2010 Articles

JAN 05 2010
208 Sqn at RAF Valley - A day in the life.

It's 0740 on Wednesday 16th December, and we're sitting outside the Guardroom at RAF Valley waiting for Flt Lt Tom Saunders to arrive and collect us for our day with 208 Squadron. It's still pretty dark outside, but a short distance away, just beyond the Hawker Hunter which stands proudly at the Station's entrance, we can see a line-up of BAE Hawks being prepared for a busy day's flying, and a constant stream of traffic passes us as we wait for Tom; this is clearly a very busy base. It is also one steeped in history as every single fast jet pilot in the RAF and Royal Navy has passed through Valley, and, with 4FTS (Flying Training School) celebrating its 50th Anniversary in 2010, that's a lot of aircrew who know this place very well indeed.

Tom greets us and we're shown inside so that our security passes can be issued, after which we follow him through the main gate and round a maze of roads until we reach the parking area reserved for 208 Sqn. A short walk later and we find ourselves inside the Squadron building.

Having been selected as the 2010 RAF Hawk display pilot, Tom is based in the office reserved for the team fulfilling that role; this is our first port of call and somewhere we can dump our coats and bags for the duration of the visit. Here we meet Flt Lt Phil Wilkinson who will be looking after public relations for the 2010 display, and is, like Tom, a "Creamie"; a pilot whose first role in the RAF after completing the 208 course at Valley is as an instructor with the same unit - the name coming from the tradition of the best pilots being 'creamed off' and chosen to instruct. Both Tom and "Wilky" will be heading down the flightline when they finish on 208 to complete the Tactical Weapons Unit course with 19 Sqn before moving on to a first operational tour.

Introductions complete, it's off to the crewroom to meet the all-important coffee machine, and, drinks safely in hand, Tom tells us a little more about the Squadron before we head off to the met brief at 0815.

"The guys you see here are all students," says Tom, gesturing towards the group of lads lounging on the comfy chairs as only pilots can do.

"We graduated a course last Friday and there are usually two or three courses ongoing simultaneously, with each one at a different stage. So some of these students might be a fair way in, some might be approaching their solo and the others might still be on ground school.

"These students have all come here from Linton on Ouse and the Tucano, before that the Tutor or the Firefly, so while the jump to a jet trainer is an important one, the learning curve is probably not as steep as you might assume. It's actually probably a steeper learning curve when they go from Tutor to Tucano for example."

That doesn't mean that successfully completing training at Valley is a foregone conclusion, far from it, and many will stumble at the hurdles presented by the 208 Squadron course which lasts 28 weeks and encompasses some 70 hours of flying. The students here have already been streamed as suitable for fast jet, a different approach from days gone by when they would actually be streamed at a later point in the training pipeline, but that doesn't mean that all are immediately destined for fast jet OCUs (Operational Conversion Units) should they pass the 208 and 19 Squadron courses; the TWU comprises another 16 weeks and 45 hours of flying incidentally.

"Most students who pass the course will progress to the Typhoon, Harrier and Tornado GR.4 OCUs, but we have recently sent the first 208 Sqn graduates to the Reaper UAV," explains Tom.

"That's not the lesser option that you might think it is as it means two years in Las Vegas where they can gain a rounded knowledge of air warfare, and they also have a guaranteed place on the TW course at 19 Sqn when they complete the Reaper posting."

While I might be the wrong side of 35 I feel practically ancient looking around me at the students and 'some' of the staff (not all of them I hasten to add!). In a sense it's nice to see the reality that so many young men and women still aspire to fly in the RAF and this is a highly motivated bunch of people. The crewroom itself is spacious and dominated by a rest area with the aforementioned comfy seating, and there is also a mini-kitchen for making drinks and snacks, the staff and students' personal lockers and also a couple of PCs which students can use for planning and checking the day's flying schedule. The flying schedule is also duplicated on a large flat screen monitor which updates 'as live', more of which later.

