The modern RAF is a complex organisation, with a variety of different squadrons and aircraft.
Naturally, its combat aircraft tend to attract the most public attention, though other aircraft one might think of as more mundane are actually just as important.
In fact, they, the crews that fly them and the jobs they do are anything but mundane – they provide vital layers of support without which the RAF could not sustain itself.
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One aspect of this support comes in the form of the high-quality training RAF pilots, aircrews and engineers receive; another is the transportation lifeline of any RAF (and military) operation. Once again, the RAF’s excellent aircraft and personnel ensure that equipment and personnel are moved to where they are needed, when they are needed there.
What follows is an overview of the aircraft involved in these two vital aspects of RAF operations, the roles they perform and the squadrons who fly them.
While the RAF may be known for its fighter aircraft such as the F-35B Lightning and the Typhoon, it also has a wide range of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters dedicated solely to training.
Great combat aircraft would, after all, be of little use without highly trained pilots to fly them, and that is where the training aircraft come into play.
The first of these is the Hawk, or more precisely the Hawk model T1 and T2. Together, these two variants of the Hawk perform three main roles within the RAF. The T2 enables pilots who have previously trained on the slower Texan (see below) to become proficient at flying jet aircraft. They work with two of the RAF’s training squadrons to learn this – IV Squadron and XXV (F) Squadron, both based at RAF Valley in Anglesey.
The T1 Hawk, meanwhile, is flown by the 100 Squadron out of RAF Leeming where the jet plays the ‘enemy’ during RAF combat training. The T1 is also flown out of RAF Scampton by the Red Arrows, the RAF’s aerobatic team, one of 10 display teams within the RAF (the others being the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the Typhoon Display Team, the Chinook Display Team, the Grob Tutor Display Team, RAF Music Services, RAF Voluntary Bands, the Queen’s Colour Squadron – a ceremonial unit, the Royal Air Force Pipes and Drums and the Falcons - a parachute display unit.)
In a document entitled ‘UK Armed Forces Equipment and Formations 2021 tables’, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) lists 95 Hawks (67 T1s, T1As and T1Ws and 28 T2s) as being in its possession as of 2021. The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm also make use of Hawks, though many will belong to the RAF.
Also known as the H135, the Juno HT1 is the craft that provides foundational helicopter training at RAF Shawbury and RAF Valley, not only for members of the RAF but also those in the other two services.
RAF Shawbury’s No 1 Flying Training School, where the Juno is flown, is, according to the MOD, the oldest training school in the world for military pilots. It is here that 60 Squadron provides basic helicopter training, while 202 Squadron provides further training in mountain, maritime and searching and rescue out of RAF Valley.
202 Squadron also flies the Jupiter HT1, or H145 as it is otherwise known, out of RAF Valley. It is used to provide further training in the maritime, mountain and search and rescue domains.
The MOD lists 29 Junos and seven Jupiters for 2021, though the Juno helicopters are utilised by 705 NAS (Naval Air Squadron) of the Fleet Air Arm as well by 202 Squadron, both of whom provide training at Shawbury.
Very different training occurs in the Embraer Phenom T1, which has been flown out of RAF College Cranwell by 45 Squadron since 2018. This squadron is tasked with providing multi-engine flight training for pilots and crew, something the twin-engine Phenom is ideal for. As the MOD puts it:
“With its touchscreen cockpit and comprehensive navigation, communications and flight safety suite, the Phenom 100 will deliver a quantum leap in multi-engine flying training. In capability as well as cockpit layout it will be far closer to the frontline types – including Atlas – onto which its students will progress.”
The Grob 120 TP Prefect (or Prefect T1)is likewise flown out of RAF College Cranwell, in this case by LVII (or 57) Squadron. It provides training at the other end of the scale, giving flight students the initial elementary flight training they will need before progressing on to learn more advanced skills, either in the Juno helicopter, the Phenom 100 or the Texan.
The Beechcraft Texan T1 is, in fact, itself a stepping-stone between the Prefect and the Hawk T2.
The Texan uses more advanced technology and a tandem seating position (i.e. one behind the other), just like the Hawk, all while being a slower propeller aircraft, just like the Prefect. 72 Squadron provide training in the Texan out of RAF Valley.
