V(AC) Sqn – The Sentinel Years

(or Echoes of Chaucer, the Sentinel’s Tail)

So, here it is then, our last article for Insight; and what to say? I mean how do you get nearly 33,000 flying hours, 5 aircraft, 7 Bosses, over 4900 sorties, 9 operations, and 2 Battle Honours, along with numerous marriages, children (and even some grand-kids) onto a page without it becoming a very surreal version of the 12 Days of Christmas?

Well, I guess I should just do what I always do and tell the last few stories of the people who have made this era of V(AC) Sqn’s history the success that it is: the crews, engineers, analysts, HR and ops staff, Field Service Reps, industry partners and colleagues who bring Sentinel to life and make it such a unique and sought-after capability.

This particular ‘tail’ picks-up pretty much where the last one ended with the news that stricter COVID measures were to be introduced, essentially limiting our flying to sorties that were in support of named operations only. However, the training value of Sentinel’s planned participation in Exercise CRIMSON WARRIOR was such that after seeking approval to continue these sorties, we were able to fly twice as part of the main ISR package. Whilst there is no doubt these sorites gave the respective crews valuable training and currency, two of the Sqn’s AIAs – Sgt Joe Geeson and Sgt Colin Delderfield – also benefited from participating as ground students embedded within the planning cells. Furthermore, both Sgt Geeson and Sgt Delderfield were each nominated to be ISR Package Commanders for a mission. Both executed this demanding role superbly and received praise and positive plaudits from exercise planning staff for their professionalism and leadership. This success is even more notable when considered alongside the fact that Package Commander is a role normally allocated to experienced commissioned aircrew; both ‘Goose’ and ‘Col’ can be rightly proud of their achievements.

Whilst CRIMSON WARRIOR (the practical culmination to the Qualified Weapons Instructors Course) was on-going, Sqn Ldr Graham Orme was reaching the conclusion of his own academic endeavours in the form of his ‘viva’ or verbal defence of his Doctoral thesis. Carried out over Zoom as face-to-face meetings weren’t possible, he went through a three-hour examination of his thesis entitled “Technique based Exploitation of Low Grazing Angle Synthetic Aperture Radar Imagery of Ship Wakes” (or, according to members of the Exec cadre, who were ever supportive – ‘How the plane thingy can see the boat thingy’). Needless to say, after a slightly nervous wait as the examining panel deliberated, Dr Orme was congratulated for his comprehensive and detailed defence and the award of his PhD.

As the days began to shorten and Summer officially drew to a close, V(AC) Sqn settled again into a steady beat of flying in support of either Op SHADER or Op ROCKHARD and one sortie in particular stood out – ASCOT 7303 on 11 Nov. This sortie was important, not for where it flew or what it achieved, but for the simple fact that the mission data collected during the sortie was the first cache of mission data that was shared with NATO under the terms of the Contribution in Kind Agreement (more commonly known as ‘CiK’). The MOD has been in negotiations with NATO to determine how the UK will participate in the Alliance Ground Surveillance (or AGS) programme and a key element of these negotiations related to Sentinel mission data, specifically, how much data was needed to be considered as a CiK. This is very similar to how Sentry contributes to the NATO Airborne Early Warning capability and taking their experience on board, V(AC) Sqn had ear-marked a significant amount of mission data already collected in preparation for the formal Memorandum of Understanding coming into effect. Whilst much of this ‘pre-collected’ mission data had already been shared, the sortie on 11 Nov was the first time that data was shared immediately on recovery and as with many aspects of Sentinel’s operations it was a collaborative effort with 1 ISR Wg very much alongside us in ensuring the NATO AGS received timely, relevant and actionable intelligence.

11 Nov is an important day in many peoples calendars already and whilst the crew of ASCOT 7303 busied themselves supporting ROCKHARD, the rest of V(AC) Sqn took part in a number of Armistice Day commemorations. At RAF Waddington, our engineers, along with members of our industry partner Raytheon and other Sqn spt pers, held a short informal act of remembrance and two-minute silence in Hanger 3 with ZJ690 and ZJ691 as a fitting back-drop. At RAF Akrotiri, both Sent Det and those pers who were half-way through their mandatory isolation held their own commemorations at either the ISTAR Hub or Camp BLOODHOUND.

