Area 51 New and Unique Challenges

Welcome once again to Area 51. The ongoing Covid-19 situation continues to provide new and unique challenges to 51 Squadron, as it does across RAF Waddington.

Since we last wrote for the Insight magazine, 51 Sqn have been very busy and would have been even without a global pandemic to deal with. The primary reason for this was the Sqn’s highly successful deployment to NSA Souda Bay in Crete. Sgt Stu Branagan, a member of the 51 Sqn media team, offers his own fascinating insight into the deployment below.

This summer 51 Sqn personnel embarked on an 8-week detachment to Souda Bay, Crete. While Crete is considered a ‘holiday island’, this detachment certainly was not a leisurely time in the sun!
Operating from Souda Bay provides many operational benefits and is also a great opportunity to work closely with our USAF Rivet Joint counterparts, sharing working practices and building greater working relationships. The deployment also provided a chance for ZZ664, the Squadron’s most advanced Rivet Joint, to be put through her paces on operational sorties again.
It almost goes without saying that conducting military operations during 2020 comes with its own set of unique challenges. After spending two weeks at Air’s newly established Quarantine Facility at RAF Wittering, the main party arrived in Crete in mid-August and operations began a few days later. A heavy and continuous period of flying provided excellent experience for air and ground crews alike. Of course, it wasn’t just personnel from 51 Sqn on the detachment. We also had additional support staff from various sections around Waddington, a support team from 54 Signals Unit, RAF Digby and personnel from elsewhere such as Cranwell and Leeming – all of whom were integral in the overall success of the deployment.
As you can imagine, Coronavirus loomed over all aspects of the detachment. Social distancing, temperature checks, wearing of masks and gallons of hand sanitizer were part of daily life. In order to mitigate our potential exposure, travel on the island was initially restricted to ‘work only’ locations. However, as the tourist season came to an end and the potential for exposure decreased, some limitations were gradually relaxed to a few local routes. Thankfully, beaches and a couple of restaurants were on these routes. We all made the most of our limited down time – enjoying the sunshine, the clear Mediterranean Sea and a lot of souvlaki during the final days of the Cretan summer.
Despite the Covid restrictions and subsequent limited Force Development opportunities, we still found many activities to fill our time outside of the beaches and restaurants. A socially distanced BBQ hosted by the detachment commander, OC 51, was organised early in the detachment. This helped cement friendships and working relationships which had been forged during our time at AQFAC Wittering, and towards the end of the deployment, a Pub Quiz was well received by all who attended.
In addition to making use of the gym facilities at our accommodation site and elsewhere, there were also many ‘Det Runners’. With all the early morning risers and night owls, it seemed like not an hour in the day would go by without at least one or two keen individuals putting the miles in. However, it wasn’t just running that we were taking part in. Flt Lt Angie Hemlin, back at 51 Sqn Waddington, asked if anyone wanted to take part in the RAFA Waddington Battle of Britain Cycling challenge. Cpl Dan Wilkinson eagerly took up the mantle. The aim of the challenge was to cycle 8,160 miles (80 years since the Battle of Britain and 102 years of the RAF, 80×102=8,160). A team of 12 regular cyclists did the bulk of the work, but many detachment personnel contributed to the total. It was a fantastic effort by all, as we were restricted to just two exercise bikes and for only an hour at a time, but throughout September we managed to clock up over 3,660km. If anyone would like to donate to the cause, please visit: justgiving.com/campaign/RAFABattleofBritainCyclingChallenge.
Many of us also went to pay respects at various memorials to Allied sacrifices during the Battle of Crete in 1941. The Commonwealth War Graves at Souda Bay are an impeccably maintained memorial. In all, 248 British personnel, of which 42 served with the RAF, are buried at the Souda Bay Commonwealth War Graves. War dead from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, Poland, South Africa and Germany are also buried at Souda Bay.
Overall the detachment, conducted in the shadow of a global pandemic, has been considered a great success both operationally and socially. Hopefully, we can return soon without the aforementioned restrictions to sample as many beaches and souvlakis as Crete has to offer- in between the many hours of work of course.

Find out more about 51 Sqn in Insight magazine Winter 2020 issue.