Rules of Thumb for Programme Management 

I recently graduated from the Major Projects Leadership Academy, an 18 month programme run for the Cabinet Office by Oxford’s Said Buisiness School

I found the programme incredibly useful and have committed to sharing some of the insights and thinking in my own organisation where I am Senior Responsible Owner for a portfolio of 15 programmes. One of the sessions encourages us to discuss and record ‘heuristics’. These are the shortcuts or rules of thumb, the nuggets of wisdom which we routinely use to drive actions in our projects and programmes. The following is a list of 5 culled from my work; I hope you find them useful or thought-provoking and I have included links wherever possible for those who would like to dig deeper, using examples from Denver airport, the Space Shuttle disaster and Barings bank amongst others to help illustrate the points. 

Build your bridges before you need them.  This is all about stakeholder management; projects and programmes are primarily about people – their motivations, thoughts, loyalties, trust. 

Building bridges means going out to your stakeholders and building a relationship and gaining mutual trust (like making a deposit in a bank) before you need to rely (make a withdrawal) on that relationship. Never let yourself get to the stage where the first thing you do to a stakeholder is ask them for something or have them say ‘I told you so’ like happened at Denver Airport. 

Just because it’s massive, doesn’t mean it’s not true.  

There is an assumption when working in large programmes that ‘someone somewhere’ has all the answers. In my experience it’s necessary to evidence rather than assume that. Over the years I have worked in programmes that have literally forgotten what it is they are delivering, that have no way or plan to understand whether a milestone has been met, ones that manifestly will run out of money before completion and others that have no risk management at all!  So, just because something appears so thunderously obvious or large, you really can’t afford to assume anything at all, especially if joining a programme ‘in flight’. 

Wash the laundry. With dirty laundry you essentially have 2 choices: acknowledge that it’s dirty and wash it, leading to fresh clothes, more choices etc. Or you can close the lid on the laundry basket and hope it goes away, leading to less choice over what you wear and an increasing stench that will never go away!  

Programmes often have ‘bad things’ in them, typically schedule or cost over-runs but sometimes issues of poor governance, shaky requirements or bad practice. Every time I have seen this, attempts to suppress or ignore the issues have, after short-term relief, led to far more damaging co sequences than if the laundry was washed straight away. In the case of minor schedule or cost issues, I have seen them emerge as major and usually irrecoverable ones so I try to welcome bad news and treat it as a problem to be solved so that I’m able to get to the issue while it’s still small enough to be treated. A healthy and inclusive approach to risk scanning obviously helps to head off these things as early as possible. 

Make no space for Delusion and Deception. Bent Flyvberg has conducted some excellent work analysing delusion and deception in major projects. He finds that often, major projects are started because facts are manipulated to over state the benefits and down play the risks. This can develop into a cultural approach to ‘managing information’. Delusion happens when an overly optimistic approach is adopted by a ‘can do’ organisation or people, leading to hopelessly unrealistic plans. So what do we as programme managers do?  Well, firstly acknowledging that these 2 issues are toxic is important. Next, evidence is always your friend. Whilst strategic deception may be something of an ‘external environment’ concern, as a programme manager it’s essential to be clear about what benefits you can actually deliver with the resources you’ve been given. It’s then up to the sponsoring group whether and how they communicate that. Delusion is much more controllable. By insisting on evidence-based plans you can detect it in schedules: I have frequently found project schedules that are wildly optimistic because they are based in ‘work must be done by’ dates and then systematically delete tasks and events that don’t fit. You’re the only loser here because in the short term you feel cosy but the reality is – you already have a schedule overrun!  Time to wash the laundry….. I find the use of open questions to determine the basis of estimate or cost often reveals these delusions. Also, an approach I used in aviation safety; rather than looking for evidence to disprove something (i.e. It’s safe to fly unless we find something wrong), using a mindset that asks ‘why is it so’ (i.e. What evidence is there that it is safe to fly?) helps to cut through what is often a mix of delusion and bluster. 

