Archie’s fingers felt carefully for the in-flight refuelling probe switch. When he operated the switch, Archie and his navigator heard the typical thumps and clunks that signified movement of their flight-refuelling probe. After a moment or two, to Archie’s astonishment the Hercules’ refuel drogue gave a slight lurch before it began to emerge from the hose drum unit!
The following story titled Surprise appeared in Richard Pike’s book Phantom Boys Volume 2.
With the potential, as they say, to shoot oneself in the foot, there was both irony and surprise in the situation. But there it was, an important day, a day of new beginnings, a day in 1993 that was written down in many diaries. As the colonel himself walked into the crew-room – a colonel who turned out to be large, moustachioed, ebullient – a sudden hush fell across the room. When Squadron Leader Archie Liggat, as officer commanding 234 Squadron, a tactical weapons and advanced training unit at RAF Valley in Anglesey, stepped forward he shook the colonel’s hand and said: “May I introduce some of my staff and students, sir…” And as Archie went through the niceties he was conscious that his every move was under the scrutiny of a group of senior Royal Air Force officers. Perhaps, beneath the “wonderful to meet you…” “How are you today?” “Nice weather isn’t it?” routines, he felt, deep down, the press of secondary agendas. Maybe he harboured thoughts that, despite the show of joviality, the colonel could be hard and mean and out for himself – not that Archie had anything against the fellow personally, it was just that, under the circumstances, it was difficult not to feel more than a little bemused by the proceedings. And few would argue that the proceedings were, to put it mildly, rather unusual.
It was three years earlier, one day in October 1990, when Archie was a Phantom pilot based in the Falkland Islands that the scene was set for the remarkable reunion that would take place, entirely by chance, during the colonel’s visit to Valley. For one thing, it was quite by accident that Archie, together with colleagues, was on quick reaction alert (QRA) duty on that particular day in the Falklands. The men were primed to react if needed while they waited in a special crewroom next to a hangar with two fully armed Phantom FGR2s. On the day in question, Archie and his colleagues had been made aware of a special request from the Argentine government concerning a large section of Antarctic ice, part of the renowned Wilkins Ice Shelf, which had broken off and was drifting around the South Atlantic seas. The Wilkins Ice Shelf, evidently stable for most of the twentieth century, had now started to break up. Worried about the effects of global warming, scientific researchers from Argentina were anxious to make detailed observations from the air.
As the aircraft to be used for these observations, a Lockheed C-130 Hercules operated by the Argentine Air Force (Fuerza Aerea Argentina or FAA), had limited range, permission had been sought by the Argentines to fly across the Falkland Inner Conservation and Management Zone (FICZ). Since this would be the first such flight by an aircraft of the FAA after the war of 1982, the issue was a contentious one. Nonetheless, the United Kingdom government had agreed to the flight on condition that the C-130, as it crossed the FICZ, was accompanied by two RAF Phantoms. In order to cope with language difficulties, Spanish-speaking air traffic controllers would be available at the Phantom’s base at RAF Mount Pleasant in East Falkland.
So it was that the two QRA Phantoms took off on that spring Falklands day to intercept, identify and escort the Argentine aircraft. The plan worked just as arranged and it was not long before Archie, as pilot of the number one QRA aircraft, held formation on the left side of the C-130. When in position, he noted that the Argentine aircraft, apart from insignia and camouflage paintwork, was similar to the RAF C-130s of 1312 Flight based at Mount Pleasant. The latter had been modified to offer an in-flight refuelling facility which the Phantoms used occasionally. While Archie and his navigator held sentinel on the Argentine’s left side, the other Phantom pilot manoeuvred judiciously as his navigator took photographs. The Phantom crews made no radio contact with the Argentine opposite numbers, although a few polite nods of the head took place from time to time. With the C-130’s cruise speed of less than 300 knots, progress through the FICZ seemed, after a while, slow — indeed, unaccustomedly slow, in fact tedious to the point that Archie started to become quite bored.
