Welcome to the adventures of Jim The Eagle

Hello, I am a freelance writer and photographer who specialises in aviation, defence and transport subjects. Occasionally I get out of the house to actually see something, but not all of what I do makes it in to print. When it does, it can be a bit on the dry side. I got into this game because I love flying and hanging out with military equipment. The people you meet are fun, too, so here is somewhere to put those bits of writing that don't have a home.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Ashes to Ashes

Note: A version of this appeared in New Zealand Aviation News, June 2010.

On my 2010 visit from the UK back to New Zealand I had managed to visit every RNZAF flying unit, meet every commanding officer and see every aircraft type – except No 5 Squadron and the P-3K Orion. The chance to remedy that came up with the visit of Orion NZ2406 and a 54-person detachment to the UK to take part in Exercise Joint Warrior 101, a bi-annual, UK led NATO exercise held in Scottish waters and airspace. In addition to ships from ten NATO nations and Brazil, maritime patrol aircraft (MPAs) from the USA, Canada, France, and Italy as well as New Zealand were involved, operating from RAF Kinloss, to the east of Inverness on the Moray Firth.

So with a invitation to visit from 5 Squadron’s CO, Wing Commander Nick Olney, I organised a trip up from London to visit the detachment as the fortnight-long exercise entered its second week.

However, neither I, the squadron, the Royal Air Force or Joint Warrior’s exercise control staff had anticipated the insidious effects of an invisible cloud, drifting from an unpronounceable mountain 1600 km away in Iceland.

The disruption caused by the Eyjafjallajökull volcano to civil aviation in the UK and Europe began on Thursday, 16 April, with progressive closure of airspace and suspending of radar service, allowing VFR flying only.

Military flying initially seemed less affected, but the ash soon began to impact Joint Warrior and the concurrent Brilliant Mariner exercise in Germany and Denmark, and one aircraft spotters’ website reported on 17 April that the Canadian and Kiwi P-3s were no longer at Kinloss (but that RNZAF crew had been seen in Forres Tesco’s), so the following morning as I prepared to catch the train to Inverness, a message from Wing Commander Olney that read: “The P-3 and one crew have now departed the UK and are not returning”, was not a huge surprise, although somewhat of a disappointment. As Olney told me when we met the following day, he was given warning of an ash-free corridor to the west at 9AM Saturday, rounded up the crew (who weren’t all on base) by 10AM and set the detachment to packing and planning a departure in the short time window that was forecast. NZ2406 was airborne at 3.30PM. A Canadian CP-140 Aurora also slipped out, but three USN P-3s and three French Atlantics remained stranded for several more days. “Mobilising (the crew and aircraft) was the smartest thing in the world at the time” said Olney.

The whole detachment included two crews, two operations officers and approximately 17 maintainers. All but the crew aboard ’06 were due make their way home to New Zealand via various commercial airlines over the following week as there was no 757 or C-130 support allocated. As of 19 April, a timely return to work at Whenuapai wasn’t looking to be a certainty.

NZ4206 had reached Kinloss by flying westabout via Perth, Mahé in the Seychelles, Dubai and Sigonella in Italy. The planned return journey would have partly reversed those steps, with a diversion via Butterworth in Malaysia for Exercise Bersama Shield starting on 26 April. The training value of two exercises in one trip was one of the driving forces behind 5 Squadron’s epic journey.

But in the immortal words of the Newcastle Song: ‘Don’t you ever let a chance go by’, and the P-3 pulled out when there was a break in the traffic, so to speak, albeit headed in the opposite direction. Last heard of by me trying to get out of CFB Greenwood ahead of a snowstorm, the P-3 would make Malaysia, but only by flying around the world, and then some.

With no aircraft to fly and all fixed-wing flying forbidden by the RAF’s Air Command, the air element of Joint Warrior came to an end several days ahead of schedule. HMS Ark Royal had already disembarked her Harriers ashore and was put on standby to rescue British citizens stranded at European ports. The remaining 5 Sqn personnel occupied themselves with seminars and workshops on anti-submarine techniques and equipment, and talking to the likes of me.

