Hidden amongst the dunes and marshland in a remote part of the South Wales coast is a military establishment, vital in the training of No. 4 Flight Training School pupils.  Steve Smith went to investigate Pembrey Sands Air Weapons Range…

A few months ago, I was enjoying a peaceful walk, amongst the dunes on a beautiful beach in South Wales.  The sun was out, the temperature was nudging 20 degrees centigrade and the birds were swooping and dipping in and out of the trees of Pembrey Country Park.  Suddenly and without warning, my ear-drums were virtually destroyed as three Harrier GR9s belted over my head, only a couple of hundred feet over the beach.

Their mission was the ‘destruction’ of two Jaguar hulks sitting amongst the marsh-land that forms Pembrey Range, also known as Pembrey Sands Air Weapons Range.

The range itself is a virtual island, bordered to the West and North by an Estuary and Carmarthen Bay which stretches across to Tenby, to the East by a muddy inlet and to the South by the dense, wild forest of Pembrey Country Park.

Our host for the day was the Commanding Officer of the establishment, Squadron Leader Guy Jeffs, who has been CO since 2002.

History Of The Site

The site was formerly RAF Pembrey which was active between 1937 and 1957.  In the war years, Polish Hurricanes and Spitfires were based here to defend the nearby Royal Ordnance Factory and latterly the base was home to 233 Operational Conversion Unit flying Vampires and Hunters.

The range was here in these early days as part of the airfield and up until 2006, the range was operated by the RAF.  Guy Jeffs picks up the story;

“The Army Training Estate was always a separate organisation, but then the Air Force had their own Air Weapons Ranges … and the Navy had their own ranges and of course it was asked why there were three organisations looking after Training Estates?”

“So, Defence Training Estate was formed, which is a tri-service organisation and the RAF and Navy ranges were amalgamated into this.”

Management of the range is dealt with by Defence Training Estate, with QinetiQ being the range contractors who recently agreed a new 5 year contract and they take over the role from Serco.

The former airfield also comprises of a race-circuit, farmland, the Range’s Admin Block and a small privately operated airfield, utilising a small part of one of the former runways.

The Range

Upon approach to the Administration Block, the history of the site is clear as you pass peculiar shaped domes and MOD style brick and asbestos buildings that will be familiar to those who study the archaeology of airfields of war-time Britain.

Past the airfield and deep through the forest brings you to the gate to the range itself and in front of you is the un-mistakable tower, yellow and black checker-boarding; very prominent, so that an over-eager jockey doesn’t strafe it in a haze of adrenaline.

First stop – the Tower.  We reached the top floor of the structure, a tall, light room, with a 360° panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.  From this elevated position, it’s easy to get a feel for the layout of the range.  A glass door opens to the metal balcony that runs the whole perimeter of the observation room.

The tower is at the South Western corner of the range, looking North towards the target area, East towards Kidwelly and Pembrey airfield (which is hidden behind the Country Park tree-line), South and West over the beach and into the bay.

Not only is the tower used to control operations on the range, but it also controls its own airspace and co-ordinates movements with neighbouring Pendine airspace.

The airspace under the control of Pembrey can virtually be seen from the top of the tower, extending around 3 miles from the range and up to 23,000 feet.  To the North the extreme edge cannot be seen, as it is hidden behind a range of low hills.  Operations have to be carefully co-ordinated with Pembrey airfield which is located inside the Range’s airspace.  Part of the airport’s operating license is that the airfield can only be used when the range is not in use.  Air Traffic Controller, Sgt Ian Gower had to delay numerous operations at Pembrey airfield whilst aircraft were busy circling the range.

The Tower also keeps an eye on any marine traffic coming close the ‘exclusion zone’ around the range and manned caravans on the beach prevent un-knowing couples, out for a peaceful hand-in-hand walk up the beach, from being the unwitting targets of a Harrier.

Day To Day Operations

The Range has status with RAF Valley as an OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) and the flying time is around 20 minutes.  The OCU status ensures that priority at the range is given to the Valley Hawks – in the same way as Harriers have priority at Holbeach, Tornados at Tain etc.

