Fledgling raptors of the RAF
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular delve into the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK. Although the past thirty years have brought about many significant changes in the size and structure of Britain’s Royal Air Force, the UK aviation enthusiast still has plenty of opportunities to visit operational airfields and see the various aircraft currently in service, whilst engaged in their daily flying duties. In this latest edition of Aerodrome, join us as we head for some midweek aviation action on the Isle of Anglesey and an airfield which is home to the RAF’s advanced fast jet training programme and some of the newest aircraft to wear the famous roundel of the Royal Air Force. We look at the history of the airfield and how its wartime expansion unearthed a magnificent collection of Iron Age artefacts which were of huge national significance.
Defence of the Realm
A pair of No. 4 Squadron BAe Hawk T.2 trainers prepare for their latest practice sortie at Valley, as two more future RAF pilots gain valuable experience ahead of being posted to a front line Typhoon squadron
Many of us aviation enthusiasts who are a little longer in the tooth will remember when Britain could boast a large number of operational military airfields scattered all over the country, each one home to and eclectic mix of aircraft types and each one usually hosting an annual ‘At Home Day’. Since those heady days however, continual government cost saving measures have resulted in the closure of many of these historic old airfields, along with a severe rationalisation of the aircraft types they previously played host to. Whilst this may be bad news for the enthusiast, there can be no denying that the current Royal Air Force is a lean, mean fighting machine and what it lacks in operational base numbers and individual aircraft types, it makes up for in technological prowess and overall effectiveness. Although we may have lost many of the most iconic post war aircraft types to see service, the RAF is arguably better equipped than it has ever been and what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in quality. Thankfully, if you did want to spend a pleasant day watching our current military aircraft going through their paces, you can still do so – you just have to travel a little further and put in a little preparatory work to ensure your day is as enjoyable as possible.
Many Aerodrome readers will have no doubt already identified the Airshows they intend to enjoy this coming summer, giving us all something to look forward to whilst we endure our latest winter sabbatical. With jobs, families and numerous other commitments all vying for their share of our free time, it can obviously be something of a challenge to attend more than just a handful of events each year and even more difficult to indulge our passion for aviation during the working week. For those of us who are lucky enough to have such an opportunity, a day spent around the perimeter of an operational military airfield can be a real joy and will often underline just how popular our aviation infatuation actually is. If you have ever spent a few happy hours spotting at an RAF airfield in years past and remember seeing significant numbers of people doing exactly the same thing, well, it is comforting to know that they are still there (probably not the exact same people, but you never know) and we are definitely not alone. Proving that our fascination with aviation is as popular as ever, it doesn’t really matter which operational airfield you decide to visit, or at what time of year you go, chances are there will be other people there intent on doing exactly the same thing as you are.
A day spent around the perimeter fence of an operational RAF airfield will allow you to get much closer to the aircraft than you would ordinarily be able to at an Airshow
The visit criteria for most people heading to an RAF airfield is simply having a day to yourself and a weather forecast good enough to encourage a journey which could run to a couple of hundred miles in most cases and significantly more if your airfield of choice is in the north of Scotland, however, this level of spontaneity is not without its perils. Serious enthusiasts will make sure that they have all proposed flying information to hand before committing themselves to a day on the fence, usually by signing up to one of the many spotters forums on the internet, or maybe even benefiting from having a contact on the live side of the airfield – a low activity day would probably not be worthy of their attentions. For the rest of us, we set off with fingers crossed and the excitement of the unknown, always hoping that we will be in for a good day and always optimistic that we might see something unusual – if we don’t, at least we will have had a nice day out of the office. This kind of optimism can lead to some disappointment, but more often than not, there will usually be something going on. To illustrate this point, I do remember one fateful visit to RAF Coningsby in the late spring, hoping to catch some Typhoon action and to see the BBMF as they worked up for their display authorisation. Setting off in darkness at some ungodly hour, I arrived at 'the mound' (which will be a familiar spot to many readers) as the first person there, with my pick of the available spots. I duly set up camp, readied my cameras and prepared for a busy day of photography. I started to get a little worried about an hour later. Despite the beautiful cloudless skies and nothing but the whisper of a breeze, the airfield still appeared to be in slumber, with absolutely nothing going on. More noticeably, the red and white flight operations vehicle had not taken its place at the end of the runway and I had not been joined by any other enthusiasts – what was going on? Before long, a couple of cars did turn up and people started to take their positions, but not before one of them opened the back of his van and started cooking bacon. Looking at me, he said, “You do know they are on night-flying this week, don’t you”? Clearly unaware of this, I attempted to retain my dignity and explained how I had been sat there on my own for hours, which entertained the regulars and made them much more user-friendly for the rest of the day. It all turned out ok in the end and by 3 o’clock in the afternoon, there was plenty of flying activity to keep us all entertained. You see, pot luck usually works out in the end.
