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Busy Valley

The following article appeared in the 2003 edition of The Royal Air Force Yearbook, a highly recommended read for all those interested in the RAF.

This magazine is published by the RAF Benevolent Fund Enterprises.

Many thanks to the editor of the Yearbook (Peter March) for permission to use this piece, and the great pictures.

The article was written by Daniel J March.


Situated on the island of Anglesey, North Wales, RAF Valley is the RAF's Advanced Tactics and Training Unit and is the Service's busiest base. Having undergone fundamental changes in the late 1990s, with the rationalisation of No 4 FTS and the outcome of the introduction of a whole host of contractorisations, the base is gearing itself up for major new challenges. These are addressing shortfalls in current combat pilot levels and the exacting demands of graduates destined to fly the RAF's next generation warplane - the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Daniel J March reports.

RAF Valley is not only home to 4 FTS's Nos 19(R) and 208(R) Squadrons, but also houses a number of other flying units including 'C' Flight of No22 Squadron, the Search and Rescue Training Unit (SARTU) and the Air Guided Weapons Operational Evaluation Unit (AGWOEU). Along with the 70 resident Hawks that fulfil the requirements of the 4 FTS syllabus, two Sea King HAR3s and three Griffin HT1s are also permanently detached, making Valley by far the busiest of all RAF bases in terms of aircraft movements per year. To cope with demand the Relief Landing Ground at RAF Mona, also situated on Anglesey just five miles from Valley, is regularly used for 'circuit bashing', When Mona is in use, the ATC, runway-caravan and firefighting assets are deployed from Valley. Indeed, such is the magnitude of 4 FTS operations that on many days of the year the busiest two RAF airfields are both situated on the tiny island of Anglesey. Often having to cope with 300 plus aircraft movements per day ensures that Valley's Operations Wing, and in particular its air traffic controllers, are under great pressure. Valley has 40-mile radius radar coverage and not only do the controllers monitor the aircraft inbound, outbound and during circuit training, but also ensure the unit's aircraft remain well clear of the commercial airways traffic which criss-cross the area, as well as monitoring general aviation flights in the area. During the late-1990s many aspects of Valley's operations were contractorised. This led to a reduction of RAF personnel on base and a rapid rise in the number of civilian staff. In 2002, the 1,304 personnel comprised 752 employees of civilian contractors, 66 civil servants, 352 RAF staff associated with 4FTS and 134 personnel with the lodger units.

In the mid-1990s, a competition for a multi-activity contract for Valley was launched as part of a swathe of Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) to be introduced to the UK's armed forces with the aim of reducing costs and providing better value for money for the UK taxpayer. A consortium of Brown & Root and Marshall Aerospace (BRAMA) was duly awarded the contract for Valley, to commence in April 1997. Such a fundamental change in the way the station was organised, equipped and manned, was, like so many PFls, very difficult to implement. Under the terms of the contract, BRAMA has assumed responsibility for First and Second Line aircraft engineering, support engineering, the station's transport pool, all airfield ground-based aids and work services (sub-contracted out), catering and cleaning; supply (dispatch and receive), general administration (not including RAF personnel files), the fire and crash section and personnel training. The influx of an initial 550 BRAMA-employed personnel on base (to rise to over 800 in 2003), replacing 650 RAF personnel, caused some initial teething problems, which were not helped by the grounding of the Hawk fleet for three months during the period in which BRAMA staff were to 'shadow' RAF groundcrew in the day-to-day procedures to keep a fleet of 40 Hawks on-line during a typical day's flying. In addition, there were a number of other teething problems regarding the 'workability' of the initial contract drawn up between MoD and BRAMA. There was a feeling on the part of some of the RAF personnel that a number of BRAMA duties were 'too close to the front line' and that they 'lacked the necessary expertise in certain areas'. These problems did impinge on the station's performance following BRAMA's introduction, but solutions were found to each of the problem areas and it is a testament to both RAF and BRAMA staff based at Valley that the system is now working efficiently, with an effective interface between RAF and BRAMA responsibilities, thus ensuring that any problems are identified early and solutions found. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the 4 FTS flightline where the BRAMA groundcrew refuel, clean, prepare and attend to the aircrews' needs, producing a harmonious relationship so vital to efficient operations to falafel the days flying schedule. With the doubts and problems of the first years erased, BRAMA now receives much praise for its 'can do' attitude in catering for the RAF's needs. From altering engineering schedules in order to provide the optimum amount of available Hawk airframes at certain periods, to implementing new catering procedures best suited to the needs of the personnel, the relationship is viewed as a partnership rather than a competition. This progress has prompted the initial five-year contract to be extended by a two-year option until 2004. By that time, BRAMA is confident that it will have demonstrated that the PFI system can work well. It has shown the benefits of local training creating jobs for local people, that are providing stability and high morale for the workforce.