As for the exercise itself, In the four days of Joint Warrior, before it came to a premature end, 5 Squadron managed to fly five sorties, logging 27 hours of a planned total of 110. “It’s quite a big commitment to send two crews and an aircraft around the world, but it’s such good training” says P-3 pilot Flight Lieutenant Aaron Benton. Having flown a night low-level sortie; “We were ready for the next one then the cloud showed up. After that it was waiting and waiting until JTEPS [the Joint Tactical Exercise Planning Staff] cancelled everything”.

These two-week exercises are usually divided into two phases. In the first week, known as the ‘set-fit’ phase, the various forces practice integrating their procedures and testing their systems against a background of a fictional crisis involving two or more nations and a UN/NATO intervention (Dragonia and Caledonia have been fighting inconclusively over Avalon for several years now). The scenario really only kicks in during the second week, when tensions and shadow boxing inevitably boil over into conflict. Supporting all this is a massive organisation based in Faslane near Glasgow, Northwood near London and elsewhere, incorporating all aspects of modern war, not just the armed forces, with legal and political advisors and players representing insurgent groups, aid organizations and the media. The latter, usually civilian contractors, provide radio, TV and print output as ‘Simpress’ during the exercise, contributing to the scenario’s realism.

“The exercise was looking really good.” Says Benton. “We few a few sorties against US, UK and French subs and with Belgian and RN surface ships. In the set fit phase we go out and work with a surface unit of 2-3 ships and their helos and protect them from a submarine, so we don’t use the scenario, but it is excellent training – you know something’s going to happen in those few hours. In the [second week’s] Ops phase you don’t know what will happen, but you get into exercise ROE (rules of engagement) and so on, so it’s good to have both weeks”. Another exercise feature is a “Sim Guard” radio frequency where, for example, a Dragonian warship may warn off a Coalition aircraft, which may reply that it is complying with the rules of the air. This keeps the real Guard free for warning off Russian spy ships, which are known to appear in the middle of manoeuvres, just like the Cold War days.

In order to get the best training value, A Joint Warrior sortie might be combined with some overland ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) on the extensive target ranges at Spadeadam, Cumbria. ISR is a role that has become increasingly important in recent years and to which Orions are particularly suited. “The RNZAF has not done any operational ISR tasking, but it is a role that we are taking on.” Says Aaron Benton. The P-3K2 upgrade will have more ISR capabilities, and when fully in service the RNZAF’s Maritime Patrol Force (MPF) will be renamed the Airborne Surveillance and Response Force (ASRF). “The combination of sensors on the K2 will make the aeroplane a very capable surveillance platform.” Says Nick Olney. “One of my boasts is that we will have the best MPA in the world when the K2 turns up*. It will give quite phenomenal value for money to the New Zealand taxpayer.”

After the overland ISR portion, the P-3 might continue into the Minch (the channel between the Scottish mainland and the Western Isles) for tasked ASW work. For this, 5 Squadron brings its own sonabuoys, which are a different size from that used in the UK. Live bombs and torpedoes are not transported to the UK as their employment can be simulated. Submarines themselves can be simulated with devices like the EMATT, (Expendable Mobile ASW Training Target), but in Joint Warrior real conventional and nuclear submarines are available. The ‘nukes’ are traditionally easier to detect, because of the constant noise source of the coolant pumps for the reactor, but newer subs such as the Royal Navy’s HMS Astute, which was undergoing trials during Joint Warrior are said to be much quieter.

“In the last 10 years we have taken the Joint Warrior invite when we can” says Nick Olney. The exercise was known as the Joint Maritime Course (JMC) up to 2005 and Neptune Warrior from 2006-2007. “For some guys Joint Warrior is their first major exercise”. Part of the learning curve is, surprisingly, understanding the locals: “Sometimes it takes a while for our new guys to understand the Scottish controllers” says Aaron Benton. One of his younger squadronmates who had been at Faslane agreed it was the same there, with “the mess stewards talking Glaswegian at three words a second.”

Participation by 5 Squadron in the next Joint Warrior, JW102 in October is a possibility**. Hopefully next time Icelandic ash will not take an airborne role in the scenario***.

*At the time he added that he didn’t know if he should be saying that at a (future) Nimrod MRA.4 base, but as that programme was scrapped in late 2010, he needn’t have worried.
** They didn’t return, needing to concentrate on the introduction of the P-3K2 while also having fewer aircraft available.
*** It didn’t.

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