As a 19-year-old, Mark Coleman was posted to RAF Boulmer for his first operational tour in the Forces.
It certainly wasn’t a home-from-home experience for this junior officer, who swapped the hubbub of north-west London for life at the remote north Northumberland station.
But little did he know that, after leaving the base two-and-a-half years later in 1986, he would return three decades on, but this time as Station Commander.
It was a poignant reunion for the father-of-two and one that has made his time at Boulmer extra special.
Now, following a two-year stint in charge, he has packed his bags once again and is heading to pastures new, this time to work with the US European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
He has been replaced by Group Captain Rich Jacob, who took over the reins last Friday. But as the curtain came down on Group Captain Coleman’s second stay at Boulmer, the 51-year-old admits that it has been a privilege to head up the base and there have been many highlights along the way.
“To come back here as Station Commander has been fantastic,” he said.
“It’s funny that my very first operational tour after I had qualified as a controller was RAF Boulmer. I arrived in 1984 as a very junior officer, aged 19, and I wondered where I had been posted to if I’m really honest. I had no car and Alnwick seemed to be a million miles away.
“I left in October 1986, was married three weeks later, and went to RAF West Drayton. “I came back 30 years later, in July 2014, and it was a huge privilege for me. If I’m honest, I never thought I would come back as a Station Commander, but in equal measure, I never thought I wouldn’t because I hadn’t really considered it.
“But to be offered the post at RAF Boulmer was the pinnacle, because it is a key part of our air defence and has been for a very long time.
“There have been many highlights – too many to mention.”
Life hasn’t always been rosy for Group Captain Coleman, who admits that while it has been fun, there have also been some tougher situations.
He told the Gazette: “I would describe my time at RAF Boulmer as enjoyable, sometimes frustrating and challenging – and sometimes all of these three on the same day. It has been challenging in the sense that we are in a resource-constraint environment and there have been things that I would have liked to have done to improve the lot of the station and the families here, but it has not always been possible to do this. But it has been enjoyable in the sense that the station is clearly focused on its operational role.
“I believe that whether you have someone in uniform, a civil servant or a contractor, they are all here to deliver that air-defence role. It makes up a ‘whole force’ strategy, where you have civil servants, contractors, regular service people and reservists all working together.
“Another thing that has been enjoyable and something which is really important, is being part of the local community. We contribute to the local economy, we live in the village and our children go to the local school or nursery. It was probably the same in 1984, but as a youngster I didn’t appreciate it then, but we are genuinely welcomed by the local community and further afield to Newcastle, and that is great. I will certainly regale some of the stories to my grandchildren after I have retired.”
One of the most significant chapters in Group Captain Coleman’s reign was waving goodbye to the iconic Sea Kings helicopters, which were decommissioned last year. There had been an RAF Search and Rescue presence in Northumberland since 1964 when ‘A’ Flight 202 Squadron was established at the former RAF Acklington operating Westland Whirlwind helicopters.
The Flight transferred to RAF Boulmer in 1975 and was re-equipped in 1978 with the Sea King helicopters; providing an RAF Search and Rescue capability from the Lake District in the west, out to the North Sea, as far as the Scottish central belt to the north and Teesside to the south.
The trusty Sea Kings provided assistance with thousands of rescues over the years, including aiding 38 Norwegian oil workers from a capsized platform in the North Sea and being one of the first at the scene of the Pan Am Boing 747 crash at Lockerbie.
The two Sea Kings left for the final time at 9.45am and 11am on Wednesday, September 30, as the SAR switched to a civilian service.
The new service is now operated by Bristow Helicopters Ltd on behalf of HM Coastguard, after being awarded the 10-year UK contract by the Department for Transport in March 2013, with 10 ‘strategically located close to areas of high SAR incident rates’.
It brought down the curtain on 37 years of Search and Rescue at RAF Boulmer and Group Captain Coleman admitted it was a sad moment to see the much-loved Yellow Birds leave the base for the last time, but he does also see why the change was made.
