Exclusive: 28 Squadron Completes Trio of Special Scheme Chinooks

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | May 3rd 2016

28 (Army Cooperation) Squadron was formed as a training unit on 7th November 1915 and initially operated a variety of aircraft including the Avro 504, Sopwith Pup, Henry Farman F20, Bristol Scout, Airco DH2 and Airco DH5. As the First World War got underway, it became apparent that the Squadron was destined to evolve into a frontline combat unit and in 1917 was deployed to mainland Europe, equipped with the Sopwith Camel. Almost a century after being awarded its first Battle Honours for its involvement on the Italian Front, the Squadron is no longer on the frontline but the personnel of 28 still have a very important role to play in today’s Royal Air Force.

After a short time flying the Lysander and Hurricane during World War Two, 28 Squadron went on to serve in Burma conducting reconnaissance missions for the Army. The Squadron re-equipped numerous times during its post-war time in the Far East, flying jet aircraft like the Vampire, Venom and Hunter before converting to rotary types in the late 1960s.

When Hong Kong was formally handed back to China in 1997 the Squadron disbanded and didn’t see active service again until 2001 when RAF Benson became home to the Merlin Force. It handed the type over to 845 NAS of the Commando Helicopter Force in July last year.

With the now Royal Navy Merlins gradually moving to their new home at RNAS Yeovilton and combat operations in Afghanistan officially over, spare capacity was foreseen at RAF Benson and the growing UK Chinook Force was likely to place pressure on the facilities at RAF Odiham; to put this into perspective, the RAF is the largest operator of the Boeing Chinook outside of the United States. The decision was taken to stand down the Operational Conversion Flight (OCF), which had for many years served as C Flight on 18(B) Squadron, and relocate it to Benson where it would merge with the Puma OCF to assume the distinguished number plate of 28 Squadron.

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The Squadron became operational in October 2015 under the command of Wing Commander Marty Lock, returning to their original training role and becoming a joint Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) for the RAF’s Chinook Mk4 and Puma Mk2. On completion of the training course, qualified Chinook pilots and crewmen from 28 Squadron are posted to 7, 18(B) or 27 Squadron at RAF Odiham where they continue to fly the Mk4 and some go on to complete a further course which allows them to operate the newly-delivered Mk6. The Chinook Mk5 will shortly become a regular sight on the Hampshire skyline too when they arrive back from upgrade, having begun their lives at Mk3 standard. The other half of 28 Squadron’s output is focused on the Puma Mk2 and upon finishing the training course, crews move the short distance between hangars at Benson to join either 33 or 230 Squadron.

To mark the centenary, a Royal Parade took place at Benson on 7th April 2016, in what had previously been 78 Squadron’s hangar. The hangar has since been given an enormous facelift with brand new purpose-built facilities being installed to accommodate the OCU and facilitate the world-class tuition provided to ab-initio students and crews returning to RAF Support Helicopter aviation. The Squadron had elected not to celebrate its centenary the previous November, having only reformed three weeks earlier, instead taking a slightly longer run-up by combining the event with the opening of its new hangar this year. During the ceremony the Squadron was reviewed by His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent.

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The parade was conducted in front of a Chinook and Puma helicopter, both of which had been decorated to mark the occasion. The Puma has temporary decals which have been applied to the cabin doors only; whilst 28 Squadron utilises the airframes, they remain ‘pooled’ assets which are shared with frontline Squadrons and could be deployed at short notice, meaning any permanent colours could adversely impact operational flexibility.IMG_9544-Edit-20160503

The Chinook however, is ‘on the Squadron books’ and therefore isolated from the deployable fleet whilst it remains with the OCU; this allowed the airframe to receive the same treatment as the 27 and 18 Squadron commemorative aircraft.

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Once the ceremony had finished, I caught up with the creative team behind all three of the centenary schemed Chinooks: Flt Lt Andy Donovan from 27 Squadron and James Littlejohn from Serco at RAF Odiham.

Flt Lt Andy Donovan:“My first warning that this might be coming my way came in late 2015 when one of the crewman instructors told me that OC28 had me in his sights. Having moved on to 28 from 18 Squadron I was by that point in the closing stages of my training on the OCU and heard nothing else until January when the time came to ask the Boss to sign my logbook. Like many a Junior Pilot getting used to the lay of the land I was re-briefed on various inadequate aspects of my course summary before I thanked OC28 for the Squadron’s contribution to my training and turned to leave, convinced I was going to escape unscathed. It was of course at that point that the voice behind me said ‘so what are your plans for the 28 Squadron centenary cab then?’ Freedom was so close!”

Unlike the 18 Squadron special from last year, the scheme that’s been applied to the 28 Chinook was based mainly on the Squadron badge that was approved by King Edward VIII in 1936.

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “At the request of 18 Squadron, the scheme we delivered for that aircraft told a story but the design for this one is a little more simplistic, as per the 27 Squadron equivalent. The two images that inspired the design were the demi-Pegasus from the Squadron badge and the crossed Kukri flash which has been associated with 28 Squadron since 1994 and marks a long-standing association with the now-disbanded 48 Gurkha Infantry Brigade. If you remember the Merlins, you may recall that they displayed the Kukris on the tail so the inspiration for the livery was to combine those two recognisable emblems and turn it into a piece of tail art.”

