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
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