Behind the wire: a year at RAF Brize Norton

All residents of the Wychwoods will be familiar with the heavy aircraft flying above Witney and further afield, landing and taking off from the runway at RAF Brize Norton, but what goes on within the wire fence?  The past year has been anything but dull as the base tackles some of the major world security concerns as well as the challenges posed by Covid; this was not the year that new Station Commander, Captain Emily Flynn had anticipated.

As one of the largest and busiest RAF bases in Britain, the scope of their work has been, quite literally, world-wide, from Mali to South Georgia, from Accra to Ukraine, all the corners of the earth.  The majority of their work links in with military aims but humanitarian aims are not far behind, and there was even time this year to fit in a world record!  But let us have some details.

One example of Brize Norton’s training and tactical role came with Exercise Crimson Warrior.  Together with the Royal Navy, the United States Marine Corps, US jets and helicopters drawn from across RAF stations, this was an exercise that saw over 70 aircraft conducting high intensity tactical training over the North Sea and the north east of England.  Perhaps this is the type of activity most closely associated with the RAF by outsiders.

Another international venture was Exercise Maple Puma, this time alongside the Canadian air force, handled from their base in Ontario, but the focus for this exercise was less military, more civil.  Exactly 104 years after Sir Ernest Shackleton, Captain Frank Worsley and Tom Crean set out on what would become the first recorded crossing of South Georgia as they sought help for their marooned comrades on Elephant Island, the RAF A400M Atlas aircraft, call-sign ‘Grizzly’, approached South Georgia at sunrise to start a mission that included photographing the ice flows, patrolling vital fisheries and conducting reconnaissance in the area.

So much for the military and strategic side of business, but RAF Brize Norton plays a vital part in more humanitarian fields.  The base was awarded the Fermin Sword of Peace in recognition of their work in South Sudan supporting medical responses in the world’s newest country, a land beset with teething troubles.  Then there was the RAF’s role assisting the World Food Programme as it established a field hospital in Accra.  Mali was another country where the base provided peace-keeping support to the United Nations.

Back in Oxfordshire, the base is involved in environmental matters.  Sergeant Ryan Duffy initiated a programme to drastically reduce the use of so-called Single Use Plastics largely through a ban on disposable coffee cups and single use water bottles.  And from water to oil, the base has developed a procedure which enables waste oils and lubricants generated from servicing aircraft to be broken down using microbes, a process known as bioprocessing.

So, RAF Brize Norton is an essential base for ensuring that a wide range of functions are performed smoothly and efficiently, but what was that about a world record? Yes, a new world record was set by the Voyager aircraft, flown by reservists, for the fastest ever flight between the UK and the Falklands.  The journey of 6834 nautical miles was completed in 15 hours and nine minutes, breaking the previous record, which had been set in 1987 by an RAF VC-10 aircraft, by 36 minutes.

There is clearly more going on behind the wire than many of us had ever realised.

Bob Forster, with thanks to the media team at Brize Norton.

December 2021 – January 2022