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Thursday, 23 October 2014

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Grounded at the flight desk - a Spadeadam RAF hero

He has been shot at over Kosovo and has navigated bomber aircraft over the Persian Gulf – but RAF wing commander Paul Wallace admits to some nerves when he first came to Cumbria.

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New challenge: Wing Commander Paul 'PJ' Wallace, commanding officer at RAF Spadeadam

After completing his degree PJ attended the RAF college at Cranwell in Lincolnshire and then RAF Finningley in Yorkshire, where he specialised in navigation.Air crews in the Gulf are away from home on a four-week tour of duty at a time. But in Kosovo Clare would always be aware of the precise time her husband was in danger.

Paul – who is generally known as PJ – is the new commanding officer of the RAF base at Spadeadam. And he says he needs all the skills he has acquired during the last 25 years in his new job.

“It’s quite intimidating when you walk in on your first day,” said PJ, 44. “It’s quite a challenge because it brings together all my staff training, career development training, leadership training – it’s everything all at once.

“The remit is extremely broad. It covers everything from operations right down to catering, health and safety, equality – every aspect of service and civilian life you can think of.”

Paul moved to Cumbria with his wife Clare, 39 and their six-year-old son Morgan after a varied air force career at bases in Britain and Germany, serving in the Gulf and Kosovo and with the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall and Washington DC.

About 180 people are employed at the site near Brampton, and of his new job leading them he says: “At the end of the day it’s a big responsibility.”

Spadeadam was originally opened in the 1950s and is used for training by the RAF and air forces from other Nato countries.

But since its early days in the Cold War, the nature of warfare – and the nature of the threat – have changed massively.

Today’s air crews have to handle much more sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, and jammers which aim to disrupt the electronic communication systems or radar on board. That is what they now train to deal with at Spadeadam.

“We provide a representative hostile environment for them to fly in,” PJ said. “We are the only electronic warfare training facility in the UK.”

PJ was born in Surrey and attended Pangbourne College, a boarding school in Berkshire. Many of its former pupils joined the navy and PJ was at first tempted to do the same. But the passion for aeroplanes he had had since the age of 12 inevitably led him into the air force.

He went to London University’s Queen Mary College in 1982 to study animal physiology, as he was considering forensic science as a fall-back career, but in his second year he was accepted as an RAF cadet – though he continued his studies.

“I was just like any other student, the only difference being that a lot of my weekends I went flying, and one night a week we would have a lecture on an air force-related subject,” he said.

Navigators on bombers are now known as weapon systems operators, as their role goes beyond simply navigating the aircraft.

“We look after a lot of the systems on board relating to electronic warfare, self-defence and management of our weapons systems,” he said.

And the role has taken him far and wide. For his first three years he was based at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, then at RAF Marham in Norfolk for two years and back at Lossiemouth for the next two.

Throughout this seven-year period PJ undertook tours of duty in the Persian Gulf, as after the end of the first Gulf War Nato forces continued to monitor the area.

Then in 1997 PJ moved again, this time to RAF Bruggen, in Germany. While there Nato went to the defence of the Kosovars in Serbia and he again saw active service.

As every serviceman and woman knows, the job means risking your life – and can involve taking the lives of others. PJ accepts these are the most difficult elements of the job.

“We are expected to do the job we are given, and sometimes that will involve killing enemy forces,” he said.

“You could be ordered to destroy a bridge or buildings, some of which will contain the enemy. That is one of the things you have to consider you might be asked to do.

“It doesn’t feel comfortable or easy. But you have to take it on faith that there is a good reason for going and doing what you’re doing.”

And there is the ever-present danger to your own life as well. Each time air crews leave on a mission there is a chance they won’t come back.

PJ has been shot at many times. However he explained that servicemen and women are so intensively trained that their reactions when under threat are instinctive.

“It is nerve-racking when you are shot at. But because you have trained for it so much, you automatically do what you need to.

“Your brain locks out any thought that this could be the last thing you do – it’s not a mindset you can afford to have.”

Servicemen and women may be trained not to dwell on the dangers, but their families cannot avoid the anxiety, and PJ said his wife found it especially worrying when he was serving in Kosovo, since he was leaving their home in Bruggen each day.

“I would have dinner with my wife and then go and fly an overnight mission and come home at breakfast time.

“So Clare would have a good idea what time I was going to be in the air and when I’d be on my way home. She didn’t sleep terribly well.”

In 2001 some of that anxiety ended when PJ moved to a job with the Ministry of Defence investigating the equipment the air force will need in the future. Armed forces will always need more high-tech equipment as potential enemies become more sophisticated themselves.

The job was based in Whitehall and later Washington DC – and so less in harm’s way – though PJ admits he had doubts when he first took it.

“When I arrived at my first desk I thought I would really pine for flying,” he said. “I miss some aspects of it.

“But equally I enjoy the new challenges.”

These have meant moving home frequently, which can place a strain on family life.

“We’ve moved on average every three years,” he said. “Clare knew it would be a bit of a nomadic life.”

And now that the couple have a young son the constant moving has become doubly difficult, though PJ says Morgan has settled in well and made friends at his new school.

And he said relations between the base and local people are very good. “We see ourselves as part of the community, and we have to support it.

“The local community has been very good at supporting us and I feel this is a very privileged position to be in.”

The remote fells of Cumbria are a world away from where he grew up in Surrey and PJ admitted: “It’s a little far from our families.

“But it’s certainly closer than Washington DC was!”

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