The relationship is (almost always) more important than the issue. Another stakeholder one to end with. Things happen, plans fail, risks manifest and people make mistakes. As the pressure mounts in high-stakes delivery it is very tempting to make this personal at whatever level. But think about it for a bit – most issues aren’t going to break a programme or even still be a factor in say, a year from now. But people will and how you all deal with challenges and failures, even if caused by bad behaviour, will linger long after the issue has gone so how you deal with these things is probably at least as important as what you do. 

That it, 5 heuristics, short-cuts, rules of thumb or whatever you want to call them that form part of my approach to programme management. Do these ring true?  What are yours?


Foreign Military Sales

Recent reporting has announced that Governmental process in the US has approved the sale of P8-A aircraft to the UK, pending Congressional approval. I will be the Senior Responsible Owner for the delivery of this aircraft and capability to the UK inventory and wanted to take a moment to explain the significance of what has just happened and the hopefully forthcoming Congressional part.

The UK is acquiring the P8s under an arrangement known as Foreign Military Sales. This is a process the US has established to share military capabilities with allies and partners and is governed by The Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act. To secure a sale under FMS, a government to government agreement is reached (although the negotiations can be complex, the letters that seal the deal are often straightforward) and the customer country then buys the equipment or service from the US government, not the manufacturer. This helps keep costs down for all as it allows us to benefit both from the sunk costs of research and development and from the economies of scale of joining a larger US order.

The actual way this process is managed is that the UK would typically submit a non-binding Letter of Request for Pricing & Availability – it's exactly as it sounds and allows a rough cost to be determined. If the decision to go ahead is made a Letter of Request for Offer and Acceptance (LOA) is sent and when this is returned, we have a limited time period to go ahead and buy, or to withdraw. It's similar to getting any price quote, only on a grand scale

Who is Involved?

The key organisations that make this happen in the US are the Defence Security Cooperation Agency, which administers and supervises all FMS cases on behalf of the Department of Defense. In the case of the P8-A, the

US Navy has primacy so the Navy International Programmes Office provides the Single Service oversight whilst the day to day negotiation and contracts are worked between the US Navy's Programme Management Office 290 and the UK's Defence Equipment & Support

Congressional Notification

For certain programmes, usually high value or ones that fall under the International Traffic of Arms Regulations, US Congress retains the final say and must approve the Foreign Military Sale. This approval comes right at the end of the process described above and means that subject to UK agreement and approval, the deal can go ahead!


Thanks for reading, please leave any feedback or questions and I'll try to get back to you.I'll write a separate piece on how the UK goes about procuring and approving new capabilities another time – there's only so much process anyone can read! I hope this has been useful in explaining how we're going about getting the P8-A and why this Congressional approval is so important. The process is very similar for anything we purchase through this route and if you want to find more detail, the DCSA guide to Foreign Military Sales is here.



Senior Responsible Owner

Senior Responsible Owner – what does that even mean and what does he or she do? Well, one of the key reasons that big, complex programmes can fail or at least, not achieve what they are supposed to, on time and budget is a lack of clear accountability. So in 2000, the UK adopted the SRO (sometimes also referred to as a programme executive) as the single point of accountability for public sector programmes: SROs of major UK projects are named here.

The SRO is ultimately responsible for the achievement of ‘benefits’ i.e. the thing doing what it’s supposed to in support of the bigger picture. As an RAF SRO I am expected to be publicly visible, an advocate for the programme and in a change to past military postings policy, stay in post for an extended period to see programmes through key stages.

I’m responsible for managing my stakeholders; informing and collaborating with them to make sure they deliver to me, I deliver to them and they work in support of my programmes. I ensure the programme is on track, keeping tabs on the myriad of inputs complex programmes can have. A good example for the RAF is our ‘capital programmes’ like the AIRSEEKER signals intelligence aircraft. It’s tempting to focus just on the 3 aircraft that the RAF is acquiring, but particularly for a capability like


Defence Lines of Development capture the ‘non-equipment’ factors

this, the aircraft is only a portion of what delivers the benefit. To do this, we have to have trained people, infrastructure support for operations and maintenance, a plan for how to use the capability (in military terms, this is out ‘doctrine’) and of course an information and communications backbone to gather, filter and transmit data to get it where it needs to be to inform decisions. The aircraft really is just the tip of the iceberg; recruiting, retaining and training the right people can often take longer and be harder than negotiating a contract to buy airplanes!

