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Controlling The Lightning

by Kelvin Holmes

Lightnings in the "Q" Shed

During the late 1960s the Lightning was the central element in an air defence system which included ground radars, Bloodhound SAM and tanker aircraft, Victor K1s and K1As. The ground radar system comprised a number of Master Radar Stations (MRS), with both radar and fighter control capabilities, supplemented by various Control and Reporting Posts (CRP) and Reporting Posts (RP), the latter with radars but no control capability. The day-to-day role of this system was policing the UK Air Defence Region (UKADR) based on the Recognised Air Picture (RAP) compiled at the MRSs (each responsible for its own Track Production Area (TPA)) and cross-told internally to other MRSs, to adjacent NADGE/STRIDA sites and passed back to the ADOC at RAF High Wycombe. The fighter Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), Northern and Southern each with two armed interceptors on 10 minutes readiness, was maintained 24 hours a day in case aircraft entering the ADR could not be identified from cross-tell, flight plans or any of the procedural means. Typically each MRS would be associated with a particular fighter airfield which would provide the means to police the air space and, if need be, fight the air battle in its area of responsibility.

The entrance bungalow
to Patrington's R3 Bunker,
photographed in 1983

Such an MRS was RAF Patrington, located near Spurn Head in East Yorkshire, with its associated airfield being the Lightning base at RAF Binbook, home to 5 Squadron. At this time the UK Lightning force was at its peak with the F6s of 11 and 23 Sqns at RAF Leuchars, F3s of 29 and 111 Sqns at Wattisham and 226 OCU at RAF Coltishall. Binbrook shared Southern QRA duties with Wattisham, whilst the Northern QRA was provided by Leuchars. The term Interceptor Alert Force (IAF) was also used for the fighter QRA but from when the author can't recall.

The history of RAF Patrington goes back to WW2 when a Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) station was established in a 'Happidrome' operations block near Bleak House farm cottages. Accommodation was also built on the site. By 1950 'Plan Rotor' envisaged a move into hardened underground bunkers with an R3 at Patrington plus an R2 at nearby Easington for a CHEL site. Ultimately the Patrington site proved unsuitable for a bunker so it was decided to locate the R3 at Holmpton and abandon the R2. RAF Holmpton was completed in 1954 and Patrington GCI closed in 1955. The accommodation site was retained, married quarters added and by 1958 the two site station was re-named RAF Patrington.

Rotor 2 in the mid 1950s introduced the Decca Type 80 'S' band radar which did away with the need for separate GCI and EW radars. Also installed were AN/FPS 6 nodding height finders and the Type 64 PPI radar displays which were used until the site finally closed in 1974. The '1958' Plan - later termed 'Plan Ahead' - saw Patrington re-designated a 'Comprehensive Radar Station' with a local Type 80 Mk 3 supplemented by radar input from Bempton CEW. In 1962 the term Master Radar Station was adopted for the Comprehensive sites, with RAF Patrington, RAF Buchan and RAF Bawdsey nominated as MRSs each with their own sector of east coast operations. For a fascinating and more detailed history of the station and the other MRSs, a visit to www.subbrit.org.uk is recommended.

Decca Type 80 Search Radar

As of 1968 then, Patrington was typical of the MRSs of that era being equipped with a Type 80 Search Radar and, if memory serves, three AN/FPS6 height finders supplemented by more modern Type 84, 85 and HF200 radars fed in from the RP at nearby Staxton Wold, but when it came to fighter control the Type 80 was without equal. The Patrington Ops site at Holmpton was buried deep inside an R3 bunker, although the bungalow above with large car park and the radar heads were obvious to all. RRH Staxton Wold is still operational in 2007 (as a CRP in the UK ASACS) and as one of the original 16 radar sites in the Chain Home System back in 1939 is perhaps the oldest operational radar station in the world.

Type 84 Search Radar
(Photo: ADRM Neatishead)

Training as a Fighter Controller began at MRS Bawdsey where an intensive 10 week interception controller's (IC) course included live sorties with the Meteors of 85 Sqn and simulator work using a system produced by the Mullard Company and always referred to as the "Mullards". Mullards gave controllable radar contacts on the screen with airmen/women driving the contacts and providing R/T as if from a pilot. During the course a U/T controller would complete perhaps 60 live and 250 'synthetic' (as the log book records) runs learning the geometry of interceptions, how to assess target speed & heading and then determine the vector to intercept. Mullard training would include subsonic and supersonic practise interceptions (PIs), with both aircraft under control, plus QRA profiles with an unknown target and the fighter only under control. The tools of the trade, probably still in use today, were a chinagraph pencil and an overlay, the latter being a clear plastic sheet maybe 4 inches square marked out with angles and ranges. RT procedures were all important such that a call prefixed with 'port' would initiate a fighter turn in that direction whilst 'left' was information. Completion of the Bawdsey course brought a posting to a MRS where training continued for a further four months, including Display Controller (DC), Fighter Marshal and IC duties. The DC was responsible for the MRS air picture and for liaison with the adjacent NADGE/STRIDA site, in the case of Patrington, the Danish station Karup. A visit to Karup was essential as part of DC training. For the IC it was more Mullards and, under supervision, control of Victor tankers, Lightnings and Phantoms. Typically some 140 live interceptions, supplemented by a similar number of Mullard runs, would qualify a controller to go solo by which time he, or she, would be familiar with the local operating environment, danger areas, airfields and recovery points.