RC-135 V/W Rivet Joint Co-Manning
In early January 2011 22 personnel from 51 Sqn left the positively tropical climes of Blighty to begin training with the 338th Combat Training School at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.
Since then the number of British students has more than doubled and the first qualified operators have now returned to the UK. This is an outline of one of very few procurement success stories in past months: the manning for and purchase of 3 RC-135 V/W Rivet Joint aircraft to replace the venerable Nimrod R1. Few of us knew exactly what to expect on our arrival in the USA, some had visited the American Mid-West before and were able to offer the advice that as long as you liked steak and potatoes and weren’t afraid of a little cold weather everything would be fine. The first few weeks did not disappoint. We were welcomed on our American adventure by numerous snow storms, driving winds and temperatures hovering around -20°C which we soon discovered do not combine to offer a particularly pleasant training environment, especially not for aircraft egress training.
In many ways we were quite fortunate during the first 2 months of training as we spent so much time in either the classroom or the various simulators that little time was spent outside. Ground school proved to be very intense for all specialities and although many operators arrived with years of SIGINT experience behind them the Rivet Joint is no different to any other new platform and numerous late nights were spent pouring over books.
These first few weeks were lightened by our American brothers and sisters who made sure that it wasn’t all hard work. 51 Squadron hosted a Burns Supper in mid-January which was excellently attended by our American colleagues, some even sporting “traditional” Scottish dress. Offutt Air Force Base is home to the 55th Wing, “The Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth”, and we were privileged to be invited to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Unit’s activation at their Annual Birthday Ball. The evening centred around a formal dinner at the Embassy Suites in Omaha and culminated in 3 Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth veterans being inaugurated into the Wing Hall of Fame. It was a most memorable evening and we Brits even took the opportunity to introduce our American hosts to Korean rules desert.
On 1st April an evening celebrating the birth of the RAF was held at the Patriot Club at the Base. 51 Squadron did not miss the chance to educate our hosts on our fine history, indeed Flight Sergeant “Magic” Johnson took great glee in reminding the USAF that WWII had actually begun in 1939. Sergeant Dave Wythe gave an excellent presentation on the Black Buck Raids; a surprisingly fitting subject for rural Nebraska as the Air and Space Museum, only a few miles from Offutt Air Force Base, now houses Vulcan XM573. The evening ended in fine style as Squadron members enjoyed introducing the Americans to one of our finer traditions, the burning of a piano.
As the winter weather began to abate, focus began to shift from ground training to the flying phase of the course. For those of you not familiar with the climatology of the American Mid-West, spring-time marks the beginning of thunderstorm and tornado season. This has certainly made for some interesting introductions to Rivet Joint airborne operations. On 14th April Squadron Ldr Jake McAllister was the first UK pilot to land the aircraft, albeit twice from a single approach, at Forbes Field, Kansas. This marked a significant milestone in UK Rivet Joint training. In his previous post at Headquarters 2 Group he had been responsible for the delivery of Co-Manning under the leadership of Officer Commanding 51 Squadron (desig.) Wing Commander Garry Crosby.
The first qualified operators departed Offutt Air Force Base on 16th April. They will be the first of many 51 Squadron personnel fully immersed in operations alongside the USAF, some deploying as early as June this year. Co-Manning will form the backbone of 51 Squadron’s business until the first UK Rivet Joint ZZ664 is delivered in December 2013. Until then Squadron personnel can expect to be deployed on operations globally in this milestone project and there is presently no expectation that collaborative operations will cease when 51 Squadron stands up with RAF Rivet Joint. Much work has been done over many years to ensure that the UK maintains an independent SIGINT capability and with a proven record the Rivet Joint will certainly fulfil this requirement at RAF Waddington.