How do you know things are on course? Well the National Audit Office compiles an annual report of Defence’s largest programmes so it’s possible to track them. Also, the Major Projects Authority compiles an annual report. The most recent one shows that the UK has some 188 projects officially designated ‘major’ due to their cost and/or impact. These combined are worth £489Bn! AIRSEEKER is one of these Government Major Projects. In order to drive the kind of improvements identified in the MPA report a rigorous holding to account process is established; I may be summoned to give evidence to the Parliamentary select-committee-300x150.jpgAccounts Committee about any of my Major Projects and I am required to undertake a third party ‘Gateway Review’ at frequent stages throughout the lifecycle.

In order to make sure I can deliver both the programme and the information to enable the governance of it, I have a Programme Management Office here at RAF Air Command. With the help of other distributed staff, notably in the Defence Equipment & Support at Abbey des.gifWood, these people are the powerhouse of the programme. Together, we work on those things that put at risk any element of the programme, we manage the drumbeat of programme activities, co-ordinate publicity and stakeholder communications and of course, produce information for scrutiny.

I hope this has given you an overview of what an SRO does but I would be happy to answer any questions through the comments section and please watch my Twitter account for some of the day-to-day SRO work that goes on in managing some of these programmes.



Major Projects Leadership Academy

In September I moved to RAF Air Command to set up a post as the RAF’s Senior Responsible Owner for delivery of our Air Command & Control and Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance programs.  These include some big-ticket items: Project MARSHALL, which is replacing all UK and overseas Air Traffic Management via a service delivery contract with Aquilla, a joint venture between Thales and NATS.Reaper  Also, the REAPER and its replacement, PROTECTOR Remotely Piloted Air Systems, soon the new UK Multi Mission Aircraft in the Maritime Patrol role initially, the AIRSEEKER signals intelligence aircraft and E3-D Sentry extension and upgrade are among the programmes for which I am responsible.  I do not control the day-to-day operations and tasking of these systems – the ISAirseeker.jpgTAR Force Commander carries that role, whereas I deliver the programmes that introduces new
capabilities, change, extend or upgrade existing ones or provide capability management out beyond the necessarily shorter-term horizon of the Force Commander but as you can imagine, we seen a lot of time on the phone, ensuring that we are in agreement and alignment about the many issues that crop up right on the boundaries between us.


So with that established, what is the MPLA all about?  The Civil Service Reform plan in 2014 established the MPLA in order to try to ensure that major programmes delivered on time and to cost.  At that time only a third of them did, with large over runs or cost growth typical.  The programme is run by the Said Business School, part of the University of Oxford and is mandated for Senior Responsible Owners of government Major Programmes.  A Major Programme is generally defined as either something of considerable financial value (typically >£1Bn) or has particular non-financial value (such as a major change activity) or that in some other way would be important to the prosperity or security of the UK.  There are currently about 350 Major Programmes in the UK, and the Major Projects Authority is charged with ensuring they are delivered effectively and efficiently.

The MPLA (overview here) is run over about 15 months and is akin to a Masters-level programme but the qualification is a bespoke one, not matched to any other Masters.  There are numerous essays and case studies, 3 Residential periods of a week each, masterclasses, ‘Action Learning Sets’ where groups of us form into smaller teams to discuss the problems that we are finding tricky to solve.  In addition, each of us conducts Cabinet Office training to become a high risk reviewer.  This allows us to participate in formal reviews of the most challenging Major Projects acrid government.  Normally, participants will have already faced similar reviews as part of their duties so this experience as ‘poacher’ helps us to make the transition to the other side, whilst learning all the time from others on how to make our own programmes better.