The land of Wales and Hawks
Plenty to think about. Student and instructor go through their last minute checks, before embarking on their latest training sortie at RAF Valley
Even though I have spent many happy days on the perimeter of most British military bases over the years, the two which have proved to be my most regularly attended airfields are definitely RAF Coningsby and RAF Valley, both of which are amongst the most active airfields in the country and both within two and a half hours drive from my home. Over recent years however, RAF Valley has taken on even greater significance, as my eldest daughter recently completed her 4 year Degree and Masters courses at nearby Bangor University, which resulted in a great many trips to North Wales and a firm attachment to this beautiful part of the country. Unfortunately, only a fraction of these visits resulted in a trip to RAF Valley on the historic Isle of Anglesey, but somehow just being close by brought me a little light aviation relief. My most recent spotting visit to the airfield took place last summer, on a rare day off from work to visit my daughter, who had managed to find a little gap in her study schedule. Hoping to spend a little quality dad and daughter time together, I dragged her to RAF Valley in order to show her the noise culprits which had been responsible for disturbing her study concentration over the previous couple of years – I know, I am such a caring and considerate father.
Anglesey and RAF Valley both have a special place in my heart and I have been on the Island many times during my life, both on holidays with my family in my youth and as an aviation enthusiast once I had passed my driving test. The Island itself is beautiful and does not really receive the tourist recognition it deserves, probably down to the fact that local people are more than happy to keep this little piece of paradise just for themselves. With its dramatic coastline offering superb walks, wildlife spotting opportunities and glorious sandy beaches, this relatively sparsely populated area is predominantly farmland and only connected to the mainland by two famous bridges - it is sometimes difficult to remember that you are in North Wales and only a stone’s throw away from Chester and Liverpool. During my many visits to Anglesey, there has always been one thing which definitely demands your attention – the weather. As beautiful as the island is, it can boast a climate seemingly all of its own and don’t expect conditions to be those forecast or indeed those being experienced by areas relatively close by. I have been at RAF Valley when it has been so warm that the only thing you can think about is stripping off and going for a dip in the sea – similarly, I have been there when trying to avoid getting blown into the sea. The weather here can turn on a sixpence, but when it is fine, there can surely be no better place in the British Isles … as an added bonus, there are aeroplanes as well, lots of them!
Raptor’s nest. The sparsely populated island of Anglesey is the ideal location for a training base, being close to the sea and the low flying areas of Snowdonia National Park
Work on constructing a new military airfield on the west coast of Anglesey, near the village of Rhosneigr began at the end of 1939 and was intended to be used as a fighter station for the defence of the industrial North West of England and to patrol the Irish Sea on convoy protection flights and hunting for enemy U-boat activity. Opened at the beginning of 1941, the first aviation residents were the Hawker Hurricanes of Nos 312 and 615 Squadrons, but these were soon joined by the Bristol Beaufighters of No.219 Squadron, who operated in a night defence role. With its close proximity to both the Irish Sea and the sparsely populated farmland areas of North Wales, the area was used extensively for training purposes, with many aircraft movements taking place on any given day. This resulted in a relatively high accident rate in the area, with many aircraft ditching in the sea and as a direct consequence of this, the RAF formed No.275 Squadron at Valley, with their Westland Lysanders and Supermarine Walrus amphibians to provide vital Air-Sea Rescue support, which was to become a significant responsibility for the base in the years which followed.
As Valley was becoming an increasingly important aviation location, a further period of base expansion began in early 1943, to enable more aircraft, particularly larger types to use the facilities at this conveniently located base. Even though this important work was being carried out during wartime conditions and at a pivotal period of the conflict, this work unearthed an impressive collection of Iron Age artefacts, which proved to be one of the most important discovery’s in British history. Whilst dredging a pond for peat on the edge of the construction works, an eagle eyed worker noticed an unusual link chain, which possessed great strength and was even used at one point to pull a stricken lorry out of the mud. On closer inspection, the chain looked extremely old and may be of historic importance, so was cleaned and sent to the National Museum in Cardiff for inspection. Whilst it was still being assessed, back at the construction site, the finds just continued to keep coming, from swords to jewellery, but mainly thought to be military in origin, all encased in the peat and clearly seeing sunlight for the first time in many hundreds of years. At the time of Britain’s Roman occupation, Anglesey was thought to be the centre of Druid learning and the Romans wanted to break this spiritual hold as they attempted to subdue the country’s population. It is thought that the lake may have been used by local tribes as a holy place, to make offerings to their ancestors and in the hope of securing good fortune on the eve of battle. The famous Llyn Cerrig Bach treasures are regarded as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century and a fine collection of Iron Age artefacts preserved for the nation – they are currently housed in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.
