Vox Clamantis in Deserto: Courtney, Hawk T1A, 63 Squadron, Royal Air Force Chivenor and Chernobyl
Vox Clamantis in Deserto: Courtney, Hawk T1A, 63 Squadron, Royal Air Force Chivenor and Chernobyl

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63 Squadron
63 Squadron RAF Chivenor, Devon

Hawk T1A, 63 Squadron, RAF Chivenor and The Chernobyl RMBK1000 Nuclear Disaster

Hawk T1A, 63 Squadron, RAF Chivenor and The Chernobyl RMBK1000 Nuclear Disaster

On this page: 63 Squadron RAF Chivenor,     Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster,     More on Chivenor.

63 Squadron, RAF Chivenor

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In 1985, the Royal Air Force was waiting to take delivery of its new interceptor; the Tornado F2. This was a collaborative project between the British, Italians and Germans and was, logically, a development of the very successful bomber, the Tornado GR1 (later the Tornado GR4). Unfortunately, many were quick to criticize it on the grounds that history had shown that it's very hard to make a fighter out of a bomber. But the F2 was never designed to be a fighter; its purpose was to be a long range, long endurance interceptor in defence of the United Kingdom to replace the F4 Phantom.

One thing that was wrong, however, was that it was late. Very late. But then, given the difficulties of running a multi-national programme like this, it was almost bound to be. We'll return to the Tornado in Chapter 10 and cover the story in more detail there.

The RAF had built up the numbers of aircrew in the F4 Phantom force so that when the F2 finally arrived they would have sufficient crews to start training up for Tornado without totally depleting the F4 community. At that stage, the F4 and F2 fleets were to run together. However, the setbacks to the F2 programme meant that the F4 world was already over-manned and it looked like there were more delays to come. The RAF Personnel Management Centre (then at RAF Barnwood) had to take steps to ease the over-manning on the F4 squadrons. Consequently, pilots and navs were being farmed out to other jobs, not necessarily flying.

Fortunately, my old nav from 29 Squadron, Pete, was working at RAF Barnwood and, although not responsible for posting me, he recognized the fact that his old buddy Courtney could end up somewhere not of his choosing. So, he called me and let me know that, if I was happy to beat the rush, he could probably swing it for me to go to RAF Chivenor, now opened as a TWU, to fly the Hawk T1A as an instructor. See, it's not what you know; it's whom you know.

This was all a bit of a gamble though, because there was no guarantee that I was going to get pushed off the front-line. If I agreed to go a bit early I would be short-toured from Leuchars and sent to another great flying tour. On the other hand, if I chose to sit tight, I should do a full tour on 43 Squadron, but could end up with a crappy posting afterwards. I decided to play safe and opt for Chivenor. So, I was posted to 63 Squadron, Number 2 TWU, RAF Chivenor.

I really didn't know much about RAF Chivenor, apart from the fact that it was in North Devon, as it had been closed when I went through TWU at RAF Brawdy during my flying training years. I had no idea what a wonderful place it was; beside Saunton Sands, Braunton Burrows and the River Taw.

Anyway, in June 1985, I packed my stuff again and moved to RAF Chivenor. As soon as I arrived, I could tell that this was going to be a good tour. The local area was gorgeous, the Squadron friendly and the job looked really interesting. Also, the flying was mainly 9 'till 5 with the very occasional bit of night flying, plenty of combat, heaps of weapons training, lots of zooming around at low altitude, virtually no exercises and all this by the beach. Excellent! Surf's up!

Paul Courtnage
Flt Lt Paul Courtnage Receiving the prize for Best Student, Hawk QWI Course

Paul Courtnage
Flt Lt Paul Courtnage Receiving the prize for Best Weapons Scores, Hawk QWI Course

Sophie Courtnage and Chris Courtnage My daughter Sophie Courtnage holding my new son, Christopher.

