The destination for history

A view from the RAF front line during the Cold War


I was a 20-year old pilot when I arrived on No 16 Squadron, based at RAF Laarbruch in what was then West Germany.  It was May 1964 and I was joining an operational RAF squadron whose primary role was to fly at low level, by day and night, to deliver tactical nuclear bombs to Warsaw Pact targets in Eastern Europe.  We were part of the vast array of NATO armed forces facing the potential threat from the East. 

The squadron kept two of its two-man English Electric Canberra interdictor bombers loaded with a nuclear weapon at three minutes readiness throughout the year.  This part of our duties was known as Quick Reaction Alert – QRA.  We were good at two things: flying very low and waiting.  As a 20-year old in 1964 I could not vote, but I could be sent to drop what we called a Bucket of Sunshine on our potential enemies. Our secondary role was in support of UK national, not NATO, defence policy using conventional weapons.  In this role our Canberras could be fitted with four 20mm cannon and loaded with 1,000 lb bombs.  We could also carry parachute flares for night attack operations. 

It was a great time to be a young pilot.  The threat of a nuclear war was palpable and we were frequently exercised in reacting to practice alerts.  The resulting adrenalin rushes never reduced and we knew that one day it might be for real.  This ever-present, underlying stress was offset by lots of humour (sometimes black), great camaraderie and the excitement of flying all over Western Europe, as well as frequent trips and detachments to Mediterranean bases and beyond.  Esprit de corps was alive and kicking!

In 1967 I left Germany and went on to fly for another 37 years, as a military and civilian test pilot and instructor.  But those early formative years taught me so much.  The most important lessons were:

  • Never press on if any doubt has entered your mind.
  • If anything goes wrong – fly the aeroplane above all else.
  • Always try to think and communicate clearly.
  • Never assume – check!
  • Believe the instruments and not your senses.
  • Constantly seek the experience of others who have done it before.
  • And, finally, if you stop enjoying the job – get out of the cockpit and let someone else do it.

By Mike Brooke

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