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Change was not just in the wind but blasting through my world at a speed high on the Beaufort scale. I was an operational Hawker Hunter pilot on a ground tour because the commander-in-chief of Royal Air Force Germany needed an aide-de-camp – a job for which I'd been duly selected, against his received advice, eventually from a cast of one. Determined to scrounge myself as much flying as possible, I became quite good at arranging ad hoc flights in various aircraft types (nine different types, in fact, at four different airfields). It was in September 1959 when I decided to ring a squadron friend of mine, a Hunter pilot at RAF Gütersloh, to gain his co-operation. "I'm on my way," I said obliquely.
"My boss is away and I've been able to borrow an aircraft – a Chipmunk."
"It'll be almost nine pm by the time I land at Gütersloh," I went on. "Could you kindly pick me up from station flight, please?"
"Mmmm ... no problem."
"Thanks," I said. "Thanks a lot ... see you there and you'll know when I've arrived – I'll just fly over the officers' mess." As if in a swift and unpremeditated gesture by my friend, I heard a click and the phone went dead.
Quite quickly after this I managed to drive down to RAF Wildenrath and get airborne that night, soon to be lulled by the soothing sound of the de Havilland Chipmunk's Gipsy Major engine which hummed happily as I headed eastwards from wildenrath en route to Gütersloh. The weather conditions were ideal with a clear, cloudless sky illuminated by the brilliance of a full moon. Below, like a giant jigsaw map, moonlit fragments of the German landscape moved steadily as the Chipmunk made progress. It can be a lonely place, the sky, and the ghostly motion of car headlights stood out like lost benighted creatures travelling through dark transparent space as if stray souls struggled to discover where they were, what they were, where they ought to be. Trimmed out and with a torch to hand, it was easy to check my aviation map regularly to ensure that, in my own case, I knew exactly where I was.
If I suffered a sense of isolation this was eased when, within one hour, the distinctive lights of Royal Air Force Gütersloh came into view. The visibility was still excellent and it struck me that the most expeditious way to alert my friend was to perform a couple of aerobatic manoeuvres in the vicinity of the officers' mess. I chose a suitable section of airfield perimeter track not far from the mess as the ground reference point. I advanced the throttle to select full power on the Gypsy Major Mk 8 engine as I commenced a dive to pick up the 130 knots airspeed needed for a loop followed by another loop. This is the life, I reckoned, as the trusty Chipmunk hurtled unhesitatingly round the sky in a magnificent moonlight sonata. Regretfully, however, I was unaware that below, in addition to alerting my friend, a senior officer had by chance happened to step outside the officers' mess into the crisp night air at the very precise and very inverted moment of loop number one.
Summonsed the next morning to the senior officer's presence, his voice was edged with melancholy and he looked cross when he announced: "As you well know, Pollock, night aerobatics are prohibited ... strictly prohibited. Consider yourself grounded!"
"But I'm already on a ground tour, sir," I said plaintively.
"Yes, most certainly!"
"In that case you're grounded on a ground tour ... which must be something of a record," he scowled.
My state of grounding did not last long. Within just one hour of my twenty-four-hour period of formal grounding, one of the Hawker Hunter squadrons based at Gütersloh – 26 (Army Co-operation) Squadron – was short of a pilot. I was needed urgently. So it was, on that September day in 1959, that I flew a Mark 6 Hunter of 26 Squadron despite my state of double grounding.
* * *
It was some months later, in the spring of 1960, that I flew five sorties in one day for 26 Squadron. For the last of these flights, which was at night, I had a sense of satisfaction as I flew a navigational exercise at high altitude above the north German plain. My Hawker Hunter, XJ690, pointed towards the black, freezing vault of the night sky studded with stars so brilliant that they looked unreal. The red glow of my Hunter's flight instrument lights induced a familiar feeling of cosiness within the cockpit. Occasionally, a ground controller's voice would interrupt my reverie and I could picture the individuals who, as they sat at their radar consoles, chatted convivially and sipped at steaming cups of coffee while simultaneously monitoring radio calls and watching aircraft 'blips' on radar screens.
