Feel­ing sky high at the con­trols of an RAF Wit­ter­ing train­ing flight

Re­porter Kerry Coupe joins air base train­ing squadron flight with for­mer Red Ar­rows pi­lot

The Peterborough Evening Telegraph - - News -

When I got a phone call on a busy dead­line day in the news­room ask­ing if I wanted to fly in a RAF plane, I thought it was a joke.

It’s not ev­ery day you get op­por­tu­ni­ties like that, even work­ing for a news­pa­per. But just five days later I found my­self sit­ting in a train­ing room at RAF Wit­ter­ing, learn­ing how to para­chute out of the plane should the worst hap­pen and, sud­denly, the joke didn’t seem that funny any­more.

Af­ter the hour-long train­ing ses­sion, it was time to put on a green fly­ing suit, white gloves and a hel­met - com­plete with vi­sor, mi­cro­phone and head­phones in­side so I could com­mu­ni­cate with the pi­lot in­side the tiny but noisy Grob Tu­tor air­craft.

Luck­ily I was in the safe hands of Squadron Leader Ben Plank, com­mand­ing of­fi­cer of the Univer­sity of Lon­don Air Squadron. Part of the flight would be in for­ma­tion with Sqn Ldr Plank’s coun­ter­part from the Cam­bridge Univer­sity Air Squadron Rich Kel­lett, so a brief­ing fol­lowed be­tween the two of them which mostly went over my head.

I was warned I’d feel nau­seous and handed a sick bag to tuck into a pocket on my knee and then climbed into the cock­pit over the wing.

While I sat in the cock­pit star­ing at the nu­mer­ous di­als, clue­lessly, Sqn Ldr Plank flicks the switches and scans his eyes over themwith­amil­i­tary pre­ci­sion.

Sqn Ldr Plank is no stranger to the planes that are so af­fec­tion­ately associated with RAF Wit­ter­ing – the Har­rier – and he’s also a for­mer Red Ar­rows pi­lot, so the ner­vous­ness I an­tic­i­pated I’d feel as we tax­ied along the run­way is nowhere to be found.

It’s hard to make out the pi­lot’s voice a mong t he many com­ing from the ear­phones, both from the fol­low­ing plane car­ry­ing Sqn Ldr Kel­lett and the air traf­fic con­trol back at the base, and I mo­men­tar­ily won­der whether he can hear my ‘Yes I’m ok’ res sponses.

It’s a sunny bu ut hazy day so as we rise into the sky, you can clearly see Stam­ford be­low and the sur­round­ing vil­lages, as we head d to­wards a vast ex xpanse of wa­ter - Rut­land Wa­ter.

Of course, I ’ ve been t here ma any times but I’ve nevn er fully ap­pre­cia ated howhugeitisunti il I’m soar­ing above it.

Sqn Ldr Plankk tells mewe’re fly­ing at 3,000ft - the per­fect height to notn be a nui­sance to the resid dents be­low. “It’s not a noisy roar oar but it’sit s an in­ces­sant noise,” says SqnLdr Plank.

“Al­most like a hedge trim­mer go­ing all the time - we try to cause as lit­tle in­con­ve­nience as we can while still do­ing our job.”

The plane can go as high as 10,000ft but be­comes wob­blier and t here­fore more dif­fi­cult to con­trol, the high- er it flies.

Out­ofthewin­dowI­cansee Sqn Ldr Kel­lett, fly­ing al­most too close for com­fort. But as we break away, it’s time for the­fun­bit- aer­o­bat­ic­ma­noeu­vres, in­clud­ing a loop, a bar­rel roll and a half cuban.

Each time, you can feel the G-For­ce­push­ingy­ouin­toy­our seat an­dall of the manouevres are fol­lowed bya‘Arey­ouOK?’ But the ques­tion is al­ways fol­lowed­bya­nen­thu­si­as­tic‘YES’.

All too soon, it’s time to head back to RAF Wit­ter­ing - via Stam­forda­gain.

