Ride of a lifetime

Thunder and Lightnings

The official Squadron Badge of No.29 – “Energetic and keen”. Formed in 1915, No.29 is now the OCU for Typhoons. (Wikipedia)

As promised, here is John Bentley’s account of his English Electric Lightning flight, from Flight International for April 23rd, 1970.

In what would certainly get a well-deserved ‘#bestweekeva’ tweet today, Bentley joined 29 Squadron during their month-long deployment to RAF Akrotiri on the southern coast of Cyprus, to report on their mobile Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) capabilities.

It was a textbook example of the RAF letting Britain’s taxpayers and Cold War adversaries know just what the QRA force could do – without actually giving away trade secrets.

On immediate readiness

Awesome night shot of a Lightning F Mk.3 armed with Firestreaks for a sortie out of RAF Wattisham in 1965. (IWM RAF-T 5800)

At the time, 29 Sqdn. was flying the E.E. Lightning F Mk.3 – an improved variant that featured the larger square-topped tail, low profile belly tank, and more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon 2301R engines delivering up to 16,360 lb of wet thrust each. The aircraft’s typical take-off weight wouldn’t have been much above that combined 32,720 lbs.

The mission of 29 was QRA defence for the southern half of the United Kingdom, plus the flexibility to reinforce other theatres (Germany, the Far East, etc) if required.

The annual detachment on Cyprus was a rehearsal of this mobility. The skies over Akrotiri might have been less cloudy (and the views must have been incredible) but the detachment was equally hard on pilots, ground crew, commanders and aircraft.

A technician prepares a de Havilland Firestreak AAM for a 56 Sqn Lightning F. Mk.3 at Akrotiri, while fitters care for the aircraft. (Crown Copyright 1967)

Detached squadrons had to bring everything they needed with them – in a fleet of eight packed-out C-130s – then continue their QRA obligations, proficiency and aircraft maintenance schedules without interruption.

Regardless of other activities, the squadron was expected to maintain two aircraft on immediate readiness, 24/7. When the alarm sounded – as it did almost every day – those Lightnings had to be airborne and climbing hard within two minutes.

Too warm for comfort

A pair of 74 Squadron Lightning F Mk.6s escort a Soviet Tu-16 ‘Badger’ out of Britains air defence zone. (IWM HU 106431)

QRA scrambles often turned out to be an exercise – Canberras running a practise incursion from their Germany bases, for example  – but almost as frequently the unannounced guests would be from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Russian aircraft would arrive on long-range maritime patrols, electronic or optical reconnaissance missions, more obvious probes of NATO’s QRA umbrella, and even practice bombing runs.

For over a decade the RAF’s Lightnings would intercept every one, identify and (usually) photograph them, then escort them from Britain’s air defence zone with a combination of live missile loads and mutually established routine.

High above northern Europe, the Cold War was alway a little too warm for comfort.

At least RAF pilots had the Lightning’s combination of extraordinary performance and easy handling to reassure them…


The only (decent) shot of No.29 Sqn Lightning F.3s I could get my hands on – at RAF Wattisham in 1972. ‘XP694’ served with the RAF from July 1964 to April 1988. (RuthAS | wikipedia CC BY 3.0)

“You can do it all”

No.29 Squadron’s insignia. The ‘XXX’ is almost as old as the squadron itself, and is believed to represent the brewer’s mark for ‘extra strong’. (Emt147 | wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

‘Have you ever flown before?’, asked my pilot Squadron Leader Dick Bell. (Well it was a change from ‘are you all right?’ and there were a lot of TV camera teams in Akrotiri that week.)

He seemed reassured by my nod: ‘Oh, well you can do it all then, can’t you?’

Actually, to save him stretching too far there were a few things I was able to do – such as starting the first Avon, having two wet starts on the second, and then finally starting that one as well.

A two-seat Lightning T Mk.5, as flown by John Bentley in this article. This one is landing at Filton, Bristol, in 1964 – so you’ll have to imagine the 70º, 230 knot climb for yourself. (Adrian Pingstone | wikipedia)

I hadn’t flown in formation for a number of years and the old regime of formation starts and canopy closures, radio checks and taxiing began to bring back that once-familiar slightly-apprehensive stomach-tightening tension which always used to accompany me along the taxi track and into the air until the formation closed up and I was too busy to worry.

But none of that was my responsibility in the T.5 and I was able to relax as we trundled along at some 30 knots, the last aircraft of four, to the runway threshold.

