THE Borders was just a quarter of a second away from a major air disaster, that could potentially have seen hundreds killed on the ground as a result, investigators have revealed.
Two RAF Tornado fighter bombers screamed passed each other at a combined speed of more than 1,000mph and avoided collision by just 60 metres in the night skies just south-east of Galashiels on September 8, after both pilots failed to spot one another.
In its most recent report, the UK Airprox Board, gave the incident its highest risk rating of A, meaning an actual risk of collision existed.
The two aircraft, flying at just 600ft, only narrowly avoided colliding after one of them had flown into the area two minutes before its allotted time.
One jet crossed the path of the other at the same altitude and just 60 metres – or a quarter of a second – ahead.
The first of the Tornado two-seater GR4s was on a solo night flying training exercise. The jet had just descended from 12,000ft to just 600ft, when the crew felt the wake turbulence from another aircraft after it crossed in front of them at very close range.
Although he did not see the other jet, the pilot of the first Tornado later assessed the risk of collision as having been “very high”.
Neither of the crew of the second Tornado, which was on a ‘night familiarisation’ training flight, spotted the other aircraft and only found out about their close brush with disaster after returning to base.
News of the incident only became public this week after the release of the board’s report. It saw staff of the emergency planning department at Scottish Borders Council breathe a collective sigh of relief.
The emergency team had staged a training exercise involving upwards of 60 staff just a few weeks after the incident – which they were unaware of at the time – and which was designed to simulate the aftermath of an imaginary incident in which two jets collide, scattering debris over Hawick.
Emergency Planning Officer Jim Fraser said news of September’s near-miss had made the lessons of the autumn exercise even more valuable.
“What happened over Galashiels on September 8 shows that this could be a reality. Our exercise planned for perhaps half a dozen fatalities and casualties but if these aircraft had collided at night over Galashiels that figure could have been much greater, given that most people would have been in their houses at that time of night.
“News of this incident has made things much more realistic for those involved in the training exercise. God forbid something like that actually ever happens, but if it does, our staff now know exactly what they will need to do.”
Local Lib Dem MSP for the Galashiels area, Jeremy Purvis, commented: “When lives are at risk, it is of paramount importance that the facts surrounding this incident are learnt from, to ensure it is not repeated.”
And local SNP MSP Christine Grahame wants a review of all low-flying air operations in the Borders.
“The RAF has access to numerous low-level tactical flying areas around the world with much sparser populations than the Scottish Borders,” she said.
“This latest near miss should act as a wake-up call that the time for these kinds of extreme low level flying operations in the Borders should come to an end. There is no economic or other benefit to the area of having them, but clearly a significant risk to local people.”
However, John Gilbert, the RAF’s community liaison officer for Scotland and the north-east of England, says that while such flying training is, by its very nature, inherently risky, there are strict measures in place to keep that risk to an absolute minimum.
“The fact that it is the pilots themselves who report such incidents shows how seriously the RAF takes them,” he said. “Pilots are not a bunch of cowboys, as some people seem to think, but thorough professionals.”