RAF Chivenor ('Chiv' as it was known) started life, in 1934, as the North Devon Airport. It boasted a large grass landing field, workshops and a flying club with clubhouse. The following year, the first RAF aircraft, a Hawker Hart, operated out of the airport, conducting a survey of Exmoor, only five or ten minute's flying time to the east. RAF Chivenor was opened as a Coastal Command station in 1940. Both training units and operational squadrons flew from the base, mainly involved in convoy protection, although some intercept missions were also flown. In 1946 the base was transferred to Fighter Command and in September 1947 advanced flying training commenced there.

In 1957 two Sycamore helicopters arrived. Thereafter, it has been the home of a Search and Rescue flight and, apart from when the base was closed between 1974 and 1980, flying training units. At the time of my arrival, it was home to 63 Squadron (my unit) and 151 Squadron (known universally as 'The Girls') flying the British Aerospace Hawk T1A. The excellent social life and flying, the lack of exercises and the scarcity of trivia led us to refer to the place as 'The North Devon Flying Club'. That was, after all, how it had started out.

I thoroughly enjoyed the challenges and the rewards of instructional flying. Also, they were short of QWIs (Qualified Weapons Instructors). A Qualified Weapons Instructor is graduate of the Royal Air Force Qualified Weapons Instructor Course, the equivalent of the USAF Fighter Weapons School or the US Navy's TOPGUN School. And so I was promptly dispatched to RAF Brawdy to do the Hawk QWI Course. This was not only run by Jaguar pilots, but everybody else on the course was a Jag mate too. I was there as the token Air Defender, presumably selected as part of some equal opportunities scheme.

As QWI students we were continually assessed and required to qualify in ground school and flying phases of the course in order to return to our units to instruct weapons and tactics. The Hawk QWI course was mainly air-to-ground, including 10° dive bombing, level bombing and strafe (air-to-ground gunnery), but also included air-to-air gunnery and theoretical work on air-to-air missiles. All our air-to-ground weaponry was done at Pembrey Range in South Wales and air-to-air gunnery was done either in Aberporth Range in Cardigan Bay or at Hartland Point, Devon. The course culminated in an Op phase, concentrating on the use of tactical weapons ranges and low lever tactics.

We students were required to learn the theory for each of each event, including some 'wonderful' calculations, be able to teach the events on the ground and in the air and also, if required, we could work out all the sighting solutions for any range or target in the world - we could be responsible for setting up new ranges and designing and teaching the patterns and procedures. All events were filmed and we also learnt how to debrief student films, estimating scores from the rather limited information available from the film. To do this, we each had to work out and construct our own film debriefing gizmo. I won't go into that with you right now, suffice to say it got a lot of use and lead me to many hours in a dark debriefing room measuring dive angles, ranges, altitudes, tracking and the like; a necessary evil.

It is interesting to look at the results of my course. Bear in mind that all the other students were mud movers, well versed in throwing things at the ground, and that most of the phases involved doing just that. Because of this, they were all thoroughly familiar with the air-to-ground weapons events and were able to employ their seaman's eye. I, on the other hand, was on a voyage into relatively uncharted waters as, with the exception of some strafe in the Phantom, I hadn't done most of these air-to-ground events since my days at Brawdy. This meant that I could do nothing other than apply the appropriate techniques exactly as taught - in other words, do as I was told (for a change). During the weapons phases, any attack that wasn't just right, I would throw away and set up again. The mud-movers, on the other hand, would use their experience to salvage a mediocre pass and achieve a reasonable result. Good scores, however, generally result from a good pass. Consequently, I won the mud-moving trophy and the overall course prize while, for the same reason, one of the mud movers achieved the highest score in the air-to-air gunnery phase. Interesting, but probably irrelevant to the story.

To put the icing on this particular cake, my son, Christopher Richard Courtnage, was born in Barnstaple Hospital on 29th May 1986. Great picture of him and his sister, Sophie, in the left margin.


Chernobyl Nuclear Accident

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There was another really important event in 1986 that deserves a mention. This is really scary. The Russians did something totally asinine, resulting in a very nasty accident at the Chernobyl RBMK-1000 nuclear power plant, 80 miles north of Kiev in the Ukraine. It was caused, in my view, by a combination of three factors: the control problems inherent in the reactor's design, the paranoid secrecy in the Soviet system and the insane behaviour of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant's operators. It is worth knowing a bit about this accident and fascinating to see what can happen when people get it wrong.

