Friday, 6 December 2013

Remembering the Fallen - 606 Squadron take part in London's Remembrance Events

Fg Off Lis Foster

Standing at the top of a set of steps at the Royal Albert Hall in London alongside Warrant Officer Paul Hannon and with a contingent from the Royal Auxiliary Air Force (RAuxAF) behind us, I waited for the Garrison Sergeant Major (GSM) to count down our entrance to the arena for the Muster Parade during the Festival of Remembrance. My thoughts were focused totally on waiting for the words: “Left, right, stand by, quick march!”  That would be our cue to start marching and I managed to put out of my mind any thoughts of being watched by Her Majesty The Queen, the Prime Minister – and the rest of the world, thanks to the television cameras pointing at us.

Cpl Phil duley, Fg Off Lis Foster, SAC Mandy Mitchell and Sgt Darren Edwards from 606 Squadron, at London's Royal Albert Hall for the 2013 Festival of Remembrance
It had been quite a week preparing for this moment.  A telephone call from my squadron  - 606 (Chiltern) Squadron - a couple of weeks before, had asked whether I could make the Remembrance weekend’s events, as well as the week of training beforehand.  I didn’t have to think long and the previous Monday afternoon had found me at RAF Northolt and the headquarters of the Queen’s Colour Squadron (QCS) for training, along with many other slightly nervous looking officers and airmen and women from the RAF and RAuxAF.  There were some familiar faces as well, as Sergeant Darren Edwards, Corporal Phil Duley and Senior Aircraftswoman Mandy Mitchell were also attending from 606 Squadron.

 Following introductions and some basic administration, an inspection ensured everyone had remembered all their uniform and that it basically fitted.   We then began with some foot drill and quickly on to marching.  I don’t think I was alone in not having done any drill for several years, but like riding a bike, everything soon came back.

As the week went on we spent many hours practising marching down stairs without looking down – harder than it seems.  We also practised our entrance to the Albert Hall on a plan painted onto the parade square – a bit like those games painted onto school playgrounds.  Music on cue always helped, giving us a good beat to march to.

In addition to the Festival of Remembrance, the RAuxAF was also taking part in Sunday’s Act of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in London, so we also practised forming up and marching in our different sections – RAF Aircrew, Men of the RAF, Women of the RAF, RAF Police, RAF Nurses and RAuxAF.  We even practised standing still, as we would have to stand for about more than 2 hours at the Cenotaph during the service and the veterans’ parade.

QCS made us all very welcome, with evening drinks in their bar as a way of winding down after polishing shoes and preparing uniform. On the morning of day two I thought I was trying to put the wrong shoes on – they were too small.  My usually comfortable shoes were no longer so, since my feet had swollen from all the marching.  I went through the ordeal of forcing my feet into my shoes every morning, but I was lucky not to suffer with blisters and after 20 minutes or so one’s feet became used to the shoes again - or maybe they just became numb.

On Friday afternoon we travelled to the Royal Albert Hall for our first look at the venue where we would be hitting the spotlights.  Walking in to the auditorium for the first time and watching singer, Katie Melua practice, felt surreal.  The lighting was magical and we were able to take in the atmosphere for a while.  We also had the chance to practice on those steps – much different from what we had practised on at Northolt.  Before our first full rehearsal I was as nervous as I would ever be - and, yes, I tripped.  That got that out of the way.

The following morning we were back again for a dress rehearsal.  Luckily we had plenty of time to watch most of the performance before getting into position for our entrance. I never did tire of watching the performance – The Dambusters, the Merchant Seamen, the Chelsea Pensioners, the Royal Marines Band and the Poppy Girls, to name but a few  - the atmosphere was charged with emotion. Behind it all was the thought that we were there to remember those who died for us.

A couple more practices and time to watch singer, James Blunt, before lunch took my mind off the forthcoming performances.

Our next run through was the matinee in front of an audience. By now I was feeling more confident and this first performance went well. 

By the time we were standing at the top of those steps for the evening performance with the world watching us, I was no longer particularly nervous – adrenaline-filled, yes, but not that terribly nervous, jelly-legged feeling that I dreaded would fix my feet to the spot.

