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ROGER COLEBROOK'S FLAMING FIRST FLIGHT
He gave me a sideways glance but he said nothing at first. We stood by the line hut and I was conscious of his inscrutable expression, his serious, searching eyes. Later these would prove invaluable attributes, no doubt, for this future air chief marshal and chief of the air staff, but this was 1966 – Monday 24th October, to be precise – and as my flying instructor at the time, he had to make a crucial decision. The slightly-built Flight Lieutenant M J Graydon glanced at me again. He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. He coughed dryly. "The next exercise in the syllabus," he said at last, "is to do exactly what we've just done, only this time on your own." He hesitated. "Do you think you're up to it?"
I paused then said: "Yes." Perhaps I sounded a little flat. Maybe I should have felt a little more excited. This, after all, would be my first solo flight in a Lightning aircraft, surely every pilot's dream. In truth, though, I saw it as no particular big deal, just another hurdle to be cleared in the seemingly endless air force training machine.
My instructor nodded. "Very well," he said. "The engineers will sort out which aircraft you'll take. It may well be that one ..." he waved towards Lightning T4 XM 968, a dual-control machine parked near XM973, the T4 Lightning we had just flown together, "then you can get going." With its side-by-side dual control arrangement, the Lightning T4's cockpit layout was different from the single-seat Lightning F1A which we would fly later in the course. Prudence dictated that for our first solo flight we rookie students should stick to a familiar cockpit layout.
"OK," I said.
At this, we stepped inside the engineering line hut, signed the technical log, briefed the engineers, and headed towards the Lightning pilots' crew-room. "Coffee?" I asked my instructor.
"Yes please – standard NATO." This meant a mug of white coffee with two generous teaspoons of sugar applied.
A mood of reflection struck me as I dealt with the makings. I was, after all, just a young lad, barely twenty years of age. I only wished that I could have told my parents and my brother this news about my first solo flight on Lightnings. How marvellous if they could have felt proud of me, if they could have shared the moment. But it wouldn't have worked; I could not have told them. It would only have caused upset. My father, as a flight sergeant photographer in the RAF when he retired in 1957, had seemed to resent the fact that I had joined the service as an officer. Not once had he asked me what I did, or what type of aircraft I flew, or about my progress. My mother, God bless her, had no inkling what purpose I served. I had never even told them, for instance, that I had won the Glen Trophy at 3 Flying Training School, a prize awarded to the best overall pilot. That would have been deemed boastful. My brother, four-and-a-half years my senior, was an agricultural engineer and my mother had always blamed his poor performance on the large number of postings that went with service life.
For my own part, I had joined the service for a variety of reasons. I wanted to fly, I wanted to be a fighter pilot, and I liked the idea of a job that involved protecting the country and its way of life. As my training had progressed, I had been impressed by the way the service seemed to offer learning and experience above and beyond pure professional expertise. There was a culture of excellence; meritorious achievement counted above accident of birth. Few cared whether someone had been born into a respectable residence within easy contact of London, or brought up within the grimmer, tighter north, the backstreets of Leeds or Newcastle for instance, with lesser access to style and wealth. Social deference was virtually nonexistent; deference to hierarchical military rank ruled. Beyond this rigid rank-consciousness, service life strived to gloss over the niceties of upper working class, lower middle class, upper this, lower that, middle the other, the subtle variations of social location. Per ardua ad astra was expected and exemplified from the top: the dreary slide of standards of some air marshals-to-be; the sordid ambition (that master-passion which seemed to take the place of honour), even downright incompetence and consequent deflation of ego of an individual sacked, for example, for overzealous home improvement using public funds, or one whose even more zealous extra-marital exposure by the press forced the marshal of the RAF to resign ... all of that lay in the future. Most Lightning pilots rose above such machinations; maybe a sense of sheer survival made this necessary.
