172 – Chasing Bears with the Phantom

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Guest: Nick Anderson    Host: Markus Voelter    Shownoter: Jochen Spalding

In this episode we talk to former RAF pilot Nick Anderson about his time flying the F-4 Phantom II in the cold war. We start out by describing the Phantom itself, the specific of the British Phantoms, and how it flew from a pilot’s perspective. We then discuss flying in the cold war and walk through a typical intercept mission. We close with a Nick’s personal perspective on the time and his flying, as well as with a quick view on the recent intercepts of Russian bombers in Europe. Nick has also kindly provided us with captioned images, which you can find below.


Here are the pictures provided by Nick; click on the picture to see larger version.

As the junior pilot of No 43(F) Sqn I was amongst many senior and experienced pilots but was delighted to finally get my name on the side of an aircraft. My navigator, the ever patient Tony Bown, led me by the nose through so many new experiences.

Examining the wing fold mechanism. In the early days we could fold the wings from the cockpit which was great fun and we often waved them at the lady Air Traffic Controllers as we taxied past! It was a little less rude than putting the refilling probe out and back!

No 43(F) Sqn lined up on the pan before the days of hardened aircraft shelters and dispersal areas. Some of the aircraft had curved tops to the fin as they were still unmodified and without Radar Warning Receivers. A crew is busy arming a Quick Reaction Alert aircraft prior to putting it ‘on state’ for QRA.

Tanking from a No 57 Sqn Victor on our way to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. It was a good long way from Scotland to Cyprus and took several refilling brackets to get there. To while away the hours we would often play ‘Battleships’ from a grid on our knee pads. There was always a count of how many times it took to make contact when refilling, the guy with the most misses buying the first beers when we landed!

In contact with the Victor and taking on fuel. We always thought the probe and drogue system was much simpler than the USAF version of flying a probe down into the spine. We could tank multiple aircraft simultaneously and it was an inexpensive system in comparison.

One of my first QRA intercepts of a Bear. We carried a full live missile load of 4 Aim 7 Sparrows and 4 Aim 9 Sidewinders plus 2 external wing fuel tanks and an additional large centreline tank.

Roped to a missile loader, hoisted into the air and doused by a fire engine was the usual ceremony performed at the end of a tour of duty.

My beloved aircraft becomes a ‘Christmas Tree’, the common name given to an aircraft that has a major mechanical fault and is then robbed of various bits to keep other aircraft in the air whilst it sits in the hangar.

Climbing out to be awarded my 1000 hours Phantom badge. Its not a lot compared to an airline pilot but we crammed every minute of flight with action so its hard to compare the two.

Seeing off a Phantom FGR2 from RAF Coningsby where I was posted to become a Qualified Weapons Instructor.

RAF Coningsby was equipped with hardened aircraft shelters which was quite an advance compared with our unit in Scotland where we still worked from an apron and dispersed to old WWII revetments in time of ‘war’.

By pure luck our formation was the first operational aircraft to tank from the new Tristar. The Station Commander from RAF Coningsby arrived a bit later in a new Tornado and was furious that we had beaten him to the punch!

The Tristar was capable of carrying all our ground troops and a lot of equipment on deployment whilst simultaneously carrying fuel for us. However, it was limited by only having centreline hoses which severely limited the rate at which it could serve a formation.

On deployment at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton working with the Navy fighter controllers against the Sea Harrier. For us it was a great detachment and the Harriers struggled against our equipment but we enjoyed the chance to work with them.

The new Tristar tanker had two hoses but both came from a centreline station. This severely limited the rate at which they could refuel a formation of aircraft and they ended up being a more strategic force, topping up the Victor, Vulcan and VC10 tankers to keep them on station longer. The lights on the HUDU allowed us to refuel whilst keeping radio silence. Amber was ‘Ready for Contact’.

In contact with a Tristar tanker and, with the green HUDU light on, we are taking fuel.

Escorting a Bear, probably a Golf, north of Scotland we were joined by one of the Iceland Black Knight F-4s who was, unusually, accompanied by a couple of Marine F-4s. We were used to keeping our operating frequency quiet, only making essential calls and using silent procedures where possible. Our visiting friends seemed oblivious of such niceties and spent their time setting up photo opportunities and giving their addresses so we could forward the photographs!

One of the first things we would do on interception was get the door number of the aircraft so that our intelligence guys could keep track of who went where. By day this was easy but in the days before night vision aids, at night it was a problem. We would formate on the belly by the light of our flashing red anti-collision beacon and the navigator would strain to read the number. If there just wasn’t enough light we would select the reheats and by the glow from the burners he would try to get the number as we accelerated past. What the pilots of the Bears thought I have no idea!

Gaining intelligence goes both ways and whilst we were photographing their aircraft, they were busy photographing us. At least we had a neat little Nikon, rather than the beast of a camera the Soviet crew member had here!

It wasn’t common for two fighters to be up on the same Bear at once but on this occasion we were Q1 and made the intercept to be followed by Q2 and a tanker an hour or so later. During the handover we had the time to set up a quick shot.

This was a rare Coot. The only one I ever intercepted and as rare as hen’s teeth so we took a great interest.

The Coot was an Elint gathering aircraft and had no apparent armament but some very interesting lumps and bumps.

As far as we knew this was the Coot’s sideways looking radar, the Canoe, so it got some special treatment!

Probably a Bear Golf but it could be an Hotel variant… unfortunately I can’t quite remember the differences now!

Most of our intercept were make at high level and stayed that way… only the interesting ones came down to sea level where we might watch them deploying sonar buoys or shadow a NATO fleet.

Whilst we sometimes formated on the wing of the Bears it was easier to hover around the tail. If the Soviet pilot decided to bank sharply the wing tip would move fast and it was hard to stay on station.

When we saw something new that wasn’t marked on our rece guides we endeavoured to get a decent picture. My navigator assured me that we had found a new fuselage aerial and to photograph it needed a barrel roll over the top of top of the unfortunate Bear. In a heavy F4 at high level it was something I only wanted to try once so I was very glad he got the shot!

The rear gun laying radar frequently illuminated us as we approached but the gun barrels always stayed pointing up!

Pretty sure this is a Bear Delta which was a fairly common type to intercept. The Deltas and the Foxtrots were common in the early days but we saw more of the more advanced variants as they came on line.

The huge 12 foot contra rotating props beat the air and vibrated right through our cockpits, especially as they passed in and out of synch.

I always thought that it would be a great view from that glass nose.

A treasured intercept as this Bear had the same number on its door as our Squadron… No 43!

We always tried to get good quality images for our intelligence guys in case they wanted to count how many rivets it took to make a Bear!

What a way to spend a career in the RAF… watching the back end of a Bear!

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