He said: “It was very sad to see them depart, they had been part of the local community for the best part of 40 years and they were a very visual part of the station.
“However, the Government made a decision that Search and Rescue could be provided by other means and if we put it in the context that 97 per cent of all Search and Rescue activity in the UK is non-MoD – based on people having falls on mountains to walkers being in distress – it’s not an MoD critical role any longer.
“And in terms of the Sea Kings at RAF Boulmer, 70 per cent of the operations that were conducted from the station were over on the west coast. I understand that from a local perspective having a helicopter 10 or 15 minutes’ flight time from Amble or from Holy Island Causeway was reassuring and it is a sad loss, I definitely recognise that, but actually the cover is still being provided through the contract with the Department for Transport and with more modern, faster aircraft with bigger pay loads.”
The Sea Kings certainly helped raise the profile of RAF Boulmer and they were a much-loved and reassuring sight.
But despite their absence, Group Captain Coleman highlights that work continues to strengthen the link between the base and local people and to show the outside world what goes on at the station.
He said: “We have regular community events and people can request to visit the station and we do have a lot of visitors. Each quarter, around 50 people come to visit and we brief them on the role of the station, take them into the bunker so that they can see what it looks like, and that is important.
“It is important that the local community understands why we are here and what we do. They are taxpayers and they need to understand that they are getting value for money on defence.
“The feedback I get is that people leave with a better understanding of what we do and with an appreciation that they are being protected 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year.”
And for Group Captain Coleman, opening the Boulmer doors to members of the media – including Gazette reporter Ben O’Connell – in September last year for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain proved to be a sentimental experience.
He said: “I really enjoyed it. We invited some media in on September 15 and I was talking to them about what happened in 1940 and the role that the air defence played in 1940 and the fact that we were doing something very similar now. The technology has improved considerably, but the processes and the outcomes that we were trying to achieve were very similar.
“That brought home the importance of the role we have got today and the link to our heritage. The Battle of Britain is a key part of the RAF and while we haven’t been in existence for as long as some of the regiments, it is one of our key successful campaigns and it is something we should be really proud of.”
During his time at Boulmer, he has tried to build on the RAF’s legacy, expertise and proud reputation.
He said: “I think my focus has been to try to look at the future of the air surveillance and control system. My role has been to look after Boulmer and make sure it runs smoothly, but I also look after air-defence assets around the country, including a deployable element.
The work we have done over the two years to ensure that we can maintain that capability has been really, really important. With the assistance of the executive team here we have built a station that meets that whole-force outlook.
“I would like to thank all the personnel and the families at RAF Boulmer for their commitment. We ask a lot of our people and therefore we ask a lot from their families.
“They have to put up with people being away from home for long periods of time, as well as working long days or long nights. Their commitment and professionalism allows us to deliver that air-defence task that we do all the time.
I would also like to thank the local community for their support of the station. If we didn’t have their support, life would be quite miserable. I do value the friendships I have made locally and value the support the station receives from the community.”
Looking ahead to his new job, which he starts on July 4, he said: “I am viewing it with some trepidation because I have been overseas before, but never as long as three years. It is a new challenge but I have got the added advantage of having two different cultures – working with the Americans, but living with the Germans. It is going to be good and I am looking forward to it.
“My wife Nicky, who has been teaching at Alnwick’s St Paul’s School, is coming with me and hopefully she will be able to teach at one of the schools there.”
While Group Captain Coleman departs with a heavy heart, he has total faith in his successor, Group Captain Jacob, and knows he is leaving the base in good hands. “I have known him for many years and I have every confidence that he will lead the station well and I know he is hugely looking forward to taking over the role,” said Group Captain Coleman.
Asked about taking over as Station Commander, Group Captain Rich Jacobs said: “Given the station’s rich history, and our significant role in support of air defence of the United Kingdom, it is an honour to be its Commander as the RAF enters its centenary year in 2017.
“I am looking forward to working with the local community, and councils, to maintain and enhance the excellent relationships Mark has secured over his tenure.”