RAF St. Pancras: When Harrier Jump Jets briefly called Camden home
PUBLISHED: 10:00 20 June 2019
Anyone looking up at the sky above King’s Cross on May 5, 1969, might have though they were hallucinating.
But there really were Harrier Jump Jets taking off and landing in an old Coal Yard called, briefly, RAF St Pancras - behind the historic railway station.
Itself a commemoration of the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic, in 1969 the Daily Mail sponsored the Transatlantic Air Race - designed to find who was able to get between the Post Office Tower in London and the Empire State Building in New York the quickest.
The competition was open to a number of forms of transport, but the swiftest category was of course by air, and the RAF entered in a fit of patriotic fervour - but also to show off that its new jets could take off and land vertically.
With competitors also including the Royal Navy and civilian thrill-seekers like racing driver Stirling Moss, that capability would come in handy.
It meant the RAF team was able to, with special permission from the aviation authorities, fly down the railway line from Alexandra Palace to and from the abandoned coal yard behind St Pancras - importantly just 10 minutes down the Euston Road from the Post Office Tower.
And so Squadron Leader Tom Lecky-Thompson took off from St Pancras that Monday.
After refuelling in the air 11 times, he made it to New York and landed on a site near the East River in just six hours 11 minutes.
This was the fastest time for the London-to-New York journey and bagged the RAF £6,000.
Sq Ldr Lecky-Thompson's counterpart in New York, Graham Williams - who rose to the rank of Air Vice-Marshal - was pipped by the Royal Navy on the return leg.
Ritchie Stephen, who was a member of the RAF's ground team at St Pancras having been seconded from RAF Tangmere, told this newspaper what he remembered about the operation.
"Within an hour of arrival in St Pancras, we had come to an arrangement with the landlord of the pub at the foot of the access ramp [to the coal yard] so that we could use shower and toilet facilities above the pub in exchange for encouraging detachment staff and the press to utilise his premises," Ritchie said.
He explained that for the RAF staff, getting to see the bright lights of London was a novelty, but the dust and smoke for neighbours in Somers Town was perhaps less welcome.
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He went on: "High pressure hoses were used to spray the yard, as there appeared to be about six inches of compressed coal dust covering the entire area.
"Needless to say, we were not the most pristine and shiny bright members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces."
But Ritchie remembers the operation to get Sq Ldr Lecky-Thompson to New York went without a hitch - almost.
He said: "Apart from Prince Charles slipping on the metal pad and landing on his arse, all went according to plan.
"When the time came for the Harrier to arrive at the site, there was a thick fog over the yard and visibility was down to about 100 metres or less.
"Because I was, at the time, of a slight build, I was positioned on top of a communications caravan with an enormous strobe lamp and hooked up to the air traffic system.
"My purpose was to point the lamp in the direction of the approaching harrier, until the pilot had a visual on the landing pad."
Luckily, Sq Ldr Lecky Thompson was able to manoeuvre his jet despite the visibility - though Ritchie said that, as locals were advised to keep the windows open to stop shattering, the avalanche of coal dust was not well-received.
David Coxon has curated an exhibition about the race at the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum in West Sussex.
He explained that the flights had to be carefully timed. saying: "They had to agree not to fly on the Sundays, and then they had to follow very particular routes for the safety of the public."
The pilots were reunited at Tangmere - where the second jet is kept - in April.
David told the Ham&High about that day in 1969. He said: "Tom had arrived in New York, and Graham was waiting to leave.
"They were in Brooklyn one evening when they saw on the TV that the QEII liner was arriving in New York for the first time.
"They decided to fly the Harriers either side of the bridge of the QEII - they said they didn't ask permission because they knew it'd be denied.
"But it was such a success that when they asked later a commanding officer had said he'd signed it off!"