Having been selected as prospective fast-jet pilots following basic training on the Tucano T1, the students are posted to 4 FTS to learn the skills needed to become an operational fast-jet pilot. The ab-initio pilots begin their course with six weeks of rigorous ground school in the classroom. BAE Systems is contracted to complete this stage of the course and has a dedicated team of experienced ex- RAF instructors. The Hawk Cockpit Procedures Trainer (HCPT) is used to give the students a 'feel' of the aircraft and thorough understanding of the procedures and techniques involved in flying the Hawk. The students also utilise the on-site Hawk Weapons & Tactics Flight Simulator (HWTS) advanced simulator, becoming 'airborne' in the aircraft for the first time, if only in a virtual environment. Towards the end of the ground school phase the students undertake the most physically gruelling stage of the 4 FTS syllabus -the four-day advanced combat survival exercise in the mountains of Snowdonia. Taught how to survive in a range of conditions, the course includes post-ejection scenarios with increasing threat levels, helping to hone evasion and survival techniques. Having passed the groundschool phase, the students are finally ready for their first training sorties in the Hawk. The flying section of the 4 FTS syllabus is split into two phases flown by the two resident Hawk squadrons No 208(R) and No 19(R). It totals 106 hr 55 min of flight instruction and 57 hours of simulator time. Increased use of the simulator, which is seen as an invaluable training tool, will eventually bring the flying hours down to around 95. Each year 4 FTS is tasked with graduating 84 pilots of which 67 are for the RAF, 12 for the Royal Navy (destined to fly the Sea Harrier FA2) and five foreign and commonwealth or exchange pilots. Royal Navy pilots receive an additional eleven hours of flying training applicable to naval combat pilot needs. A Standards Evaluation Officer liaises between the commanding officer of each squadron and the Station Commander to ensure the required standards of each phase of the course are being met and, where possible, improved. Phase 1, the ab-initio Pilot Advanced Flying Training phase, is designed to take the student through basic handling of the Hawk aircraft through instrument and night flying, formation flying and navigation skills plus an introduction to low-level flying. With more contractorisation on the station, No 208(R) Squadron not only sees its role as producing the best-possible pilots for the second stage of the course, but also instilling a sense of history of both the squadron and the RAF. To this end, the No 208(R) Squadron operations building is decorated with squadron battle honours and achievements. During their time with 208(R) Squadron, the trainee pilot receives 47 hr 50 min of dual, 14 hr 50 min of solo and 36 hr of simulator training. Around 90-100 students commence No 208's training syllabus every year, with three courses (each lasting around 20 weeks) running concurrently, and each training up to 12 ab-initio pilots. As part of the drive to exact the maximum efficiency from the available aircraft, the arrangement is to be re-organised to provide four courses of 8-10 pilots running concurrently, with a total of 10 courses per year. It is estimated that this change will increase efficiency by some 10%. The flying stage commences with seven general handling sorties, providing the basic skills to fly the Hawk and involving much circuit training and emergency procedures such as engine failure. After these seven sorties the student gets to fly solo in the Hawk for the first time, before entering the instrument flying stage. With the Hawk's performance representing a big step up from aircraft types the student has previously flown, the speed at which events in the cockpit can change are all the more rapid. Therefore at the end of the seven instrument flying sorties the student must be able to demonstrate the ability to fly the aircraft with great accuracy, with no reference to the world outside the cockpit. Following on are four sorties of night flying in which the student utilises the newly acquired instrument flying skills to the fore. Ten more general handling sorties are then completed, encompassing more advanced manoeuvres, before the student undergoes a course progress check. Provided that progress is satisfactory, the next stage involves six close and five tactical formation flying sorties. Close formation flying teaches the student the discipline, concentration and skills needed to fly the aircraft in close proximity to another, whereas the tactical formation flying begins the process of teaching the discipline of flying as a wingman -the bread and butter of the frontline. Thirteen navigation training sorties follow, including an introduction to the highly demanding world of low-level navigation, culminating in the final navigation test. A further series of advanced handling sessions lead to the final handling test (FHT), which includes elements of all the disciplines already taught. Having successfully passed Phase 1 of the 4 FTS course, the majority of students pass onto the Tactical Weapons course (Phase 2) conducted by No 19(R) Squadron. However, around 20 students per year complete this stage of the training with the NATO Flying Training Canada (NFTC) in Canada. In addition, one or two of each course's graduates are 'creamed off' to become first tour instructors.

