New Forest East




By Julian Lewis

As an MP brought into politics by an interest in Defence, I was clearly destined for a stint on the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. The question was: which Service? My New Forest East constituency is steeped in military history. It was the home of the Schneider Trophy races and – for a period – of the High Speed Flight, which won the cup and repeatedly broke the World Air Speed Record. So my choice fell on the RAF.

The visits were logically divided between the three Commands – Personnel & Training, Strike, and Logistics. An early visit to Cranwell showed would-be officers being put through their paces in tests of ingenuity which would have baffled the devious minds of many politicians. I had not previously realised that the University Air Squadrons provided the indispensable core of officer recruitment. In the weeks of visits ahead, the complexities of the kit and the skills required to operate and maintain it, made it clear why this was so.

The RAF has just celebrated its 80th anniversary, and pride in its history is central to its ethos. My most enjoyable project since I was elected was to research the life, trace the family and organise a memorial day for a remarkable air ace of the First World War – Flight Lieutenant S M Kinkead DSO, DSC, DFC – who was killed in the Solent in 1928 in a forerunner of the Spitfire. It was touching to see his memory still being honoured at Cranwell by the annual award of a trophy bearing his name to the RAF's best trainee flier.

In preparation for my fast-jet flights, I underwent the rapid decompression test in the pressure chamber at North Luffenham. This was supposed to test one's ability to function in the absence of adequate oxygen. However, the question used in my case was "What was the size of your election majority?" – something I could have answered (5,215) even if most of my faculties had been seriously disabled!

The first fast-jet flight was from RAF Valley in Anglesey in a Hawk – the jet used by the Red Arrows, whom we were later to see in action in a thrilling display at Farnborough. As a former naval reservist on minesweepers who always threw up for the first 24 hours, I knew what to expect. In fact, the trip from North to South Wales at 400 mph (via a gunnery range) was deceptively smooth. This was to lull me into a false sense of security. The return journey north – around rather than over the mountains – gave me an unwelcome opportunity to re-examine my lunch.

The coup de grace was provided by the effects of the anti-G trousers. These are inflated by compressed air as the aircraft turns sharply, in order to prevent one's blood being forced into the lower half of one's body and causing a blackout. My pilot told me that we touched 5 Gs. I think that is much less than the professionals contend with, but it was quite enough for my digestion ...

By contrast, the Tornado flight (I am pictured in this article in the cockpit of the F3 fighter version) was less erratic and thus more educational. One could see the navigational aids in operation and gain an inkling of the co-ordination skills required for a form of warfare which has been transformed by the application of computerised technology. Later, at Farnborough, I was photographed with an early version of the new Typhoon. Knowing of my eurosceptic views, one of my Labour colleagues asked why I was willing to be associated with a plane commonly called the 'Eurofighter'. He evidently did not realise that this description is entirely appropriate for someone who feels as I do about the single currency.

Inevitably, it is the flying which one most remembers: the low-level anti-submarine patrol, with our Nimrod dropping sono-buoys to pinpoint the target before a simulated lethal attack; the air-to-air refuelling of our Hercules from a VC-10 tanker, followed by a remarkable beach landing and take-off and an equipment drop by parachute; looping the loop in a Firefly trainer; and half-a-dozen helicopter trips, including a patrol over Bosnia in the giant Chinook.

The complexity of the equipment was in sharp contrast to the rather primitive conditions in which RAF personnel find themselves on deployment overseas. We visited a detachment in Split, Croatia, and were given a practical briefing on the effects of different types of landmine. However, the more permanent and long-established bases, such as RAF Bruggen in Germany, were on an altogether different scale.

My only slight criticism of the programme was that it focused a great deal on the economic and administrative problems of the RAF, rather than the purely military dimensions which distinguish it from other organisations of similar size and complexity. For me, the parts of the programme which did give an insight into the larger strategic picture were particularly appreciated. The planning centres and the visit to our military satellite control headquarters were especially illuminating.

The Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme gave excellent opportunities to meet personnel at every level and understand the massive support system on which the whole structure depends. The RAF is not a commercial enterprise and there is justifiable concern that some aspects of contracting out have gone too far. Yet, there is also recognition that more efficient use of resources had to be made in a variety of important areas.

Agreement was unanimous that the ordeal of three Defence Reviews, under two governments since the end of the Cold War, had been deeply unsettling. The Scheme thus performs a valuable role in showing MPs the need to maintain stability as well as strength in our Armed Services.