It was billed as a visit that cadets and staff would never forget and it did not disappoint. On the 18th February, 2019 cadets and staff from 617 (Heber) squadron, Royal Navy CCF cadets from Bishop Heber High School and cadets from 83 (St Georges) set off on the long journey to RAF Marham in Norfolk.
After a five hour journey, the energy levels were beginning to wane – even the singing in minibus had subsided a little but as we drove around the perimeter of RAF Marham, we got our first look at the RAF’s most recent and technologically advanced addition. Above us several F35s were circling and completing their final maneoveres before dusk set in. Following a moment of complete silence as the weary travellers took in what they were seeing, a loud chorus of cheers erupted. It was almost as though a welcoming committee had been laid on for us…
For many people on the bus, this represented their first visit to an operational RAF base and it was brilliant that the Station Engagement Officer (SEO) and accommodation manager had managed to set everything up for our arrival – within no time we were in our transit accommodation having eaten a hearty dinner and received our instructions for the next day. Already the cadets were getting to see how the armed forces have become famous for their organisation and efficiency.
The following day clearly began earlier than some in our group were used to but following a hearty breakfast and accommodation inspection we set out for our first activity. Marham’s SEO took us through the history and capabilities of the Station as a way of setting the scene and this session really brought to life the central position Marham has at the heart of the RAF’s frontline capability. We heard about the intelligence, Tornado, F35, police and force protection units and also the valuable partnerships that exist with private contractors such as Rolls Royce and BAE Systems.
From hearing about Marham’s present day capabilities we then went to RAF Marham’s Heritage Centre to learn about the role of Marham, its aircraft and its people have played in the two World Wars, armed conflicts and peacekeeping efforts. It was amazing to hear the tales of how the RAF pushed the boundaries of flying capability in the Falklands conflict and to see a nuclear bomb up close!
Full to the brim with information about Marham and its history we then boarded a bus for a windshield tour of the Station. Marham is a station undergoing significant change, having had a new runway and Vertical Take Off and Landing pads installed to accommodate the latest aircraft as well as a number of new high tech buildings built to accommodate additional training and squadron facilities. All of this was evident as we drove around the station. The cadets were getting fantastic insight into the RAF – they could see first-hand an organisation that is constantly evolving to meet the modern demands of the Armed Services. They could also see how the station was at the heart of its local community and part of a special family. Tours of the sports, social and housing facilities gave cadets a real sense of what work, rest and play on an RAF station is like. Marham has an impressive roll of honour when it comes to sporting and leisure achievements especially in MotoX and Karting!
We even got to see a nuclear weapon storage facility – decommissioned thankfully!
But hey…A visit to an RAF Station wouldn’t be a visit without the aircraft. We felt privileged and extremely lucky to visit the station as groundcrew made final preparations of the squadron of Tornado GR4s that were going to make their historic FINale farewell tour around the country.
Following lunch in the Junior Ranks Mess we took to opportunity to get our photos in front of the amazing “Gate Guardians” before heading over to see 617 Squadron and the F35 itself
The day was getting better and better by the minute and, as our transport passed through the additional security cordon surrounding the runway and over to 617’s Hangar, we began to realise that we were going to get to experience something very special.
The stars couldn’t have aligned any better because just as we stepped out on to the airfield ready to get out first close up view of the F35, three Tornados taxied past us on the way to take off on their final farewell. We knew when we set out the previous day that we’d be sad to miss the flypast of the aircraft over RAF Cosford and over our squadron building back home. Little did we know that a much better experience was in store for us. It felt a truly momentous occasion to be stood airside while one of the RAFs most iconic aircraft took to the skies for the last time.
No sooner had we waved off the Tornados (or taken the fingers out of our ears – it was really loud!) we were ushered into 617’s hangar where we came face to face with the RAF’s latest acquisition. The F35 is packed to the brim with advanced technology – even the pilot’s helmets come in at a cool £500,000 – so we were required to leave anything that might interfere with the tech behind…no cameras here folks! So you’ll have to make do with some youtube videos…
617’s Junior Engineering Officer and his team gave us an exclusive tour of the multi-million pound stealth fighter and showed us some of the amazing capabilities that will ensure that the UK leads the way in the acquisition of strategic Air Power. It was truly mindblowing and an experience that will stay with the cadets for the rest of their lives. At the end of our VIP tour we presented 617 sqn with a framed print commemorating the historic role that the squadron and it’s aircraft have had in the success of the RAF.
…but the day didn’t end there! Next stop was the RAF’s Police Dog Section
As we pulled up outside the dog section HQ, there was much conversation about whether we should leave space in the coach for one of the cuddly mutts to accompany us back home and become our squadron mascot. There was some hesitancy when we left the coach to hear the dog barks competing with the sound of the aircraft for the prize of loudest noise. Underneath the lovable and cuddly (and noisy) exterior, these dogs were highly trained specialists in what they do…and some you really did not want to mess with. The dog section looks after and trains guard dogs, detection dogs (drugs and explosives), and tracker dogs. It was amazing to hear about and meet the different dogs, the way they are trained and valuable role they play in the RAF. It was also great to see how much they enjoyed what they were born to do.
It was really good fun to try on the training equipment – this stuff was really heavy – but when we heard that the dogs can bite right through it we decided to leave it in the hands of the professions.
The Dog Section team put on a really great display of the dog’s capabilities and the responsiveness to command. By the end we were all convinced that perhaps we should try and find a different squadron mascot and leave the dogs to do the job they clearly love.
By the end we were all convinced that perhaps we should try and find a different squadron mascot and leave the dogs to do the job they clearly love.
It didn’t feel possible to cram anymore into the day but we had one final activity in the programme – The STEM challenge. Designed to test leadership, teamwork, and our problem solving capabilities, this exercise produced some really creative solutions and possibly a few future engineers!
As the day came to an end the squadrons comprised a number of happy but exhausted cadets and the long journey back provided a bit of quiet time for the cadets to reflect on their experience – interrupted only by a close encounter with a low bridge!
We can’t thank enough the Station Commander, OC 617, SEO and all the staff who helped make the visit so memorable. We hope to continue to maintain and build on these links with our affiliated squadron.
And who knows maybe in a few years time it will be one of our cadets who will be showing the next generation around their station.