Spotlight: Wattisham's mini 'Hazel Flute'
Gary Parsons reports on fast-jet activity at last...
It has been a long while since the sound of fast jets reverberated around the acres of Wattisham airfield in Suffolk. Apart from the odd Hawk detachment and Jaguar weather diversion, it's been eleven years since front-line combat jets operated off the main ASP and runway, but to the delight of many local enthusiasts one week in October 2003 brought four days of Harrier action, as IV(AC) Squadron set up camp in a small grass area outside Hangar 2.
A squadron initiative, it wasn't officially a 'Hazel Flute' deployment of days gone by, where all three front-line units would decamp to a remote base for a week, operating lock, stock and barrel as a complete entity - this exercise was primarily designed to give some new squadron members experience in field deployment, controlling conditions at a remote site and also practice using some new equipment. A key part of this was a new portable 'operations centre', comprising a modular structure that can be erected in as little as two hours and provides the groundcrew with all the facilities they need to service the aircraft for turnaround purposes. If any aircraft developed a problem at Wattisham and required further maintenance then personnel would be sent from Cottesmore, just two hours drive by car - the exercise wasn't designed to provide full engineering facilities. In the event serviceability was good and this wasn't required.
The encampment at Wattisham was largely self-supporting, with up to 47 personnel spending the nights in tented accommodation next to the main 'ops centre' - with water, portaloos and a mess tent nearby, it could have been an abandoned airfield to all intent and purpose. Fuel was the only commodity requested from the Army, with a single RAF tanker on call to top up the arriving Harriers.
Standard Harrier training missions were flown, commencing at Cottesmore in the morning, landing at Wattisham with a forty-five minute turnaround before returning to the home base. Although IV(AC) Squadron is an army-co-operation unit, no joint missions with the Wattisham-based helicopters were flown, but the deployment provided an opportunity to forge stronger links with 4 Regiment, with which the RAF squadron already has close ties - the main reason Wattisham was selected for this exercise. Some of the newer squadron pilots also gained experience in landing at an unfamiliar airstrip and communicating with Air Traffic Control, away from the comfort of Cottesmore or Wittering. Regular Army Air Corps sorties continued as usual, the Lynxes and Gazelles operating from the southern end of the ASP.
This was a second off-base deployment by part of the Harrier Force in recent weeks, as in late September a week's training was conducted at North Luffenham in Leicestershire. However, each deployment has a different remit, the North Luffenham one designed to provide training for the Royal Engineers in setting up hides and preparing rough strips for Harrier operations. It would seem that the days of the regular full-scale 'Hazel Flute' exercises are largely over, as more of these small-scale deployments will happen to test specific parts and procedures of the Harrier Force at any particular time. This will become even more relevant with the integration of many Fleet Air Arm personnel, to whom this type of remote deployment with basic facilities may be quite alien.
But for many in the Wattisham area it was a welcome return of the sound of 'jet noise' - not everyone complains about it! One hopes that it won't be eleven years before it returns in earnest again. For a brief spell the spirit of Crash Gate Two was alive again - the autumn air was filled with the banter of familiar voices, drawn together by the cameraderie of days of yore. If only it wasn't for that bl**dy fence...
With thanks to the deployed personnel of IV(AC) Squadron