RAF Boulmer’s commanding officer is leaving in the summer to take up the biggest role his rank has to offer in Afghanistan – Commander Bastion.
Group Captain Jeff Portlock described the post at the Northumberland base as the best job he has ever had in his career in the Royal Air Force, one that is ‘unlikely to be surpassed’.
But he confessed he was honoured to be handed the six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, where he will be in overall control of the multi-national Camp Bastion, the largest operational overseas base. As ASACS (Air Surveillance and Control Systems) Force Commander, he has been in charge of Boulmer and seven other bases, including RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, since September 2010, with approximately 1,500 personnel under his command.
But he has informed staff of his new role as CO 903 Expeditionary Air Wing, replacing Gp Capt Dave Waddington, a former station commander at RAF Cranwell, and that he would be departing a couple of months ahead of schedule.
In an internal memo, he said: “Clearly, I was perhaps not expecting this news prior to our considerable Olympic commitments but, as I have highlighted regularly, overseas operations continue to be a very high priority.”
The Duchess of Northumberland, who presented awards to servicemen and women and one civilian at RAF Boulmer on Monday, paid tribute to Gp Capt Portlock.
She said: “Jeff has done a wonderful job as Station Commander of RAF Boulmer and has immersed himself into our community. We will miss him and I wish him every success in his huge new role in Afghanistan.”
And in an exclusive interview with the Gazette, Group Captain Portlock, 43, spoke of his pride at being in command at Boulmer and being able to ‘make a difference to so many people’s lives’.
“It is a genuine honour to be given the largest operational command currently at my rank but then I am somewhat disappointed to be leaving Boulmer a fraction early,” he said.
“I have been to Afghanistan twice before, as recently as January, so I know the lay of the land out there, so, yes, it is daunting but it is a very real job and there is genuine effect to it. It is what you join the Air Force for.
“But it is no more of a privilege than commanding RAF Boulmer.”
In Gp Capt Portlock’s first month in charge, the base received the Freedom of the County, which he described as ‘another huge privilege’. In the same month, the RAF celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
“It was certainly a quick start for me but that allowed me to meet all of the key leaders of the local community and, unlike some of my predecessors, I had never done a tour of Boulmer.
“I didn’t really know what to expect if I’m absolutely honest but I was completely taken by the genuine affection the local community has for the RAF and what we do.
“It is an honour being allowed to be in charge of such a great group of people, both the service folk and civilians who work here at Boulmer and that includes the helicopters on which I’ve flown many times in extremely rough weather and seen what they do and it is fantastic.
“It is important to recognise that the control of all of the UK’s airspace and the policing element and security of that is done every hour of every day from here in Northumberland and we are very proud of that. As a consequence, we have hugely talented officers and airmen who can do that job.”
But he has also presided over some tough times at the base, with the Strategic Defence Review resulting in some redundancies.
“The fact that this base has not been affected by huge numbers of redundancies reinforces our vital and enduring role in the defence of the UK. I think that is important to the local community.
“Despite the recent helicopter announcement, the base at Boulmer, in terms of airspace security, is absolutely secure for the foreseeable future.”
Among the highlights of his time at Boulmer, Gp Capt Portlock listed helping with the visit of the Queen to Alnwick last year, hosting the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland and their families on tours of the base, the ties with Rothbury House and being part of events in the community, such as the village’s lifeboat day, Christmas parties and giving Santa an occasional lift.
He even declared himself a converted Newcastle fan after attending several matches and buying a club scarf!
“It’s a relief for someone who comes from Coventry to support a team who wins regularly.”
Gp Capt Portlock joined the RAF in August 1986, completing his initial officer training at RAF College Cranwell and fighter controller training at RAF West Drayton and RAF Neatishead. He was trained to fly on the NATO E-3A and took part in the Gulf war before being posted to RAF Waddington.
From there, he flew on operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. Then followed promotions to Wing Commander in 2003 and Group Captain in 2008.
He will be replaced by Gp Capt Paul Atkinson, who arrives from Northwood.