This is an attempt to illustrate the initial impact that operating a Lightning in realistic operational conditions had on one trainee pilot who was about to start his conversion flying at the OCU then located at RAF Coltishall. The unit in question was the LXV Fighter Squadron (VI ET ARMIS) whose prime role was to carry out conversion training for pilots just out of Hunter flying at Chivenor. At that time we operated the T4 trainer along with the F1s and F1As. I should perhaps point out that we were also tasked as a front line squadron and as such were subject to alerts and TACEVALs in just the same way as the full time front line squadrons.
To set the scene; the time was late 1971 and we had recently received a new intake of pilots. They had completed their initial ground school programme of lectures and were reasonably conversant with the Lightning's systems and operating procedures. They had also started flight simulator sorties and all had been airborne on Exercise 1. This was by the way of being an 'Instructors Benefit' sortie during which the full potential of the aircraft was demonstrated! All maneuvers, needless to say, were within the approved flight envelope.
We were just into the third week of October when a TACEVAL (Tactical Evaluation Exercise) was called at 03.00 hours. The weather was cold and wet with steady rain that had been falling all of the previous day and was to continue for the next 48 hours. Cloud was extensive, the lowest as I recall being around 800 to 1,000ft and going all the way to 30,000ft without a break, just the weather that fighter pilots dream about, (well maybe on a bad day).
Within a very short time, the Squadron was a hive of activity. The ground crews were working at a feverish pitch, pre-flight inspections were being completed as rapidly as possible and aircraft were then positioned in their pre-determined slots, ready for the pilots to mount up. Weather and exercise briefings for the aircrews were all well under way, emergency and other procedures were all covered and we then awaited the first call from the operating authority to start the ball rolling. Meanwhile, the new course of students were being kept busy with routine jobs in operations and the coffee bar. Operating, as we did, a number of two-seaters, it was decided that we would fly as many of the new course students as possible in the right hand seats to let them see what operating a Lightning as a weapons system was all about. They had, of course, no knowledge at this time of the radar, so it was left to each instructor to attempt to brief on that aspect during the sortie
Word finally came through to bring a number of crews to cockpit readiness. I had been allocated a T4 and so had a student with me. I had already carried out my own pre-flight inspection, so we were able to climb straight into the cockpit. Strapping in took but a few moments, helmets were plugged into the telebrief, ground power was on line, radio frequency selected, flight instruments erected, weapons checked and we were all ready to start engines as soon as scramble instructions were received. We had only been strapped in a few minutes when instructions came to scramble. 'Eagle 04' (my call sign) vector 120, make flight level 220, contact when airborne on Stud 7, SCRAMBLE.
Three minutes later we entered the active runway, applying full power and accelerating as only the Lightning could. The rain was still falling and the runway lights blurred as we raced into the darkness - now airborne, gear retracted, radar scanning, a hard turn onto our designated heading of 120 degrees and into a standard climb out as we changed frequency to Stud 7. Now snug and warm in what I called my 'airborne office' (it was nice to be out of the rain), I explained briefly what the radar picture was showing, though I doubt that my passenger was able to make much of the orange scene displayed. Less than two minutes had passed since we entered the runway when we leveled off at 22,000ft.
Our target was said to be at 25,000ft some 40 miles away and crossing our track from right to left. To this day I do not think that my student actually saw the contact on the radar, even though I talked the attack right through to the kill. We were, of course, in thick cloud, so never made contact with the hostile intruder. As I broke away from this interception, new instructions were passed from ground control to take another target. This one was at a high level and closing fast. Re-heats were engaged and a rapid climb made to 36,000ft, speed was increased to Mach 1.3 and weapons rearmed. As we closed from astern I pulled the aircraft into a steep climb in an attempt to scan the target on radar, a good contact was achieved and the target was splashed (killed) at 47,000ft.
Back to cruise power and a gentle descent to 35,000ft, briefly enjoying a clear sky above, well spattered with stars but no moon. The night was really very dark. I was beginning to think we would now be allowed to recover to base when another target was allocated. (They did actually ask whether we had sufficient fuel for one more interception - we did!). This next one was at low level, apparently bent on attacking our base, so a rapid descent was required. Back on the power to idle/fast idle, air brakes extended and with gravity on our side, we were soon plunging into the cloud layer at 30,000ft - leveling shortly after at 2,000ft. To start the search for our third target, we were vectored towards the intruder and finally caught him at 500ft still some 15 miles from the coast. This had to be a 'guns' kill as I had used the available missiles on the first two interceptions. Closing in with a degree of care, I finally made visual contact at around 200 yards - success number three. We were now cleared to recover to base.
Briefly back to 3,000ft to intercept the Instrument Landing system (ILS), we were cleared into the approach pattern. We were now getting low on fuel and had to make the first approach count. Rain was still falling as we broke out of the overcast at around 800ft. The runway lights, a welcome sight as always, came into view and 50 minutes after rolling we touched down. Taxying back to dispersal I asked the student what he had thought of the sortie. He was remarkably quiet for some time.
Eventually, as we were walking back to the operations building, he looked at me, shook his head and said there was no way he could ever do a sortie like that. From take off to recovery he reckoned not have caught up with what was going on, even though I told him as much as I could bearing in mind the fact that my work load was high and I had little time to chat. I did make the point that he would not undertake a mission of that nature for quite some time to come, but it would give him some food for thought as he progressed through the course. Some months later, he successfully completed the conversion and weapons course and finally arrived on his first operational squadron. That sortie did, I think, make quite a significant 'First Impression'.