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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Royal Air Force?

The RAF is the air component of the United Kingdom's Armed Forces. (The other Services being the Royal Navy and British Army).

What is the The Royal Air Force Mission?

To support the Defence Vision, the RAF must be a flexible and agile Air Force that can adapt to new threats and environments, our mission is to:

"Produce a battle-winning agile air force: fit for the challenges of today; ready for the tasks of tomorrow; capable of building for the future; working within Defence to achieve shared purpose."

What are the roles of the Royal Air Force?

To understand the roles and responsibilities of the RAF, we must first look at the Defence Mission. It says:

The purpose of the Ministry of Defence, and the Armed Forces, is to:

  • defend the United Kingdom, and Overseas Territories, our people and interests;
  • act as a force for good by strengthening international peace and security.

To achieve this, we:

  • make a vital contribution to Britain's security policy and its promotion at home and abroad;
  • direct and provide a defence effort that meets the needs of the present, prepares for the future and insures against the unpredictable;
  • generate modern, battle-winning forces and other defence capabilities to help:
  1. prevent conflicts and build stability;
  2. resolve crises and respond to emergencies;
  3. protect and further UK interests;
  4. meet our commitments and responsibilities;
  5. work with Allies and partners to strengthen international security relationships.

From this, the key roles of the RAF can be split into two main areas:

  • Offensive and defensive air operations. Initial phases of recent conflicts have involved concentrated air operations designed to gain control of the air. Once this control has been achieved, land-based forces will the begin their operations. These operations involve air defence (e.g mounting aerial patrols to intercept opposition aircraft) and a number of different offensive operations (e.g disrupting enemy communications, destroying radar sites etc).
  • Supporting air operations. Often the unsung heroes, there are three main types of support operations. Reconnaissance and surveillance (e.g. locating enemy troop positions and stores), air transport (e.g long-range movement of personnel, equipment or aid using aircraft such as the Tristar or Hercules or localised transport involving helicopters such as Chinooks and Merlins) and air-to-air-refuelling which is used to extend an aircraft's range.

How does the Royal Air Force contribute to Joint (or coalition) Air Operations?

Recent deployments have seen RAF aircraft working alongside those of allied nations and this is likely to remain the case for the future. Aircraft such as the Tornado GR4A and its low-level reconnaissance ability can contribute a unique and highly specialized capability to an air campaign. Our Tristar and VC10 tankers also deployed to Afghanistan to provide aerial refuelling for US Navy aircraft even though no RAF combat aircraft were used.

But it is not just with aicraft of other countries that the RAF works in a joint environment. Our Chinook, Puma and Merlin helicopters form part of the British Joint Helicopter Command. Here RAF personnel are trained to work alongside those from the Royal Navy and Army in their everyday duties, not just on operational deployments.

What is the RAF Motto?

It is 'Per Ardua ad Astra'. It is generally said to be "Through Adversity to the Stars".

Why do RAF aircraft have a target on the side?

It is not a target but the RAF Roundel. All the world's military forces have markings on their aircraft to identify their aircraft and each has a different way of doing so:- The United States Air Force uses the famous 'Star and Bars' badge, whilst the Russians have the equally famous 'Red Star'. The RAF's is either a three-colour insignia with a blue outer ring, white middle ring and red inner, as used on support aircraft, or a blue and red two colour roundel for fighters.

What is the difference between commissioned and non-commissioned ranks?

In the RAF, the commissioned ranks are Pilot Officer through to Marshal of the Royal Air Force. They are generally referred to as 'officers'. In the RAF, a commissioned officer is a member of the Service who derives authority directly from a sovereign power (i.e. the Monarchy), and as such holds a commission from that power. Any officer (and all non-commissioned ranks) address a senior officer as "Sir" or "Ma'am".

Non-commissioned ranks are split into three groups; airmen (Aircraftsman up to Junior Technician), non-commissioned officers (or NCOs: Corporal to Flight Sergeant) and Warrant Officers. In the British Armed Forces, NCOs are split into two categories - Junior NCOs (abbreviated to JNCOs) are Corporals while Senior NCOs (SNCOs) covers Sergeants to Flight Sergeants.