Chernobyl control room The control room at Chernobyl.

The Chernobyl Reactor site in the Ukraine comprised 4 RBMK 1000 type reactors (plus two more under construction), developed in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. The fuel for RBMK reactors is low enriched uranium, held in a graphite core that acts as the moderator. The graphite core is cooled using light water which is allowed to boil and turn to steam and then passed through the turbines to generate electricity. Steam is then condensed by cooling water from Lake Pripyat and pumped back to the core using large feed pumps.

There are only a small handful of RBMK reactors in operation around the world, but these have been extensively upgraded to meet western safety standards.


Following an emergency shutdown or scram, cooling is required to keep the temperature in a reactor's core low enough to avoid fuel damage. This cooling is usually provided by pumping water through pipes in or around the core. Reactor number 4 at Chernobyl (Чернобыль) was an RBMK-1000 type with some inherent design flaws that we shall examine as we go along. The core of Chernobyl Reactor number 4 consisted of about 1,600 fuel channels each of which required 28,000 litres of cooling water per hour; this was provided by electric pumps powered from the electricity grid. Chernobyl's reactors also had three backup diesel generators that would kick in to provide cooling water in the event that grid power was lost. These generators took some 15 seconds to start up and a further 60–75 seconds to reach full speed and generate the power to run one main cooling water pump. Chernobyl's operators were, therefore, concerned that in case of power grid failure during a scram there would be no power to run the plant's cooling water pumps for a minute or more.

The Chernobyl RBMK 1000 Reactor

Diagram of the RBMK 1000 Reactor type, Chernobyl Number 4 Reactor.


Neutron poison ('neutron absorber' or 'nuclear poison'): a substance with a large neutron absorption cross-section in applications, such as nuclear reactors, when absorbing neutrons is an undesirable effect.

Control rod: a rod made of chemical elements capable of absorbing many neutrons without fissioning. They are used in nuclear reactors to control the rate of fission.

Moderator: increases the power of a reactor by causing the fast neutrons produced by fission to lose energy and become thermal neutrons that are more likely than fast neutrons to cause fission. More neutron moderation means more power output from the reactor.

Coolant: usually water, but sometimes a gas, liquid metal or molten salt that is circulated through or round the reactor core to absorb heat, which is carried away from the core and used to generate steam.


This one-minute power gap was considered unacceptable. Chernobyl's engineers knew that following a scram the steam turbine would take a while to run down and it was decided to use this rotational momentum to generate power to run the water pumps until emergency power came on line. This capability needed to be tested experimentally to determine whether the slowing turbine could provide sufficient power for long enough to operate the water pumps until the diesel emergency power supply took over. Previous tests of this at Chernobyl in 1982, 1984 and 1985 had been conducted safely but had been unsuccessful so, following further modification, another test was to be conducted when number 4 reactor at Chernobyl was to be shut down for routine maintenance on 25th April 1986. I think it's likely that the operators considered this a low-risk test because it had been done safely (albeit unsuccessfully) before, because the test was effectively on the electrical side of the power plant (not the nuclear side) and because any information about the design faults of the RBMK-1000 reactor would have been classified in the Soviet Union, so they wouldn't have considered their reactor anything other than perfect.

The experiment was intended to run like this. Chernobyl Reactor Number 4 reactor was to be running at a low power level between 700 & 800 MW(Thermal). The steam turbine was to be run up to full speed and then the steam supply shut off. The turbine would be allowed to coast to a stop whilst generator output was monitored to determine whether it could provide the bridging power for the coolant pumps.

So, preparations for the Chernobyl experiment began on 25th April 1986 at 01:00 when deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov commanded the control rods to be lowered into the reactor, slowing the reaction and stabilizing operation at half of its normal output power. Thirteen hours later the reactor's emergency core cooling system (ECCS), which provides water for cooling the core in an emergency, was disabled. This action was, apparently, required to run the test.