Possibly at that point Archie’s thoughts may have meandered in different directions which included, perhaps, mental pictures of home, of his birthplace in Grantown-on-Spey in the highlands of Scotland… Suddenly, Archie was struck with an idea; an idea which he discussed with his navigator who seemed quite amused by the preposterous proposition. For while in formation they’d spotted that their charge was one of the FAA’s two KC-130s, a type of Hercules based on the US Marine Corps variant used for in-flight refuelling. Archie decided to ease his twin throttles forward to reposition the Phantom; he wanted to be fully visible to the Argentine flight deck crew. He then dropped his left hand from the twin throttles to the fuel panel below. With his eyes still watching the Hercules, Archie’s fingers felt carefully for the in-flight refuelling probe switch. The distinctive shape of this switch was readily identified. Now, when he operated the switch, Archie and his navigator heard the typical thumps and clunks that signified movement of their flight-refuelling probe. As the device, normally flush with the fuselage by the pilot’s cockpit, broke out of its housing the movement signalled a standard silent procedural message interpreted by aviators as: “I’d like some fuel please!”
The response from the Hercules’ flight deck crew was immediate: both of the pilots’ heads whipped round to stare at their escort. Meanwhile, several other crew members, their facial expressions quizzical, began to crowd against side windows. The repartee could be imagined:
“They’re off their tiny little rockers!”
“How can we deal with these people?”
“They must be under stress!”
“It’s a ruse.”
“No, it’s just a lark. Let’s play along.” At this, one of the Hercules’ men grinned at the Phantom crew and gave a thumbs up sign. Thus encouraged, Archie manoeuvred back-wards to adopt the standard refuel ‘wait’ position. After a moment or two, to his astonishment the Hercules’ refuel drogue gave a slight lurch before it began to emerge from the hose drum unit. As the fuel line slowly extended, Archie followed it back and started to move to a refuelling position. At this juncture, however, the Hercules’ captain must have decided that the prank had gone far enough: the hose jerked to a stop, paused, then was reeled swiftly back into its housing. Archie now eased his twin throttles forward to resume his former position abeam the Hercules’ cockpit. When there, he dropped his oxygen mask briefly to make an exaggerated glum expression. The reaction from the Hercules’ crew was intriguing: even more faces appeared at the side windows, all smiling broadly. Some shook their heads from side to side and wagged fingers as if at a naughty schoolboy.
Meantime, the Hercules’ captain raised his coffee cup in salute, a sign which Archie construed to mean ‘no hard feelings’. He therefore retracted his refuelling probe and held a slightly wider formation as if to indicate: ‘Okay. That’s agreed!’ For the next hour or so Archie maintained this position while the formation flew on the planned course which took the aircraft directly overhead Mount Pleasant airfield then on towards the eastern boundary of the FICZ. When there, Archie complied with the internationally agreed signal ‘you are clear to proceed’ before he gave a cheery wave and broke away sharply to the left as he headed back to Mount Pleasant.
After landing, Archie and the other crew members were duly debriefed by intelligence officers who asked suitably intelligent questions. As usual, there were forms to complete, documents to sign, this and that to do to ensure satisfactory bureaucratic progression, but before long, in the bustle of a busy life, the incident began to recede to the back of Archie’s mind. Indeed, three years went by before the memory was stirred, three years during which he moved from Leuchars to 74 Squadron at RAF Wattisham in Suffolk where, among other duties, he was the Phantom aerobatic display pilot – the last on type in the Royal Air Force. In the autumn of 1992, coincident with RAF Wattisham’s transition to the Army Air Corps, he was posted to RAF Valley as officer commanding 234 Squadron, a training unit whose motto ‘ignem mortemque despuimus’ might have instilled a sense of awe within the student body (especially when they learnt the meaning – ‘we spit fire and death’).
