RAF St. Mawgan
June 26th 2011 (Alternate Calender)
I'd had trouble sleeping the previous night. I don't know why. It was as if I weren't allowed to relax. There was something wrong with the world and I was somehow reflecting the international mood. Indeed, how anyone could not feel the same way as I did that morning escaped me because the news was dominated by the events taking place all over Europe and South America. The economy of the western world was collapsing around us and with it went the stability of some of the politically weaker nations.
Paris seemed to be constantly on fire. The Parisiens Rouge were rioting in the streets their efforts to disrupt metropolitan Paris being made all the more effective by near-panic stricken European media coverage. In Southern Italy a new fashion was sweeping the countryside; lynching suspected communists. As Billie Holliday once wrote the 'strange fruit' was becoming a common sight in the Italian countryside.
In South America Chile was fighting a communist insurgency that was spreading through Argentina. The armed forces of both nations, after years of corruption and political in-fighting, was proving less than able to counter the insurgency despite influx of American money and materials these more-often-than-not ending up being sold on the black market by the Generals who were supposed to use them to fight for their country in order to increase their own wealth while their soldiers died in battle. Venezuela was now firmly in the pocket of Moscow after the United States imposed its arms embargo on the oil-rich country and the Venezualan armed forces were looking more and more like that of a Warsaw Pact country.
Communists, and also Socialists in general, in the western world found themselves increasingly on the receiving end of people's frustrations over the economic turmoil. Even here in the UK violence against communists was on the rise as scores of people left jobless searched for a sacepegoat they could get their hands on. The truth was however that the economy of the 1990s was built on borrowed money and so when that money ran out the only way was down. The communists offered the perfect tangible targets for the frustrated. In all honesty, the newly elected Conservative government did little to discourage it, the party having swayed further to the right of the political scale in the past few years.
The whole of the free world seemed to be breaking apart at the seams while on the other side of the Iron Curtain the Soviet Union and their puppet states of Eastern Europe and the Warsaw Pact seemed as strong as ever since the political coup that ousted Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. Any hopes of ending the international political game of chess between the East and West died when Gorbachev disappeared from the face of the Earth. The only ever sign of discontent seemed to have been when the centuries old ethnic division in Yugoslavia saw the country erupt into a brutal but short civil war in 1992 that was quashed by a Soviet Invasion by the following year. The new Soviets made an example of the people in Yugoslavia and insured that any other thoughts of insurrection or discord was discouraged so that all guns in the East could keep pointing firmly West at an increasingly unstable NATO alliance.
Was it any wonder I couldn't sleep?
A cool breeze rolled in over the airfield as the early morning sun was just beginning to creep above the horizon. Even at this early hour the humidity was already beginning to build up. It had been a hot summer and it showed no signs of letting up just yet. Our stay at RAF St. Mawgan had been a brief one but then again they always were. RAF St. Mawgan had been the National Armament Practice Station for over five years now ever since the Ministry of Defence had decided to save money by reducing the number of overseas training deployments to places Canada and the Middle East. It was in a prime location with vast areas of sea to the south and the west while to the north were the low flying zones of North Wales. Detachments from the UK based squadrons would be sent here for three weeks of training as regularly as possible. It was now nearing the end of this particular detachment.
As I walked around the Strike Phantom FGR.3 I rubbed my bare hand across its metal body feeling the coolness of its touch from having sat outside in the night. I walked around it from nose to tail and around the other side checking every panel was closed and that every safety tag had been removed ready for flight. Even though it was a training mission you always acted as though it were the real thing.
That's how you prepare for war.
The Strike Phantom FGR.3 sat under a wide blue sky in its dark sea grey/woodland green camouflage scheme which reflected its low level north European strike role. The Phantom was never intended to have remained in service for this long but efforts to replace it had fallen through on at least two occasions. The current Strike Phantom FGR.3, despite having its F-suffix indicating it had a fighter role, was intended primarily for ground attack missions it having long since passed its prime as a fighter.
