In January 1971, I finally met up with the four officers who would form my crew for the duration of the Victor conversion course at Marham. At this stage, I had flown only three instructional trips in the Victor, each with an instructor pilot in the right hand seat. My first co-pilot, Alan Skelton, straight out of his advanced training on the Varsity at RAF Oakington joined me for our first crew solo on 12 February 1971 in XH615. I still vividly remember thinking, as I held on the runway waiting for ATC clearance and for Alan to wind up all four engines to 100%, "They've given me a million-pound aircraft." I've no idea how much the aircraft was actually worth but it's probably just as well my crew members didn't know what I was thinking. That first sortie was a straightforward 4-hour navigation exercise. It must have been pretty boring for my co-pilot because I was not permitted to let Alan handle the flying controls at all on that first sortie. On the descent from high level into base I logged 30 minutes 'actual' - which meant that for 30 minutes we flew in cloud - and I still did not hold, and had never held, an instrument rating on anything larger than single-engine training aircraft.
I arrived on 214 Squadron at RAF Marham on 6 April 1971 having completed the conversion training course without incident. We, my newly-constituted crew, then had to learn about operating the aircraft as an airborne tanker. Our first two all-solo operational tanking sorties were uneventful and went, as they say, by the book. The third sortie, on 16 April was far from uneventful. It was planned to be a routine refuelling sortie on Towline 6, the southernmost of six dedicated refuelling areas over the North Sea between northern Scotland and Suffolk. We had been briefed to expect a series of Lightnings coming up in pairs from 29 and 111 Squadrons at Wattisham. I was looking forward to that having very recently been a temporary operations officer there. Normally such sorties were conducted under radar control from Eastern Radar, a joint RAF and civilian air traffic control radar unit located unit a few miles south of East Dereham in Norfolk. However on our third solo sortie we were going to be operating with No 1 Air Control Centre, radio call sign Romeo, a mobile tactical radar facility which operated from vehicles in a farmer's field (literally!) somewhere in deepest East Anglia.
The weather was perfect with unlimited visibility. From our vantage point at 35,000 feet my co-pilot and I could see all of East Anglia as far north as the Humber estuary, and to the south the whole of Essex, London and stretches of the south coast. The first part of the sortie was uneventful and we quickly off-loaded 18,000lbs of fuel to the ever-thirsty F3 Lightnings. (In those pre-metric days, fuel was measured in pounds weight so 18,000lbs was roughly nine tons. To put that into context, an empty Victor aircraft weighed about 100,000lbs and the Victor's fuel tank capacity was 86,000lbs.)
In accordance with Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), when fighters were in contact with our refuelling hoses I had the auto-pilot engaged but my hands were resting lightly on the control column ready to disconnect the auto-pilot instantly should something untoward occur, and before long something untoward did happen. We were turning left at the southernmost end of the towline with two Lightnings in contact with our under-wing hoses and taking on fuel, when I suddenly heard a very urgent radio call from one of two other Lightnings that were holding a couple of hundred yards astern awaiting their turn to refuel: "Tanker, emergency break up, emergency break up and left, NOW."
Knowing that my refuelling operator, Ken Hulse, would have immediately switched on the red lights at the rear of the refuelling pods, thereby ordering the two Lightnings in contact to make an emergency disconnect, I pushed all four throttles fully open, and pulled the aircraft into a climbing left hand turn. The auto-pilot instinctive cut-out switch under my right thumb automatically disconnected the auto-pilot as I took tight hold of the control column. A heavy Victor Mk 1 at 35,000 feet did not respond well to such a manoeuvre. It would roll quickly but the extra thrust from the engines, which had each been running at about 90% anyway, was barely noticeable.
A second urgent radio call came: "Tanker, pull harder, keep turning." By this time the Victor was performing something akin to an aerobatic manoeuvre known as a wing-over. The airspeed was dropping rapidly - the last figure I saw on the instrument was 130 kts. I couldn't afford to pull back any further because the aircraft would certainly have stalled. Indeed, I had to 'unload' the wings by pushing forwards on the control column, thereby reducing the 'g' force to less than 1g. Suddenly there was a mighty roar in the cockpit as four jet pipes passed close overhead, filling my forward windscreen, before disappearing off to my right.
By that time the Victor was in a dive and the speed was increasing rapidly to a much more sensible figure. I levelled the wings and gently pulled out to straight and level flight. I had to be gentle: the maximum permitted loading at our weight was plus 2.3g which didn't give much scope for aerobatics.
"Was that a VC-10?" I called on the radio to no-one in particular. All I had seen were the four tail-mounted jet pipes.
"No, it was an Aeroflot IL-62," replied the Lightning pilot who had given me the warning. The Soviet Il-62, like the VC-10, had four tail-mounted jet pipes so it was an understandable misidentification for me to make from a fleeting glance in the heat of the moment.
Throughout those frantic few seconds no word was heard from the Controller at Romeo and there was no answer to any radio calls. My AEO, Neil Flowerdew, changed to a dedicated emergency frequency and filed an immediate air miss report over the radio with Eastern Radar. Apart from that my crew were uncharacteristically silent. I decided to jettison excess fuel and return to base immediately - partly because I thought the aircraft might have been over-stressed but mainly because I, and especially my crew, were shocked by the incident. After landing, I telephoned the Lightning pilots at Wattisham from the Marham operations room to thank them for their good look out and to get their version of the story. They had, incidentally, all recognised my voice from the few weeks I had recently spent at Wattisham.
It turned out that the Romeo controllers, in their huts in the farmer's field in deepest East Anglia, had seen and heard nothing because they had decided to have a shift change while we were turning northbound at the southern end of the Towline, but they hadn't bothered to tell us. So much for radar control. The two Lightning pilots taking on fuel from me saw nothing of the incipient disaster because they were, quite properly, concentrating all their attention on the job in hand. One of the two Lightning pilots waiting their turn to refuel had saved the situation by keeping a good all-round look out to protect his own Leader and his tanker. He had seen the IL-62 in a climb coming towards the formation, had realised that there was imminent danger of collision, and had ordered the emergency break.
Two other Lightnings, about 20 miles away climbing out of Wattisham under the control of Eastern Radar using a different radio frequency, had seen the whole incident but were unable to do anything other than warn the Eastern Radar controller whose only contact with Romeo was by landline telephone. One of those two Lightning pilots told me that the IL-62 had appeared to fly right through the middle of the tanker formation from behind and he could not believe that there hadn't been a mid-air collision. He said my wing-over had looked most impressive and he had watched in amazement as the four Lightnings closest to me had scattered in all directions.
It took nearly three months for the official Air Miss final report to reach me. The Aeroflot Il-62, having just departed from London's Heathrow Airport on a scheduled service to Moscow with a full load of passengers, was many miles off his flight planned route. This had gone unnoticed by the civil air traffic controller - but that individual was struggling a bit because his assistant sitting alongside him had, according to the official report, passed him incorrect flight plan details for the Aeroflot flight anyway.
The Aeroflot captain gave written evidence in which he stated that he had not submitted an air miss report because he had not seen any Lightnings or the Victor. Remarkable really because the entire action had taken place directly in front of him and had he bothered look out of the front of his cockpit it would have been impossible not to see our Victor in close company with several Lightning fighters. Perhaps he was having a late breakfast - or perhaps he was deliberately off course so that he, or someone else on board, could monitor our refuelling operations. The Soviets were sneaky like that.