After arriving at Brunel University, being given a room for the night and changing into my IACE polo shirt this was finally it. I was going to The Netherlands. After a general briefing to the entire UK contingent, we were split into our individual visiting countries, finally giving me the chance to meet the other cadets coming with me to The Netherlands.
A coach ride to Heathrow airport the following morning and hours of waiting, my excitement was mounting and I could barely sit still. After a 45 minute flight this was it, we were finally there. I was in the Netherlands. As the last to arrive at the airport, we joined cadets from the other eight participating countries on the coach that we would be travelling on every day, for the three hour journey to the south of this small country to Woensdrecht Maintenance Airbase; the place that would be our home for the next two weeks. We were fed then given a short briefing by the Deputy Base commander before a short tour around the base and finally arriving at our dorms for a much needed early night.
Wednesday 23rd July was spent getting to know the responsibilities of the airbase that we were staying on. We visited the meteorological centre that produced the weather reports for RNLAF missions and the Flight training facilities. In the evening we put on our formal uniforms and made our way to the Officer's mess in the typically Dutch and difficult to pronounce 'Shuttershof' for a welcome dinner and roll-call. It gave us a chance to get to know the people we'd be spending the next two and a half weeks with and learn a bit about their home countries and the differences in culture.
On Thursday we visited the small but beautiful town of Breda to see the military academy. During the afternoon we were asked to take part in a two minutes silence to honour the victims of the tragic MH17 disaster. We travelled on to the Delft Technical University to look at the aerospace facilities including three types of wind tunnel and a full motion flight simulator. After lunch at the university we visited the Hague to see the Dutch houses of parliament before a free evening at the airbase.
The morning of Friday 25th July was a morning of physical hell. We were up early and outside the sports centre for some military training. After being shouted at by the scary Sergeant Major and made to run, we had the opportunity to use the obstacle course that is used for training. Climbing rope ladders, crawling through dirt, jumping, climbing, ducking under obstacles. One task put us in groups of six where we had to carry a 7ft log between us with the sergeant major barking commands to hold it above our heads, left shoulder, right shoulder, under our legs, right hip, left hip. Another task we had to get together as a team and create a kind of staircase with the logs and then each of us had to run up it with the rest of the group holding our weight. Even for someone as weak and scared of physical exercise as myself it was so much fun. It also broke through the initial awkwardness, bringing together the group and opening us up.
The afternoon gave us the opportunity for recovery and to do some gliding at Soesterberg. Despite the overcast weather, everybody had the chance to get up at least once. Some lucky ones amongst us, including myself, were able to get up in the air twice in the winch gliders. We had a few drinks and snacks in the gliding centre, giving us the chance to talk to some of the glider pilots before returning to Woensdrecht for another free evening. For those that wanted to we went to the sports hall on base for some team sports, a game of dodgeball and a very novel version of hockey using hockey sticks with chunks of polystyrene on the end. It was a fun way to get the group to gel together a bit more.
On Saturday we finally had the opportunity to visit the capital and spend the day in Amsterdam. We started off in the Rijksmuseum which had fascinating collections of artwork, model ships, swords and guns etc. After the museum we were split into groups and free to explore the city with some of the escorting officers guiding us. My group consisted of three of the British boys, the Germans and the Swiss. It also gave me a good chance to practice my German language skills on real native speakers. We walked through the city visiting Dam square and the famous red light district before joining the rest of the group for a canal boat tour of Amsterdam in the sunset.
Sunday 27th July was more relaxed with a battle of Arnhem tour and visit to the museum before moving on to Terlet gliding centre where a lucky few had the opportunity for another round of gliding also some aerobatics.
Perhaps the highlight of the trip was the visit to Volkel airbase to see the F-16 flight operations. In the hangar we were free to touch, sit in the little cockpit and interact with the aircraft as well as with the training missiles. It was incredible to get so close to this aircraft that so few people ever get to see. What was even more amazing was the opportunity to see one of these aircraft start up, taxi out to the runway and take off. We had to wear earplugs and once the engine was started it was clear why. The blast of the jet wash was strong enough to push some people backwards off of the tarmac onto the grass a few metres behind them. Coupled with the heat and roar of the engine that sent your heart racing and the characteristic smell of aviation the experience was incredible. We were taken to the runway where we were able to watch two F-16s thunder down the runway and take off on their way to a training mission in Germany.