Perhaps such a motto may have been appropriate, too, when issues concerning Argentina arose although, as some ten years had elapsed since the Falklands War, efforts were underway to normalise relations. As part of that process, a new Argentine air attaché had been appointed, a colonel who was in the throes of introduction to personnel at various Royal Air Force stations around the country, including RAF Valley. With the selection of 234 Squadron as one of the units to be visited, on the day in question staff and students were lined up ready to meet their important guest. To greet the colonel, the officers’ mess had provided tea with proper teacups, silverware, posh biscuits, sandwiches, stewards and all.
When the colonel eventually arrived, he turned out to be a big man with an exuberant nature that seemed to go well with a moustache that might have made the legendary ‘Biggles’ proud. To accompany the colonel, smartly-uniformed members of the air attaché’s staff were joined by a group of senior Royal Air Force officers. In contrast, Archie and his men wore their normal day-to-day flying suits. When Archie made suitable introductions, he was relieved to see that the colonel was an affable fellow who chatted freely with everyone present. Maybe it was all the more of a surprise, therefore, when the colonel suddenly stopped speaking to stare, mouth agape, at a badge he’d just spotted on Archie’s flying suit. The badge, innocuous enough so Archie thought, revealed the achievement of 1,000 flying hours in a Phantom.
“Have you ever been to the Malvinas?” asked the colonel. An embarrassed hush descended on the room.
“Yes, sir. On several occasions,” said Archie, “though we called the islands something else.” He glanced nervously around the room. Some of the senior Royal Air Force officers scowled their disapproval.
“On several occasions?”
“Yes. I was detached there to fly Phantoms.”
“Interesting,” said the colonel. After a pause he went on: “I’ve flown there myself, actually.”
“Indeed. That is…in a manner of speaking.”
“It must have been about three years ago. I was on board a C-130 which had permission to overfly the Malvinas — the first FAA aircraft to do so since the war. We had to be escorted by a couple of Phantoms, one of which pretended to need an in-flight refuel from our C-130.” The colonel laughed and went on: “It was all a bit of fun, of course. But it broke the ice, so to speak, and the C-130 captain was willing to play along up to a point.”
At once, Archie beckoned one of his students, whispered a message which sent the student scurrying off to return after a moment or two with Archie’s flying logbook. Thumbing hastily through it, Archie found a particular page with a photograph loosely inserted. He extracted the photograph and showed it to the colonel whose face, as he studied the picture, at first looked shocked, then bemused, amused and amazed. “This is you…?” said the colonel. “Yes, sir. I was on duty that day — I was the Phantom pilot who pretended to need an in-flight refuel.”
“My God…” The colonel stared at Archie then, in a spontaneous act, clapped him on the shoulder, shook his hand vigorously and grabbed him in a bear hug. Now, in an escalating spirit of munificence, the colonel fumbled in his pocket to pull out a small leather pouch which contained a medal from the Argentine air academy. Without further ado, the colonel solemnly pinned the medal to Archie’s flying suit before, his moustache bristling with pride, he stepped back and saluted our gallant protagonist.
At this, the buzz of conversation in the room started up again while poor Archie, as he struggled to recover from momentary vertigo induced by such extravagance, was relieved to see that the group of senior Royal Air Force officers now looked rather less mournful. Maybe Archie felt a little light-headed, caught off-balance by the bizarre, unplanned experience. Was it, though, altogether unplanned? On reflection, Archie reckoned that the colonel seemed, somehow, pre-prepared. If not, why carry such a medal anyway? Surely not on the off-chance of meeting some random individual who instantly needed one?
At length, when the colonel and his party made moves to leave, he came up to Archie to shake his hand warmly. “Goodbye, my friend. Please pay a visit to the Argentine air academy one day, huh?”
“Thanks, sir. That would be…” Archie suddenly noticed the way the colonel was looking at him. When the colonel nodded and turned around to leave, Archie was left with the distinct impression that he knew all along who Archie was. He could never be sure, of course, and as he watched the Argentine officer and his party leave, Archie realised that the entire, strange episode would have to remain as one of life’s little surprises.