No fear of dark


Ian Harding visited 47 Squadron, the final unit in the Royal Air Force to operate the C-130 Hercules, and learned a lot about its tactical airlift capability

Aerial refuelling Herky style. 38 Group/Royal Air Force

The Royal Air Force’s 47 Squadron based at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire has provided the backbone of the United Kingdom’s operational tactical airlift capability since the C-130J Hercules entered service in 1999. Tasked at the sharp end of enduring operations including Operations Telic, Herrick and now Shader throughout the last 20 years, the squadron has won many plaudits for its ‘can-do attitude’. Official recognition came on October 10, 2017, an announcement was made that 47 Squadron was the only Royal Air Force unit awarded the right to emblazon battle honours for both Iraq 2003-2011 (Operation Telic) and Libya 2011 (Operation Deference).

In a perfect example of the squadron’s flexibility, Operation Deference saw 47 Squadron switch its operations at short notice from Tripoli, Libya’s capital, to remote parts of the desert to evacuate both United Kingdom and other civilians who had become trapped as the conflict escalated.

During AIR International’s visit to Brize the author spoke with various officers serving on the squadron including the second-incommand (2IC), a Hercules pilot for eleven years. Together they discussed the unit’s current roles. Names have been withheld for security reasons.

Forward fleet

At the time of writing, 47 Squadron’s establishment comprised 17 Hercules; 13 Hercules C4s (C-130J-30s) and four Hercules C5s, (the shorter C-130J). The forward fleet comprises 12 aircraft with the remainder in maintenance; ten are prepared for operations at Brize Norton with two deployed. The 2IC confirmed the total fleet will reduce to 14 aircraft from April 2019 comprising 12 C4s and two C5s. Respectively, the forward fleet will then comprise ten aircraft available and prepared for operations; eight at Brize Norton and two deployed elsewhere. Buyers have already been found for three former aircraft.

The current fleet amassed 8,000 flying hours in 2018 as budgeted, which will reduce to 7,000 annual flying hours from April 2019 as aircraft numbers decline. Flying operations will remain broadly consistent year-on-year.

Fleet management

Following much conjecture, the RAF Hercules out of service date has been confirmed as 2035. This was extended following the announcement by the Ministry of Defence on July 14, 2017 of a major upgrade programme valued at £110 million. This will involve installation of extended service life centre wing box kits on the fleet’s remaining aircraft by Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group based at Cambridge airport.

An extended service life centre wing box gives an estimated life two-to-three times greater than the original centre wing box. Other modification programmes remain ongoing.

One, being installed at Brize is an enhanced identification friend or foe system mandated for aircraft using civilian airspace from 2020 dubbed FOMS (freedom of movement system). The first FOMS-modified aircraft was received in October 2018 with aircrew training commencing immediately after.

Other upgrades are likely to include some of the systems in the Block 8.1 configuration initiated by Lockheed Martin in consultation with the C-130J Joint User Group of which the UK is a member. Block 8.1 is the latest baseline upgrade designed to ensure interoperability and compatibility with the latest civil air traffic management regulations, and adds ten new capabilities facilitated by software and hardware improvements. Lockheed Martin told AIR International that Block 8.1 updates include an updated identification friend or foe, Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, a CNS/ ATM datalink, enhanced low-noise intercommunication system, enhanced approach and landing systems, enhanced diagnostics, covert infrared loading lights, a traffic collision and avoidance system, a terrain awareness and warning system, and an improved public address system.

Lockheed Martin’s Marietta-based C-130 division also confirmed that participating JUG nations all provide input into the Block upgrade development process, but do not automatically receive a Block upgrade.

Operators, including the UK, can choose to receive the full Block upgrade or portions of the Block upgrade. Incorporation of updates is dependent on each country’s needs, budgets and timelines.

Fleet management is vital given the squadron’s tactical operations specialisation. The Hercules fleet rapidly accumulated more flying hours than projected during Operations Telic and Herrick, so every effort is made to ensure tasking is spread across the fleet to manage airframe fatigue. This is essential to ensure each aircraft meets its entry date to the centre wing box replacement programme. For example, any aircraft with higher hours would not be the first to be selected for UK low-level flying or exercise participation during which a higher number of hours will be accumulated. When considering its options for sending a Hercules to Minahasa Peninsula, Indonesia following the earthquake and tsunami on September 28, 2018, a balance is required as the 2IC explained: “Considerations given in this situation include how quickly we need to get there and the specific roles to be performed when we arrive. There are advantages and disadvantages in sending either mark of aircraft. There’s a benefit in sending a C5 because it doesn’t have external tanks and it’s therefore a couple of tonnes lighter. This will help if the airstrip is short, but it will take us longer to get there as it doesn’t have the C4’s endurance.”