The GSM called us forward to the top of the stairs and said:" It’s been nice knowing you…"  We watched the RAF marching down the stairs either side of the arena. Then the RAF Nurses and the RAF Police – the music changed and it was our turn. “Left, right, standby, quick march – go!”

The rest of the performance was one of the most memorable events of my life. My apologies to those standing around me, but I sang my heart out to the hymns and cheered for Her Majesty as loudly as I could.  Emotions were high and thoughts of my friends and RAuxAF colleagues SAC Chris Dunsmore and SAC Gary Thompson, killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, were never far from my mind.

The following morning we were up early and taken to Wellington Barracks from where we would march to the Cenotaph in Central London. Another emotion-charged atmosphere – a breeze rustled the leaves on the trees as the two minutes silence began.  The two hours we had to stand at the Cenotaph – dressed in beautifully warm greatcoats – seemed to pass quite quickly as we listened to the service and then watched the veterans march past us.  A strange fact is that watching the sea of people marching past gives you a sort of motion sickness, so you have to keep looking away.

Marching back to Wellington Barracks through the streets of London, with people cheering made us all feel very proud to have had the opportunity to represent our service – the RAuxAF – on such a memorable weekend of events.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

A Windy Week in Wiltshire - Ex AGILE JAGUAR  - Fg Off Lis Foster

At the beginning of February a group from Operations Flight travelled to the wilds of Netheravon Camp, in the midst of the Salisbury Plain Training Area, to take part in Ex AGILE JAGUAR.  The week was to be spent preparing for the first of the year’s Field Training Exercises (FTXs), a mandatory Joint Helicopter Command training exercise in preparation for those deploying to theatre in the coming year.
An Army Air Corps Lynx arrives from Germany to take part in the FTX.

We arrived at Netheravon Camp in time for tea.  It never ceases to amaze me how, in conditions which can only be described as bleak, the RAF chefs provide such top quality food.  With roast beef and Yorkshire pudding waiting, we put to the back of our minds any nagging suspicions we may have had about the puddles of water that had greeted us inside our tented accommodation.
Our remit for the week was to prepare the Flight Operations room – or tent – ready for the start of the full FTX the following week.  The week was possibly of most value to the not-yet-qualified Flight Operations Assistants, as it provided plenty of time and opportunity for some serious NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) and Royal Flight plotting practice, both on paper and using AMPA (Advanced Mission Planning Aid) software.  For those of us with more experience, being able to use the AMPA software was of most benefit. 
There was also plenty of opportunity to improve our knowledge of meteorology as we were working alongside a Flight Lieutenant from the Mobile Meteorology Unit (MMU) – a sponsored reserve post.  As it turned out the local forecasts became something of a feature of the day as, perched on top of the only hill for very many miles, Netheravon Camp was buffeted by gale force winds for most of the week, which took the already low air temperatures down well below freezing due to wind chill.  The force of the wind on the tent canvas and shaking the tent poles made so much noise at night that at times it was impossible to sleep without earplugs.  The Met Officer was able travel home in the evenings as she lived nearby, and feeling guilty about leaving us at the camp, she provided us with a tin of wonderful home-cooked brownies.
Although for most of the week no helicopters were based at Netheravon, we did get the opportunity to watch them carrying out judgemental training in the vicinity.  This is where an incident is enacted on the ground and the overflying helicopter crew must make a ‘judgement’ as to how they should react.  Apaches, Merlins and Chinooks visited during the week and on the day before we left a couple of Lynxs arrived from Germany ready for the FTX starting on the following Monday.
All in all the week provided some valuable training opportunities and for those with no experience of live ops, it was a gentle nudge in the right direction, although I’m sure things would have been more exciting had we been present for the FTX.  It was also a good job we were all aware that we had the RAF Fitness Test to complete the day after our return, otherwise we may have been tempted to try rather more of the fantastic field catering than was absolutely necessary.
Getting to grips with the AMPA software

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Exercise Vixen Eagle - Cross-country Skiing

Seven members of 606 were selected to attend the RAFs Exercise Vixen Eagle, a Nordic Skiing course aimed at personnel with all levels of Nordic Skiing experience. All the members from 606 had no experience at all, a complete unknown.

