Celtic Illumination, part 171, Fair exchange no robbery.
Chidge and his wife Gail headed back to Watton and I settled myself back into learning my job on the squadron. We were constantly being trained and tested and not just by our own side. One of our roles was to provide air defence cover for the East – West border. To this end that was always a fully armed aircraft, with aircrew and ground crew, sitting at the end of the runway. Well, there was a HAS, on 19 squadron’s dispersal, close to the runway and we called it the ‘Q shed’ or ‘Battle flight’. It was QRA, a Quick Reaction Alert, and had to be airborne within a certain amount of time.
There were various states of readiness but all within the ultimate launch time of four or five minutes. The air defence radar guys would be watching the border monitoring activity in the East. We knew what bases they would operate from if attacking us and they knew from which bases we would respond. If something got airborne and aimed toward the border they would call our battle flight to readiness. Of course over in the East they were watching us and would be timing our response. Once the air defence controllers felt that an enemy aircraft was belting toward the border, our battle flight would be scrambled.
It was a hell of a sight and the noise was glorious as the aircraft would hammer off into the blue, crackling the sky as it went. It did cause one or two organisational problems as the aircraft would still have to undergo routine maintenance, the crews would have to be changed and of course be current with all their flying activities. Our Q ship would thunder off towards the border and suspected intruder but on reaching the border both aircraft would turn and fly along parallel. There was a dog-leg turn in the border and occasionally the enemy would not be paying attention and fly into our airspace but this was normally laughed at, and of course we would never make a mistake.
Sometimes we would be launched north as the large Russian Bear’s, the NATO code name for the Tupolev TU-95 aircraft, would be dropping submarine monitoring equipment. Our guys would come alongside and as well as record any visual information about the aircraft would wind the Russians up as well. In the tail of the Bear is a large bubble window, on either side, where a Russian observer would sit with a huge cumbersome camera. The camera would be on rails so could be used from either side of the Bear. Our guys would watch the fellow set it all up, in preparation to take their photograph, and then swing under the Bear so that the observer would have to pull the camera across the rails and set it up again.
They would also mess with us. One navigator, Barry Mayner, told me that they timed the sonar devices being dropped into the ocean and realised that they were coming out at set intervals. With the next buoy dropped they came under the Bear and began to take photographs of the inside of the bomb bay pulling out before the next buoy was due to be dropped. The Russians were no fools and quickly clocked on to what our chaps were up to, so on the third attempt, dropped a sonar buoy early which I am reliably informed would have taken out the phantom if they had connected successfully.
The crew who would be on battle flight had to endure twenty four hours of sitting and waiting and although those pesky Russian’s were our enemy, so was boredom. So one day we were on exercise. We had to get, I think, seventy per cent of our aircraft fully armed within six hours so everyone was maxed out. The Q ship was fully armed and sitting at the end of the runway, as normal, but I think it was due to come back onto the squadron for servicing so as most of the aircraft were being fully armed anyway, it was decided to swop two aircraft over.
The crew were brought to cockpit readiness and when the replacement was trundling its way down the taxiway to the battle flight shed the Q bird was launched. Roy Lawrence was the pilot and Alistair Inverarity was the navigator, two lovely fellows. Off they went into the big blue yonder and as we were on exercise, went hunting for the enemy. Our normal practice enemy would be Jaguars. We would set up what was known as a CAP, a combat air patrol. Basically the aircraft would fly in a race track pattern and normally there would be two Phantoms, one would search the sky above their CAP for targets and the other below for really low level.
Our guys found a pair of Jaguars and attacked. Most of what happened next is still being argued about today, apart from the one unarguable point, which is that one of the Jaguars was shot down. Thankfully the Jaguar pilot escaped unhurt, but our guys weren’t so lucky. Both were court martialled and had a very severe wrist slapping for the mistake. Once the dust had settled and it was accepted that this had actually happened, we were all called into the crew room and briefed about what had happened and then told not to talk about the incident. This of course would be difficult as the nose wheel door of the Jaguar was already hanging in the ground crew crew room as a trophy. There was always good natured banter between squadrons and a favourite would have been to lay saucers full of milk in front of a row of Jaguars to wind them up.
A Jaguar squadron from the UK moved in to the dispersal next door to us and the fun and games began. One of our guys had been on to the domestic site with the SENGO’s minivan and was filling it with crates of beer for a beer call that Friday afternoon. The Jaguar guys had spotted this and had captured him, the van and the beer, and were demanding the beer as a ransom for the release of our fellow and the minivan. We were aware of the situation in operations so I came up with a solution. Two Jaguars were still flying so I told air traffic that the taxiway past our dispersal was closed as it was covered with some form of spillage. When the Jaguars landed they should be taxied into our dispersal where they could park until the taxiway was cleared.
Our ground crew loved the idea of hijacking two Jaguars so got the troops prepared. The two Jaguars landed and were parked up, on our dispersal, and had their wheels chocked. What we didn’t know was that the lead pilot was the commanding officer of the Jaguar squadron, an experienced fellow who tried to jump his Jaguar over the chocks as when he saw our guys milling around his aircraft, like an incoming plague of cinematic zombies, knew something was wrong. We were then able to offer in exchange for our beer the two Jaguars and crew and as a bonus they threw in our chap and the minivan.