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The curious case of the Hawker Hunter, Tower Bridge and the RAF’s Golden Anniversary

IF you mention the name Alan Pollock to anyone with a passing knowledge of RAF history then they’ll immediately talk of the Tower Bridge incident.

To those unaware of the man and his notoriety, Ft Lt Pollock was the pilot who flew his Hawker Hunter across central London, did a few laps of the Houses of Parliament, and then took it upon himself to fly through Tower Bridge shortly after noon on a busy Friday in the capital.

It was purely and simply a protest by a 32-year-old who was annoyed at cuts to the RAF, and what he saw as a decision to effectively ignore the 50th anniversary of the service: official dinners and parades didn’t cut it for Pollock and many of his colleagues.

As the No. 1 Squadron man explained in a recent interview: “One thing that was in the RAF’s blood was that you celebrated in the air, not on the ground.”

His plan to remind Harold Wilson’s government of the day of what the RAF stood for began on the morning of April 5, 1968 at RAF Tangmere. Pollock and three other Hunter pilots had flown to the Sussex station the day before from their West Raynham base to celebrate Tangmere being given the freedom of the city of Chichester.

The route back to Norfolk for the four aircraft would take them near the capital, so Pollock decided on a detour, detaching himself from his colleagues soon after take-off. He tapped out some coded messages using the transmitter button in his radio, telling the other pilots he was having issues with his communication systems and he had lost visual contact – a sort of ‘I’ve got a few issues, nothing serious, and I’ll catch up with you later’.

Armed with an AA map of the capital he maintained a low altitude to avoid possible commercial air traffic and headed in the direction of Heathrow to allow himself to get his bearings. Once in the vicinity of the airport he hung a right towards Richmond Park before picking up the River Thames.

A route over the capital’s river would be the safest and quietest and naturally take him in the direction of his destination, Westminster. As Pollock explained, flying conditions were perfect: “Over London the weather was still one of those rare, perfect, Gordon’s crystal gin-clear days when all the colours shout out brightly.”

But Pollock wasn’t in the capital merely to enjoy the sights and the weather, and his mind was focused on the task in hand. Passing Vauxhall Bridge he spotted Westminster in the distance, his protest point, and just as Big Ben struck midday he let rip with the plane to ensure the politicians present could hear what this particular RAF man thought of the lack of an official flypast to mark the service’s Golden Anniversary.

He undertook three low and loud circuits of the cradle of British democracy as members were discussing, of all things, noise abatement, and even managed to waggle the Hunter’s wings in tribute as he passed the RAF Memorial at Whitehall. Protest complete, he then continued to follow the Thames towards the City, safely passing several bridges on his route including Waterloo and Blackfriars before he came in for a bit of a surprise: Tower Bridge.

Travelling at somewhere between 300mph and 400mph he could see London’s most famous bridge on his horizon. He admitted he could have flown over it, but later revealed he was intrigued by the sight of the capital’s most famous river crossing.

One eyewitness aboard the cargo ship, Baltic Sun, travelling on the Thames that sunny April day, believed the plane was in danger of crashing it was flying so low as it flew over his head, before noting that “It straightened out and shot over our heads. I thought I was dreaming”.

As Pollock pointed his jet towards the London landmark, he suddenly thought of his tail fin, convinced that the upper girders of the bridge would rip it off. However, it was now too late to pull up, somehow managing to pass through the bridge’s arches and girders with his plane unscathed.

Below him, motorists and eyewitnesses watched on in awe with the only reported injury being to one cyclist who was crossing the bridge at the time: he fell off his bike and ripped his trousers.

With many people literally and metaphorically scratching their heads and wondering whether they’d imagined what had just happened, Pollock was jetting towards Essex before turning left and heading back to West Raynham. By this point he knew he had ended his RAF career so he ‘beat up’ several airfields in inverted flight on his way back home – Wattisham, Lakenheath and Marham.

His first thought on departing the plane after landing was to burn his AA roadmap, fearing it would cause him embarrassment at any future court martial if made public. He then made a phone call to his family to warn them that “there might be a bit of trouble – but not to worry”.

The trouble arrived shortly after and Pollock was put under ‘close arrest’ for two days with an assessment from a psychiatrist who concluded he was in a ‘mentally-fit’ state to face a court martial.

By this time, however, Pollock’s support was massing, RAF colleagues clearly aware that his actions were driven by a love for the service and what it stood for. Within 48 hours he had received hundreds of letters of congratulations at the station for his ‘protest’, an all-party motion was tabled in the Commons with its backers including four MPs who were formerly in the RAF, and a barrel of beer was sent to West Raynham from BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation).

The military and political top-brass could clearly smell potential problems if they continued with a prosecution where Pollock would be given the opportunity to explain the reasons for his impromptu ‘flypast’ of the capital.

It was agreed that Pollock would quietly receive a medical discharge, the man himself leaving the RAF and going on to forge a successful career in the motor manufacturing industry with Ford and Dennis. The 87-year-old is now happily retired at his home near Guildford and 55 years after his daring escapade still has no regrets.

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