My life on Initial Officer Training – Flying Officer Michael Parsons
The truth is that I never expected this opportunity to turn up. After applying twice unsuccessfully for a branch commission early in my career I thought that my time had passed, but then came the unexpected news in the summer of 2018 that there would be another Director of Music vacancy. This was my last chance, I told myself; I would give it one final go, as I knew instantly that I would regret it if I didn’t. So began the incessant trail of paperwork and revision in preparation for two days at the Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre, Royal Air Force College Cranwell, in May 2019. I felt I'd given a good account of myself, but the moment I was called in to get the good news from the Principal Director of Music still feels surreal even now, a mixture of excitement and anticipation for the challenges ahead.
The first of which was going to be explaining to my wife and young son I was going away for six months again, coming as it did shortly after a secondment to the pre-boarding team in Promotions at RAF High Wycombe. I won’t pretend for a minute that this compares to an overseas detachment where you don’t get to see your family except on Skype perhaps, but it was nonetheless going to present its own difficulties for all parties.
It was a strange feeling going back to RAFC Cranwell in August 2019 to start Initial Officer Training, a place I had spent 18 years in Music Services, now stripped of all rank and privileges and having to march around everywhere. I also quickly found out that I was one of the most experienced on the course at the grand age of 41, as one particular Flight Sergeant took great delight in pointing out on an early parade...
My God Parsons, you’re old aren’t you!
It was this prior service that led to me being appointed Course Leader in week three, involving the co-ordination of around 100 cadets, attempting to get everyone to right place at the right time with the right equipment wearing the right uniform, as well as keeping the flight staff happy for good measure – it was just as challenging as it sounds!
The first term was mainly about basic military skills and standards, and it was expected of those of us with previous service to bring the direct entrants up to speed quickly. There were lots of inspections and evenings spent frantically dusting, ironing and polishing virtually everything in your room until the early hours, and then helping the person down the corridor who’d just ironed very smart tramlines down the front of their trousers!
Term one started slowly but quickly passed, and after a nervous ‘tell’ to see if we had progressed, we all enjoyed a much-needed week at home before embarking on adventurous training in South Wales. This was an eclectic mix of mountain biking (in reality this involved pushing a mountain bike up a hill, getting lost, then having great fun trying not to fall off it on the way down again...), canoeing and hill-walking. Now most cadets will probably tell you that term two is the hardest of the course, and I'm certainly in agreement. There is lots of academic work, culminating in a 2000-word air power essay and a separate exam, as well as two week-long assessed field exercises, all of which you must pass to progress. The first of these exercises was up at RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria, and in November the weather there can be absolutely anything it wants to be.
One of the privileges of term two is moving into College Hall Officers’ Mess and getting your own room, or at least it should have been. After only a couple of weeks living there the heating failed, and so due to the extremely cold weather we had to move into accommodation blocks on the opposite side of camp, which did at least give us much warmer rooms even if it made transiting to lessons more awkward.
In the end term two passed more quickly than term one, and at the end of it several of us got a taster of what our own graduation would be like whilst dressed in our No. 1 uniform supporting the course in front. A relaxing Christmas break ensued, with most of the squadron having been given the good news that they had made it onto the final term.
Term three began with the good news that the heating had been fixed in College Hall and we could move back to our original accommodation, with bar on site! The ‘carousel’ that makes up the first five weeks of the final term I found amongst the most interesting parts of the course; of particular note was our week with the Padre practising listening skills and dealing with welfare issues, and a week of adventurous training on the mountain tops of Scotland in blizzard conditions attempting to find our way from one bothy to the next. This almost resulted in our instructor (and us!) getting washed away during a treacherous river crossing in the dark, but fortunately we all made it safely to the other side with only very wet feet to show from the experience.
Before we knew it, we were in the final few weeks of the course; drill practice was plentiful (I had also applied for Parade Commander) and we had the delights of ‘Ultimate Challenge’ to look forward to. Throughout the course the physical education staff had delighted in finding ever more extraordinary ways to test our resilience and endurance, and ‘Ultimate Challenge’ was the culmination of their efforts. It consisted of, an outdoors circuit of leopard crawls, tyre flips and jerry can races followed by a 10km yomp carrying stretchers and jerry cans the entire route as a flight. Many of us were still limping around the next day on Champagne Tuesday, when we found out if we were going to graduate that term or not. The celebrations then continued at our practice dining in night a few days later, where I was privileged to receive the Group Captain Williams Memorial Trophy, awarded to the cadet who had shown the biggest improvement over the course.
The day of the Graduation was special for all of us, we had come through one of the hardest challenges we had faced, whilst creating memories and friendships that would last a lifetime. After a week at home recovering with the family it was time to finally start the job that all the training had helped prepare me for. Walking back in to the band room as Director of Music of the Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment was a proud moment, one made even nicer by the warm welcome I received from my colleagues, and I knew at that point that the last six months had been worth it.
Article by Flying Officer Micheal Parsons
Photo: NHT Official Photographic Section
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