Lightning fast: Pilot’s 1,000mph flight, 50 years ago
As the brand new F35 Lightning jets arrive at RAF Marham, Norfolk flier David Hastings recalls a special flight he made 50 years ago
In the sixties, the Norfolk & Norwich Aero Club members at Swanton Morley developed close links with RAF Coltishall, which was to bring huge benefits for flying in Norfolk as well as a unique personal experience for me. There is an entry in my log book for February 27, 1968 which is still unbelievable.
Unbeknown to me, my wife Jean had chatted with Group Captain Mike Hobson, the Station Commander at RAF Coltishall, and they had arranged a birthday treat for me with a flight in the Mk 4 two-seat version of the supersonic Lightning fighters that were based at Coltishall. I arrived thinking that this would just be a very exciting but quick trip. I had the medical, was kitted out with everything and then had a very full safety briefing from a Flight Sergeant who obviously did not like the idea that this mere Royal Observer Corps Officer in the reserve was getting a flight. In his briefing he pointed out in great detail everything that would go wrong if I made a mistake, and by the time he had finished I was convinced that this would be the day when I would have to eject.
Then it was into Mike’s office for the final briefing where, to my surprise, he announced that I was going to join the 1,000 Miles Per Hour Club. I would be the 999th member. Once Vivienne Whyer, the WRAF Air Traffic Controller became the 1,000th member the following Thursday, the club was closing, as by then people were flying in Concorde. We were then all going to a great party in London at the weekend. Reheat takeoffs were rationed because of the noise, but as we walked out to the Lightning T.4 XM997 on the apron Mike told me he had reserved one for me. I could not believe that this was happening!
The Lightning is a tight fit with the side-by-side seating and Mike soon got me strapped into the right-hand seat, including the check of ‘am I strapped to you’? A vital check as, if our leg restraints had got linked, it would have been painful on ejection. I remember thinking that, with my long legs, if I did go out the instrument panel would take my knees off, but I was warned to resist the temptation to draw my legs back. I was nervous
yet terribly excited, but once we went on to full oxygen the fear subsided and we taxied out to the hold for Runway 04.
If I can remember the speeds, the briefing was: line up, advance both throttles and check for stabilisation, brakes off, then push the throttles forward and left into reheat, rotate the nosewheel at 135 knots, lift off at 165 knots, gear up, and then speed up to 350 knots before pulling the stick hard back into your stomach. I
can remember Mike telling me to pull harder and we rocketed vertically through the low cloud at the amazing climb rate of 25,000 feet a minute. First time in my life I had ever seen an altimeter spin round in a blur or seen fuel gauges visibly dropping. Jean, in Salhouse’ (five miles away) actually heard us take off!
I think we cancelled reheat at 32,000 feet and then zoomclimbed up to 42,000 feet over the North Sea and I was simply staggered. What a way to take off, from the initial acceleration − which pushed you hard back in your seat − followed by the amazing rate of climb; it was all just unbelievable.
Mike then said we would do our supersonic run up the North Sea, and to qualify as a club member I had to fly it at Mach 1.6 for a minimum of three minutes. Into reheat once more and we easily went through the sound barrier with no feeling at all, only a slight jump in the instruments as the shock wave went down the fuselage. I held on grimly to the stick, thinking I would keep straight and level for three minutes and all would be well, but Mike was not letting me get away that easily and told me to move it about the sky. I actually let my airspeed increase by mistake to Mach 1.66, which Mike said was deliberate, to match the Battle of Hastings’ date in 1066, but this was certainly a fantastic experience − I was just so lucky.
When we ended the supersonic run and throttled back I was
‘First time in my life I had ever seen an altimeter spin round in a blur’
amazed how hard the harness cut into my shoulders, and then came the only fright of the day. As we started our descent back to Coltishall there was suddenly a severe shudder and noise from the engines. “Here we go,” I thought, “Mike is going to say ‘Eject, Eject, Eject’ and I am going out with my bad back,” but he quickly said, “Sorry David, I forgot to warn you that the Rolls-Royce Avons do at times rumble on throttling back.” What a relief!
The descent was just as impressive and we flew a GCA (ground-controlled approach) in the rapidly lowering cloudbase, before overshooting and then landing after the next GCA with a low fuel state. Forty minutes of a truly unbelievable experience for a small aircraft civilian pilot and I will never be able to thank Mike enough. We taxied in with checks complete, unstrapped, put in the ejector seat safety pins and then climbed out. I then took off all the flying kit and went down to the Officers’ Mess for lunch where I was given my certificate and 1,000mph tie.
Vivienne Whyer flew on the Thursday, and at the weekend we all stayed at the RAF Club in London for a party provided by Rolls-Royce and English Electric. At that time the Royal Saudi Air Force were being trained on their Lightnings at Coltishall. Somehow that evening we ended up at the luxury Garden House Hotel in Park Lane, sitting on the floor of Prince Faisal’s private suite, eating what I found out much later were sheep’s eyes and watching a belly dancer. It was then back home to my wife Jean late on the Sunday nursing a thick head – but what an amazing and wonderful week thanks to the kindness of Group Captain Mike Hobson and RAF Coltishall.
ABOVE:Contemporary fighter version, the missile-armed F.3ABELOW:David Hastings’ ride was in this T.4, which seated instructor and student, or in this case pilot and passenger, sideby-side
ABOVE:David’s aero club wings and (right) his treasured 1,000 Miles Per Hour Club certificate