The Duchess of Cambridge got a glimpse of the work of the RAF Air Cadets during a visit to RAF Wittering on Tuesday morning.
She was visiting in her capacity as the Honorary Air Commandant of the RAF Air Cadets - a role she has held since December 2015 - and she met a number of the 150 young air cadets who were on a Skills Development Camp for half-term this week. The aim was for her to see a range of activities during the camps which are a key part of the RAF Air Cadet experience.
An air of excitement awaited her at RAF Wittering where first thing on Tuesday morning an announcement had gone out on the tannoy that said: “HRH The Duchess of Cambridge will be visiting the station today. All personnel are to be punctilious in the paying of compliments, particularly when vehicles with pennants are nearby.”
Punctual, the Duchess arrived at the base a few minutes before 11.30am, having travelled up from London by train to Peterborough Station and then taking the remainder of the journey by car. She was driven from the station’s entrance to a bright - but breezy and chilly - airfield, packed with about 50 photographers, reporters and television crews.
There had been speculation beforehand that she might be wearing red in a nod to Valentine’s Day and she didn’t disappoint when she exited the white car onto the airfield. She was wearing a red double breasted coat, a black polo neck jumper beneath and black jeans with black knee-high boots and her long brown locks initially tied back in a loose ponytail - with natural make-up, pearl earrings and her sparkly sapphire engagement ring clear to see.
It was the Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire Sir Hugh Duberly and the Lord Lieutenant of Rutland Dr Laurence Howard, who had the honour of greeting her first and she could be heard to politely say: “It’s really nice to meet you” to each. She was also introduced to Air Commodore Dawn McCafferty, Commandant of the Air Cadet Organisation, and the station commander Group Captain Richard Pratley - before being led to her first experience by Flight Lieutenant Neil Moxon, Officer Commanding 5 Air Experience Flight - the chance to see a Grob Tutor up close.
Greeting her at the wing were cadets Erin Hope, Joshua Wait and Emily Empringham - all from the 1406 (Spalding) Squadron - and Erin told the gathered media beforehand that she was “definitely nervous” to meet the high-profile Royal. But all went smoothly and the Duchess happily climbed into the small aircraft, which are routinely used for first-time flyers. But The Duchess kept her feet firmly on the ground this time and was happy to be shown the controls of the aircraft by Cadet Sergeant Jordan Bertalaso, a qualified aerospace instructor from Spalding.
Afterwards he said the visit had passed by in a blur but admitted to feeling nervous.
“It’s one of those things that I just can’t remember the whole thing,” he laughed. “I only found out a few days ago which was long enough to start to panic but not long enough to get into a real state.
“She was so nice though and she seemed very relaxed. We spoke a little bit about William and the difference between the Grob and the helicopter. She seemed very interested in the Grob and the controls.
“It was definitely a moment of fame and something to remember, or at least try to! Hopefully it will help to raise the profile of the cadets which can only be a good thing. But it went by so quickly,” Jordan said.
The Duchess’ next stop was taking the controls of a flight simulator - a little back to front as air cadets would normally train on the simulator before taking to the air. It was thankfully indoors and the Duchess, who had released her locks from the ponytail, remarked with some relief as she stepped inside: “It’s definitely warmer in here.”
Flight Lieutenant Michael Salter, an adult volunteer, was on hand to explain the purpose of the flight simulator, which simulates a journey over the skies surrounding RAF Wittering - including Rutland Water nearby - in a Valiant motorglider aircraft.
Beforehand, he said: “It’s my job to teach people on the flight simulator and today is no different to that. I’m told she hasn’t done it before but I’m sure she will be a natural. I’d be surprised if she hadn’t asked her husband for a few tips as every pilot will have trained on something similar.”
Flt Lt Salter helped the Duchess get a handle on the steering column before she was left to “fly” the plane, with lots of giggles coming from her. As she finished her flight, she told Flt Lt Salter: “It was very good but it’s quite an unusual feeling.”