It was on the last leg of my pre-planned navigational route when I heard the distress call. Another Hunter was in trouble and the pilot had transmitted a 'PAN' urgency message. I followed events as I listened on the aircraft radio and tried to work out the implications for my own recovery and landing at Gütersloh. By now my remaining fuel state was not too bad provided that I flew at endurance airspeed to eke out reserves. During this process, however, another Hunter promptly declared an emergency. Again, I monitored the aircraft radio to determine what was going on and to assess whether I should divert to an alternative airfield. Within minutes, though, my attention was drawn to the abrupt appearance of a pair of red lights situated low down in the cockpit. These lights were adjacent to, and to the right of, the engine oil pressure gauge, and their steady red glow revealed bad news. Within moments I knew that my aircraft had suffered a 'turret drive' failure with consequent loss of both of the Hunter's electrical generators and failure of the aircraft's hydraulic system. With nine minutes of battery reserves left before I'd lose all aircraft electrics, diversion to another airfield was no longer an option; it was a case of 'Gütersloh or bust'.
Carefully, I carried out the stipulated procedures, reverting straightaway to manual (non-hydraulically assisted) flight control and off-loading non-essential electrical items, but I decided to delay my declaration of an emergency. I realised that the controllers at Gütersloh were already stretched without the addition of my difficulties. Announcement of the news, though, could not be postponed indefinitely and when, eventually, I felt that the moment was right, I attempted to suppress an almost apologetic tone as I broadcast: "PAN – PAN – PAN ... total electrical and hydraulic failure ..."
At this instant I could imagine the approach controller's head drop dolefully, the very picture of woe, but to his credit he remained calm when, after a perceptible pause, he acknowledged my call. Meanwhile, as the dramas ahead of me began to unfold, it became evident that the runway was blocked by a Hawker Hunter ensnared in the crash barrier at the eastern end of the landing run, and that the second Hunter now blocked the opposite end of the runway. By this juncture in a state of minor shock and awe, I could barely believe my luck – or more to the point, my lack of luck – at having to attempt to land on a runway with both ends blocked and which technically, therefore, was 'state black' and thus unavailable. Another recourse – to eject – was distinctly unappealing, so I remained cool-headed while I worked out a plan of action.
I had checked that the surface wind was light and from a westerly direction. I set myself up, therefore, for an approach into wind with the aim of flying at a height of four to six feet above the Hunter and the crash barrier which, as it was night, I'd never even see. This, I estimated, should offer just sufficient runway length to allow me to stop before a collision with the Hunter stuck at the other end of the runway. Without the benefit of hydraulic power, my flight controls were heavy to operate and I had to be wary of the Hunter's tendency to 'Dutch roll' (a possible out-of-phase yaw-rolling motion) when flown at lower airspeed without hydraulics and exacerbated by crosswinds and turbulence. During the last stages of my approach to landing I planned to shut-down the engine so that, with just enough decaying airspeed, I could glide in above the Hunter still in the crash barrier. I had to land as judiciously as possible before I applied the single-shot emergency braking provided by the back-up wheel-brake accumulator. Fine judgement would be the key to success. The situation was unique and the antithesis of carefully planned, regular procedures. If things didn't work out on my first attempt, there'd be no second chance.
When I reached the downwind leg of the airfield circuit, the runway lighting helped me to make out some of the general scene. I was aware that, faced with this one-off opportunity, my flying experience would be put to the test in no uncertain terms. I reached for the undercarriage and flap emergency operating mechanisms and felt promptly reassured when, after operation, the back-up high pressure air bottle accumulators obligingly lowered the Hunter's wheels; I had indications of 'three greens' and full flaps down. With my eyes largely glued towards the touch-down point beyond the enmeshed Hunter, I felt strangely relieved at not being able to see what I was trying to avoid! My flight instruments, height and airspeed accuracy, fine judgement and some luck would prove critical to a successful outcome.