Hercules C4 ZH868 trails a second Herk in the golden light of an English afternoon.
38 Group/Royal Air Force

For the past 20 years, the operational tempo of the RAF C-130J fleet has been high and sustained during which engineers have played a critical, and increasing, role to manage the fleet’s structural health, ensuring bespoke tasking modifications take place at both Brize and Marshall’s in a timely fashion; this all undertaken while planning for and implementing the fleet’s centre wing box upgrade.

The squadron’s SENGO (Senior Engineering Officer) confirmed the first centre wing box has been assembled at Lockheed Martin’s Marietta factory in Georgia. Despite complexity in the taskings performed and the lengthy engineering preparations often required for certain tasks, she confirmed the fleet’s serviceability is being maintained at historically high levels. With live tasking information not available, she outlined how the preparation process might work in an exercise scenario: “A lot of the deep preparations undertaken for exercises are required to enable an aircraft to complete three to four disciplines. An aircraft on a tactical validation unit exercise, for example, may be required to conduct strip landings, natural surface and maritime operations, all of which create issues. An exercise like this may last three weeks and it may take a similar amount of time for us to recover the aircraft when it returns. Low-level maritime operations require extra engine work, and similarly for desert operations, which have recovery codes to follow. There is a lot of penalty maintenance as a result. We do encounter issues as you would expect for a fleet which has been worked so hard, but the great thing about the aircraft is that it has inbuilt system redundancy enabling it to be flown safely even with minor issues.”

Flying with minor issues might be necessary given the role and tasking as the 2IC explained: “Out in the field, the decision to do that [fly with minor issues] is always risk-based and would only result following interaction between the crew and the supervisory chain. If a decision has to be made immediately, crews are empowered to make those decisions.

When we can fix the aircraft we do, but when we have to undertake operations, we make pretty good risk assessments.”

Crew complement

The Hercules Force has approximately 30 crews. Traditionally, each crew comprises two pilots, one weapons system operator and one aircraft ground engineer. Approximately 25% of the crews are instructors. Despite the anticipated fleet reduction from April 2019, a reduction in the number of aircrew is not anticipated. While a basic aircrew complement for deployed ops is four, the squadron’s operational tasking requires more, and requirements have changed as the 2IC explained: “For the majority of our operational tasks, we now fly with a crew of six; two pilots, weapons system operators and aircraft engineers. It is important to note that the engineers are an integral part of the crew and we cannot fly without them because they have specific roles depending on location: we require more eyes on the aircraft, and we need them to fix the aircraft quickly if it becomes unserviceable in a location where we need to move troops safely and quickly, or if the aircraft is required for operations the following night.”

Complex tasking means aircrew must undertake contingency management, which has technical and psychological implications, and those associated with flying.

A crew of six is now considered necessary given the pressures felt by the aircrew working on the flight deck and in the rear of the aircraft as the 2IC explained. “Flying the aircraft is easy, the challenging part is flying across time zones, getting to the right point at the right time and then doing what we need to do in complex environments. At home, low-level operations are challenging because UK airspace is congested, and the increasing number of civilian drones complicates matters. Our crew size is scalable but with a defined process applied. Having an additional person on the flight deck is critical to the way we now operate. In a low-level environment, we need a weapons system operator upfront. If we’re doing an air drop at the same time, depending on the size of the load, we need one or two weapons system operators down the back. The bulk of the work is done before we get airborne; loading and planning. The despatch itself takes only a few minutes. We have one weapons system operator who deals with the load on and load off or air despatch, and the other is providing the link between the front and rear of the aircraft.”

Weapons system operator mission preparation

A significant number of intra-theatre flights undertaken by 47 Squadron take place under the cover of darkness to reduce the threat of attack and because airspace is generally less congested at night. No matter what the conditions, weapons system operators must be ready for anything, coordinating an increasing number of niche disciplines within a new operational paradigm. AIR International spoke with a weapons system operator with more than 20 years’ experience on other multi-engine aircraft before moving to the Hercules. He said: “Today, we have to introduce the idea of a twoperson weapons system operator formation much earlier in training. In its simplest form, one will work with the two pilots up front; assisting with observation, providing another set of eyes, helping with radio communication, whilst the other manages the cargo bay duties. We mix experience in training to build this. That said, the formation ultimately depends on where we are and what we are doing, especially with more niche roles, which include air despatch of boats, larger cargo or paratroopers. These require at least two weapons system operators.

