51 Squadron Personnel Reach 20,000 Operational Flying Hours
Less than two years since their first aircrew members graduated from the training school at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, 51 Squadron is celebrating a milestone achievement, with 20,000 operational flying hours on the USAF RC-135 RIVET JOINT aircraft.
Since the start of the Co-manning initiative in 2011, over 100 aircrew have completed training alongside their American colleagues, and deployed together with them in support of worldwide operations, including Operation Enduring Freedom over Afghanistan, and Operation Unified Protector over Libya. Like the Nimrod R1 (51 Squadron’s previous aircraft which retired from service in June 2011 after supporting the mission in Libya), the RC-135 RIVET JOINT is a signals intelligence gathering platform. It is primarily used to collect intelligence information which is then passed to commanders to aid understanding of the environment and support decision-making during operations, but it can also be used to perform peacetime intelligence-gathering missions in support of wider UK and international security objectives. The crew consists of men and women from various specialisations, including pilots, navigators, electronic warfare officers, sensor operators and airborne systems engineers, all trained at Offutt Air Force Base (close to Omaha, Nebraska) on courses lasting between 4 and 7 months. The airborne systems engineers are an addition to 51 Squadron manpower and they have responsibility for resolving maintenance issues with the complex collection systems and for dealing with in-flight emergencies; their efforts are crucial to maintaining output from the sensor teams on the RJ.
The Co-manning agreement is a mutually beneficial partnership between the RAF and USAF which allows 51 Squadron personnel to become familiar with the RIVET JOINT whilst they prepare to receive the first of their three highly anticipated aircraft at the end of this year. The RAF crews have gained intimate knowledge of the RJ’s operating systems and capabilities, both from their training and joint deployments with their American colleagues. Along the way, they have also acquired an insight into how the world’s largest air force operates and the USAF have enjoyed the wealth of experience and professionalism that 51 Squadron personnel offer. Certain sensor operators on the squadron have over 11,000 flying hours, a fact which draws stunned silence from the young American airmen and women fresh from basic training when everyone is asked to introduce themselves at the start of the training courses on the 338thCombat Training Squadron at Offutt. Of course it isn’t just the aircrew that are having to retrain on a new platform; the ground crew have also been proving their commitment, with training courses for some specialisations lasting a whole year, unaccompanied, in the USA. Eleven ground crew have so far completed their training courses, with another 8 currently in the process, and more to follow.
The 20,000 operational flying hours were achieved on over 1,000 missions in the Middle East and Mediterranean with 51 Squadron personnel filling almost every position on the aircraft, including management positions. RAF pilots have qualified in the Aircraft Commander’s seat, giving them total responsibility for the crew and the mission, which is a new experience for many of our American colleagues!
Wing Commander Garry Crosby, Officer Commanding 51 Squadron said “Passing the milestone of 20,000 hours of operational flying on RIVET JOINT reflects the commitment and hard work of 51 aircrew, groundcrew and everyone who has supported the Co-Manning initiative. The USAF has been very proactive in providing the opportunity for my crews to train and fly operationally and we have learnt a great deal in the last two years. The Co-Manning partnership has prepared 51 in the best way possible for the delivery of our own RIVET JOINT aircraft later this year.”
The aircraft is being procured under Project AIRSEEKER, but will still be called RIVET JOINT in UK service to reflect the enduring partnership we will have with the USAF. The first aircraft is now fully built and undergoing ground testing with the manufacturer and is expected to be delivered to RAF Waddington on time in late 2013. Between its arrival in the UK and its official into-service date of Oct 2014, 51 Squadron will be conducting a comprehensive work-up of all aircrew, groundcrew and mission support personnel to ensure that all facets of the RIVET JOINT system are fully functional and ready to deploy on operations. Continuing the tradition of previous platforms flown by 51Squadron, the three RIVET JOINT aircraft have been assigned the tail numbers ZZ664, ZZ665 and ZZ666, with 64 being the first to arrive, 65 following in 2015 and 66 completing the trio in 2017. With 20,000 operational hours on their next aircraft already under their belts, the crews of 51 are looking forward to once again having their own aircraft at RAF Waddington, and working towards another significant milestone, the 100th anniversary of the squadron’s formation, on 15th May 2016.
‘Passing the milestone of 20,000 hours of operational flying on RIVET JOINT reflects the commitment and hard work of 51 aircrew, groundcrew and everyone who has supported the Co-Manning initiative.’
Wing Commander Garry Crosby