Now, as I turned XJ690 onto finals, I decided to maintain an airspeed of fifteen knots faster than normal until the crucial instant of stop-cocking the engine. At what I reckoned to be a range of forty or so yards from the major obstacles, I brought back my throttle through the gate to close down the engine. XJ690 was now a glider. My downward vision could hardly spot the netted Hunter flash below me while I focused on my planned touch-down point ahead.
Holding the Hunter steady in its downward float to round out, I soon felt the normal, gentle Hawker 'kiss' as the aircraft's splendidly wide undercarriage touched terra firma. In one long, steady action and with my stick moving hard back, I progressively squeezed the brake lever to gain maximum benefit before the accumulator ran out. The runway lights rushed past in a blur which gradually became slower and slower.
Still with some flare-path and runway ahead of me I came to a halt. With a sense of deliverance, and not entirely nonchalantly, I applied the parking brake. I de-clutched and slid back my hood manually, inserted the ejection seat's lower safety pin, released my seat straps and stood up to insert the ejection seat's top safety pin. With a slight shiver in the cold air, I looked around me.
Ahead I could hear, and soon see, an approaching Land Rover with tow bar. I looked back at the Hunter still ensnared in the crash barrier and now in the probe of several headlights, then turned to gaze at the other Hunter, by this stage virtually cleared from the end of the runway some 200 yards beyond my nosewheel.
I glanced up at the night sky. Events had worked out for me; I'd been fortunate, amazingly so, and I knew it. I could not have known, of course, that the impact on my mind would be such that, even well over fifty years later, that chain of events would remain as fresh in my memory as if they had occurred just yesterday.
A Bridge Too Far
It was eight years less a day after this particular episode that a very heavy cold, prescribed drugs, and a tip-off from my Red Arrow friends about the official cancellation of the RAF fiftieth anniversary flypast and our own 1(F) Squadron's substitute flypasts (and leaflet drops) would form a chain of events to ensure that my service with the Royal Air Force came to an abrupt end. I suppose you might call it my nemesis and it was something for which I was entirely unprepared – as unprepared, indeed, as the circumstances which had led up to such a drastic conclusion. In any case, after landing my Hunter Mk 9 at RAF West Raynham in Norfolk on that portentous day in early April 1968, there were some things that I wanted to do urgently. I knew only too well that it was just a matter of time before the thunder of the gods descended on my head with a vengeance.
I felt the need, firstly, to destroy the quarter-million scale aviation map which I'd used to navigate myself northwards after take-off from RAF Tangmere in Sussex. Apart from anything else, from a professional point of view I felt a little ashamed of this map with its scribbled markings and overall tatty appearance. As casually as possible, therefore, I walked into the operations section at West Raynham and asked to borrow some matches. Everyone there seemed quite relaxed; evidently the news had yet to reach them. I borrowed the matches, sneaked outside and as discreetly as possible set fire to the map.
Next, I wanted to telephone my wife and both sets of parents. Having thanked the operations personnel, I nonchalantly bade them farewell before, when clear of the block, I hastened to the mechanical transport section. Once there, I chatted-up the switchboard girl who agreed that I could put through a private call. My call included a relayed message for my wife, mother-in-law and parents. I told them what had happened and why. I said that I would be under close arrest for at least a couple of days and that on no account should they say anything to the press. The telephone operator somewhat apologetically said then that there would be a small delay as she'd just had two 'lightning' priority calls – something quite outside her long experience. "The balloon's possibly gone up," I said drily without offering her too much revelation.
