Spotlight - Sun, Sea, and SUU Guns by Tom McGhee
RAF Phantom units always had the most hectic of schedules. Along with their periods on QRA they had to fit in numerous Air Defence Exercises like the Priory Series, Elder Forest/Joust, Mallet Blows, etc., as well as normal peacetime training missions. All the aforementioned took place without leaving home but their travelling calendar was equally busy with Squadron Exchanges, Flag Exercises in North America, MPC at Valley, ACMI at Decimomannu, and of course APC at Akrotiri.
Armament Practice Camp was a four week detachment to sunny Cyprus for qualification using the Phantom’s centreline SUU-23 Cannon. Generally a dozen of the Squadron's jets would be flown out to this Mediterranean holiday island, accompanied by the inevitable VC-10/TriStar and Hercules support aircraft containing the ground crews and required equipment.
Upon arrival the Phantoms would be re-roled from the standard pair of wing mounted drop-tanks to clean wings and a centreline SUU-23 gunpod. This 20mm six-barrel Gatling Gun carried 1,200 rounds, and on these rounds would be painted a certain colour so that different pilots 'hits' on the banner target were easily identified. The banner target itself was a canvas scarf towed (at a great distance!) behind a 100 Squadron Canberra generally flying sedately over the Mediterranean. The pace of sorties built up gradually, but towards the end could get pretty hectic as some pilots desperately tried to qualify. Generally though, the four weeks would end up with a Squadron of fully qualified fighter jockeys, ready to defend UK airspace against Backfires, Floggers, and Fencers - provided of course that the Soviets invaded towing volleyball nets behind them!
Cyprus is known to most as a Mediterranean holiday destination, and its rise in popularity amongst sun-worshippers is well justified. The hot temperatures and long hours of clear blue skies make for ideal sun-tanning conditions as well as gunnery practice conditions. The island itself is currently partitioned into northern (Turkish) and southern (Greek) zones following the 1974 Turkish invasion, and the border area is patrolled and monitored by UN peacekeeping forces. However the resort areas of Paphos, Limassol and Ayia Napa are very tourist-friendly with the locals appearing to have a particular fondness for the British, and the prices of accommodation, food and drink is unbeatable.
Rivalry between RAF fighter Squadrons is legendary and towards the end of APC one year 56 Squadron managed to fly 56 sorties in one day, no mean feat with the limited manpower resources that detachments can call on, as well as the Phantom's serviceability record! However the Firebirds' sister Squadron at the time was the Tigers of 74 Squadron and they immediately followed 56 out to Cyprus, taking their F-4Js with them. Obviously the Tigers could not be seen to be outdone by their brethren from the Southern HAS site so 74 endeavoured to fly 74 sorties in one day. Phantom landings without brake chutes were never considered sensible, and it became apparent that to achieve this target the parachute packers would have to work at an unsustainable rate to ensure chutes were available for every sortie. This would prove impossible and so the answer lay in the pilots NOT jettisoning their chutes on roll-out, but dragging them back to the dispersal to be packed straight into the container whilst the quickest of Quick Turn Rounds were accomplished. This, as well as a mammoth effort by the Engineers and the F-4J's 'legendary' serviceability meant that the 74 sorties were completed in one day! (111 Squadron were due out shortly afterwards, but it is believed they declined the contest!)
Akrotiri itself was only host to a few permanently based aircraft, which included the SAR Wessex unit of 84 Squadron. Also based was the U-2R of USAF’s 9th SRW detachment on peace monitoring duties over the Middle East. Visitors were aplenty though, with USAF and RAF transport aircraft commonplace. Akrotiri was also a regular weekend jaunt for RAF fast-jet units and also a well positioned transit point for aircraft deliveries between the UK and the Middle East. Its proximity to Lebanon and Israel also meant other exotic aircraft could occasionally be seen, but Akrotiri will forever be remembered among the RAF Phantom community as the best holiday money can buy.