It was armed with just a pair of AGM-65 Maverick training rounds, one on each inner wing pylon. These had all the guidance systems of the live Maverick but had no engine or warhead. It was simply designed to help aircrews practice acquiring targets. Sitting above each dummy Maverick were two ASRAAM acquisition training pods sitting out to the side of the pylon in what's known as the glove station. These, like the Mavericks, were intended purely for training purposes. On the centreline pylon was a large external fuel tank which held 600 gallons of additional fuel.
Sitting beside the Phantom was a camo-painted Land Rover with two thick power cables protruding from its rear cab and into the underside of the Phantom. This Land Rover was a portable generator and was powering the numerous electrical devices in the aircraft whilst it was on the ground and its engines turned off. Once the aircraft started up and was generating its own power then these would be disconnected.
Satisfied that the ground crews had done their job I thanked the Aircraft Captain, Staff Sergeant Thomlins who was in charge of the Phantom whenever it was on the ground, and began to climb the flimsy feeling ladder that clung to the port side of the forward fuselage leading up to the cockpit. I had lost count how many times I had done this and yet in a Phantom it feels like everytime is the first time. You never know how the old girl is going to behave for you today. Some days she is a high class lady who does everything with grace and elegance. Other days she is tramp who will fight you as hard as any enemy. You couldn't blame the old girl for being so temperamental she was after all thirty six years old and despite all the 'plastic surgery' i.e. upgrades – she was still a child of the 60s.
Pilot Officer Jason Nicholson, my Weapon Systems Officer (WSO), was already firmly strapped into the rear seat and was running through his system checks. If the backseaters who flew the Phantom over Vietnam could see how his work station looked today they would think they were looking at a scene from Star Trek. Nearly all the controls were touch screen activated but even more remarkable was the Voice Control Interface which allowed Nicholson to actually speak his commands into the system. I had a similar system in the front seat but with fewer options. It seemed pilots could make do with basic pressure gauges and just one Multi-Function Display or MFD. That said the FGR.3 was an easier aircraft to fly thanks to the Hands-On Throtlle And Stick (HOTAS) controls that meant i rarely if ever had to move my hand around the cockpit to push buttons and pull switches. A small switch on the side of the throttle acted like a computer mouse on my MFD screen which allowed me to access any information i wanted.
Thomlins followed me up the ladder to help me strap in. With shoulder and torso straps wrapped around me and connected to the main lock and the handle turned to seal me in place Thomlins reached for the intercom link behind my ejection seat and hooked it up to my helmet.
"Nicholson," I said holding the oxygen mask close to my face, the microphone being located inside. "Comms check, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, One, Two , Three."
"Yeah I can hear your dreary voice," joked my WSO who hailed from the rather upper class Cotswolds and so he spoke with a slight twang. "How about you?"
"All good," I replied as I attached the oxygen mask to the front of my face. It clipped into position and once it sat comfortably over my mouth and nose I gave Thomlins the thumbs-up. Once we were both satisfied that the HUD and other instruments were in working order we both acknowledged with a nod and he began to clamber back down the ladder which he soon removed and carried clear of the aircraft. "Alright let's get this over with. I hate working Sundays."
"Have yee been to mass this morning?" quipped Nicholson in an accent vaguely sounding like a leprechaun on helium gas.
"Of course I have. I shook three times while I was there. Anymore is playing with myself." Nicholson recognised the toilet-related humour and his voice began to chuckle in my earpieces. "Ok, starting One."
I reached out of the cockpit with my left hand and rotated it clockwise signalling to Thomlins that I was about to start the number one engine. Thomlins acknowledged and so I switched the aircraft starter mechanism over to ARM. A green light appeared above it next to another light that glowed red if there was a problem. I pushed the button labelled '1' and a loud whistling sound filled the air followed by a heavy growling sound. As the number one engine started there was a slight trembling in the seat which soon subsided into a gentle vibration as the engine came to life. I watched as the gauges for the engine all start to rise and I kept Nichols informed of the engine's progress. Once I was satisfied that number one was running normally I repeated the process and started number two. The Phantom now sat there howling like a banshee that was trying to break free.
