Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
True Tales from Pilots and Engineers of the RAF’s Iconic Supersonic Fighter
Richard Pike, Grub Street, 2013
ISBN: 978 1 909166134
This is the sequel to Volume 1, which I reviewed recently (see here). One’s initial thought is that the best stories will appear first, and that this is likely to be the poor relation. That would be a little harsh. Like his first book, Pike leaves the impression that he stamps his imprint on each chapter – the style of each chapter is a little too uniform given they have all been penned (originally) by different authors. There is the occasional slip of the Pike pen: e.g. “nerves were taught” – Greek?!
The opening chapter is heavy in irony and self-deprecation, showing that even Lightning pilots (the pinnacle of the fighter pilot breed, at least in their own bathroom mirrors) are human beings with a sense of the ridiculous.
Reading these stories now sheds light on a time when the Soviet Union was NATO’s clear and threatening enemy. Describing the role of intercepting Badgers and Bears, Steve Gyles comments “The Russian psyche, it was suggested, was inclined towards violence as a first rather than last resort, though such ideas tended to be a little over-generalised” – apposite, given recent events in Ukraine. He goes on to describe a lone intercept of massed Russian hordes (a story that failed to reach the British press at the time) that would have been as sphincter-tightening as anything facing a Battle of Britain pilot a quarter of a century earlier. Another writer faces a massive Bear pack in the book’s concluding chapter.
As in volume one inflight engine fires, and near death experiences doing displays, feature prominently. Let downs in severe IMC with less than Bingo fuel are hair-raising – the tale told by Alan Winkles being one of the worst. Another tale by Simon Morris – of a QFI continuing in a spin well below mandatory eject height – would also give apoplexy to contemporary members of CFS, were it to have reached their ears.
The contributions from engineering officers, given premature grey hairs by having to keep this machine operational, overlap with some of the pilot yarns. But they have some useful corroboratory statistics: with a very rough average of 500 engineering hours per flying hour, the Lightning (along with its replacement the Mighty Toom) was beyond uneconomical in its need for labour. One or two very senior RAF types make cameo appearances: ACM Sir Michael Graydon for one, in this case when he was a QFI on a Lightning OCU, and helping a tyro solo pilot bring his hot ship back to earth.
So another worthwhile volume, although if pushed, I would say I found its predecessor more absorbing.