Ramstein, Germany - When an unknown aircraft flies towards Norways national airspace-border, Norwegian control and reporting personnel send out an alert. In less than 15 minutes, a Norwegian F-16 Fighting Falcon is up in the air ready to intercept the unknown aircraft.
Since 1961, many Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) missions for NATO with both the F-86K Saberjet, the F-104 Starfighter and the F-16 Fighting Falcon have taken place. Soon the F-35 Lightning ll will relieve the F-16 of its duties, but the intricate history of the F-16 will not be forgotten.
This light invention became the "The Norwegian Search-light" and was continued on the F16. Though on the F16 it's situated in front of the cockpit and not underneath the canopy as originally intended.
At the beginning of the QRA programme, mostly day-time flights were flown, but eventually they flew day and night. The darkness made it difficult for the pilots to see the planes next to them. Therefore, they mounted transverse lighting behind the pilot on the Starfighter. It was similar to a tractor light, and you could easily turn it on or off. Enabling the pilots to keep their wingmen visible when faced with dark conditions.
"This light invention became the Norwegian search-light and was continued on the F16. Though on the F16 it's situated in front of the cockpit and not underneath the canopy as originally intended," said Major Anders Utgård, head of the Norwegian Aviation Museum.
Two Starfighters in 1976. Photo: Gustav P. Jensen / The Royal Norwegian Armed Forces
The F-86K Saber gave the Air Force the opportunity to respond to border violations in the north. Photo Curtesy: The Royal Norwegian Air Force
Due to multiple instances in the 1950s of unknown aircraft near the northern borders, something had to be done. The Norwegian Intelligence Service registered a significant number of violations, but the Air Force was stumped due to a significant lack of radars and suitable fighter jets. Despite the fact that the F-84G Thunderjet that arrived in 1955 had radar sights, the system was so simple that the aircraft could not function as an all-weather fighter aircraft. This meant a limited ability to intercept other aircraft.
"In August 1960, the NATO-funded radar project in the north was complete, and with the all-weather fighter F-86K Sabre ready in Bodø, the Air Force was finally able to respond to border violations and Soviet military traffic outside northern Norway," said Colonel (retired) Per Erik Solli, former Executive Officer at Bodø Air Base.
NATO had similar plans. They wanted to establish a regional Air Policing system, a long-term project. Since Norway had to gain control of the border violations in Finnmark, the Air Force began with QRA in northern Norway in 1960. The following year a cooperation with NATO began.
In 1984, the number of QRA responses was the highest, with 544 unknown aircraft being intercepted. By comparison, less than 100 scrambles are flown annually nowadays. This amount plummeted in 1990. Col. Solli started flying in 1985, when activity was extremely high. They were scrambled quite often, but that was normal then.
Per Erik Solli has kept statistics on the QRA activity in Norway from 1970 to 2021. Photo curtesy: Royal Norwegian Air Force
We didn't know better. If you look at the numbers during the Cold War, it is far greater than any other European country. On my first QRA-alert shift, we intercepted 18 planes.
When the Starfighter arrived in 1967, it boosted the capability of the Air Force. Greater speed and longer range meant that the statistics on interceptions increased dramatically. The F-16, which arrived in 1980, had even better range, flight time and a radar system that made it better suited for QRA missions. The F-16 intercepted the most Soviet aircraft during the entire Cold War, of the three types of aircraft used.