High demand for power in Kiev at this stage meant that they had to delay the shutdown and so they allowed the Chernobyl reactor to run in this condition for the next nine hours. Once released from the grid, the operators switched off the automatic control of some of the fuel rods and lowered them further into the core, further reducing the power output.


Because the reactor had been running at such a low level for so long, the operators had problems maintaining a steady output. Moreover, they had inadvertently inserted the control rods too far and so the reactor was now heading towards an automatic shutdown. In order to keep the reactor running at a sufficient level to conduct the test, engineer Anatoly Dyatlov ordered the control rods to be retracted to speed up the reaction again. Accordingly, the power levels rose, but only partially to about 7% full output and well below the level required for the test. Operation below 200 MW(Thermal) for so long had caused the accumulation of xenon-135 in the core (xenon poisoning), which was slowing the reaction and this required the complete withdrawal of control rods just to keep the reactor running. What they had actually done was to place the reactor in an unstable and unsafe condition with almost all the control rods fully out, but the reactor still running at a very low level - slowed by the coolant water and the accumulation of xenon-135.

However, at 1:23:04 a.m. they decided they were ready to start the test. The condition of the reactor was very unstable, but the operators did not necessarily have unusual indications and did not fully understand the design issues with the RBMK reactor (discussed shortly). Steam to the turbines was shut off and the turbine generators began to run down, but they did continue to power four out of the eight Main Circulating Pumps (MCPs). The emergency diesel generator started correctly and sequentially picked up electrical loads. From this respect the Chernobyl experiment had been successful this time.

However, as the momentum of the turbine generator that was powering the water pumps decreased, the water flow rate also decreased. Water in the core became hotter, which led to increased formation of steam voids (bubbles of steam like you get in your kettle) in the core cooling water. One of the most important characteristics of the RBMK-1000 reactor is that, unlike other reactor designs, it can possess a positive void coefficient; put simply, this means that an increase in steam bubbles in the core cooling water causes an increase in core reactivity, rather than a decrease as it would in most other reactors. This condition would certainly have existed at Chernobyl at this point in the experiment.

The reactor was now primed to embark on a positive feedback loop, in which the formation of steam voids decreased the ability of liquid water coolant to absorb neutrons, which increased the reactor's power output, causing yet more water to flash to steam, so more voids and a further power increase and so on and so on...

Chernobyl Reactor Number 4
Number 4 Reactor at Chernobyl after
the disaster.

Reactor 4 at Chernobyl
Reactor 4 at Chernobyl, 1986


Throughout the experiment the automatic control system was working hard to try to control this positive feedback, continuously inserting control rods into the reactor core to limit the power rise, but the rods could only move at less than 0.5 ms-1, not fast enough to control the rapid rise in power. At 01:23:40 they finally realized that the Chernobyl reactor was not behaving properly and that the core temperature was rising rapidly so the operators attempted to shut down the reactor by pressing the scram button (AZ-5). Ironically, this led to disaster.

Another peculiarity of the design of the RBMK-1000 is that each of the boron carbide control rods (which absorb neutrons and slow the nuclear reaction) had a 4.5 metre graphite tip called a displacer. With the rods fully retracted, the graphite displacers were positioned in the centre of the reactor core, displacing the coolant from this zone. The coolant in the control rod channels absorbs neutrons better than the graphite displacers although not as well as the boron carbide - so the graphite displacers actually increase the rate of reaction. This meant that as the rods were inserted to slow the reaction, neutron-absorbing coolant in the bottom of the core was displaced by the graphite tip increasing the reaction there, before neutron-absorbing boron carbide could reach that zone to slow the reaction again. This is called the positive scram effect. It is also worth noting that full rod insertion at Chernobyl took some 20 seconds - much longer than it can take an unstable reactor to run-away.

