Army Reservists from 675 (Rifles) Squadron, Army Air Corps (AAC), based at Bishops Hull in Taunton, have been providing vital ground support to the Wildcat helicopter fleet at nearby RNAS Yeovilton.
At 44, Lance Corporal Andrew Donovan, has many more years’ Reserve service under his belt than Cameron McLeod (19), from Stembridge, Somerset, or Alex Pead-Walsh (21), from Dursley in Gloucestershire.
But all three jumped at the chance to hone their skills on rolling 30-day attachments to the Regulars of 1 Regiment AAC.
Andrew, from Langport, is trained as a plumbing and heating engineer while Cameron is also a physical training instructor with 675 Squadron and Alex gave up a job as a barman to take up the role at Yeovilton.
Until April, 675 Squadron had been an infantry unit, known as B Company, 6 RIFLES. Now they have an exciting new role – learning how to protect, refuel, re-arm and rig loads for the Army’s latest Wildcat and Apache helicopters.
Andrew joined what was then the Territorial Army before spending eight years from 2002 in the Royal Navy as a marine engineer, following in his father’s footsteps.
He then resumed his Reservist career with B Company, with whom he has had roles in the armoury and also as a chef.
“When I heard we were moving over to the Army Air Corps that was really exciting,” said Andrew, who could see the challenge reinvigorating his long career in the Reserves.
Like the other infantrymen at Bishops Hull he first attended a conversion course at 6 Regt HQ at Middle Wallop. With experience gained over the last two months at Yeovilton, it means that Andrew is now ready for type training on the Wildcat, and later on the Apache attack helicopter.
“It’s great to have the permanent staff here showing us exactly how it’s done,” he said. “You’ve got someone on hand to answer questions and point you in the right direction.”
Andrew is also preparing to attend annual camp next month before returning to plumbing and heating work.
Having Reservists like Andrew available to fill gaps in manpower has been a godsend to 1 Regt as it manages the logistics of a move from Gütersloh in Germany and eventual merger with 9 Regt to bring the Wildcat force under a single HQ based at Yeovilton.
Meanwhile, 675 (Rifles) Squadron is planned to grow to two Flights (equivalent to infantry platoons) in Taunton and, eventually, a third Flight in Yeovil.
With HQ administrative support as well, the Squadron will be some 150-strong. 6 Regt answers to the Joint Helicopter Command and could potentially support any UK military helicopter, whether Army, Royal Navy or RAF.
Captain Barney Barnes, 675 Squadron’s Administrative Officer, said: “When fully trained and operational, our Reservists will reconnoitre landing sights before securing them and then communicate with the pilots to bring them in. So we will be in a protection role as well, not losing our infantry skills.
“On the ground, we will also use the big, all-wheel-drive OshKosh bulk tankers to refuel the helicopters, using hand-held computers to make accurate calculations as to how much they need. Just as importantly, in our ground support role we will be responsible for re-arming the aircraft’s weapons or rigging the aircraft for underslung loads.”
A big change is that the Taunton-based Reserves will no longer be almost exclusively a male domain. The varied nature of their role means that they can recruit as many women as men.
With £1.8bn investment in better training and better equipment, it is planned to expand the Army Reserve (formerly the Territorial Army) to 30,000 trained reservists by 2018.
Enhanced conditions for reservists include the introduction of paid annual leave and pension entitlements during training and operations, plus better access to defence health services and training.
For more information about 675 (Rifles) Squadron call 01823 354570 or to find out about opportunities in the Army Reserve visit www.army.mod.uk/join/20237.aspx.