What’s that coming over the hill…?
Imagine the scene. It’s 1991. And I am working on 29(F) Sqn. Deployed to Saudi Arabia – Dhahran to be precise.
And we were given a job to do. Aircraft Juliet – which we always called Juli-jet – had a broken Radar and so we were sent out to fix it. THe good news was that it was the aircraft at the ‘end of the line’. This meant it was parked at the far end of the line of 18 aircraft that were there…It was facing north and parallel to one of the two major runways that Dhahran used during the war with Iraq to liberate Kuwait.
Why was this good news. Well it meant that it also had a clear line of sight with nothing in front of us, meaning that as long as we put some warning signs out to stop traffic, we could do some live transmitting of the radar so diagnose the fault – and then do a similar ‘blat’ of the radar to prove it was working after we’d fixed it.
This would save us loads of time from not having to set up the radar test set and generally faffing around. We’d be able to ‘see’ the same fault just as a Navigator sitting in the back seat would.
So off we went. A quick blat allowed myself and my workmate – Taff Jones (an idea nickname for a Yorkshire man from Pontefract), to prove that it was the LRU 4 (The Microwave Pack) to be at fault. It was a common snag and was a fairly easy fix – about 20 minutes to change the box for a new one fresh out of stores and then power the system up for another blat.
And here was where the fun began. You see, we had fixed it so we had a AI-24 Foxhunter radar to play with. And lots of targets to look at as well as Dhahran was a very busy airbase, with American transports coming in and going out at a remarkable regularity – often one every few minutes.
So. Off we went. Me sitting in the back seat operating the radar, powering up all the systems to interact with it…and then getting the radar on line after its warm up period. Taff put out a couple of signs and then ‘popped’ the Circuit Breaker to allow us to over-ride the safety systems and transmit at full power on the ground.
I pushed the switch to take the radar from ‘Standby’ to ‘Transmit’ and the screen quickly showed plenty of returns. These were little dots on the screen…so we had proved that the system was capable of transmitting and receiving a signal – next to test what radars to best…follow a ‘track’ so I selected a blip at random clicked oon a button and inserted it into the computer. It changed from a blob to a letter. I did that for another two blips – this was good. The radar was doing as it should do.
Next thing to test was that it could follow a target. So instead of tracking several aircraft – it would concentrate on just one…with a view to that aircraft being a BAD GUY and being shot down by the aircraft using the radar on board to guide the missile in on it.
So I hit the lock button. On the ground you could feel the difference in the way the radar scanned the sky. It was almost like a dog used for hunting – a Pointer staring at a particular bird…it became fixed and instead of sweeping the sky it was motionless, pointing out into the sky where this target – probably an American jet of some sort was doing a patrol, about 40 miles away. All the target information was displayed. all the details about what the target was doing, what direction it was going, it’s height, speed, everything. Brilliant. The radar was working.
But just a couple more tests to do yet…
Next was to see if the IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) was correctly integrated to the radar. This is a system that all aircraft carry to allow a simple sort of identification outside visual range. This means that the aircraft could ‘interrogate’ a target to see if it was literally friendly or a foe. If it was a friendly obviously, you could ignore it as a target, but if it was a foe, then it would be onto the next stage…shooting it down!
Now again, we were on the ground, and of course didn’t have missiles fitted to the aircraft and obviously couldn’t fire one, but we could go up to the point of missile firing. And to do this we needed to Illuminate the target.
You see, the missiles were not ‘fire and forget’. The missile needed to be guided onto the target using the radar energy for it to be able to hit, otherwise it would just wander about in the air until it ran out of rocket fuel and fell out of the sky. So what would happen is that the missile would home onto the brightest thing in the sky. And by brightest, I mean the one giving off the most radar energy – so the launching aircraft would transmit a huge amount of radar energy at the target, which would than be bounced back (as radar’s are wont to do so) and the missile would simply home in on the big signal. Imagine trying to find your way home from a pub on a very dark night. You might wander about and bump into things – but if you had a torch you could see exactly where to want to go…
Anyway – there is the target, which has now realised that I have locked onto it – most military aircraft have equipment to see if they are being spied on fitted – and it’s started to change what it was doing. Instead of flying north, it has turned around and started to track south. Heading towards us. I point this out to Taff, who says that it’s cool. Proves the radar is working! And we should go the extra mile and test out the Illuminator on the radar. So I hit the ‘Illum’ button and we sit and watch the screens.
The radar does as it should. It does all the good stuff showing us that it was illuminating the target. Tick VG. Very Good. All working.
The target goes mad. It starts gaining height and then losing it. ‘Ha’ says Taff, ‘it’s trying to break the lock.’
‘No chance.’ I say, ‘We have him now. He’s not going to be able to at this distance. He needs to be a lot closer to try that.’ But then he starts jinking left and right.
Hang on…my mind drifted back to my radar training a few years before. There is a certain type of aircraft that’s job is all about finding out about other radars in the sky and then if they are unusual or not know to them…they then blow them up by using radar homing missiles – the so called American ‘Wild Weasels’.
And I remembered what they do to do that job. They triangulate the emitter position by flying about in the sky. And this aircraft was doing just that…
‘Shit! It’s a Wild Weasels. Break the lock – break the lock!’ But then the screen went wild. It filled with electronic noise and we lost all data. The lock was broken and we couldn’t see a thing. The Wild Weasels had jammed us.
‘Ohhhhh crap! Turn it all off. Kill it. Otherwise we can expect a Radar Homing Missile to come shooting over the hill in front of us to blow us up!’
Very quickly I shut down the radar. Even quicker we killed power on the aircraft and went in to the office to sort the paperwork out for the job.
And as we did so, my Chief at the time, Tom, noticed we were a bit quiet…’What’s up with you two? Is the radar on Juli-jet working ok?’
Taff spoke before I did. ‘Yeah, it’s fine. It’ll do a trip…’