'Targeting' at Llanbedr
by Andy Evans
Nestling beneath the stunning backdrop of the Snowdonia mountains on the mid-Wales coastline is the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) station of Llanbedr, home to the most unusual collection of 'aircraft' in the UK. It is here that DERA provide remotely piloted Drone 'aircraft' for use as aerial targets by the RAF and other UK forces. Situated within
reach of the sand dunes of Cardigan Bay, the site is clearly visible from the nearby tourist havens of Barmouth and Shell Island, however the high fencing and 'No Photography Allowed' signs make it clear it is not a place to go visiting uninvited. I was afforded a rare opportunity to look at the work of the base, which provides valuable assistance to our defensive and offensive forces.
The small, single runway of the Llanbedr airfield operates a diverse and singular number of 'target' and 'target towing' aircraft, and their expertise includes:
Allied to the Llanbedr site is the Aberporth Range complex, which conducts missile and air flight weapon testing for the UK MoD. Aberporth boasts a 6200 square km area of sea with a safety area of unlimited height. As mentioned, DERA supply an extensive range of manned, unmanned and towed air targets for use at Aberporth range, which also provides for sophisticated trials, control and display, communications, radar, electro-optical telemetry and telecommand facilities.
The airfield itself was constructed in 1939, however by 1950 Llanbedr had been used by the Army for Korean War training, but was refurbished in order to return it to aviation use by No.5 Civil Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Unit with its Mosquito target tugs and Meteor TT8 aircraft. Controlled by RAF Maintenance Command, contractors Short Brothers operated the unit with serving RAF personnel supervising the growing band of ex-service civilian employees until eventually the RAF element was phased out. Low-flying Spitfires and Vampires provided the practice for artillery sighting and manoeuvring, whilst targets for air-to-air gunnery were towed by Beaufighters. However it was intended that an unmanned target aircraft should be used from Llanbedr, and plans were laid to procure a RPV called 'Jindivik' from Australia. However development delays led to a decision, taken in September 1951 to develop a number of surplus Royal Navy Fairey Firefly aircraft as a target drones, to bridge the inevitable gap.
The piston engined Firefly was a useful asset, but it was not long before the drone programme was authorised to use jet powered ex-RAF Meteor F4's and F8's, as they became available. These aircraft were converted by Flight Refuelling Ltd at Tarrant Rushton, and initial flight tests with the Meteor as a drone were carried out at Farnborough on 2 September 1954, using a Meteor T.7 piloted by Flt Lt E F Pennie. In its drone guise the Meteor became known as the U.15. The first take-off under automatic control took place on 17 January 1955 again with Flt Lt Pennie as safety pilot. Llanbedr received the first Meteor U.l5 in January 1957 and the first Meteor drone sortie took place on l7 July 1958. Telemetry as such was not available then, so a shepherd aircraft, usually another Meteor would escort the drone to the entrance to the Range, hold well clear and rejoin after the sortie had concluded. As the Meteor F.8 became more available, surplus airframes were also converted into the more sophisticated Meteor U.l6, which made its first drone flight in the September of 1960, with over 200 of the type eventually being 'droned'. One Meteor U15 was equipped with the soon to be procured Jindivik UAV systems to prove and familiarise the crews that would 'fly' the Jindivik in readiness for 'aircraft' itself. In true military style it was thus dubbed the "Meteorvik". During 1959 the Royal Navy were also allocated drone Meteor U.I5s for use at Hal Far in Malta. On 29 March 1960 their first drone Meteor target was destroyed by a Sea Slug missile from HMS Girdle Ness.
A pair of ex-Royal Navy De Havilland Sea Vixens were also employed by Llanbedr. The only survivor of the duo XP924, was built at Chester and entered service with No.899 Naval Air Squadron, as a Sea Vixen FAW.2 in March, 1964. All its front-line service was with No.899 Sqn aboard HMS Eagle and shore based at RNAS Yeovilton. It was handed over to RAE Llanbedr in June 1973, where it flew as a conventionally piloted high-speed radar target. Between 1977 and 1985 the aircraft was converted to a D.3 drone by Flight Refuelling Ltd and flew as a manned drone from Llanbedr from 1986 until its retirement in 1991. It was also used to train ground-based drone controllers and was always flown with a safety pilot aboard. XP924, otherwise known as Foxy Lady, is the only 'airworthy' Sea Vixen in the world, and is taking her place in a queue of aircraft being restored to flying condition by de Havilland.
