Coachlines - September 2020

06.09.20 Past Master Martin Payne

Where are you now? Or, where will you be by Christmas?

It all began in 2002 when the Victor Gauntlett Flying Scholarship was established by the Company in Victor’s name in recognition of his career in the Royal Air Force (rising to Hon Air Commodore), the rescue of Aston Martin Lagonda and the creation of a successful petroleum business, writes Past Master Martin Payne. Alistair, AKA ‘Blackers’ was the second recipient of the scholarship in 2006.

In a letter to the editor of The Coachmaker of that time, Past Master Martin Payne, Blackers still has fond memories of the night he received his award from The Coachmakers and has pleasure in keeping the Livery up to date on his progress.

It seems that Blackers is quite an active student. Apart from his selection to the Officers and Aircrew Selection Centre he was awarded a Pilot Bursary to start officer training following his graduation in 2008.

That was then: Blackers in a Grob G115E Tutor

In his spare time, he has flown with East Midlands Universities’ Air Squadron (EMUAS) learning things that are no longer on the newer syllabus e.g, low level navigation, formation and more instrument flying (including practice diversions to other airfields). Blackers was also awarded the squadron’s flying ace trophy at his annual dinner earlier in the year, for his dedication to the flying aspect of the squadron.

And this is now: A Typhoon on Operation Shader

Blackers began his fast jet training at RAF Valley. “After completing flying training on the Hawk T2 at RAF Valley, I was lucky enough to be sent to the Typhoon OCU at RAF Coningsby,” he says. “Graduating in early 2015, I was posted to II(AC) Sqn at RAF Lossiemouth. I was involved in exercises all over the world as far as Japan and Korea, as well as in Europe and the US.”

Blackers in front of his BAE Systems’ Hawk

“In 2016 the Sqn deployed to Estonia for the Baltic Air Policing mission, which involved sitting Quick Reaction Alert to counter Russian aircraft in NATO’s area of interest in the Baltics.”

“In the summer of 2017 the Sqn deployed as part of Operation Shader – the UK’s response to the threat from the Islamic State. It was an especially busy time for the Op, with a lot of activity in Syria and Iraq before I was then sent to the Falkland Islands during the second half of 2017.

“At the beginning of 2018 I was posted to the Typhoon OCU as an instructor where I stayed for 18 months. This included another stint in the Falklands, Ex Red Flag in the US as well as flying in the RAF100 Flypast.

RAF100 flypast: Alistair is in the centre zero, top of the left hand column

“I was then lucky enough to get a place at the US Air Force Test Pilot School (USAFTPS) at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Here I completed a Masters degree while flying more than 20 different military and civilian aircraft from the past and present, graduating as an experimental test pilot.”

Upside down in a T-38C Talon over the Mojave Desert

Blackers is now posted to 17 Sqn, also stationed at Edwards AFB, which is flying the F-35. The Royal Air Force’s 17 Sqn has assumed control of the test and evaluation of the UK’s first Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II, marking the start of independent operational testing by the UK of its future Joint Strike Fighter. The aircraft is based at Edwards AFB, California, where 17 Sqn has now begun to test and evaluate without the assistance of US forces that have until now supported the test campaign for the UK’s aircraft.

Both RAF and Royal Navy personnel make up the squadron, which will work to ensure that the aircraft is interoperable with the UK’s regulations and its other assets – including the RN’s new aircraft carriers – ahead of initial operational capability clearance for the aircraft. The UK has a current requirement for 138 of the B-model short take-off and vertical landing version of the type, and the UK is the first of eight international partners to begin operational testing, the Ministry of Defence says.

F-35Bs from the RAF (bottom) and USMC in formation

This is an exciting time for Blackers and the Coachmakers should feel privileged that we have played a part (however small), to have enabled him this opportunity of flying and testing this revolutionary aircraft in defence of our country. “As ever, I remain incredibly grateful for the Victor Gauntlett Flying Scholarship that was awarded to me all those years ago, and cannot thank the Company enough for its generosity,” says Blackers. “I was able to complete my Private Pilot Licence well before I flew with the RAF and it no doubt helped me get where I am today.”

We wish Blackers every success as he joins No17 Squadron for a tour of duty which may last up to four years. I have had a few Zoom conversations with Blackers and he has agreed to continue these conversations once he has settled into his new routine in California.

F-35B Lightning II aircraft at Eglin, US