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Chapter 8 - RAF West Drayton

RAF West Drayton was officially reformed as a No 11 Group unit in January 1965. The station was to accommodate the Linesman/Mediator project, which was intended to provide centralised control of air defence and peacetime flying in the UK. Apparently the intention was to accommodate all controllers in a central location and to provide a stand-by facility at the Master Radar Stations (MRSs). The system failed due to the inability of the computers of the day to cope with the high levels of airborne traffic. The S of FC moved to the station upon the closure of the School at RAF Bawdsey on 31 October 1974 with several instructors being posted in during November 1974. It was officially opened by the AOC 11 Gp, Air Vice Marshal R W G Freer, CBE, MBIM, RAF (56) on 10 December 1974. Sqn Ldr R B Bridges took command of the School and was appointed Chief Instructor (CI) with a staff of 1 sqn ldr, 4 flt lts, 1 lt RN, 4 fg offs and 1 plt off. The first course at West Drayton, FC No 83, began on 22 November 1974, and utilised the wide-reaching facilities provided by the Linesman system for control of live flying over the North Sea. To supplement the live flying it was also equipped with comprehensive simulation facilities. By January 1975 the establishment was 13 officers, 5 WOs 2 SNCOs and 27 airmen.

The School classrooms and administrative offices originally occupied a two storey building adjacent to the large L1 (57) complex. It had its own operations room in the L1 building alongside that of the Air Defence Data Centre (ADDC). In 1982, when the responsibilities of the ADDC were decentralised to the Sector Operation Centres (SOCs), the School transferred its whole organisation to the vacated ADDC rooms within the L1 building. Students visited RAF Neatishead, RAF Wattisham, Strike Command, RAF West Raynham and RAF Coningsby. Live flying for the courses was carried out by most of the front line squadrons including, 5, 11, 23, 29, 43, 56, 85, 100, 111 Sqn and 226 Phantom OCU, a vast potential for controller training.

The first of the new Advanced Fighter Control Courses commenced on 10 Feb 1975, populated by 6 students who had successfully completed No 83 Basic Fighter Control Course. In an effort to reduce costs and to push additional students more quickly through the training system, the Advanced and Basic Courses were compressed to last a total of only 16 weeks (twice the length of No 52 Fighter Controllers Course in 1970), at which point the student graduated with the equivalent of today's Certificate of Qualification! The course greeting from the Station Commander usually included reference to the likelihood that none of the course was likely to graduate, but they should not take it personally when they fail. On that inspiring and confidence-building note, the students were well and truly thrown in at the deep end. Few students completed the 16 week course. Each day the surviving students would look around the breakfast table to see who had been sent packing the night before.

The Air Defence Ground Environment Examination Board (ADGEEB) set the end-of-course theory examination and assessed the final practical examination. The practical examination was a gut-wrenching, sudden death experience for the students. Having completed their 16 weeks training, they were required to perform 4 live interceptions, either off one sortie or 2 sorties if the first interception burned too much fuel. The first intercept was a high flying supersonic profile against a sub-sonic target flying at 50000 feet or higher. The second interception was against a low -level target that was to descend out of radar cover immediately after rolling out on its inbound heading, although it often went "dark" in the turn. The third run was a medium level sub-sonic run against an evading target, whilst the final run was a 'S7D' profile, a medium level interception requiring a target heading, unknown to the fighter, and the controller passing ranges only (obviously intended to help the student unwind after this harrowing experience!). Usually, the sorties involved Lightnings and the student's planning had to keep them as close to base as possible without breaking the 35 miles supersonic line during the first run.

If the student failed any one or more of these interceptions he or she was either re-coursed or returned to RAF Biggin Hill for re-selection. Dependent upon the live flying that had been available during the course, for some students their final practical examination was also the firsts occasion that they had controlled live fast-jet aircraft! This ruthless training and examination regime merely fuelled the already high failure rate. After a year the examination was extended to 16 live interceptions, four of each type from the original practical examination. The new examination allowed students to fail some runs, whilst passing the examination.

In Jan 75 the ADGEEB, who issued the "certificates of competence" on completion of training, moved from Bentley Priory to West Drayton.

