When I got a phone call on a busy deadline day in the Mercury newsroom asking if I wanted to fly in a RAF plane, I thought it was a joke.
It’s not every day you get opportunities like that, even working for a newspaper. But just five days later - on Wednesday last week - I found myself sitting in a training room at RAF Wittering, learning how to parachute out of the plane should the worst happen and, suddenly, the joke didn’t seem that funny anymore.
After the hour-long training session, it was time to put on a green flying suit, white gloves and a helmet - complete with visor, microphone and headphones inside so I could communicate with the pilot inside the tiny but noisy Grob Tutor aircraft.
Luckily I was in the safe hands of Squadron Leader Ben Plank, commanding officer of the University of London Air Squadron. Part of the flight would be in formation with Sqn Ldr Plank’s counterpart from the Cambridge University Air Squadron Rich Kellett, so a briefing followed between the two of them which mostly went over my head.
I was warned I’d feel nauseous and handed a sick bag to tuck into a pocket on my knee and then climbed into the cockpit over the wing.
While I sat in the cockpit staring at the numerous dials, cluelessly, Sqn Ldr Plank flicks the switches and scans his eyes over them with a military precision.
Sqn Ldr Plank is no stranger to the planes that are so affectionately associated with RAF Wittering - the Harrier - and he’s also a former Red Arrows pilot, so the nervousness I anticipated I’d feel as we taxied along the runway is nowhere to be found.
It’s hard to make out the pilot’s voice among the many coming from the earphones, both from the following plane carrying Sqn Ldr Kellett and the air traffic control back at the base, and I momentarily wonder whether he can hear my ‘Yes I’m ok’ responses.
It’s a sunny but hazy day so as we rise into the sky, you can clearly see Stamford below and the surrounding villages, as we head towards a vast expanse of water - Rutland Water. Of course, I’ve been there many times but I’ve never fully appreciated how huge it is until I’m soaring above it.
Sqn Ldr Plank tells me we’re flying at 3,000ft - the perfect height to not be a nuisance to the residents below. “It’s not a noisy roar but it’s an incessant noise,” says Sqn Ldr Plank. “Almost like a hedge trimmer going all the time - we try to cause as little inconvenience as we can while still doing our job.”
The plane can go as high as 10,000ft but becomes wobblier and therefore more difficult to control, the higher it flies.
Out of the window I can see Sqn Ldr Kellett, flying almost too close for comfort. But as we break away, it’s time for the fun bit - aerobatic manoeuvres, including a loop, a barrel roll and a half cuban. Each time, you can feel the G-Force pushing you into your seat and all of the manouevres are followed by a ‘Are you OK?’ But the question is always followed by an enthusiastic ‘YES’.
All too soon, it’s time to head back to RAF Wittering - via Stamford again, where I wave to the Mercury office. If my colleagues are waving back, they’re too small to see from up here but you can clearly see the bigger buildings of the town. Sqn Ldr Plank, who lives in Stamford himself, points out Morrisons and Sainsbury’s supermarkets and of course, Burghley House not too far away from the town - as stunning as ever from the sky.
As we arrive back at the base, there’s just time to show me one last thing - a touch-and-go. Sqn Ldr Plank brings the plane in as if to land, the wheels meet the runway briefly, and then we rise again - the aim to teach the pilots of the future how to land many times. We circle back round before landing again, this time it’s for good and the photographer is waiting to greet me on the runway.
For me this was a once in a lifetime opportunity but for Sqn Ldrs Plank and Kellett, this is everyday life. They fly up to three times a day for up to an hour at a time. After the Harriers were retired in December 2010, RAF Wittering was reactivated as an active flying base in 2014 before the first Grob Tutors arrived at RAF Wittering, the following April. Since then they’ve become a feature of the skies across Stamford, Peterborough and the surrounding areas.
The station, primarily a logisitics base, went through extensive and thorough preparations for the arrival of the new flying squadrons, starting with the reactivation of the airfield and air traffic control, through to the installation of radar and the construction of two new buildings for the incoming squadrons.
The role of the 15 University Air Squadrons based across the country is to offer flying training to promising undergraduate students and giving them the chance to experience life in the Royal Air Force. It’s no small task either - the RAF aims to recruit 30 per cent of its intake from these University Air Squadrons so it’s imperative to leave an impression on these students. It is unusual, however, for two University Air Squadrons to be based at the same place but it’s clear from the camarederie between the two squadron leaders that it can be mutually beneficial.
Additionally, volunteers - current and former RAF pilots - also run the 5 Air Experience Flight from RAF Wittering giving air cadets the chance to experience flying in these microlight planes, at least once a year.
And 16 Squadron, led by commanding officer Carl Melen, also make use of the Grob Tutors, providing 50 hours of flying training to future Royal Air Force pilots, including basic skills, navigation and aircraft handling skills. I laugh as he tells me that it’s “unlucky for some” trip 13 where the pilots get their first chance to fly alone. Upon completion, successful pilots are streamed into advanced training programmes for fast jet or multi-engine planes. The squadron is part of No 3 Flying Training School, an organisation headquarted at RAF Cranwell, near Sleaford, responsible for the flying training of novice pilots, not just from the air force but also from the navy and the army. But they all started out in one of the tiny microlight planes that I got the chance to fly in.
Sqn Ldr Carl Melen said: “The RAF flight training is considered to be world class and that is what we deliver here at RAF Wittering.”