BEAUVECHAIN 1967

By Kevin HutchinsonArmourer

In the 1960s, Allied Air Forces Central Europe (AAFCENT) held exercises from time to time to test the reaction of the defence forces to incursions by suspect aircraft into its airspace.

In May 1967 it was the turn of an area in central Germany which was under the guardianship of the RAF and the Belgian Air Force, and was monitored by German Air Force and civilian air traffic control units. For this exercise two Lightning aircraft and members of No. 92 Sqn were to be detached to the Belgian Air Force station at Beauvechain, the idea being that one RAF Lightning and one Belgian F104 were to conduct each interception, which for the purposes of this exercise could occur at any time during daylight hours.

During the active phase of the exercise, the German air traffic controllers would be engaged in their normal day-to-day work. The AAFCENT organisers would occasionally inject an aircraft (usually a USAF fighter) into the airspace without any previous notification or route plan. It was the job of the ATC people to detect this incursion and to initiate an interception which had to take place before the "bogey" could reach a "no-go" line.

ATC would transmit a signal which would be picked up by a Royal Signals team working in a caravan adjacent to the dispersal at Beauvechain, who would simply press a button to operate a loud horn audible to the pilots and ground-crew on the dispersal.

On hearing the horn blast, the pilots of the two aircraft, each assisted by two members of ground-crew, would get to the aircraft and get them airborne as quickly as possible, whereupon the ATC guys would steer them towards an efficient interception.

When the RAF team arrived on the station it became quickly evident that the standards of accommodation were far below what the RAF people were used to, or would indeed tolerate in peacetime. So they booked themselves into a hotel in Louvain, not too far away. The catering at the airfield was also somewhat below expectations, too. When one of the airmen accidentally strayed into the kitchen of the air base canteen, and saw two barrow loads of potato chips lying on the not-too-clean kitchen floor, it was considered to be the last straw as far as cuisine was concerned, so the lads promptly made arrangements to have lunch at their own expense at a nearby café.

It quickly became clear to everyone that, in contrast to the F104, the Lightning was actually made for this sort of job. Immediately the horn sounded, the pilot would launch himself up the ladder, quickly pursued by one of the ground-crew. A second ground-crew member would start the Houchin ground electrical power unit and press the buttons to deliver AC and DC to the aircraft. On reaching the top of the ladder, the pilot would commence the starting cycle for No. 1 engine, then climb into the cockpit and strap in, assisted by the first ground-crew member. By this time No. 1 engine would be running, so the button for No. 2 would be pressed. The pilot would then do his checks while the first ground-crew member removed the ejection seat safety pins then descended and removed the ladder. Within a very few seconds the pilot would wave for removal of the chocks and, if all was clear, he would commence taxiing; the electrical connections to the Houchin being broken automatically. It took about twenty yards and two right-angled turns to get onto the runway, the pilot already selecting reheat (afterburner) when he was half-way round the second bend. The writer once timed this process: on that occasion it took two minutes and ten seconds from the horn starting to sound until the Lightning became airborne. Pretty good so far.

Then we waited for the F104. Oh, dear! By this time its single engine had barely started, and then it took quite a time before the aircraft started to taxi. Later, in another place, I was able to observe the process involved in getting an F104 started. It was a protracted affair which included the amusing sight of one ground-crew man jumping up and down at the rear of the aircraft, trying to see if the afterburner pilot flame was alight some distance down the jet pipe. If it wasn't, the airman would signal to his mate, who was waiting underneath the fuselage between the mainwheels, beside an open hatch. He would then reach through the hatch to do whatever was necessary to ignite the pilot lamp (a Zippo lighter came to mind).

Once the F104 reached the runway and had lined up, it stopped. It then went through a rigmarole which involved the engine being accelerated three times from idling to maximum revs, before the afterburner was lit and the aircraft got on its way. By this time the Lightning had gone, and was nowhere to be seen. The RAF men were very proud of their Lightnings, and the Belgian airmen were very impressed. Half a dozen off duty airmen would be constantly in attendance just to watch and admire the performance.

But I have to admit that the F104, with a particularly gifted pilot on board, could do something that no Lightning could ever do. One day, I was idly watching an F104 coming in to land. Its wheels touched down, and it immediately took off again. Then the aircraft rolled 360 degrees while still above the runway, and then it landed again. I was astonished. A Belgian next to me explained that the pilot, a WO, was an aerobatics ace and that what he had just done was his party-piece. There have been many times since then when I have wondered if I was imagining this event. With the advent of the internet, all became clear. Apparently the pilot was named Bill Ongena, a member of No. 349 or No. 350 Sqn. The manoeuvre was banned after a fatal accident involving another pilot. (It's worth Googling Bill Ongena to see some short videos of this amazing manoeuvre. Brian.)