So, because of the displacers, the first effect of the scram was actually to increase the reaction rate in the lower half of the core and this triggered a dramatic power surge that caused the core to overheat. Some of the fuel rods fractured, blocking the control rod columns and causing the control rods to become stuck about 35% inserted; this meant the reactor could not be stopped and at 01:24 the Chernobyl reactor ran away.

As the core temperature soared and the fuel elements burst and superheated, radioactive fuel was brought into contact with the cooling water, which flashed to steam blowing the top off the reactor and a large hole in the roof of the reactor building - this was the first explosion that was later reported. The high-pressure steam reacted with the graphite blocks surrounding the cooling tubes and with the zirconium coating of the fuel elements producing vast quantities of hydrogen. This ignited causing a second explosion that ejected radioactive, burning graphite from the reactor core onto the roof of the Chernobyl reactor building. The bulk of the graphite, still in the reactor, burnt out of control at a temperature of 1,500°C (2,750°F) and was in danger of burning through the reactor floor into the flooded compartment below. Had this happened a third, massive explosion would have occurred, probably blowing the entire reactor apart and flattening hundreds of square kilometres around Chernobyl. The disaster released approximately 100,000,000 Curies of radioactive material into the atmosphere, which spread over most of Scandinavia, central, and eastern Europe; that's about 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of the contamination ended up in Belarus. Unusually, the Chernobyl RMBK1000 design did not include a containment building to prevent the release of radioactive material in a situation such as this.

The Soviets did not announce the incident for some days - presumably they thought that the rest of the world simply wouldn't notice. It may be that they didn't even know what had happened at Chernobyl for some time after the event. In fact, it was the Swedes who first spotted the abnormally high radiation levels and asked the Russians if there was anything they'd like to tell them. Senior people in charge of the reactor attempted to deny that there was a serious emergency or that radiation levels were much above normal. Fear of displeasing their masters in Moscow far exceeded the fear of the consequences of a serious nuclear accident. Officials refused to evacuate the 35,000 people that lived in Pripyat (just 3 km from the burning Chernobyl power plant) for a full 36 hours because they didn't want to cause panic or admit what had happened. Such was the Soviet Union. Far better to let people die of radiation sickness than have a panic on your hands!

It wasn't until August 1986 that the Communists released the full details of what had happened at the Chernobyl RMBK1000 plant that April. It was later announced in Pravda (Правда), the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party, that the director of Chernobyl reactor number 4 had been fired, hopefully in a kiln. Officials who were 'responsible' for the Chernobyl reactor were tried the following year and six of them were sent to labour camps where I'm sure they had plenty of time to consider their folly. Many of the operators died soon after the accident of radiation sickness.

Anyway, as I hope you can see, this incident was caused and made worse by operator stupidity, secrecy and certain design features of this reactor. Here are some important facts to consider:

The upper biological sheild that crashed into the reactor hall The upper biological shield, balanced on the reactor core at Chernobyl.

Chernobyl Sarcophagus The concrete sarcophagus used to encase the damaged Number 4
Reactor at Chernobyl


The explosions that occurred were not nuclear explosions. Although the release of radioactivity was huge, the vast majority of the Chernobyl reactor's nuclear material remains inside the building.

Chernobyl reactor No. 4 was a RBMK-1000 nuclear power reactor, which is widely regarded as the world's least safe nuclear reactor type because of its technical design and because the graphite in the reactor core is combustible; Western power reactors and other Russian reactors use water as a moderator instead of graphite.

The 16 RBMK-1000 reactors that were built had no containment shells, which in other reactors would prevent almost all radioactive material from escaping in case of an incident such as this one at Chernobyl. The reason for the lack of containment was that, as well as generating electrical power, RBMK-1000 reactors were designed to produce weapons grade plutonium for military use. This required that the fuel rods could be removed for reprocessing by means of a refuelling machine, making the space above the reactor some 7 metres tall, too high for a containment structure. Interestingly, the fuel rods were routinely removed and replaced without shutting down the RBMK reactor.