The inception of Executive Training began on 27 May 1976 with a lead-in for one student, a group captain, who was OC designate RAF Neatishead the course was probably not a total success as can readily be seen by an entry in the May 1976, F540, "......this training has proved invaluable for the staff to validate the course content and presentation techniques but may have not been ideal in preparing a Gp Capt for a Sector Commander's appointment." Perhaps they were trying to put a positive spin on a fairly unflattering course critique!

Once again the unit records has proved exceedingly useful. An entry for May 1976, "For the first time 2 Fighter Control students flew in RAF Marham Canberras on an interception sortie." This puts me in mind of a comment from the line-book of 100 Sqn, " If the good Lord had wanted us to fly PIs we would have been born asleep." Also in September 1976, " No students were allocated to No99 course and only one student was offered for No 100 course." Luckily the lack of students combined with, "....a continuous series of faults with the simulator," appears to have been quite propitious as a reference from the F540 for Nov 1976 would give witness, " Undoubtedly one of the outstanding features of the month was the cross-training visit to the Canadian Air Weapons School at CBF North Bay. In spite of our hosts attempts to pickle us in alcohol, a very useful comparison of training methods and problems proved most beneficial.........the return match with our Canadian colleagues here at West Drayton is awaited eagerly." It's an onerous job but somebody has to do it!!!

Aptitude testing for Fighter Controllers continued to give cause for concern; the F540 entry for March 1977 stated, "OASC RAF Biggin Hill, like ourselves, are very concerned over the high failure rate of Fighter Control students. A particular cause for concern is that all students have passed the Fighter Control aptitude tests at OASC." A major cash award should be offered for anyone able to produce a relevant and successful aptitude test for the Fighter Controller specialization. In early May 1978 ADGEEB embarked on the daunting task, yet again, of examining the training for the Branch. The board, to be known as the Design Team, had additional personnel attached to assist in the task. The following list of members of the Design Team should bring back many memories to controllers of that era:

Wg Cdr R B Bridges

Sqn Ldr S D McCullouch

Sqn Ldr J R Jenkins

Flt Lt R McLaughlin

Flt Lt B E Rogers

Flt Lt I D Fish

WO RD Jones

A most significant change to the Fighter Control Branch was set in motion in 1977 when it was decided to split the Branch into two specialisations; Controllers and Systems/Reporting Officers (not necessarily in that order). The concept was for a Basic Air Defence Course (BADC), of both practical and theoretical training, during which each student would be assessed to determine his/her suitability for streaming into either of the two separate specialisations, the initiative was introduced in February 1980 when No 117 Course began, the first course of its kind to conform to the training directive produced by the MOD Training Design Team. Those who were positively streamed as Systems/Reporting Officers were then trained to produce a fully recognised air picture of the United kingdom Air Defence Region (UKADR). The training of Controllers would be as before but the course was redefined to include, the Basic Interception Controllers Course (BICC), the Intermediate Interception Controllers Course (IICC) and the Advanced Interception Controllers Course (AICC). The fundamental change to the course structure was necessary to accommodate training in the Systems/Reporting sub-specialisation, which was to run in parallel with Interception Control training. The organisation was as below:


The success of the course design can be judged by the into-service results; of 22 who commenced the BADC, 21 were streamed, 14 for the IICC and 7 for the Systems Course. On completion of the full courses 12 interception controllers and 6 reporting officers were posted to SOCs and ADDC. This must have proved a very welcome inject of personnel to a still under-manned branch. Subsequent courses did not prove quite so productive as there were some failures at the operational units at the ADGEEB check stage.

During the early 1980s there was much discussion throughout the Branch concerning the perceived over-manning of the School. The manning situation was clearly defined in the C&R Bulletin No 39 published in January 1982, where the average working day was described. The article pointed out that 10 [sic] courses were currently being taught; BADC, IICC, AICC, Systems, Reporting, Aircrew Lead-in, F&C, Refresher Training and DUCO. I work that out as just 9 courses but the argument still held good. By November 1982 the School was established for 36 officers and only had a strength of 27. This shortage was to continue for some time as evidenced by the Commanding Officer's comments in the F540 for the month of August 1984, "A quiet month, except for the SFC where shortages of instructors means that all the officers are working excessive hours." Current instructors please note. Oh! yes we were and secondary duties were done in our own time!

