Tony spent 31 years in the RAF, doing four tours at RAF Neatishead. He talks about his experiences, and the changes seen throughout this time and his role as a volunteer at the Radar Museum in Neatishead. He says ”my main aim here is to ensure that the museum gets the story across correctly and it’s not too embellished…”
I was born in Germany. My father was in the British Army and was stationed there, a lot of my childhood was spent in either Germany or out in the Far East. We did come back and forth to the UK and when my father’s last tour of duty in Hong Kong ended we came back to the UK for good. This was around 1971.
Because of the service background I went to, I think, about ten different schools. Two boarding schools, one in Germany and one in Singapore, but that was just the normal bog standard education system at the time.
When I left school I went straight into the Royal Air Force, I joined on 4th December 1973. I went straight to the recruiting station which at that time was at Swinderby. I did six weeks of training, what we call square bashing there and then on 30th January 1974 I arrived at the School of Fighter Control. I went to Bawdsey for my basic aerospace systems operator training.
Arriving at Neatishead
After basic aerospace system operator training I was posted to my first operational posting arriving at Neatishead on 24th April 1974.
I was a newly trained aerospace systems operator when I arrived so didn’t have any experience of working in a live operational environment, so I had to start my training here. Bawdsey hadn’t prepared me for operations in the Neatishead Ops Room, which was very advanced for the time. My basic first role was just tracking, watching the radar, watching for anything popping up and putting it into what we called the recognised air picture.
We were responsible for tracking all aircraft coming into the airspace that Neatishead was responsible for, that airspace goes out as far as the UK Dutch flight information region so that’s basically the whole of the southern part of the UK.
As an operator you did numerous tasks, so in the operations room you could have been involved with CrossTell of tracking information from airborne early warning aircraft, the movement liaison section which deals with the flight plans. You could have gone behind the totes, it all depended on the training you had and over the course of the year you were trained to do numerous jobs.
But, I was an aerospace systems operator which was part of the air defence system looking after the airspace, policing the airspace for any intruders coming into the airspace.
Neatishead was manned 24/7. There would always be a minimum shift of what we called a QRA shift, Quick Reaction Alert shift. This consisted of three or four officers, a couple of senior NCOs, three or four junior NCOs and about ten airmen. That was the minimum manning 24 hours a day.
So, on Christmas Day that would be your minimum manning, purely doing surveillance of the airspace. If need be, if there was an unidentified intruder in the airspace then they were there to scramble a couple of aircraft, man up the consoles and control the aircraft to intercept anything that is not compliant to the rules and regulations.
A QRA shift consisted of two days and two nights followed by four days off. They were 12 hour shifts. You could also be out on what we called squadron shifts. This meant that you worked Monday to Friday, from eight till the end of night flying. I would say that most people spent at least 75% of their time doing QRA shift duties.
Anything coming into the airspace has to be compliant with quite a few rules and regulations, for example, they had to fly in accordance with the known flight plan. They would have flight plan information on 99.9% of all aircraft coming into the airspace.
Aircraft also had to Squawk a particular Squawk again in compliance with the air traffic control procedures. When I say Squawking this is to do with the identification of friend or foe. It’s an electronic piece of kit on the aircraft and by using the flight plan information and the friend or foe identification you can identify an aircraft.
Once an aircraft comes into the system the computer generates a track over the aircraft and that information goes to a wider system so other units outside of Neatishead can also see the information. You’re building up what we called a recognised air picture using the computer and tracking labels on top of radar plots.
I spent the first five years of my career here at Neatishead, so until 1979. I came back again in 1985 to ‘86 and then again in 1990 until 1994 and again in 1999 to 2004. So I did four separate tours here, and was a junior rank, a leading LAC, a senior aircraftsmen, a corporal, a sergeant and a flight sergeant.
I saw the transition from the SLEWC (Standby Local Early Warning and Control) system to the next system, the integrated command and control system. We have the SLEWC system in the operations room here at the museum.
Noticing changes between tours
Procedures were changing all the time. The computer that we used for the SLEWC system when I got here in 1974 was continuously being upgraded and enhanced over the next 20 years. It got quicker, had more memory, more functionality on the keyboard, so vast changes.
The biggest change was probably in the Ops Room, training for a Cold War scenario. We were expecting a massive air assault from the East, from the Soviet Air Force and we would have had to repel that raid. When the Berlin Wall came down and the two Germanys reunited and when the Soviet Union fell in 1991 we suddenly had no enemy as such.
We had been working for 20 years for a Cold War scenario and suddenly that threat had gone. So, we had to start rethinking and retraining for out of area operations, and what happened further down the line, both Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Iraq so there was a massive change in how we trained around 1991/1992.
Sometimes boredom did surface. I remember working Christmas Eve in 1974/75 being on the front console, looking after the tracking picture and there were probably only one or two tracks on there so it was fairly boring on occasions. When the airspace is benign it was quite boring.
But, you know, it goes to the other extreme. On an exercise you could have a massive raid coming in, you’re talking to units over radio, maybe maritime units, maybe AEW aircraft.
I was also what they called a SAM voice controller, and during an exercise you’d be very busy being assigned targets and simulate engaging targets with the Bloodhound missile system.
It involved teamwork, very much so. You were part of a big team, in fact when I was a flight sergeant, in the bunker I was a Track Fusion Manager. I was responsible for a big team which consisted of the data lines management team, the tracking team, the JAAWSC team. This team did the CrossTell to the maritime units. I was responsible for all that and if one member didn’t do their job right then the whole thing could fall apart, so you’re relying heavily on your junior members of the team to do their job right or else things could go a bit pear shaped.
