A customer-driven approach keeps the RAF's 100 Squadron in high demand. Unique in European military aviation, the Squadron ensures that new aircraft such as Typhoon get the best possible introduction into front-line service.
'The Boneyard' is 100 Squadron's home at RAF Leeming in north Yorkshire.
No. 100 Squadron has come a long way since its humble beginnings in February 1917. Formed at Hingham in Norfolk as a Royal Flying Corps Squadron, it was to be the RFC's first night bomber unit. Still regarded erroneously by many as a 'banner towing' unit, nowadays the Squadron plays a very different role providing a variety of military platforms with a whole range of training benefits.
"What people think 100 Sqn is - one single unit - it's not. It's actually three separate units," Wing Commander Wayne White, Officer Commanding 100 Squadron, explained. "We have A and B flights, with 15 pilots and 12 Hawks. They do the target facilities, the aggressor or adversary squadron role, threats, targets etc. Then we have the Navigation Training Unit (NTU) with nine pilots, six air navigation instructors, four Hawks and a number of student Weapons System Officers. We train around 25 Weapons System Officers each year, that go on to fly the GR4 or the F3, and their course lasts six months."
The perceived third strand of 100 Sqn is JFACTSU (the Joint Forward Air Control Training and Standards Unit). JFACTSU are not actually part of the Squadron but they do have two pilots and two Hawks supervised by Wg Cdr White and his team. All this means that 100 Squadron have an unusual chain of command, with Wg Cdr White working for the Station Commander via HQ 1 Group to Strike Command, the NTU working via HQ Training Group Defence Agency to Personnel and Training Command and JFACTSU working via HQ 1 Gp to HQ Land Command.
In today's leaner, meaner Air Force this structure is all about saving money.
"The way 100 Squadron works is economy of scale," said Wg Cdr White. "We bring all the Hawks together, all the engineers and therefore it is more cost-effective. If you look at 29 Squadron, the Typhoon Operational Conversion Unit, they would need at least an extra three Typhoons to act as targets. That is an expensive business. We can do it with our Hawks. We can fly at 48,000ft, we can fly low and we can fly in all the environments that they want their targets in. We cost around a fifth of the flying hour cost of a heavy metal aeroplane. That makes a huge difference."
The precise role of A and B flights is to provide airborne threats to other assets. These are not just fast-jet assets such as Typhoon, GR4, GR7 and the F3 but also a number of rotary wing platforms, Hercules C130s and even include Rapier training and fighter controllers. The Squadron also get involved in a variety of exercises such as the Joint Maritime Course, now known as Exercise Neptune Warrior.
"The maritime exercises enable us to play a variety of different roles including ship attacks, close air support, COMAOs, air defence – a whole mixture. Everybody who has been here for twelve months or longer is truly multi-role. We as a squadron are very much 'plug and play'. We can go on exercises and in the morning be ground attackers, and then in the afternoon be air defenders. We can be the good guys or the bad guys so we really do bring flexibility."
A number of personnel and aircraft recently took part in Exercise Poland Hawk. "Poland has signed a deal to buy F-16s from the USA," explained Wg Cdr White.
"That is a quantum leap forward from the MIG 21 which they used to fly and which were grounded three years ago. Our job is to go out there and expose their future F-16 pilots to NATO terminology and tactics, giving them a brief flavour of what they should expect as a NATO member. Even in the week we were there, we could see their pilots learning and developing. They have read about it in books but you can't learn how to fly and operate from a book. Some of the experience we have was passed on and I believe they found the package that we put together very useful. As for us, we benefit too.
"Learning from the Poles, flying in a different country, a new environment etc.: Although we don't have a war role, we are now an expeditionary air force and all the guys on the Squadron could go back to the front-line. If they have experience of flying in different countries and situations they can take that with them.
"We also learn a lot culturally which again is very useful. The Poles in particular were one of our greatest allies during World War II. Their mentality is very similar to ours, both their sense of humour and the way they approach their flying."
So how has Typhoon changed things for 100 Squadron?
"The work we do for Typhoon is very similar to what we do with the F3s. We fly slightly different profiles. At the moment they are proving their syllabus and we just fly the profiles that we're given. It's very much a building-block approach as they work out how they need their training to be structured. The Hawk has allowed the role of 100 Squadron to develop because of what it can do. That is why we don’t have first tourists coming here, like perhaps we might have done six years ago, because the role is more complex and the demands much higher."
Of course what this brings to the Squadron is a huge variety of personnel from a number of different backgrounds. It is no surprise that the Squadron is a popular choice for many aircrew.
"It's a fun job here with a fun aeroplane and we get twice as many flying hours as on the front-line. It's no longer just banner-towing or flying at 20,000ft in a straight line as it might have perhaps been with the Canberra. The roles are really diverse and the Hawk a very capable aircraft. The days are long gone when 100 Squadron was the place you went if you didn’t quite make a front-line squadron. Now, it's the closest thing we have in the UK to an 'aggressor squadron' and with the complexity of the job we do here now we can only afford to have experienced people."
Flight Lieutenant Dave Harvey, who has been with 100 Squadron since 1998, is now on his second tour. Not only is he a pilot on the Aquadron he has just completed his third season as the Strike Command Hawk display pilot.
"The Squadron had been asking to display a Hawk for some years but it wasn't until 2003 – the 100th year of manned flight – that they got the go-ahead. We've continued displaying since then."
The pressures of being a pilot on the Squadron and also having responsibility for displays has not affected Dave's ability to do both jobs.
"I'm quite lucky that I have squadron mates who try and protect me from doing too much. It would be easy to let the display commitment become a full-time job whereas it's not - my main job is to do standard squadron flying."
Dave Harvey is approaching his 5,000th hour in a Hawk, a milestone of which he is particularly proud.
"I'm just a few hours short of 5,000 on this type. I wouldn't be the first in the RAF to achieve the 5,000 hour milestone in the Hawk, but it's a significant milestone nonetheless. It does mean though that I'll have to buy another badge!"
A huge benefit for the WSO students is the freedom to back-seat on routine sorties flown by A and B flights. This allows them to watch and learn without the pressure of being tested or examined. One of those students is Flying Officer Stu Phillips, 25, who has just completed WSO training and is waiting to be posted to the GR4 Operational Conversion Unit.
"The course is a very well-designed course. You start at a nice steady pace and then it builds up very quickly incorporating everything that you've done before on previous training courses. We don't learn too much about the systems in the Hawk, just enough to get by, but it's a very serviceable aircraft and the engineers here are very good at making sure we have enough aircraft to do the tasks."
But what about life on the Squadron?
"You're treated as if you're actually on a front-line squadron," said Stu. "The only other WSOs are the staff so the students are used to help with planning tasks. "With the Squadron having the additional role of being the 'aggressors' for the rest of the RAF, we can go flying on those sorties. That is a big benefit because it gives us an insight into things we don't do in our training but that we will be doing in the future."
But how well prepared are the WSO students when they move on?
"Hopefully as well prepared as can be, although I won’t really know that until I get there!"
For 100 Squadron, as the tasking evolves and Typhoon begins to demand more of their time, they will continue to see plenty of flying. For Wg Cdr White, the future is definitely bright. "There is no reason why the Squadron should wither on the vine. Although F3 numbers are coming down, Typhoon numbers are on the up and they will still need us."