The positive void coefficient and the initial power rise caused by rod insertion were design peculiarities that made this reactor behave in an unusual manner under the circumstances of the experiment and the events leading up to it. The void coefficient is only one factor affecting the rate of reaction of a reactor, but in RBMK-1000 reactors it is the dominant factor. At the time of the accident at Chernobyl, the void coefficient of reactivity was so positive that it overwhelmed the other components of the power coefficient (including xenon poisoning), and the power coefficient itself became positive. The positive feedback loop and positive scram effect resulted in a rapid increase in power to around 100 times the reactor's rated capacity. The RBMK control rod design was changed after the accident to prevent the positive scram effect.

Finally, conducting an experiment on the reactor that involved disabling its safety features and the lack of operator knowledge (vital information was classified) were the main causes of the accident. Had they not been deliberately disabled, the safety systems would, hopefully, have safely shut down the reactor long before the operators gave up control of it.

Some 134 power station workers were exposed to extremely high doses of radiation during and immediately after the accident. At least 31 of these died within 3 months. 25,000 of the liquidators and firefighters died in the 20 years following the disaster of diseases such as lung cancer and leukemia. Some 4,000 children suffered thyroid cancer. Millions of people will continue to be exposed to radiation for decades to come. Nearly 400,000 people were forced to leave their homes and over 2,000 towns and villages were bulldozed the ground; hundreds more stand deserted and derelict.

Chernobyl Reactor Number 4 after the disaster
Chernobyl Reactor Number 4 after the disaster

Following the Chernobyl disaster, fire-fighters and reactor workers were exposed to massive, mostly fatal, doses of radioactivity. The fire in the core, caused by the explosions, burned for days. Exposed to the environment, the burning core released huge amounts of highly radioactive material. Much of the deadly radioactive graphite that was ejected onto the reactor building roof was cleared up by reservist troops who were activated for the task; they became known as The Liquidators or biorobots and they worked without proper protective equipment and could only spend a maximum of 40 seconds at a time working on the Chernobyl rooftops of the surrounding buildings because of the extremely high doses of radiation given off by the blocks of graphite and other debris. Many liquidators died soon after the incident. The Liquidators, the fire-fighters and the other workers who gave their lives to clear up the catastrophe created by the plant operators should never be forgotten.

The core burnt through its floor, but the water in the compartment below had been successfully drained, avoiding a further, even more devastating explosion. Once the fire was extinguished, the reactor was eventually encased (although not sealed) into a hastily-built, giant steel and concrete sarcophagus called the Object Shelter, which is mostly supported by the damaged, structurally unsound remains of the Unit 4 Reactor Building. The Object Shelter was never intended to be a permanent containment structure and its continued deterioration has increased the risk of radioactive material leaking into the environment over the years. Substantial upgrade or replacement of the shelter is urgently required to continue to contain the radioactive remains of Chernobyl Reactor 4.

It is estimated that around 95% of the original radioactive inventory of Chernobyl's Reactor 4 remains inside the ruined reactor building. A New Safe Confinement was to have been built by the end of 2005; however, it suffered 'ongoing delays' and completion is now expected in 2015 - not a day too soon.

Twenty RBMK reactors were planned to have been built. After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, three were cancelled, 5 closed and reactor number 4 at Chernobyl was destroyed. Eleven remained operational at the start of 2010, all of them in Russia, and all significantly modified after the Chernobyl accident. Only four were to remain to 2020.

If you want to know more, you can read the World Nuclear Association's full report on the Chernobyl Incident by clicking here or download the Nuclear Energy Agency's report from my site by clicking here. Although somewhat old, the IAEA's Advice on Conditions Pertaining to the Contaminated Areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia give a good indication of conditions 15 years on.


Chernobyl Reactor Number 4 - 1996
Chernobyl RBMK-1000 Reactor Number 4 - 1996


St Kitts and St Nevis Go on, you tell me... Hover to reveal.

