The Bridge Interviews
RAF Brize Norton Station Commander
The Bridge has in the past carried interviews with representatives of important institutions in this area such as Huffkins and the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Garden. This interview took place at the biggest of the lot, RAF Brize Norton, with the station commander, Group Captain Tim Jones.
For those who have not been there, the first impression of the base is its size. It’s enormous. After producing your photo ID and being rigorously questioned by security staff, we were escorted by Media and Communications Officer Stacey through a maze of buildings and car parks to the main terminal. RAF Brize Norton is the workplace of 5800 service personnel and some 2000 civilian employees and contractors. To put that in perspective, the total strength of the RAF at the last count was around 31,000 so Brize, by far the biggest base, accounts for more than 18% of them. It is home to the RAF’s Strategic and Tactical Air Transport and Air-to-Air Refuelling forces. These operate the C-130J Hercules, the Airbus A400M Atlas (pictured), the C-17A Globemaster and the Airbus A330 Voyager. The last of these can be used for both air-to-air refuelling and air transport.
Tim Jones, the remarkably youthful-looking commander, has been in charge of this lot since July 2016. He grew up in Scotland and he traces his interest in the air force back to being taken to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo at the age of 12 when he saw (and heard) the Central Band of the Royal Air Force. “Something switched on in my mind and I was soon in the careers office asking for information”. He learned to fly as soon as he could and made his first solo flight on his 17th birthday, at that time the legal minimum age for solo flying. Somewhat embarrassingly, despite holding a pilot’s licence it then took him three attempts to pass the driving test.
After taking a physics degree at Edinburgh University, he joined the RAF in 1995. From the outset of his career, he flew air transport aircraft and has done so ever since. He has no regrets about this: “I have seen far more parts of the world than I would have done flying other types of aircraft.” He adds that he is glad that he has to keep a flying logbook as otherwise he would have lost track of where he has been. His experiences have been very educational. “It helped me to see the world in a different way. People are actually much the same wherever you go; thinking of our families, a roof over our heads and earning a living’.
Group Captain Jones spent most of his career as a pilot flying the C130 Hercules. These were based at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire until 2011 when they were moved to Brize Norton. One of his first flights was to carry Australian commandos to East Timor in 1999. They were part of a UN peacekeeping force sent in after terrible communal violence. “We were diverted from Malaysia to Darwin and took them to Dili in East Timor. We were one of the first flights in and there was a very short landing strip. It was one of the worst landings I have ever done!”
He flew into Baghdad many times. It was in Iraq that an RAF Hercules from Lyneham was shot down in 2005. The crew of eight and the two other servicemen on board were killed, at the time the largest single loss of life suffered by British forces during the Iraq deployment. He knew some of the crewmembers. “I flew into Baghdad soon afterwards. It focuses the mind knowing that they were individuals I knew at the same place in the same type of aircraft; they were wonderful people; but the need to get on and do the job stops you from dwelling on any sense of fear for yourself”. How did he move on from flying? “There comes a time in every pilot’s life when he thinks it would be good to be on the ground”. In Tim’s case this decision took him to the Ministry of Defence in London where for several years he did a staff job on aircraft procurement. He enjoyed being in Whitehall at the centre of power and involved in important decision-making. He still does some flying, however, these days on the C-17 Globemaster. “It’s good to keep in touch with the front line and breathe the same air as the pilots while hoping not to embarrass myself”. He remembers a visit from Mary Ellis, one of the surviving pilots from the Air Transport Auxiliary who delivered new aircraft from the factories to the RAF airfields. (She will be 100 on 2 February). She visited Brize, which was used for some of these flights, when a plaque was unveiled outside the base HQ. “She said she had flown 180 types of aircraft and every time she got into the cockpit it was like flying it for the first time. I told her that is what I feel like when I fly now”.
