Following standard cadet procedures, the drive to Heathrow Airport at 6AM Monday morning was as painful as ever, especially when considering the lack of sleep I'd endured the previous night whilst frantically trying to pack last minute “summer stuff” as torrential rain poured down outside.
On arriving at the airport I was greeted by Mr Griff Griffiths (yes it's his real name) and Ms. Anne Henson, the two RAFA (Royal Air Force Association) leaders that would be taking us to Cyprus along with 493 Sqn. CO , Diane Atkinson, the only other person from my Wing. Having weighed in my luggage at 19.9kg (the limit was 20.0kg), we waited for the “one cadet” that is always late. However, on failing to turn up on time due to diabolical London traffic ( Birmingham would never have this problem), we left him to run through airport security at top speed and meet us on the plane.
Despite the fact that most of us were from different Wings, the 10 of us grouped together quite quickly (mainly because we were starving and went on a food hunt together), and by the time we had reached the plane, there was no trouble in distinguishing who was who (each cadet definitely had their own personality). Once we'd landed at Larnaca airport the 28.C heat hit us, and we soon shed half our clothes and suffered the long hot 2 hour journey towards the south coast of Cyprus where RAF Akrotiri is situated. Of course, with Air Force security it was another 20 minutes before they checked our 3822's and let us in.
Our barracks were definitely the best type of accommodation I have slept in when going anywhere with the cadets. The female rooms were on the ground floor whilst the males were on the floor above us with their own balconies, and each floor had its own separate blocks of bathrooms, showers and toilets. We also had air-conditioning (thankfully) and our own sinks etc in the blocks, and sharing with one person was definitely beneficial if you were bored and wanted to go and toothpaste a CWO at 2 in the morning, not that anybody did of course .
We relaxed at the restaurant for the evening, and then the next morning after a 6AM start, marched to breakfast (although they soon stopped making us do that because it was too hot). The breakfast was again the best I've tried on an RAF station. We were then taken on a “surprise tour” around the base, and went to go and see the fire station on base where the Fire Personnel thought it would be amusing to soak us all whilst in our uniforms. Seeing as the polish had already melted off our shoes from the heat, we weren't too bothered and dried off in about five minutes from the heat after getting a ride around the airfield in a fire truck. We then went on to see Air Traffic control and visited the radar rooms (which had to be air-conditioned thank god). After lunch we then went to the Dog Training section to see some of the biggest dogs I have ever seen in my life. They showed us a training exercise where they left a small packet of cocaine in a huge field, and left a small dog called Bonzo to find it, which it did in about 40 seconds. They also set the dog out to search us, and Griff was caught with a packet of pharmaceutical cannabis up his sleeve (he claims the dog trainers gave it to him just for the training exercise, though we beg to differ!).
Following this we were told that we would be meeting a special guest, and were taken out to have a photo taken with them on the base. Having waited in the heat for around 20 minutes, our “guest” arrived and, despite his beige shorts and T-shirt uniform, we saluted the Commanding Officer of R.A.F. Akrotiri. He was extremely courteous and after answering a few of our questions, congratulating us on our success in being chosen for the camp and encouraging us to keep working hard, he left us inspired, privileged and sunburnt.
The sunburn didn't stop us from, an hour later, sitting on the deckchairs by the completely empty pool though. We spent around 2 hours soaking up the sun, swimming and diving before heading for dinner at the snug and then playing a few games of bowling. We then finally went back to the barracks for bed (although we didn't sleep, we stayed up and talked until we were made to go back to our dorms).
The next day after another early start we were taken to the main fuel depot on the base, where we were made to put on some rather amusing giant coats and turquoise gloves to test the water and fuel mixtures. We were then shown around by staff, yet again soaked by a massive waterline and shown exactly which fuel goes where, and also shown a special fuel mixture for the U-2 Spy planes. Not that there were any on the base...
Next though was what the trip had been all about. We were driven quickly up to the main runway where the Red Arrows had just landed after their morning practice. We were then shown around the planes by Jay Carlton, a pilot training to become a Red Arrow, and then taken to a section where chairs had been laid out for us to listen to the Red Arrow briefing before their next flight. All I understood from the briefing was that the female pilot Kirsty Moore gave me her fruit pastilles, and for the rest they were speaking in a completely different language whilst talking through their aerobatics routine. We were then quickly driven up to some cliffs, along with Graham Duff or “Duffy” and Simon Rea, otherwise known as Red 8 and 9.
