Written in 2005
When our Victor crew was over the North Sea on 20 October 1971 quietly minding our own business on a routine (ie boring!) maritime recce sortie over the southern North Sea, we were suddenly diverted to Operation Dragonfly Mobile. This was a classified operational order from HQ Strike Command that could not be questioned or ignored.
We were instructed to fly north immediately to escort a civilian passenger aircraft, an Icelandair B737, that had declared an emergency because it was thought to have a bomb on board. That message certainly grabbed the attention of my crew. I was still the most junior captain on the Squadron so I thought the RAF must consider me and my crew expendable. (Chambers Dictionary: expendable, adjective. 1: that may be given up or sacrificed for some purpose or cause. 2: not valuable enough to be worth preserving.)
We were ordered to transfer to a discrete UHF frequency to contact an RAF Air Defence station. Older readers will remember that in the 1970s the North Sea was bristling with Soviet “trawlers” whose crews spent their time monitoring NATO radio traffic, so air-to-ground communications were always kept brief and to the point. The Air Defence Controller told us that our “target” was about 60 nautical miles to the north east of our position and at the same height (we were at 31,000 feet).
Our Victor tanker, carrying about 60,000lbs (roughly 30 tons) weight of aviation fuel at the time, and being totally devoid of any armaments, was not an ideal aircraft for dealing with aerial bombs on another aircraft, let alone a passenger aircraft, so I asked, on a secure radio channel, what my instructions were. We were to told that we would be vectored into a position where we could shadow the B737 and "escort it to the nearest suitable airfield if necessary, probably Prestwick". The "if necessary" part of our instructions was not very comforting. I wondered idly whether, if the worst came to the worst, I would be instructed to ram the B737aircraft. Should I then order the other four members of my crew to abandon our aircraft before I did my lone duty, I wondered!
Fortunately, before we reached the Icelandair, or even had it in visual contact, we were told that the “situation” had been resolved and that we could resume our original task. The Controller would not tell us over the radio how the situation had been resolved.
Above: That was TV coverage I snapped at home of another similar incident at about the same time - hence the rather poor definition.
Below: The entry in my flying log book for 1971.
We learned later that the telephone call which had caused the Captain of the Icelandair to declare an emergency had been a hoax. Furthermore, we had been sent to deal with the situation because the Defence Controller thought we were a Lightning interceptor from RAF Leuchars!!