After watching the ammeter gauge, which indicated the amount of electricity the engines were developing, build up to a sufficient level I signalled for Thomlins' groundcrews to disconnect the external power cables from the aircraft. We watched as his team quickly dragged the cables away from the aircraft and stowed them back aboard the Land Rover before one of them jumped in the driver's seat and drove clear of our port wing.
I quickly checked over all of the engine gauges confirming that everything was ok. Once I was
satisfied I checked my watch which was like every other timepiece at the base synchronized to the clock tower above the Officer's barracks. We were three minutes early for our take off slot which meant we could have to wait here until then. It all depended on what the tower had to say.
I squeezed the transmit button on the side of the throttle and spoke into my mask, "Mawgan Tower this is Long Sword Four ready to taxi out to Romeo Three Seven."
The headset crackled before a chirpy young woman's voice replied, "Long Sword Four this is Mawgan Tower you are cleared to taxi but are to hold at Romeo Three Four while civilian traffic clears northern approach."
"That's Saunders' voice isn't it?" asked Nicholson.
"Certainly is," I replied recognizing the voice of Corporal Ann Saunders.
"She's awful happy given it's a Sunday."
"She's getting married," I explained before I signalled for Thomlins' crew to remove the chocks from the wheels that kept the Phantom stationary while on the ground.
"What a waste," sighed Nichols. Saunders was a highly sought after woman at RAF St Mawgan despite rules and regulations prohibiting such relationships and there were more than just Nicholson's heart (or some other part of his anatomy) that felt a sense of regret at the news she was getting married.
I applied the wheel brakes as Thomlins' ground crew removed the chocks from the wheels. I took a moment to look around the aircraft for obstruction and seeing there was none I indicated to Thomlins that I was ready to taxi out. He acknowledged and made his own visual checks that none of his personnel or equipment were in the way before signalling back that I was clear to proceed. Since the parkway was not near any buildings or other obstacles there was no need for us to have to be marshalled out. Instead I had to follow the blue line painted in the middle of the tarmac that lead straight down to Runway Three Seven trying my best to keep the nosewheel as close to it as possible.
I released the brake and slowly applied power to the two Rolls-Royce turbofan engines. The aircraft shuddered slightly and the nose rose a few inches before settling back down as the Phantom began to move. Once the aircraft was moving I quickly reduced the throttle and allowed the momentum to take us. As the momentum slowed I would reapply a little more throttle and repeat this until we reached the end of the taxiway.
At just twenty five miles an hour I guided the aircraft using the blue line as my marker towards the end of the runway. The Phantom is a tricky aircraft to control on the ground and even now I occasionally have trouble with it if my mind isn't fully on the task as sometimes happens when you repeat something over and over. Today I was doing ok and keeping a good line. It took us a good few minutes to reach the end of the taxiway alongside one of the UK's widest military runways before I had to apply the brake to stop us from rolling out onto the runway even though there was no other activity at St. Mawgan except for us.
"This is Long Sword Four holding at taxiway onto Romeo Three Seven," I radioed to the tower.
"Roger, maintain position until civilian traffic clears northern approach. Will advise when that happens."
The increasingly busy UK airspace was constantly restricting military flying and St. Mawgan was no exception despite its important training role. It was in fact clear for us to take off and ascend to an altitude below the established lanes used by civilian airliners but this would violate CAA rules and could only be done in an emergency scramble during which civilian aircraft would have to be diverted. At St. Mawgan the only emergency scrambles carried out from the base was by the local Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter since the RAF didn't have a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) presence there although in times of heightened security alert this could easily be established.