At the end of the programme, our entire portfolio of work and evidence is bound together for a final Viva, where we are given pass or fail – a career-defining moment for all of us.

I’ll post more details as I progress through the MPLA: So far I have completed the first written assignment, 2 Action Learning sets, High Risk Reviewer training and the first Residential!  If you’d like even more information about the content of the course, this is the MPLA handbook which guides us through the programme.

Scottish Landscapes

The previous 2 photography entries have focussed on some of the magnificent wildlife of Moray and the Northern Scottish area. During our recent visit, I also had the chance to appreciate some of the stunning scenery and architecture in this beautiful area, starting with this shot taken early one morning in the fishing village of Findhorn, hand-held due to me forgetting my tripod….

With a meteor shower I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get some shots wih the very charismatic Duffus Castle in the foreground. Another intrepid (or foolish) photographer was also there at 0500 and we were rewarded with some good backdrops and light.

This shot was taken using a tripod, 30s exposure time and a remote shutter release to keep the vibrations at bay. The shot below was taken with the same settings but I lit the castle walls by running up the slope, keeping moving all the time and shining my Iphone on the castle walls using the IOS 7 torch facility – turned out ok!

Passing Elgin cathedral at sunset gave me a chance to grab a few shots before the light faded and the warm light doesn't really give much feel for how cold it was!

Just before you reach the Glenfiddich distillery you come to the Speyside Cooperage, where it's possible to photograph the Coopers, practicing their skill in a way largely unchanged for over a hundred years. Unfortunately there is a glass screen (health and safety) so it took a while to dodge reflections and clear away smudge marks!

And finally, an evening opportunity to capture the extremely pretty Craigallachie Bridge on a still winter's evening. Tripod essential, with an exposure of 8 seconds to bring out the details in the ironwork. All in all, a great chance to capture some brilliant non-wildlife aspects of this great part of the world.



The Elusive Mountain Hare

In part 2 of this series of posts about photographing (mainly wildlife) in a recent return to old haunts in Scotland, I'll cover a very enjoyable day spent tracking Mountain Hares in the Glenlivet Estate. A number of people operate Mountain Hare 'safaris', including James Moore and Andy Howard – both come very highly recommended but on this occasion we used Dave Newland from Glenlivet Wildlife and we can also personally recommend him and his Land Rover!



Sal and I met Dave at the village of Tomnavoulin, leaving our car with a slight sense of trepidation as it was snowing heavily and were slightly nervous about getting back out again, let alone about heading up into the mountains. Dave was reassuring though and we boarded his Land Rover and soon we were off-road for the trek across to the base of a beautiful snow-covered juniper hill.

After leaving the Land Rover we hiked in the blizzard up the hill and to be honest, visibility was so poor that I didn't think we'd see anything at all. Fortunately though, the snow quickly thinned down and we were even rewarded with some sunshine and wonderful light. The hares were in their perfect camouflage environment and so we weren't able to spot any from a distance and work towards them slowly to get those great face-on pictures. Perhaps next time. However, there were plenty of Hares and their method of running is to sprint swiftly for a spell then pause and reassess so it was possible to get several shots of them.


I used the 500mm lens throughout and without it, I wouldn't have got a single useable shot. It's a big lens and had to be carried and hand-held as the photo opportunities were pretty fleeting. To ensure I avoided camera shake and to stop these swift beasts in their tracks I went for a shutter speed of 1/3000s for every shot with an aperture of f4, leaving the auto ISO to work its magic although the snow meant that I never saw more than 1000.


Hares weren't the only animals on the hill – the grouse were plentiful and several Deer made an appearance too, sometimes the Deer vs Grouse standoff was quite funny!


