On QRA: ‘That’s not right’

It’s the end to a warm day with the sun setting. We’ve spent the day sitting in full flying kit stretched out watching terrible day time TV. We are on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA). Our Typhoon jets are in their hangars, loaded with weaponry and fuel. We spend 24 hours in the building, living, eating and sleeping next to our jets. And then the speaker, usually silent crackled with static, suddenly screams ‘scramble, scramble, scramble!’

Nick Graham is a former Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon pilot who also flew F-16s with the Royal Danish Air Force. He’s is currently an instructor pilot, training future jet pilots in the United Arab Emirates. This is his first blog on Airheadsfly.com.NickGraham

The alarm goes off. Lights flash. The doors to the hangars open. We sprint for the exits, zipping up our rubber immersion suit as we go. I grab my helmet and life jacket from the top of the steps. I lean in and start the APU as I finish getting dressed. When that’s done, I jump in the cockpit as the ladders get removed. Start the engines. Close the canopy. Check in that we are started. On the other side of the airfield, ATC is doing similar actions. The tower is turned on; radio calls are made. You have no idea why the trigger has been pulled, but at £30,000 per flying hour per jet it isn’t done for no reason.

I am the wingman for the mission, and as the leader starts his take off roll, I finish my checks and line up on the runway just as the sun drops below the horizon. A fist full of throttles slams forwards into full reheat. I am pressed firmly back into my seat, speed racing past an eye watering 100 kts in seconds. 130 kts, pull back on the stick to set the take off attitude, the jet automatically trimming itself. Gear lever up as soon as the jet bounds into the air to stop over speeding the gear (230kts limit). The gear tucks away; the flaps are automatically controlled by the jet. The HUD switches automatically from landing mode to navigation mode and I snap the radar lock onto the leader.

RAF Eurofighter Typhoons had their hands full with QRA duties this week. Two Russian Tu-160 Blackjacks were intercepted in international airspace. (Image © UK Ministry of Defence)
RAF Eurofighter Typhoons had their hands full with QRA duties this week. Two Russian Tu-160 Blackjacks were intercepted in international airspace. (Image © UK Ministry of Defence)

As we climb past 2000’ with NVGs on, I notice my eye is actually watering. Shit. When I ran out of the door, I’d run through a cloud of black flies and one of them has got stuck in my eye and is still there. Nevertheless we check in with our fighter controller to get information on the situation: an airliner needed help but they have solved the problem and are already landing. We are to stand down. As there must always be a jet ready to intercept the threats to UK airspace, the plan is to get the leader on the ground while I stay in the air ready to intercept anything that moves while the leader’s jet is being prepared for flight again. A tanker aircraft has launched the moment we were scrambled, too. I find him with my radar and join up on him.

All this time, the fly is still stuck in my eye. My eye is watering a lot to flush the bug out. I am wearing a heavy helmet with NVGs bolted to it and the extra weight of the goggles means that the helmet slides down over my eyes and the oxygen mask pushes down on  my nose. As I sit next to the tanker in the dark, my eye begins to swell and my face swells up too. So here I was….

I take a full tank of fuel and then sit 1000’ below the tanker so I can use the autopilot to steer around the sky without fear of hitting the tanker. As my face swells against the tightened mask, a nerve in my face becomes trapped and I start to lose control of my right eye. The right side of my face starts to get numb. I look at my cabin altitude and it tells me that the pressure in the cockpit is the same as being at 9000’. I decide to take my mask off to relieve the swelling of my face and hopefully get my right eye back. This works a bit and I take my NVGs off too to take the pressure off my face. My eye is pouring with fluid by now.

RAF Voyager aircraft support Quick Reaction Alert duties 24/7. (Image © AirTanker)
RAF Voyager aircraft support Quick Reaction Alert duties 24/7. (Image © AirTanker)

The RAF and many other air forces invest heavily in medical education for aircrews. All pilots are trained to withstand G-forces and recognise their personal symptoms of hypoxia. However, that doesn’t help me now… or does it? As I float around below the tanker I notice that the red navigation light on the wing actually looks grey. That’s… not right. It takes me a second or two to recognise it as one of my personal hypoxia symptoms. I put my mask back on and feel the familiar rush of blood and heat to my face. My body begins craving oxygen and I begin hyperventilating. I turned the volume up on my intercom and focused hard on the sound of my breathing.

I declare an emergency and ask the controller to get a medical team ready for me when I land and to urge our engineering team to get the leader’s jet ready as soon as possible. Meanwhile, a replacement jet and pilot was already in work. When you remember that this was now just gone past midnight on a Friday, it highlights the massive support team that pilots work with to make sure the jets can achieve the task.

After I land without further problems, I hand over the rest of my 24hr duty to a relief pilot and end up in hospital. I am grounded for a week while my scratched eyeball recovers. I realize that if it hadn’t been for the medical teams educating me and other aircrew, I could very well have ended in much worse problems that night than a fly in my eye.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com contributor Nick Graham
Featured image (top): A Typhoon escorts a Russian Tu-95 Bear during a Quick Reaction Alert mission. (Image © UK Ministry of Defence)