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Some Useful Royal Air Force Insights By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.






On this day seventy-nine years ago in 1940 Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of the Royal Air Force “The gratitude of every home in our Island goes out to the British airmen who are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”

Today’s Royal Air Force may look very different to the one that played such a pivotal role in defending us during the Battle of Britain but in terms of power and in what it can deliver it is second to none. Today’s Royal Air Force is engaged in no less than 15 individual missions, on four continents in 22 countries. It is a formidable force and one that the world and NATO looks up to.

With a need to be ready for deployment anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice, night and day, 24 hours a day x 365 days a year, the mission of the Royal Air Force is primarily to respond to threats, prevent conflict, observe and defend our skies and those of our dependent territories whilst at the same time, play the very significant role that we do within NATO. The work of the Royal Air Force embraces delivery of aid, working in partnership with our allies wherever appropriate and importantly, helping to combat cyber threats whilst also expanding its role in using and defending Space.

Important as the Typhoon and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft capability is we should not forget that the role of the Royal Air Force also embraces not only transport of equipment and troops but also the crucial ISTAR – Intelligence, Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance – role of which I will be writing on during September as I also will later that month in relation to excellence of combined 1V Squadron and 25 Squadron fast jet training activities at RAF Valley and that are a vital part of the MFTS programme. 

Another important role of the Royal Air Force is ‘presence’ and to that end having already displayed across a number of Canadian cities including Halifax and Ottawa last week the RAF Red Arrows are now providing fantastic displays across various US cities including Chicago, Boston, New York, The Hamptons, Washington DC and Niagara Falls, then back across the Canadian border to Toronto before moving back to the USA to display over Dayton Ohio, St Louis, Fort Worth/Dalla, Denver, Portland, Seattle before moving back through Canada to Vancouver and Victoria ahead of flying back to the USA and displaying over San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Rapid City. 

This nine-week 2019 RAF Red Arrows Aerobatic Team Tour is the largest that the team has ever undertaken in North America. For the record the North American Tour will involve twelve Red Arrows BAE Systems built Hawk T1 aircraft together with an RAF transport Airbus A400M aircraft, 108 people are involved in total including pilots, engineers and support staff. There will be 20 displays in North America and 98 separate ground engagements.

The RAF Red Arrows are a credit not only to the Royal Air Force and 22 Group but to the nation as a whole. We and I well know they are themselves, very proud of what they achieve and do.

ITV will tonight at 9pm show the first episode of the three part documentary ‘Fighter Pilot: The Real Top Gun’ series which has followed a trio of fighter pilot recruits as they attempt to become the ‘best of the best’ through training and eventually if they succeed, be selected to fly the RAF Typhoon and F-35 Lightning jets.

Whilst very much geared for a public TV audience as opposed to current military personnel, for those interested what follows is ITV’s own description of the series. I have not attempted to make factual corrections or additions:

‘Fighter Pilot: The Real Top Gun’  

This is the Oxford or Cambridge of fighter pilot training. It is not easy. Anytime someone takes their foot off the gas here, they will fail.” – ‘Puppy’, fighter pilot school boss

This new three-part documentary series follows a trio of fighter pilot recruits as they attempt to become the best of the best – to be selected to fly the RAF’s brand new F35 Lightning jet.

With exclusive access to the Royal Air Force’s brand new £100 million F35 fighter programme and to the Ministry of Defence’s fast jet recruitment process, this series goes inside the cockpit to bring viewers a vivid insight into the challenges faced by the men and women who aim to become the UK military’s top guns.

The series features a close-up perspective on those on the learning curve aiming to reach the top as well as on already qualified fighter pilots training to fly the massively advanced new F35 aircraft. With just a few months to get ready for the front line, their task is to be fitted up for space-age new suits and helmets, to learn how to steer with their feet – and to familiarise themselves with a jet that can avoid radar, hover, and land vertically.

With footage shot at the RAF’s academy in North Wales and at the F35 base in South Carolina, USA, the programme features Danielle, known as ‘Danners’, who is aiming to become one of only nine British female frontline pilots, former windsurfing instructor Sedge, and young dad Andy.

The trio are aiming to ultimately become F35 pilots if they make the grade – but if they fail, they face the reality that they may not get the chance to fly fast jets again. Narrated by Samantha Bond, this programme gives viewers a breath-taking cockpit-eye view of the recruits stepping into the danger zone aiming to achieve their dreams.

In the first episode, Andy and Sedge must sit their fast jet driving test at the fighter pilot base at RAF Valley in Anglesey. Until now both have only flown propeller planes. For Andy a combination of training and a secondment to the States has meant this has been a long time coming. He says: “Yeah, it’s a big moment. I’ve been waiting nine years in the RAF to get into a fast jet so it’s going to be good. I’ll let you know how I feel at the end of it.”

Before signing up Sedge was a self-confessed beach bum. He says: “I got into teaching windsurfing and thought I might just travel the world being a beach bum for a long time. I was definitely drifting. I didn’t really have a huge sense of purpose… At that point I just sat down and asked myself what it was I wanted to do with my life, and top of that list was naval fighter pilot. I didn’t ever make it to writing number two.”

Fighter school boss Puppy explains if the trainees were to make a mistake while in the cockpit, the consequences could be devastating. He says: “Before someone goes for a solo in a jet, that is a big step in their career. You need to know that that is going to be safe. Fast jets bite, and if you get it wrong, it can kill you.”

The school trains pilots for the RAF and the Royal Navy. Danielle, known as ‘Danners’, whose husband flies for a low-cost airline, is retraining to be a fighter pilot having previously flown Navy helicopters. Britain only has eight frontline female fighter pilots and ‘Danners’ is the schools only female student. She says: “I don’t see myself as the stereotypical kind of alpha-male fighter pilot. they’re very confident and very outgoing. That just hasn’t been me. I’ve always just been of the opinion of I’ll keep going until someone finds me out, until they realise actually that I’m the wrong person for this, I probably shouldn’t be here.”

Yet she is further on in her training than the others, and is sent out on a sortie to learn how to handle the jet at dangerous low heights and make it to a target on time. She is given a target that she’ll have to fly over exactly on time, with only a five-second margin of error. To make it there she’ll be flying at 500mph just 250ft from the ground – a height that is littered with hazards ‘Danners’ will have to work hard to avoid. 

Asked if there’s anything she’s most worried about, ‘Danners’ says: “Messing up. It’s like anything – when you want to do well in something, you’ve rehearsed it in your head. You’ve gone through it over and over again. And then you’re bound to make a mistake at some point. Everybody does.”

Four thousand miles away in South Carolina, the Lightning Force they want to join are learning how to fly the brand-new jet alongside their American allies. Their 617 squadron, otherwise known as the famous ‘Dambusters’, was first formed in the Second World War. Former Tornado jet pilot Bally is due to have his first experience in the £100million F35 jet, and is fitted with a new state-of-the-art helmet. He says: “In the Second World War when they started attaching other bits to your helmet, you’d have maybe had headphones or a microphone attached… [This helmet] can tell where you’re looking and so it knows not to project certain info in certain places, but for everything else you can see through the body of the aircraft. It’s cool.”

Once he’s in the cockpit, after a false start, Bally attempts his first ever vertical landing from a hover, which he explains requires supreme focus. He says: “The excitement comes before and afterwards maybe. In the middle when you are actually doing it, you focus on the task in hand and that’s what all the training is about so you can do that without succumbing to those feelings of excitement or nerves or whatever it may be.” 

(Commentary will appear only spasmodically throughout August)

CHW (London – 20th August 2019)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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