Rollercoaster ride for RAF chief Jayne

IT was supposed to be a short-service commission when Jayne Millington signed herself over to the Royal Air Force.

But it has turned out to be an outstanding career choice for the Station Commander at RAF Boulmer, having risen through the ranks from a weapons controller, to delivering updates to air chiefs during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, to becoming the commander now responsible for protecting the whole of the UK's homeland airspace.

She's now tipped to join the ranks of the top brass, but her next step, she tells me, is into the classroom.

"I'll be going to the Royal College of Defence to study International Relations", says Jayne, who has spent the last two years of her life at the head of the 1,100 staff at the station. It's a very exciting time, and this is an opportunity for my personal development as a student. After that, we'll see what happens."

Immaculately presented, impeccably polite and eloquent, Jayne is very much the image of the RAF officer, and it's not difficult to recognise her love for the job – and the people – she has devoted her professional life to.

And she makes it abundantly clear when she speaks of her 24 months as an integral and vital part of the local community.

"This has been the first time I have lived in Northumberland for any length of time," she reflects.

"I spent a few weeks at RAF Boulmer back in 1998.

"I've really enjoyed my time here – the county has everything. The coast is magnificent, the Cheviot Hills are wonderful, and I have very much made the best of my own time here, from walking, running and riding on the beaches.

"The stretch up to Dunstanburgh Castle has become one of my absolute favourites, and my leaving gift was a framed print of the coastline there.

"What I have really enjoyed, though, is the welcome I received from the community, which I now feel very much a part of."

When Jayne arrived at RAF Boulmer in 2006, however, the picture was perhaps not as rosy.

Even though the station had undergone an extensive modernisation programme, in 2003 defence chiefs had targeted it as part of a nationwide rationalisation programme aimed at cutting costs and bringing units together at a handful of key operating bases.

For Boulmer, the future looked bleak.

First to be moved was the station's mobile 1 Air Command Centre, whose personnel were relocated at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire.

"The last two years have been an eventful time, the main issue we had to contend with being the future of station, which was set to close in 2012," says Jayne.

"Operations were to be wound down in 2010, but it was only when the figures were recalculated in the early part of 2006 that the focus came back onto Boulmer, and that's when I became involved. That was really the focus of my first year.

"That involved supporting the work that was going on, while trying to secure a future for Boulmer."

But she admits: "None of us could imagine how we could replicate the great facilities we had here. There was an awful lot of concern in our wider service community."

Those concerns were reflected in the enormous backlash from local politicians and the public, with estimates that the loss of the base would slash millions out of the local economy and cost hundreds of civilian jobs.

There were also fears that the life-saving Sea King search and rescue helicopters would be moved elsewhere, removing vital cover from the region.

Organisations including mountain rescue teams from across the North East and Scotland, also rallied to try and reverse the decision.

Soon after Jayne settled into her new role, however, Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram ordered an urgent re-evaluation of the plans, after the costs of moving to RAF Scampton soared from an estimated 41m to 160m.

It was only in January this year that the controversial plans were shelved, and Jayne says she was humbled by the support the camp received from the local community.

But for her, there was still a massive amount of work to be done.

"Although Boulmer was secure, it took another 10 months to get the Scampton side sorted out for our people down there," she said. "There was an enormous amount of planning to do, but the result was that RAF Boulmer is now considered to be a core station.

"For the first time in five years we now have a road-map for the future, which is terrific, and it's nice to think that it has my fingerprints all over it.

"The most pleasing thing for me personally is the effect on the local community, to see that RAF Boulmer will remain part of it."

For Jayne, that has also meant an evolving role to match the importance of the base as a hub of UK air defence.

Since 2006, she has been Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) Force Commander for the whole of the UK, responsible for the entire airspace covered by seven remote radars stretching from the Shetland Islands to Cornwall, including the station at Brizlee Wood, just outside Alnwick.

And there was also an overseas element under Jayne's wing, 1 Air Control Centre, which is currently providing air cover for Allied forces in Afghanistan and based at Camp Bastion in the volatile Helmand Province.

"We have 35 people out there on radar, providing cover 24-7 for everything from air-to-air refueling to fast jets and full airspace management," she says. "Our mission has been to keep everyone as safe as you possibly can in a warzone."

For Jayne, it's now time to move on, and she'll be starting her course at the Royal College of Defence in 2009.

She says she leaves RAF Boulmer and Northumberland with many fond memories and a wealth of experience.

But she adds: "I've had such a tremendous time living and working in this area, and I will be back.

"I can only wish my successor, Group Captain Phil Cox, the very best, and I am sure the community will make him feel as welcome as they did me."