Twin Avons on reheat

We lined up four abreast, nicely positioned in echelon port and for one stimulating moment I thought we were about to do a formation take-off. It would have been quite a run, as my pilot was on the dead side…

A closer look at the office of an 11 Squadron Lightning F Mk.6. Note how well the refuelling probe is positioned – convenient really. (IWM TR 38447)

‘We’ll be doing a stream take-off at five second intervals; full reheat followed by a max rate rotation climb as soon as possible after getting airborne,’ said Sqn. Ldr. Bell.

‘You’ve probably seen them at Farnborough. The thing is to unstick the aircraft and let it accelerate to the appropriate speed then just pull hard back on the stick to rotate the aircraft to about a 70° climb angle. She’ll climb at that angle at a steady speed, no trouble.’

‘Leader rolling,’ came the call. A loud rumble, quickly followed by the even louder crackle of twin Avons on reheat, came from our right.

‘Two, three, four, live . . .’ Dick, the senior pilot in the flight, was counting his young pilots out as a check on their own efficiency. Another burst of noise as number two surged forward. The leader was already airborne, wheels tucking in nicely.

‘Come on number three,’ growled Dick under his breath, then, as three rolled forward, he began the countdown for us.

A smart kick in the back

Full reheat in a Lightning feels just as it sounds – a smart kick in the back – and once I’d accustomed myself to the rate of acceleration I looked for the others. Three was airborne, just rotating into the climb in a split-second transformation from rear-profile to planform, but where were the first two . . ?

Hell’s bells! I couldn’t see the leader at all but number two looked to be at about 10,000 feet and going up, literally like an arrow into the clear sky above Akrotiri.

Then we were airborne at about 160 knots with the wheels coming up. Dick held us at about 200 feet AGL while the horizontal tape ASI slid along until the cursor showed 240 knots. Then a hard pull-back on the stick and we were pointing what appeared to be vertically upwards. ‘We lose about 10 knots on the rotation, you’ll notice, but she’ll hold 230 knots all the way up.’

Upwards at the rush

Lightning climb… ‘XN787’, an F Mk.2 climbs away from the East Yorkshire countryside in 1965. (IWM RAF-T 5847)

Sure enough she did, and once the rotation was complete the ride was unexceptional, if you are used to being launched in a rocket. The feeling of lying on my back and being propelled by two crackling afterburners straight up to the troposphere is something I shall remember for quite a while.

Once we were in the climb the three aircraft ahead came into view. We seemed to be number four in an elongated tail chase, pushing upwards at the rush, with the noise of the pressurisation competing with that from the afterburners.

At about 30,000ft, some 70 seconds after rolling, the leader peeled off to the left and levelled out, shutting down his burners and setting course for our exercise area. His three followers turned inside him and joined up in battle formation before splitting into two pairs for the mock attacks which we were about to practise.

Just below the tropopause

When Sqn. Ldr. Bell had positioned us 400 yards behind number three he gave me control of the stick and told me to hold the same relative position. Wisely, I left control of the throttle in his hands.

‘XR768’, an F Mk.6 wearing the distinctive tiger stripes of 74 Squadron, banks hard over Fife in Scotland. Note the tip of the starboard over-wing shock body / fuel tank. (IWM RAF-T 6976)

We soon began yo-yo manoeuvres, diving through the transonic speeds just below the tropopause then pulling quickly up in a surging climb still at supersonic speed for a simulated zoom attack.

After a couple of these we split into two pairs, numbers one and two being vectored away by radar in preparation for an attack on us. It wasn’t long before number three started jinking ahead of me. From my left came relaxed comments to close up, go more to the left and, most of all, to pull harder.

A delightful aircraft to fly

The Lightning really is a delightful aircraft to fly between M0.9 and M1.3, the range in which we were operating. I had no trouble keeping our lateral position with quick applications of aileron followed by opposite aileron to counter the drift. As soon as I saw number three begin to bank I could follow him quite easily.

A fine study of a No. 19 Sqn Lightning F Mk.2 in 1965. Note the rounded tail fin (squared off from the F2A and low profile belly tank. XN787 aircraft would be scrapped in 1987. (IWM RAF-T 5845)

But when we began pulling g in turns or climbs the leader tended to creep up the windscreen while I craned my neck watching him through the canopy and pulling hard back on the stick. In the thin air some long-forgotten reflex was telling me not to pull too hard in case I developed a g-stall. ‘Pull harder,’ came the voice, this time somewhat more concerned in case we lost number three altogether. Dick took over and repositioned us, before handing control back to me.

