Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ten Ton Run

A long time ago on an air base far far away…………………

I was working as an RAF Photographer. By “photographer” I mean a REAL photographer – not an Air Photographer. Air Photographers (Air Photographic Operators and Photographic Processing Analysts) didn’t take photographs, and they didn’t fly either. Ground Photographers (“Photo-Gs” – of which I was one) did both. Now there’s an irony!

The air base was RAF Tengah on the beautiful island of Singapore. There were a number of flying squadrons on the base. The only one worth talking about as far as I am concerned is 74 “Tiger” Squadron. The reason for my enthusiasm is that the Squadron flew Lightnings, and Lightnings, my friend, are the most exciting arse-kicking aircraft the RAF has ever flown. It was a high speed screaming interceptor. Carrying Red Top missiles, it could launch very rapidly, accelerate like a bat out of hell, gaining altitude with its tail in reheat like some space bound rocket, shoot the enemy plane out of the sky and land before you had the chance to fry an egg! Ok, I know – I’m exaggerating – forget the egg frying; I really meant make beans on toast.

Another reason for my enthusiasm was that I was given a flight in a Lightning.


When I first arrived at Tengah, I was billeted in a barrack block close to the end (or was it the beginning?) of the runway. Very often, the Squadron would fly early morning sorties. Early in this case meaning before I considered it time to get out of bed. The aircraft would position themselves on the apron at the end (or was it the beginning?) of the runway and run-up their engines. The sound was deafening. The whole block would shake and vibrate and I would descend under the bed cloths with my fingers in my ears. Finally, they would take the brakes off, and with an even more deafening roar, storm up into the sky. Wonderful.

During my tour of duty, I was called upon to take many photographs for the Squadron, mainly for public relations purposes, while others were taken for engineering maintenance use. One task I was called upon to undertake was to photograph the wreckage and aftermath of a Lightning crash within minutes of the event. This was very sad and traumatic indeed. The pilot, who was a family man, ejected too late and was tragically killed as a result. Even so, he was a hero because he steered the aircraft away from the most populated area to spare the lives of those below. In doing so, he lost his own.

Over time, I built up a special relationship with the Squadron, and any request or opportunity to take photographs for the Squadron I treated with relish. It appeared that the feeling was mutual, as the Squadron decided to treat me to a flight in the “T-Bird” Lightning. (T = trainer, thus it had two seats). This was not to be just any old flight, but a “ten-ton” run (i.e. flying at or above 1000 mph).

I duly showed up first thing in the morning for my pre-flight training and briefing. This was not too arduous as I was assured by the pilot that he would not be pulling too many “Gs.” Even so, I did get a little edgy because he kept talking about WHEN we eject. I questioned him on this and he replied that they always take it that they might have to eject at any time, so it was the best attitude of mind to adopt for such an eventuality. Feeling a little comforted, though not entirely, I was finally kitted up and found myself walking out to the aircraft looking for all the world like something out of “Top Gun.”

I have flown many times in my life, but I have never experienced the sheer acceleration of take-off as I did in the Lightning. It was awesome, and we weren’t even in reheat. The aircraft soared into the sky as I watched the airfield rapidly recede with the roar of the engine behind me. The pilot informed me once we were over Johor Bahru that we were going to climb to operating altitude. We went to reheat. I felt a sudden kick of acceleration while the pilot sat the plane on its tail and we roared at a steep angle to 36,000 feet. Because the cockpit canopy was clear over my head as well as to the forward and sides, I could see the sky darkening as we rapidly climbed into the heavens. I had always wanted to go into space, and unless I can buy a ticket from Mr Branson, this was most likely the closest I will ever get to the experience. We made our way up the west coast of Malaya (as was) and then the pilot gently turned the aircraft around to face south. We began our “ten ton run.”

The pilot radioed the air controllers that we were coming in “fast” – an understatement. I watched the Mach Meter, the instrument which told us how fast we were going in relation to the speed of sound. We went through Mach-1 breaking the sound barrier. The aircraft seemed to give the slightest of shudders – (or was it me shuddering with excitement?) – and all was calm. It was eerily quiet, with very little sensation of speed. The Mach Meter settled on a final speed of Mach 1.58 – that’ll do me Brian!

The pilot then offered me control of the aircraft. This was necessary if I was to qualify for membership of the Ten Ton Club – you had to actually be flying the plane yourself. I carefully grabbed the joystick with my feet gently resting on the rudder pedals. “You have control” said the pilot.

“I have control” I confirmed.

For the next couple of minutes or so I endeavoured to keep the plane straight and level. At this speed, you didn’t want to make any sudden manoeuvres – “fly by wire” was still some way in the future. Presently, the pilot, probably not wanting to push his luck any further, resumed control of the aircraft.

“I have control” he said.

“You have control”, I confirmed, letting go of the joystick.

He explained to me that we would have to lose speed quickly. To achieve this, he took the plane into an “upwards dive”, levelling out at 42,000 feet – nearly in orbit! He then made a series of manoeuvres and finally lined us up with the runway beginning a steep decent towards Tengah.

“You are slightly high on your glide path, adjust our rate of descent.” I heard over the radio. I assumed this was the air controllers out on the hill at Bukit Gombak talking us down. As the airfield loomed larger, the pilot decided to push his luck again, and invited me to pull the black and yellow striped handle to release the drag-chute. This was a special parachute which deployed from the back of the plane once you had touched down to assist in getting the aircraft’s speed down to the point where it could be safely taxied back to the dispersal.

“Whatever you do – DON’T pull it until I say” he instructed. Even with my limited knowledge of aviation skills, the dangers were not lost on me if I should pull it before we had actually touched down!

It has been said that landing a Lightning is more a controlled crash than a normal landing. The end of the runway came up to meet us at frightening speed, and then I was aware of the sudden jolt and screech of tyres on tarmac as we made contact with terra firma.

“NOW!” came the instruction through my head set. I snapped the handle back obediently, and breathed a sigh of relief as I felt the additional negative acceleration induced by the drag-chute.

Some years later, the flight now a distant memory, I photographed a Conversion course group for Phantom pilots who were converting to flying the Tornado.

After the shoot, as I started to walk away, a voice called out to me. I swung around, and there was the pilot who took me up all those years ago. It was wonderful to meet him again, and chat over happy times. In Singapore, he was a young Flying Officer. He was now a Squadron leader.

The Lightning was a wonderful aircraft. I mourn its’ passing.

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