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Now that’s a flypast! RAF veteran pilot, 82, relives the split-second decision he made to fly through a busy Tower Bridge in 1968

RAF pilot Alan Pollock has only seven seconds to make a life-and-death decision. He’s just feet above the waters of the River Thames in a fighter jet travelling at 300 miles per hour.

Less than half a mile ahead, blocking his way, is Tower Bridge. He can see that it’s busy with pedestrians and that a double-decker bus is driving slowly across it. Should he fly through?
In the end, he decided to go for it.

It was April 5, 1968. Harold Wilson was prime minister, there were protests against the Vietnam War in London, and the Beatles’ Lady Madonna was No. 1.

The start of the month had also marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Air Force. The RAF was much loved — the feats of the pilots in the Battle of Britain were still fresh in the memory, and the new generation of jet pilots was in the front line of Britain’s Cold War defence.

Thirty-two-year-old Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock was one of those pilots. He had joined the RAF in 1953 and had risen through the ranks, gaining experience in aircraft including de Havilland’s Vampire jet fighter and its successor the Venom.

He had served in Germany and the Middle East and as an aide-de-camp to Air Marshal Sir Humphrey Edwardes-Jones during his time as Nato Air Commander.

Alan loved the RAF and felt its 50th anniversary should be celebrated with a flypast over London. There had been an official dinner and a few parades — but no flypast. This, he felt, was a terrible slight.

‘One thing that was in the Air Force’s blood was that you celebrated in the air, not on the ground,’ Alan, now 82, says at his home in Surrey.

He was serving at the time in No. 1 Squadron. This is the RAF’s oldest unit and as such, he believed it had a responsibility to take the lead in ensuring the half-centenary was celebrated properly.

Alan decided to take matters into his own hands by staging a flypast of his own.

On April 4, Alan and three other Hunter pilots from his squadron had flown from their base at West Raynham in Norfolk to RAF Tangmere in Sussex, the former home of No. 1 Squadron, where they were helping to celebrate the base being given the freedom of the city of Chichester. He decided that the following day, on their way back, he would make a detour over the capital.

‘It was worth flying over London, even if I was going to get court-martialled,’ Alan says. At the very least, a trial would give him a chance to have his say on the problems facing the Air Force.

Soon after the Hunters took off on the morning of April 5, Alan slipped away from the others.

By tapping out coded messages using the transmitter button on his radio, he told his colleagues he had lost visual contact and that he was having problems maintaining spoken communication.

All Alan had with him for reference was a borrowed AA map, on which he had marked a route across London. Within a few minutes and keeping low to avoid commercial air traffic, he reached Heathrow Airport where he turned right and headed for Richmond Park and then the Thames.

Flying over the river would be the safest and quietest route through the capital. ‘I went over the Thames because I didn’t want to cause any trouble,’ Alan says.

His memories of the flight are vivid. The Hunter was flying in a ‘gin-clear’ blue sky and ‘one felt like Gulliver looking down at Lilliput’. He dropped to about 150 feet and began to fly over the bridges, keeping to the middle of the river and looking out for helicopters.

Alan, angry at defence cuts and what he saw as the Labour government’s complicity in the lack of celebrations for the anniversary, headed for Parliament and Downing Street. As he crossed Vauxhall Bridge he saw Westminster in the distance. Just as Big Ben struck midday, he opened the Hunter’s throttle and began three low, loud circuits of Parliament.

‘I put the power on then. I thought: “Stuff it, let them hear some noise!” The funny thing was that at the time, they were discussing noise abatement.’

One building annoyed him — 380-foot Millbank Tower, just upstream from Parliament. ‘I hadn’t expected Millbank Tower to be there, which was a dirty great thing. It spoiled my turns.’

Alan was told later by Iain Duncan Smith’s father, Spitfire ace Wilfred Duncan Smith, that he heard Alan’s engines from on the 6th floor of the Ministry of Defence building as he talked to Sir John Grandy, chief of the Air Staff.

Sir John looked up towards the sky, trying to see the plane. Duncan Smith had to put him right, telling him, ‘No, look down there!’

Meanwhile, Alan was searching for Downing Street. ‘I wanted to make a noise over No. 10 as well. I didn’t have a target map so I couldn’t see where it was.’

He waggled the Hunter’s wings in tribute as he passed over the RAF Memorial by Whitehall and then headed downstream towards the City. The jet flashed safely over Hungerford Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge, Southwark Bridge and London Bridge.

Then he was in for a surprise. ‘There, staring me in the face was Tower Bridge. I’d forgotten it was there!

‘I could have gone over it, but I was intrigued by it as a target.’

