I wrote this for a Creative Writing workshop

Halloween is a night for games – but the RAF doesn’t play games with multi-million-pound aircraft. So, what was I doing here?

As I taxied out to the end of runway 26, I could see the traffic passing a few hundred yards away on the nearby A1. I knew most drivers’ would glance across at me – I’d done exactly the same many times before. Now I was the one sitting in the cockpit of a Harrier – the unique jump jet that even the Americans had bought!

I didn’t need to use the mile and a half long runway, the Harrier was designed for vertical take-off and landing – but using that ability consumed a great deal more fuel and it was normal to take off conventionally.

Tonight was, however, far from normal.

Tonight a Harrier had been placed on QRA. – Quick Reaction Alert; a role that was usually handled by Mach 2 Lightning interceptors. They were scrambled on a routine basis to investigate potential intruders into UK airspace – often Russian aircraft on maritime reconnaissance or flights over to Cuba; or just testing our air defences.

I could certainly match the Russians’ speed – but it would take me an hour to intercept them against a matter of minutes for a supersonic Lightning. Whilst Harriers were capable of fighting other aircraft as would be proved ten years later in the Falklands, our role was primarily ground attack. So, what was going on?

Just as I got to the end of the runway my radio burst into life “Firebird zero-one, Vector three-four-zero, climb angels ten and contact Neatishead control on stud five-one, QNH one-zero-zero-three, Scramble, Scramble, Scramble.

I completed my pre take-off checks as I turned on to the runway and opened up the throttle, the engine wound up to provide 17,000 lbs of thrust; forcing me back into my seat. As my speed built up to 140 knots, I pulled the lever back to angle the jet nozzles slightly downwards and the Harrier leapt into the air. Holding the aircraft level, I retracted the undercarriage and the flaps then set the nozzles to point backwards. The speed built up to 400 knots as I climbed away over the Northamptonshire countryside.

Free of the ground, feeling at one with my aircraft, doing what I’d been trained for; following in the footsteps of those heroes from my childhood – defending the country. This is what I’d dreamed of while growing up. That training had taught me to be calm and professional but at moments like this you couldn’t help feeling a mixture of apprehension and excitement.

Overhead, the full moon was bright with just the occasional cloud drifting across its face. It was amazing to think that it was only 2 years since Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind on its surface.

I was soon at 10,000 feet as instructed.

Neatishead, this is Firebird zero-one at ten thousand, heading three-four-zero out of Wittering.” I reported as the dark expanse of Rutland Water reservoir passed below me. I planned to be back there on Sunday sailing my Laser – interesting that both my aircraft and my sailing dinghy were single handed; probably said something about my personality.  

Firebird zero-one, maintain course three-four-zero increase speed to six hundred. Target is eight-zero miles, course three-zero-zero degrees. Speed seven-five knots.

If the target was only flying at 75 knots and only at 10,000 feet – that explained why they’ve sent up a Harrier to check it out instead of a Lightning – which would fall out of the sky if it tried to slow down sufficiently to get a good visual identification.  The Harrier could use its vectored thrust, pointing the engine output downwards, to let it operate at any speed – including slowly backwards.

Eighty miles at a closing speed of around nine miles per minute – so less than ten minutes. Assuming that the target maintained its current speed and direction. It might land somewhere in the East Midlands – it might even be a cargo flight which has lost communications; well probably not at just 75 knots. A helicopter perhaps? A microlight? Either could then touch down in a very small space – but so could I!

I could now see the lights of East Midlands airport ahead just as control called instructing me to turn north and make contact with the next controller. I push the stick over to the right and bank away from the airport. We certainly didn’t want to scare holidaymakers returning from Marbella – or even an overnight parcel flight. I switched radio channels and called northern control.

Patrington, this is Firebird zero-one at ten thousand feet, out of Wittering on course three-six-zero speed six hundred”.

Control acknowledged my call and instructed me to remain on present course and speed. A few minutes later, as the airport lights slipped away behind us, they brought me back onto my original flight path.

Over the Peak District, the bright areas that marked the towns and cities of the East Midlands and South Yorkshire disappeared astern; replaced with just the occasional twinkle from villages – or vehicle headlights winding their way over the hills. The bright moon reflected off the top of the occasional clouds or the surface of lakes below me. Back on the ground, kids would have been going from house to house “trick or treating”.

Firebird zero-one, target now two-zero miles; course three-zero-zero; speed seven-five knots”. There was still nothing on my radar – and no lights ahead that might indicate another aircraft. I’d been airborne for about 20 minutes, my fuel was OK, jet pipe temperature fine, the hills below were rising but my height was 10,000 so plenty of clearance.

At my closing speed, I would have been with the target in less than a minute. So, I should have been able to see it on my radar very soon.

Control called again to advise that the target was increasing speed rapidly. It was already at 200 knots; much faster than a helicopter or microlight could fly – so what was it? What was I chasing?

Control asked if I had visual on the target.

 “Firebird zero-one, negative – and nothing on radar”. No hang on a moment – there it was. It was quite faint so could be a very small target. “Firebird zero-one, Judy!” I called, letting control know that I had contact with the target. It was extending its lead though, as it continued to accelerate.  

I increased my speed to allow me to close on the target. Still nothing visible in the darkness. The lights of Oldham and Manchester lay away to port. Once more the ground below us was dark apart from the occasional lights of villages and cars on the roads. At least if I needed to force the intruder down; even, if necessary, shooting at it, there was little danger of damage on the ground. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. I should have been able to stay with the target whatever manoeuvres it came up with.

I still couldn’t see the target in spite of the radar showing that I was virtually on top of it so, as we pass over Burnley, I decided to drop down and try to get the intruder silhouetted against the brightness of the moon.

Then, I caught a glimpse of something – but it too was losing height – heading for the desolate rocky ground below us. It slowed and seemed to be making for a glow that developed into a fire. I switched on my landing lights and caught the target just as it landed on Pendle Hill and I realised there was a group of black cloaked individuals standing around the bonfire.

“And that’s the story of when I chased after a witch on her broomstick” I told Sarah and Michael my two 8 and 9-year-old grandchildren who had been listening intently.

“Dad – you’ll scare them silly with your stories! Right,” said Jo, my daughter to the children, “get your coats on and Grandad will take you out ‘Trick or Treating’ “.

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