Kevin Wright looks at the RAF's presence in Northern Ireland, shortly to be withdrawn. Pictures by the author and Crown Copyright
There was a time when being posted to RAF Aldergrove and 230 Squadron in Northern Ireland would virtually guarantee an 'interesting' tour, with plenty of tactical operational flying and a satisfying job of work. During the height of the 'Troubles', Aldergrove was an extremely busy station - at its peak, nineteen Pumas were operated from the station, co-located alongside a large Army Air Corps contingent of Gazelles, Lynxes and Islanders. Operational flying was a twenty-four hour, three hundred-and-sixty-five days a year commitment with particular peaks, such as during the summer 'Marching Season', but rarely quiet.
Life has changed dramatically for 230 Squadron and the AAC at Aldergrove in recent years; the demands are still considerable, but operating in Northern Ireland itself is markedly different. For some thirty-eight years 'Operation BANNER' was the collective name given to military operations in the province, designed to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its successor the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland), a mission to which the RAF and AAC contributed significantly. Operational flying involved transporting troops and material to fixed and field locations around the six counties, as well as undertaking monitoring and surveillance missions. During operation BANNER, to transport and insert or extract troops it was often necessary for 230 Squadron Pumas to fly at low-level, conduct tactical approaches, landing in fields and remote locations and get airborne very rapidly, constantly on the lookout for any threat. The considerable practice this afforded meant that pilots could achieve a high level of operational proficiency very quickly. As the local demands on the Squadron and other military units in the province gradually diminished during the development of the peace process, it freed badly needed resources for use by the RAF and Army elsewhere.
Operation BANNER formally terminated on 31 July 2007, marking the end of a significant shift in the role of military forces in Northern Ireland and the longest operation in British military history. In reality, the drawdown of forces had been ongoing for some years as the peace developed. For 230 squadron its commitments to the civil power and PSNI support missions had been reducing for sometime and had ended, for all practical purposes, almost a year prior to the formal conclusion.
At RAF Aldergrove the site occupied by the military has shrunk considerably in recent years as military operations have reduced. The resident 5 Regiment AAC now retains a small complement of Gazelle AH-1s with 665 Squadron, optimised for the air surveillance role, and by 1 Flight's Islanders. The Regiment's primary role is to provide training support to Army units prior to deployment on overseas operations and, when requested, airborne surveillance to PSNI and other police units in the British Isles. The British Army continues to need this capability for its counter insurgency operations and 5 Regiment has accumulated considerable expertise and experience in this task over the years. The unit is expected to continue operating in this role for the immediate future and Aldergrove provides a well equipped base from which to operate.
655 Squadron, previously equipped with Lynxes, was disbanded during 2007 with its helicopters redistributed around the AAC Lynx fleet. 230 Squadron currently has only a few Pumas based in the province as at any one time many of its aircraft and a substantial number of personnel are contributing to operations in Iraq. 5 Regiment's assets and 230's Pumas, and their associated personnel, provide all of the Joint Helicopter Force's (NI) rotary wing assets.
The end of Operation BANNER meant that flying and training operations have had to change too, assuming more 'normal' peacetime dimensions. Training for operations in Iraq is currently the key task and so new locations for practice landings and training are constantly being sought from local landowners and farmers. As the military presence at RAF Aldergrove has contracted, the positive evolution of the peace process has seen the continued civilian expansion of Belfast International Airport on the other side of the airfield providing a mix of air traffic, incoming civil airliners and Pumas and Gazelles operating alongside each other.
The RAF Puma community has always been a small one. Deliveries of the original order for forty Pumas began in 1971, supplemented with a further eight airframes delivered in 1980-81. A further example - ZE449 - was added to the RAF fleet in 2001, nearly twenty years after its capture from Argentine forces in the Falklands. Recent figures released to the House of Commons indicate that approximately thirty-eight or so Pumas remain available today; however, these are shared between operations in Iraq, new pilot training, routine commitments, training, deep maintenance and repairs, meaning the Puma force is heavily stretched and at any one time probably numbers only around twenty-five available aircraft, split between 33 and 230 Squadrons. Not to forget, of course, that most of the airframes are well over thirty years old.