Sqn Ldr Plank, who lives in Stam­ford, points out Mor­risons and Sains­bury’ssu­per­mar­ket­sand of course, Burgh­ley Housenot too far awayfrom­thetown- as stun­ning as ever fromthe sky.

As we ar­rive back at the base, there’s just time to show me one last thing - a touc­hand-go.

Sqn Ldr Plank brings the plane in as if to land, the wheelsmeet­therun­way­briefly, and then we rise again - the aim to teach the pi­lots of the fu­ture how to land many times.

We cir­cle back round be­fore land­ing again, this time it’s for good and the pho­tog­ra­pher is wait­ing to greet me on the run­way.

Forme­thiswasaonce in a life­time op­por­tu­nity but for Sqn Ldrs Plank and Kel­lett, this is ev­ery­day life. Theyfly­up­tothree­time­sa­day for up to an hour at a time. Af­ter the Har­ri­ers were re­tired in De­cem­ber 2010, RAF Wit­ter­ing was re­ac­ti­vated as an ac­tive fly­ing base in 2014 be­fore the first Grob Tu­tors ar­rived at RAF Wit­ter­ing, the fol­low­ing April.

Since then they’ve be­come a fea­ture of the skies across Stam­ford, Peter­bor­ough and the sur­round­ing ar­eas.

The sta­tion, pri­mar­ily a lo­gisitics base, went through ex­ten­sive and t hor­ough prepa­ra­tions for the ar­rival of the new fly­ing s qu a d r o n s , start­ing with thereac

tiva- tion of the air­field and air traf­fic con­trol, through to the in­stal­la­tion of radar and the con­struc­tion of two new build­ings for the in­com­ing squadrons.

The role of the 15 Univer­sity Air Squadrons­basedacross the coun­try is to of­fer fly­ing train­ing to promis­ing undergraduate stu­dents and giv­ing them the chance to ex­pe­ri­encelifeintheRoy­alAirForce.

It’s no small task ei­ther - the RAFaim­store­cruit 30per cent of its in­take from these Univer­sity Air Squadrons so it’s im­per­a­tive to leave an im­pres­sion on these stu­dents.

It is un­usual, how­ever, for two Univer­sity Air Squadrons to be based at the same place but it’s clear from the ca­mared­erie be­tween the twosquadron­lead­er­sthat it can be mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial.

Ad­di­tion­ally, vol­un­teers - cur­rent and for­merRAFpi­lots- also run the 5 Air Ex­pe­ri­ence Flight from RAF Wit­ter­ing giv­ing air cadet­s­thechance to ex­pe­ri­ence fly­ing in these mi­cro­light planes, at least once a year.

And 16 Squadron, led by com­mand­ing of­fi­cer Carl Me­len, also make use of the Grob Tu­tors, pro­vid­ing 50 hours of fly­ing train­ing to fu­ture Royal Air Force pi­lots, in­clud­ing ba­sic skills, nav­i­ga­tion and air­craft han­dling skills.

I laugh as he tells me that it’s “un­lucky for some” trip 13 wherethe pi­lots get their first chance to fly alone.

Upon­com­ple­tion, suc­cess­ful pi­lots are­streamed­in­toad­vanced train­ing pro­grammes for fast jet or multi-en­gine planes.

The squadron is part of No 3 Fly­ing Train­ing School, an or­gan­i­sa­tion head­quar­ted at R A F C r a nw e l l , n e a r Sleaford, re­spon­si­ble for the fly­ing­train­ingofnovi­cepi­lots, not just from the air force but also from the navy and the army.

But they all started out in one of the tiny mi­cro­light planes that I got the chance to fly in.

Sqn Ldr Carl Me­len said: “The RAF flight train­ing is con­sid­ered to be world class and that is what we de­liver here at RAF Wit­ter­ing.”

Pic­tured inset above the con­trols in­side the cock­pit, and be­low,look­ing at the route the planes willill t take.k

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