How would be describe his present job? “It’s to make sure that everyone understands our priorities and our next challenges and is prepared for whatever comes next, whether it is routine operations or surprises such as a hurricane in the Caribbean or six inches of snow on a Sunday afternoon. We all have to focus on the right things.” How does he set about this? “Most of my day is spent talking to people, which is better than sending emails or doing paperwork.” He is line manager and operations director and is also responsible for discipline. “It’s like running a small town”. His greatest satisfaction? “Seeing people making decisions for themselves. It’s a myth that service life is all about giving orders. It’s much better when people understand what has to be done and get on with it.” He enjoys human contact, technical challenge and a sense of purpose. The combination of these three makes his job a fascinating one.
Part of his job is looking after the people, including the families of servicemen and women. There is a lot of being away from home in service life and it is important to take care of those left behind, especially at times like Christmas. He has a strong sense of responsibility to the wider community. “We have a very close interdependent relationship with the community and rely on them for support.” Some personnel live on the base but many buy their own homes and live in the local community. There are visits to the base by local aviation groups and local Veteran groups. We also provide visits for potential airmen and women who are looking into the opportunity of a career in the RAF. There is a shortage of engineers in this country and the RAF, like other employers, has to try to deal with this. Many schools attend visits to the Station including Carterton Community College where the students take part in projects such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) activities and learn about the Bloodhound Project. The Bloodhound supercar, which is designed to be the first car totravel at 1,000mph,is driven by an RAF pilot, Andy Green. There is also a community working group which meets local parish councils to discuss how they can be good neighbours.
This year will be a big one as it is the centenary of the establishment of the RAF. This will be marked by a programme of events to celebrate their achievements and to inspire others for the future. Details of local events had not been finalised at the time of our interview but will be available on the station website. The RAF’s aim in its centenary year is reflect on its history and achievements, to celebrate the work the RAF is currently doing and look forward to the next 100 years.
Apart from the problem about engineers, the RAF doesn’t seem to have many difficulties in recruitment. There are many trades that can be learnt: pilot, IT technicians, chef, soldier (in the RAF regiment), driver or intelligence officer to name but a few.
How does Tim relax? By spending as much time as possible with his family. “I met my wife at university and I think she understands the RAF better than I do.” The job is demanding but he finds time goes by quickly, a process he describes as “long days, short weeks”. Between work and family he has little time for other activities, although rumour has it that he is a talented pianist. “It’s true I play. In fact, while detached the British Embassy in Kabul a few years ago, I was asked to play at an Arts Festival in the City. Most people there had never seen a piano played live; so there I was, in front of 700 young people from Afghanistan, giving them my best rendition. They seemed to like it! An hour later I was back in the office sending emails to the MOD. Being in the RAF is certainly no ordinary job.”
What will be his next move? His two-year tour of duty at Brize will end later this year. It could be a one year academic course in some aspect of defence studies, “a big contrast with my present job”. He has already done a degree in defence studies. The courses are tri-service and some of the participants are from overseas, including from countries where the armed forces have a lot of political power and valuable contacts can be made. “It can be very helpful in times of trouble if the senior officers from different countries know each other”. Wherever he goes next, we are sure that Group Captain Jones will continue to be a high flyer.
Brize Norton’s Air Mobility Force was deployed to deliver vital aid, essential equipment and skilled military personnel to the British Virgin Islands which had been devastated by Hurricane Irma last September. Many aircraft took part in this,code-named Operation Ruman, and more than 2000 UK military personnel took part in the airlift. During the operation, Air Movements Squadron processed a total of 62 flights, 2,508 passengers, and 2,096,754kgs of freight across 4,000 miles. All four aircraft types from RAF Brize Norton were involved in the operation which is the first time they all worked together. One of the officers we talked to, Flt Lt McDonald, was based in temporary accommodation at an airport in Barbados for five weeks coordinating up to five aircraft at a time which were held at a staging post there and sent forward to the islands as needed. She went out one the second flight out, 12 hours after the disaster, and returned on the last flight back. It is hard to understand why there was carping at the time about the supposed inadequacy of the UK response.