Hunting Bears for most folk generates visions of big brown beasties or even the polar variety in off white, but for us, the pilots who manned the Northern Quick Reaction Alert Force, the vision was quite different. We knew precisely what to expect, something in silver with a wingspan of 167.7ft, 162.4ft in length, 39.75ft high and weighing in at around 185 tons, all propelled by four turbo-props each producing 14,795 EHP and the whole capable of moving along at 525mph (456kts). They were bristling with a number of mean looking cannon which at times were pointed our way, quite un-nerving as they attempted to track us as we flew around the Bear examining it for any new equipment or changes from the current information.
Northern (I will use the abbreviation from now on) QRA was a vital part of the defence of the UK and over the years we spent many hours on standby, either relaxed at a 30 minute state or in the cockpit, ready to start engines and be airborne within two minutes. At night we slept next to our steeds, having earlier carried out a full pre-flight, including setting the cockpit switches for a fast get-away. It was surprising just how quickly one could move from being asleep to being airborne, less than five minutes was the norm. Let me then take you through a sortie from, say, a 30 minute state of readiness all the way to a successful interception and a recovery back to home ground.
We usually operated in pairs and would be dressed and ready to move at a moments notice. Our immersion suits would be on but unzipped, as they were on the warm side while sitting around though essential should one be unlucky enough to come down in the North Sea. The QRA pilots would, at the 30 minute state, be in the crew room along with the rest of the Squadron, often carrying out one or another of their secondary duties or simply relaxing with a good book. The phone rings, northern radar has requested two aircraft to be brought up to a 10 minute state. We are at most only 5 minutes stroll from our aircraft, both of which have been checked over and are ready to go. We take another look around them and chat with the ground crew who are also on standby in the alert dispersal.
At this stage the alert may come to nothing, the 'intruders' are known to play cat and mouse with us, flying close enough to wake us up and then turn away before we scramble. This time we are brought to cockpit readiness and a few moments later instructions are passed to scramble. The usual information is passed, giving a vector to fly, height to climb to, whether they wish us to make a re-heat or standard climb out, and the range of the target.
Four Avon's thunder into life, all systems are go. Almost as one, both aircraft roll from the alert hangar, air traffic automatically clearing us for an immediate take off. Entering the 'active', both aircraft smoothly apply full cold power and surge down the runway. A glance across at my No 2, all is OK, a nod of the head and we both engage full re-heat. Airborne, clean up and turn onto the climb out vector, my No 2 moving automatically into battle formation as soon as we are clear of any cloud. From now on there will be little if any R/T communication between the aircraft or the ground; silent procedure is the name of the game, standard battle formation is established as we fly north.
The intruder (at this stage we are not aware of its identity) is over 400 miles away, so for the next 45 minutes or so there is little to do but fly the required track and monitor our on-board systems. The occasional visual signal is passed between us, confirming that all is OK. We already know that a tanker aircraft has been scrambled ahead of us and that shortly we will achieve an RV (rendezvous) allowing us to top up our tanks. This, too, is a well rehearsed procedure; no chat between us and the tanker, the aim being not to let the target know until the last possible moment that we are on our the way.
It is now 30 minutes or so since take off and we have contact with
our mobile fuel store. As lead, I take us both into a stern position
then, leaving my No 2 there, fly up alongside the tanker's cockpit to
let them know we have arrived (they saw us coming anyway). Again, a
visual OK from the tanker captain that we are clear to top up. Dropping
back, I wave my No 2 onto the port hose whilst I take the starboard one.
Full tanks, and we are on our way, now flying a closer tactical
formation to allow hand signals to be passed between us. A wave to the
tanker crew as we accelerate away; they will follow us for a while and
then set up a loiter pattern allowing us to meet up later for more fuel
should we need it and, right now being so far from home, we certainly
Range from base is now approaching 430 miles and the silence is suddenly broken by a cryptic message from ground radar. Our target is 50 miles dead ahead and coming our way - if he holds that heading we should be right with him in just over 3 minutes, but no, he has already started turning away; not, we discover later, because of us, simply a routine turn to keep him some 430 to 500 miles from our base. This is going to be a long chase if we maintain our present cruise speed, so with tanks still nearly full we crack the burners and accelerate. We both check our weapons, missiles and cannon; one never knows if they will be needed. Cameras, including the hand carried 35mm, are re-checked and ready for use.
