Sky High at Boscombe Down

PUBLISHED: 08:37 20 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:44 20 February 2013

John Hannavy meets the people who keep the aircraft flying at Boscombe Down

Climbing into the cockpit of a Tornado jet even one sitting in its hangar is an exhilarating experience, and just a little unnerving! Why? Because I had been told that the ejector seat was armed and live, and if I touched the lever on the front of the seat between my knees I could be splattered on to the hangar ceiling in 0.7 seconds! Not enough time, really, even to say gosh or some other appropriate and well-chosen expression.

I never did find out whether or not they were serious! But once seated in the surprisingly roomy cockpit, I soon almost but never quite forgot about the little lever while listening to Al Lipscombe, one of QinetiQs Avionic Task Managers with A Squadron at Boscombe Down, explain the workings of the aircraft.

Modern military aircraft are highly complex things, and getting more complex by the minute, with each new generation or version offering more computing power, more attack power, and arguably more things to go wrong than the previous one. So how do they keep them in the air? How do they ensure that the millions of lines of computer code which manage the avionics havent got holes in them? And how far can you push an aircraft before you push it too far, with potentially catastrophic results?

Those questions had taken me down the road to Boscombe Down, the huge air station which is home to the giant R&D company QinetiQ, and the Empire Test Pilots School. There they train the pilots who push the aircraft through their paces and to their limits during development, and where they also test, modify and develop the systems which keep the planes flying. Some of their innovations are changing the way aircraft, both military and civil, will fly in the future.

Boscombe has quite a fleet of Tornados, but, as Al Lipscombe explained, no two of them are configured alike. Each has specific equipment packages or unique characteristics which allow the QinetiQ teckies to understand more and more about how far they can push a modern aircraft.

Commander Phil Hayde RN, who recently stepped down from his post as Head of the Empire Test Pilots School, outlined the challenge. Our motto is learn to test, test to learn, and we aim to turn out test pilots who understand the needs of those operating the aircraft, and can communicate those needs to the designers. Aircraft in the past, he added, would fail slowly, progressively, and often predictably, whereas todays machines work perfectly until just a second before they stop working completely! That presents a great challenge knowing what and where the limits are, and working with the designers to extend them.

The Test Pilots School was established at Boscombe in 1943, moving to Cranfield and then Farnborough before returning home to its present facilities. It enrolls up to 26 potential test pilots each year, nine of them from the UK. The others come from all over the world. Demand for skilled test pilots is considerable, and there are only four such schools worldwide; there are two in America and one in France. Britains was the first, and the schools 15 flying tutors train pilots to test both fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. Training a helicopter test pilot costs a cool half million pounds, rising to three quarters of a million for fixed wing aircraft. At those sorts of costs, only the best pilots are considered suitable, and the intensive course is both extremely challenging and hugely demanding of the trainees.

Both the ETPS and QinetiQ have a whole range of aircraft which can do very clever things. Some can be set up to behave unpredictably helping the test pilots to understand where the boundaries of safe operation are. Some of the QinetiQ planes are flying test-beds for the latest developments in avionics, and others can be programmed to behave like other makes and models of planes some not yet in service to speed up the R&D (research and development) phase of bringing new models into operation. All very high-tech stuff, based on shed-loads of very precise feedback data.

So what sort of things do they get up to with their aircraft? Well, some of it sounds more than a little scary! Just look at the picture of the Tornado in flight, which was taken by QinetiQs Douglas Millard from an old BAC1-11 passenger jet. Nothing out of the ordinary there, you might think, except the BAC 1-11 pilot was apparently sitting with his arms folded while the Tornado pilot controlled the larger aircraft remotely through very sophisticated computer systems! While he wasnt bound, gagged and blindfolded for the duration that would have added realism he kept his hands off the stick, and was there both to meet CAA regulations and to take over should the systems have failed to live up to their design expectations. This was all part of the development work on improving the effectiveness of UAVs unmanned air vehicles (or drones to you and me) the pilotless aircraft which are widely used for reconnaissance in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. UAVs are also being developed for civilian and commercial use, so the technology has a much wider application than just in war zones.
Other important projects recently undertaken at Boscombe Down have included the conversion of eight new Chinook Mk3 helicopters to ensure they were completely compatible with the rest of the RAFs fleet. These aircraft are now entering service, a much needed boost to our forces overseas.

Obviously there is a sensitivity involved in much of the work which goes on there. We are not secretive, said Paul Whitelegg, QinetiQs head of operations at Boscombe Down, we just like to keep our research projects very secure indeed. As you might expect, the atmosphere at a test establishment is very different to that which I had become used to at Lyneham. Whereas at Lyneham the RAF were keen for me to meet and talk to people with a wide range of operational skills, thus allowing me to get a very broad picture of what goes on, and to pick up some great human stories along the way, the people at QinetiQ kept me on a very short leash indeed. What I was allowed to see, and who I was allowed to talk to were, perhaps understandably, both very much driven by their agendas, not mine!

One thing which did impress me in todays limited training environment, QinetiQ take on between 25 and 30 new engineering apprentices at Boscombe Down each year, and currently have nearly 100 apprentices enrolled on City & Guilds Certificate and NVQ Level 3 courses. As part of their course, third-year students undertake a public sculpture project each year, and several of their creations are on permanent display in Solstice Park.

Meanwhile, back at Lyneham, as the C-17 Globemaster makes the latest of its now regular approaches carrying yet another sad cargo of fallen personnel, work continues towards the imminent closure of Wiltshires last great RAF station. It would be wonderful to think that the repatriations might stop when the station closes, but sadly they will simply transfer to Brize Norton. It is to be hoped that even at the much busier Oxfordshire station, the high standards of care and sensitivity towards the bereaved families, which have become a feature of Lynehams Operation Pabay, will be continued.

Flying is scheduled to stop this month, with the last flight penciled in for 11 September. By then the fleet of Hercules will have been transferred to Brize Norton, and over the coming year, so will 2,000 of Lynehams personnel. The sound of the mighty Hercules over Lyneham village will by then be a thing of the past, and the villagers will have to get used to the silence! The 25m the stations activities put into Wiltshires economy each year will be difficult to replace, as will the 750 civilian jobs which will be lost with the closure.
In researching the background to this series, I have been surprised by the sheer scale of the RAFs former presence in our county. The history of the Air Forces presence in Wiltshire fills several books, with a surprising number of locations. RAF Lyneham will very shortly join that long list, and the immediate impact its closure will have on the local community will be considerable.

As every station has closed, the same local concerns which surround Lyneham today have been voiced. But every community has withstood the loss of their RAF presence, and moved forward. The people of Lyneham and the surrounding towns and villages much hope the same will be true for them. A lot of housing stock will soon become available as personnel move out, and filling those properties will radically change the demographics of the village. RAF personnel are typically temporary residents, whereas their civilian replacements in the former Air Force housing will, presumably, be more permanent.

But while the future of the RAF Lyneham site itself remains unclear, the Air Force will be leaving some positive legacies to the community, not least of them a wonderful playground for children and teenagers jointly developed by the RAF, Lyneham & Bradenstoke Parish Council, and the former North Wiltshire District Council.

There are still rumours of plans to turn the air base into a civilian airport, but the current access roads are clearly quite inadequate for that purpose, and in these difficult times, funding to improve the

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Wiltshire Magazine