Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Wing Commander Barry Neal

In early-Spring 1969 several fresh-faced young pilot officers and flying officers, including me, were contemplating their futures as co-pilots on various multi-engined aircraft across the RAF. The previous 6 months or so had been spent learning and honing our skills on the venerable Varsity TMk1. Around 100 hours realising - at least in my case - that the multi-engined world was where my flying skills would be best spent. The choice of aircraft type was pretty much the same as for all graduates of multi-engine flying training courses at RAF Oakington, Cambridge - transport, maritime, bombers. But this time there were some openings on Victor tankers. After some enquiries and a visit to RAF Marham in Norfolk, a couple of us opted for what we hoped would be varied and exciting flying rather than plodding along carrying live (and dead!) freight halfway around the world. And so it was to be - but not until early-1970 when I started training at 232 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) at RAF Marham.

Having been de-compressed, thrown in the sea for fun, and putting my head in the books yet again, I started flying in earnest on the Victor 1A in the right-hand seat. There were no tanker variants of the aircraft on the OCU in those days; the air-to-air refuelling (AAR) conversion was done on the squadrons. I soon started enjoying the aircraft, and once you got used to the rather cramped conditions - confined to an ejection seat - and the restricted visibility, the aircraft was good to fly. Under-powered, yes, as was soon to be proved, but good nonetheless. We graduated from the OCU as a complete crew - myself and the navigator radar as the ‘new’ boys - and went off to 55 Squadron. 57 and 214 Squadrons were also in residence with a total station establishment of 24 aircraft plus some in-use reserves, and each squadron having a 2-point version of the aircraft (the K2P - no centre hose) for squadron pilot training. My first AAR sortie for real was a K1A maximum weight take-off and circuit with me sat on the 6th seat. Welcome to the real world of the Victor tanker!! It was probably one of the most frightening things I had ever seen in my (then) short flying career. If a single engine failed on the K1 then its adjacent engine was (nearly) always shut down for safety to avoid the complications of an uncontained failure damaging that adjacent engine - so we trained in that way. The heavyweight circuit was a simulated single-engine failure with both engines on one side throttled back to idle. The lack of engine power was aptly demonstrated and not only did we struggle to leave the runway in early-June, but in the event of a real engine failure then fuel had to be jettisoned to struggle round the circuit! A lesson that would not be forgotten by any pilot new to the aircraft, and one that ensured you treated the aircraft with respect.

Most of our time in those days was spent training with and deploying on exercises, the UK’s fast jets. Hours were spent over the North Sea on routine AAR ‘towlines’ (racetrack patterns established around a fixed point enabling aircraft to find the tanker and get fuel), with lots of time spent in either Malta, Cyprus, Masirah, Gan in the Indian Ocean, or Singapore having deployed with or assisted in the deployment of fast-jets on exercise. Careful planning was needed as, at all times, all aircraft in a formation had to have sufficient fuel to divert to a nominated airfield should the need arise. If the geographical nominated diversion point was reached and fuel had not been taken on (for whatever reason) then a mandatory diversion was made. A simple procedure to calculate, and extremely accurate and effective. Tanker refuelling equipment was extremely reliable and it was rare that a diversion was necessary due to that equipment failure. Rather more that other circumstances conspired to force a diversion. We had a continual standby commitment to support the UK’s quick reaction alert (QRA) force (Lightnings and Phantoms depending who was on “Q”) with one tanker at 3 hours notice and another at 6 hours. Support for QRA was often needed at the extremities of UK airspace and detachments to Leuchars in support of QRA were frequent. Short notice, 10-day detachments were not unusual!