NCOs are enlisted members of the RAF who have been delegated leadership or command authority by a commissioned officer. They are the junior management of the Service. Experienced NCOs are a very important part of many armed forces; in many cases NCOs are credited as being the metaphorical "backbone" of their Service, and of their individual units.

Warrant Officers (WOs) are often included in the SNCO category, but actually form a separate class of their own. A Warrant Officer will have many years experience and is respected by both rank structures. Warrant Officers are addressed as "Mister" (or "Mrs", "Ms" or "Miss" for female Warrant Officers) by commissioned officers (and as "Sir" or "Ma'am" by everyone else). SNCOs and WOs have their own messes, whereas JNCOs live and eat with the junior ranks.

Why do you salute?

The custom of saluting commissioned officers relates wholly to the commission given by Her Majesty the Queen to that officer, not the person. Therefore, when a subordinate airman salutes an officer, he is indirectly acknowledging Her Majesty as Head of State. A salute returned by the officer is on behalf of the Queen.

As with many things in military history, the origin of the custom of saluting is a little obscure. In a book called 'Military Customs', Major TJ Edwards suggests that 'saluting and the paying of compliments may be said to proceed from the exercise of good manners'. Indeed, if you take the word saluting literally, it is merely the offering of a salutation or greeting, which in the military must be reciprocated.

A more romantic theory dates from medieval times which suggests that victors at the many tournaments of the day shielded their eyes with their hands when receiving their prize from the Queen, rather than be dazzled by her beauty. This is very unlikely, but far more chivalrous. A far more plausible tale relates that the military salute is merely a form of offering an open hand as a token of respect and friendship in much the same way as a handshake does. Knights in the Middle Ages greeted each other by raising the visor of their armour, an action not unlike a military salute.

During the 17th Century, military records detail that the 'formal act of saluting was to be by removal of headdress' For some time after, hat raising became an accepted form of the military salute, but in the 18th Century the Coldstream Guards amended this procedure. They were instructed to 'clap their hands to their hats and bow as they pass by'. This was quickly adopted by other Regiments as wear and tear on the hats by constant removal and replacing was a matter of great concern. By the early 19th Century, the salute had evolved further with the open hand, palm to the front, and this has remained the case since then.

The RAF salute is essentially the same as that of the Army. When RAF personnel hand salute they display an open hand, positioned such that the finger tips almost, but not quite, touch the hat band. The Naval salute differs in that the palm of the hand faces down towards the shoulder. This dates back to the days of sailing ships, when tar and pitch were used to seal the timber from seawater. To protect their hands, officer wore white gloves and it was considered most undignified to present a dirty palm in the salute so the hand was turned through 90 degrees.

Who's in charge of the RAF?

The most senior position in the RAF is that of Chief of the Air Staff (CAS). At the moment this position is occupied by Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton.

I've always been interested in a career in the RAF. How do I join?

Once you have decided that the RAF is for you, then please contact your nearest Careers Office for details on joining the RAF. A full list of all offices complete with telephone numbers, addresses, maps and e-mail details, can be found on the RAF Careers website at http://www.raf.mod.uk/careers/.

Why do the Royal Air Force carry out low flying activities within the UK?

Low flying remains an essential skill for military aircrew. UK forces have deployed repeatedly to potential trouble spots around the world, usually with little or no warning. They have to undertake a variety of roles including reconnaissance, fast-jet or helicopter operations, search and rescue, transporting troops and the delivery of humanitarian aid to remote locations. Whatever missions we ask our Armed Forces to undertake, the aircrew must be able to fulfil the task as effectively as possible, often without time for "work-up" training. Current Operations around the world see aircrew of both fixed and rotary wing aircraft undertaking operations at low level. They are only able to do this through specialist training gained through the use of the UK Low Flying System.

How can I make a low flying complaint?

All complaints received regarding low flying aircraft are treated seriously, by whatever means a complaint is made the details are recorded and, if appropriate, an investigation is carried out so that a suitable reply can be given to the complainant. There are a number of ways that a member of the public can register their complaint about military low flying activity. (opens in a new window)

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