The hike was reasonably tough in about a foot of snow and the blizzard at the start 'interesting' but the subsequent light, the view, the diversity of wildlife and of course an incredible chance to see Mountain Hare were all worth it. The Mountain Hare is a nocturnal animal (we saw a Golden Eagle prowling several times) to avoid being chomped – they sleep deep in the juniper bushes then move uphill to feed late in the afternoon. When they get a move on, they can reach 60mph uphill so it's certainly not worth chasing them! If you know where one is, it is possible to very slowly approach and get within 20ft or so if its a tolerant animal but if like us, you encounter perfect conditions for the hares, it won't be possible to see them apart from when they make their move up the hill.


I hope you enjoyed this post and it maybe gives you the urge to investigate this elusive animal – the guided tours are definitely the way to go!




A Tale of Two Squirrels

500mm, 1/320s, f4, ISO 3200

Recently, Sal and I returned to Scotland for a holiday and it provided a fantastic opportunity to photograph some of the stunning Scottish wildlife in full festive mode. The weather was extremely kind to us, including snowing on cue for Mountain Hares! To start though, a couple of encounters with the iconic and completely lovable Red Squirrel. The first was thanks to James Moore, who has established a hide on The Black Isle and runs a variety of accompanied wildlife tours as well as being an accomplished photographer himself.

500mm, 1/250s, f4, ISO 2500

We didn't have long to wait for the first squirrels to arrive and they kept coming all morning. It was my first time up close with red squirrels and they are even prettier than I thought! They were much more intent on caching food than eating it, although they did spend a little time munching too.

500mm, f4.0, 1/200, ISO 5000

Last summer I took the plunge and invested in a 500mm lens so I was keen to improve my skills with it. The light wasn't great and the forest is quite dense so I was constantly balancing speed, depth of field and ISO but that's what I was after! I found that they are pretty swift movers – lots of fast, sharp movements then completely still so had to keep the shutter speed up at about 1/320 or so. For most shots I used f4.0 and the ISO cantered between 800 and 3200, mostly towards the top of that. I always shoot in RAW and the latest update to adobe raw offers great noise reduction which offset that high ISO! Other than a little cropping, sharpening and exposure tweaking, I try not to tinker too much with the images.

After a brilliant but freezing morning in the hide, the second red squirrel experience of the week was courtesy of Pete Cairns and Northshots down at Loch Insh in the Cairngorms.

70-200 at 200mm, 1/400, f3.0, ISO 1250

The weather had obligingly changed so we had a blanket of fresh snow, first to get through as the Northshots location is delightfully remote set amid stunning scenery! This was a really well set-up hide in a clearing with a beautiful backdrop. Pete walked us into the location and set us up with a few creature comforts in the hide before sealing us in and wishing us luck!

Once again we didn't have too long to wait before we had a furry visitor – because the forest here was thinner, we could see as well as hear him approaching and I was lucky enough to get a shot of him jumping between the trees on his way. This critter stayed with us a while, munching the hazelnuts and seemingly much less interested in stashing them away like the Black Isle squirrels! The noise of a squirrel stripping away the outer layer of a hazelnut is really pretty loud and only adds to their appeal.

For this shoot, I had left the 500mm in the bag and was using a 70-200mm lens to try to capture a little more of the habitat as opposed to a close up of the squirrel and this was ok, but in hindsight I wish I had put the 1.4X tele converter on to just extend the reach a little.

70-200 at 200mm, 1/500s, f4.0, ISO 500

Pete had given me some tips on how to catch squirrels leaping between the platforms and this little critter obligingly made his way up then leapt across the gap. I had locked the focus on the platform, zoomed out to make sure I caught the action and set the shutter speed to 1/1000s. The Canon 70-200 is a fast lens and I opened the aperture right up to f2.8, accepting the risk of the shallow depth of field. My 1DMk4 has a really fast shot rate of about 17 pictures per second which means lots of throw away images but at least I was likely to capture the action. Fingers crossed that this would be ok – at least there was plenty of light thanks to the thinner forest, clear sky and reflections from the snow. I'm pleased with my first attempts at squirrel jumping, although it's not at all up to the standards that I've seen from others so it's just given me a great reason to try again!

