Cold War Era

That time two RAF Phantoms shadowed two Soviet Bears over France because French fighters were grounded for Bastille Day celebrations

“I could not avoid a feeling of irritation when I pictured our Mirage colleagues as they attended their Bastille barbecues on this mid-summer’s day,” Alan Winkles, former RAF Phantom pilot

“The French, without doubt, are proud of their way of life and French folk will usually be eager to claim the virtues of their je sais quoi factor. Sometimes, however, the quoi in question can cause a problem or two for everyone else. I discovered myself in July 1987, on a day known as Bastille Day or La Fête Nationale. The day when the storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July 1789 is remembered as a symbol of the modern nation and thus a cause of considerable celebration all over the place,” says Alan “Al” Winkles, former RAF Phantom pilot, in in Robert Pike’s book Phantom Boys.

“The day for me and for my navigator started well enough. It was an unexceptional Tuesday with the two of us on duty with another pilot/navigator crew. We were supported by a team of squadron engineers in the quick reaction alert (QRA) set-up at RAF Leuchars. Two Phantoms, kept at readiness to be airborne in a matter of minutes when ordered by the ground radar controller at RAF Buchan, were in a special hangar next to a couple of crewrooms, one for the aircrew and one for the engineers. As the commanding officer of 43(F) Squadron at the time, I was not often on QRA duty although I liked to ensure I was rostered for the occasional stint. If, as the saying goes, all was quiet o western front, it was, for one thing, an opportunity for me to catch up on irksome paperwork from HQ,” Winkles continues.

But, on Bastille Day 1987 Al Winkles was scrambled to patrol east of the Faeroes to await the expected transit of two Bear Deltas to Cuba – a routine event.

“Sure enough, my trusty navigator made radar contact with them at an astounding range and we motored in behind them. First we closed in on the rear Bear to read its door number, before edging forward to the leader to read its number. Fully satisfied, we then stayed with the Bears for the next 30 minutes or so, seeing them safely off on their westerly heading over the Atlantic. Turning away to the south-east we headed for home – or so we thought.”

As Al and his back-seater coasted in over the north-west coast of Scotland, they were directed by Benbecula radar to a rendezvous with a VC10 tanker. But, as told by Jimmy Bedle in his book The Fighting Cocks, more trade was obviously expected. Having tanked to full they were then, much to their surprise, vectored southwards, down the Irish Sea to a position 100 miles south-west of Cornwall. Portreath radar then explained that their previous trade had, unusually, not continued on towards Cuba, but had turned south down the west coast of Ireland and appeared to be heading for the Bay of Biscay. A further VC10 tanker had been ordered to their location so that they could intercept the Bears and shadow them. Sure enough, the targets appeared out to the west and the Phantom carried out a 120° turn to intercept.

Al Winkles takes up the story again.

“We were joined by a VC10, pulled off its training sortie over the North Sea. The tanker fell into line astern as we stationed ourselves on the Bear’s port side. By this time the two Russian aircraft had joined together in loose formation. About 150 miles south of Cornwall, my navigator announced in a small voice that we had fallen off his map. However, as we entered the Bay of Biscay we were certain that we would soon be relieved by the French Air Force and we therefore kept a sharp look out for Mirage fighters.

“By now we had lost contact with Portreath radar and had just the VC10 for company. The tanker captain then announced that as it was Bastille Day he had been told that we would have to look after the ‘trade’ alone and that, consequently, we could not anticipate any form of relief from Mirage units. Far be it for me, I reasoned, to deny French their day of Bastille celebrations, but surely there were other considerations too. I could not avoid a feeling of irritation when I pictured our Mirage colleagues as thei attended their Bastille barbecues on this mid-summer’s day.

“The VC-10 captain said he was trying to find a selection of French airfields that might be open for any possible diversion if we got into difficulties. However, thus far, the airfields he had tried had not even replied to his radio calls! Having given us this good news he then said he was getting short of fuel, that he would give us what he could spare, and then he would leave us as there was another VC10 due to pitch up in around 30 minutes or so. We took on a few thousand pounds of fuel and he left us, having given us a selection of vectors towards the nearest airfields in the St Nazaire /La Rochelle areas – all probably closed.

At this point we felt very vulnerable. We had no maps of France, no specific diversions, no weather information and no radio contact with anyone except for the departing tanker. At this point the Bears seemed quite friendly and, possibly having been monitoring our situation over the radio, they turned towards the north-west. At least now we felt we were heading home. A very long 30 minutes passed and then very faintly we heard what appeared to be a distant conversation between our departing VC10 and the one arriving. Sure enough, the new tanker soon appeared and carried out an immaculate join-up using our air-to-air Tacan. The return route was flown in reverse by the Bears and ourselves, and we finally handed the Soviets over to Norwegian fighters which escorted them on their way back to Murmansk.”

After that epic 5-hour sortie, Al ordered that in future all 43 Squadron QRA aircraft were to carry maps of Northern France. Better late than never!

Photo credit: Crown Copyright and U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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