Still nothing more from the ground so (briefly) I activate my airborne radar and there is a nice fat blip, not too far away and closing nicely. Radar back to stand-by again just in case they realise that they are being scanned. Conditions are ideal to surprise our Russian friends. The Bear (as it turns out to be) is flying just above a thin cloud layer only some 1,000 ft thick, so we close in from below, preventing his rear lookout from seeing us. Another quick look into the radar scope confirms that we are approaching 2,000 yards. I signal my No 2 to maintain his position at 2,000 while I close to 500 yards before popping up through the cloud layer. The effect is dramatic. Ivan in the rear blister obviously reports my presence and the captain immediately throttles back, slowing the Bear very quickly.
A brief flip of speed brakes and a tight high 'g' roll bleeds off enough speed to remain astern. I'm now very much aware of the twin cannon in the tail that are starting to track me as I close in. The adrenalin tends to flow a little faster at this stage! This particular interception was, in fact, the most northern intercept that had been made at that time; they hadn't realised we were using tankers, so thought that they were out of our operating range. Time now for a little fun and games with their rear gunner/photographer.
As I close alongside the rear fuselage I can see him clearly in the side blisters, manhandling a somewhat cumbersome camera mounted on a tripod. He's hoping for some pictures of our Lightnings and with luck he won't get any. My 35mm camera is somewhat easier to manage as I switch easily from side to side, rolling over and under the Bear taking pictures all the time. Meanwhile, I manage to keep my would be happy snapper nicely out of phase; no sooner has he positioned his camera on the port side than I am on the starboard. This continues for a while as I collect a comprehensive number of photographs to add to our ever increasing library. Meanwhile, Ivan is looking somewhat knackered; still, I saved him a fortune in film!
Time now to bid farewell to my budding Russian cameraman. I give him a wave and receive one back (a friendly wave too, not what you might think!) Calling my No 2 to rejoin, we break away, taking up a heading for a rendezvous with our tanker. No need now to keep R/T silence; we are, in fact, 540 miles from home and the Lightnings are feeling thirsty and in need of another drink. The tanker is 100+ miles south of us, so I give him a call to head our way for a while to save a little time to the refuel point. Allowing for turning manoeuvres, we should be ready to make contact with the hoses in about 15 minutes.
After a while, I obtain a good radar contact on the tanker and call him to reverse his direction so that we can roll in astern at a mile. Closing, we are cleared to make contact. As we did on the outbound leg, my No 2 takes the port hose while I load up from the starboard. We don't need full tanks this time, so with base and diversion weather good and with no on board problems we only partially refuel. A few words of thanks to our tanker friends and we wing our way back to base for a routine approach landing. We had been airborne for around 3 hours, the sortie was text book and all concerned feel that another job has been well done.
Of course, not all QRA missions are carried out in such ideal conditions. Poor weather certainly puts added strains on the pilots. At night it can get very interesting trying to identify an unknown target, usually without any lights, and quite liable to pull odd manoeuvres just to add interest to the whole exercise.
Back at home base, time for a coffee or two and a de-brief. The film meanwhile has been rushed away for processing - it turned out to be a regular, standard issue Bear 'D'. Nothing new had been added, but then no news is, as they say, good news. While we were away, other pilots had been standing QRA duty; another pair of Lightnings ready as we had been to launch at a moments notice. And so it went on round the clock; a lot of waiting around, but exciting when things moved, and very satisfying to successfully make a good interception and let the Russkies know that we were on to them all the time.
Bear image credited to the RAF on a German site that it was taken from. The images is widely available on the Web.