Enter the Jindivik
The Jindivik, an Aboriginal term meaning 'The Hunted One' UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicle), made its first UK flight April 1960 and its 7000th in early 1999. The Jindivik is used to carry towed Infra-Red and Semi-Active Radar Targets, and since its introduction, it has continued to be the standard weapons target in both Australia and the UK and has been the cornerstone of many missile development programmes. The attrition rate has been roughly 236 airframes since operations began, although two have been lost in the past year. It continues to be the primary aerial target for the exercise of the RAF fighter squadrons. Development of the drone has also continued throughout its lifespan, both in expanding the original flight envelope and in protecting this increasingly valuable target by using decoys for missile engagements. Originally conceived as a high-altitude aircraft, the introduction of a Radio Altimeter flying control system enabled it to be flown at very low levels over the sea. Development of a decoy system has also enhanced the overall realism of the target. The Jindivik is flown via a radio command link by a five-person team on the ground. Launch is from a steerable trolley on a conventional runway directed by a Take-Off controller who is located behind the take-off point. Recovery is directed by separate Pitch and Azimuth Controllers, and landing is accomplished using a skid extended below the drone. Throughout the mission, control is exercised from a two-person blind control cell, where the full range of flight and mission data is presented on instrument displays driven by telemetry data transmitted from the aircraft. The Master Controller exercises all-round supervision of the operation. Miss-distance cameras provide film records of the missile engagement for evaluation.
Currently Hawk aircraft act as 'shepherds' taking the drones out to the ranges and bringing them back. The Hawk pilots then report to the Drone controllers any problems or damage that might have been sustained during a sortie. Unlike the Meteor or the Sea Vixen, the Hawks are unmodified, and simply act as guides to make sure that they are on the right track and that the particular target is being trailed properly. The latest of some 20 Jindivik variants, the Mk 4A first flew at Llanbedr in 1987 and introduced further performance enhancements including greater manoeuvrability. The most notable spin-off from the Jindivik programme was probably the Viper jet engine. Originally designed to be a cheap, short life engine, its success led to widespread use in such aircraft as the Jet Provost and the HS.125. The USA, Sweden and Australia have also purchased Jindivik's and it is a testament to the flexibility and integrity of the original design that there is no real competitor on the horizon. In 1994 FRA Serco were awarded prime contractor status for the fixed price development and manufacture of a telecommand and telemetry system for the newly procured Jindivik Mk4A-900 aircraft fleet and the associated ground test equipment. 18 of the new -900 series have so far been delivered, and these will be the last ever manufactured, which together with current stocks leaves a total of 30 airframes still in existence. Operations are carried out by some 150 FRA Serco staff, covering both the Llanbedr and West Freugh sites. 95% of the work undertaken at Llanbedr is in support of the RAF, which in turn makes up some 75% of the Aberporth Range work.
With the shortage of Hawk jet trainers currently being experienced by the RAF, a Boscombe Down Hawker Hunter is currently on loan to Llanbedr and is being used as a Hawk back up. At the time of writing DERA is negotiating the purchase of four ex-Luftwaffe Alpha Jets for use at Llanbedr, which could possibly replace both the Canberra and Meteor aircraft functions. The Meteor's, Sea Vixens and Jindivik's remain amongst the most colourful military aircraft in the skies, being resplendent in high visibility red and yellow colour schemes. The Hawks wear the traditional 'Raspberry Ripple' colours of DERA, although aircraft 'borrowed' from RAF Valley have been noted in the standard Red and White training scheme. The Canberra's too are not to be outdone, as they continue to shine in their own 'Raspberry Ripple' scheme with black and yellow undersides.
Thanks are due to DERA Farnborough and Roger Davies at Llanbedr. Heading Logo Created by Andy Evans using Adobe Photoshop 5.0. Pictures copyright Andy Evans