The current jewel in RAF Valley’s crown is the capable BAe Hawk T.2 and this example is resplendent in the anniversary colours of No.4 Squadron
With Valley’s extended runways and taxiways in service, the airfield went on to become an important base for USAAF aircraft and personnel and the establishment of the United States Army Air Forces Ferry Terminal. This handled US aircraft arriving from transatlantic ferry flights before sending them to units around the UK and also accepted aircraft returning from operations over Europe. This period in the bases history began on 17th August 1943, with the arrival of 11 B-24 Liberators of the US Navy from Iceland and increased significantly from this point – on its busiest day, Valley welcomed 99 USAAF B-17 and B-24 bombers, again following the completion of ferry flights from the US via Iceland. As these US facilitation activities increased, RAF flight operations saw a steady decline, other than a flight of Airspeed Oxfords engaged in electronic landing approach technology training. The end of the war in Europe saw a reversal of Valley’s ferry arrival role, as more than 2,600 USAAF bombers and their crews were processed on their way back to America and by June 1947, the entire airfield was placed in the care and maintenance programme.
Without doubt, the most significant period in RAF Valley’s history took place following the end of the Second World War and Britain’s entry into the jet age. After a further period of infrastructure improvements, the Vampires and Meteors of No.202 Advanced Flying School arrived on Anglesey, with a remit to provide effective training for future fast jet pilots in the relatively sparsely populated surroundings of North Wales. On 15th August 1960, the unit was re-designated No.4 Flying Training School, Royal Air Force, a unit which retains its links to Valley to this day. As the home of such classic training aircraft as Meteors, Vampires, Hunters and Gnats, the most important aircraft association in the history of RAF Valley occurred on 11th November 1976 with the arrival of the first British Aerospace Hawk, an aircraft type which is now inextricably linked to this busy airfield and one which has been responsible for producing thousands of trained fast jet pilots over the past 42 years. Still providing this important service, Valley is familiar to thousands of service personnel both past and present, who have been fortunate enough to be stationed at this Island airfield and its close proximity to Snowdonia National Park. During this time, Valley has also been the home of some of the most famous and best loved aircraft to ever see RAF service in the form of the yellow SAR helicopters of ‘C Flight’ No.22 Squadron. Operating such rotary classic as the Whirlwind, Wessex and Sea King, Valley was also the home base of Prince William, HRH The Duke of Cambridge during his Royal Air Force service flying the Sea King in a search and rescue role.
RAF pilots made at Valley
A pair of No.4 Squadron Hawks prepare to blast off from Valley’s runway, on the latest leg of an RAF student pilots journey to becoming a qualified fast jet pilot at a reported cost of 4 million pounds each to the UK tax payer
The era of the Hawk as Britain’s primary advanced jet trainer has seen RAF Valley take on an increasingly important role in providing the Royal Air Force with a steady stream of newly qualified pilots, ensuring their front line squadrons are maintained at maximum strength. Students selected for fast jet pilot training will have already successfully completed their basic flying training on the Shorts Tucano at No.1 FTS Linton-on-Ouse and will be facing the longest training period of the current pilot option channels in the RAF. As their intended future mounts will be single seat fighting aeroplanes, they will have to become comfortable and proficient in making all mission decisions for themselves, without the assistance of other crew members. This will necessitate an intense period of ground instruction, simulator flying and conversion to the BAe Hawk T.2, followed by tactics and weapons training. If they manage to successfully negotiate this demanding training schedule, they will then pass to the respective Operational Conversion Unit of the aircraft type they will hopefully go on to fly, either the Eurofighter Typhoon or the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.
For many years, this valuable training role was carried out by the Hawk T.1, an aircraft which is still in RAF and RN service to this day and most famously, as the distinctive mount of the Royal Air Force Display Team, the Red Arrows. The last RAF Hawk T.1 squadron based at Valley was No.208 Squadron, however, this unit disbanded in June 2016, which at that time left only No.4 Squadron and their impressive Hawk T.2 aircraft as the only squadron providing fast jet training support at Valley. Since that period, Valley has undergone a further period of extensive upgrade, which included the resurfacing of its runways and the installation of new airfield visual aids – this also initiated a period of greater flying activity as there is now an increased demand for trained pilots to equip newly formed Typhoon and Lightning squadrons. The Hawks of No.4 Squadron were joined by the re-formed No.25 (fighter) Squadron in September 2018, both of which represent No.4 Flying Training School. If that development were not significant enough, some of the latest aircraft to represent the RAF have recently arrived at Valley, in the shape of the US manufactured Beechcraft Texan T6C advanced turboprop trainers. It is intended that a fleet of ten of these new trainers will eventually be based at Valley, providing basic flying training support for the RAF and Royal Navy student pilots.
