Check, Check and Check Again!
I know it’s not good form to start with an apology – but – considering my initial reaction to the Editor’s (very polite) request for the next Insight article was words to the effect of “…What! Another One? Already?…” then ‘Sorry’ is the least I can do. Anyhow, accepting that the summer is now behind us, the clocks are soon to go back, and, I will lose the argument over what temp the thermostat is set to, here is what V(AC) Sqn have been up to since I last wrote.
Overall, the summer and early autumn of 2020 have continued to be productive, with success in several areas. The flying rate in the UK maintained a steady tempo and once we had safely re-established our presence at RAF Akrotiri (more on this later), it effectively doubled! Broadly speaking, whilst supporting operations from two different locations ‘Team Sentinel’ has achieved a near 100% serviceability record, delivering against all our tasked activities. Many of the details must remain protected, and rightly so; however, what can be said, is that the real highlight of several of these events has been the opportunity to operate alongside many of our sister squadrons from the wider ISTAR Force. Whether it has been carrying a TD or WSOp (Linguist) as Supernumerary Crew or, operating in the same airspace under the same co-ordination and tasking as 51 Sqn, the professional pride, satisfaction and sense of achievement has been felt by the whole of V(AC) Sqn.
On 4 Jul, the final deployment of the Sentinel era began with the departure of a 17-strong ADVON to Akrotiri. This group left the UK early to allow them to complete the mandated isolation with enough time ‘at the other end’ to ensure Sent Det could be stood up again in a timely and safe manner. The irony of their departure date (Independence Day??) was not lost on anyone; however, the facilities at Camp Bloodhound, although basic, were comfortable enough and the enforced two-weeks passed quickly. A week or so later, the next tranche of 13 pers arrived in the adjacent compound and once they had completed their own isolation, they brought Sent Det up to full strength. Unlike previous deployments, where shorter more frequent deployments were the norm, COVID and the need to include isolation in our planning, meant that everyone was given clear and early notification on when they were deploying and for how long. Now is the right time to publicly express our deep gratitude and thanks to the many people from other sections on Stn who have also deployed with us; I won’t name them all individually as first, there are a lot; and second, I really don’t want to offend anyone who I may miss-out by mistake. Suffice to say though, without the Raytheon FSRs; the Forward Handlers, Crypto Custodians and Mission Briefers from Ops Wg; BSW’s HR Clerks; and, 1 ISR Wg’s Analysts, we simply could not have delivered the results we have. Likewise, our preparations to deploy would have been almost impossible without the support of the Regt Flt; the Medics, Dentists, Doctors and Nurses in the Med Centre; Supply Sqn and MT; and, Stn Int. Simply – Thank You to each and every Section, Flt or person who has helped get us ‘out the door’; we really do appreciate it.
Back at home our CIS Team were kept busy hosting Cyber Ops Sqn, 591SU and RAFP Protective Sy as they carried out the latest elements of the ISTAR Force Commander’s Cyber Resilience (CyRes) Strategy. The CyRes Configuration Week was a very comprehensive and in-depth look into how we as an FE obtain, use, store and share information – think Cyber STANEVAL! The CIS Team once again worked hard, not just in the weeks of prep beforehand, but also during the 4 days of interviews, audits and inspections; all of which paid off with confirmation that we achieved the NIST Level 2 expected and have made good strides towards attaining Level 3 as well. At this point it is worth acknowledging how lucky we are as a Sqn to have dedicated CIS / TG4 support; we are very aware that the small team of Sgt Elton Stewart, Sgt Sean Young, Cpl Si Dawes and Cpl Martin Illman deliver far in excess of their mandated task and without them, keeping up to date with the ever-changing and rapidly evolving Cyber Security worlds would be nigh-on impossible.
On reflection, the ‘STANEVAL’ theme has been a prominent one for much of the last few months. During the same week as the CyRes Configuration Week, the Sqn’s Ops Team were subject to a Formal Operational Assurance Visit by the BM Force STANEVAL. Even though this visit was carried out virtually, the same level of preparation was still needed to ensure documents were up-to-date and training records correctly captured the routine assurance, standards and trade knowledge activities. Sgt Gary Hickie and his team were justifiably pleased with their assessment, with only two minor observations that needed addressing. A few weeks later, our Engineers were subject to their own Assurance Visit and once again, hard work and preparations paid off and whilst the formal report is still to be published, SEngO’s hot debrief was very positive. Finally, at pretty much the same time STANEVAL themselves carried out their annual Formal Staff Visit. This coincided with the annual signatures for aircrew logbooks which was the perfect opportunity for all crew to review these, and their TRFs and F5000s. As you would expect, STANEVAL rightly examined every aspect of how the Sqn operates and whilst overall, we were given a ‘clean bill of health’, their hot debrief with OC V(AC) Sqn included a concern about OSD and the associated pressures disbandment will inevitably bring. This is no bad thing, as everyone is very aware that we face some novel challenges in the next four or five months. Whilst internally there is a conscious effort being made at all levels to stay focussed, keep safe and maintain high standards, having STANEVAL validate our position is excellent and the support they continue to offer during these last 6-months remains essential.
On a lighter note, we have been fortunate enough to see a number of V(AC) Sqn pers receive official recognition for their contributions to Sentinel. Cpl Neil Williams was chosen as the Airman of the Month for August for his diligence and perseverance during an Unusual Occurrence Investigation; and, at the end of August, it was announced that Sqn Ldr Nick Berry (FTRS), Flt Lt Chris Waddilove (PTVR) and CT Stephen Winstanley (Regular) were to receive ISTAR Force Commander’s Commendations. The mix of regular and reserve was a real demonstration of the Whole Force in action.
September also saw the first successful charity event by pers from V(AC) Sqn; Flt Lt Rohan Buckley, Flt Lt Graeme Smallbone and Flt Lt Al Chevis all took part in JETRide 2020 in aid of the John Egging Trust. An 80-km ride around the villages of south Lincolnshire that started and finished at RAF Cranwell not only were the three riders blessed with good weather, but also a flypast by BBMF during the lunch stop in the village of Corby Glen. They managed to raise over £400 – a fantastic effort! (And in the current climate, no doubt very welcome too.)
Out at Akrotiri, there were several opportunities to take part in FD and considering restrictions remain in place here in the UK, for many pers, deploying is likely to be their only chance to do something ‘different’. So far, the Kaledonia Trail and the associated waterfalls near Troodos have proven very popular!
Finally, it was with great sadness that we were told of the deaths of Cpl Sean Cooper and his wife Lucy in a road traffic accident in the US. Sean left V(AC) Sqn on promotion to Cpl in Nov 17 having been a huge character on the Sqn since 2012. A great many members of the Sqn had kept in touch with Sean and Lucy since their move to America, and CT Chris Riley summed up the feelings of many when he wrote a short tribute for the Sqn’s F540, which finished: “They will be sorely missed by everyone who was blessed to have known them and even those who didn’t, the loss is keenly felt. Once on V always on V!” Their funeral was held on 15 Oct and whilst COVID prevented many from attending, the opportunity for the Sqn to provide several of the Lining Party was extremely well received. Furthermore, approval from the AOC and Stn Cdr to conduct a flypast felt like the most appropriate and fitting way for the Sqn to pay its respects. They will be dearly missed by all of V(AC) Sqn.