Celtic Illumination, part 198, On a wing and a prayer.
Every day I would have to submit a report on how combat ready the squadron was. There were three stages of combat readiness, non-combat ready, limited combat ready and combat ready. These figures would be submitted along with statistics on our aircraft along similar lines. This would allow command to see, at a glance, exactly what firepower they had at any one time. Someone kept telephoning me every day and asking me how many aircraft we had and how combat ready were we. As I was already submitting the combat statistics over a secure signal network I gave a false figure. On the first day I was rather mischievous and ran off whatever aircraft I could see, so it was something like ten Phantoms, two Buccaneers, one Vulcan and a Gazelle.
I had scribbled it down on a notepad as I was talking and thought no more about it. The following day the same person telephoned and asked again for our status. I added one to each aircraft type and hung up. This began to happen every day and as the person, a young female, on the other end of the telephone didn’t question the madness of it all, I continued adding one to each aircraft type every time she telephoned. Meanwhile we were making good progress and every crew had been declared combat ready. The SENGO was called and when he came in to operations J R informed him that we had completed our operational task and that we could now start taking the ground crew flying.
The SENGO began to make a list of names when J R pointed at me and said ‘Put him on the top of the list.’ I was sent off to flying clothing and kitted out. On returning to ops I found out that I was to go up with Roy Lawrence. Roy took me to the briefing room and asked if there was anything I would specifically like to do while airborne. I said I would love to go supersonic and of course fire the guns. After all I was a boy. Roy gave me a safety briefing, emphasising the importance of following his instructions, especially if he ordered me to eject. I had no intention of getting a Martin Baker tie, if I could help it. It was quite exciting walking out to the aircraft and climbing in. The engineers were having great fun, asking if I had enough sick bags or did I know which end was the front.
We taxied out as one of a pair and while sitting at the end of the runway the other aircraft informed us that we had a barber’s pole showing. Basically a red and white pipe showing that there may be a problem with the wings, but quite common and it should rectify itself as we got airborne. However Roy still instructed me that I should prepare to eject should the situation worsen. Thankfully the problem did sort itself out and we climbed away from the ground. It’s quite different from flying in an airliner. You are very aware of the power but it’s much smoother. I had quite a lot of experience in the back seat from my times in the simulator, so was familiar with the environment.
Roy found the Canberra and we began our attack. As we closed in on the banner I could only just see the Canberra pulling away from us. Roy was giving me a running commentary on what was happening and when he informed me that we were about to open fire I was disappointed that my view of the target was terrible. As the cannon, underneath the aircraft erupted you could feel it through your feet and hear it as well. Roy pulled away and came in again for a second run, again letting the Gatling cannon rip. We then came away and circled high above as the other aircraft had two runs on the banner, so I had a great view of what we had just completed.
We then left our sister ship and headed out across the Mediterranean. Roy dropped down close to sea level and, as the good ol boys would say, floored it. Despite the fact that I could see our speed climbing on the dials before me, I knew to watch the leading edge of the wings, for as we crossed, or broke, the sound barrier we would get a grey mist shimmering along the front of each wing. It was an amazing thing to see and then Roy pulled the stick back. I had three mirrors in front of me, something like the rear view mirror you would find in a standard motor car. All I could see in the mirrors was the Island of Cyprus grow smaller by the second and then you think ‘Oh shit! We’ve got to come back down again.’
You’ll never find anything like that in any fun fair or even come anywhere close on a computer simulator. Roy performed a variety of manoeuvres as we descended, from rolling to flying upside down, all exciting stuff. We then enjoyed a lazy, and much slower flight, around the coast and it was quite interesting to fly past Paphos , Aphrodite’s rock, the cliffs and submarine point. As you may have expected every time we checked in with the squadron we were getting plenty of Falcon two six nine calls. We landed and Roy took my photograph beside our aircraft. I was extremely pleased with the flight but knew that I would not want to be a navigator. I knew that I would have to be in control, but I also knew that I still preferred helicopters.
Back in operations everyone wanted to know what I thought about the flight and I didn’t want to appear ungrateful. I felt strange talking about my experience because I found sitting in the Phantom to be a very erotic sensation. I was surprised to hear that this was very common, that the close confines of the rear seat were in some deep psychological way connected to the womb. Please don’t ask me to explain it; I didn’t understand it when it was explained to me. I changed back into my ill-fitting uniform and returned to operations.
J R wanted to know if I had been submitting our combat readiness to command every day. I assured him that I had and showed him the file that contained all my signals. He was confused because the commander of the British forces in Cyprus couldn’t understand the statistics he was being presented with every morning at his briefings. As I was able to show that I had sent the daily signal, to command he understood we had fulfilled our duty but couldn’t comprehend how the local commander was getting these strange figures. I pretended to be confused too.
It was at this point that Tony Bown came in with another signal. “Biggen Hill want to know your weight.” I hadn’t been weighed since arriving in Cyprus but it was obvious to everyone that I had lost a good amount of weight. They had asked the senior medical officer, the SMO, in Cyprus to weigh me and report my weight back to them. If I was within their guidelines I would be called forward to Biggen. I made my way over to the medical centre wondering how to get around this, in case I was too heavy. I waited in reception and when I saw a young fellow, who I would say was borderline geek, if not full blown geek, I approached him and asked if I could get weighed.
He took me to a room and showed me the weighing scales. I had never seen a set like these before in my life. You actually sat in a seat and the reading was taken from behind, so you couldn’t actually weigh yourself. I sat down and being terrified, that I could be a pound or two over the limit, placed my right toe on the ground and pushed for all I was worth. I think I my perfect weight was meant to be approximately one hundred kilograms. This fellow announces that I am ninety five kilos. “Great.” I say, leaping off the scales. “Can you make a note of that please.” “Why should I make a note of it?” asks the young man. “Because,” I say, as I am slipping out through the door. “The SMO wants to know my weight. Can you give it to him please”
Tony and J R were pleased with the weight but the SMO wasn’t, he wanted to weigh me himself. I explained to both Tony and J R what had happened and they wondered how we could get around it. Their idea was that I should hide. The detachment was nearly over; I had ten days left in Cyprus, because I was on the rear party. If I could remain in Cyprus for the next ten days, without being spotted, we might get away with it. The SMO would have to submit the weight I had given. Luckily I was used to giving false names, but I wasn’t used to being somewhere really, really, nice and not wanting to be there.