Quietly, poignantly, the Service Medals of Major the Hon Laurence J. E. Twisleton-Wykenham-Fiennes, the first Officer Commanding of No. 101 Squadron, hang on the wall of a third floor corridor within the Voyager and AirTanker Hub. Formed on 12 July 1917 at South Farnborough as the second of the Royal Flying Corps’ specialist night bomber units, two weeks later he was to lead his men and No. 101 Sqn into action over the Western Front.
This was to be at the controls of the FE2b, the two seater pusher bi-plane - the ‘F’ standing for ‘Farman’ the ‘E’ for ‘Experimental’. This was indeed an aircraft which stood up to its name. “When you stood up to shoot, all of you from the knees up was exposed to the elements. There was no belt to hold you. Only your grip on the gun and the sides of the nacelle stood between you and eternity”, noted one American observer.
Carrying out daring nighttime raids at the Battle of Menin Ridge, throughout the Battles of Ypres and Cambrai, it was the beginning of a proud history of service. Approaching a century later, those stories of sacrifice from the Somme to Suez, Berlin to Baghdad, in Malaya, the Falklands and Afghanistan, are remembered in memorial in the corridors of the Squadron’s new RAF Brize Norton home.
And off those corridors No 101 Squadron is writing a new chapter in that history, with a technically advanced new aircraft, supported by a new and no less pioneering model of delivery.
“I have flown light aircraft and big ‘old school’ aircraft, but Voyager is something different”, says Wing Commander Ronnie Trasler, Officer Commanding No. 101 Squadron.
He continues: “In its air transport ‘A330’ role it’s great and where we have been flying air-to-air refuelling sorties Voyager has shown that she has the basis of being a great tanker.”
An incarnation of the Airbus Military new-generation Multi Role Tanker Transport aircraft (MRTT) RAF Voyager is the only aircraft of its type, fully certified to perform air transport and air-to-air refuelling roles simultaneously.
Able to carry 111 tonnes of fuel, Voyager does so without the requirement for additional fuel tanks, which means its’ cargo hold and passenger capacity remain un-checked. In its configuration for the RAF, it can carry 291 passengers, eight NATO pallets up to a payload of 43 tonnes. As a derivative of the MRTT it can also be set up to provide a 40 stretcher medical evacuation capability.
This is delivering a step-change in capability almost as significant as that of the FE2b - if as a proven aircraft - somewhat less precariously. As the latest in a line of Officers Commanding, who trace their ‘professional lineage’ back to Major Twisleton-Wykenham-Fiennes and the Royal Flying Corps, Wg Cdr Trasler has inherited a Squadron, operating in a rapidly changing RAF but one that is equally cutting edge.
Flown by Nos. 101 and 10 Squadrons and tasked by the RAF, Voyager is supported by AirTanker Services, in a programme which places RAF embedded personnel, Sponsored Reservists and civilians shoulder-to-shoulder in its delivery.
“I see, and I have told my team, that working alongside civilians is a really great opportunity for them and as part of their own personal development. I genuinely see it that way because this is about the future of the RAF”, continues Wg Cdr Trasler.
“The whole Future Force concept gives civilians and Sponsored Reservists a central role to play in the RAF alongside full time servicemen and women. The Voyager programme gives squadron personnel, especially junior ranks, exposure to a model which will define the future of the RAF. That’s going to serve them well.”
Trasler himself has two decades’ experience with the RAF under his belt. Having joined the RAF in October 1993 he joined 101 Squadron for the first time in autumn 1997, flying the VC10 out of RAF Brize Norton. But it was to be in 2008 that his career path and that of Voyager first became intertwined.
Completing a second tour with 101 Squadron, Trasler joined the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) Project Team at Abbey Wood in 2008 as Requirements Manager, before a spell serving in the Falklands in 2011 and later, with the Directorate of Joint Warfare at Joint Forces Command, Northwood. “Knowing Dave Mitchard, Paul Kimberley and others, from the AirTanker team has been very helpful in supporting the transition back into the programme”, he says.
So as someone who was with Voyager at the very beginning, what is his assessment of progress to date? “Voyager was always going to have to deliver within very tight time frames if it was to pick-up the capability that was delivered by the legacy fleets. That’s something that has been known, been understood and is incorporated into our planning. We have made some good progress but we still face some tough challenges and we have a huge amount of work still ahead of us. It can be managed and is achievable but we have work to do.”
And there is no doubt that there has been a significant ramp up in activity in the eastern extreme of the air base.
Voyager received the go-ahead to refuel the Tornado GR4 at the beginning of summer, followed by Typhoon in August. Combined, Voyager Squadrons had completed more than 70 air-to-air refuelling sorties, giving away in excess of 2,300 tonnes of fuel to the end of September.
To this same end date, since starting flying in support of UK military operations in April 2012, military aircraft have together also clocked more than 5,400 hours, flying more than 1,500 sectors, carrying more than 110,000 passengers and 6,300 tonnes plus of freight.
But this, according to Trasler is only the beginning. “Over the next year demand for Voyager is going to accelerate at an incredible rate, there’s the Afghan drawdown, standing commitments in the UK and the Falklands, continuing AAR provision and preparation for contingent tasks.
“There’s also going to be a huge amount of air transport work to do in support of MOD training and the troop and asset movements that go with that. The management of this process is going to be demanding and while manageable it is really going to test the capability.”
But this is a challenge that the Commanding Officer of No. 101 squadron is more than ready for. “Being the commanding officer of a squadron, in particular a squadron with 101 Squadron’s history and reputation is the pinnacle of what you could ever hope for when you’re starting out. It’s about the professional challenge, it’s absolutely fantastic.
“We have a lot to do but we have a very good team to help us get there.”