I quickly progressed through an intermediate co-pilots’ course (ICC) at the OCU to a captaincy. Back to the OCU for the third time in early 1973 and back to 55 Squadron with a new crew. And, yes, that heavyweight take-off and circuit again. In that September a re-deployment of fighter aircraft from the Far East was delayed, with us in a very hot and dusty Dubai. The take-off was put back and back and back until we had to take-off at probably the hottest part of the day. At the 11,500 ft point of a 12,000 ft runway I pulled back the control column to take-off as we were still a few knots below the ‘calculated’ rotate speed for the conditions. In no-man’s land between the ‘decision point’ and rotate speed, I had no alternative but to go! In fact, I had already learned from plenty of similar instances that a heavy K1’s acceleration after the decision point was not always as advertised!!

As a captain, decision-making skills were quickly advanced and, more importantly, new flying skills emerged. All tanker captains were trained and qualified to receive fuel from another tanker by day and night. A new dawn arrived when the time came for that training and by the end of the year I was qualified. A remarkable skill that gave enormous satisfaction as a pilot when a successful receiver sortie was accomplished - especially in poor weather conditions. More was to come as in the middle of 1974 I became an AAR instructor (AARI) instructing other Victor captains in that particular skill. Immense personal satisfaction when captains that I had trained were checked-out and qualified in that role.
And then, along came the K2 - a quantum leap in aircraft performance, capability and fuel capacity. For performance and capability, yes, and that was the understanding for the latter! “We would not now need aircraft captains to be receiver trained.” said our Masters. “OK”, we thought, “let’s see.” I had been planned to convert to the K2 pretty quickly, but some bright spark decided that I would be better off in a ‘career improving’ desk job. So, I was short-toured and given 7 days notice of a posting to the tanker pilot staff desk at the then HQ 1 Group. I mention that because while I was there the first Harriers were deployed to Belize. And, guess what, plans for the deployment included tanker/tanker receiver sorties to get the Harriers there expeditiously! So we said to our Masters in MOD “Excuse me, but?”. All K2 captains were soon qualified in the receiver role - but only by day as “we would not need a night capability”!!

I moved on promotion to an exchange tour with the USAF flying KC135 tankers and, from California, the family came back to Marham in a miserable October in 1980! I had been appointed a flight commander on 57 Squadron and went off to the OCU (again) to convert to the K2. The OCU had fully AAR role-capable K2s, and crews qualified in the tanker role during the conversion. Day receiver training for captains was subsequently done on the squadrons - 57 and 55. The role, procedures, day-to-day flying, standby commitment, and deployments and exercises were pretty much the same as before. The K2's engines were a dramatic improvement - ‘contained’ so it wasn’t necessary to shut down an adjacent engine in the event of a single-engine failure. And the increased power meant hat the aircraft could be handled more “aggressively” (if I can use that word) and confidently. At medium fuel loads, a K2 could out-climb a fully loaded Phantom and, in some circumstances, out-accelerate in level flight!

Then along came the South Atlantic War and we were the first crews deployed to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic in mid-April 1982. Our initial role was Maritime Radar Reconnaissance and, “Oh, by the way, those sorties will be flown at night and will require tanker/tanker sorties as well.” We’d been there before! “Excuse me, but we don’t have a night receiver capability.” Suffice to say, we did very quickly - the captains of those crews deploying to ASI were ex-K1 captains who had all been night receiver qualified. So, each captain was required to achieve one night receiver contact to re-qualify and all were done over 2 nights. Subsequently, other K2 captains had night receiver training tailored to individuals to achieve the qualification as effectively as possible. The success of the operations was down entirely to the quality of the procedures that had been developed and refined over the years of Victor K1 operations, and modified on the introduction of the K2. Oh, and the quality of the aircrews, groundcrews and in-theatre planners probably had something to do with it as well! I continued flying the K2 until July 1983 when a job in MOD called!!
Out in Ascension

All was not lost for the K2, however, as I now ‘drive’ XL231 - the only fully working K2 in the world - accompanied by some ex-Victor K2 afficionados. The aircraft is in brilliant condition having been lovingly nurtured and maintained by a great bunch of enthusiasts under the guidance of Andre Tempest.

Wing Commander Barry Neal RAF (Ret’d)

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