It was not always plain sailing, I mean I thoroughly enjoyed my operational role but as you climb up the rank ladder you take on more responsibilities. You have to do a lot more admin, I didn’t like doing admin, I didn’t like doing peoples’ appraisals, I didn’t like doing NVQs. Put me in an operations room on the coal face, quite happy, Doing the admin stuff wasn’t really my cup of tea.
Arriving in 1974 as a single man I was billeted at Coltishall. Generally you do not live on a radar site because of the radiation hazard, so single man were allocated accommodation at RAF Coltishall. Married people lived in married quarters either at Coltishall or Horsham St Faith.
When my wife and I came back from Cyprus in 1985 we were put into married quarters at Horsham St Faith which to be absolutely blunt, were absolutely awful. It forced us to go out and buy our own house, and that’s when we really set roots in Norfolk. No sooner had we bought our house I was posted to the Falklands after the war and then to North Yorkshire and Cyprus. My wife decided that she wasn’t going to follow me around the country any longer so she would get a job and settle in the UK while I went and did my thing living out of a suitcase coming back to the UK whenever I could. That’s what generally happened for the second half of my career.
The bunker was built in the early 50s and became operational in 1953. In 1966 there was a fire down there so for a period of about 20 years it was out of commission. It wasn’t until 1993 when it was being refurbished that they moved back into the bunker until 2004 with an upgraded radar system.
The life of this radar station started in 1942 and went up to 2004 and during that time the air defence system was upgrading, changing, evolving so there have been numerous systems. The radar life of this station started in the R30 Ops Room which is part of the museum now.
It never felt claustrophobic, I don’t think that there is anywhere where you were really closed in. The only time we felt closed in was when you had to go into a nuclear, biological, chemical warfare situation. We’d be in NBC suits, respirator on and down in the nuclear bunkers, it was bit uncomfortable because you’d got your gas masks on for many, many, many, many hours and you were very close together in the nuclear shelters.
Good bunch of mates and social life
I had a good bunch of mates in the barrack blocks. I remember when I got posted to Coltishall, a group of us, all young, I was only 17 at the time. We got to Coltishall and got shown our temporary accommodation. We dumped our bags and somebody, I don’t know who, suggested that we go and have a walk around the station to find our bearings, We wandered off down this road and suddenly there’s a massive big hangar in front of us, doors slightly opened and we poked our heads in. Inside this hangar, it was full of Spitfires, Hurricanes and a Lancaster and we all went, ‘Wow look at this!’ Suddenly from the other side of this hangar this chap shouted, ‘What the, are you doing in here?’ And this warrant officer came walking over to us shouting his head off, gave us an absolute rollicking for being in the hangar and then after five minutes he said, ‘Would you like to look around the hangar?’ He showed us all the Spitfires and Hurricanes, and took us onboard the Lancaster and then gave us another dressing down and told us to be on our way.
I always remember that as being quite funny ‘because I always say to people when they see the Lancaster flying in the Battle of Britain memorial flight saying, ‘Oh I’ve been on that’ and not telling them that actually it was after being told off by a warrant officer.
We used to go into Norwich quite a lot to the discos and to the disco in the RAF Coltishall No. 1 Club every Thursday and Sunday nights. You had to be wary that you were always in duty, what you didn’t want to do, what a lot of people, and I was one of them, was go out get absolutely hammered and then having to do a day’s work the next day with a hangover. It was quite expensive being out at Coltishall with taxis but yeah I had a very good social life.
I played a lot of sport, I enjoyed my sport, played football for most stations I went to. I got my sports colours for athletics, swimming and water polo.
Out of the 31 years that I did in the Air Force I spent 15 here on four separate tours. I got out, left the Air Force in 2004.
Life after the Air Force – volunteering at Neatishead Museum
I did a lot of volunteer work with my local wildlife conservation group. I also did go and work for the Hamper People at Strumpshaw but I have been a volunteer here at the museum for the past 13 years.
When I joined in what must have been about 2010 the museum was only open every Tuesday, Thursday and every second Saturday of the month, so not as often as it is now.
When I started as a volunteer, because of my background I was put into the Cold War Ops Room doing presentations and I have continued in that role ever since.
I come in and do a presentation on what happened in the Ops Room during the Cold War and do a bit of a preamble on the Cold War and what’s happened since. I also get involved with trying to do other exhibitions around the museum as well.
I think that the museum opened in, off the top of my head, in 1998 and again off the top of my head I think that there are about 70 volunteers.
When you commit to a museum like this you have to commit a bit of time and effort, you can’t come in every so often, you really have to commit which I think I have done. I have committed to one day a week to the museum, all year round. The museum is open to the public from April to November and during the winter we do the maintenance programme, on a Tuesday, and I generally make myself available to help with that as well.
My main aim is to ensure that what we tell the visitor is as accurate as possible, warts and all. You know that it wasn’t always perfect so my aim is to get the story across truthfully, what we did particularly during the Cold War, how tense it was. I like telling the story to the general public and seeing their reaction. But also what I do really like is meeting old colleagues that come along, you’re always bumping into old colleagues and having a bit of a chat. I’d say at least once or twice a month you’ll bump into somebody that you know. There are even people who are just on holiday from further afield who want to come to Neatishead to remember how it used to be. They always walk into the Ops Room and say, ‘Gosh, it’s just as I remember’.
Fortunately we have a few more ex colleagues now volunteering in the Cold War Ops Room. Over the last three or four years numbers have increased, but we could still do with more.
Like I say, my main aim here being a volunteer is to ensure that the museum gets the story across correctly and it’s not too embellished in any way, so I’m enjoying doing this.
Tony McKie (b. 1950) talking to WISEArchive on March 7th 2023 at Neatishead.
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