Tom leads us in to the Squadron's main briefing room just down the corridor, and we sit down in a couple of spare seats as the twenty or so staff and students pile in for the traditional time hack at precisely 0815 - led as usual by the day's designated Duty Student. An earlier met brief is held every day which would be attended by any crews flying at the crack of dawn but for most this is their first look at the weather for the day and how it might affect their planned sorties. As comprehensive as you would expect, the Met Man covers not just conditions at RAF Valley but also diversionary airfields and the LFAs (low flying areas) that some of the students may be planning to use later in the day, in this case Scotland being pinpointed as the most useable, with Wales sitting under a blanket of fairly stubborn cloud cover and rain showers.

Met briefing complete, NOTAMS and any Royal Flights are covered while the group then listen to the daily recce brief, with the Su-27 being covered on this particular day, before Wilky stands and covers a specific emergency to check that the students know the correct drills and procedures for dealing with the problem. In this instance it's a hypothetical recovery to Valley with comms (radio) failure and, with one or two minor provisos, it is swiftly dealt with by the student Wilky picks out. All that is left is to introduce GAR to let everyone know we're around for the day and it's time to move on to the business of learning how to fly fast jets. It's only 0830 and we seem to have covered a lot of ground already.

Tom gives us a brief tour of the building's first floor and then, with the rising sun attempting to break through the lowest layer of cloud, we head outside to the 208 flightline and also in to the adjacent hangar. Sitting quietly inside is the newest addition to the RAF's training inventory - a BAE Hawk T.2, the aircraft that will replace the venerable T.1s, T.1Ws and T.1As which have already served the RAF so well for more than 30 years. It's a larger aircraft, a little longer and a little heavier which, despite a more powerful Rolls Royce engine, means that its performance is almost identical to the aircraft it will replace. Inside the cockpit however, the differences couldn't be more marked. A 'glass cockpit' with advanced navigation and simulated weapons systems mean that the T.2 is far better equipped to train aircrew for the Typhoon, Harrier and eventually, Joint Strike Fighter, that they will progress to operationally. Currently being evaluated by instructors from 19 Squadron, the Valley training syllabus is being rewritten to reflect this new technology with students expected to train in the T.2 for the first time in 2011. 208 Squadron will continue to train pilots on the T.1 but on a shorter modified syllabus which will act as a bridging course between the Basic Fast Jet trainer and the new Hawk T.2.

As Karl takes advantage of the lovely morning light and snaps away I talk to Tom about some of the pitfalls for students and where they are most likely to fail on the 208 Squadron course.

"The first thing I must say is that our job (as instructors) is not to chop students, our job is to help them pass the course if they are able to do so. That means that any student falling behind, failing a sortie for example, is given a package of extra training to identify their difficulties and allow them to progress. Every single sortie is debriefed and written up in full so everyone can keep track of how individual students are doing and their own strengths and weaknesses."

This also applies when students arrive at Valley as they will do so with a complete report from their previous course at Linton which helps instructors like Tom to pre-assess areas where perhaps they would expect them to do well or those where they may struggle.

"Assimilating information is probably the toughest thing. It's one thing to fly the aircraft, and another to navigate and arrive on target and on time. Delivering weapons and engaging in air to air combat are other skills that must be learned, and if that's not enough, well, once you're able to do that as a single aircraft, you have to be able to do it when leading a two, three or four-ship formation. You're the leader and to some extent your colleagues are completely reliant on you. It's a vast amount of information to take in and prioritise - some people just can't do that."

Students' capacity is graded on a matrix after every sortie and Tom confirms that they can teach students ways in which to improve this vital skill, sometimes with an additional package of hours and therefore extra instruction. For some though, the ability to fly and fight leading a formation of aircraft will prove insurmountable and it will be recommended that they train for a different role.