70-200mm at 148mm, 1/2000s, f2.8, ISO 800


Unfortunately the snow had obviously made the squirrels want to stay snug somewhere so this was our only visit of the morning but it was really worth it for the snow and of course the jumping. I learnt that I need to be a little less protective over my ISO figures and probably accept numbers up to at least 1600 in order to allow a sufficient depth of field. Also, I think I tried too hard to reduce my shutter speed, especially on the first shoot. This led to a lot of blurred pictures due to the sudden and swift movements of the cute furry chaps and in future I don't think I'd go below about 1/320s and probably aim for a bit higher. I was reminded of the importance of really working at getting the focus right on the animal's eyes, the importance of patience and of shooting lots and lots of images – I was rewarded with a few funny expressions for my trouble. I think I threw away well over 50% of the images I took because they were blurred! out of focus or had some other major drama. I don't get disheartened by this reject rate – squirrels are a very difficult subject and when shooting at high rate, there are bound to be lots of very similar shots. All in all, the 2 hides were brilliant – a chance to get up close to some rare and very attractive wildlife and also to try to hone some of my photography skills. I hope you enjoy the images – any feedback or tips to be better gratefully received!


Annual Formal Inspection

Annual Formal Inspection – the very words conjur up images of white gloves, parades and door openers! And that's exactly what it used to be like, but not any more. These days, an AFI is still the chance for an Air Officer Commanding (AOC 1 Group is Air Vice Marshal Stu Atha) to get out and check his Stations, but the visit is very much more business-like, much more informative and less, well, formal than in days gone by.

A traditional start to AFI, complete with piper

That said, the AOC visiting is never a day to be taken lightly. He is a very important 2-star officer whose time we can't afford to waste so careful prep is made to make sure we give him the most valuable visit.

On blocks, door open and we're on!

Once the aircraft touches down, we only had a few hours to show our AOC some of the activities and events that are part of every day life and that are contributing to delivering success on Ops around the world. Our main themes running through this visit were 'Ops', 'Our people' and 'Education and training'. First stop for visits like this is usually some time with the Command Team of the base. At Lossiemouth this consists of all the senior military officers running the various Wings and Squadrond here, the civil servants responsible for the 200 or so civilian workers doing anything from logistics support to firefighting and the contractors who deliver our simulator training, our catering and various other services.

A meeting room with a view!

We call this mix of Service, civilian and Reserve personnel the 'Whole Force' and it reflects the fact that the RAF and the other military arms are making increasing reliance on people from all areas to deliver our capabilities.

The AOC discussing current issues with the command team

This initial meeting was held in 3 Hangar, which is already refurbished and ready for Typhoon use. The aircraft were a strong visual symbol of the future of RAF Lossiemouth and we had Officer Commanding 6 Squadron from RAF Leuchars with us to explain just how close the 2 Stations are as we both prepare for the transfer of Typhoons next year. I believe that time spent staring at computer screens and presentations isn't nearly as valuable as time spent talking to people so an aircraft hangar freed us from IT whilst the chilly October helped keep us from over-running….

The next stop was the Station gym, where the AOC was briefed by a small team of all-ranks who formed up last year to deliver on my challenge to help me improve trust and communication and to enhance recognition, reward and retention. These energetic and enthusiastic people – the '3R' committee have been at the heart of a number of initiatives like surveys, a Tweet-like messaging system, the Engineering Night of Excellence and last week's Personality of the Year event.

Members of the 3R team briefing the AOC on their work

The 3R has done a tremendous amount for RAF Lossiemouth and to see 2 of our junior ranks so positively, briefing confidently and passing key information was a great example of empowerment and made me very proud to be the Station Commander.

After the 3R, the AOC went on to hear from Zee Fletcher, who works for ISS (our catering, retail & leisure provider) and Sgt 'Woody' Wood to hear about RAF Lossiemouth's Healthy Working Lives initiative.

