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RAF's Quick Reaction Alert revealed

20 Sep 12

In an interview with Steve Wilmot, Flight Lieutenant Noel Rees of 29 (Reserve) Squadron explains how the RAF's Quick Reaction Alert continues to defend British airspace seamlessly, night and day, in a way that has changed little in more than 70 years.

Flt Lt Rees is a Typhoon pilot based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire. The station is one of two that defend the skies over Britain. The other station is RAF Leuchars in Fife, Scotland. Both provide Quick Reaction Alert, or QRA, to scramble their fighter jets within minutes to meet or intercept aircraft which give cause for concern. Leuchars generally covers the northern sector, while Coningsby provides Southern QRA, which includes looking after London and events such as the Olympics. Southern QRA transferred temporarily to RAF Northolt in West London to add to the mix of military assets ensuring a safe Games.

Flt Lt Rees explained:

"The RAF has been doing this ever since the Battle of Britain in 1940, when the likes of Douglas Bader intercepted the Luftwaffe aircraft determined to defeat the Spitfire and Hurricanes of Fighter Command and bring the country to its knees."

The pilots' day starts early in the Aircrew Ready Room, a small building between the "Q-sheds" as they are affectionately known in deference to an earlier Cold War age, where single-seat Typhoons sit poised for instant action.

Flt Lt Rees said:

"Typhoon pilots do 'Q' as we sometimes refer to it, between once and twice a month. It's a 24-hour shift and most of our time, if not all of it, is spent on the ground waiting for a scramble. Theoretically there's plenty of free time if it's quiet, but there's a lot of reading, study, preparing of aircraft and other things that keep you busy.

"The handover brief covers weather, incidents over the past 24 hours, Notices to Airmen (NOTAMS) that help us avoid noise sensitive events such as an agriculture show, avoid other air space users such as balloonists or avoid dangers such as detonations and live weapon ranges. At the end of this process we formerly accept the responsibility for the air defence of the UK until formal handover to the next Q crew. Even if there is a scramble in the minute before formal handover, the off-going crew would take it.

"The weather element of the brief is interesting as it covers a huge portion of Northern Europe and the North Sea out to Norway as well as the whole of the UK. Because we never know where we might have to fly we have to consider the weather at all levels from the surface to the top levels of our operating ceiling. This will include visibility, precipitation, temperature and prevailing wind information.

"Meals set the daily routine, as pilots we eat regularly because we never know when the scramble will come and when it does, how long it will last. There are no rules preventing the same meals being eaten by the pilots on duty, we can eat what we want, though personal preference means we rarely eat the same things.

"Instinctively we keep an ear out for the modern equivalent of the Tannoy called the Telebrief. It crackles as the line becomes live when controllers at RAF stations monitoring the UK's "Recognised Air Picture" note something is not quite right about the actions of an aircraft in or approaching the country's airspace. When the Telebrief jumps into life we freeze and our pulse quickens, we look at each other as we privately try to guess which of the dozens of scenarios might lead to a launch.

"Whenever we're not flying, we stay almost fully kitted out in our flying equipment, this means that if a scramble is ordered, it is achieved in the minimum of time. This can be a lot of layers, to ensure we are protected in the event of ejection at the extreme of our operating area we could have to wear multiple layers of thermals and an immersion suit (rubber waterproof) for the duration of the shift. At night in the bunk rooms we wear even more, this mitigates the time required to wake from sleep, after running to the aircraft, pretty much all we have to put on is the life preserving jacket, helmet and gloves.

"After an aircraft scramble, additional aircraft are made available should the situation dictate. If a target is way out at sea, we will be supported by a tanker aircraft, air to air refuelling in flight can extend range or endurance to allow the successful completion of the mission. The whole QRA system is a huge organisation, spread across the country with many separate units contributing to the defence of the skies over and around Britain. The RAF's primary role remains unchanged - to keep the people of the UK safe.

"The security of the UK is the first duty of Government and the paramount duty of the RAF is to control the air over the home nation and, when necessary, UK interests overseas. We maintain the highest level of readiness under the direction of controllers dispersed at locations across the country. Controllers can scramble the Typhoon to identify, intercept, and, if required, engage unidentified aircraft approaching our shores. This is maintained 24 hours a day, 356 days a year.

"The jets are kept in top condition by ground crews who live in and around the Q sheds for a week at a time, in teams dedicated to each aircraft – they are people I have the highest respect for.

"Later in the morning we go and crew into our jets to help the engineers perform cockpit, engine and systems checks, after which we prepare or "re-cock" the aircraft for scramble flight.

"I joined the RAF ten years ago after experiencing flying in the Air Training Corps, then later being sponsored through school and university. I always wanted to be a pilot and to have the opportunity to fly an RAF Typhoon is the realisation of my boyhood dream. It has eye-watering performance but from a handling perspective is relatively easy fly, which means we have more time and capacity to build situational awareness then 'fight' it or employ it as a weapons platform. I often complete a sortie walking away from my aircraft with a smile on my face.

"At the start of the scaled QRA response, civilian air traffic controllers might see on their screens an aircraft behaving erratically, not responding to their radio calls, or note that it's transmitting a distress signal through its transponder.

"Rather than scramble Typhoons at the first hint of something abnormal, a controller has the option to put them on a higher level of alert, 'a call to cockpit'. In this scenario the pilot races to the hardened aircraft shelter (HAS) and does everything short of starting his engines. From this posture a controller can monitor a situation knowing that a scramble can be conducted in moments.

"I feel honoured to be following in the steps of Battle of Britain pilots like Douglas Bader. He was one of my boyhood heroes, I grew up thinking he defended Britain's skies single-handedly. When comparing our role now to that of the pilots in 1940, there are of course changes brought about by the advance of technology; modern radar surveillance is integrated across Europe and has a coverage that Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding would have desperately wanted in in the Battle of Britain. The Typhoon of today has a performance and capability only dreamt possible in 1940. Ultimately though, the fundamental principles of air defence are unchanged and remain at the heart of the nation's defence."

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