Gary Parsons and Jamie Hunter/ Aviacom report on the RAF's first major exercise of 2004.
Friday 23 January, some 25,000 ft above the cold North Sea and halfway between Scotland and Norway - it's hard to imagine anywhere could be less hospitable, especially at 0730. But, here we are with a fried breakfast in front of us, hot coffee on tap and the prospect of the sun just breaking in time to capture our prey, seven Harrier GR7s of the Cottesmore Wing en-route to Bardufoss for Exercise 'Snow Falcon'.
It's a race with the rising sun as we head northward, sunrise getting progressively later than the 0800 London official time that we left just over an hour ago. High cloud has forced us higher than the scheduled 20,000 ft and the sun is peeping over the horizon, the sky glowing red as it does so - what is it they say, 'Red sky in the morning, Sailor's warning'? Maybe we're in for a bumpy ride. Thick cloud covers the sea like a blanket, except for the odd gap when oil rigs can be seen, flickering in the grey mass like candles on a birthday cake. Our safety brief had mentioned the possibility of ditching, but one doesn't dwell on how long one might expect to survive in the North Sea at this time of year...
Forty minutes later and our prey arrive - the first wave of four Harriers join alongside starboard and shuffle into postion, the first two slipping behind our VC10K3 to hook up. The remoteness of our position is accentuated by the carpet of cloud below, five aircraft in formation in a vast sea of emptiness. Flying a racetrack pattern, the feeding birds are kept busy in the turns, but move barely inches from their positions astern the refueling pods. In the early morning glow they take on a pinkish hue, appearing almost warm to the touch - ironic it's several degrees below freezing outside.
It takes twenty-seven minutes for the four birds to take their fill, and after a quick formation for us photographers they break and continue north-east to Norway. Just ten minutes behind is the second wave, just three in number this time, but by now the light has dramatically improved into almost full sun - thank heavens for digital though, as we were down to 1/20 sec when the first four arrived. An identical routine follows, until finally the three formate on the starboard side and waggle their farewells. Over the last hour some 32 tonnes of fuel has been dispensed to the seven Harriers, or 70,000 lbs if you prefer your weights in good old Imperial. We turn and head back to Brize Norton - get the coffee on!
Exercise 'Snow Falcon' is a month-long exercise, commencing with Nr 1(F) Squadron for the first two-week period followed by Nr IV(AC) Squadron for the remaining fortnight. Aside from adjusting to the arctic conditions (minus 25 degrees and more) the GR7s will be flying affil sorties (affiliation training) with Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16s from Bodo, as well as working with Norwegian ground forces and Royal Marines Ground Forward Air Controllers (GFACs) for attack missions. 1(F) Squadron will also be training with the AGM-65 Maverick, using the Setermoen range. The aircraft are due back in the UK on 20 February, but are not expected to retain their 'snow' ARTF camouflage for very long.
With thanks to Sqn Ldr David Rowe (CCO Brize Norton), Katie Zasada and the crew of 'Tartan 51' (especially for the fried breakfast!).