See and Woody outlining the Healthy Working Lives initiative

RAF Lossiemouth is the only military establishment to have reached the Gold standard and Zee not only started the programme but has been working for almost 4 years to get us there. The results are stark – a major reduction in civil service illness absences, particularly stress and a sustained 100% fitness test take rate, >96% pass rate and year-on-year reductions in medical exemptions from Op deployments. Added to that, we're all leaner, fitter and healthier!

Next up, our education and training programme was explained – we offer Lean training, junior and senior officer leadership programmes and Air Power studies. We also offer a bespoke course for airmen about to take 'acting' rank that is, promoted in situ as a response to an urgent need. This course gives immediate and valuable training to those people who need it most as they transition to new roles and responsibilities. Again, rather than talk policy, the AOC heard from people who had actually done the course to see what it had meant to them.

The AOC then had the chance to discuss welfare provision with our on-base social workers from the Soldiers Sailors and Air Force Association.

Next up, a change of venue as we lunched with 617 Squadron, who are in the midst of a mission rehearsal week.

Groundcrew tend to a simulated casualty on 617 Squadron

This important Exercise acts as a final test for the Squadron before it deploys to Afghanistan later this year. A team from the Joint Forces Air Component training cell is here at Lossiemouth, 'tormenting' 617 with rocket attacks, car crashes, ground alert scrambles and other challenges. The idea is for them to test their individual skills but more importantly, to behave and respond as a team to unexpected events.

The AOC meeting 617 Sqn personnel in the historic crew room

617 Squadron is flying day and night and with the thud of explosions in the background it was soon time to move on to the next event. The AOC wished the team well for their deployment, congratulated them on their 70th Anniversary and remarked on how he was looking forward to seeing them become the first front-line F35 Lightning II Squadron in 2016.

The next stop was a forum with the Senior Non-Comissioned Officers where this respected group of people were able to put their concerns and issues direct to their AOC. As Station Commander, I left them to this, to make sure there was absolutely no interference from me as our seniors aired their issues – it was a welcome half hour to read the paper!

By now, we were hard up against the time line and with just 5 minutes remaining, we arrived at the Officers Mess, conducted a rapid change into best blues and conducted an honours and awards ceremony. The AOC presented medals, certificates, silverware and personal commendations to about 30 people, all watched by their friends and families. After the formal part the AOC took time to chat with the recipients and their families before once again, time was up.

A short car ride back to dispersal, a sum up of the day and back on the jet with a day's paperwork to catch up on for the AOC. All this was completed in just 6 hours – how's that for a busy programme! So, if you hear any RAF friends talking about Annual Formal Inspection, now you know what it's all about!



Flying the Apache

Today, I was fortunate to fly an Apache helicopter, part of an Army Air Corps detachment to RAF Lossiemouth designed to give instructor pilots valuable experience in mountain flying.

Beautiful? I think so. Menacing too!

So what's it like? Well, mission planning is completed on a computerised system but compared to the fast-jet systems I'm used to, its a little way behind but with an upgrade coming soon I expect it will see some real capability upgrades.

Survival equipment fitting was straightforward – the flying helmet is made up of distinct components that Velcro and screw together to make up the whole thing. Although it is there for head protection, its real purpose is to support the monocle that provides flight and targeting data straight into the pilot's right eye. The aircraft can be flown and fought from either seat so controls and sensors are replicated in both although the UK puts the mission commander in the front whilst the handling pilot occupies the rear seat.


Clambering into the aircraft isn't exactly dignified, but once inside the cockpit is roomy and well laid-out, with extensive use of multi-function displays and Hands on Throttle and Stick-type controllers. The aircraft is fully digital so dynamically works out things like its own performance, safe single-engine

speeds, etc and as you can see above, features easy to interpret displays. This one is the fuel page, showing how much fuel is on board and where it is, along with fuel burn rates and associated endurance.

The checklist is straightforward and swift and soon we lifted from Lossiemouth to conduct some general handling to the south.