Changing Names

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Just looking through my diaries from this period, I notice that there are a heck of a lot of places around the world that no-one's ever heard of, even really gifted individuals who read the Financial Times. My geography's pretty good, but it does seem that there is a bit of a gap in my knowledge here. For example, can you locate, name the capitals and state the local currencies of the following countries: Transkei, Comoros or Vanuatu? And that's not all, how about Nauru, São Tomé, Kiribati, Northern Ireland or St Christopher and Nevis? Actually, one of them was just put in there for a joke. Of course I know where Kiribati is, it's a group of islands in the Pacific, as I'm sure you remember – the answers to the rest are:

Transkei - Three discontinuous units bordering the Indian Ocean and surrounded on land by South Africa. Capital: Mthatha (formerly Umtata). Currency: South African Rand.
Comoros - Jamhuriyat al Qumur al-Ittihãdiyah al-Islãmiyah: Island group between Malagasy (sorry, Madagascar) and Africa. Capital: Moroni. Currency: Comorian franc.
Vanuatu - Ripablik blong Vanuatu, an Island group north-east of Australia. Capital: Port Vila. Currency: Vanuatu vatu.
Nauru - 14 islands north of Vanuatu. Capital: Yaren. Currency: Australian Dollar.
São Tomé - República Democrática de São Tomé and Príncipe: Atlantic off west coast of Africa. Capital: São Tomé. Currency: Dobra.
Kiribati - Another bunch of islands north-east of Australia. Capital: South Tarawa. Currency: Kiribati dollar, although the Australian Dollar is usually accepted.
St Christopher and Nevis - In the Leeward Islands, eastern Caribbean. Capital: Basseterre. Currency: East Caribbean dollar.

Most annoying are the places we all used to know that have since changed their names or radically shifted their boundaries so that they end up a completely different shape. Some have turned into more than one country. Countries should leave their boundaries, allegiances and, most importantly, their names alone. I used to know who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, but that's all changed too. For example, we used to have a base in Aden, now it's the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (Jamhuriyat al Yaman ad-Dimuqrãtiyah ash Sha'bihah, جمهورية اليَمَنْ الديمُقراطية الشَعْبِيّة). The words 'People's Democratic Republic' presumably mean it's a corrupt, communist dictatorship.

Hawk T1A, 63 Squadron
Hawk T1A of 63 Squadron RAF Chivenor

My horse, Joints, 1987
My horse, Joints, 1987

Meter reading medium

Back to Cyprus - Again

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Back to the story. My time at RAF Chivenor was totally brilliant. The teaching and flying were enjoyable and my life-style was great. The airfield generally closed at five in the afternoon and so, after that time and at the weekends, it was mine on which to walk the dogs. I became involved in the Chivenor Saddle Club and spent many a pleasant weekend riding. In fact I even bought a horse named 'Joints' from a local gent, Derek Robinson, for a pound. Unfortunately, he didn't last very long as he had a terrible back problem, which culminated in him becoming dog meat (the horse, that is, not the man who sold it to me). But bless old Joints, he was a good friend.

The only problem with my life here was that my regular, all expenses paid holidays to Cyprus didn't happen. Until, that is, the Phantom OCU (now moved to Leuchars to make way for the new 229, Tornado F2 OCU) asked for us to go to RAF Akrotiri to support them. So off we went. As you can't do AAR in a Hawk, we had to stage out there via Nice, Naples and Suda Bay (a Greek Air Force base on Crete, built by the Americans during WWII).

Our night stop in Naples demonstrated to me that there was a place in the world that is worse than Anglesey. It is, in short, a toilet. In fact, the following morning whilst crewing into the jet, I managed to break a hinge on one of the access panels in the bottom of the fuselage of my trusty steed. Faced with the threat of being stuck in this place, I managed to effect a very crude repair using some aluminized tape stolen from the US Navy, who had a permanent detachment of helicopters there. DIY aircraft repair is not a job for the faint-hearted. Hey, but it worked and it held together for the rest of the journey to Cyprus!

63 Squadron Detachment in Cyprus, 1987
63 Squadron Detachment in Cyprus, 1987

Anyway, it got me to Cyprus and, just as important, out of Naples. As a matter of fact, I was so disenchanted with the place that I insisted that, on the way home three weeks later, we night stopped in Nice instead - an altogether better deal.

