The so called Hawker Hunter Tower Bridge incident occurred on Apr. 5, 1968 when Royal Air Force (RAF) Hunter pilot Alan Pollock performed unauthorised low flying over several London landmarks and then flew through the span of Tower Bridge on the Thames. His actions were to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the RAF and as a demonstration against the Ministry of Defence) for not celebrating it.
His flight left the soon-to-be-closed RAF Tangmere in Sussex to return to RAF West Raynham in Norfolk, a route that took them over London. Immediately after takeoff, Pollock left the flight and flew low level.
Having “beaten up”Dunsfold Aerodrome (Hawker’s home airfield), he then took his Hawker Hunter FGA.9 (XF442), a single-seater, ground-attack jet fighter, over London at a low level, circled the Houses of Parliament three times as a demonstration against Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government, dipped his wings over the Royal Air Force Memorial on the Embankment and finally flew under the top span of Tower Bridge. He later wrote of the decision to fly through Tower Bridge:
Until this very instant I’d had absolutely no idea that, of course, Tower Bridge would be there. It was easy enough to fly over it, but the idea of flying through the spans suddenly struck me. I had just ten seconds to grapple with the seductive proposition which few ground attack pilots of any nationality could have resisted. My brain started racing to reach a decision. Years of fast low-level strike flying made the decision simple . . .
Knowing that he was likely to be stripped of his flying status as a result of this display, he proceeded to “beat up” several airfields (Wattisham, Lakenheath and Marham) in inverted flight at an altitude of about 200 feet en route to his base at RAF West Raynham, where, within the hour, he was formally arrested by Flying Officer Roger Gilpin.
Although other pilots had flown under the upper span of Tower Bridge, Pollock was the first to do so in a jet aircraft.
Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock
Thirty-two-year-old Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock was one of those pilots. He had joined the RAF in 1953 and had risen through the ranks, gaining experience in aircraft including de Havilland’s Vampire jet fighter and its successor the Venom.
He had served in Germany and the Middle East and as an aide-de-camp to Air Marshal Sir Humphrey Edwardes-Jones during his time as Nato Air Commander.
Alan loved the RAF and felt its 50th anniversary should be celebrated with a flypast over London. There had been an official dinner and a few parades — but no flypast. This, he felt, was a terrible slight.
He was serving at the time in No. 1 Squadron. This is the RAF’s oldest unit and as such he believed it had a responsibility to take the lead in ensuring the half-centenary was celebrated properly.
Hawker Hunter Tower Bridge incident
On April 4, Alan and three other Hunter pilots from his squadron had flown from their base at West Raynham in Norfolk to RAF Tangmere in Sussex, the former home of No. 1 Squadron, where they were helping to celebrate the base being given the freedom of the city of Chichester. He decided that the following day, on their way back, he would make a detour over the capital.
Soon after the Hunters took off on the morning of April 5, Alan slipped away from the others.
By tapping out coded messages using the transmitter button on his radio, he told his colleagues he had lost visual contact and that he was having problems maintaining spoken communication.
All Alan had with him for reference was a borrowed AA map, on which he had marked a route across London. Within a few minutes and keeping low to avoid commercial air traffic, he reached Heathrow Airport where he turned right and headed for Richmond Park and then the Thames.
Flying over the river would be the safest and quietest route through the capital. ‘I went over the Thames because I didn’t want to cause any trouble,’ Alan says.
It was at this point that he set a new course for the very centre of London and the Houses of Parliament. By this stage, Alan was flying the Hunter so low that people looking out of the sixth-floor windows at the Ministry of Defence building had to look down, not up, to see it!
A quick wing-waggle by way of a salute over the RAF memorial near Whitehall and it was time to head back down the Thames and home.
The jet passed low and fast over Hungerford, Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges and then Alan looked up and saw the majestic site of Tower Bridge ahead.
At the speed he was flying, he only had seconds to decide whether or not to fly between the car deck and upper span. He decided to fly straight through it.
A quick beat-up of the airbases at Wattisham, Lakenhall and Mildenhall and it was time to land back at RAF West Raynham to face the music…
The top brass weren’t exactly overjoyed at Alan’s efforts but also weren’t too sure what to do with him.
It was Alan’s own suggestion that maybe they ought to start by arresting him, which they promptly did.
In the aftermath, Alan received hundreds of letters of support from the public, his fellow RAF colleagues and even a barrel of beer from the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) airline, the predecessor of British Airways.
Alan was eventually given a medical discharge from the RAF instead of a court-martial, possibly to prevent him having the opportunity to publicly explain that his actions were due to cuts to the Air Force and the lack of RAF 50th celebrations.
He went on to a successful business career.
He remains one of only five people to fly under Tower Bridge and the only one to do it in a jet – a number which is highly unlikely to ever increase.