He decided to fly through it, squeezing the aircraft at high speed between the busy road and the walkway over it.

The cranes of the Pool of London were to his left as he took the Hunter even lower over the water, his altimeter barely registering.

Peter Arnold, a steward on the cargo ship Baltic Sun, was terrified the jet would crash but ‘it straightened out and shot over our heads. I thought I was dreaming’.

Alan recalls: ‘Right at the last minute, as my cockpit canopy was just below the bridge and the girders were all around me, in that microsecond I remembered I’d got a tail fin behind and I thought: “I’m going to lose the fin!” ’

Somehow, the Hunter made it through. A cyclist on the bridge tumbled off his bike in fright, tearing his trousers. George Tapper, the Tower Bridge Watchman, was nearby. ‘There was the most thunderous roar. I looked up and, whoomph, a big silver jet roared by,’ he said.

Alan pointed the Hunter’s nose downstream and kept going. Once he was over Essex, he headed north, back to base at RAF West Raynham. Flight Lieutenant Pollock’s unofficial fly-past was over. When he landed, the first thing he did was burn his AA map. If he did end up being court-martialled, he didn’t want such an embarrassing piece of evidence being made public.

Then he rang his wife’s mother. ‘There might be a bit of trouble — but not to worry,’ he told her.

He was right, there was trouble — the RAF top brass was not impressed with his exploits.

He was put under close arrest for two days and a psychiatrist concluded that Alan was lucid enough to face a court-martial.

Hundreds of letters of congratulation from RAF colleagues and members of the public arrived at Alan’s squadron, along with a barrel of beer from BOAC.

An all-party motion of support, tabled in the House of Commons, was signed by six MPs (four of whom had been in the RAF).

In the end, Alan was given a medical discharge instead of a court-martial, possibly to deny him the chance to explain his reasons for the flypast.

After leaving the RAF, he went on to work for Ford and the fire engine manufacturer Dennis.

Looking back now, he has no regrets. ‘I left on a high point and I was so lucky to be flying such a magnificent aircraft as the Hunter,’ he says. ‘The RAF is the best career you can have.’

And 50 years since his daring flight, he has been delighted to see that there was no need for one of his successors to stage a similar protest. ‘For the 100th anniversary, the RAF has had quite a few events going on over a number of days,’ he says. ‘Good for them!’

RAF veteran pilot relives flying through Tower Bridge

Now that’s a flypast! RAF veteran pilot, 82, relives the split-second decision he made to fly through a busy Tower Bridge in 1968

RAF pilot Alan Pollock has only seven seconds to make a life-and-death decision. He’s just feet above the waters of the River Thames in a fighter jet travelling at 300 miles per hour.

Less than half a mile ahead, blocking his way, is Tower Bridge. He can see that it’s busy with pedestrians and that a double-decker bus is driving slowly across it. Should he fly through?
In the end, he decided to go for it.

It was April 5, 1968. Harold Wilson was prime minister, there were protests against the Vietnam War in London, and the Beatles’ Lady Madonna was No. 1.

The start of the month had also marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Air Force. The RAF was much loved — the feats of the pilots in the Battle of Britain were still fresh in the memory, and the new generation of jet pilots was in the front line of Britain’s Cold War defence.

Thirty-two-year-old Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock was one of those pilots. He had joined the RAF in 1953 and had risen through the ranks, gaining experience in aircraft including de Havilland’s Vampire jet fighter and its successor the Venom.

He had served in Germany and the Middle East and as an aide-de-camp to Air Marshal Sir Humphrey Edwardes-Jones during his time as Nato Air Commander.

Alan loved the RAF and felt its 50th anniversary should be celebrated with a flypast over London. There had been an official dinner and a few parades — but no flypast. This, he felt, was a terrible slight.

‘One thing that was in the Air Force’s blood was that you celebrated in the air, not on the ground,’ Alan, now 82, says at his home in Surrey.

He was serving at the time in No. 1 Squadron. This is the RAF’s oldest unit and as such, he believed it had a responsibility to take the lead in ensuring the half-centenary was celebrated properly.

Alan decided to take matters into his own hands by staging a flypast of his own.

On April 4, Alan and three other Hunter pilots from his squadron had flown from their base at West Raynham in Norfolk to RAF Tangmere in Sussex, the former home of No. 1 Squadron, where they were helping to celebrate the base being given the freedom of the city of Chichester. He decided that the following day, on their way back, he would make a detour over the capital.

‘It was worth flying over London, even if I was going to get court-martialled,’ Alan says. At the very least, a trial would give him a chance to have his say on the problems facing the Air Force.

Soon after the Hunters took off on the morning of April 5, Alan slipped away from the others.

