What is your current role?
I am the Commander of 1st Aviation Brigade, which was formed on 1 April 2020. I’m also Deputy Commander Joint Helicopter Command (JHC).
How did you come to be in this role, and what are some of your career highlights along the way?
Having read Aerospace Engineering at University, I joined the Army and attended Sandhurst in 1997, commissioning into the Army Air Corps (AAC).
I’ve always been fascinated by aircraft - making models and reading all the books. My Father and Grandfather were both paratroopers, so I was brought up as an Army child and was surrounded by soldiers and tales of daring do. I was torn between becoming a pilot and soldier – the AAC allowed me to do both.
I began my career as a reconnaissance pilot flying Gazelle – it was enormous fun and I was fortunate to deploy to Canada and be around during the birth of 16 Air Assault Brigade. However, my most memorable experience was a deployment to Kenya, where I recall shooing big game animals off the ranges and having an amazing time on my very own helicopter safari.
I then transitioned to the Lynx, where as a result of 9/11, I spent the rump of 3 years deployed on operations. I was then fortunate enough to conduct a short-look exchange flying US Special Operations Black Hawk at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
This experience all came together when I was privileged to command 661 Sqn in Gutersloh, Germany from which I deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the Afghanistan deployment I was the Air Mission Commander for Op MOSHTARAK – the largest NATO air assault ever conducted. I remember the night well, it was like a scene from an apocalyptic film; pitch black, the smell of AVTUR [aviation fuel] and hydraulic fluid, C-130 [Hercules transport aircraft] dispensing IR flares across the sky, and multiple waves of helicopters inserting hundreds of troops with split-second synchronisation.
It was the highlight of my career to that point.
As a Commanding Officer (CO), I brought Wildcat into service and was also privileged to return to Afghanistan to command the Joint Helicopter Force.
Throughout my career as a pilot and as a Squadron Commander I felt challenged, but the role of CO challenged me as a leader. The Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability and the number of patrol bases had started to reduce. Aviation became one of few capabilities that allowed the Task Force to manoeuvre and take the fight to the enemy – this required judicious application of risk and reward – and was really challenging, but also extremely rewarding.
As a Colonel, I was then fortunate to be selected to lead a team that developed a new way of fighting for aviation; Project COLINDALE. This work reset us from almost a decade of campaigning and aligned us to Defence policy. At the heart of this work was the creation of an Aviation Brigade, and so I guess someone thought it would be a good idea for me to be the inaugural commander.
How did the creation of 1 Aviation Brigade come about? Why was it needed?
Fundamentally it boiled down to a change in policy demand after SDSR 2015. As a result of campaigning in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army aviation was structured to support medium-scale operations and Brigades. The SDSR in 2015 required us to field a warfighting division that could beat a peer enemy.
Exhaustive testing and modelling confirmed that if we were going to deliver on that mandate, we needed to mass aviation. Project COLINDALE allowed us to do that, and we’ve subsequently tested the concept and structures on demanding exercises like CERBERUS and WARFIGHTER (in the US) to great effect.
The insignia of the Griffin wings harks back to WWI. How much should we draw on rich history, and how much should we look forward?
History is important. It informs our character, our culture and provides us with an example. The Army Air Corps is a relatively modern organisation but draws on our Air Observation Post and Glider Pilot heritage. The ‘Flying Soldier’ ethos is central to our character. Forward focus and constant adaptation are equally important. Given our technological edge, we’re naturally a very forward-thinking bunch.
How is it a ‘brand new way of fighting’?
Historically, Army Aviation has enabled and supported other elements of the Army. However, I believe we are at a point of inflection that has seen us transform into a manoeuvre capability in our own right.
We are now able to mass aviation and optimise it to operate at long range – something called the deep battle.
If we can find and strike the enemy through their physical and psychological depth before they can attack our armoured forces, we’ll tip the balance in our favour and make the Division’s ability to take and hold ground a bit easier.
What’s been the most surprising thing about your role?
In this role, it shouldn’t have surprised me, but it’s been the speed of change.
The Army in the past could be criticised for taking too long to adapt, but this idea [of the Brigade] has been embraced by the Army and invested in. As a consequence, we offer greater choice to the Army - the Brigade HQ has recently returned from a very successful WARFIGHTER exercise in the US, I have Apache and Wildcat in the Baltics supporting NATO now, and we’ll deploy a battlegroup of aviation to the Oman in autumn.
The support from the Army and how quickly we’ve radically transformed Army aviation has been extraordinary.
What’s the most fun aircraft to fly?
I’m going to go to say Gazelle, based on fond memories of Kenya. However, the Brigade’s motto is ‘Fly, Fight and Lead’ and I sense the current generation are better equipped to fight than my generation ever were.
When I joined the AAC, we were heavily committed in Northern Ireland, had an important anti-armour role in Germany, but air manoeuvre as a concept didn’t really exist.
Now, we are central to how the British Army fights, we have exponentially better aircraft, we’re in high demand, and are deployed globally. Importantly, the Army has given us a clear mandate to go even further through the creation of an Aviation BCT. It’s nice to finally ‘come of age’.
The last word…
Combat Aviation is a professional and demanding business, but it’s still a lot of fun!