In essential details, Brian Morrison is right in his story [I know because I was there – Newsletter no 59] about the ‘liberation’ of a Phantom aircraft from 23 MU in the 1970s, but I can add a little bit to the story.
I too was there, as were at least two other Association members, but I was one of the handful of people who took part in the planning and execution of the liberation and so I know more than most do about the story. As the senior RAF security man (Police and Regiment) in the Province from 1973 to 1977, I had responsibilities Province-wide but in particular was in charge of the Police (RAF/MoD/Airport) and RAF Regiment at Aldergrove. On top of that I doubled as staff officer to SRAFONI, the
station commander at Aldergrove, with whom I remain in contact. Because of this, along with him I am one of five or six people who know the full story of the Phantom liberation.
The ‘liberation’ happened because the British Government had recently announced in the Commons its intention of withdrawing the servicing of all RAF aircraft from the Province to the mainland. At the time No 23 MU (at RAF Aldergrove) provided major servicing – a 21-week turnaround – for all Phantom aircraft then in service with the RAF and the Royal Navy. (It did not service Canberra aircraft as well, as Brian remembers; this was done at another MU on the mainland.) It always seemed to me peculiarly British to have persisted for as long as we did to service a substantial chunk of our then front-line strike force in what was at the time the most unstable bit of the United Kingdom: with Phantoms being serviced at 23 MU and Buccaneers at RAF Sydenham [near Belfast docks and now Belfast
Docks airport], but perhaps I felt more sensitive about this than most – for me it was a major preoccupation.
Following the announcement of the Government’s intention of switching the servicing of Phantoms to the mainland, the civilian workforce of 23 MU, understandably concerned about the loss of jobs, declared that they would not authorise the release [by refusing to sign Form 700] of the next aircraft due to leave the ‘factory’ at the end of its long servicing schedule. Without this release, it was thought, a replacement aircraft would not be able to come in, and so the cycle of servicing would be
disrupted. It was hoped that this would put pressure on the Government and bring about a change of heart. The workers’ concern was, as I say, understandable. Many had worked for the RAF for years – in some cases all their working lives – and many had served in the RAF. The vast majority came from the ‘loyalist’ tradition, and so loyalty to the crown was a badge of honour. For all these reasons they saw the decision of the Government as the thin end of a disengagement wedge. They were of course right, but politics were involved.
The MU was a lodger unit in Support Command; Aldergrove was in 38 Group of Strike Command; the ground troops (policemen and Regiment) were under the operational control of the GOC NI, via my GD Ops Room; and part of my remit was to make sure the RAF did not receive unnecessary publicity (we were far more
involved in the Province, particularly in my branch, than has ever been acknowledged). No wonder Brian thought Aldergrove did not officially exist. I obviously succeeded if even he believed me. This was why, for example, in official press releases all helicopter incidents were referred to as ‘security force helicopters’, injured personnel if not Army were always ‘security force personnel’, and so on. My wife joked for years afterwards that any press release that did not say specifically ‘Army’ must mean RAF.
At the time, No 23 MU employed about 1,200 local civilian workers, seven days a week, almost around the clock, but the quietest day was Sunday. That is why it was chosen for the liberation. The MU was commanded by three RAF officers: a group captain engineer (ex-Halton apprentice and my next door neighbour), a wing commander engineer and a squadron leader supplier, and had four aircrew (two pilots/two navigators) to test fly the aircraft when they came off the line and take them back to their home bases. Apart from that the unit was entirely civilian manned. That the station commander was in the Officers’ Mess at 6am on the Sunday morning in question I can verify: he was in my room putting the final touches to the plan. (The operation had been planned for some days before it happened.)
Sunday morning’s day shift at the MU did not come on duty until 7.00am [weekdays 6.00am] and there was no night shift overnight on Saturday/Sunday. By 6.30am, we had sealed off the MU entrance with armed police and soon afterwards the Phantom was on the runway with its engines running-up; its systems being tested prior to take-off. By sealing the entrance we prevented the workforce coming onto the site until the aircraft had flown the nest. I was positioned with the policemen
near the MU gate, within site of the hangar and the runway and the locked-out, less-than-happy oncoming shift of workers, to make sure they remained outside. The ‘snatch’ squad of two group captains, the wing commander, and the aircrew had arrived as soon as I confirmed the gate had been secured. You see, the civilian workforce had overlooked one small thing in their plan: their group captain and their wing commander were both qualified aircraft engineers and were entitled to sign
Forms 700. That this might normally be done at the civilian equivalent of something like sergeant level didn’t alter that fact. (The squadron leader test pilot was heard to say later that he didn’t expect ever again to have a F700 authorised at such a senior level.) The prime-mover vehicle was, I think, driven by the group captain engineer, with an MT driver assisting; at least, I remember the group captain was aboard the prime-mover as it came out of the hangar. After testing the systems for
20 or 30 minutes, the crew flew the aircraft off to its mainland base, and we then opened the gates. (The test pilot, aged 52, was a registered disabled car driver, but that’s another story).
It was a psychological victory. The intention was to make the point that the RAF could not be held to ransom. It produced the desired effect. Thereafter, there were no more obstructions, and the planned switch of servicing to the mainland went ahead 18 months later as planned. When the story broke in the days following the liberation, the local press carried comments by Dr Paisley that an RAF commando snatch squad had been flown in especially for the occasion. We were quietly pleased to let that view prevail. (One of my sons was at Methodist College Belfast with Ian Paisley Jnr, but that is yet another story.)