Special Mission

BLOG: Training the RAF to protect our skies

Cobham Special Mission continually plays a vital part in the RAF's Operation Readiness Training, enabling UK airspace to remain effectively policed around the clock.

It is 0600 as first indications of the late-autumn sunrise break over the eastern horizon and a thin layer of ground mist shields the feeding curlews. The peace is abruptly broken as the pilot releases the brakes; seconds later a Dassault Falcon 20 accelerates down runway 23 at Durham Tees Valley airport before smartly climbing out north east, the sun glinting off the resplendent blue wings.  Few ‘trusted agents’ are aware of Cobham’s Special Mission role that is about to unfold as the Falcon routes to a pre-briefed position bordering the Norwegian Flight Information Region, sets an Identification Friend or Foe code, and turns back towards the United Kingdom.

100 miles south, the calm at a quiet corner at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire is shattered as the telebrief comes to life in the Duty Force Commander’s bunk, alerting Southern Quick Reaction Alert to cockpit readiness. Sprinting through the shelter’s opening armoured doors, the pilot quickly mounts his Typhoon aircraft, fully fuelled and armed to fulfil the United Kingdom’s air policing mission.  As soon as the personal equipment connection is enabled, the Master Controller in a bunker north of Newcastle relays the unfolding situation: an airliner has failed to establish communications on entering British airspace.  QRA is to launch immediately and intercept this aircraft.  Minutes later, the nearby village’s residents are rudely awakened as the Typhoon blasts airborne, maintaining afterburner as it climbs to the north east.  The clock is running; every second counts.

Inside the Falcon, all is serene. As the Captain and the First-Officer review the script to ensure accurate role-play, the Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) offers advice garnered from years of operational air defence experience.  Shortly, attention is directed towards the imminent intercept by listening to the Typhoon’s control frequency. The crew use the sensors in the Falcon 20 to gain situational awareness and focus their attention to catch sight of the Typhoon as it enters the final phase of the high speed intercept, just below the Falcon 20's flight level.

Arousal levels are now high as the Typhoon pilot smoothly closes in to establish a visual identification position on the Falcon’s port side. The EWO lends a further set of eyes-on; while having reported the type, markings and behaviour of the Falcon, the Typhoon pilot is ordered to manoeuvre to just 200 feet separation to observe the Falcon’s cockpit.  The Falcon pilots resolutely follow their script, ignoring the Typhoon pilot’s attempt to attract attention with a radio call followed by a gentle wing-waggle.  The Typhoon pilot reports back to the command centre that the Falcon is approaching the UK coastline, time is now critical. Authorised to fly a knife-edge manoeuvre, the Typhoon pilot complies; a fully armed fighter aircraft displaying its weapon load is a fairly compelling sight to the Falcon pilots.  The time is right to break radio silence:

‘Intercepting Fighter, this is Rushden 99. Apologies, a minor electrical malfunction knocked out our main radio. The problem is now sorted but we would appreciate an escort to Durham Tees Valley airport.’

As the tension defuses slightly, the Typhoon pilot reports back and controls the scenario, giving the Falcon pilot a heading to fly, establishing his communications and avionics fit and briefing his controller of the plan. The Typhoon also moves station, dropping back to afford the Falcon space to manoeuvre, but maintaining guard should the situation change.

But for today’s training, the Cobham crew are compliant, and presently are on short finals to land as the Typhoon overshoots to the airfield’s overhead before being cleared to recover to its home base. A critical mission, 90 minutes airborne and the task successfully completed.

However, such a benign mission is not without risk. In the UK, detailed Standard Operating Procedures mitigate this risk and whilst airborne, attention levels remain high. The importance of this training cannot be overstated for as you read this, Typhoons are holding readiness to protect our skies. Later today, they may be ordered airborne as described above.  Tomorrow, it might be for a civil aircraft with less benign intentions.  Next week, potentially for a Russian long-range aircraft as their military continues to flex muscles.  It is not confined to our airspace, with QRA commitments in the Falkland Islands and rotationally deployed in support NATO.  The training is not exclusive to the Typhoon pilot, but also extends to the entire Command and Control chain and on occasion up to Governmental Engagement Authority. It is in support of this task that Cobham Special Mission continually plays a vital part in the operation readiness of UK Ministry of Defence personnel, enabling UK airspace to remain effectively policed around the clock.

Author: Jon ‘Herbie’ Hancock, Falcon 20 EWO and Mission Planning Coordinator

About Cobham Special Mission

Protecting borders, saving lives and enhancing the effectiveness of defence personnel.

We combine state-of-the-art technology, platforms, systems and sensors, to deliver highly effective surveillance outcomes, military readiness training across the Live, Virtual and Constructive environment.

Our full scope capabilities, optimising the blend of extensive commercial and defence experience, benefit government and military customers with responsive and cost-effective turn-key solutions.

About Cobham

The most important thing we build is trust.

Cobham offers an innovative range of technologies and services to solve challenging problems in commercial, defence and security markets, from deep space to the depths of the ocean.

We employ around 11,000 people primarily in the USA, UK, Europe and Australia, and have customers and partners in over 100 countries, with market leading positions in: wireless, audio, video and data communications, including satellite communications; defence electronics; air-to-air refuelling; aviation services; life support and mission equipment.

The challenging and rewarding roles we offer, across a wide range of disciplines are what make Cobham a true global technology and services leader. To view our current roles visit


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