The visibility from the front cockpit is excellent all round

My first observation was that the aircraft was very light on the controls and the monocular display made it very easy to maintain a good lookout whilst still flying quite accurately. Apache likes you to interact with it as much as fly it and by that I mean that its always looking to remove the burden of flying so it has a speed hold, altitude hold and attitude hold that pilots with more skill than me can use to make the business of flying very relaxed and virtually hands-off. I struggled with the various trimming modes a little as they weren't either very basic as in Tornado and most older aircraft or fully automatic as in Typhoon. I suspect that with a bit of training though, they become second nature. In the general handling, we looked at the various modes and linking of some of the sensors and operated the Longbow radar in its terrain avoidance and air-to-air modes. The multi-function displays are akin to what you'd find in any modern fighter and allow the pilots to see fused data from all the sensors, making the Apache the fearsome weapons platform it is!

The monocle takes some getting used to but means there is information wherever you look

Next up, off to our Relief Landing Ground at Kinloss for me to embarrass myself in the hover and to try a few landings. The heads-up information is very helpful but I missed the 'reality' of some in-cockpit instruments. This was probably just my unfamiliarity with the symbology, although my instructor did a marvellous job of explaining them and helping me master the HOTAS – it really is an intuitive cockpit. Anyhow, after an approach that did anything but maintain a 'constant sight line angle', I wobbled us down onto the ground and I think we were both grateful for those shock-absorbing undercarriage legs! I found the running landings particularly hard as a fixed wing pilot, especially so because I regularly fly taildraggers. This means that I'm hard wired for a nose-up landing with the stick right back in my stomach – exactly the opposite of this technique, which I found uncomfortably nose-low. With a few thousand fixed-wing hours, its very hard to overcome the muscle memory, especially when it gets more challenging near to the ground and the best I could realistically hope for was 'safe'!

Then it was on to exploiting the weapons system and I have to say, this was fantastic. The aircraft can perform a fully automatic hover, leaving the crew to get on with the business of finding, allocating and striking its targets. The HOTAS is brilliant here and I was soon using the twin grip controllers to control the radar, Forward Looking Infra red and camera, zooming in on various targets. The ability to swiftly cue up a range of weapons, designate using the monocular and even to see where the other pilot is looking means that the Apache brings weapons to bear very quickly indeed.

Then we looked at the manoeuvrability of the aircraft by performing some wing overs, 'short-stop' approaches and transitioning from 120kts into the hover, pointing the other way, with a weapons solution available. Impressive. All too soon we returned to Lossiemouth for a final landing. The Apache blends firepower, manoeuvrability and protection (2 of everything, armour, shock-absorbing, self-sealing, etc) beautifully. It's beauty is in the eye of the beholder but its certainly a potent and flexible weapons system that is extremely fun and enjoyable to fly. I'm glad they're on our side….


One very happy Station Commander after the sortie


Catalina Visit

A special treat for us today at RAF Lossiemouth – we were visited by the only airworthy Catalina in the UK, taking part in a flight to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a round-Britain amphibian challenge. Details are here

Pilot Jeff Boyling is hoping that recreating the flight will inspire young people to be interested in aviation and the aircraft will be displaying right around the UK. I was lucky enough to have a look inside the aircraft and was impressed with the luxury at the back in the bubbles, where there is a 'window seat' arrangement that allows passengers to lie or sit in complete comfort whilst taking in a stunning view of the world going past.

The view looking forward from the Catalina's bubble

Jeff and the aircraft were on the ground for about an hour and as they are fundraising for the RAF Benevolent fund, they took time out to pose for pictures, show Station personnel around the aircraft and sign posters – all in return for a small donation of course!

I was lucky enough to be invited to the cockpit for a look around. The instruments have been upgraded to allow the aircraft to fly in all weathers by day and by night and it has been kitted out with modern navigation equipment too but the feel and smell of yesteryear was definitely still there!


Geoff also very kindly took time out to lay a wreath at the Station memorial for our aircrew who were killed in a mid-air collision last year and it was a poignant moment for us both.

All too quickly, it was time for the aircraft to leave – on its way to Cromarty then on to Oban. More details and images are available on the RAF Lossiemouth Facebook page if you're interested!




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