Throughout the last few months, postings out of V(AC) Sqn have gathered pace as each of the Flt Cdrs has continued to engage with the relevant Career Manager to negotiate suitable ‘next jobs’ for each of their personnel. It has at times been a challenge, however, every Career Manager has been fully supportive and equally engaging in return (it’s fair to say, everyone has understood the unique set of circumstances facing the various branches and trades) and every member of the Sqn has had either a career enhancing move or a posting that has met their personal or family needs. Whilst for the majority of the Flt Cdrs the numbers involved have been relatively small, for the Sqn WO, WO Kev Charlton it has been a much bigger task, as the engineering cadre account for approximately 75% of the Sqn as a whole. It’s testament to his hard work and dedication that, like his fellow Execs, he has also secured beneficial posts for over 100 engineers from TGs 1 and 4. Often at this point, there would be a short list or description of who has gone where; but, with the large numbers involved that’s just not sensible.

Instead, there was one departure that stood out, that of Lt Cdr Ted Vermeychuk USN. His posting would always prove notable and the USN’s confirmation of his ‘Orders’ in early November did just that. As the first (and now only) USN Exchange Officer for Sentinel, his return to flying training duties with VT-3 based at NAS Whiting Field, Florida brought to a close a truly unique period of Sentinel’s service. Despite a relatively short tour, Ted’s extensive experience from both operational and training units with the USN (including ‘carrier time’) has enhanced and expanded the corporate knowledge of flight deck and mission crews alike. Furthermore, following the successful completion of the periodic Captain’s Upgrade Board on 12 Nov, he returned to the USN with a ‘Highly Recommended’ for captaincy, the training for which he would have commenced in early 2021, had it not been for OSD. He also left us having earned his OSM Iraq and Syria (with Clasp) and we were delighted when the ISTAR Force Cdr, Air Cdre Nick Hay agreed to our request to present Ted with his ‘SHADER Medal’ before he was due to leave for the US. We were especially grateful for the flexibility the Force Cdr afforded us when we received notification that Ted’s original posting date being brought forward by a couple of weeks! With Lockdown 3 in place, this short semi-formal medal presentation was the closest we could get to saying a proper farewell to Ted, Elizabeth and the family before they flew out of Heathrow; nevertheless, our XO, Sqn Ldr Thurston Taylor, went to their hotel on the day of their departure to bid them all a very fond farewell from everyone from V(AC) Sqn (masked up and maintaining social distance of course!)

Towards the end of November, the second Operational Honours List of 2020 was released which included an Operational Team Commendation for Flt Lt Roger Nichols, Lt Cdr Ted Vermeychuk, Flt Lt Al Chevis, Flt Lt Dan Eaton, MAcr Mark Hammond and FS Tony Lindon, who were the operating crew for an Op SHADER sortie flown on 19 Oct 19. The specific details of the mission remain above the classification of this article, but were fully captured in the Sqn’s F541 at the time; even so, the story that can be told here is that the award was made in recognition of the support provided to coalition ground forces as they extracted from North East Syria during a period of intense fighting that, in the words of the tasking Headquarters, was “…one of the biggest single risks to life of the entire operation…”. The sortie profiles flown by Sentinel, where the aircraft is operating at high altitude and often displaced from the area being surveilled, means that the criteria for operational honours are rarely met by Sentinel; as such, this Team Commendation is unique as it is the first Operational Honour for an activity that was in direct support of a named operation.

In the 2021 New Year Honour’s List a former member of the Sqn, FS (now WO) Rob Bassett was honoured with the award of the Meritorious Service Medal. Affectionately known to all on V(AC) Sqn as ‘Bertie’, the award of an MSM is especially notable as the number awarded in any one year is strictly limited and more often than not, this number is rarely reached on a count of the strict eligibility criteria.

It wasn’t all ‘Tea and Medals’ for the deployed elements of V(AC) Sqn with the weather in Cyprus taking a noticeable turn for the worse as November slowly morphed into December. RAF Akrotiri has played a key role in UK air operations for nearly three decades now which means that nearly everyone on V(AC) Sqn has seen a Cypriot winter and know how severe storms can sometimes be there. However, even our ‘det veterans’ have been amazed at how fierce yet spectacular this seasons weather has been; Mother Nature at her most awe-inspiring and humbling.

In addition to ensuring people are safe and equipment was properly protected, both the deployed JEngOs (FS Chris Taylor and Flt Lt Mark Blair) have often had to overcome some challenging environmental issues to ensure Sentinel could still meet its commitment. Be it securing (no pun intended) suitable tie-down positions or access to hangarage for crucial out-of-phase rectification, the severe weather has made itself felt. Those in isolation at Camp BLOODHOUND were similarly affected, with torrential rain washing away several large areas of ground around their accommodation. The need to fill several dozen sandbags as a precaution against further erosion was probably not on their list of expected jobs when they went into isolation the previous week. FOD Plods to sweep for debris washed out of storm drains or scrubland onto Sentinel’s parking area however, they became a regular feature for Sent Det pers!

Read more in the Spring 2021 issue of Insight Magazine…