The Royal Air Force is a highly respected British military military institution. Formed just after the First World War, the British Air Force prides itself on its technological capabilities, strong discipline and illustrious history. Obeying orders, respecting senior officers and following instructions are the top priorities of its highly trained professional staff.
So when one of their own, fighter pilot Alan Pollock, performed an unauthorized flight and pulled off one of the most dangerous stunts in aviation history, they were absolutely horrified. It’s cool YouTube video below from Qxir has the whole story.
The RAF pilot’s career-ending stunt
The year is 1968, Flight Lieutenant Pollock is serving with No. 1 Squadron, the RAF’s oldest unit. The fiftieth anniversary of the RAF approaches, and Alan is excited. He managed to convince his squadron commander that he had to do something to mark this special event. His squadron leader accepts his offer to drop celebratory leaflets from planes at specific civilian locations across the UK, to arouse public interest.
Except this is all just a cover story. Alan has a completely different plan in mind. After taking off with three other Hawker Hunter planes on the morning of April 5, he quickly broke away from the peloton. He sends them a voiceless coded message, telling his comrades that he has lost eye contact and that his radio has malfunctioned.
Alan then heads for London, flying low over the English countryside to avoid commercial planes. He arrives in the capital around noon. The weather is perfect, as it flies over the Thames. Its main target is the Houses of Parliament, the government buildings where the British Prime Minister and the country’s politicians meet.
When he reaches the impressive establishment, next to the famous Big Ben clock tower, he opens the throttle of the Hunter jet and circles the building three times. The noise is deafening, it echoes through the historic building. Alan later said “I put the power on so, I thought to stuff it, let them hear some noise! The funny thing is, at the time, they were talking about noise reduction.
It continues along Whitehall and dips its wings, in respect, towards the RAF Memorial below. Then he does something that even he hadn’t expected. Cruising low over the River Thames at around 400 mph, he makes the split-second decision to fly under one of London’s most famous landmarks; Tower Bridge. Something no other jet pilot has ever attempted or done since.
“Until that exact moment, I had absolutely no idea that Tower Bridge would be there. It was easy enough to fly over it, but the thought of flying through the spans suddenly hit me. I had no only ten seconds to grasp the enticing proposition that few ground attack pilots of any nationality could have resisted. My brain raced to make a decision. Years of fast, low-altitude attack flying have made the decision simple.
Call it a moment of madness or a major act of defiance, Pollock went against every RAF principle he held dear and did it. It flew under the Grade 1 listed suspension bridge, across a gap of just 140ft.
Pollock said afterwards “Just at the last minute, when my cockpit canopy was just below deck and the beams were all around me, in that microsecond I remembered I had an aft fin , and I thought: I’m going to lose the fin!
The epic event was never filmed, but a cyclist who was on the bridge at the time said: “There was the most thunderous roar, I looked up and, whoomph, a big silver jet roared”.
After the flyover, Pollock expected to be court-martialed. So he flew to a bunch of other British airbases and made low and noisy overflights. As soon as he returned to the base, his superiors arrested him.
Why the Jet Fighter Became a Thief
Born in 1936, Alan fell in love with aviation during World War II. He fulfilled his childhood dream and joined the RAF in 1953. Pollock became an outstanding pilot and a founding member of the Red Arrows display team.
By the 1960s, support for military services in the UK was in decline. And Captain Pollock was a vocal critic of the RAF, promoting its efficiency. He blamed the government for its underfunding and general apathy towards it. When he saw that little was done to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary, it made him furious.
“Apart from a parade, there had been no special celebration for Airmen, that vital set of skills, sacrifices of service that had made the Air Force great. No dance of ‘birthday, no party, no half-day off. The chef seemed to have forgotten the importance of the heart!’ he said.
The sequel to the waterfall
Immediately after Pollock’s stunt his squadron was posted to North Africa, he remained in the UK for a charge. Alan went public and told his story to the world. This resulted in a backing band. He received hundreds of letters of congratulations, from RAF colleagues and from the British public. He was a national hero.
Anxious to deter a repeat of the incident, the “powers that be” convicted him of disobeying orders. A court-martial was too embarrassing for them, so they made the decision to remove Pollock on medical grounds. But in a strange turn of events, the judgment was overturned in 1982 and Alan was exonerated.
Alan Pollock’s story is fascinating. In fact, he got away with it. He remains the only person to fly a jet under London’s Tower Bridge without permission. And one thing this event certainly shows is that he’s not a man to be messed with. We certainly hope that none of his family members will forget his birthday!
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