By tapping out coded messages using the transmitter button on his radio, he told his colleagues he had lost visual contact and that he was having problems maintaining spoken communication.

All Alan had with him for reference was a borrowed AA map, on which he had marked a route across London. Within a few minutes and keeping low to avoid commercial air traffic, he reached Heathrow Airport where he turned right and headed for Richmond Park and then the Thames.

Flying over the river would be the safest and quietest route through the capital. ‘I went over the Thames because I didn’t want to cause any trouble,’ Alan says.

His memories of the flight are vivid. The Hunter was flying in a ‘gin-clear’ blue sky and ‘one felt like Gulliver looking down at Lilliput’. He dropped to about 150 feet and began to fly over the bridges, keeping to the middle of the river and looking out for helicopters.

Alan, angry at defence cuts and what he saw as the Labour government’s complicity in the lack of celebrations for the anniversary, headed for Parliament and Downing Street. As he crossed Vauxhall Bridge he saw Westminster in the distance. Just as Big Ben struck midday, he opened the Hunter’s throttle and began three low, loud circuits of Parliament.

‘I put the power on then. I thought: “Stuff it, let them hear some noise!” The funny thing was that at the time, they were discussing noise abatement.’

One building annoyed him — 380-foot Millbank Tower, just upstream from Parliament. ‘I hadn’t expected Millbank Tower to be there, which was a dirty great thing. It spoiled my turns.’

Alan was told later by Iain Duncan Smith’s father, Spitfire ace Wilfred Duncan Smith, that he heard Alan’s engines from on the 6th floor of the Ministry of Defence building as he talked to Sir John Grandy, chief of the Air Staff.

Sir John looked up towards the sky, trying to see the plane. Duncan Smith had to put him right, telling him, ‘No, look down there!’

Meanwhile, Alan was searching for Downing Street. ‘I wanted to make a noise over No. 10 as well. I didn’t have a target map so I couldn’t see where it was.’

He waggled the Hunter’s wings in tribute as he passed over the RAF Memorial by Whitehall and then headed downstream towards the City. The jet flashed safely over Hungerford Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge, Southwark Bridge and London Bridge.

Then he was in for a surprise. ‘There, staring me in the face was Tower Bridge. I’d forgotten it was there!

‘I could have gone over it, but I was intrigued by it as a target.’

He decided to fly through it, squeezing the aircraft at high speed between the busy road and the walkway over it.

The cranes of the Pool of London were to his left as he took the Hunter even lower over the water, his altimeter barely registering.

Peter Arnold, a steward on the cargo ship Baltic Sun, was terrified the jet would crash but ‘it straightened out and shot over our heads. I thought I was dreaming’.

Alan recalls: ‘Right at the last minute, as my cockpit canopy was just below the bridge and the girders were all around me, in that microsecond I remembered I’d got a tail fin behind and I thought: “I’m going to lose the fin!” ’

Somehow, the Hunter made it through. A cyclist on the bridge tumbled off his bike in fright, tearing his trousers. George Tapper, the Tower Bridge Watchman, was nearby. ‘There was the most thunderous roar. I looked up and, whoomph, a big silver jet roared by,’ he said.

Alan pointed the Hunter’s nose downstream and kept going. Once he was over Essex, he headed north, back to base at RAF West Raynham. Flight Lieutenant Pollock’s unofficial fly-past was over. When he landed, the first thing he did was burn his AA map. If he did end up being court-martialled, he didn’t want such an embarrassing piece of evidence being made public.

Then he rang his wife’s mother. ‘There might be a bit of trouble — but not to worry,’ he told her.

He was right, there was trouble — the RAF top brass was not impressed with his exploits.

He was put under close arrest for two days and a psychiatrist concluded that Alan was lucid enough to face a court-martial.

Hundreds of letters of congratulation from RAF colleagues and members of the public arrived at Alan’s squadron, along with a barrel of beer from BOAC.

An all-party motion of support, tabled in the House of Commons, was signed by six MPs (four of whom had been in the RAF).

In the end, Alan was given a medical discharge instead of a court-martial, possibly to deny him the chance to explain his reasons for the flypast.

After leaving the RAF, he went on to work for Ford and the fire engine manufacturer Dennis.

Looking back now, he has no regrets. ‘I left on a high point and I was so lucky to be flying such a magnificent aircraft as the Hunter,’ he says. ‘The RAF is the best career you can have.’

And 50 years since his daring flight, he has been delighted to see that there was no need for one of his successors to stage a similar protest. ‘For the 100th anniversary, the RAF has had quite a few events going on over a number of days,’ he says. ‘Good for them!’

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