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At one of our regular REA Committee meetings we were discussing where we could go to for an REA day out we were planning, and a few suggestions came up with the better ones coming from our REA Secretary George McGrandles. George had been at a multi-agency training and planning day where he got friendly with Wing Commander Bob Lander from RAF Leuchars.
Bob graciously extended an open invitation to George to visit the base and we took Bob up on his generous offer. After lots of emails regarding dates, times, numbers, duration of visit, security etc. a date was finally set and notice sent out to all REA members by email or letter; on a first come first served basis due to the fact that places were limited. The fact that RAF Leuchars only allow 7 visits per year to the general public made the visit that bit more special.
Using an SFR personnel carrier we left Clarkston Fire Station with half our members and picked up the rest at Cowcaddens Fire Station; and it was good to see that we had members from Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, Dumbarton, Lanarkshire and Glasgow amongst our entourage. We then set off on our journey through Stirlingshire, Kinross and onto the Kingdom of Fife, arriving at the RAF base at noon. We were met at the gates of the base by armed guards who directed us to the main reception building where we were met by Keith, a Flight Lieutenant, our guide for the day and an officer of many years experience. We were taken into one of the large lecture halls, greeted with coffee and biscuits then given a welcome by the base Senior Officer before being handed over to Keith who gave us a very fine, informative presentation about the base and its day to day concerns.
The primary role of the aircraft on the base is to police and defend the air space over Scotland. They are a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) squadron who give support for other military operations as well as being able to shadow and contact any unidentified aircraft that enter Great Britain airspace that may pose a threat to national security. There used to be 3 squadrons at RAF Leuchars with 15 planes per squadron but are now down to one with an uncertain future due to Government defence cuts. They are replacing the old Tornado aircraft which are coming to the end of their working lives, with the new £66 million per aircraft Typhoons. It takes 3 years to train a pilot and they can serve until they are 55.
The base is also famous for its annual Leuchars Air Show which attracts 40,000 people for the weekend. It costs about £1 million to stage each year but that money is raised by sponsorship from businesses, selling space on the base for food vans, sales units etc, which all help to make it the outstanding success it is.
There’s also an RAF Mountain Rescue Unit on the base who rescued 31 people last year alone. As we noticed on arrival, there are armed guards part of whose job is to patrol the outside of the air base to stop any possible hand held missiles from being fired at the aircraft as they take off or land, where the aircraft are at their most vulnerable as has happened in Afghanistan.
The aircraft are all fully armed before take off and the QRA squadron were scrambled on more than 20 occasions last year. As in SFR, the RAF personnel are constantly training, upping their skills level, leadership skills, team skills etc and there’s also a University Air Squadron of students who join whilst studying, learn a lot of skills then decide if they would like to have a career in the RAF, much like our own Fire Cadets in SFR. There is also a Station Charities Action Group which raises money for charity, RAF personnel who volunteer to do fundraising activities to help a host of local and national charities. They have raised over £1 million in the last 10 years.
We were then taken round the base for the next few hours by coach with Keith giving us our first stop at the Defence Fire & Rescue base fire station. There we met Station Manager Dave Gillespie who gave us a very informative talk on the differences between Defence fire fighting and our own local authority fire service procedures. Because of the live arms danger on the aircraft the fire engines are specific to the risk.
On each Watch there are 10 personnel and 3 vehicles for a 12 hour day shift and 6 personnel and 2 vehicles for a 12 hour night shift; simply because all the flying hours are usually during the day except for troop movements or special events or larger aircraft arriving. There is a different response to the different sizes of aircraft coming in: ranging from 6 to 12 firefighters and 2 to 4 fire appliances; much like our own PDA. There are two types of airport fire appliance; the Mobile Foam Unit, costing £800,000 which carries 8000 litres of water and foam, doesn’t need hydrants and can throw a jet over 50 metres, lasting just over a minute long.
