tarver was alive and suffered only a knee injury. He was rescued by an air-sea rescue helicopter and was returned to the Ark Royal.

In August 1966 he was awarded the George Medal for his attempt to save Stutchbury’s life. The citation in The London Gazette read: “That he was unsuccessful in saving his observer’s life in no way diminished the quality of his own bravery, and by making his first concern the survival of his fellow aircrew, Lieutenant Tarver acted in the highest traditions of the Service; by remaining for several minutes in the crashing aircraft so forfeiting his own chances of escape beyond the point where he could reasonably expect to live, he exhibited most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.” Tarver received his medal from Elizabeth II in November 1966 during an investiture at Buckingham Palace. Congratulating him on his bravery, she added with a smile: “You are very lucky to be here.”

Allan Leigh Tarver as born in 1938 at Canford Cliffs, Dorset, the son of Elizabeth “Betty” Tarver (née Hall). She soon sailed with her infant son to join his father, Colonel George Tarver, who was serving in the 10th Baluch Regiment of the Indian Army. A younger sister, Celia, was born in Balochistan, now a province of Pakistan; she became a nurse and survives him. He was sent to a prep school in Swanage, Dorset, later going on to Wellington College in Berkshire.

At 16 he enlisted at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, before specialising in air engineering at the Royal Naval Engineering College at Manadon, Devon. He learnt to fly at RAF Linton-on-Ouse. By 1966 he was serving with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. He resumed flying after his experience in the Indian Ocean, which was the only crash of his career. Later he became a test pilot, flying with the US Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Maryland, and then at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire.

Tarver married Susan Wolstenholme, an aspiring actress, in 1972. That was dissolved and in 1993 he married Jennifer (née Fletcher), who runs a bed and breakfast in Petersfield, Hampshire. She survives him with the children of his first marriage: Miranda, who is a celebrant; Robin, a chef in London; and Jason, a musician in Spain.

He was offered redundancy by the navy and left the service with the rank of commander. He retrained as a chartered accountant and in 1992 set up Antrobus Chartered Accountants with a colleague. He served on Petersfield town council, was treasurer of the local branch of the RNLI, enjoyed a round of golf and skied regularly in France and Switzerland.

Few who met Tarver knew of his bravery in the Indian Ocean in May 1966. When his award was announced he gave an interview on the Ark Royal, by then in Portsmouth, in which he concluded: “I had too much to do to be frightened.”