Only smaller packages can be managed by a single weapons system operator. Niche loads require more manipulation of the Container Delivery System [CDS] in the cargo bay; one to manipulate the CDS, the other to manage the load. Releasing a boat is our most complicated discipline. Space is extremely limited when you place two large boats and a number of troops down the back. You have to be 100% focused on the space around you and who is where at certain times in the drop. Engine running offloads on the ground are no easier, especially during contingent operations where time is a premium and the threat level is high: some of our most challenging operations. As soon as you remove sound and the ability to speak, situational awareness declines and it becomes very difficult at both ends of the aircraft. It can be very unnerving for the guys at the front having no narrative and knowing we may need to move quickly.”

Hercules C4 ZH868 air drops cargo bundles at low-level on the Salisbury Plain Training Area.
Ian Harding

In August 2014, 47 Squadron Hercules launched from the United Kingdom and RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus to airdrop aid (water, water filters, shelters) to the Yazidi refugees who had assembled on top of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. These missions were a matter of life and death, and highlight the nature of such a tasking as the senior weapon systems operator explained: “In terms of the airdrops, they were relatively straightforward, but then you must recognize they took place at night, at low-level, over one of the most dangerous environments, plus RAF C-130Js were the first aircraft to drop. The first mission was launched and executed within approximately 36 hours starting from Brize Norton. It involved a COMAO [composite air operation] package, international coordination to determine precise timings over the drop zone plus we had to air-refuel from an RAF Voyager en route. We had extra aircrew on the flight deck and looking out of the aircraft.

There wasn’t much space in the back and it was dark. This reflects what the squadron is set up to do alongside supporting ground units and our green Army during enduring operations.

“A similar but very different example was our involvement during Operation Ruman in September 2017 when RAF C-130Js delivered aid into some short airstrips following Hurricane Irma, which hit various Caribbean Islands.”

United Kingdom C-130 operations may be less demanding in terms of the threat level, but their execution can be equally challenging as the 2IC Sqn highlighted: “On an airdrop during Exercise Joint Warrior 2018, I had three people on the flight deck talking with three different coordinating agencies; the drop zone safety officer providing permission to drop, range safety officer and an airspace controller. It was a case of everyone focused on their job and then; clear, clear, clear, drop. A lot of effort for a few minutes’ work.”


The squadron expects to recruit six to eight pilots and four to six weapon systems operators each year. Once 30 Squadron stood down as a Hercules unit at the end of 2016, 47 Squadron’s training commitment changed significantly. Ab-initio flight crew arriving from XXIV Squadron, the RAF’s operational conversion unit for all transport types, require further training, so consequently, the training programme is now streamlined.

After completing initial training with XXIV Squadron, pilots generally take two years to become fully mission qualified. Weapon systems operators can take longer to similarly qualify, as long as four to five years.

Nor can experienced aircrew rest on their laurels because new tasking may require trials followed by new training. For example, a recent heavy landing trial conducted by the heavy aircraft test and evaluation unit 206 Squadron, necessitated by a heavy landing incident, concluded in May 2018. A Hercules C4 operated from an austere landing strip on the Salisbury Plain Training Area to evaluate the current technique used for landing on unprepared strips; in particular the rate of descent used during the final stages of landing, which could not be guaranteed. The trial was a success and 47 Squadron now trains for, and uses, the updated technique operationally.

There are also ramifications for the type of person 47 Squadron seeks to recruit given its tactical role as the 2IC explained: “Everyone who now arrives on the fleet must have the capability of becoming a fully mission qualified pilot or weapon systems operator. Our recruitment must therefore start earlier during training at RAF Cranwell [RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire is home to the Royal Air Force College]. Our challenge is ensuring that those interested must be capable of doing the job, must be assessed appropriately at an early stage of training plus they must be aware of what they’re coming in to. We need to identify individuals who are robust characters due to the environment we work in because we need them to be able to look after themselves, operate remotely with less supervision, work well with the team, motivate their peer group as well and demonstrate leadership qualities from the moment they arrive here.

“We get very capable individuals, but we can’t simply force the required experience on them, especially now. We throw a lot at them, we know what our crews need to do at the high end and we know what standard they’re at but bridging that gap is difficult. Core competencies at the high end include low-level formation flying, and tactical airdrops.”

Engineering demands

The engineering model currently used has changed dramatically from the one used by Hercules squadrons based at nearby RAF Lyneham, Wiltshire; its evolution began to change once 47 Squadron moved to Brize in 2011.

