SINCE the start of the Second World War, RAF Boscombe Down has been the principle site for the testing of UK military aircraft for all three services.
It has witnessed many significant developments in British aviation industry, including trials of many aircraft flown by the British armed forces over the past 70 years, such as the first flights of the English Electric P 1, forerunner of the Lightning, and the BAC TSR.2.
Today this valuable work continues, largely unsung and unnoticed by those of us who drive past the base on a daily basis. I was privileged to be invited by the senior station officer, Group Captain Mark Hobbs and QinetiQ director Nick Lay to see behind the scenes and learn more about what goes on there.
The site is a partnership between the military and QinetiQ and where ‘airborne assets’ are tested for the MoD.
The base has about 400 military staff and up to 1,000 from QinetiQ. The primary role of the service personnel is to assist Qinetiq with their output back to the MoD and guide them in what the military is looking for.
Gp Capt Hobbs summed up their role very succinctly: “Our job is to evaluate a new aircraft and discover if it is safe and can do the job.”
“The deep technical analysis work is largely down to QinetiQ,” he continues, “and I have a small number of MSc qualified military people who effectively work for QinetiQ.
“If you watch Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson says ‘they say it can do 168 mph – that’s a load of rubbish’; that’s what we do. If we want an aircraft to do Mach 2 and it can only do Mach 1.95, we may say that’s ok, on the other hand, if it is absolutely vitally important that it does something, and it can’t, and we might lose a war-winning edge, then we have to flag that up and say that is unacceptable.”
The partnership agreement between the MoD and QinetiQ is a long term one - for 25 years.
Mr Lay said: “It is that type of timescale that is needed to build on the investment in facilities and people that sustains a national UK facility in aircraft test and evaluation.
“That capability is what provides the fighting edge for the front line and that is why we are here, to give the UK armed forces that unfair advantage.”
There are four RAF squadrons attached to the base: 406 looks after the heavy lift aircraft such as the Hercules, VC10 and A400, while the rotary wing test squadron works with helicopters from all three services, both new build and testing modifications.
The other two, 17 and 41 squadrons, are based at Conningsby, where they fly Typhoon and Tornado fighter aircraft.
In addition there is an Unmanned Air Systems Test and Evaluation Squadron, a small unit that looks at all the UAV that are in service and coming into service in a new and fast growing area.
There are two mission systems squadrons, for fixed wing and rotary whose job is to do the analysis, working closely with QinetiQ, on the capability of radar, radios and anything to do with how the aircraft is to be fought.
A small team of about 30, but bringing huge amounts of military experience and knowledge to QinetiQ’s analysis.
Also based at Boscombe Down is the Joint Aircraft Recovery and Transportation Squadron who recover any downed aircraft.
Southampton University Officer Training Corps Air Squadron, with just three permanent staff and six aircraft, but augmented by a large group of retired senior pilots who come and teach the students how to fly at the weekends, is based there too.
Another important part of the base is the QinetiQ Apprentice School, which also trains students for Dstl and is vital for the future.
“We are almost as big an employer as Salisbury Hospital,” said Gp Capt Hobbs.
“Our service people do five years at Boscombe so there are very few people living in service accommodation, most of them have bought houses and live locally.”