The old and the new. On a particularly grey day, this No.208 Squadron Hawk T.1 was one of the last aircraft of this variant to provide training support at RAF Valley
The current training residents at Valley may share the lineage of the famous Hawk family, but represent a huge technological leap forward in terms of pilot training capability
Continuing the legacy of one of Britain’s most successful post war aviation types, the BAe Hawk T.2 is undoubtedly the most exciting aircraft currently based at RAF Valley and is the latest incarnation of this successful two seat training aircraft. A much more capable aircraft than its predecessor, the T.2 helps to ensure that successful pilot trainees are ready to embark on their operational conversion training as soon as they leave Valley. The Hawks new glass cockpit and advanced avionics allow it to be configured in a similar way to the front-line aircraft the student is destined to fly operationally, allowing them the opportunity to become familiar with the complex operating environment they will go on to face. Clearly, this is much more cost effective than using a Typhoon or Lightning II in a similar role and helps to prepare the student for life at a front-line RAF squadron. Indeed, the aircraft have proved to be even more adaptable than was first anticipated and allows the RAF to provide world class fast jet training programmes for its students and looks set to maintain the proud heritage of the BAe Hawk training aircraft for many years to come.
As this Hawk T.2 passed overhead, it gave us a great view of the different profile of this latest incarnation of the exceptional BAe Hawk trainer
Visually, this latest incarnation of the Hawk trainer looks rather similar to its predecessor, however, there are a number of features which make its correct identification relatively simple. Perhaps its most distinctive feature is the longer nose profile of the newer aircraft, but for additional confirmation, the wing tip weapons rails and a protruding rectangular housing at the top of the tail are all distinctive identifying features. Less obvious features include a more powerful engine, newly designed wings and a completely re-configured airframe, but it is in the cockpit where the most dramatic improvements have been made, transforming the ageing Hawk T.1 into one of the world’s most advanced and adaptable training aircraft. In their striking black liveries, these attractive jets will provide the RAF with effective pilot training for the foreseeable future and will no doubt go on to become firm favourites with the army of UK aviation enthusiasts, who like nothing more than getting close to their current Royal Air Force.
During our visit, we were fortunate to see this aborted landing approach by Tornado GR.4 ZA587 (055), which will probably have been the final time that I managed to see one of these fantastic aircraft over RAF Valley
Although any visit to RAF Valley was always something to look forward to, the recent developments at the base will certainly result in many more enthusiasts descending on the Island of Anglesey during 2019, all hoping to catch sight of the new No.25 Squadron Hawks and the Texan T6C trainers operating from their new home. As a busy RAF airfield, there is always the additional possibility of seeing other UK, US and international aircraft types either operating from or overflying the airfield on their way to the famous Mach Loop on any given day, making a visit all the more attractive. I certainly intend to go back at least once during the coming year, to enjoy some more RAF raptor action and to soak up the beautiful surroundings of one of the UK’s most picturesque military airfield locations. Unfortunately, I fear my daughter does not quite share my enthusiasm for a day on the sand dunes at RAF Valley and I may have to make this a solo sortie.
A final selection of images taken during my latest visit to RAF Valley and a very busy morning of flying. The Hawk T.2 is an extremely attractive aeroplane and its black livery only serves to enhance its good looks
There are plenty of great locations around the airfield, where it is possible to take some really appealing pictures of Britain’s capable advanced flying training aircraft
Waiting for clearance to line up on the runway. Is there a more exciting way to spend your day than to embark on a career as a future RAF fast jet pilot?
Another successful sortie completed will see student and pilot heading for the debriefing room and plenty to discuss with his instructor. He is engaged in one of the most thorough flying training programmes in the world and should see him or her sitting in the cockpit of a Typhoon or Lightning II in the years to come
I am afraid that’s all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. As always, if you have any ideas for a future edition of Aerodrome, or if you would like to supply a feature of your own which will be of interest to our worldwide aviation readership, please send your suggestions to our regular contact e-mail address at email@example.com, where we will be only too pleased to hear from you.
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The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 22nd February, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.
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