Having mastered the techniques in flying the Hawk with No 208(R) Squadron, Phase 2 of the 4 FTS course teaches the student how to use the aircraft as a weapon with No 19(R) Squadron based on the south side of the station. The phase involves 32 hr 20 min of dual, 11 hr 50 min of solo and 21 hours of simulator training. To pass Phase 2 the students must complete the two elements of No 19 Squadron's syllabus -the Weapons Phase and the Tactics Phase. The Weapons Phase introduces weapons aiming, control and delivery in a safe and controlled environment. The Phase begins with cine work, the students tracking a 'target', which is manoeuvring in a predictable pre-briefed way. This is followed by air- to-ground weapons training, the majority of which is conducted at the Air Weapons Range at RAF Pembrey Sands on the South Wales coast. To prevent wasteful transitioning to and from Valley a small Tactical Armament Facility is based at RAF St Athan, providing turnround servicing for the aircraft and overnight accommodation for the crew. The range work involves perfecting strafing techniques (using the Hawk's Aden cannon) on a strafe pattern target, along with dive- and level-bombing (using 3kg 1 practice bombs) aimed at specific dive circles or bomb targets. Having perfected weapons delivery, the student progresses to the Tactics Phase. The initial six sorties teach the basics of air combat manoeuvring in 1 v 1 scenarios. The student is then ready to learn missile fighting in the air defence role and fighting as a pair in 2 v 1 engagements. These skills are then tested as the students are taught how to engage the 'enemy' as a pair with the aid of ground control intercept (GCI). From higher level air combat, the syllabus then reverts to low-level work, with a series of tactical navigation exercises providing the student with the skills to navigate with great precision undetected, to a target at the exact second the mission profile demands. Depending on the weather conditions, low-level routes in North and South Wales, Scotland, the Lake District, Exmoor and even Yorkshire are utilised. Students must be particularly careful to avoid overflying small towns, villages or hamlets, although only some 15 per cent of the 4 FTS course is conducted at low-level Now competent at low-level flying, the next stage involves ten simulated attack profiles (SAPs). In pairs battle formation, level and dive attacks on a range of 'targets' are completed as well as visual and non- visual split attacks, during which timing and precise navigation to arrive over the target on time are crucial. The course concludes with the most demanding sorties that many of the pilots will ever fly in their careers. Known as 'bounced SAPs', they involve conducting a simulated attack on a field target, within ten seconds of a given time, while being subjected to simulated air attack from an 'enemy' aircraft. Flown both singly and as one of a pair, the techniques are sharpened until the student is ready for the final challenge -assuming the lead in a pairs battle formation 'bounced SAP' sortie. After successfully completing Phase 2, the students are then allocated to the aircraft type that best suits their skills. No 19 Squadron 'C' Flight is also responsible for training new instructors as part of the CFS course, as well as evaluating and testing current instructors.