The aerobatics display was filmed from the cliffs and we were given the best possible view of not only the display, but also the entire coastline. We also saw Simon Rea tallying up the number of mistakes they made (which we didn't to see) and explained that for each mistake, each pilot owed him a euro. Whilst the cameramen filmed, the two Red Arrows with us also explained that at the beginning
of the display they have to do something stupid on camera; this explains why at the start of their playback video they either have silver tape on their faces, or are on the roof of a car doing press-ups.
The Arrows were also kind enough to let us sit in their de-briefing where they gave us orange juice, corrected their mistakes, and then afterwards also let us all get a picture with them, a copy of which we each now have. We then got back to the barracks and after buying an unusual mixture of pistachio, coconut and mango ice-creams, a massive water-fight ensued.
The next day we again had breakfast and bought our daily ice-creams, and were then taken to part of the base which was home to the US Air Force. They showed us the suits which U2 pilots wear when flying which were almost identical to those that astronauts wear in space. Of course one cadet had to ask how they go to the toilet, and again the pilot was kind enough to show us, though I won't go into detail. They also let us try some of the pureed food that they have to eat through a straw; a variation of sloppy Joe's (it tastes like hotdogs) and pear flavoured dessert. I'd rather stick to my fish and chips personally. By far the best part of the day was being taken through to the hangar where we were actually allowed to see the U2 spy plane, although we had to keep it secret on base because nobody was meant to know it was there due to security reasons. We then got back to our barracks, got changed into our sports kit and went to meet the No.1 Overseas Sqn . , who challenged us to a game of baseball, football and a confused version of British Bulldog. I don't think anyone was really keeping check of the scores, although I did see one of our Corporal Cadets sneakily trying to add points to the board at one point.
On our final day we went to see the Griffin pilots on base. They showed us a 15 minute video of all the search and rescue missions they carry out as well as some air to air combat training exercises, although the background guitar solos of Whitesnake and Guns N' Roses were slightly distracting for some cadets that chose to air-guitar. He then showed us around one of the actual helicopters, allowed us to sit in it and try and figure out what the ridiculous numbers of buttons were for. Needless to say, we failed, and so made do with pictures. After our, obviously most exhausting day, we spent four hours lying on the private beach at Akrotiri, although one cadet managed to mangle his foot on a metal water slide, run out of the water screaming “SHARK!” and caused everyone else to run for land. Luckily most of us were familiar with first aid, and managed to patch him up as well as turn his bandage into a useful key-carrier once tied in a bow. We also used our ranks to an advantage, and after hitting all three rounder's balls far out to sea, called upon an unfortunate Corporal to dive in and fetch them, seeing as the rest of us were Sergeants and Flight Sergeants. I'd say we've inspired him to achieve a higher rank.
On leaving the beach we quickly got back, got changed and went to again visit the Overseas Squadron who were carrying out some field craft. The man teaching them had himself just come back from the war in Afghanistan , and gave us a valuable insight to his contrasting lifestyle there. We spent around half an hour at the squadron and then had to say goodbye to them (we couldn't shake their hands seeing as they were covered in paint and mud), and then jumped on the minibus to go to the local Kebab Restaurant which served the local Cypriot food. The food was incredible, and despite being threatened by the officers who claimed that if we ordered a five course meal and didn't finish it, they'd have to force feed us, we ordered the five-course menu and suffered afterwards. The food, drink and company was amazing, as was the atmosphere by the end of the night. The officers gave us their speeches and presented a cadet with a signed Red Arrows picture after choosing out of a lucky dip, and then, unexpectedly, we also gave them our own speech, thanking them for the amazing experience that they had all provided us with.
The bus and plane journey back home was lively as we talked about our experience, but watching Heathrow airport coming back into view as we flew over London (which was experiencing torrential rain as per usual) made us realise that the trip was finally over. Well, it should have been, we didn't realise we'd have to wait another hour for the security at Heathrow to put our luggage on a carousel. But then yes, we finally exited the Terminal and unwillingly said our goodbyes to each other, having swapped numbers, real names for, of course Facebook, and e-mails. Apparently everyone's coming down to Birmingham for my 18 th too...
I'd like to finish off this ridiculously long report by saying thank you to all of the staff, especially RAFA and the transport team at Akrotiri for ensuring that our entire trip went as smoothly as possible. They have given us an experience we will never forget , and we've all returned home inspired, tanned, mosquito bitten and determined to be part of the RAF eventually. Most importantly , we've come back having made new close friends within our region. I recommend anybody asked to go to Cyprus to definitely go without doubt.
For any of the cadets who went with me and that are reading, I wouldn't have gone on camp to any other country with any other group of people; “Sun, Sea, and Sand.”