Damien Burke reports from Brize Norton on a recent C-17 exercise
The week of 10 May onwards found RAF Brize Norton busy pretending to be somewhere else. A major exercise was put on to give personnel - of all ranks and trades - experience in deployment to a simulated deployed base along with training in security, defence and survival under operational conditions.
So first thing on Monday found a solitary C-17 (the RAF's other three being busy doing 'real' work elsewhere) loaded up with pallets and awaiting a human cargo of RAF Regiment personnel. The plan combined circuit training for the C-17 crew with a deployment of the RAF Regiment and rapid offloading of the cargo of pallets.
The C-17, described as 'marvellous' and 'a fantastic aircraft' by both the crews and RAF Brize Norton's Station Commander, is a seriously impressive bit of kit. Able to hold an entire C-130 load of cargo on its rear ramp alone, it can carry out taskings that would require four C-130s, and complete them in far less time. Currently leased from Boeing, the RAF is still looking at buying their own examples and from the amount of use they've had from the leased examples it would seem to be a no-brainer to decide to buy a few.
The C-17 can squeeze into a runway of only 300 meters length and 90 meters wide, and to practice this the runway at Brize Norton has a pair of boxes painted on it. Land in a box, stop by the second one, and you've successfully managed a short field landing. It's harder than it sounds, the boxes look absolutely tiny from the air and the distance between them not much larger!
Airborne with our load of troops and pallets and with a few practice circuits out of the way, it's time for our tactical short-field landing. Sadly low cloud means no exciting Sarajevo approach, but getting the aircraft down into the box is exciting enough and we arrive firmly to say the least. Reverse thrust kicks in and before you know it we are turning off the runway to the allocated zone for kicking everybody - and everything - out the back.
Media bods get a chance to get off first, then it's time for the troops to disembark in an orderly manner. While they are getting their gear sorted out in their new home for the week, the C-17's crew are getting ready for the rapid offload of their pallet cargo. Not all airfields have ground handling equipment - and sometimes with hostile locals you don't want to be sat on the ground taking things out carefully anyway. So the rapid offload is a simple matter of opening the ramp, taking the brakes off the rear pallet and taxiing forward. The pallets just slide out the back and bang - bang - bang - bang they're all on the ground behind the aircraft, which is proceeding down the taxiway (or in real life, getting airborne again). It all happens far faster than reading about it and amply demonstrates why this aircraft type has taken part in every single theatre of operations since it was introduced.
The 99 Squadron crews are clearly immensely proud of their aircraft - it's one of the most advanced types in RAF service, with a cockpit packed with glowing CRTs and fighter-style HUDs and joysticks as a finishing touch. The contrast with the mostly ageing Herc fleet and the converted airliners that make up the majority of Brize Norton's based aircraft could not be more striking. That it was only brought into service as a stop-gap measure makes it all the more amazing, and a rare unqualified success in defence procurement!
The exercise goes on throughout the week - five days, twenty-four hours a day - and just about everybody on the station gets involved at some point or another. It's the biggest exercise Brize have held for ten years, and viewed as an essential part of training particularly given the ever-increasing commitments of our ever-shrinking forces. As something out of the ordinary, it's also surprisingly popular with those taking part. Even the deputy CRO gets to model her camouflage gear...!
With thanks to RAF Brize Norton Station Commander Group Captain Jon Lamonte, Squadron Leader David Rowe, Kate Zasada and the crew of C-17 ZZ174.