Letter from Freddie Wimbledon to Dr. David Clarke, 9 April 2001
Thank you for your letter and enclosures. I will try to deal with the points you raise.
With regard to the Sector Controller contacting Lakenheath prior to contacting Neatishead, this is most unusual and raises another query, in fact, a completely new scenario.
Seeing that the U2 was at Lakenheath with members of the CIA, is it not reasonable to expect a higher USAF authority, having been alerted by Lakenheath which, after all, was the RATCC (Regional Air Traffic Control Centre) to themselves contact the nearest RAF Higher Authority, viz Eastern Sector HQ?
This might have coincided with my own request from Neatishead for an investigation by interception - in other words a scramble. In which case the Sector Controller having briefed the pilot by telephone (attached to the aircraft) could also have told the pilot to contact Lakenheath which would be in R/T range. Unusual, even unorthodox, but nevertheless under the circumstances prevailing a decision the sector Controller could be justified in making. The Venom pilot would already know Lakenheath’s frequency as it was one of the pre-set knobs on his R/T panel. Might it not possibly be thought by the Sector Controller that he might as well tell Lakenheath which channel the interception by Neatishead would be carried out?
This throws into confusion my theory that Perkins the NCO at Lakenheath RATCC had “trawled the frequency.” Until now I never knew Sector had contacted Lakenheath! It also explains why I thought an American voice had “butted in.”
Lakenheath had a GCA (Ground Control Approach) and was also a Regional Air Traffic Control Centre (RATCC) which is now a joint civil and military organisation. It can never be a GCI. There are no specialised Fighter Controllers on its staff, and its Radar equipment (then) consisted of an FPS-5 which had poor range resolution at low altitude, slow RPM (4) a range of o nly seven miles and no height information. No wonder the aircrew could make no sense of the direction they were being given.
At the risk of seeming to teach my grandmother to suck eggs, I would point out the different functions of a Sector and a n RATCC.
Sector had no R/T or radar. Its picture of the air situation was obtained by overlooking a large horizontal map on which small plaques showing aircraft details moved around by plotters (airmen or waafs) who would be receiving information, by headphones from Control and Reporting centres, GCIs, airfields etc. Sifted info would passed from each Sector to an even longer horizontal map at Fighter Command.
The country was (and is) divided into RATCC’s to which aircraft “check in” when flying over different areas. With the complexity of saturated air space and ever increasing speeds it is no wonder the new Air Traffic Control System is 6 years overdue and does not yet work!
I am quite prepared not to argue with the aircrews regarding the use of the code word “Judy” after reading about the difficulties they were experiencing. I admit I sometimes had doubts myself. This incident occurred in 1956. I had never even thought about it until alerted by an article in the Sunday Times in 1978.
I suppose in my time I completed several hundred interceptions. It was for me an admission of personal professional failure if I didn’t finish with a “Judy” ! My record I think speaks for itself as not long after the “Lakenheath Incident” I was posted to the school of Fighter Control as an Interception Instructor. After three years there I was posted to a small Examining Team to examine the operational efficiency of Fighter Controllers here and abroad as we were invited by several overseas Air Forces, eg Germany, Malaysia, Middle East areas, Australia, etc.
Now, as for the visit by the Senior Officer from Fighter Command, this was quite informal. He thought it quite adequate to ask questions togethers from myself and the four members of the one team who carried out the interception under my supervision. He made a few notes, then dismissed us but stressed we were not to discuss the incident with anyone at all. He said he would be meeting the aircrew but apparently did not do so.
I cannot see what would be of any use “collecting” yet another name so decline to involve the Air Commodore whom I see from time to time.
I have already given my comments on the Radar idiosyncrasies of East Anglia, AP, etc. I also mentioned that with hindsight when the “blips” changed position as it were on the scope, we at first imagined the target had got behind the Venom when in fact the Venom undershot the target, later confirmed by the pilot’s account.
It was Fighter Command policy at that time for Fighter Control Officers to fly with one of the aircraft carrying out practice interceptions to familiarise themselves with the procedures and listen to their colleagues R/T instructions from the ground and the Nav/Rad difficulties in the space provided.
I had learnt to fly at Reading Aero Club just before the war and was bitterly disappointed when, as I told you, I was turned down medically after joining the RAF. As it happened sometimes, instead of going up in a Venom, a Vampire T11 would be used in which case I often pursuaded the pilot to let me fly the aircraft. Highly irregular of course but great fun and aerobatically superb.
I would think now we have a full and accurate idea of what really happened. There was so much happening unbeknown to other participants or onlookers. I still cannot accept the balloon idea because of what I had earlier followed on my radar. There was something capable of very high speeds, ability to stop suddenly and move off suddenly. There have been so many versions it is very difficult but didn’t one report say that Bentwaters reported that something was “buzzing” their circuit? Weather balloons cannot “buzz”. Them too, when it decided to go it went up rapidly to the North East and just disappeared beyond the range of our radar.
Something that has always puzzled me is why no officer was present at the RATCC during the whole episode. Did higher USAF authority really on information from a Sergeant? This NCO wrote to (here you have the name in all the bumph I sent to Jenny) but I never saw or heard of any reaction from USAF Higher Authority. Was there any? Perkins wrote his letter in 1968 hence the garbled and 90 percent fictitious version which was released in 1978 but it had been taken off the Secret List in 1969. If you go carefully through the copies of the correspondence between Thayer, McDonald et al I sent to Jenny you will read they named a Captain so and so who signed the report as accurate although he wasn’t there!
Surely if higher authority USAF had thought something important was happening an officer would have been told to report and supervise events. From my own experience of working with Americans they can never improvise or act unless it is laid down in print.
All for now.