My time as an RAF Photographer (Part 2)

I’m feeling  a little misty eyed, as this year marks 20 years since I completed my training at the Defence School of Photography at RAF Cosford and began my career as a professional photographer in the Royal Air Force.

Old RAF Photographers Crest (note King’s Crown on top)

AC Robinson 163

First day of course

Defence School of Photography

Defence School of Photography class of 2001

Hasselblads and light meters

Fooling around at Cosford Air Museum

Passing my photography course

Defence School of Photography (1970)

Having passed my basic training at RAF Halton in 2000 and a short spell at RAF Northolt in London, I headed up to the West Midlands to began my training at the Defence School of Photography (the largest school of photography in Europe). The course lasts 6 months and you learn everything from how cameras and light works, composition, portrait and studio photography, technical and close up photography, dark room training and even aerial photography too. Back then digital photography was still in it’s infancy and we were learning to shoot on film, using Nikon F3 and Hasselblad Medium Format Cameras. This was a great way to learn my trade, as you had to get it right in camera and there was no trying to save it in Lightroom/Photoshop afterwards. I’m still a firm believer in ‘getting it right in camera’ to this day and very rarely manipulate my images in Photoshop afterwards. Once I completed the course I was posted to the photographic section at RAF Cosford and that’s when things really got interesting. 

My photography featured in national papers

As featured on front page of Daily Express

Tri-service flag in desert

Royal Military Tattoo in Edinburgh

Lord Lichfield at Defence School of Photography

Rapier Missile in desert

Operation Said Sareea (Swift Sword)

Operation Saif Sareea (Swift Sword)

RAF Tug of War Team

Pilot on hot desert runway

Not long after being posted into the photographic section at RAF Cosford, the events of 9/11 unfolded and it felt like the whole world came to a standstill. Like most people I still remember where I was that day when I heard the news. The news had filtered down to our photography section and we all ran upstairs to one of the break rooms in DSOP to watch it live on the news channel. We all watched in horror at the second plane hit the Twin Towers and knew at that moment, that life in the Armed Forces was about to change for a lot of people. I wasn’t wrong and only three days later I was posted to Oman in the Gulf, as part of ‘Operation Saif Sareea’ (Swift Sword). The timing was particularly significant due to the military build up in the Gulf, in the immediate days after 9/11 and this of course was of huge interest to the British media.     

Me drinking water in the 50 degree heat

Tri-service flag in desert

Tornado say on hot tarmac

Tank in desert

RAF Regiment

RAF Regiment

RAF Regiment guarding Rapier System

Whilst in Oman, I was part of the Media Operations Group at Camp South (the camp was effectively a bunch of hastily erected tents in the middle of a desert and a hole in the ground for a toilet!) It wasn’t all bad and thankfully for me, I was posted with a very experienced Army photographer, a Warrant officer who had covered many previous conflicts and was also a genius with a camera! Each day he would send me out on tasks, covering things from helicopter crashes, troops training in the desert and American planes arriving into the country. Each day I would hurry back and excitedly show him what I’d captured that day. He would look through my images unmoved and say in his apathetic voice that they were ‘OK’ and ‘alright’ and proceed to tell me how I could improve my photography. Undeterred  I kept at it and after a week or so, I was tasked with going to capture the RAF Regiment firing their Rapier Missile System over the Omani desert. I was warned by the RAF Regiment lads that the missiles shot off a 3 times the speed of sound, so I needed to be quick to capture the moment. I set my camera to the fastest shutter speed and put it into burst/continuous shoot mode. As soon as I knew the missile was going to go, I held my finger on the shutter release and prayed I captured something!  Once I got back to Media Operations (a hot tin box in the middle of a desert with no air con), I showed the boss my images and he finally admitted that I’d got a good one! I did it, I’d finally pleased the gaffer! We emailed them over to Army HQ where they were then passed on to the British media. We got an email back saying that two national papers were going to feature them the following day on 21st September 2001 (only 10 days after the events of 9/11).  That evening I called my parents via satellite phone and asked them to pick up some copies for me. The next day we got the news that one of my images had made the front page of the Daily Express, not bad for one of my first real photography jobs!

Images featured in National papers

As featured on front page of Daily Express

Whilst in Oman, I took my own 35mm camera and documented everything from the living conditions (tents with sand for floors), toilets (holes in the ground separated by hessian), as well as some more behind the scenes images of the Operation itself. You can see some of these images below:

My ‘home’ on operation

Arrival of more military at port

Shot out of back of landrover

My tent during operation

My bed and the 5 star sleeping accommodation

Camp South Media Operations  (a hot tin box in the desert!)

Camp South

Me outside Media Operations

Toilet facilities (hole in ground separated by hessian)

Me outside Media Operations

Camp South

Crashed Lynx helicopter

Crashed Lynx helicopter

Crashed Lynx helicopter

In monsoon season it turns from desert into the Welsh hills

‘Bluey’ letter to my Gran from Camp South

‘Bluey’ letter to my Gran from Camp South

Display of my work in DSOP

Upon my return to RAF Cosford I had a display in the Defence School of Photography, showing some of my images from Oman. I also went on to cover some other amazing events, such as the Royal Military Tattoo in Edinburgh, Horse Guards Parade in London, the rehearsal for the Queen Mother’s funeral in Windsor and loads more. I met some amazing people that I’m still friends with now to this day and who still support me and my photography work nearly 15 years later.   

Whilst I only served a short time 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. 

Unofficial RAF photographer  badge

Adapted version by Garry Garbutt

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please check out my previous blog post about my basic training at RAF Halton here: 

My time as an RAF Photographer (Part 1)

Fancy joining the RAF as a photographer, check out their recruitment website here:

RAF Photographers Jobs

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