Two minutes went by and I told Nicholson to close down the canopies. We often kept them open until the last second to keep the cockpit as cool as possible whilst on the ground. Almost in unison the two canopies dropped down on top of us making which always made you feel like you've been swallowed up by some great metal beast. One more minute went by.
"Long Sword Four this is Mawgan Tower you are cleared on Romeo Three Seven to four thousand and proceed south west."
"Roger that Mawgan."
This was it. I pushed the throttle forward with my left hand and the aircraft lurched forwards onto the runway. Applying the right yaw pedal the Strike Phantom turned to starboard and I lined us up with the middle of the runway before applying full power. The aircraft now surged with life as it began building up speed. As the wheels of the undercarriage rolled over the tarmac it caused the whole aircraft to vibrate.
100 knots. 110 knots.
The speed was building and already the laws of physics were beginning to apply to the aircraft as the wings started to generate greater amounts of lift but it was still not enough to get airborne. It was now I lit the two afterburners and they ignited with a hefty thump in both our backs. The aircraft was now spewing two 20 foot long flames out of the jet exhausts and speed began to increase exponentially.
The vibration from the rapidly turning wheels was beginning to dissipate.
The ground was now rushing underneath us and as we passed 158 knots the aircraft was beginning to take flight.
I pulled back on the stick and the nose leapt into the air. The horizon fell below the radome on the front of the aircraft and was now out of sight except to the sides of the cockpit. The rumbling from the wheels completely subsided as the main wheels left the ground and the altimeter started climbing. I quickly reached down with my left hand to a column of switches located just forward of the throttle that controlled the landing gear. Flicking the switches forwards they began to retract into the main fuselage thus giving the aircraft greater aerodynamic efficiency and allowing the Phantom to climb better.
I held the aircraft in a forty degree climb using the horizontal lines on the Heads-Up Display or HUD as a reference all the while checking from side to side that there was no other aircraft nearby even though the tower should have told me if there was since they had their radar constantly scanning the area. Passing through two thousand feet I disengaged the afterburner to conserve fuel which in turn slowed our ascent. This wasn't a scramble so there was no need for that extra speed.
As I looked out of the cockpit from side to side checking for any potential hazards such as other aircraft or even large birds I watched as small whispy clouds passed by us as we continued to climb into the otherwise clear blue sky. Passing through three thousand seven hundred feet I began to lower the nose and slow the rate of ascent. The altimeter was now creeping up to four thousand feet until it stopped just shy of that particular round number as the aircraft levelled out. During the climb we had already travelled two miles from the base perimeter at St. Mawgan given that our ascent was angled rather than directly upwards.
It was a beautiful day over Cornwall. On the horizon to our left was the tip of the North Atlantic which on a day like today looked more like the South Pacific rather than its usual dismal self. Below us the ground looked almost picturesque with different shades of green broken only by snaking grey roads and the sporadic houses. The only thing that seemed odd was the black shadow of a Strike Phantom FGR.3 moving over the land.
"Ok, give me twenty degrees left," said Nicholson from the backseat.
"Roger," I replied before I gently pushed the control stick in my right hand over to the left. The Phantom rolled over onto its port (left) side and began to turn. As I watched the compass pass through twenty degrees I held the nose level using the yaw pedals linked to the rudder in order to counteract the unequal forces that acted on an aircraft in a turn. Levelling out once more I settled the throttles to give us an air speed of around 300 knots as we headed towards the southern tip of Cornwall.
"Civvy on our five," said Nicholson and I looked out over my right shoulder to see an airliner flying above us at around ten thousand feet heading away from us in a westerly direction.
"Yeah I got him, it's a 767," I replied before looking back forwards noticing that my altitude was beginning to slip slightly as I had let the nose start to fall and so I began to compensate. An aircraft seldom flies perfectly straight and needs to be compensated for at regular intervals. This is not always down to the pilot since there are so many things that can affect an aircraft such as differing air pressure and thermal layers.
"Who cares what it is," uttered Nicholson's voice in my headset. "It's just another flying bus."
