We strive for higher things

The first of AirTanker’s Sponsored Reservist pilots to have completed training at RAF College Cranwell graduated at the end of last year. Voyager Media examines their role and reports on their experiences so far.

A few days before the Graduation of IOT 29 SERE and ROIT 51 at RAF College Cranwell, a supplementary note had been hurriedly circulated to invitees impressing the importance of bringing hats, scarves and gloves to the forthcoming ceremony. It noted that ‘temperatures frequently dropped below zero’ and that guests should ‘expect to be outside for a significant part of the ceremony’.

With December winds blowing in from Siberia, the advice was good. While the winter sun shone brightly, it delivered no warmth, the ice and frost remaining firmly fixed to the canopies of the beech trees surrounding the college, giving the graduation ceremony a distinctly seasonal setting.

It began with precision timing, the parade marching on to the band’s recital of ‘Holyrood’ almost to the second that the last guest had taken their seat. If the sun lacked punch, it did make for a glorious backdrop. As the graduates entered the parade ground in time honoured tradition, it caught the meticulously polished steel of their ceremonial swords, light appearing to dance between the blades.

But if tradition, heritage and culture were the order of the day it belied, something of an underlying shift. “As Reservists you could say we’re just dipping our toes in the water but that wouldn’t be a fair reflection, it’s much more than that”, says Flt Lt Mick Hollands.

“While we have been here [Cranwell] we have developed an understanding that the RAF is about much more than a uniform, that it represents and stands for something hugely important - when we’re in that uniform we need to live up to everything that goes with it - to be absolutely credible.”

He and his fellow officer Flt Lt Mark Windle, one of only a handful of recruits to have passed the course with merit, are the first of AirTanker’s Sponsored Reservist pilots to have completed officer training and to have graduated from Royal Air Force College Cranwell.

Employed by AirTanker, they are already hugely experienced commercial pilots and will play a pivotal role in the Voyager Programme by supporting air transport movements and where needed, the delivery of additional air-to-air refuelling capability.

If these are the specific advantages that the employment and potential deployment of Sponsored Reservists delivers to the Voyager Programme, it also has a far broader currency as recent government moves to give SRs a far greater role in supporting the UK’s defence interests have shown.

Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for Defence announced at the beginning of November that the Government would publish a white paper early this year [2012] outlining proposals to give Sponsored Reservists a far bigger role in the UK’s defence by 2018.

The Voyager Programme is in many respects at the vanguard of this process, integrating civilian and RAF embedded staff in its own operational teams, while supporting the Sponsored Reservist programme in its recruitment processes.

“It’s in some respects unusual in that when I come to work at exactly the same place, on some days I’m a civilian and on others, it’s going to be in a military capacity”, says Flt Lt Windle. “That’s a cultural change for Mick and I but one that, through our training at Cranwell, is now a less significant transition.

“As Reservists, the RAF hasn’t been a life time commitment for us in the way that it has for the pilots flying on No 10 Squadron. But as Sponsored Reservists, we have still made a significant commitment and believe that we can come to the role with credibility and an appreciation and understanding of the tradition and ethos of the RAF.”

And while their experience may be somewhat condensed, as Sponsored Reservists Flt Lt Windle and Flt Lt Hollands have none-the-less ‘put their time in’ in training.

They started their nine month programe at RAF Halton in March 2012. This was delivered in two stages: General Service Knowledge (GSK), something that may be a distant memory to some and more recent to others, followed by Basic Recruit Training (BRT).

“Mark and the other officer cadets had been there a couple of days ahead of me”, reflects Flt Lt Hollands, “and had already had a couple of days to adjust.

“I remember it distinctly, I walked in on a room where a groups of grown men were having incredibly involved conversations about how to carry a book 200 yards between one building to the next; how they were going to march, how they were going to transport it?

“To me, walking in cold from a civilian environment for the first time, the level of detail of the conversation just seemed incredible. Why would you march when you could walk?

“But after a while you recognise and understand that it isn’t simply a petty exercise it’s about enforcing and building a team. You march – you don’t question.”

Having done their time in the rain and mud on operational exercises and with a basic mastery of drill, both progressed to Reserve Officer Introductory Training (ROIT) at Cranwell. An experience that left a lasting impact on the officer recruits.

Flt Lt Windle explains: “There is an all-encompassing focus on leadership. That includes a huge amount of peer review and it does change you in the way that you behave and in the way that you define yourself in relation to others. There is a huge sense of responsibility to your team and those around you.”

And it was this sense of duty and responsibility that, despite the odd moment of humour as the Band of the Royal Air Force College gave a seasonal rendition of ‘Sleigh Ride’, defined the graduation ceremony. It served to reinstate and indeed, as the motto on the College’s crest reminds those graduates passing beneath it, that they and the RAF, ‘Strive for higher things’.

The role of Sponsored Reservists in delivering the RAF’s wider responsibilities was acknowledged by Air Commodore David Stubbs, Commandant Royal Air Force College Cranwell. “Reservists in today’s Royal Air Force are a vital part of the Whole Force. They do real jobs on real operations day in, day out. They train and work alongside their regular peers and are very much part of the RAF story. The sponsored Reserves operating Voyager are right at the heart of today’s RAF.’’

Flt Lt Hollands concludes: “The ‘barriers’ that perhaps existed between Mark and I, as civilian recruits and the RAF and military seemed to dissolve in training. You learn to understand the culture, what everyone is working together to achieve.

“As Sponsored Reservists we want to be equally credible in the things that we do in supporting those larger objectives.”

10 January 2013