Once we're back inside the warmth of Tom's office he shows us some of the admin that goes with being an instructor and the computer software which allows them to complete reports on students and their sorties. He also shows us the screens which illustrate the day's flying schedule in more detail, with each block representing a planned sortie and showing the name of the student, instructor (where applicable), the unique code given to that sortie within the syllabus, departure time and the planned length of the trip. This means that generally speaking anyone can see where anyone else is at any given time and what they should be doing, whether it is flight planning, flying, debriefing or in the simulator and so on. We also take the opportunity to have a look at next year's Hawk display scheme, and Tom shows us some in-cockpit footage from a high altitude display practice - most impressive and I can vouch for the fact that it looks like hard work from the inside!

Our next destination is one we've been particularly looking forward to - the Hawk simulator, or the Synthetic Training Facility to give it its correct name. Tom has booked a 60 minute slot from 1030 in order to practice his display so, after grabbing his flying equipment from downstairs, we jump in the car and drive the short distance to the large building where the complex is housed. Upstairs we meet the contractors who run this vital training element at RAF Valley, most of them are former RAF F-4 Phantom pilots, and it is Bill Burgiss who will be looking after Tom, and us, for this session.

As Tom heads down to the dome in which the simulator itself lives, we follow Bill in to the control room where he pulls up some extra chairs and plugs in additional headsets so that we can hear as well as see what is going on. In front of us is a large console made up mainly of monitors displaying a wide array of information; everything from computer generated imagery of the Hawk's instruments, one showing switch positions, another giving a graphical representation of the aircraft from external views which can be adjusted by way of a joystick on the console. Others are live feeds from cameras inside the sim with one looking back towards the pilot, we can see Tom strapping in, and another looking over his shoulder. Perhaps most importantly is the control panel which allows Bill to position the aircraft, choose the weather, turn on runway lights and, giving a hint of what was to come, select faults and emergencies for the pilot to deal with it. Despite being ten years old this sim cost as much, if not more, than the real thing and with 208's students spending in the region of 70 hours training synthetically, they'll spend just as long in here as they do in the real thing as well.

Tom has asked for some emergencies to be thrown in while he's practising his display as he'll need ticks in the right boxes as he heads towards his PDA (Public Display Authorisation) next year, and, while he takes off and positions for the beginning of his first practice, Bill is busy choosing what to give him to deal with and is lining them up so they are ready to activate at the push of a button. A spurious generator failure is the first one, a favourite of Bill's and one he likes to try out on the Red Arrows when they come to Valley to fly the sim, and this is followed over the course of Tom's two practices by an undercarriage failure, an engine failure caused by a bird strike and an uncontrollable fire, all of which Tom deals with, albeit by ejecting in a safe area away from the crowd when it comes to the latter. You actually have to pull the handle incidentally - but you don't disappear through the top of the dome!

"Obviously there are many risks associated with flying low level aerobatics but these are all safely mitigated by very strict rules, procedures and lots of practice," he says later.

"Of course I have to be prepared for any eventuality and in the very worst scenario I need to show that I can ensure the aircraft is pointing away from the crowd and eject so that it doesn't endanger the lives of anyone watching the display."

Even in the sim, kitted out as he is in helmet and g-suit (which inflates just like it does in the aircraft), we can hear that flying the display is a strenuous activity as Tom's own breathing is clearly audible through our headsets. This is not the time to be revealing too much about his sequence for next season, however, suffice to say that it includes one or two surprises, and anyway, we are about to try out the sim ourselves. Bill leads us downstairs to the dome where Tom has climbed out and makes way for us to have a go in the time remaining. Tom helps me get in, shows me how to adjust the rudder pedals and goes through the basics.

It's all very recognisable from flying on a home PC at this point, but once Bill has positioned the aircraft at the end of Valley's runway then the similarities come to an abrupt end. Holding the Hawk at full power against the toe brakes the whole thing feels like it is vibrating through the stick which has been designed to give the pilot 'forced feedback' if you like - important in the absence of any simulated gravitational forces. Brakes off and I weave hilariously down the runway while trying to get a feel for the rudder pedals, just about managing to straighten-up when it's time to rotate, and I fly out, cleaning up the gear and flaps. It is the most exhilarating experience. While the sim is fixed and there is no physical movement, the scenery projected on to the dome means that you are given an extraordinary field of view and a true sense of being airborne. With the whole world rotating around you, the illusion of course is that you are indeed moving, so it matters little that the sim itself is planted firmly to the ground.