Initial pilot training for those not only in the RAF but also the Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, the Army Air Corps and university students and air cadets is all done in the Grob 115 Tutor, conducted by 115 and 16 Squadrons at RAF Wittering. Like the Grob 120, the Grob 115 also has side-by-side seating for instructor and trainee, making communication easier.
Finally, there is the Viking T1 (or Grob G 103A Twin II Acro), a glider used by volunteer gliding squadrons around the UK to train air cadets in glider flying.
As of 2021, the MOD lists five Phenoms and 10 Texans as being in its possession, as well 81 Viking gliders, 23 Grob 120 Prefects and 91 Grob 115 Tutors, including 5 Tutors used by the Royal Navy.
A comparison of the RAF’s training aircraft:
Length in metres
Speed in knots
Range in nautical miles
Juno HT1 (helicopter)
Jupiter HT1 (helicopter)
Grob 120 TP Prefect/Prefect T1
Grob 115 Tutor
*The MOD lists this as a do-not-exceed speed.
**This is a high-speed cruising figure.
***With four people aboard, and fuel reserves.
After training, one might think of the next level of support for the RAF as being that of air transport.
Just like the Man Trucks of the Royal Logistic Corps in the Army, the RAF has its workhorse aircraft that are just as essential to its operations as the Army’s drivers, engineers, technicians and other support personnel are to it.
Like the Royal Logistic Corps, the RAF must provide refuelling to its aircraft, sometimes in mid-air, and for this role it has the Airbus A330 MRTT (Multi Role Tanker Transport), otherwise known as the Voyager.
It is the RAF’s sole model of refuelling aircraft, of which the MOD lists nine of them in its possession in 2021, with eight based at RAF Brize Norton and one in the Falkland islands.
In the mid-air refuelling role, the Voyager is flown by 10 and 101 Squadrons, whose work has supported Op Shader against Islamic State.
The Mark 2 (or KC.Mk 2) Voyager can refuel fast jet aircraft with two underwing pods, while the Mark 3 (or KC.Mk 3) uses a centreline hose for the mid-air refuelling of larger aircraft.
As well as transporting fuel, being the RAF’s largest aircraft, the Voyager also has room for supplies and 291 passengers. The range figure given in the table below (8,000 nautical miles) is when it is carrying its own maximum fuel load and not a maximum payload – when this is the case, its range is reduced to 4,500 nautical miles (the range being the distance an aircraft can travel before needing to be refuelled).
The fuel the Voyager carries for other aircraft, meanwhile, can be up to 111,000 kilograms worth (or 111 tonnes), though it more typically carries 60,000 kg worth of fuel at a speed of 500 nautical miles over the course of a five-hour mission.
Whereas the Voyager carries fuel and passengers, the RAF’s eight C-17 Globemasters deliver troops and cargo to bases around the world.
And at a length of 53 metres, a height of 16.8 metres and a wingspan of 51.7 metres, the Globemaster can carry up to 76,655 kilograms of equipment (and any passengers.) This can mean vehicles, including other aircraft (i.e. helicopters like the Chinook). The aircraft can even carry medical equipment and personnel to enable aeromedical evacuations.
As well as moving around military equipment, the Globemaster might also be used at short notice for humanitarian missions, something 99 Squadron tends to carry out. XXIV Squadron also use the Globemaster, as well as the Hercules and the Atlas in their role as trainers for engineers and aircrew who will go on to serve in the Air Mobility Fleet (which handles the RAF’s transport needs).
At 45.1-metres long, the Atlas C.1 (A400M) is the RAF’s next-largest transport aircraft, and like the Globemaster, it too is flown out of RAF Brize Norton.
The Atlas is a tactical airlift aircraft that is partway between the Globemaster and the Hercules in size, therefore capable of carrying more than the Hercules (37-tonnes, or 37,000 kg, at full capacity), less than the Globemaster, yet still able to be versatile in the transport role.
It is able, for instance, to take off from and land on rough landing strips (such as a beach), do mid-air refuelling, deliver its cargo conventionally or by parachute, and to deliver the Army’s paratroopers to their desired drop zones (it can carry 116 fully equipped troops.) It also has an impressive range, up to 4,100 nautical miles, or 2,000 nautical miles with its full 37-tonne payload.