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Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “I had some early discussions with a friend, Adam Johnson, who designed 29(R) Squadron’s centenary tail and the Battle of Britain ’75 markings, both applied to Typhoons at Coninsgby. Between us we hammered out a style for the Kukri outlines and I then took the rest of the work forward from there. Over the course of the three projects our methods have evolved as James and I have worked out new ways to achieve quite complex tasks. When we began 18’s neither I nor the paint team really knew what the limits were. A common phrase used in the military is your left and right of arc – we had to identify what was outside our capabilities at Odiham and at which point our aspirations were too simple for something as significant as a 100-year celebration. We made a decision to stick to blocks of colour with 18’s as, whilst complex in scope, it could all be masked carefully by hand. By the time of 27’s we had begun to talk about an approach that would take my digital artwork and outsource work to RAF Marham’s graphic department, to whom we are eternally grateful, who have the ability to produce large stencils, known as sign masks. These are far from easy to apply to the Chinook but they opened up a host of possibilities. James has led the Serco team who have delivered the aircraft and they have done an incredible job getting this painted up in time. He’s been an absolute stalwart during the three different projects but is no stranger to this sort of work as earlier in his career he has specials to his name such as 6 Squadron’s spotted Jaguar from 2007 so in many ways he’s made a rod for his own back!”

James Littlejohn: “The desert Jaguar too. I was also responsible for Harrier anniversary tail art on three different aircraft before I moved down to Odiham, left the RAF and became a civilian working for Serco. The first time Andy and I met was during the planning phase for the 18 Squadron aircraft.”

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It’s fair to say that given the scale of the projects, James probably has a few more grey hairs now.

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “18’s was hard. They all have been in their own way but for that one we had to essentially prove to everyone that we could do it. It hadn’t been done in 25 years on the Chinook and convincing the right people took a long, long time. Even the deputy commander of 18 Squadron said he would eat his hat should we ever get centenary colours on to an aircraft – to my knowledge he has not stayed true to his word on that one! At the time 27 Squadron were working on a plan to place decals on to an aircraft to celebrate their 100th anniversary. They were however still heavily committed to Operation TORAL in Afghanistan, prior to the Puma Force taking over that commitment, which meant that as 18’s rolled out on to the line their options widened, yet the number of people they had at home in the UK was minimal.”

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Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “They had a very pro-active and capable crewman running the project and when he approached me to ask if I could assist with a larger design there was about six weeks remaining to their parade – the turn around on that project was ridiculously quick and I am still amazed that we achieved it at all. Bear in mind that the tempo of exercises, operations and training was as high as ever in that period and I was also trying to keep my head above water on the Ops Phase of the OCU course so the timing could have been better! On this one I think we’ve had about three months from start to finish – two weeks of which were devoted to painting.”

James Littlejohn: “Andy said “Can you do this?”. We hashed out what could and couldn’t be done and broadly speaking it looked achievable based on our experience with the previous two. We were restricted on the areas we were allowed to paint and had to get the most out of it working under time pressure, especially given that we had been assigned just a two week window in the paint shop. There was a lot to think about. What colours can we use that are already cleared for the aircraft, what are the logistical issues we need to solve to find enough of those paint stocks, where can we paint and what are the impacts of doing so, what messages do we need to convey and what is likely to gain approval? The list of questions needing answers rapidly builds. What could be achieved in ten days was the over-riding factor and what we agreed on was a big ask. This is the design that we came up with.”

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Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “Whatever James and I might agree on at Odiham there is a far wider approval system in place that must be adhered to and a good deal of my focus is on that to begin with. Various experts around the RAF and its commercial contractors feed in to that system via a body called the Camouflage Working Group which is headed by a Wing Commander at High Wycombe. There are a lot of areas that our engineers will not allow us to paint and further regulations must be taken in to account as they will all govern what the CWG allows us to do. One consideration is the servicing and safety markings; some can be moved slightly or change colour and some can’t. Where they are moved we have to justify it and come up with a solution that makes it clear as to where they apply. For example, it is no good having a ‘NO STEP’ marking dislocated from the area in which it is relevant only to find that this leads to damage to the airframe due to someone’s size 9 landing where it shouldn’t! We also have NATO-standard markings on the aircraft which are recognised internationally, such as the black squares around the gravity refuel ports.”

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James Littlejohn: Also, the Royal Air Force logo on the side can never be moved to accommodate anything else and Andy has to ensure that various national markings are displayed prominently on the aircraft too. This and more has to be taken in to account when developing the design and if he gets it wrong the delays could lead to failure of the project as we simply run out of time trying to negotiate solutions.”

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “For me one of the biggest differences in the managerial process on this project has been Wg Cdr Lock. He has been tremendously hands on and much of the burden that fell on my shoulders during 18’s and others’ during 27’s was handled by him. He was a major player in bringing it to fruition and I think that has meant a lot to him as the history of 28 Squadron is now very much in his hands. For me this one was important too as the instructional staff on 28 are still some of the people I know best within the Chinook Force; they had to put up with me for long enough!”