Tom shows me how to trim the aircraft using the button on top of the stick, something that will cause me some grief later much to everyone's amusement, but first I head towards the Menai Bridge and an attempt to fly underneath it like a big kid (not something pilots would normally do!). I nearly make it, though there is a significant jolt which indicates that I have probably left my tail-fin behind (Karl did exactly the same by the way!), but I then pull the aircraft sharply round and head north for a few minutes low flying, with a nice 7g turn thrown in for good measure. Pulling up vertically to 15,000ft for a return to Valley the dome comes in to its own as I look back over my head and see Anglesey sprawled behind me, spectacular, even as my airspeed decays to 50 kts! That soon becomes 500 kts on the way back and Tom sets me up for a run and break to land.

The run is fine, though the break is messy and it is looking like the widest circuit of all time until, attempting to get things back on track, I slowly and steadily pile in to the ground, seemingly unable to do anything about it and despite pulling as hard as I can. Just for the record, I'm still blaming my over exuberant and ill-advised trimming, or possibly an unforeseen technical issue! When the laughter finally subsides, Bill sets me up downwind and despite flying a perfect approach I may have taken Tom's statement that "there's no need to flare as such" a little too literally and land, some would say crashed, quite heavily on the piano keys. Naturally I'm devastated, until Bill informs me of a glitch with the computer which does cause this to happen on that runway; thanks Bill, I'll go along with that!

Anyway, Karl is up next and flies a perfect 'sortie' although as he bounces down the runway on touchdown Bill remarks that he has actually landed about seven times. Unable to locate the toe brakes it does look as if Karl is going to take the barrier at one point, but he eventually grinds to a halt with a huge grin on his face. A superb experience all round and one that illustrated very well the huge usefulness of this training facility - even though I'll never be allowed to forget my two incidents!

After lunch we are fortunate enough to visit the Air Traffic Control Tower and one of their drivers offers to take us out to the runway caravan to watch and photograph some of the movements for half an hour or so. This, typically, coincides with the worst of the weather, but in just thirty minutes we see a number of both Hawk T.1 and T.2s either departing or bashing the circuit, and on our return we pull off adjacent to the taxiway to allow a T.2 to pass as it heads for the runway. A nice opportunity for more photos, even though circumstances dictate that we take them through the Land Rover's open windows.

With the weather looking rather overcast at this stage of the afternoon, Tom's plan to fly a practice display over the airfield, albeit at altitude, is canned and instead, a training sortie with one of his students is brought forward. This gives us a unique opportunity to follow the sortie from briefing through to its conclusion, and this process begins with a one on one briefing to which we are invited to attend.

The student, Ant, is due to go on his first fast jet solo on the sortie following this one so this is essentially for Tom to clear him as being safe to go for that landmark, most probably the following day. The plan is take off, practice a heavyweight landing to simulate a problem straight after departure and then head away from Valley for a circuit of Anglesey itself before returning to the circuit via some approaches at Mona, Valley's relief landing field just a few minutes flying time away. Tom leaves Ant in no doubt as to what he is looking for him to achieve, notably for him to take the lead from the word go, employ good general handling, a proper lookout and for a confident session in the circuit when they return to base. Sortie duration will be approximately 60 minutes and should provide Ant with a solid workout to enable him to go solo.

We troop downstairs to the aircrew equipment area where Tom takes the time to explain what the aircrew must wear for any sortie at this time of year. Whenever the UK water temperature drops below 10 degrees then wearing an immersion suit is stipulated for, in the case of an ejection over the sea, it could easily mean the difference between life and death. It is basically a one-piece rubberised suit that is worn over the normal aircrew coveralls with rubber seals around the neck and wrists and over the feet. So that means it's boots off and immersion suit on (at which point the boots can be laced up once again) and we watch as Tom struggles into the suit, his head finally popping through the airtight rubber seal.