The following day we visited the Delta Dams project, one of the most well known systems in place to stop this tiny country from flooding. In the afternoon we moved on to the coastal town Vlissingen for a day at the beach. We were free to explore the sweet little town in our own groups before returning the base for another free evening.
Wednesday 30th July we had a free morning giving us the surprise opportunity to get some shooting in on the shooting simulators at the base. From simple target shooting and moving targets to a full blown mission in Afghanistan and the more light-hearted shooting of cans, animated cows and birds. It was so much fun, especially for someone like me who had never held a weapon before. In the afternoon we visited Gilze-Rijen helicopter command base to see the awesome apache helicopters which, as with the F-16s, we could climb on and see the engine and to just go up and touch it. We also had the chance to see the Chinook helicopters. Sadly we weren't able to persuade the base staff to give us a lift back to Woensdrecht.
On Thursday we visited the European Space Agency Research and Test centre in Noodwijk. We saw the mission control where ESA missions are planned, as well as the actual IXV re-entry test vehicle. We were also given the chance to see other real life space objects that had been in space as well as space modules. There was a rover being tested that would follow us around the room. It was great to gain insight into how the organisation worked, how missions are planned and designed as well as being able to see actual space objects that people rarely get to see.
Friday was the day we had all been so anxious about. We visited the Port of Rotterdam for an explanation on how it is run followed by a boat ride through the port and given some time to explore. When the afternoon came we found out who our host families would be. Would we be alone? What would the food be like? Thankfully I was paired with a Canadian girl whom I'd become good friends with. Our family lived in a small village called Ellecom near Arnhem in a beautiful 200 year old restored farmhouse. Over the weekend we visited a national park for a typical Dutch bike ride and an open air museum giving us insight into the Dutch way of live through history. We tried traditional Dutch food such as bitterballen, meat krokets and stroopwafel. Our host family were so welcoming and treated us as if we were their own children (One of which was on IACE to Canada). It was incredible to experience The Netherlands as someone who lived there rather than a tourist.
We returned to the group on Monday, being three hours away from Amsterdam. We visited the Cruquis waterstate Expo in Haarlem for insight into the mechanisms used to stop the country from flooding. We returned to Schipol airport to visit the KLM Flight training, Engineering and Maintenance facilities for another highlight of the trip. I had the opportunity to successfully take off, fly a circuit and land a 747 (in a simulator) and to see the 747-400, MD-11 and a Boeing 777 in the hangars. We were able to sit in the cockpit as well as get at taste of life flying in business class.
Thursday 5th August we visited Eindhoven airbase to see the huge aircraft that were the C-130 Hercules, again allowing us to explore as we wanted. We were also incredibly lucky to have the chance to see the absolute beast that was a Royal Australian Air Force C-17 Globemaster and a medical team packing away from a training exercise. I was also able to go right up to the runway to watch a C-130 take off for a mission.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. When we returned to the base it was time for the farewell BBQ. We put on our formal uniform and returned to the now familiar 'Schuttershof' and the Officer's mess. After food, thanks were given to the organising staff as well as a massive thanks to the Escorting officers. They were a major part of the trip having volunteered their own time to look after us, bringing with them their own incredible sense of humour and most importantly treating us as adults and equals.
Gifts were given, polo shirts were swapped, books were signed and tears were shed (mostly by me) bringing a close to this absolutely incredible experience. To have had the opportunity to see such specialised aircraft and operations that not even most members of the RNLAF get to see or experience themselves was incredible. It was absolutely amazing to have been able to meet people from all over the world including people from Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Turkey, South Korea, France, Canada, Hong Kong and some of whom I'm still in contact with and have become friends for life.
If anyone ever gets the opportunity to take part in the IACE I can't stress strongly enough how much you should take it. To have seen so much of the country in such a short space of time and to see things that no tourist, native or even military personnel would ever get to see is incredible. It's something that I will never get to experience again and something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.