The second fighter detached its probe from refuelling drogue. There was a small cloud of jet fuel vapour, which vanished as soon as it appeared. The pilot carefully moved his plane away from sluggish Victor tanker, then joined his flight leader, who finished refuelling few minutes earlier. Their Lightnings were excellent interceptors, fast and agile, but they had very short legs – especially with rocket engines installed in the space usually taken by additional ventral tank.
If flight leader knew what was the deal with the unusual load-out, he wasn’t telling. The Napier rocket motors were no longer in production: the Lightning could reach and sustain Mach 2, which was more than sufficient to intercept any Soviet bomber in service. The auxiliary rocket stated mission – boosting the plane for high-altitude supersonic bomber interception – was moot, because there was no bomber the Lightning could not catch.
But there they were, high above North Atlantic, with even less fuel than usual and a deadweight package where the fuel tank should be.
– Acorn Leader, climb to flight level 500, your new heading is 15.
There was no answer from the leading plane, but it banked slightly and started the climb, with the wingman following suit.
The intercept vector seemed weird. Heading was OK, but 50 000 feet was unusual – Soviet Tu-95s, their usual customers, had a service ceiling of 45 000 or so. Nevertheless, they climbed.
When ground control spoke again the pilot could only boggle.
– Acorn Leader, bogie, range one hundred, flight level, uh – flight level 680, climb and prepare to intercept.
– This is Acorn Leader, please repeat.
So the boss was puzzled too.
– Acorn Leader, I repeat, range, uh, sixty, flight level 680, climb and prepare to intercept. Um, be advised, there will be no contrail.
What? Almost seventy thousand feet and in unpowered flight? What was that thing? Despite a heated flight suit, he felt a chill.
In front and above them, a contrail appeared.
– Starlight, this is Acorn Leader, bogie just powered up, I think he sees us.
– Acorn Leader, range to target 45 miles, flight level 700, intercept and engage, you are weapons free.
There was a moment of stunned silence, then –
– Roger that, Starlight, engaging. Acorn Two, fire up the package.
The wingman flipped a few switches and the rocket motor under the fuselage whined to life. His Lightning surged forward and up. On gouts of flame they climbed into rapidly darkening sky.