The day we were due to travel to the airport the snow arrived in the UK, which made everything considerably more difficult. The flight to Munich had been cancelled which meant getting 52 people to Germany was the main objective. After a 5 hour wait in what was the longest queue some of us had ever seen, we managed to get everyone on a flight to Stuttgart, adding an extra 2 hours onto the transfer but at least it meant we were on our way. We arrived in Zweisel around midnight and were shown to our chalets where we settled in for the night in anticipation for skiing the following day.

The next day, after collecting our Nordic ski equipment we were given our groups for e week. There were 3 categories bronze, silver and gold, each demanding higher skill and experience respectively. Everyone from 606 had been entered into bronze groups having never cross-country skied before. Fitness level was also taken into consideration so that all the groups were evenly matched. We boarded the buses to Bretterschachten ski area, which is wide undulating area largely wooded with coniferous trees and crisscrossed with tacks and cross-country ski trails.

The week progressed from leaning the first elements of cross country skiing such as the "diagonal gate", sliding one foot in front of the other, putting all your weight on the leading ski and combining the use of the poles to assist in propelling yourself forward. Sounds relatively easy on paper but unless you commit yourself fully to the movement you either don't get traction when going up hill or your skis start sliding in strange directions and potentially end up with you being closely acquainted with the snow. With perseverance though we all started to get the hang of it and each day there were new skills and longer distances being covered.

“Kick double pole”, “double pole”, and “half snowplough”, the skills were being picked-up and the terminology learnt. By day 3 we had pretty much got the basics and were covering numerous kilometres of “Loipe” (marked cross-country skiing track).

Day 5 was the tour day where we covered a 20Km route and ventured to the top of the Grosser Arber, the highest peak in the area; with an overall climb of around 400m it certainly tested everyone’s endurance and fitness levels. The hard work was rewarded with a lunch stop at the slipper cafĂ© for some well-earned strudel and hot chocolate. As the name suggests, you’re welcomed with walls of slippers to change into before going upstairs to the warming hospitality and home-cooked food. Going back out into the cold the return leg was tough but it was certainly a satisfying day. We all slept well that night in preparation for the assessment and time trial day.

It was the last day and once the assessments had been competed we were all given a number in preparation for our individual time trial. 1.5Km route as fast as you can, it was an imperative to not let the red mist of the trial cloud your technique otherwise it was back to being like Bambi on skis and time just slipped away. This was followed by the main event, the team 4x500m relay, a comical event of fancy dress, teams going all-out on the uphill section and as much speed as you dare on the downhill to the finish. The finish was preceded by a sharp right-hand bend lined with people cheering and showing their encouragement, some even provided a gantlet of snowballs to avoid. It was all in good humour and everyone had a great time.

The last night was awards and presentations where everyone was awarded their skiing competency that they had achieved for the week. There were also other awards for fastest time trial and best fancy dress, 606 Sqn came away with Bob Lacey Memorial trophy for going “over and above” which was a great surprise to us all and humbly received. All had a great week and everyone who attended from 606 came away having learnt something new and achieved the bronze award. Many thanks to all of the instructors and organisers for putting on such a well organised event. We’ll be back next year!

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Off-Road Driver Training at Dalton Barracks 
LAC Phill Butwell
606 Squadron, RAF Reserves, off-road driving, driver training, Land Rover, military vehicle, service vehicle, RAuxAF
Driving the 4-Tonne truck through water.
For the Saturday of the December Training weekend 606 Squadron's Operations Flight (Ops Flt) deployed to Dalton Barracks, formally known as RAF Abingdon, to carry out some driver training.  This was broken down into 3 different sections, off-road Land Rover training, reversing with a trailer and driving large vehicles off-road.  The Flt split into 3 groups and we rotated throughout the day around all of these sections.