The range itself is not solely used by the Valley Hawks from ‘just’ round the coast, but also Tornado GR4s, Typhoons, Harriers, even F15s.  The range is a NATO asset as well, so any NATO Nation could use the range in theory.  In 2009, there were a total of 9,500 movements.

From time to time, the RAF and USAFE will stage practice ‘Natural Surface Landings’ on the adjacent beach. Pembrey is one of three beaches available to the C-130 Hercules (Saunton Sands in North Devon, Pendine in South Wales and Pembrey) . Grass landings are available at two locations within the Salisbury Plain Traning Area and at several disused airfields if the beaches are un-operational due to conditions. Following any beach landings all airframes need to be washed down and re-lubricated to prevent the sand and sea water corroding the bodywork.

The Targets and Attack Types

There are numerous targets of differing nature at the range.  These include two Jaguar airframes, numerous Land Rovers and lorries, some formed up as a convoy, three “strafe panels” and two large circular targets, 150ft in diameter.

The two types of bombing conducted here are academic bombing and tactical bombing.

“The academic is the two circular targets and the strafe panels.  These are for the student pilots to go round and round for about half an hour or so and attack the same target.  They will have ‘lead-in markers’ made up of white tyres running right up the marsh and big ‘T-markers’, so that they are pointing the way to the target.” explains our host.

“The tactical stuff is the APCs (Armoured Personnel Carriers), the lorries and the Land Rovers – they have no lead in markers and are still painted drab green.”

“The pilots know roughly where they are but they still have to find them.”

The tactical training is mainly for the front-liners who use the range.

Aircraft attacking Pembrey will either strafe targets with cannon fire, firing practice rounds up to 30mm – which includes the Hawk’s 30mm Aden Cannon, the Tornado’s 27mm Mauser Cannon or the F15s 20mm Vulcan Cannon, or alternatively aircraft may ‘bomb’ targets with 3Kg or 14Kg practice bombs – and occasionally the hefty 1000lb HES bombs (a high explosive substitute made of concrete and steel).

No laser guided bombs are allowed on the range, as they are able to steer themselves towards a target and feasibly could make a U-turn and attack something off the range!

The range is cleared on a daily basis – or at least the bombs that haven’t dug into the sand are.  No digging out bombs is allowed as it is known that during the early years (up until 1964), live rounds were used and no records were really kept.  In the words of Guy Jeffs;

“If you do dig, you’ll probably find something that was safer underground!”

We asked Sqn Ldr Jeffs roughly how many rounds were spent on the range each year;

“Historically 35,000 to 40,000 rounds of mostly 30mm and about 5,000 bombs.  This was when the Hawks were dropping on a regular basis.  As they run towards the end of the Mk.1 contract … those numbers are decreasing.”

“However, we have developed a lot of helicopter strafe targets because the guys coming back from Afghanistan need somewhere to practice.  Last year the helicopters fired 85,000 rounds.”

Around 98% of all the weapons spent land within 300ft of centre of the target – quite impressive considering the circular targets are 150ft across!

Safety Is The Key

It seems obvious that safety has to be a priority at the range and there are stringent controls in place.  The ‘General Surface Danger Area’ does pretty much what it says on the tin and includes all of the marsh up to the range boundaries.  Inside this area is the ‘Range Impact Area’.

“This is the area within which weapons and ordnance are permitted to fall.” continues Jeffs.  “The rule is that the Pilot cannot make the switches live until he’s in a position where if a bomb fell off when he didn’t intend it to (due to a fault or error), it would still fall within the Range Impact Area.”

Pilots are provided with “Attack Profiles” and these convey to pilots; altitudes, speeds and directions of approach which when all combined correctly can only result in a bomb falling within the R.I.A.  Orders to pilots are very strict and are non-negotiable to ensure all ordnance lands within the allowed boundaries.

Up The Tower

Back to the control room – all of the main panels and operators positions look towards the north over the range.  Panning from right to left are the Weather Station (which provides information for the BBC Wales weather forecast), FOQNH Table (relaying information as to air pressure), Radio Units and telephones, a black and green Radar screen, the Airfield Wind Display System, various computers (used to track the accuracy of ordnance dropped which is then reported back to the pilot), schedules for the day and yet more radio equipment!

We took some time to get used to our surroundings and marvel at the wonderful view afforded to us by our elevation.