There is a dearth of information concerning the School at West Drayton for the years 1976 to 1983 as, apparently, the School was not included on the LUE therefore there was no input to the F540. However there was one incident that just had to be included, I quote:


During the night of 7/8 February 1983 the Orderly Officer was held at gunpoint for 7 hours in the guardroom by SAC......... The Metropolitan police assisted by carrying out a siege. This was brought to a successful conclusion during the early hours of 8 February when SAC........ surrendered himself and his hostage. The airman is being held in close arrest pending disciplinary proceedings." As it happened I was due to be Orderly Officer the following day and greeted the hostage as he was released. He assured me the dark stain on his trousers was in fact soup that had been spilt during the siege. The Metropolitan police were excellent and explained that we should encourage the hostage to talk freely so as to offset any chance of Stockholm Syndrome affecting the individual. They had not allowed for the fact that he was a Fighter Controller and an instructor to boot; we had trouble getting him to shut up about it!!! No names, no pack drill but I am sure this particular instructor would be the first to put his hands up - oops! sorry Perry, no pun intended.

What is also evident from the Engineering input to the F540 were the constant problems that the School experienced with the installation of the new simulator, this seemed to stretch throughout 1984 and 1985. We do not know how lucky we are with our current, highly efficient training equipment.

During 1986 visits were made by the students to: West Raynham, Coningsby, Binbrook, Bentley Priory, Neatishead, Wyton, UKRAOC, and Uxbridge with its Wartime Ops Room. Once again students from Nigeria, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia and Finland were trained at RAF West Drayton.

Things never do go smoothly the whole time as is easily seen from the following 540 entry for 26 Oct 1986, " OC S of FC, accompanied by Sqn Ldr Bonas and Flt Lt Clipsham, visited RRE Malvern to discuss Battle Management Simulators. However the trip was not altogether successful because the demonstration system failed to operate."......not altogether successful?

On 11 Nov 85 Systems/Reporting training was transferred to the newly built proposed school at RAF Boulmer whilst Control and ASOp training continued at West Drayton. One of the most amusing entries I noted was in a report signed by Flt Lt Jem Bateman, the then OC S of FC Detachment, RAF Boulmer on 3 Nov 1986, after the training of System Officers had been transferred to Boulmer, "Flt Lt Bateman attended CME for his annual hearing test. The doctors reported no change, or at least, that's what he thought they said." Nice one Jem! The School obviously led the way in conservation, long before it was "in vogue" with the rest of society. Appreciating the need to conserve the rain forests, the CO's comments for the F540 of July 1986 were written on the back of a sheet from an old syllabus and the comments for the following month were written on the back of a page from the West Drayton telephone directory. The aforementioned could possibly be explained by an entry for April, "....the OC S of FC was admitted to RAF Hospital Halton suffering from back injuries sustained after falling out of a tree during pruning operations,"............. a case of the head "chopper" chopped?

In February 1986, RAF West Drayton was transferred from No 11 Group to MATO and the School became an independent unit of No 11 Group.

For many months during the early stages of independence OC SFC continually complained of the lack of instructors and the low experience levels of those he had. Ten years later new instructors posted into the School at RAF Boulmer had often only completed one tour after achieving their Certificate of Qualification (CQ), this being the requirement for live, solo control The 540 of Nov 87 laments the completion of the Finish Instructors course, " was the last F&C course to be run by the RAF". However, to this day there is still the potential to train international students at the School. Also during 1987, a walk was organised from RAF Buchan to RAF Bawdsey to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Fighter Control. A team from the S of FC covered the last 70 miles from RAF Neatishead to RAF Bawdsey raising £170 for charity during their section of the event.

A further innovation was introduced in Jan 1989 when it was decided to reorganise yet again and to introduce the Air Defence Foundation Course (ADFC). This course could almost be seen as a prolonged aptitude test wherein potential Fighter Controllers could be assessed over a period of 6 weeks before being selected for further training as Controllers or Systems Officers, a little like the BADC really! A completely new course was also introduced to provide AEW Controllers with training prior to employment on E3D, and this commenced on 30 Jan 89.

In July 1988, during 180 ICC, the new 18 week Phase I was introduced, a far cry from the 8 weeks of No 52 Fighter Controllers Course of 1970 that I remember so well.

The School finally left West Drayton to the tender mercies of the Air Traffic Controllers and became established at RAF Boulmer in 1990.

Continue to the next part of the history ......