Chatter on the radio warned number three that our attackers were getting close, on my side it seemed, but I saw nothing until Dick pointed out two arrows far below us. ‘They’re just preparing to zoom up on us,’ he said. ‘Watch for number three taking avoiding action.’

Then we began another series of twists, turns, climbs and descents. I’ll never know whether we did evade our attackers – I was too busy trying to keep number three in the centre of my half of the windscreen. When the turns became really tight Dick pushed in the reheat, which was felt as well as heard, and we wound round even tighter.

Descending tail-chase

In the end, just as it was our turn to make an attack, somebody had a radar failure and someone else got low on fuel, so we met our targets head-on and turned in behind them in a tight, upward supersonic arc until we were all four strung out in a descending tail chase.

A pair of Lightning F Mk.3s of No.74 ‘Tiger Squadron’ over St.Andrews, Scotland in 1964. The same Mark as those in Betley’s articles, these very aircraft may well have been passed on to No. 29 Sqn by 1970. (IWM RAF-T 4800)

At least downwards was the general direction. Number one led the four of us down through a seemingly endless corkscrew. Sea, clouds and sky reared themselves continuously across the screen. I had forgotten what it was like to be at the back of a tail-chase, watching the three in front making their moves to follow the man ahead and then, as the three began to drift as a group from their position on the screen, remembering that I too would have to do something before they disappeared entirely.

It was during one of these lazy moments in the descent that I absentmindedly allowed us to drift upwards through the wash of number three, 300 yards ahead. The buffet was so startling and strong that I really thought we had hit something. It didn’t worry Dick though, and we pressed on towards Akrotiri.

Dick took over again as we closed up into a line-astern formation before our final run in.

If he’s lucky and experienced

A timeless shot of a Lightning pilot boarding his F Mk.3 (XP741) at RAF Wattisham in 1965. (IWM RAF-T 5759)

There is something about line-astern flying, especially in a group of four or more, which is quite fascinating to watch. The twin jet pipes of number three are five feet forward and above the canopy. Above him are two more pairs of jet pipes. A movement of the leader is repeated and magnified by number two, who is followed by number three, by which time the leader has settled down again.

Number four, if he’s lucky and experienced, can watch the two ahead of him snaking about, while he retains his position relative to the leader and damps out the oscillations.

Otherwise he can find himself having a rather undulating ride.

It seems little has changed

We tightened up considerably during our short echelon starboard run across Akrotiri for the two-second break. And when it came, the break turned out to be far less stressful than I’d expected, while the approach and landing which followed was very smooth.

Two F Mk.3 Lightnings of 56 Squadron RAF stand QRA watch with pilots in the cockpit, while at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus in 1967. (IWM RAF-T 7467)

At the debriefing afterwards, I was interested to listen to the four pilots analysing what had gone on, and being mildly critical of themselves and each other. It had been a working flight for the lead three while for Sqn. Ldr. Bell it had been a check-ride as wing-man to a young section leader.

It seems little has changed from the fighter squadron crew rooms of World War Two, with hands and fingers being used to expressively demonstrate who did what to whom.

The youngest pilots still discuss their tactics in hurried, strident tones while their elders listen and say little. Meanwhile, the senior pilots worry about things like aircraft availability and whether so-and-so will be able to complete his program of flying exercises…

Extracted from Have Lightning, Will Travel, by John Bentley, Flight International, 23 April  1970. Click to see the full article and photos in the Flight archive.

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3 thoughts on “Ride of a lifetime

  1. Very enjoyabe and informative article.

    One little detail though, the Soviet bomber being escorted isn’t a Tupolev Tu-16 “Badger”, but a Myasishchev M-4 “Bison”.

    1. Thanks Kevan – I think you’re right! I got my info from the IWM’s image data (so you might like to contact them as well) but upon very close inspection, there does appear to be twinned engine inlets and outlets in that wing root. More clearly, the wing is ‘clean’ and doesn’t have the Badger’s mid-span ‘pods’ that fair over the landing gear.
      For everyone else, I’ve corrected the caption now, so this is all going to seem a little confusing…Sorry. 🙂 But if you have an eye for Russian aircraft, I’m working on a gallery of QRA intercept images at the moment… Check back in a week or so for those.
      Thanks again Kevan.

  2. I always love hearing first hand accounts of flying and this one is no exception! Even though I have a slight prejudice against the jet age (ahem), what Bentley said is true about little having changed since the fighter squadron crew rooms of WWII. Hanger flying will always be in style!

    Thank you for this post. 🙂

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