To date I had flown six dual-control flights with my instructor, and a total of just over four flying hours on the Lightning – not much for such a powerful, awesome machine. My grand total of flying hours, 325, was significant compared to the poor souls of an earlier generation, the Spitfire and Hurricane pilots of a mere quarter century ago, but was still less than earth-shattering. The Lightning seemed such an enormous beast. After some of the other types I had flown in training, especially the tiny Folland Gnat, the preflight walk-around checks, for one thing, could seem quite intimidating. Remarkably, the Lightning was roughly the same weight as some of the later marks of Wellington bomber used by Bomber Command in the Second World War. Unlike the massive bomb loads of the Wellington, however, an armed Lightning would carry just two missiles – and rather puny ones at that, some would say. There was the Firestreak missile, otherwise known as 'Firewood', or the supposedly more advanced Red Top (dubbed 'Red Flop' by the pilots).
I handed my instructor a mug of steaming coffee. "As ordered, one standard NATO ..." He nodded thanks then gestured towards a quiet corner of the crewroom where he would debrief me on the recent flight, and brief me on the next.
"Remember," he said, "to plan and to think well ahead ... stay on top of things and don't allow the machine to race ahead of your mental processes. When you've finished the high level work, return to Coltishall airfield for a few practise circuits. Watch your airspeed on finals and concentrate on the runway perspective. I want you to carry out a couple of approaches and overshoots before your final landing ..." Further pearls of wisdom ensued then, with the briefing complete, we had to wait for word from the engineers. I offered to make my instructor another mug of coffee but he declined.
As we waited, I glanced around the crewroom. One or two individuals sat about, some who boned up on Lightning pilots' notes, one man who observed activity outside, another who studied a newspaper. This was unusual; the packed course syllabus normally precluded time for newspaper reading. However, last Friday's disaster at Aberfan was on all of our minds and a subject of sad discussion.
Shocked by Aberfan, the good folk of the flower-power 1960s had other issues too. Scepticism was growing. There was market research, there were leather jackets. Trendy-lefty speak was catching on. New ideas, new freedoms sprang up. Serious, severe sociologists from the University of Essex demanded to be heard. Young men grew stubbly beards (deemed unmilitary and inappropriate for steely fighter pilots). Young women wore mini-skirts. People worried about detergents, black Americans, the Beatles, Rhodesia, Vietnam, abortion, Coronation Street.
For those of us in the military, the Cold War was an all-consuming focus. The Lightning force, backed by a system of ground-based missiles, was charged with the defence of our island skies. The general idea was to scramble at lightning speed, zoom up to the required altitude, then with a combination of ground radar directions and our own on-board radar, intercept and shoot down the Soviet hordes. We would let them have it with a bit of Firewood – a couple of Red Flops if they were lucky – before we dashed back to base to rearm, refuel, and hurtle off again to repeat the process.
There were, unfortunately, flaws within this mega-strategy. For one thing, the Soviet hordes, when they arrived, were likely to outnumber us by a ratio of approximately thirty to one. Other than the implausible scenario that the Soviets would play ball, do the decent thing, be thoroughly British and orbit patiently while we rearmed and refuelled, we faced something of a David and Goliath struggle. I sometimes speculated on the reaction of Dowding, leader of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain, to this plan. Perhaps he would have said nothing. Perhaps his cold, hard stare accompanied by the lifting of one eyebrow would have sufficed.
"Roger – you're on ..." At last we received the waited call from the engineers. My mouth felt dry. I swallowed hard. I experienced an odd mixture of sentiments, as if I was a condemned man but one who was anxious to proceed anyway. In my mind I hastily recapped my flying instructor's briefing. He looked at me and the grave, grey expression was characteristic as he said: "I'm sure everything will be OK. In case of trouble I'll be in the air traffic control tower to follow your progress. Don't worry; this is normal routine – standard practice for first solo flights on the Lightning."
As I walked to the engineering line hut, I carried my white flying helmet, otherwise known as a bone dome, in one hand. The racket of Lightning aircraft engine noise was pervasive and I had to remain alert to the dangers of approaching aircraft and vehicles. When inside the line hut, I gave a friendly nod to the line chief. "All ready for you, sir," he said, "good kite this one." The elderly chiefie breathed confidentially into my ear: "Shouldn't give you no bother." He winked. In the background, a battered radio set played music from The Supremes latest hit album. I put my bone dome on the table, checked the aircraft log, scrawled a signature, and glanced at the chiefie as if for further encouragement. This time, though, he just stared at me blankly. I managed a grin, picked up my bone dome, and stepped outside before I headed for Her Majesty's aircraft, Lightning T4 XM968.