The other appliance, the Rapid Intervention Vehicle, costs £500,000 and can produce foam whilst driving to the incident. The guys use a special foam, FFFP foam, that adheres to the fuselage and the jet operator has to direct the jet to the datum line of larger aircraft to ensure that they cover the underside of the aircraft where all the danger is and create a foam blanket over the aircraft – easier said than done. A few of us got a shot of using the jet from the roof of the appliance and it’s not as easy as it looks. We also had a drive down the side runway and over the airport training ground to get a feel of how it handles and the size of the appliance – boys with toys, but it was great!! The Defence firefighters also carry out fire risk assessment inspections for all the base buildings and other defence areas such as Rosyth Dockyard. They also do Home Fire Safety Visits for the numerous accommodation blocks and houses on the base and deal with any initial fires in the base housing until the Fife Fire & Rescue guys get there. T
hey also work with the Fife local authority firefighters during the annual Leuchars Air Show where the local authority firefighters cover the buildings and the Defence firefighters cover any aircraft incidents. We were then taken to the base training rooms where Pilot Officer John Simcox gave us a Capabilities Brief on the new Typhoon aircraft which is an all weather, day and night multi- role Combat Aircraft where the crews have a first-in, last out mentality. It was originally designed to counter cold war fighters for home defence but the Typhoons now fly Counter Insurgency and Expeditionary Operations.
They are a relatively new aircraft, having gone into service in 2005 in RAF Coningsby, then in 2010 in RAF Leuchars. It is a Eurofighter, having being designed and built by the combined efforts and skills of Italy, Spain, UK, and Germany with future sales to India, Japan and Oman in the pipeline. It flies at 920mph, can travel from London to Edinburgh in 30 minutes, can reach 55,000 feet in 90 seconds where commercial aircraft take much longer to reach their 30-40,000 feet airspace; whereas a roller coaster can give you a force of 2-3 g’s, the Typhoon impasses up to 9 g’s on the pilots; it has a 40,000 lbs thrust which is 300 times the power of a Formula One racing car; it has 10 different missiles that can be launched at supersonic speed and the flight console is all computerised now – no dials or clocks. The logo on the side of the Typhoon is a flying can-opener – a very apt description of the capabilities of this aircraft. PO John then took us all into the aircraft hanger and gave us a guided tour of a Typhoon, pointing out all the salient points and allowing us all to climb the scaffolding to see inside the pilots’ cockpit. You would need to be a Philadelphia lawyer to understand anything in there! An amazing aircraft.
We then went to the base’s Air Traffic Control Tower where we watched the planes taking off and landing and being plotted in and out. By this time it was getting dark and some of the pilots took the opportunity to get some night flight time under their belt. We watched a simulated forced landing of a ‘rogue’ plane onto the runway as part of the pilots’ training. Then we went to their survival training building to see a range of their survival equipment and learn of the operational ‘ditch ‘ procedure which can change depending on where the pilot has to ditch, sea, desert, forest or whatever. They have emergency escape parachutes, search and rescue equipment, liferaft assemblies, aircraft survival packs with a multitude of small tools and tricks to aid survival, all of which are built into or under the aircraft ejector seat.
There are 4 main tenets for survival techniques: 1. Protection from the elements, whether sea, sand, arctic or jungle conditions. 2. The location of the ditch, whether the pilot has to hide or can openly await rescue. 3. Water; a ready supply for short term or how to purify dirty water for longer term rescue or survival. 4. Food, how and what to eat for survival – bugs, insects, berries, fish, birds etc. All the aircrew are supplied with a personal survival pack and a single survival raft – not a lot is left to chance.
Our guide Keith often went on expeditions during his career and lived off the land for weeks on end – a hardy guy indeed. All too soon the visit was over, albeit about an hour and a half over time as we all asked questions and took photos where we were allowed to. It was then a case of back into the personnel carrier, flasks of coffee and rolls then head off back to our base. An excellent day that was enjoyed by all – and one which, because of all the behind the scenes access we were afforded, would be impossible to get as a member of the general public. The REA strikes again!