As one of just two ex-Royal Air Force officers in Parliament – Jason McCartney is the other – I was delighted this week to visit RAF Coningsby under the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme to witness first-hand a Quick Reaction Alert training sortie. We flew to an area over Wales to rehearse techniques for intercepting, identifying and coercing aircraft which could be a threat to the UK.
There is surely no comparison to flying in a Typhoon with a Royal Air Force pilot. I am most grateful to Wg Cdr Cab Townsend for making maximum use of the available time around training to demonstrate the staggering performance of the aeroplane and the impressive capability of its mission equipment. There’s no doubt in my mind that we have at last a fighter capable of rising to the talents of our pilots and the Royal Air Force collectively. We may be disappointed that it took so long to enter service but we ought now to celebrate its success and look to maximising its value through future development as an ever-more-capable weapons system.
It is a sobering thought that continuous Quick Reaction Alert for defence of the UK remains necessary but I have full confidence in the skill, determination and resilience of the individuals and the team who make possible the UK air defence system throughout the year. I am grateful that I have now seen for myself how a successful interception and identification mission is conducted.
It is not idle that the Royal Air Force claims its people are its greatest asset. Whether at the medical centre, with the Officer Commanding Personnel Services Flight or the Station Commander, with the ground branches at 3(Fighter) Squadron, in the crewroom or in the air, the intellect, courage, character, resilience and determination of all staff was evident in their sheer professionalism.
It is right that we are proud of our armed forces and the Royal Air Force specifically. Today’s RAF is not the one I left in 1999: too much has changed and a great deal more time has been spent in action. It is different but, as I was reminded by experience, the consistent values of the Service and those individuals within it have endured. Above all, this visit reminded me that those of us in Parliament must strive continually, whatever obstacles we face, to provide a standard of political leadership fit for those who would fight and if necessary die in defence of the United Kingdom.
On a lighter note, it turned out Wg Cdr Townsend is my constituent. I feel sure he will not mind me reporting that I have now held a constituency surgery in what must be a unique location: we discussed bus services from Lane End to Marlow while waiting to be intercepted over Wales. Some things never change: always pack your sense of humour when travelling with the RAF.