The flying of the RAF’s 20 Atlas aircraft is done by four RAF squadrons – 206 Squadron, which does testing and evaluation work on both the Atlas and Hercules; 30 Squadron, which uses the Atlas for operations around the globe, including humanitarian and disaster relief missions; LXX Squadron, which also conducts air transport and has taken part in humanitarian missions; and XXIV Squadron, which, as noted above, provide training to engineers and aircrews of the Atlas, Globemaster and Hercules.
The Hercules, though the smallest of the planes in the RAF’s Air Mobility Force (the others being the three aircraft above – the Voyager, Globemaster and Atlas), is still the RAF’s primary tactical transport aircraft. The MOD goes so far as to call its C.Mk 4 and C.Mk 5 variants the backbone of its mobility operations.
The Hercules also has an impressively long service record. While the Globemaster and the Royal Navy’s HMS Dragon have shown up in 2021’s ‘No Time to Die’, the Hercules was available to play a prominent role in a much older James Bond film – 1987’s ‘The Living Daylights’. However, its service history goes back much further than that, with the first C-130A Hercules entering service in 1956 with the US Air Force, and in 1967 with the RAF (as the C-130K, or Hercules C.Mk1.)
Its flexibility has presumably contributed to its endurance. Like the Atlas, it can airdrop cargo or paratroopers, as well as take off and land without necessarily needing a runway (i.e. on, or from, a beach.) It also operates well at night and low altitudes, at long range (with mid-air refuelling) and it can perform search and rescue missions, air dropping life rafts and emergency supplies stored in its cabin.
The RAF’s 14 Hercules are flown out of RAF Brize Norton by the aforementioned 206 and XXIV Squadrons, both of which provide training and testing and evaluation with the Hercules, as well as by 47 Squadron which uses the aircraft on operations. The Hercules is also used by the RAF Falcons, the RAF’s parachute display team.
Besides the four aircraft above in the Air Mobility Force, the RAF also has two other aircraft specifically assigned to the air transport role, both of which are somewhat unconventional by the standards of its other transport aircraft.
The first of these is the BAE 146. One variant of this aircraft, the C.Mk 3, or Quick Change variant, can and does perform in a conventional transportation role. In fact, it can be configured very quickly and easily between transporting cargo and passengers – hence its name. This version of the aircraft has a length of 28.6 metres and a typical range of 1,200 nautical miles.
The CC.Mk2 variant, meanwhile, is 26.2 metres long and has a typical range of 1,400 nautical miles, though it differs from the Mk3 variant far more in its role than in its dimensions. It is VIP-configured and usually carries government officials, MOD personnel and sometimes members of the Royal Family. Because of this, it is equipped with defensive aids such as infrared countermeasures to help protect the aircraft and those on board. Such countermeasures work by confusing the infrared guidance system on any heat-seeking missile fired at the plane.
The RAF’s four BAE 146 aircraft are operated out of RAF Northolt by 32 (Royal) Squadron and, as well as VIP work, the aircraft also support other military operations by moving freight and passengers, thereby freeing up the RAF’s other transport aircraft to operate where they are needed.
32 Squadron is also responsible for flying the RAF’s Leonardo AW109SP GrandNew (or just A109SP) helicopter out of RAF Northolt, which supports the BAE 146 in performing the Command Support Air Transport (CSAT) role, providing air transport for senior military commanders and government ministers within the UK or elsewhere in Europe. It can be flown by just one pilot, though has room for up to six passengers.
A comparison of the RAF’s transportation aircraft:
Length in metres
Speed in knots
Range in nautical miles
Atlas C.1 (A400M)
Hercules (C-130J) Mk5
BAE 146 CC.MK2
*With payload of 45,360 kg (or 45.36 tonnes) – maximum payload is 76,655 kg (or 76.655 tonnes.)
**Listed by the MOD as cruising speed at 28,000 feet for the Globemaster, 30,000 feet for BAE 146CC.Mk2 and just cruising speed for the Hercules.
***Listed as maximum cruising speed.
Image of A109SP helicopter by Tim Felce.
Cover image: A Hercules taking off from RAF Akrotiri (picture: MOD)