A deployable team of ground engineers currently comprises approximately 30 personnel who now work on a similar contingency footing as the pilots and weapon systems operators.

Discussing the key role undertaken by the engineers in 47 Squadron’s intra-theatre operations, the SENGO described the ongoing commitment to Operation Shader as the only forward deployed engineering capability since its maritime patrol support to Operation Kipion, the UK’s long-standing maritime presence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean was reduced. Shader involves two aircraft and four engineers whose role is predominantly to fly with the aircraft on operations, and be available to service the aircraft if anything goes wrong during a mission or to forward deploy with the aircraft as required.

Heading out on a mission from Brize Norton, Hercules C4 ZH866. This shot shows the antenna array fitted to the underside fuselage of this aircraft, a fit that appears on other RAF Herks.
Ian Harding

She said: “We have a pool of personnel spread across a day or night shift to deal with issues depending on where the work is coming from, or the times aircraft are moving. The line used to work a typical four days on, four days off, 24/7. Now we have a day-night shift pattern, with a swing night shift which provides only limited 24/7 cover at Brize from 02:00hrs.

“We also work a more flexible work pattern since our strategic lift role has been reduced; we have to roll and move with the punches so to speak. As the engineer’s job has become more complex and demanding, my greatest challenge is ensuring all my engineers are suitably qualified to meet the requirements made of them. It used to take 12 months for an engineer to get out on the road, it now takes 18 months with the extra courses we have to take, and the new regulations, which are more in line with those of the Civil Aviation Authority. This is challenging.

“In the past we would have taken a spare wheel with us and one engineer would have changed it and signed it off. Now, if we burst a tyre in an austere location our priority is to change it and get out to safeguard the crew and those we are deployed with. We therefore have to find the right balance, to include training since we lost the experience that Operation Herrick provided. This was an easier detachment, plus we had other routes with it. We can’t train guys during live tasking, so we have to obtain the maximum benefit from training operations we have.”

In addition to the day-to-day flight maintenance completed by 47 Squadron at Brize, Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group manage Hercules heavy rectifications in Hangar 94; a purpose-built facility capable of housing two aircraft and used to complete in-depth maintenance tasks and exercise recovery work. Marshall Aerospace has supported the RAF Hercules fleet for over 50 years.


Typical months of operations don’t tend to happen on 47 Squadron; the unit provides tactical more than strategic airlift, moving people and cargo to where it needs to be. That said the unit has to train for both. UK flight operations are most likely staged in preparation to support tactical units in intratheatre operations.

The squadron’s work is varied; one day it could involve dropping high-altitude paratroopers, the next day low-level formation flying in Wales or Scotland, or undertaking ground training simulation for loading a boat: individuals do more now than ever before.

Aircrew confirmed the tempo of operations has not changed since Operation Herrick concluded in December 2014, but its diversity has increased. Commitment to Herrick simply rolled into Operation Shader [the UK’s operation against ISIS] with a change in the threat level of contingent ops. Truth is, 47 Squadron has always been involved in contingent operations, involving aircraft and crews deploying quickly on specific missions. Today the C-130 fleet is smaller and its roles are more specialized, so things are different as the 2IC explained: “At the highpoint of Operation Herrick, we had four to five aircraft deployed [in Afghanistan], one in the broader Middle East and one in the Falkland Islands. Aircrew were detached perhaps once every three to four months. Rewind to Operation Telic when the fleet was expanding, and some aircrew were spending four to five months deployed each year. Today’s situation is more sustainable with aircrew, which includes engineers, on detachment perhaps twice per year, completing one to two exercises per year within the UK and one overseas. The rest of their time is considered normal flying.”

With its fleet reducing to 14 from April 2019, 47 Squadron appears to be just about sufficiently equipped to meet its current commitments but not much else. It has personnel with the knowledge and experience to meet the specialist demands made of them, and it is structured to do so. Every effort is being made to flex what the squadron does during exercises and in training to ensure all personnel and aircrew gain the right experience at the right time.

Training methods used by other C-130J operators, particularly the use of ground-based training systems, are being examined with the aim of reducing high-end flying hours. Today, 47’s ongoing major challenge is recruiting the right type of people and having the means to train to meet niche tasking requirements. Any squadron or unit involved in tactical operations does so at the edge of the operating envelope in complex situations where timely risk-informed decision making by operators and the chain of command are essential to achieve military objectives. No real quibble about that; 47 Squadron has been continuously deployed on operations for the last 36 years no doubt living up to the words Sans Peur, its unofficial motto meaning without fear. AI