I’m feeling a little misty eyed, as this month marks exactly 20 years since I joined the Royal Air Force as a professional photographer. Whilst I only served 5 years in the RAF, it helped shape me as a person and ‘Eye of the Tyne Photography’ wouldn’t exist, if it wasn’t for the amazing training I had at The Defence School of Photography.
So here’s where it all began. On the morning of Wednesday 22nd March 2000, my Dad dropped me off at Newcastle Central Station to catch the 5am train to London Kings Cross. I had a huge kit bag with me, full of all of the things I was told I’d need for my basic training at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire. On the train journey down, I noticed a few other young people getting on, carrying kit bags and wondered if they were making the same journey as me.
Once I got to London I had to hop on the tube across to Paddington Station and then catch another train to Wendover (RAF Halton). That train was full to the brim of fresh faced new recruits, who were all clearly on their way to start their new career as well. We all got chatting and started to get excited as we approached our destination, like Harry Potter on his his way to Hogwarts for the first time!
However when we arrived at Wendover, Professor Hagrid was nowhere to be seen. Instead we were greeted by some very stern looking RAF Corporals, who quickly made us realise this wasn’t going to be a holiday camp. They proceeded to tell us all to shut up, stand in line and to wipe those smiles off our faces! We were then quickly transported to RAF Halton and before you could say ‘Bomber Harris’ we were all placing our hands on a bible and making our ‘Oath of allegiance’ to Her Majesty the Queen. We then handed over our civilian clothes in exchange for some very fetching green boiler suits. The lads all had our hair shaved off, then we were given our RAF issued kit and then shown to the post WW1 military barrack blocks. At this point I was thinking ‘What have I done?’
The next few days we were shown how to iron our uniforms to parade standard, polish your boots so you can see your face in them, sew name tags on literally everything you own and clean the barrack block until you could eat your dinner off the floor! Only to have Corporal Weston come storming in and telling us that we’ve done it all wrong and that we’re all useless and will never pass out at this rate!
We then entered the Nuclear, biological and chemical warfare phase of our training. This is the part where they issue you with a gas mask and shove you in a room full of tear gas. They then get you to take your gas mask off and breath in those lovely toxic fumes! Your lungs pretty much collapse in on themselves, the eyes sting like mad and your lungs and nostrils feel like they’re on fire! Dazed and confused, you are then shoved back outside into the open air and told you’ve passed! Apparently they can no longer practice this medieval form of torture now (health and safety gone mad in my opinion!).
The next few weeks of my basic training was spent practicing drill, marching up and down the parade square at RAF Halton, shooting rifles down the rifle range and camping out overnight in tents. As a 19 year old it was so much fun and despite the lack of sleep and being physically exhausted, I really was starting to enjoy myself! We also did a cross country race that I came first in and also played a football match against our bitter rivals Number 11 fight which we won too.
Then came 17th May 2000 and our passing out parade, which is still one of the proudest days of my life. Our families were all invited to watch and my Gran, Nanna, Mam, Dad and sister were all there to cheer me on. It was a gorgeous sunny day and the stage was set for us to put on a show for our loved ones. The parade square at RAF Halton is surrounded by the 3 storey barrack blocks dating back to just after World War One and the stunning rolling hills of the Buckinghamshire countryside. Sat proudly on the parade square is a Tornado fighter plane which we marched in front of, with the musical support of The Central Band of the RAF, playing stone wall classics such as the Dam Busters theme tune and the like. That day I somehow won The Station Commander’s Cup for ‘Displaying the Greatest Effort and Determination’ on my flight and was presented with a trophy by Air Commodore Whalley. This award still sits proudly on the shelf of my office in North Shields, along with my RAF Beret. We then all went to the Newcomers Club for celebratory drinks and lots of hugs and photos with our families. I hope you all enjoyed this little snippet into my early career in the RAF and I’m going to write a separate blog about my photography training at RAF Cosford, which hopefully you will all enjoy as well. Thanks for reading and Per ardua ad astra!!