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Once all of the above had been signed off, it was time to start working on masking the design and painting the aircraft but as was mentioned above only certain paint types can be used.

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “The paints have to be chemically appropriate for the airframe and the primer coat beneath. If we had attempted to go down the route of clearing new paint colours it would have taken a tremendous amount of time and that is time that we simply didn’t have. Equally it would incur a cost that frankly couldn’t be justified and it certainly wouldn’t be deemed as a high priority task. The days of ground crew slapping any old paint on to aircraft are well and truly over. I’m working on the basis that’s a good thing but it didn’t always feel like it!”

James Littlejohn: “All the paints that we have to use are also LIR – Low Infrared.”

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “It’s a little ironic if you think about it because our cab is now more visible to the naked eye from a distance than it ever has been before!”

As has already been mentioned, the last twelve months has seen three different centenary designs applied to Chinooks and each one has been instantly recognisable as James and Andy’s work. The evolution from the 18 Squadron scheme to now is clear to see.

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James Littlejohn: “When we started looking into the feasibility of doing the 18 Squadron design I was the only person at Odiham that had any experience working with tail art, so to have just one person in a team of six people that has done it before…that’s where the pressure started. To put what we have done into context a little, the Operation Granby Tornado produced at RAF Marham was done by a team of ten experienced people in two and a half weeks. The aircraft is mostly just a single colour. We worked with a team of six, some of whom have no experience in this field, and in ten days have put this on to an uneven, rivet covered, curved surface. The nature of the Chinook airframe just added to the complexity of what we had to achieve. How the markings translated from front to back was a key focal area on 18’s. It called for three colours on the fuel tanks alone and I was the only one with any experience of fade work; these paints aren’t exactly designed to be used like that! You’ve really got to be on the ball! In the space of a year we’ve gone from not having any specials on the Chinook Force with no prospects of such, to having three unique, colourful and detailed schemes. It’s a massive achievement which will almost certainly never be repeated.”

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Although quite common in the fast jet community, commemorative paint schemes and tail art are less common in the rotary world and haven’t been seen on Chinooks for some 25 years. Processes have moved on an awful lot since then.

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “As we discussed before, there was virtually no record of any special schemes at Odiham, even though we all knew that they’d happened. The last 18 Squadron design was produced for the 75th anniversary back in 1990 and the man responsible is now a simulator instructor at Benson, but on paper there is no trace of that scheme. Nor is there any record of 7 Squadron’s design from the same era. The last documented scheme was the white United Nations one with a little detail harking back to the Gulf War. What has to be noted is that engineering practices have changed beyond all recognition in that short space of time and the methods by which we as a Service deliver changes to camouflage have too. There is absolutely no doubt that without the support of our dedicated and hard-working engineers at Odiham we would not have achieved any of these schemes but for them also, this was untrodden ground. There are numerous individuals who looked at me like I had lost a few marbles when the idea of this was first raised but who balanced the tasks alongside their busy and demanding jobs to help make it happen. One in particular even played a big part in making this final one happen, despite having left to take up a new job on another Station. Without retaining his experience from afar, we wouldn’t be looking at it now.”

James Littlejohn: “That’s where you truly start to appreciate the size of the task at hand with these special schemes. Before the aircraft come anywhere near the paint bay Andy and others will have worked for months putting the engineering paperwork in place and gaining approvals. Only with that all done does the real work begin to turn plans in to reality.”

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The designs themselves have caused quite a headache for the team and that’s before paint had even touched the surface of the aircraft. The practical challenges really started once the aircraft entered the paint shop.

Flt Lt Andy Donovan: “We could never have done this without this Serco team; their drive and determination has been one of the major reasons why the work has been finished on time and just like our engineers they have to balance that with routine Station tasks that are required along the way. The week after the 28 Squadron cab exited the bay they had another airframe in there for rectification work on the cabin floor and with that return to the norm comes the end of quite a journey for them. As for whether the three were worth it – that’s for the public to decide. We’ve done all we can to produce the unexpected under significant time pressure. Of course none of that compares to the pressure my colleagues on the Chinook Force have lived with over the past decade or so on operations around the world. I’m a very new face here but all have spent long periods of time away from family and loved ones, putting themselves at significant risk to save lives and deliver capability in some very hostile and challenging theatres. These liveries offer a brief chance to reflect on that and the sacrifices and successes recorded by 100 years of history.”

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Funding of the three special tails and complete respray of the 18 Squadron aircraft (the first respray to take place at Odiham in over ten years) was assisted by Serco as part of a wider PR exercise. It’s fair to say that without that commitment, much of this would not have been possible!

If you’re out and about over the summer then you’re likely to see the 27 and 28 Squadron special tails somewhere and until recently it was believed that the same could not be said for the 18 Squadron aircraft. The team planned to have the scheme stripped as part of scheduled depth maintenance in May 2016 but due to changes in engineering timetables its input to that process has been deferred to later in the year. So if you haven’t yet had a chance to catch them in the wild, the likelihood is you can still do so before they’re gone for good.