In late January 2020, 4 members of the RAF GSA; Air Vice Marshal Johnny Stringer (the Chairman of the RAF GSA), Sqn Ldr Mark Williams, Flt Lt Martyn Pike and SAC(T) Alistair Webb traveled to Chile to represent the RAF and the UK as part of a high-level Defence Engagement Exchange over two weeks.
Each year since 1996 the Royal Air Force Gliding and Soaring Association (RAFGSA) and the Chilean Air Force, the Fuerza Aérea de Chile (FACh) “No Engine Squadron” have held an exchange as part of the Defence Engagement Strategy to build and maintain Diplomatic and Military Relations, nicknamed: Andean Condor.
The week began with comprehensive briefs from the FACh about the Glider Squadron, local procedures, security and safety. This was then followed up by a metrological brief by the civilian metrology office in Santiago, who provided a detailed met brief each day. The weather for the first day was predicted to be good, with strong thermals expected to enable the team to experience much of what the Andes has to offer.
The conditions proved good enough to allow all pilots to cover a large area, learning the basic routes into and out of the Andes, whilst venturing to point “Y” which is approximately 140 Km North of Santiago, and is almost as far as is normally covered. After flying North, Martyn flew south beyond Santiago and covered almost 380km. It was Marks first flight in the Andes, and he managed to get high enough to reach the border in the East and follow it down to the South, and once he landed he said that it was the best flight he had ever had!
Most days during the exchange brought fairly challenging conditions, usually limiting access to the very high mountains. However the team still enjoyed some excellent flying in the lower areas and still managed to fly between 300-380km each day.
On Wednesday Martyn had the shortest flight in the Andes in RAFGSA history, lasting just 10 seconds! During the takeoff the tug aircraft was struggling to get airborne, so aborted the takeoff. Unfortunately this was due to a minor issue with the engine and as it required repair the team had to settle for a total of 10 seconds flying time for the day.
On Friday the conditions had improved compared to the previous days, and Mark was assigned to fly in the clubs high-performance glider, a Nimbus 3DT, a glider with a huge 24.5m wingspan! However even though the conditions had improved, it still proved difficult to climb high enough to reach the second system and gain access to the high areas of the Andes. However Alistair was lucky enough to find a strong thermal that enabled him to climb high into the mountains, flying to the border in the east and climbing up the Tupungato and San Jose volcanoes, reaching almost 20,000ft!
The weekend brought a welcome break from the hard work of gliding during the week and allowed the team to relax. AVM Johnny Stringer arrived in Chile on the Friday and joined the rest of the team on the Saturday for a visit to Los Dominicos, an artisan market that showcased various Chilean examples of culture and craftsmanship. They learned about the history of the culture and different art forms from the different regions of Chile. They varied hugely, from the Spanish colonial influence, to the indigenous culture.
On Sunday the team along with several of the instructor and hosting staff enjoyed a tour of Viña Indómita, a Vineyard, to learn about the process of making Chilean wine and its cultural importance and economy of the country.
On Monday Team Condor visited the Chilean Air Force Academy to meet with the 2* General in charge of Personnel in the FACh to promote the importance of the ongoing exchange between the RAF and the FACh.
Returning to the airfield, Johnny experienced flying in the Andes for the first time. He had a rather interesting first flight being forced to land out at a diversionary airfield due to the conditions being the hardest the team would fly in during the while exchange! Luckily it was not long before a tug aircraft was dispatched to retrieve him and get him airborne to join the rest of the team.
On Tuesday the Squadron was visited by a military media team who produced a small report about the exchange. They interviewed Johnny and the Squadrons commander, Lt Luis Vera, to talk about the exchange and how important it is for both countries. They also filmed the briefing process, the team getting ready for the sortie and departing, and also some air to air footage of the team flying together in a thermal.
Unfortunately the flying for the rest of the exchange proved difficult with strong winds, inversions and cooler temperatures on most days. But that did not stop the team from trying their best to get higher and fly further each day. Although despite their efforts the team was generally limited to the local area around Santiago.
On the final day of the exchange the Squadron held a large BBQ for all Team Condor, the Instructors, Hosting Officers and Engineers. It was a great evening for everyone to reminisce over the previous two weeks and remember previous exchanges. At the end of the evening there was the traditional exchange of gifts. Each member of Team Condor received a personalised warm hat, neck warmer and mug from the Squadron, as well as a pen and keyring. The team gave various gifts back to the hosts, including bottles of wine, flying gloves and hats, and various RAF branded memorabilia.
It was time for the 2020 exchange to come to an end, and for Team Condor to return to the cold UK winter. It had been a truly unforgettable two weeks in Chile, flying in extremely challenging conditions in the beautiful Andes, and making some great friends in the Chilean Air Force.
We are looking forward to welcoming a few members of the Chilean Air Force to the UK in July, hopefully the weather will be kind!