The tasking for 4 FTS involves the graduation of 84 combat pilots per year. Yet for many years the unit has been falling short of this target for a variety of reasons. Firstly the problems associated with the introduction of BRAMA in the late 1990s, combined with spares shortages and a lack of available airframes, led to shortages of Hawks available on the flightline Secondly, weather conditions in winter at Valley have been the main cause of four in ten planned sorties being cancelled. Thirdly, experienced Qualified Flying Instructors (QFls) on both squadrons are operating at their maximum capacity, particularly in the summer months when longer days and finer weather creates opportunities to 'catch up' time. Indeed, in June 2002 over 300 sorties were flown on one busy day and with instructors regularly flying three sorties per day (each with a duration of over three hours including briefing and debriefing) fatigue levels are high and maximum permitted individual flying hours per week are reached early. This can result in days when there are few instructors available to fly. A lack of experienced QFls on No 208(R) Squadron (where 33% are 'creamies') also places a greater strain on the more experienced instructors. In 2001/02, 4 FTS achieved the qualification of 75 pilots, nine short of the target. To address the shortfall a new system named Target 160 is being implemented. The name Target 160 refers to the number of sorties (160) per day to achieve the annual task of 23,000 hours. This breaks down into 84 sorties by No 208(R) Squadron. 75 by 19(R) Squadron and one morning weather flight check/post-servicing air test. A range of measures is currently being implemented to enable 4 FTS to meet the demands of Target 160. QFI strength is to be increased to 40 for each squadron thus helping reduce the workload on the more experienced QFls. Aircraft flow rate from the airfield is to be increased to 17 per hour. To meet this increased flow rate the Hawks will require a 30-minute turnround time throughout the day. An increase in BRAMA personnel (flightline mechanics, bowser drivers etc) will help meet this aim, along with increased support and admin staff to reduce the QFI 'paperload'. A further major feature is the introduction of a new IT package (Flying Programme Tool) which creates the entire flying programme for each squadron each week, exacting the most efficient use of the instructor and aircraft resources. With these new measures in place, 4 FTS is confident that a 10-15% increase in efficiency will enable the target of 84 graduates per year to be reached. In fact, for 2002/2003 4 FTS is aiming at reaching a target of 93 graduates, a figure that could not be dreamt of a few years ago.

With Target 160 fully implemented and the relationship with BRAMA working well, the future of UK fast-jet training looks positive. The introduction of the Eurofighter Typhoon into service will, however, prove the next major challenge. Currently the top 30% of pilots are allocated to the highly demanding single-seat role (Harrier and Jaguar) with the remaining 70% allocated to ground-attack and air defence versions of the Tornado. With the introduction of the Typhoon, this ratio will reverse and a major challenge for 4 FTS will be to ensure that the standard of the top 30% of pilots currently achieved is replicated in the top 70% when operational Typhoon squadrons come on line. Additionally, the cockpit environment and fly-by-wire controls of the Typhoon are in stark contrast to the 1970s-vintage analogue displays and manual controls of the venerable Hawk. In an ideal world, the Hawk fleet would be refitted with new 'glass' cockpits with multi-function displays. However, it seems likely that Valley will have to wait until the introduction of the new training aircraft required under MFTS for this facility. Whatever the outcome of MFTS it seems likely that the Hawk will remain very much part of the scene at RAF Valley for the next ten years or so.