Given that the RAF Puma fleet is small and overstretched, an opportunity to acquire some second-hand airframes was not overlooked. In 2002 the Ministry of Defence purchased six ex-South African Air Force machines, of which four were to be made flyable, the remaining two currently held at the MoD Llangennech store (itself closing down). After work had been undertaken at Eurocopter Romania (IAR), the airframes were sent to WestlandAgusta for final Anglicisation, involving removal of more powerful engines used on South African variants and equipment - essentially sacrificing better equipment for the advantages of RAF fleet standardisation. One of these ex-South African aircraft, ZJ956 (ex 172), is the latest addition to 230's Puma complement, having arrived in summer 2007.
EADS recently won a contract to assess the possible upgrading of up to thirty-five airframes to HC2 standard. Likely improvements would include newer, more powerful Makila engines, glass cockpit, new communications and navigation equipment plus defensive aids. An upgrade to HC-2 standard could see the Pumas remain in service until 2022 - this assessment phase is due for completion during 2008.
230 Squadron, like all RAF squadrons, has a proud heritage, but its 'Tiger' status inevitably gives it that extra esprit d'corps too. It moved to Aldergrove from RAF Gutersloh in 1992 with some thirteen aircraft after having served in the Gulf War in 1990-91. Aldergrove is a popular location with squadron personnel, many having made permanent homes nearby. 230 Squadron is keen to maintain its Tiger links, as the walls of the Squadron operations building testifies. Indeed a 'Mini Tiger Meet' was the theme for the 2007 Families Day (see Air-Scene UK May 2007).
230 must also have one of the most attractive outlooks of any RAF squadron Operations Room - from it one can look out across the ramp area, beyond which Lough Neagh provides a spectacular backdrop.
Whilst the Squadron may currently be significantly smaller than it was a few years ago (six Pumas were removed from its complement in a round of reductions in 2004), the pressures on it continue. Training priorities are currently centred on preparing crews for deployment to Iraq. Pre-deployment training requires ensuring pilots and aircrew have opportunities to become fully combat ready and are current on low flying, night and tactical approach procedures. Ground crews and aircrews deploy to Iraq for three-month periods and many have now gone there several times.
Return from deployment provides the opportunity for leave and settling back in to peacetime routines - on return from deployment pilots are put through a 'reset' sortie flying process that allows them re-acclimatise themselves to operating in the local, less hostile, environment now enjoyed in the North.
The future for 230 Squadron is positive - as one might expect with the ongoing high level of RAF commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan, the squadron's Pumas - as are all of the UK's helicopter forces - are in high demand. The continued high demand for battlefield support helicopters means that the Puma will probably remain in service for many more years, hopefully soon in upgraded form.
This April, Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth announced it had been decided to relocate 230 Squadron to RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. "This will establish a coherent Puma (helicopter) force on a single site, enabling the improvement of Puma force capability," he said. About six hundred of the seven hundred RAF personnel at Aldergrove will be moved to Benson.
The MoD then intends to relocate 38 Engineer Regiment from Massereene Barracks in Antrim to RAF Aldergrove. The relocations are expected to be completed by the end of 2010 - the cut-back is unconnected with the peace process reductions in troop levels and base closures which were finally completed in Northern Ireland by the MoD last autumn. Mr Ainsworth said: "These changes will not impact on our commitments in support of the civilian authorities in Northern Ireland. Aldergrove will remain a military flying station for the Army Air Corps for the foreseeable future." He said the RAF would continue to use Northern Ireland airspace for training and a limited number of RAF personnel would remain in joint or specialist appointments in units in Northern Ireland.
Thanks to Mrs Claire Moore, RAF Aldergrove, for her kind assistance and patience