At that juncture I left the telephone operator to her calls and began to head towards our squadron set-up at 1(F) Squadron. I walked quite slowly now and, as I did so, perhaps it was inevitable that recent events should course through my mind. I was aged thirty-two and at a stage in my service career when I had gained a fair amount of experience as a fighter pilot and flying instructor. I was by no means alone in the strong views I held about the treatment of the Royal Air Force by politicians, in particular about the cavalier way in which successive governments, including that of the current Labour government led by Mr Harold Wilson, seemed to regard the service. The country had seen a shift away from manned aircraft to the use of guided missiles, a policy instituted in 1957 by Defence Minister Duncan Sandys. Sacked in 1966 from Mr Edward Heath's shadow cabinet, Sandys would see his policies reversed but by then it was too late: orders at home and overseas had been lost, research had been cut back, good companies had gone out of business.
Under a Labour administration, devaluation had followed, and decimation of the British aircraft industry with the cancellation of the TSR2, P1154 and AW681 projects. It appeared to me that national morale was rock bottom, as exemplified by the abortive 'Wilson coup' plot in the spring of 1968. Despite later governmental dissimulation, the anniversary flypast originally planned to mark fifty years since the foundation of the Royal Air Force had been cancelled.
It had seemed at that point that a few unofficial initiatives would be appropriate. As senior flight commander on 1(F) Squadron, I organised on Monday 1st April 1968 some celebratory leaflet raids against a few other Royal Air Force stations. The reactions were illuminating. Two RAF stations, Chivenor and Valley, telephoned their congratulations, however Coltishall and Wattisham complained of dangerous flying, bad example, untidy debris (admittedly Wattisham was due for an inspection by their air officer commanding the next day) and poor airmanship. This attitude, frankly, made me see red – although I could understand that a Hunter dropping fiftieth anniversary leaflets with accuracy and style could appear dangerous to some commanders of the Lightning boys. For the next few days I quietly fumed. Then, on Thursday 4th April 1968, four of our 1 Squadron Hunter Mk 9s were scheduled to take part in an event at RAF Tangmere, a famous fighter airbase in Sussex and 1(F) Squadron's spiritual home. I felt this was appropriate for the RAF's oldest squadron (motto: in omnibus princeps – first in all things) whose four detached Hunters would land at Tangmere after their flypast over the station's Freedom of Chichester parade.
When, on that Thursday, our four pilots (callsign: 'Princeps Red') took off from West Raynham, the formation of Hunter Mk 9s overflew Brighton as part of the town's air display. Our Hunters then headed due west to overfly exactly on time, to the very second, indeed, Tangmere's formal parade at Chichester. This demonstrated, I believed, the RAF's high standard of professionalism which politicians seemed so readily to disregard. We'd been told to expect some press interest after landing so all four pilots, as we taxied in, exchanged our 'bone dome' flying helmets for traditional straw boaters (the press, though, were not there).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hunter Boys"
Copyright © 2014 Richard Pike.
Excerpted by permission of Grub Street.
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Table of Contents
Introduction & Acknowledgements 8
Chapter 1 Building Bridges: Alan Pollock made his presence known 9
Chapter 2 Border Patrol: Nigel Walpole recollects the Aden emergency 24
Chapter 3 Fine Line: Tim Thorn's split-second timing 32
Chapter 4 Hunter Training: Roger Colebrook learned some fighter pilot arts 39
Chapter 5 Anxious Moments: Jock Heron experienced engine failures 46
Chapter 6 No Sweat!: Harry Anwar in an unusual spot 50
Chapter 7 Springbok Spirit: Tim Webb's early Hunter days 59
Chapter 8 Team Leader: Brian Mercer's aerobatic days 73
Chapter 9 Test Pilot: Neville Duke DSO, OBE, DFC and two bars, AFC, Czech Military Cross, Hawker Aircraft chief test pilot 86
Chapter 10 Gibraltar Goings-On: Tim Thom's race against the odds 107
Chapter 11 War Diary: A Hunter pilot's experiences of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 115
Chapter 12 Kodak Kids: Peter Lewis recalls his fighter reconnaissance days 125
Chapter 13 Testing Times: Harry Anwar in Jordan 138
Chapter 14 Great Expectations: Anthony Haig-Thomas relished his days of flying 148
Chapter 15 Promise: Richard Pike at Chivenor 168
Appendix A Select Biographies 177