**David Hamilton RAF JP FRAeS has kindly given Westair permission to publish this article for which we extremely grateful. He relates the day in the life of his early career as a young RAF pilot in the 1960’s and gives us a glimpse of flying that few of us could imagine.**
QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) was in the 1970s, and still is today, the principal peacetime “operational” commitment for the RAF. In the 1970s for the UK this saw 4 fully armed aircraft (Lightnings and/or Phantoms) held at 10 minutes readiness to scramble 24/7, 365 days of the year to intercept any unidentified aircraft which entered the UKADR (UK Air Defence Region). The aim being to demonstrate our readiness to defend UK airspace and to photograph the targets in the hope of gaining some intelligence especially if was known that modifications had been made by the Soviets. The UKADR covered the airspace around the UK and outwards in the North Western approaches up to Iceland and across to southern Norway and the whole of the North Sea.
UK QRA was in those days split into Northern QRA, held on rotation by the Leuchars Wing of 3 squadrons (11 and 23 flying Lightnings and 43 with Phantoms), and Southern QRA held on rotation by 5 Squadron at Binbrook and the two Wattisham squadrons, 29 and 111, all of which flew Lightnings. Of the two regions Northern QRA experienced the vast majority of “trade” almost exclusively Soviet bombers/recce aircraft probing our defences and/or transiting the UKADR en route to/from Cuba through the Iceland/Faroes gap. Scrambles were solo missions, hopefully with a Tanker in support. Such sorties in a single seat aircraft, not renowned for its range, were relatively taxing especially at night or in cloud. Nevertheless, over the years the Lightning proved itself highly capable in the role and were well supported by Victor K1 & K2 tankers, and AEW aircraft – both Shackelton AEW 2s and USAF EC121Ts (Warning Star) out of Keflavik, Iceland.
XS417 – ‘Z’ 23 Squadron, Leuchars, September 1972
One notable intercept for me took place on 30th May 1972, when as a 23 year old Lightning pilot on my first tour on 23 Squadron, I was scrambled from RAF Leuchars in Scotland to investigate an unknown track which was believed to be operating at low level north of the Faroe Islands. Luckily I had Tanker support (a Victor K1) which provided not only fuel but vital assistance as I reached the area of the “unknown”.
I was under the radar control of Saxa Vord, a RAF radar station in the Shetlands, when it became obvious that the “unknown” was flying at low level. However, as I descended I lost radio contact with Saxa Vord and so had to use the Victor tanker as a relay to pass on intercept instructions so that I could get within my radar range of the target. At this point a further complication set in as the cloud tops were at some 5,000ft and it was obvious that the “unknown” was below that level. Now the Lightning radar was not renowned for its “look down” capability, it being a pulse only radar, so I had to get down as low as I could to have any chance of picking up the target. So I descended to 2,000 ft still in heavy cloud and began my radar search following directions being relayed by the Tanker. Another complication was that the Lightning did not have a radar altimeter so I had to trust that the millibar settings I had received were accurate as I had to rely solely on my barometric altimeter, not a fun experience in a single seat aircraft at low level, in cloud, searching for an unknown target, 500 miles from base!
Eventually I picked up a target at some twelve miles – which was an unusually long range for a Lightning’s radar – eight miles was a normal maximum at low level. My first reaction was that I thought that the target was a ship, but by its track on my radar scope it became obvious that it was in fact another aircraft. I manoeuvred astern the target, locked on to it at 2 miles and started to close into 1000 yards where I stabilised my position. Locking on would obviously alert the target to my presence, but I had no other option given the circumstances. The target was manoeuvring at about an estimated 1000 ft above sea level but we were still in cloud so I had no visual contact. All of this was relayed via the tanker to Saxa Vord who instructed me to close to try to establish visual contact.
So I began to close range – the minimum would be to 300 yards. As I closed within 500 yards the target suddenly started to climb so I dropped back to 1000 yards range, which was our usual “shadow” range to await developments. The target continued to climb until suddenly we broke cloud at 5,000 ft when I saw before me a BADGER D reconnaissance aircraft. What a relief I felt as I closed to photograph the BADGER and report its details – not an easy task in a single-seater trying to take photographs with a hand held camera and fly at the same time. After some 5 minutes the BADGER descended again into cloud. I reported this and awaited instructions – I admit to being rather concerned at having to follow him back down into cloud again. So you can imagine the relief when I was told that they had enough information on the BADGER and that I could return to the tanker to await further instructions.
In the event I was cleared to return to base (after a top up from the Victor). As I flew the 500 miles back to base (a 1 hour + transit) I had plenty of time to reflect on just how much my training had prepared me for this intercept; how well the teamwork of radar station, tanker (providing both fuel and radio relay), and fighter had worked; and how grateful I was to the BADGER pilot who obviously did not want to have a Lightning closing in below 500 yards in cloud so helpfully climbed above the cloud to allow me to take my photographs!
On landing back at Leuchars after a relatively short sortie of 2 hours 40 minutes – QRA sorties were routinely 4 to 6 hours long – I had the aircraft refuelled and declared back on 10 minute alert then filled in the usual intelligence debrief and had my photographs developed. Once all this was completed I then relaxed hopefully to complete the remainder of my 24 hours on alert without any more excitement!