It is my first tour on Victor Alert as an aircraft commander. I’m paired with an experienced weapons systems officer (or ‘GIB’, ‘Guy in the Back’) who will, no doubt, give me lots of good advice if/when the klaxon goes off. Our job will then be to get airborne within five minutes, follow a predetermined (and meticulously planned and studied) route and deliver our sleek, shiny thermonuclear weapon with a very chic mahogany nosecone against a tactical target in southern Russia. We can expect to be tested once or twice a tour with a simulated scramble order which sends us sprinting to our steeds to await a valid launch message. We cannot enter the ‘No Lone Zone’ in which the nuke-loaded aircraft is housed without the other crew member. We can never start engines using the explosive cartridges fitted for that purpose until the two of us have authenticated such a message individually and compared the lengthy alphanumeric code inside the sealed ‘cookie’ we each have in our cockpits. There are armed security policemen at each HAS to ensure we do not violate any of the myriad rules governing handling of nuclear weapons. They are not, in this environment, impressed by the officers’ rank on our shoulders and they will use their weapons without hesitation if we are assessed to be infringing the deadly serious protocols under which we operate. As the only ‘FNG’ (‘F**** New Guy’) on this week’s alert team, I’m determined to perform flawlessly and, as we never know when the balloon could go up for real, I’m spending the day in an uncomfortable state of barely disguised exhilaration tempered with a deep abiding dread.
I don’t have long to wait……….