It is the halfway point between RAF Brize Norton and Camp Bastion, and getting troops from A to B (Akrotiri to Bastion) is one of the crucial roles fulfilled by personnel at the RAF’s base in Cyprus.
But RAF Akrotiri is more than just a strategic staging post in the Mediterranean; with thousands of Service personnel passing through the station each year we go behind the scenes to see what it takes to run one of the RAF’s busiest bases.
Akrotiri’s Station Commander, Group Captain Barrie Thomson, describes the role of the station:
“Because of our strategic placement in the Mediterranean we have an airfield that allows us to flow men and material in and out of Afghanistan. This is really our primary purpose.”
With 850 personnel serving as part of the Cyprus Operations Support Unit it is very much a team effort:
“The majority of our people are in hard graft jobs, working 12-hour shifts, handling the aircraft in and out, handling the freight, handling equipment moves coming in by sea then flying out to Afghanistan,” said Group Captain Thomson.
“But not just that, all the enabling functions like security, force protection, infrastructure – all of it delivers a capacity which ultimately has an effect on people delivering operations.”
RAF Akrotiri handles everything from fast jets to tanker transport aircraft such as the VC10, TriStar and Hercules, as well as the intelligence and surveillance aircraft that were temporarily based at the station during Operation ELLAMY, supporting operations over Libya.
Twice a year the activity ramps up during the RiP (Relief in Place) – the changeover of troops in Afghanistan – when up to 14,000 Service personnel will fly in and out of Akrotiri as they return home or start their tour of duty.
Flight Lieutenant Matt Rose is a Duty Air Movements Officer responsible for a traffic team of eight staff who control the day-to-day movements of the aircraft. This includes the loading and unloading of passengers and freight, as well as the careful co-ordination of all the teams necessary to get an aircraft back on its journey:
“The job can have its challenging moments, especially when you have three aircraft on the ground at any one time. The turnaround on each aircraft is about 90 minutes – we do all the background work whilst passengers wait in the terminal,” said Flight Lieutenant Rose.
“As well as my traffic team, we have the Visiting Aircraft Handling Section, the refuellers, catering, and the water and toilet replenishment vehicles all working around the aircraft. When the troops come in our boys and girls can have up to 2,000 bags to unload and move, and they aren’t light!”
One of the youngest serving personnel on the station is 19-year-old Senior Aircraftwoman Katie Bunyard, an Aircraft Maintenance Mechanic on a two-month detachment from RAF Brize Norton.
As part of 99 Squadron, Senior Aircraftwoman Bunyard marshals in the C-17, the largest aircraft in the RAF’s inventory. In Akrotiri, she works as part of the Visiting Aircraft Handling Section to ensure the rapid preparation of aircraft for the next leg of their journey:
“I get nervous when I’m marshalling an aircraft because I want to get the aircraft on the right spot,” she explains. “It’s very much a team effort when an aircraft comes in; we co-ordinate with the movements staff and the refuellers to turn around an aircraft. As well as marshalling we also get to replenish the water and empty the toilets!”
One section that never closes at RAF Akrotiri is Flight Operations, the hub for all aircraft movements at the station.
Sergeant Andy Smith is a Duty Operations Controller:
“We cover shifts 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 365-days-per-year,” he says. “My role is to manage the flying programme, deconflict flights and ensure that when an aircraft arrives here we’ll have the facilities available to look after it.
“I’ll be monitoring flights leaving Brize Norton and Camp Bastion. Thirty minutes before the expected arrival I’ll call the pilot to get an update then make adjustments as required. I take great pride in doing what I can to minimise delays, keeping the movements staff informed at all times so they can brief the passengers in the terminal.”
Officer Commanding Operations, Flight Lieutenant Simon Revell, also runs the Rescue Co-ordination Centre as RAF Akrotiri has a Search and Rescue Squadron that can be called on to assist in emergencies up to 200 miles (322km) from the base:
“84 Squadron have one Griffin helicopter on permanent standby 24/7, 365-days-a-year, alongside the boats and helicopters of the Cypriot authorities,” said Flight Lieutenant Revell.
“We control and co-ordinate all rescues in the Sovereign Base Area which is 98 square miles [254 square kilometres]. We are a permanent 24-hour manned unit operating on a 60-minute readiness, but if there are fast jets operating from Akrotiri that is down to 15 minutes.
“We are quick to respond – the last out-of-hours shout we had, the helicopter was airborne, had found and recovered the casualty back to hospital within 40 minutes of the call for help.”
“There are two different roles for us – Search and Rescue in the winter and firefighting in the summer; we respond to two or three calls a week. An underslung bucket can hold a tonne of water from a 30-foot-long (9m) strop – they dip that into the nearest water source, either the sea or a lake, and then fly to the scene of the fire.”
The Griffins of 84 Squadron are the only RAF aircraft permanently based at RAF Akrotiri. While their primary role is to provide Search and Rescue cover they also provide support to the Army and have a unique firefighting capability.
Officer Commanding 84 Squadron, Squadron Leader Richard Strookman, explained the roles:
“Search and Rescue here is primarily to support fast jet detachments when they arrive on island. But in the wider sphere we also provide Search and Rescue not only to the Sovereign Base Area but also to the Republic of Cyprus as well and on occasion even further afield.”
Having a hot climate for much of the year means Cyprus regularly experiences damaging fires. Fortunately the Griffins of 84 Squadron can be quickly fitted with underslung water buckets to douse the flames from the air:
“Last year we fought many fires on Cyprus itself but in December we were called by the Israelis to help fight some huge fires in Israel and we were the first international assets on scene,” said Squadron Leader Strookman.
The squadron also helps in getting personnel used to working with helicopters before going out to Afghanistan:
“At the moment we’re in the middle of a huge amount of taskings for an Army exercise,” explains Squadron Leader Strookman. “Troop movement is the main thing we do but we can also simulate being an attack helicopter and provide Medical Emergency Response Team training.”
One of the major events to take place at RAF Akrotiri this year was the support to Operation ELLAMY. Group Captain Thomson summarised:
“We provided a home for the ISTAR [Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance] capability, communications facilities and an immediacy of response that allowed people to set up and deliver the effect we all remember from the time.
“The heartbeat of the station is the people. RAF Akrotiri personnel are very community-spirited and they recognise there is a multiplying effect of the community and welfare wrap that goes around the place, which has a direct impact on the quality of operational support we provide.”