The first activity that I did was the off-roading in a Land Rover, under the watch and guidance of Marcus (SAC Van Hagen).  This was something that I had never done before.  It took a while both to get used to driving the Land Rover, but more so getting used to the idea of seeing a steep muddy slope and, rather than finding a sensible route around it, gunning the engine and running straight at it until we reached the top!  The off-road driving was, for me, the most enjoyable part of the day as it gave me the opportunity to do something that I have never had the chance to do before.

606 Squadron, RAF Reserves, off-road driving, driver training, Land Rover, military vehicle, service vehicle, RAuxAF,
RAF 9-Tonne Service Vehicle, known as the SV
After completing the off-roading my group moved onto practising reversing a Land Rover with a trailer.  The activity started with a quick brief and demo from Cpl Stu Edwards, who made it look a lot easier than it actually was.  Following a slow, yet successful first attempt, Cpl Edwards upped the game by reducing the width of the parking space to only a foot wider than the Land Rover and, despite even that, the time it took me to park improved as my confidence grew.  This was an enjoyable experience - not in the thrilling sort of way that the off-roading was - but it involved focus and precision, both of which are needed in the Ops Room. 

Our final activity of the day was the opportunity to drive both a 4-tonne truck and one of the new 9-tonne Service Vehicles (SV) around a muddy track.  This gave us the chance to drive two very different vehicles.  The SV has only recently come into service and is full of electronic aids and features, whereas the’ 4-Tonner’ has been in service for many years, has limited gadgets and is left hand drive, just to add to the challenge!  For me the most surreal moment was driving the 4-Tonner with the front wheels following the ruts in the mud, but the rear wheels weren’t, so the truck was going forwards with the back end trying desperately to go sideways.

All in all it was a fantastic day giving me the chance to do some training that was not the norm, yet still relevant to our life in the RAF Reserves.  The highlight of the day was waiting to start the off-road course and seeing a mud covered Land Rover cresting a slope, yet still being able to see the huge grin on Lucy’s (LAC Roper's) face!

Friday, 30 November 2012

If you go down to the woods today….

Fg Off Lis Foster
 For the November training weekend, Ops Flt relocated to woods on Hankley Common, part of the Longmoor Training Area, where scenes from the recent James Bond film, Skyfall, were shot.  Here we were to undertake a field ops Exercise, alongside other Flts from 606 Sqn.
With an advance party of SAC Stu Taylor, and ACs Roper, Butwell, Church and Carlyle, I travelled to the training area on the Friday afternoon, where we were able to erect 3 of the 4 tents required for the exercise before nightfall.  The remainder of the equipment was then set up the following morning in time for the arrival of the rest of the Flt.
The main training for the weekend was an exercise put together by SAC Stu Taylor and Cpl Les Birch – who has now left the Sqn – using their years of experience from working in Ops rooms in theatre and on live JHC exercises.

For the Exercise, Ops Flt was split into 3 groups, plus an Exercise Control (ExCon) team.  Each group had a mentor (Fg Off Cooper, Cpl Wallington and myself) whose job it was to subtly guide, while letting them run the exercise in their own way.  After allowing for time to set up the Ops rooms with maps, flying programmes, ‘Pilots to See’ boards and meteorology, the Exercise  then went on to run for some 8 hours, until 2000hrs. Each group had the same injects, but dealt with them in their own way – from General Whinge demanding a helicopter to take him into a danger area with no notice, to arranging casualty evacuations for a convoy that came under fire.  The pace of injects was good and allowed everyone to experience something of the life in an Ops Room.