Flight Sergeant Jordan Avery, who had already completed the flight simulator training, was in the seat having a go when the Duchess arrived and he was greeted with: “You’re one of the experienced ones! It’s my first go, be kind.”
Afterwards, Jordan, 18, who lives in Spalding, said: “It was definitely not something you do every day and I don’t get nervous about many things but I was a little bit nervous. But she did really well on the sim. It was a pretty good first go.”
It was then back outside for the Duchess who took part in a game called Riverbank - which involved hopping back and forth over a rope on the command of outreach manager Flight Lieutenant Bruce Petitt - along with about 14 cadets, the youngest just 12. Those that hopped forward or backward when they had not been told to were ‘out’ and the Duchess even won one of the games much to her delight! But later she stumbled forward when she had clearly not meant to and laughed as it was ‘declared’ she was out.
The games out on the base drew a huge crowd and among them were Janet Thorp and Suzanne Blackman who had stopped work in their office opposite the games area to see the Duchess and grab a ‘selfie’ with the Duchess in the background of the shot.
Janet said: “I think she is absolutely lovely - we couldn’t miss the chance to see her.” And Suzanne added: “You would never think she’s royalty the way she’s playing with the children. She looks so nice and kind and I can’t believe how slim she is.”
Heading back indoors, the Duchess had a quick break before she moved onto the weapons room in her whistle-stop tour of the cadets’ activities.
There eight cadets were dismantling unarmed guns while the Duchess watched. She took time to speak to each of the four pairs, asking about their ambitions and whether they enjoyed the course. She listened intently as Flt Lieutenant Debra Evans explained how the three-day weaponry course works.
Among those who got to meet her were Oliver Harvey, 18, and 15-year-old Harvey Russell.
Oliver said: “It was good fun and she was so lovely. She showed quite an interest in what we wanted to do in our careers.”
Harvey added: “I’ve always wanted to join the RAF and I hope this will be a good stepping stone. She was really enthusiastic about that.”
Her final stop on the visit was to sign ‘Catherine’ in the visitors book and have an official photograph taken with 62 cadets and their instructors. RAF Wittering’s official photographer had set up the camera ready and was checking it over as she awaited the Duchess’ arrival - but when it came time to take the photo, the flash failed and the station commander Group Captain Richard Pratley joked: “Defence cuts” - and laughter rang out from the cadets young and old.
After the official photograph was finally captured, the Duchess was presented with a limited edition RAF Air Cadet 75th anniversary print by Air Commodore McCafferty.
She bid farewell to those who had greeted her, telling the Lord Lieutenant of Rutland Dr Laurence Howard that it had a “really good day” and that she had enjoyed seeing a range of what the cadets do. Her car whisked her away at 1.30pm prompt.
Afterwards, Dr Howard said: “It was a wonderful opportunity for the young people here at the base to meet her and you could almost see a huge sense of fun. Those young people will remember today forever.
“She spoke personally to me about my role and my interest in the cadet force and I suggested she should would be very welcome in Rutland at some stage. She said she would love to so we must find something for her to come and visit.”
Air Commodore McCafferty, who had met the Duchess twice before, said: “It was a delight to welcome the Duchess to RAF Wittering and to see her joining in with the activities with our young cadets and adult volunteers.
“Her personal support of the RAF Air Cadets is very much appreciated. She is so easy going and personable. She puts everyone at ease so the cadets didn’t feel overawed and she took the time to speak to so many people. It was been such a fantastic visit and I’m so pleased with how it’s gone.”
And Group Captain Pratley added: “It has been an honour to welcome HRH The Duchess of Cambridge to RAF Wittering to see some of the facilities we offer to cadets to help inspire the next generation.”
It is the third occassion the Duchess has met with cadets since HRH The Duke of Edinburgh handed patronage of the national youth organisation to her. Her prior engagements involving air cadets have included the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, in July 2016, and the launch of the RAF Air Cadet 75th anniversary celebrations in London in February 2016. But Tuesday’s visit though marked the first time she had seen what the cadets get up to.