Next is the g-suit which fits around the waist and legs and then plugs into the Hawk's air conditioning system. It will automatically inflate when the aircraft pulls 'g' and stops all the blood flowing away from the brain, which could cause a pilot to lose consciousness or 'blackout' as it is more commonly referred. It's surprising how heavy they are, although Tom concedes that his pockets are full of manuals and other paraphernalia but still, you can see where that fighter pilot swagger comes from! Next is the life preserver or Mae West as it would traditionally be called - another significantly weighty item and full of kit to help a pilot survive should they be forced to part company with their aircraft. Tom grabs his helmet and although this doesn't feel too heavy he reminds us that its weight will of course vary according to the amount of g being pulled - so at 8g everything weighs eight times what it does at 1g, something that goes a long way to explaining why fighter pilots develop such large neck muscles. Finally the outfit is topped off by a pair of RAF standard chamois leather flying gloves.

We move in to the next room which is where the pilots begin the two stage process of out-briefing, only after which can they actually walk to the aircraft. Firstly the duty pilot, a job which all the instructors fulfil as part of their routine, needs to authorise the sortie, and Tom explains their plan and what he is expecting Ant to do. Duly authorised, Ant checks the latest weather and which aircraft they will be flying, taking down the aircraft's folder from the wall so that any glitches can be checked and the Form 700 signed by the pilot in command. This folder then goes back on a separate shelf, simply as this makes it easier to see which aircraft are are on the line and which are flying. We're ready to walk.

It's a short stroll out to Tom and Ant's aircraft for this trip, and their walk-around takes just a few minutes, with Tom pointing out one or two items of note to Ant along the way. Time to strap in and it's a relatively speedy process in the Hawk; ten minutes or so later the engine is started and they're ready to taxi, rolling past us with a wave.

Ninety minutes or so later we reconvene in the crewroom. It's getting dark outside, and, once again clutching hot drinks, we ask how it went.

"It was a good trip, he did well," says Tom.

"Weather permitting he should go solo tomorrow, no problems at all."

For his part, Ant greets us with a smile; he enjoyed it and is clearly excited at the prospect of a solo in the Hawk tomorrow. Another milestone ticked in the long and arduous path towards qualifying as a fast jet pilot. It's what RAF Valley is all about, has been about for the last 50 years and will continue to do for the foreseeable future. It was a privilege to spend some time with 208 Squadron, and I hope this feature has given at least some insight into what goes on at this most vital of RAF stations. We'll be back here in 2010 to take a closer look at Tom's forthcoming display season and maybe, just maybe, to have another crack in the sim.

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2010-05-04 - Gareth Stringer
Hi Paul

We'd love to do something on the TMk2 if invited - it's on the hit list for a future visit.

The comment re my 7g turn stands as I was in the sim - not the real thing unfortunately!



2010-05-04 - Paul Heasman
Great article, but you should have popped over and had a chat with us on the TMk2 Flight. '7g turn thrown in for good measure...' I thought the Pax rules restricted you to 4g?

Best regards,

Paul Heasman

2010-01-15 - Paul Forbes
Nice article guys.

2010-01-06 - Peter Fleetwood
I had already seen Gareth's photographs from the Valley visit elsewhere, but the article is so well written that it expands the photographs into a fascinating and fairly detailed look at a day in Valley life. Having spent many happy hours watching Hawks at Valley and in the mountains, it is good to get a realistic idea of the daily routine. I'm impressed but not surprised at the work there is to do and the rigourous nature of the training programme. The article has made me look forward to two things: the next day of Hawk-watching and the 2010 display with Tom.

2010-01-05 - Tom Saunders
Great Article from Gareth and the team. If you have any questions for us at Valley, our contact details can be found on our website, www.rafhawkdisplay.com

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