My walk-around check was observed by an allocated ground crewman. He had placed a fire extinguisher to one side of the aircraft from where he would supervise the start-up procedure. He remained there, arms folded, as if bored and cold. I was determined, though, not to be rushed. Firstly I stood at the front of the aircraft and looked upwards to verify that the engine intake was clear. I checked the extended pitot-static tube to ensure that the protective cover had been removed. I inspected the radar dome in the centre of the engine air intake. When switched on once airborne, the ingenious radar within its dome would whizz from side to side, up and down, like some demented leprechaun, and would be the cause of much anguish to come. At this stage in the course, though, my job was to concentrate on how to handle the aircraft itself.
Now I moved back to inspect the starboard side of the aircraft, including the undercarriage mechanism and wheels. The Lightning's undercarriage was a particular science. The tyres, thin enough to fit into the aircraft's slender wings, yet rugged enough to cope with the high take-off and landing speeds, were specially designed and manufactured. They were also, so we were told, very expensive. With luck, a tyre might last up to ten landings, however a strong cross-wind could wreck a tyre in just one flight. At the time, however, such thoughts were far from my mind. I bent low to inspect the starboard tyre and associated brake assembly before I walked to the rear of the aircraft. Once there, I stared up into the black wilderness of the aircraft's twin jet pipes set one above the other. My sense of awe was intense. What power, what heat, what sheer brute force would be thrust through those complex pipes! Lastly, I checked the port side of the aircraft before I stepped up the boarding ladder hooked onto the cockpit side, and clambered aboard. The ground crewman assisted as I strapped-in to the left-hand seat. He confirmed that the ejection seat safety pins were removed, then stepped down and detached the boarding ladder before he returned to his position by the fire extinguisher.
The pre-start procedure was second nature to me by that stage. As a keen student, I had spent hours in the classroom, in the flight simulator and in the cockpit of a hangar-bound aircraft in order to learn the cockpit drills. I glanced across at the adjacent empty seat secured by a safety apron, then went through the well-rehearsed cockpit drills ... check position of the twin throttles, flight instruments set, engine instruments okay, fuel contents full, oxygen sufficient ... My mind was entirely focused on the task in hand and soon I was ready to start the first engine. I raised one finger to the ground crewman, made a circling motion to indicate engine start, and received a thumbs-up sign. I looked inside the cockpit again, located the engine start buttons, and pressed the relevant one. A shrill wheeee followed by a sudden crashing noise indicated commencement of the first engine's start cycle. I checked the engine instruments, confirmed that all looked in order, made another circling sign to the ground crewman, and repeated the start procedure for the other engine.
With both engines happily turning and burning, I was ready to taxi out for take-off. I pressed the radio transmit button and spoke with Coltishall air traffic control. The controller's voice sounded unflustered and comforting as he replied: "968 ... clear to taxi for runway ..." After a last thumbs-up from the ground crewman to indicate wheel chocks removed, I released the parking brake and allowed the machine to ease forward. By regular squeezes on the brake handle by the control stick I limited the aircraft's speed to a fast walking pace. I kicked the rudder pedals left or right to obtain directional control by means of differential braking, and before long I was on the main taxiway headed for the day's runway-in-use, as determined by the wind direction.
"968 ... clear for take-off ..." the local controller, a distant figure behind long panes of glass in the Coltishall air traffic control tower, now allowed me to move directly onto the runway. As I progressed towards the take-off point, he appeared to observe proceedings through binoculars. There was no time to bother about this, however, as I turned the Lightning onto the runway, made a final check of cockpit instruments, and quickly recapped in my mind the take-off procedure. For this flight, I had been briefed to use 'cold power', which meant no reheat (or afterburner as the Americans would say). I would have to be careful, therefore, not to push the throttles through a friction gate to the 'reheat' section.
When lined-up on the runway, I brought the machine to a halt – unlike the procedure for a 'scramble' take-off – and visually checked that the runway and climb-out area were unobstructed. All looked clear. I was ready to go. The moment had come.