Hawk Synthetic Training Facility (HSFT)
Increasing the use of on-site simulator facilities will help 4 FTS meet the demands of Target 160. Since the introduction into service in January 1999, the Hawk Synthetic Training Facility, owned and run by BAe System (HST) Ltd. has been judged by many as the most successful Private Finance Initiative (PFI) within the British Armed Forces. Delivered on time and on budget, BAe Systems (HST) Ltd constructed a purpose-built simulator training centre and equipped the building with two state-of-the-art Hawk Weapons and Tactics Flight Simulators (HWTS), along with the HCPT classroom device during the classroom phase of the 4 FTS course and the Hawk Instrument Flight Simulator, used to perfect instrument flying techniques. The entire facility cost £18 million to build and a further %60-65 million over the 18-year duration of the contract.

The two HWTS each incorporate a fully representative Hawk cockpit inside a dome with a very wide field of view. The visual system is projected by a multi-channel high resolution display. Two further target projectors are capable of independently tracking high resolution targets. With the difficulty in projecting black light, other Hawk aircraft appear grey or in Red Arrows colours! The fixed position pilots 'G-seat' gives the impression of movement, without the problems of motion sickness. The two HWTS domes can be linked together to allow the pilots to fly together or, alternatively, engage each other in combat. The facility is charged for on the basis of its usage and all the instructors are ex-military fast-jet instructors. All aspects of the flying course are practised using the simulators, ranging from basic handling techniques, to formation ground-attack profiles. Such is the success of the HSTF facility that course simulator hours have already risen from 25 to 60 for each student and, with further equipment improvements planned, this is likely to rise even further in the future.

Part of the RAF's Air Warfare Centre, the Air Guided Weapons Operational Evaluation Unit is the largest uniformed unit on the base and is self-contained with its own engineering and supply sections. Having a direct association with 40 years of Valley-based air-to-air missile trial units, the AGWOEU's main task today is conducting Missile Practice Camps (MPC).
Each operational RAF combat squadron conducts at least one MPC each year, residing at the AGWOEU for one week. The missiles are supplied by AGWOEU and are 'built' by their own technicians, as stockpiling a large number of completed missiles is against explosive regulations.
Around 100 missiles and 100 bombs are expended each year on the nearby Aberporth range. AGWOEU's operations staff report on every firing in conjunction with DERA's Alpha Jet chase aircraft based at Llanbedr, providing analysis to improve tactics and weapon delivery.
In April 2004, the unit is due to move to RAF Coningsby as part of an amalgamated OEU in conjunction with the entry into service of the Eurofighter Typhoon.

RAF Valley's SAR Units
As well as the Hawks of 4 FTS, there are two lodger units on base which also have permanently attached aircraft. Both of these units are active in helicopter search and rescue (SAR).

'C' FLIGHT 22 SQUADRON operates two night vision goggle (NVG) capable Sea King HAR3s in the operational SAR role and is one of the busiest SAR flights in the UK carrying out around 300 rescue missions per year. Resident at Valley since 1956, the unit has a complement of five crews (each of four aircrew) working on 24-hour on-duty shifts. The tasking specifies that a Sea King is airborne within 15 minutes of receiving the emergency call, with the majority of missions involving rescuing stranded civilians from the mountains of North Wales

Co-located on the beach side of the airfield is the SEARCH AND RESCUE TRAINING UNIT (SARTU). A detachment of the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS), SARTU is a joint venture between the RAF and consortium comprising FR Aviation, Bristows Aviation and SERCO, known as FBS Ltd. The unit operates three Griffin HT1 s with a standard crew of five (three staff and two students). With nine instructor pilots and 14 rear crew instructors, SARTU provides the RAF with all its SAR flight crew needs as well as training small numbers of foreign crews and Army Air Corps rear crew. With the proximity of mountains, sea cliffs and training ships, Valley is an ideal location for the unit, which is now benefiting from a brand new virtual reality (VR) trainer in which the vital 'patter' between the winchman and the pilot is practised. In addition, improved pre-selection and training course refinements resulted in just one pilot and no rear crew failing the course in 2002, compared with the previous average failure rate of 35%.