Blue Circle Air…
As you may know I was originally trained as an Air Radar Technician, and my very first posting was to fix radars fitted to Tornado F3 Air Interceptors.
This was a good job. I was 19 nearly 20, young, and excited, and was enthralled at the fact that I was going to be working directly on the aircraft. Other people on my training course had got quite dull postings – equipment maintenance bays; one even stayed on at Cosford to fix the training equipment – and there was I going to go to work fixing £30million aircraft!
But a couple of illusions about the RAF and working on F3’s were blown out of the air on my very first day. I arrived and was shown around the squadron and all the buildings and so forth, and then my new sergeant took me out to see a jet arrive back from a sortie. The F3’s were all based in individual miniature hangers called Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS’s) and taxied out from them with engines running.
One of the engines was shut down and the aircraft was effectively pulled backwards into the HAS back onto it’s parking slot with one man controlling a massive steel winch, another with a steering arm (imagine the F3 as a HUGE noisy caravan being parked up), whilst a Cpl supervised the whole activity. (It became a matter of pride amongst the “Lineys” (the slang name for the groundcrew) over getting the aircraft bang on the lines and the parking marks.)
Anyway, I was taken out to see this being winched back. It was an awesome sight. Watching the Lineys deal so efficiently and in such a workman like manner doing something so fantastic with something so…BIG…well, it’s a sight that will remain with me for ever. But it wasn’t just the sight…it was the noise of the jet engine inside the HAS and the smell of the exhaust. It was a multi-sensory overload of…COOL. It was just cool.
And then the aircraft was back on its chocks. The last engine was shut down and the ladder was pushed up to the side of the aircraft. The canopy went up, and the pilot and his navigator un-strapped themselves.
And the pilot got out. And here was the first illusion shot. Here was the first real fighter pilot I had ever seen in the flesh. Pilots were tall, fit, slightly posh, very, very cool, wearing RayBans Aviator sunglasses. They swaggered as they walked knowing that they were the best of the best.
But THIS one…well, he fitted absolutely none of those stereotypes. Other than he was a pilot. He was short, dumpy, with a balding head. He actually tripped over the side of the cockpit as he climbed over and nearly tumbled down the steps. He wheezed his way down the steps and then waddled across to the management cabin to sort out the paperwork.
To say I was disappointed is an understatment. Fighter pilots were like heroes to me. Raised on World War 2 movies by my father I was expecting a Kenneth Moore or David Niven type to emerge. But this…he was more like Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army!
The Sergeant could see my face and commented that this particular pilot was one of the oldest fighter pilots in the RAF and would soon be pensioned off, but apparently he was a hell of a pilot, with a lot of experience. He’s originally been a Lightning pilot and his frame had been perfect for that.
Still, it wasn’t an auspicious start…and the second illusion was about to be blown away straight away.
We started to look around the jet. It wasn’t the first aircraft I’d been close up to, as in training we’d “worked” on Canberra’s and even a couple of Jaguars, but I’d never been up to an operational jet fighter. We climbed up and into the cockpit, walked on the wings, all the stuff you dream of when wanting to join the RAF. Then he said we could have a look at some of the kit I’d be fixing. He opened the hatches on the side of the aircraft to show me the avionics and the equipments that I would be changing. It was awe inspiring. I was filled with dread that I’d have to learn about ALL these different equipments.
Finally he opened the radome of the aircraft to show me the radar. The AI-24 Foxhunter Air Interception radar.
But it wasn’t there.
There was NO radar.
It was a plate of lead.
This was back in 1989, just as the Torando F3’s were coming into service, and there weren’t enough Radars to fit to the aircraft, so, as the radar weighed a third of a ton, and couldn’t fly without that weight, a balast of a peice of lead was fitted to the aircraft instead. It had blanking plates for the electric cabling to be safely fitted to, and stowage ports for the hydraulic pipes. This was called “Blue Circling” the aircraft – as the very first ballast units had been made out of concrete, but had since been superceeded by the lead.
I was gutted. It’d be a while until ALL the aircraft had radars fitted, and until then we’d be spending a lot of time swapping the radars and ballasts around. I would have to wait a little while longer until I’d actually be fixing the radars…
Reality never meets up to our illusions I guess. I am sure we all have a similar stories to these. And I have to say that a lot of other illusions about the RAF have been blown away over the years. But I also have to say that I don’t think there has been a day when I haven’t been happy and proud to be in the RAF.
The sad thing is that now, of course, Tornado F3’s are being phased out. The Eurofighter Typhoon is replacing them and very soon the last F3’s will disappear from the RAF’s inventory. They’ll be part of history.
Which means that what I did will be part of history too. And that makes me feel very, very old…