I lowered my sun visor down from the front of my helmet over my eyes as the glare from the early morning sun was increasingly causing me to wince. As Nicholson often put it; this was going into Top Gun mode. As the Phantom settled in to this casual part of the flight I took the time to check how the aircraft was behaving. Everything seemed to be running ok and as of yet there were no warning lights appearing on the panel just below and to the right of the HUD. On an aircraft as old as the Phantom it's not uncommon to have warning lights come on during a flight but nine times out of ten it's usually something trivial that has caused the system to panic rather than a serious threat to the aircraft's safety.
The coastline was quickly coming up on our nose and already there were people visible on the beach looking to take advantage of the glorious weather.
"Guess they're wanting to beat the rush," I said.
"There's beating the rush and taking the piss," replied Nicholson. "If I were off today I'd be in the comfort of a mattress and a pillow with no hope of escape until at least midday. I'm going to be glad when this one's over."
"Come on, haven't you enjoyed firing the live rounds?"
A grunting noise came through in my earpieces and I chuckled slightly.
"Lizard lighthouse at two o'clock," I added as I saw the small white structure perched by the Cliffside. It was one of numerous points we kept an eye out for to help with navigation. We had to make sure they were where the navigation system said they were supposed to be so that we knew it was functioning properly. Nicholson acknowledged it.
"That's a stupid name for a lighthouse don't you think?" he said.
"Well what would be a good name for one?"I asked grinning under my oxygen mask.
"I didn't say I knew what would be a good name just that one in particular was a crap one."
"How about flash house?" I suggested.
"Very original," he commented with a distinct tone of sarcasm.
"Very appropriate," I replied defending my suggesting.
The lighthouse and indeed the coast itself now passed underneath us and the view below us was now that of a dark sea with lines of white waves charging towards cliffs and beaches that were getting further and further away.
"Alright we're getting close to our area," said Nicholson. "I'm going to start sweeping for our first customer."
"Roger, do you want us to climb or are we good at this altitude?"
"This should be fine. I don't think we need to start running around the North Atlantic looking for something we can practice on. There should be plenty of potential trade nearby," said Nicholson who had now switched on the radar and was setting it up for a surface-search.
This training flight was to practice acquiring naval vessels at sea and targeting them using the Maverick training rounds. The higher the altitude the further the range we could scan since the curvature of the Earth blocks out objects behind the horizon. The RAF's Strike Phantom FGR.3 was optimized for this kind of work and its modern radar had a theoretical surface search scan range of sixty five miles distant from the aircraft's position again depending on what altitude it was flying at.
While he searched for surface targets I kept scanning the skies with my eyes looking for any other aircraft in the area. Again, we were on the radar screens of several civilian and military tracking stations but there's always that chance that one little Cessna or weather balloon makes it through. You just always worked on the assumption that someone in the chain had screwed up and you therefore take responsibility for your own safety and in my case being the pilot that of Nicholson's.
"Ok I got something for us to play with," he said after several moments. "It's a good size so let's take a look at it. Forty degrees left."
"Roger," I said as I began a turn in the direction of the target Nicholson had located.
"You can start taking us down as well," he added. "It's fifteen miles out on a westerly heading."
With the turn complete I put the aircraft into a twenty five degree shallow dive. The horizon now appeared to be travelling up the window as the Phantom descended. I tilted my head upwards slightly staring at a point just below the horizon looking for this vessel Nicholson had detected. I spotted a white line on the ocean that ended at a long blue-hulled vessel with a white superstructure at the rear.
"I see him," I said to him before I began to level the aircraft out at one and a half thousand feet. The vessel was travelling almost perpendicular to us and using its wake in the water as a reference I steadily manoeuvred us to pass about a quarter of a mile on his starboard side. As we got in closer I could make out the vast array of multi coloured boxes all along the upper structure of the wide vessel looking like a botched Lego set. "Container ship; should do nicely."
