From noiseless gliders to pilotless drones, the Royal Air Force has come a long way. Nick Hammond visits the UK’s largest base to celebrate the Force’s centenary on April 1. With photographs by Mark Williamson.
They wrestled Spitfires through blue skies over Britain, dodging the Luftwaffe and stalling Hitler’s invasion. They helped shape the Second World War, perhaps even the world as we know it. The RAF suffered the largest casualty rate of all British armed forces during it – 55,000 aircrew died on bombing missions against Germany.
Since then, magnificent men and women in their flying machines have flown millions of miles, carrying everything from soldiers, helicopters and nuclear bombs to water bottles, blankets and baby food. On April 1, Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force celebrates its centenary.
On the day of my visit to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, there’s a blizzard brewing and Storm Emma is gleefully flouncing her skirt across the Cotswolds; even the armed guard on sentry looks cold. However, the weather would have to be truly historic to affect operations here.
Built in 1937, originally to train glider pilots, Brize Norton is the UK’s biggest RAF base, with nearly 6,000 regular service personnel on the ground at any one time. Combine this with contractors and civil servants and there are about 8,000 people a day coming through these gates. They perform a mind-blowing diversity of jobs.
The flight crew
Inside Base Hangar, which stretches alongside the runway for more than a quarter of a mile, a beast lies quiet. The Boeing C-17 Globemaster (also pictured top_, which can carry 102 paratroopers, takes 134,556 litres of fuel, weighs 141 tons, cruises at 515mph and requires a 3,000ft runway to land, is so big its tail won’t fit inside.
Developed in the 1980s for the US Air Force, its cavernous belly can swallow Chinook helicopters or Challenger tanks. Even the cockpit, in which Flt Lt Tim Gray is pictured sitting, seems enormous; and the picture of Sgt Chris Clark next to a helicopter in the rear of the plane says it all.
Given the enormous cargo it can swallow, loading up a C-17 Globemaster is no mean feat. Sgt Sim Rezazadeh-Wilson is one of those responsible for getting them in the vast hold.
‘I’m a mover,’ she says cheerfully. ‘We’re responsible for all the logistics – getting things where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there. I build the load, whether it be passengers, tanks, food, weapons or whatever.’
Married to another mover, Sgt Rezazadeh-Wilson can spend months away from her husband and young daughter at any time, but when she’s away he’s scheduled to be based at home and vice versa. The RAF extended family plugs the gaps.
‘It’s the life, you get used to it,’ she says. ‘We don’t think anything of it anymore.
‘And everybody around us is in the same boat. You all look after each other.’
Women in the RAF have a clear and achievable career path. Ranks are paid the same, regardless of sex, and, although there aren’t many female movers yet, there are plenty of women in senior positions. ‘Joining the RAF doesn’t mean you’ll be covered in oil,’ says Flt Lt Beth Handsley-Smith, an Engineering Officer.
‘There is equal pay and opportunity here and the grades and promotion are transparent.’
Although she may not get covered in oil, she does get to sign off when the mighty C-17 is fit to fly.
‘My family has a long history with the RAF,’ Flt Lt Handsley-Smith explains, ‘and I have had a fascination with planes since I was a little girl.
‘When I was on holiday, aged about eight or nine, I remember seeing this Harrier zoom overhead and thinking “wow, that is so cool”.’
The dog handler
‘Dogs are not the first thing you think of when you mention the RAF,’ points out Cpl David Parton over a warming cup of coffee at the RAF Police Dog Section.
The dogs patrol this and other RAF bases and detect drugs and explosives. Some are trained to track and attack, like the fearsome looking Belgian malinois giving me the eye, thankfully from behind bars.
‘After chatting to my local career centre, I realised there was every kind of job imaginable,’ continues Cpl Parton, aged 26, who joined up at 18.
‘The options for travelling, the lifestyle – it really appealed. After basic training, I began working specifically with dogs.’
The gym instructor
Cpl Richard Peregrine might ply his trade in a gym class, on a mountainside, in a river or on the sports pitch.
The physical-training instructor – all 6ft 7in of him – drove his mother mad with his excessive energy as a lad. After a spell of semi-professional rugby, he graduated from the School of Physical Training at RAF Cosford in Shropshire.
It’s now his job to find the best ways to deliver holistic physical training to RAF personnel.
‘It’s a fantastic job,’ Cpl Peregrine says. ‘I get to help others keep in shape and, at the same time, I’ve learned a whole range of new skills myself.
‘I box, climb, kayak, play rugby. Keeping everyone literally “fighting fit” is the job of a PT and I love doing it.’
Over the years, the force’s focus has shifted between transport, reconnaissance, bombing and fighter capabilities and Station Commander Group-Capt Tim Jones believes it’s more relevant today than ever before.
‘When Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean last year, we had people on the ground within 24 hours,’ he points out.
‘We had thousands more out there providing life-saving aid within the next few days. I’m very proud of that. That ability – to reach anywhere on the planet, with the right people, the right equipment, at the right time – has never been more important.
‘And aeronautical engineering and related technology move at an incredible pace – there were only 50 years between the Wright brothers and Concorde,’ he says.
‘The RAF is a forward-thinking force, open to all, doing extraordinary things in extraordinary situations. And, after more than 20 years, that’s still what I love about it most.’