New Forest East




By Julian Lewis

It was a pleasant surprise to be selected in 2000 to take part in the first – and, therefore experimental – year of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme for previous graduates, as my original participation had been only two years previously. Nevertheless, the opportunity to revisit some RAF bases and experience others for the first time, was not to be missed.

Returning to Cranwell for, amongst other things, a flight in the new two-seater Grob trainer, it was easy to find myself actually knowing what I was doing in piloting the plane under the supervision of a first-class Squadron Leader Instructor. I could begin to understand the pride which new entrants take in successfully achieving their training goals.

This is particularly striking in the case of RAF Halton, which I visited for the first time. It is at Halton that RAF basic entrants undergo their induction. At the time of our visit, the six-weekly cycle had just begun. I was delighted, therefore, to accept the invitation from the Station Commander to return later in the year for a typical passing-out ceremony. It was quite inspiring to see the magnificent bearing of the graduating new entrants, who rightly took great pride in their transformation over such a short period.

As in 1998, the sorties in a Tornado, a Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and a Hercules transport plane were memorable for a variety of reasons. The sheer power of the first, the sea-skimming anti-submarine tactics of the second, and the versatility of the third, being most notable.

Perhaps because of my research background and historical interests, the special visit arranged for my fellow-AFPS graduate Martyn Jones and me to visit RAF Bentley Priory was particularly enjoyable. This is now the home of the RAF's air accident investigation team. We were able to sit in on a training session for officers who might be required at short notice to form boards of inquiry into crashes. Historically, Bentley Priory is of supreme importance as the centre from which the late Lord Dowding successfully controlled Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. His office has been appropriately preserved as a memorial to what he and his staff and the RAF as a whole achieved during those desperate days.

As always when visiting the RAF, we were shown the utmost courtesy and hospitality. Particular mention must be made of Nan Bellchambers of the Air Staff Secretariat and Squadron Leader Trapp of Headquarters Strike Command for their tireless work in seeking to co-ordinate a larger than ever number of MPs’ diaries. Like other beneficiaries from the scheme, I hope to continue to reciprocate the welcome we received by arranging for parties of RAF personnel to visit the Palace of Westminster.

Now, as a member of the Defence Select Committee, I am able to benefit from the practical knowledge of Service issues gleaned from my two stints on the AFPS which have already proved to be a great asset when making my contributions to the Committee's workload. For this I owe my thanks to the vision of Sir Neil Thorne who conceived the scheme over a decade ago. May it continue to go from strength to strength.