RAF Odiham, Wednesday 14 September 2016 was notable for three of the four RAF Chinook squadrons as six months of complex planning came to fruition with a formation-training sortie conducted to commemorate the 100th anniversaries of 18(B), 27 and 28 Squadrons Royal Air Force. Tom Gibbons was at the home of the UK Chinook Force for GAR.
18(B) and 27 Squadrons, based at RAF Odiham, and 28 Squadron based at RAF Benson have, over the previous 18 months, each had one of their aircraft adorned with a special anniversary colour scheme to mark this significant milestone in their respective histories. With the first example of the three scheduled for an imminent return to the standard scheme worn by RAF Chinooks a plan was put together to capture all three aircraft together in a single sortie with the SERCO paint team who delivered the superbly finished articles to the squadrons invited to witness the occasion. James Littlejohn, Laura Middleton, Dominic Sosnierz, Ashley Saunders, Jim Aggiss and Kieran Barnett are all SERCO contractors with previous military experience scattered throughout the team with James, for example, having painted the 6 Sqn retirement Jaguars and some of the Harrier special tails during his time in the RAF.
The planning for the sortie was extremely complex and had been in progress for over six months. A couple of the provisionally planned days for the sortie had passed by for a number of reasons until the moons aligned and the 14th September became the nominated day. Responsibility for the overall project and formation lead on the day of the sortie sat with 27 Squadron whilst 18 Squadron backed up as deputy lead. Additionally 657 Squadron Army Air Corps was tasked by Joint Helicopter Command, at 27 Squadron’s request, to provide the Lynx AH.9 to act as a camera platform for the sortie, recording the occasion for posterity. Operational constraints, weather, aircraft and crew availability all played their part in adding to the complexities of executing the sortie whilst the engineering challenges associated with generating three specific airframes for the sortie were themselves immense and indicative of the level of effort expended throughout the project.
Whilst recording this historic milestone was a key driver, the sortie also provided the crews with an extremely valuable and unique training scenario. Complex formation flying planning and integration of dissimilar types into the same sortie (the aforementioned Lynx AH.9) were unusual aspects that had to be considered and contingencies planned for. The sortie plan also encompassed details such as route and formations to be flown and fuel burn with particularly robust attention being paid to the strict safety margins dictated by this unique sortie. All of the above were extensively and unusually briefed the previous day with the crews walking through each of the manoeuvres in the squadron hangar to ensure all had a firm grasp and clear understanding of the plan for the following day.
The 27 Squadron Project Officer (ProjO) talks through the sortie from departure from Odiham (ODI):
“[We departed] ODI, VFR south departure with climb to 4,000ft, once co-ordinated with Farnborough. Various serials [were] flown en-route to the Goodwood overhead. The Lynx time on station was clearly a lot tighter than the Chinooks’ so I had to plan to complete the majority of the medium/low level elements in two hours, all the while maintaining options if fuel burn rates necessitated and managing the time we devoted to trying to fly certain manoeuvres accurately. That made it rapid fire and very important to plan/brief the fine details so as not to waste time in the air when verbal fine tuning had to be clear and precise too. Judgement of angles and relative turn rates of the three aircraft relative to each other was key.
“The most complex breaks were flown on this leg. Like jets think about jet efflux, we have to stay out of each other’s wake turbulence (‘downwash’) but there is also zero room for error when breaking in various directions in close proximity to other helicopters. Unlike fixed wing aircraft, if we clip each other the results are inevitable. Our outward visibility is limited (not having a bubble canopy) so there’s a lot to think about and good CRM (Crew Resource Management) is vital. What the pilots can’t see, the crewmen need to communicate clearly and build a mental picture for them fast as things develop. This is great training in an unusual scenario and the bread and butter of SH (Support Helicopter) work.
“Once overhead Selsey Point we descended to the west, levelling just above 500ft (minimum in that area) past Portsmouth and Cowes for more breaking maneuvers and a pass over Hurst Castle then turned back for the Needles – more safety considerations here surrounding potential loss of an engine if hovering at height and maintaining good escape options for all players. Lynx fuel moved nearer the top of the priority list here too so that had to be managed well. Final routing here was south towards St Catherine’s Point then north at 100ft over the sea and pulling up to 1000ft for the transit between Bournemouth and Soton (Southampton) airspace. After that the Chinooks descended to low level, inbound (Middle) Wallop and we stayed higher to allow the Lynx to move around the formation. Chinooks continued overhead the Museum of Army Aviation en route SPTA and we stopped at Wallop for fuel before joining them on EVDZ (Everleigh Drop Zone) for a period of ground-work. Finally, we climbed out to the east and RTB’d as two pairs, with the 18 Sqn aircraft making an approach to a confined area which was photographed from the Lynx. The legs were all planned to fit the sun bearing/elevation predicted for the day, both in terms of the aircraft’s relative heading and relation to the backdrops.”
Details of the three Chinooks carrying the centenary markings were as follows:
ZA712 of 18(B) Squadron was the first aircraft to receive the markings in April 2015 in time for the squadron anniversary in May last year.
ZA683 of 27 Squadron was the second airframe to receive the special markings and this aircraft followed on from ‘712, prior to the squadron centenary in Nov 2015. Due to operational commitments there was only six weeks’ notice to design and deliver the 27 Squadron aircraft to meet the anniversary date. It was quite an accomplishment to design the scheme, progress the necessary approvals and carry out the preparation and paint work whilst balancing the demands of squadron operations.
ZH777 of 28 Squadron was the final one of the three aircraft to receive the anniversary markings and was rolled out in late March 2016. ‘777 was subsequently unveiled at RAF Benson during the centenary dinner at the Oxfordshire base in May 2016 having been sneaked in to Benson on 1 April – the birthday of the Royal Air Force.
Of note is that 28 Squadron’s 100-year point had passed in 2015 however at the time of the anniversary, Oct 2015, the unit had recently been resurrected following a period as a Merlin HC.3 squadron. Following transfer of the Merlin helicopter to the Royal Navy in July 2015 the unit changed role to become the combined Chinook/Puma Operational Conversion Unit at RAF Benson. Understandably the centenary celebrations were delayed, however on completion of the work to apply the markings the aircraft was rolled out bearing the correct dates for the squadron centenary year.
With thanks to the RAF Odiham Media & Communications Officer (MCO) and 27 Squadron Project Officer (ProjO) for their assistance with this article.