During the day there was a visit from the HAC, Air Marshal  Macfadyen and Lt Col Natrass from Reserves JHC. The VIPs talked to us all individually and seemed genuinely interested in the training taking place.
The 606 Sqn chefs provided a cook tent with a communal facility for boiling ration packs, as well as tea and coffee, and this became a focal point for people to congregate in the evening.  With the generator being switched off at 2200 we all settled down to an early night.
The weather throughout Friday and Saturday had been beautiful, however, we were woken in the early hours of Sunday morning by an enormous clap of thunder – the heavens opened and when I turned on my torch just before 0700 I found I was lying in a large, quickly growing puddle.  Luckily the all-weather sleeping system had worked and I was at least warm and dry inside my bivvy bag.
After getting up and moving the kit out of the floodwater I took my packet of ration-pack porridge over to the cook tent, only to find that the chefs had worked their magic and bacon, sausage, eggs and beans were just about ready for breakfast.  Amazing!  Ops Flt had slept in the tents we had been using for the Exercise, but much of the Sqn had slept in bashas in the wooded area.  I’m sure the cooked breakfast was doubly welcome for them.

Unfortunately the torrential rain did not abate and it was decided that it would be best to pack up our kit and return to Benson, where the tents would need to be unpacked and hung up to dry.  It was a good job we had managed to have such a good run of Stu and Les’s excellent exercise on the Saturday.  The weekend had been a real success and many thanks have to go to Stu for organising such high quality and imaginative training.

Monday, 12 November 2012

It's more than just a hobby...sometimes..

As a serving member of 606 (Chiltern) Squadron I get to do some pretty cool things and sometimes, the opportunity to combine some of my many other hobbies rears it head .....

For instance; last month a group of squadron members and I participated in some adventurous training which happened to include hobby number one: Mountain Biking. This took the form of a challenging (read muddy, cold and wet) pedal along the South Downs Way over a long weekend. Good stuff..

This month The Squadron asked me to support a small exercise on the Longmoor training area providing lights and power for the Chef's. Opportunity number two: photography. I normally concentrate on sports/action myself but recently have been experimenting on the more creative side of the of the hobby and saw this as a way to try some things i'd seen others do.

Wide Angle SV

First, using a ultra-wide angle lens (Sigma 10-20mm) and a handy SV I got this.

Later on that evening i'd started to lose the light and ended up experimenting with my mini tripod and some ever increasing exposure times, coming up with this:

Chef's by Tent Light

For those interested in such stuff this was 43sec/f22 @ ISO400 using the light from a distant spotlight, the fluorescent light from the tent and my torch (shining on the number plate)

I think it was around 11pm and the light had well and truly gone when the cloud cleared and it started getting cold - so I took the opportunity for a long exposure of a DAF and a Land Rover lit only by the Moon:

DAF by Moonight

You can tell how long I had the shutter open: the stars have moved.... well technically we moved, but you know what I mean. Again, for those wanting to know 109sec/f14 @ ISO1000. Not long after this it clouded over again and the heavens opened.... but that's another post..

Phil Duley.
606 Eng

Friday, 9 November 2012

Day 5 at Queens Colour Sqn

Day 5
9am what a lie in! Though we would be needing it as the next two days would be pretty early starts. The day started straight into mustering at QCS again with a few more attempts at the stairs and the square again. Mastering both with a few minor niggles it was off to lunch and then on the coaches to head for the Royal Albert Hall for our first rehearsals. The feeling we all got as we pulled outside the Hall was out of this world, it was actually becoming a little bit real as we all got our passes and entered. What an unbelievable sight! What an incredible feeling! Everyone now was starting to feel the pride and the nerves.

Even though we had to wait around for quite a long time we got to watch Alexandra Burke rehearse and some of the bands which was a great sight to see. Suddenly we were all called up and sent to our required positions. A few more practises down some flights of stairs and we were good to go... To wait around for a little longer. With the anticipation building we were all very eager to get down the actual stairs to see what they would really be like. Our time came and we were off! Everyone was trying to keep in time and concentrate so hard that I think it threw us a little. As soon as we were down onto the floor our short march started then we were stood to attention together as one. We waited for the others to join with more music as a video being played on the tv screens. I could instantly feel my eyes starting to well with the immense pride I felt and I'm sure everyone else did as well. A couple of sore feet later it started to get very hot and bless one of the medics and to take a seat. It was very hot and this was only practise what was it going to be like Saturday?! Only tomorrow would tell.
Everyone will be feeling nervous tonight lets hope we all get some sleep as tomorrow would be the proudest day of our lives.
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