We are told by our hosts to watch a church steeple of a village on the horizon of the hills to the North of our position.  Mantis 1 and 2 are due to make a run from the North towards the two Jaguar hulks.

From my position on the balcony I looked in the direction required and saw nothing.  A quick look through the camera lens to check the focussing and all of sudden a Tonka appeared out of no-where heading straight for me and banked to the left as it slid past the tower; reminiscent of the ‘buzz the tower’ scene from ‘Top Gun’!

My sub-par eyesight had failed to pick it up coming over the horizion.  The second followed moments later and again, I didn’t pick it up until late!

“This was a ‘First Run Attack’ which is where the aircraft plan their route around Wales and Pembrey is one target on their route.” explains Sqn Ldr Jeffs.

“They fly through, drop their bomb and keep going because in war-time you never over-fly the target twice.  They will then get a score for the bomb and an accurate time check as to when the bomb impacted because that’s what they are supposed to do on their mission.”

It is all over in an instant and photographing the spectacle was very similar to the experiences of “Low-Fly” in the Mach Loop – it certainly gets your heart pumping!

A brief wait follows before Snapper 1 and 2 call up, sending the radios crackling into life.  Two Valley Hawks, call-signs of Snapper 1 and 2 are on their way.

To begin with, they will do several strafing runs at the panel targets.  Out of range of my eye-sight towards the East, Snapper 1 goes into a 15° dive towards their target.  The first time you see it, it looks rather unnatural – the aircraft leaves a very faint trail of puffs of smoke and pulls up away from the target, and only then does the noise arrive, Pop-Pop-Pop!

Close inspection of photographs of the aircraft shows that each puff of smoke is a round leaving the gun-pod and is accompanied with a flash and a small amount of debris!

After taking stock of the information relayed to him on the computer screens in the tower, Sgt Gower relays to the student “Snapper 1, you are high and to the left.”

Snapper 2 made his first run in as Snapper 1 hooked round to the South for another attempt on the panels and this continued for half an hour.

One thing that strikes you when spending time in the tower watching these guys operating, is that it’s either a quiet calm place to be with the noise of the sea lapping up the beach, or the exact opposite – a frenzied office with fast jets blasting left, right and centre, guns being fired and constant radio chatter.

The Future

The range is important for 4 FTS from RAF Valley as this is the only range that they can use without having a re-fuelling stop on the way home, which they would need if they were to use the East Coast ranges.

In addition, the big increase in the past few years has been the helicopter firing.  Crews returning from theatre require somewhere to practice and a dedicated Air Force only range is ideal.  Army ranges tend to be unsuitable due to safety constraints requiring the range to be cleared of troops before any firing commences.  Pembrey rarely has troops on the range, so is ideal for the crews to practice in peace.

Day to Day Operations will change slightly once the replacement Hawk T2 enters the training program.  These aircraft have full ‘glass cockpits’ and as such every activity on the range is simulated.  There will be no dropping ordnance or cannon firing as the aircraft’s onboard computers will process this electronically.

As there is no need to worry about ricocheting ammunition or bombs, this will enable more realistic attack profiles to be created to help better prepare the student for flying front-liners in theatre.

When probed about recent recommendations from independent engineers Halcrow to Carmarthenshire Council to remove the range to let the coastline develop naturally as part of the Shoreline Management Plan, Guy Jeffs concluded…

“The range, as with most military training areas, is a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), so they’re all conservation hotspots.  Whatever we do has to take account of the fact we’re on a fairly important bit of Real Estate.”

“The reason it’s so important, is because we have excluded the public – The fact that it’s a military range is not destroying the conservation value of it, it’s actually enhancing it.”

It is hard to disagree with this, given the holiday/caravan park on the opposite side of the estuary and the establishment of modern facilities and Car Parks at Pembrey Country Park.

It would seem that the increased helicopter activity to support the Afghan Campaign and the needs of 4 FTS at Valley will help ensure the future of the range, at least in the short and medium term and this can only be good for the area.

Many thanks must go to Squadron Leader Guy Jeffs, Sergeant Ian Gower and Richard Wesley, who were more than happy to answer our inane questions and constant scrabbling round with cameras, trying to get the best of the action!