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RAF Valley

The RAF Station training the pilots, and the people they may need to rescue them

THE New Year was less than an hour old when RAF personnel were called into action – members of the mountain rescue teams from RAF Valley and RAF Lossiemouth operating in support of the Keswick service responding to a call of climbers in distress.

The Cumbrian team were grateful to have RAF staff staying in the Lake District for a time over the festive season, boosting the numbers responding to the call-out.

RAF Mountain Rescue Team
(RAF Mountain Rescue Team)

Two climbers planning to celebrate the New Year on Great Gable found conditions unsuitable to continue their ascent when they reached Green Gable; deciding to turn back, one of the climbers fell and broke an ankle, with the deteriorating weather conditions meaning the rescue team travelled on foot to locate, then carry the injured climber down on a stretcher.

The 25-strong rescue team included 11 RAF personnel, more than happy to assist in the five-hour operation, with a member of the Keswick team saying: “We owe a huge debt of thanks to the RAF Mountain Rescue team members who came out and helped with the call-out.”

RAF Valley is the HQ of the RAF Mountain Rescue (MR) Service, the military’s only high-readiness, all-weather search and rescue: trained and ready to assist in any scenario such as an aircraft crash and potential crew rescue. The station on the Welsh island of Anglesey provides command and control for the three RAF MR teams bases at Valley, Lossiemouth and RAF Leeming, with training for air crew using the Jupiter T1 helicopter.

The station’s history dates back to the early part of the Second World War, opening in February 1941 as RAF Rhosneigr, operating as a fighter station under No. 9 Group RAF, providing protection for England’s north west industrial heartland – very much a target for the Luftwaffe – and shipping in the Irish Sea. Two months after it opened it was renamed RAF Valley, Nos. 312 and 615 Squadrons among the first occupants, flying Hawker Hurricanes, with night cover provided by the Bristol Beaufighters of 219 Squadron, joined by the No. 456 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force, RAAF.

The rescue role of Valley began soon after its opening, with the increased number of accidents in the Irish Sea seeing 275 Squadron formed with Westland Lysanders and Supermarine Walruses, the aircraft performing air-sea rescues until April 1944.

A Supermarine Walrus

(A Supermarine Walrus)

The dangerous nature of the work undertaken from Valley became clear on the morning of August 28, 1941, when reports reached the station that a German U-boat was attacking an Allied merchant shipping convoy nearby. Despite poor weather conditions, a Blackburn Botha set off from the station on a reconnaissance mission, but crashed into the sea soon after take-off. Local villagers, along with RAF and other military personnel, mounted a rescue attempt with the air crew visible from the beach at Traeth Crigyll clinging to the Botha’s fuselage.

Three boats were launched in treacherous conditions, but soon after all were overwhelmed by enormous waves – in total, 11 rescuers and three airmen lost their lives in the tragedy, a plaque erected in their memory in 1991 at Rhosneigr Fire Station.

From the summer of 1943, Valley became a major terminal for American forces arriving across the Atlantic, a role which continued until after the war ended – the operation in reverse when the European part of WW2 ended as 2,600 bombers passed through Valley on their way back to the US.

The station was placed under care and maintenance in the summer of 1947, and in 1950 it underwent redevelopment with improvements made to hangars and buildings ahead of No. 202 Advanced Flying School being reformed to train pilots on Vampires and Meteors.

4 FTS Gnat T.1 trainers in the Valley maintenance hangar in 1967

(4 FTS Gnat T.1 trainers in the Valley maintenance hangar in 1967)

In June 1954, the unit was redesignated No. 7 Flying Training School, FTS, before being renumbered as No. 4 FTS, still operating three squadrons at Valley to this day. Among the training jets used at Valley were the Folland Gnat and Hawker Hunter, with the Hawk T2 and Texan T1 currently providing basic and advanced fast-jet training for the RAF and Royal Navy (RN) pilots of the future.

It was 1962 that Search and Rescue, SAR, training commenced at the station, a role that continued until 2015 with many RAF personnel undergoing instruction on the island of Anglesey. Probably the most famous trainee was the Prince of Wales, then the Duke of Cambridge, who was assigned to C Flight, 22 Squadron, flying the Sea King.

He started at Valley in January 2010, completed in September of that year, and stayed until 2013, before moving to East Anglia and taking on a full-time role as a pilot with the East Anglian Air Ambulance. The heir to the throne left two years before SAR was moved to Caernarfon Airport, the role handed to civilian contractor Bristow Helicopters.

An airfield upgrade in 2017 saw the runway resurfaced with taxiways linked, and an extensive refurbishment of a hangar to accommodate three Jupiter helicopters used to train pilots from all armed services as part of the UK Military Flying Training System, UKMFTS. With an increased demand for both RAF and RN pilots, XXV Squadron reformed at the station in September, 2018, working alongside No. 4 Squadron on the Hawk T2.

In November 2019, No. 72 Squadron transferred to Valley ahead of the closure of RAF Linton-on-Ouse, switching from the Tucano to the Texan T1, meaning that the station now accounts for two-thirds of the RAF’s fast-jet training.

A Jupiter of No. 202 Squadron

(A Jupiter of No. 202 Squadron)

As well as the three squadrons of No. 4 FTS, the station is also home to 202 Squadron who form part of No. 1 FTS, flying the Jupiter helicopters which are used to train both RAF and RN students on maritime and mountain flying.

While flights to and from the station are predominantly military, in 2007 subsidised commercial flights from Valley to Cardiff Airport were launched in a bid to boost the economy of Anglesey and North Wales. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic saw the twice-daily route suspended, with a decision to withdraw the service made in June 2022.

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