Two of us on this particular detachment (myself and 'Ramo') were ex-Phantom men, used to the usual, annual, five-week stint at Akrotiri. We felt obliged to cram the traditional five weeks' worth of fun and debauchery into the two weeks available to us. As a result, we became known as 'The Obnoxious Brothers'. Harsh, but not entirely unfair.

Cyprus, showing the locations of the Sovereign Base Areas, including Akrotiri


You Can Run But You Can't Hide

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Earlier, I mentioned Derek Robinson, describing him as a 'local gent'. Although he was very much part of the local scenery, he was, actually, a chartered accountant from the Big Smoke who had become totally fed-up with the rat race and promptly bought himself a small-holding in Devon. He had some cracking philosophies to which I could relate. For example, his views on the writing of 'thank you' notes following dinner parties. He reasoned that, without the guests, the hosts would not have been able to hold their splendid evening and, therefore, it is the latter that should be the grateful ones. On the sending of Christmas and birthday cards, he reasoned that they are intended for those whom you will not see on the appropriate day, not for those whom you will.

On the occasion of a certain colleague's stag night, Derek threw a fabulous gentlemen's black-tie dinner at his farmhouse. He pressed his teenage daughters into serving at table and his wife, Janet, into cooking. In the early hours of the following (Friday) morning, incredibly sensibly, we all kipped down at the house. I awoke at about a quarter past eight with a large navigator beside me, and the groom-to-be asleep across my feet. Nige, the large navigator, awoke with a start and announced that he was supposed to be on parade at eight-thirty as it was the first parade rehearsal for the forthcoming AOC's inspection. I advised him that he looked like death and had no chance of making it on time or in a presentable state. I further observed that it was probably better not to turn up for a parade at all rather than walk on late, hung-over and looking like crap. In order to hide him for the day, I suggested that he escaped by flying with me to Brawdy where I had to go to pick up my QWI course prizes. He agreed and it was a brilliant plan, right up to the point when, in our absence, they elevated Nige to 'Parade Commander' for not turning-up and me to his place as 'Supernumerary Officer' as an accessory to the crime. Obviously, you can run but you can't hide.

One of the (many) really good aspects of flying at Chivenor in the 1980s was that we still got to play a small role in the UK's air defence. I touched on this briefly before, it was called 'Mixed Fighter Force' and involved us in our little Hawks being led by the larger, radar-equipped fighters to the bad guys, which we would then engage visually with our sidewinders. It was great fun to exercise this in peacetime, but I'm sure quite how well we would have fared in war with people shooting back at us. Anyway, with that in mind, here's the line-up of UK Air Defence fighters of the time...

UK Air Defence Aircraft 1986

UK Air Defence Aircraft in 1986

Hawk T1A of 63 Sqn 2 TWU RAF Chivenor, Lightning F5 of the Lightning Training Flight RAF Binbrook, Phantom FG1 of 43 Sqn RAF Leuchars,
Tornado F2 of 229 OCU RAF Coningsby. Important to note that these aircraft are neither in order of age nor capability.

Courtney, 63 Squadron, 2TWU, RAF Chivenor. 1988 British Aerospace Instructor of the year

Meter reading low

British Aerospace Instructor of the Year

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One of my last and most memorable achievements at TWU was to win the British Aerospace 'Instructor of the Year' trophy. This was mainly due to my work on the new Air Defence syllabus and students' handbook. I was dead chuffed with that. But to be serious for a moment (I promise it won't last), this was a very rewarding job. I found it immensely satisfying to graduate pilots who were thoroughly prepared for their OCU training, whatever fast jet they went on to fly. However, change was in the air. Our long established and well-proven training system was under attack. Disappointingly, the threat was, not from the treasury, politicians or public pressure. Far worse, it was coming from within the Air Force itself. The effects of these and other changes will be seen later. Change coming for your humble scribe too.


63 Squadron, 2TWU, RAF Chivenor
The Aircrew of 63 Squadron, 2 TWU, RAF Chivenor, 1987

Paul Courtnage

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