1990 - 1999

The 1990s

I was 21 when I volunteered...

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Posted by Rob Brown on

I was 21 when I volunteered to serve in the first Persian Gulf war as an 'SVC' (voluntary crew) on Tristars, 216 Sqn, Brize Norton.


At the time I was an avionics engineer on Harriers based at RAF Wittering. It was an exciting job and I was experiencing the big wide world for the first time really after completing my early education. After leaving school at age 16 I had been selected for a three year RAF apprenticeship which was by far the most demanding academic challenge I ever experienced. My four year full time degree course a few years later was completed in two years part time outside of my day job and an MBA followed, but both were barely a challenge by comparison to RAF Cosford.

The opportunity of real warfare (which we were told was well justified at the time) after having effectively done nothing but train, was intoxicating and frightening at the same time. I recall conversations about it being a matter of fact that many of us would not be coming back and while exciting to an immature boy as I was, I remember most of us expected the worst.


My job involved flying in and out of various locations in the conflict zone ostensibly to evacuate casualties of which I saw only one - a chap who had injured his leg playing football. The incidents closest to 'peril' that I experienced personally were fairly tame. Firstly, there was a briefing explaining the horrors Sadam Hussein had lying in wait for us - nerve agent, biological weaponry, mustard gas and weapons of mass destruction in general, after which we each were given a form to complete entitled "Last Will & Testament". We also received a cocktail of drugs so strong some chaps seemed simply to disappear from the scene soon after developing streaming head colds, a common reaction to the anthrax jabs and anti nerve agent tablets we were being given.


The apparent madness of flying into Riyadh in a highly reflective shiny white aircraft almost the size of a jumbo jet, entirely unarmed and unprotected and having been told we should expect high risk of SAMs, created a bit of a tense atmosphere on board as we headed for our destination around late December / early January 1990-91 . We had Harriers with us on one occasion, which was a great comfort, until they diverted. I was very intimate with the Harrier's electronic warfare capabilities having seen the GR5 and its Zeus system into service the year before as an avionics specialist at RAF Wittering.


Without escort as we tended to be generally however, we were pretty much a sitting duck. The decisions being taken seemed very much at odds with the dangers being described to us, and the world at large via the media. Decisive action was soon taken and our Tristars were painted 'desert camouflage', aka pink. Not very helpful was a pink military aircraft to young male egos flying into civil and military airports and bases throughout North America and Middle East, while our US colleagues had more serious looking Starlifters and Galaxies in traditional military fatigue paintwork.


Anyhow again, all fears of SAMs and the like proved completely unfounded. I was lucky enough to be crewing with an Air Commodore and the rules were our flying 'rates' were equal. Suddenly then my pay was given a hike which was very welcome at the time. I had just bought my first house, a renovation, so was paying for accommodation at Wittering and Brize Norton, travel from Stamford to Brize and back twice per week and mortgage interest had just peaked at 15%. My outgoings were greater than my income when PM John Major appeared on the news defending government policy on the financial challenges of the situation for servicemen. Major had claimed "...no serviceman will ever be out of pocket...".


In the Middle East almost all of my colleagues were pitched in a temporary compound under canvass. Falling on my feet as I had, my crew were lodging in five star hotels along with the British Airways crews and regularly dining on lobster and fine wines when we could get away with it. I was 21 - this was a very good life. 


Air raids happened for a number of weeks initially. The Iraqi scuds had been re-engineered for extended range and were falling on Riyadh comfortably. At the sound of the air raid sirens for the first week or so we gathered in the central lobby of our hotel dressed in desert camouflage, full nuclear, biological and chemical IPE, tin hats and  respirators. We carried SLRs and were issued 60 rounds without so much as a signature, which suddenly made things feel a bit different from the usual.


A hotel nearby was destroyed but I remember us youngsters thinking this was nothing but fabulously exciting - "that could have been us". Soon we weren't even bothering to leave our bedrooms when the sirens sounded. If we were hit by standard high explosives we may as well have been wearing pyjamas as anything else. I stayed with 216 Sqn for six months and was desperate to become crew of any description. Despite efforts of my management who saw me having potential for crew, I was not allowed to remain. It was disheartening to learn on RTB that while aircrew flying in an out of the conflict zone would not be receiving a medal due to the '30 continuous days in theater' rule, while colleagues who had been stationed in Cyprus well away from the action had duly qualified.


The Harrier force was at its peak and as a fully trained resource I was returned to Wittering, then on to Belize for a while. However, by late 1993 I was among the final handful of engineers tasked with permanently closing down the Harrier hides 'Charlie-Delta' and 'Foxy-Golf' which had become an institution in themselves among the Harrier force community at least.


From the early 90's onwards, the RAF was downsizing following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War with it. I loved the RAF and had planned on a commission but even with my degree, an unusual accomplishment for a youngster in the ranks back then, promotion prospects were reducing and the excitement appeared to be over.


Almost twenty five years later while working for an aviation company near Farnbrough, driving by I randomly noticed a Harrier T4 through the fence at the roadside. I backtracked. This very aircraft I'd flown in the back seat some months prior to the 90-91 Gulf War. It was during a photo recce of the Burghley Horse Trials which Princess Diana attended. Wg Cdr Robinson was pilot and Princess Diana was honorary Air Commandant of RAF Wittering at the time. The jet was sitting just outside Lord Hugh Trenchard's original office at the RAF museum, Farnborough.


After forming the RAF in 1918 with No.1 squadron <1(F) Harriers, Wittering in my day>, Trenchard had shortly after created the RAF Apprentice scheme. I can thank Trenchard for the RAF, for the Apprentice scheme which I completed in 1989 before it was permanently ceased in the early 90's, for No1 Sqn Harriers and for a nostalgic visit to Harrier T4 tail letter "Yankee" right outside Trenchard's original office and the small museum it now forms part of.


Only a few weeks later, in April 2015 while starting to fly at Goodwood I read that Douglas Bader had flown Spitfires thereabouts for a while in the early 1940's with 1 Sqn and had in fact flown his last Spitfire mission from there before being captured. I had a sudden sense of how recent World War 2 was and how entwined my path in the RAF and afterwards had been with characters, institutions and events going back through over 100 years of history since 1918.

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