"Alright then let's do it," agreed Nicholson. "Ok bring us right the way around. We'll take him from his aft starboard quarter."
I rolled the aircraft onto its right side and pulled back on the stick throwing the Phantom into a sharp turn. In a turn such as this the g-forces start to pile down on your body and in particular your neck. I was slowly increasing throttle to help build up speed ready for our attack run, it was slowed by the turn which always has a detrimental effect on an aircraft's airspeed. I kept the aircraft turning until the ship's wake was in front of me once more passing along the nose.
"I'm going to cross his wake and then I'll bring us back around," I explained to Nicholson since you should always keep your WSO apprised of what you plan to do.
"Roger, I'm going to switch the radar over to track-while-scan for the attack."
The wake of the ship passed underneath us and I waited two more seconds before I began a less aggressive turn to the left. The turning circle this time was much wider than the first turn which allowed us to create some distance between us and the ship.
"Let's get it down to four hundred," instructed Nicholson as we were just beginning the turn to the left. I applied some more left pedal which directed the rudder in the tail to turn left. Given that the Phantom was on its left side this caused the aircraft's nose to dip and our altitude begin to drop. I kept pressure forwards on the control stick to try and keep the turning circle nice and wide so that the drop in the nose didn't cut the turning circle in half. The sea was beginning to rush up towards us until I reached four hundred feet just as the turn was nearing completion. I quickly levelled the aircraft out.
The ship was now out ahead of us at a range of nearly three miles and we were fast approaching it from its five o'clock position or starboard-aft in nautical terms.
"Master Arm switched to on," said Nicholson as he primed the dummy Maverick. "Position of the target has been fed to the missile's seeker."
The radar was now in-effect telling the Maverick where the target was and training its Infra-red scanner to lock on to the hull. We were now passing through a distance of two miles from the ship which under combat conditions would be totally unacceptable since we would now be well within range of the enemy ship's close-in weapon systems. This first pass was to just test the seekers ability to lock on to the ship.
"It's looking good," said Nicholson who was viewing the target ship on a screen in front of him that was displaying the image the missile saw. "Alright break us off, let's do this properly."
"Ok, coming left."
With just over a mile between us and the ship I rolled the aircraft once more and began yet another turn away from it. With the ship now to our backs I applied more throttle and the Phantom responded by howling louder as if it were a horse that had just been whipped for it to go faster. The airspeed increased along with the distance. Six miles passed in no time at all but I waited until ten miles had passed before I turned back.
"Over the top?" I asked.
"By all means," chirped Nicholson.
I pulled back on the stick and the nose lurched upwards towards the sky. Once again the g-forces could be felt by both me and Nicholson as I kept the nose pitching upward. The horizon out to our sides now appeared to be a hazy blue line running vertically in relation to the Phantom before the sea began to slowly appear above our heads and was moving further forwards. We were now inverted at almost one thousand one hundred feet. I kept the stick back and now the horizon was running down the windshield with the sky appearing to be below us.
I rolled the aircraft to the right and the Phantom turned onto its belly, once more setting the world back to how it should look. I levelled back out at just over four hundred feet and we began to make our way back to our 'target'. Nicholson had now set the radar to scan for the vessel once more and soon he began 'talking to himself'. "Acquire Alpha One. Master Arm off." He was in fact using the voice command system that the Phantom had been fitted with during its upgrade to FGR.3 status. For many new pilots this was always an odd thing to experience and it would take a while for a crew to work out a system whereby they knew whether or not the other guy was talking to him or the computer.
Keeping the Phantom low over the ocean and heading for the ship it was up to Nicholson to complete the exercise. Just a few moments later he reported a simulated firing. I put the Phantom into a steep climb less than two miles from the target and set up a third pass on the ship whose crew, by now, must have had one hell of an airshow put on for them. We repeated our mock attack for a third time and then called it a day.
Heading back to St Mawgan I took a moment to look out of the cockpit. "God I love this job."