This edited article about aviation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 215 published on 26 February 1966.
The young Royal Air Force pilot sat motionless in the cockpit of the big silver Lightning fighter. At “cockpit readiness” – strapped into his ejection seat and ready to go, he waited for orders from the master controller who is at the centre of our air defence system. If the order to “scramble” comes through then Mission 61 will be off the ground and climbing like a rocket into the sky within thirty seconds. The order will come through the telebrief lead, a cable link that snakes across the runway and is plugged into the side of the Lightning.
Suddenly the telebrief crackles into life, bringing the voice of the controller into the cockpit, “Mission 61, stand by for pre-brief.” Then seconds later, “Aircraft is now at one hundred miles, we are checking all scheduled movements.”
The pilot of Mission 61 brings his aircraft to life with quick, practised hands.
“Mission 61, are you ready for pre-brief?”
“Mission 61 to identify one target present position Oscar November two zero two nine at flight level 430, heading 210, estimated speed point eight two. Climb on vector 030 and make flight level 390. Call Control on 989 decimal six.”
The pilot writes the brief down on the plastic knee pad of his immersion suit and repeats the instructions back to the controller. There must be no mistake, for the target may be a peaceful airliner, or it may not.
“Mission 61, as pre-briefed – scramble.”
On hearing this the pilot’s gloved hand presses the starter buttons and the two mighty Rolls-Royce Avon jet engines burst into life. The brakes are released and as the throttles are thrust open the Lightning rumbles forward and turns on to the runway. Gathering speed, the pilot pushes the throttle levers right forward into the reheat position and as the afterburners light up, giving additional thrust, the seventeen-ton fighter lunges down the black tarmac runway.
A bare two minutes later the aircraft is at flight level 390 – 39,000 ft. The master controller directs the pilot towards the target until the aircraft’s own radar is within range and able to take over. There’s the target – a small green blip on the cockpit radar screen.
The radar scanner, or aerial “locks” itself on to the quarry and the computer behind it quickly gives the pilot the precise information for intercepting the target.
Looking out of the cockpit window he sees the aircraft with its thick white vapour trails streaming out from behind, and opening the throttles a little wider, the pilot draws closer to examine it – a Boeing 707 of Pan-World Airlines. He reports back to the controller who, in turn, contacts London Heathrow civil airport on a direct line to confirm that it is a genuine airline flight.
Confirmation is received and the controller reports back to the pilot, “Mission 61, you are cleared to return to base, pigeons 280, base weather fine.”
The Lightning turns away and sinks back into the gathering dusk, its mission completed. The sinister missiles mounted on its sides have not been fired, but if they had, they would have destroyed the target. Whatever the weather conditions, whatever violent evasive action it tried to take, the target would not escape, for the fierce heat given off by its engines would act as a magnet for the infra-red heat-seeking devices built into the nose of each missile.
This is how R.A.F. Fighter Command guards the skies over Britain, day and night, in any weather. The Lightning, first introduced to R.A.F. fighter squadron service in 1960, was the first R.A.F. fighter to fly at supersonic speeds in level flight. It is still the fastest climbing interceptor in the world and one of the finest defence weapon systems. The term “weapon system” embraces many things; the aircraft itself is only a link in the chain that embodies ground guidance radar and communications, the aircraft, its own radar and missiles, and that vital link, the pilot.
The test pilot who first flew the Lightning, then known as the P.1, was World War Two Typhoon fighter ace, Roland Beamont. He took the P.1 into the air on August 4, 1954, and also led the group of British Aircraft Corporation and R.A.F. test pilots who turned it into a supreme interception weapon.