Slowly but firmly I advanced both throttles to the 'full cold power' position and released the brakes. At once the machine sprang forward and I felt a kick in my back. Apart from occasional glances at the airspeed indicator, I concentrated on looking outside the cockpit. My peripheral vision picked up a blur to each side as the Lightning accelerated. With my left hand I ensured the twin throttles were held fully forward in the correct position; with my right hand I made minor flight control inputs to counter crosswind effect. In what felt like no time, the airspeed indicator was passing 100 knots ... 110 knots ... 120 knots ... the acceleration continued. At just the right moment I eased back on the control stick to raise the nose-wheel off the ground, the main wheels followed and suddenly I was airborne.
Now I had to act fast; the Lightning did not hang about, even in cold power. The altimeter began to wind up as I gained height and swiftly I raised the undercarriage as part of the after-take-off checks. There was so much to remember ... keep a good lookout ... maintain a mental plot of position ... monitor the flight instruments ... constantly check fuel contents ... Amongst other bones of contention, the Lightning was notorious for its lack of available fuel. We had been told as an example that if reheat was engaged at low level and the machine flown in a continuous tight turn, the entire fuel load could be consumed in about ten minutes. This instance may have sounded a little extreme, nonetheless the average sortie length for some marks of Lightning was no more than around forty minutes.
As I gained height, and as the distinctive outline of the Norfolk coast and The Wash beyond formed a real-life map ahead, I continued to maintain a good visual lookout. Numerous Norfolk villages showed up to the side and in front, but I had to twist my head back in order to glimpse the city of Norwich. This, however, was good practice. From square one, we budding fighter pilots had been taught the need to pay heed to the area behind us. Perhaps a hangover from Battle of Britain days when the 'Hun in the sun' and 'watch your six o'clock' were key watchwords to survival, the principles remained good ones. They were certainly pointed out regularly by our instructors. Good lookout may have been the emphasis, nevertheless aircraft systems could not be ignored. I darted a glance inside my cockpit for an expeditious look around the 'office'. I quickly checked instruments, airspeed at 450 knots, height approaching 6,000 feet, fuel contents, warning panels, and then I looked outside again. For my mental processes to stay ahead of the aircraft, my mind was centred entirely on the world within and surrounding my cockpit, on the immediate task in hand. I had no time to think about the goings-on of lives below, of the individuals who may have looked up as the noisy Lightning roared overhead, of the folk in their cars, in their gardens, in the houses that backed onto them ...(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Lightning Boys"
Copyright © 2011 Richard Pike.
Excerpted by permission of Grub Street.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Fiery Baptism, Roger Colebrook 7
Chapter 2 Gorilla Tactics, Bill Wratten 18
Chapter 3 Touch and Go, Ross Payne 26
Chapter 4 Battle Flight, Peter Vangucci 31
Chapter 5 Paper Tiger? David Roome 36
Chapter 6 Tight Timing, Clive Mitchell 42
Chapter 7 Ulp! Rick Groombridge 48
Chapter 8 Not Amused, Anthony Bendell 54
Chapter 9 Basket Case, John Walmsley 63
Chapter 10 'Should be a Doddle', Colin Wilcock 70
Chapter 11 Early Days, Bruce Hopkins 74
Chapter 12 Russian Roulette, Jerry Parr 80
Chapter 13 A Man's Aircraft, Alan White 88
Chapter 14 Twenty Lightning Years, Peter Collins 99
Chapter 15 Supersonic Stretch, John Hall 107
Chapter 16 A Visident Too Far, Jerry Parr 115
Chapter 17 Timely Telepathy, Steve Gyles 121
Chapter 18 Fine Art, Chris Stone 129
Chapter 19 Vive la Difference, Dave Bramley 135
Chapter 20 Last Flight of the P1, Graham Perry 144
Chapter 21 Combat Clashes, Jim Wild 155
Chapter 22 Name Game, Richard Pike 168
Appendix A Lightning Prototypes and Variants 174
Appendix B Practicalities 180
Appendix C Select Biographies 183