Tales From Offutt
With a number of 51 Sqn personnel having returned to the UK on completion of their conversion training to the United States Air Force (USAF) RC-135V/W RIVET JOINT aircraft (the replacement for the retired Nimrod R1) and more personnel arriving at Offutt Air Force Base to conduct their training approximately every 5 weeks, now is probably a good time to update those back in the UK on the activities of the 51 Sqn personnel detached to this USAF airbase near Omaha, Nebraska, USA.
Conversion training is carried out by the 338th Combat Training Sqn (CTS) and, so far, 27 aircrew students have completed their training with some impressive results. Five of these individuals have reached the required standard to graduate early during the flying phase [referred to as Proficiency Advanced (PA) by the USAF] resulting in the USAF instructors graduating them without the need to complete all of the scheduled syllabus flights. Of these, Sqn Ldr Jake McAllister, MAcr Bob Boatman and FS BJ MacRae graduated with a very creditable Exceptionally Qualified (EQ) evaluation. Moreover, FS BJ MacRae became the first Airborne Systems Engineer (ASE) to be accelerated to PA – an excellent achievement.
Currently, there are 34 aircrew from 51 Sqn under training with the 338th CTS with 3 nearing the end of their training and already identified as PA candidates. So far, 1,384 hours have been flown by 51 Sqn personnel at Offutt AFB. It has not been all plain sailing; some significant obstacles have had to be successfully negotiated and there will no doubt be others to follow. Overall, the USAF personnel have been very accommodating, receptive and extremely happy to have us onboard.
The RAF detachment has been extremely keen to integrate well with the USAF and participate in activities at Offutt AFB whenever the opportunity arises. One such event was a Retreat Ceremony which is conducted on a rotation basis by the various squadrons based at Offutt AFB and involves the whole squadron parading in working dress under the command of the Sqn Officer Commanding with the Base Commander (a Brigadier General) taking the Salute. The Ceremony revolves around the lowering of the Stars and Stripes, the playing of the US National Anthem and the flag party marching off with the National flag (The Retreat). On Thu 12 May, it was the turn of 338th CTS to conduct the ceremony and 51 Sqn personnel were invited to participate alongside the 338th CTS. The detachment was pleased to do so and the result was a joint ceremony with the Union Flag flown alongside the US Flag. The 51 Sqn Detachment Commander, Squadron Leader Stu Bowyer, acted as Officer of the Day, while the Officer Commanding 338th CTS, Lt Col Carl Misner, gave the words of command to the assembled ranks. On a hot afternoon, the joint ceremony went extremely well; the Stars & Stripes and Union Flag were lowered at the same time, both National Anthems were played in turn followed by both Flags being marched off. Our participation was very well received by all of our US hosts, especially the Base Commander.
To provide a hosting opportunity of our own, the detachment decided to celebrate the 95th birthday of 51 Sqn with a grand barbecue at the Base Lake, Offutt Air Force Base, on Sat 21 May 11. Despite the threat of severe thunderstorms, the weather held off and the afternoon went very well in glorious sunshine with about 80 US guests and their families attending the event. A large barn-type open shelter with 3 adjacent barbecue pits was rented right next to the base’s lake which provided the opportunity for the keen anglers among the detachment to help some of the children to participate in a bit of fishing. The anglers had already filleted some fish to barbecue during the event, caught on previous visits to the Base Lake. The conversation, food and drink flowed smoothly throughout and a great time was had by all. Things were just starting to draw down when a storm warning was announced and a very hasty withdrawal was made as the storm clouds approached rapidly and the heavens opened. The site was cleared just in time before it was deluged.
Such stormy weather and snow melt in the Dakotas subsequently led to serious concern among the authorities that the River Missouri, already very high, would breach causing severe flooding in Nebraska. Some parts of Offutt AFB are low lying, including facilities used by 51 Squadron personnel and an unprecedented effort was required to fill and move sandbags, and then build barriers to protect these facilities should the waters arrive. To show solidarity with our US counterparts and to ‘do our bit’, the whole detachment turned out on Sat 11 Jun and, amongst some brutal banter with our US colleagues, we helped contribute to the 30,000 sandbags being filled on that day alone.
During June and July 19 newly qualified 51 Squadronw personnel took advantage of one Rivet Joint being deployed at RAF Mildenhall, the highlight of this training was undoubtedly the opportunity to fly the aircraft on both days of the Waddington Airshow. In total 9 sorties were manned by UK operators on training missions both in our own airspace and over mainland Europe.
The co-manning scheme is now gaining real momentum; the Squadron already has 3 personnel deployed in support of Op ELLAMY and Op HERRICK. Combined they have amassed some 30 sorties and 300 hours flying time to date. The Squadron now looks forward to the first major deployment in support of Op HERRICK; in late Aug, 12 personnel will complete pre-deployment training with the USAF at Offutt Air Force Base before commencing operations at Al Udeid, Qatar. This deployment will see UK aircraft captains being given command of the Rivet Joint aircraft on operations for the first time, a hugely significant milestone.