The opportunity to become a Station Commander comes only once in the life of a Royal Air Force Officer. Whilst many are called to a career in the Service, few are chosen for this responsibility. Those who have gone on to achieve higher ranks in the Royal Air Force will often reflect that their most enjoyable tour of duty was as a Station Commander.
In the only interview of this kind he has given, Group Captain Tony Keeling discusses his career and the experiences that led him to be appointed the Station Commander and A4 Force Element Commander at Royal Air Force Wittering.
Tony Keeling was born in Nottingham in 1969 and moved to Manchester at the age of four. He and his wife Bobby have two children and he identifies himself as a northerner but, like many Service personnel, says that home is simply where the family is.
Proudly a Royal Air Force engineer, he joined up as a Halton Apprentice but his first experience of working on an aircraft came as an air cadet: “I was working alongside a technician as he was replacing hydraulic pipes on Jet Provost at RAF Church Fenton, and then we saw the aircraft go flying and I was hooked.”
It is just as well; grammar school had not provided the young Tony Keeling with an environment in which his technically-orientated skills could develop. Even now, years after becoming a commissioned officer, he still enjoys the physical aspect of engineering and maintains that it’s impossible to be an engineering apprentice unless you enjoy using your hands.
Trade training complete, in 1990 he arrived at Royal Air Force Cottesmore (now Kendrew Barracks) as a junior technician when it was home to the Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment. Within a year he had been promoted to corporal and applied for his commission in 1994. For a person whose skills were more technical than academic, the route to a commission would prove so challenging that it very nearly didn’t happen at all.
Before starting his three-year engineering degree at the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham, Tony, like all those who chose to commission from the ranks, had to complete an academic preparatory course at RAF College Cranwell. He only just passed the course and entered Shrivenham as a training risk. But it was this experience that hardened his sense of self-determination: “It takes hard work. You have to recognise for yourself that you have a talent and finding that inner talent will unlock all kinds of opportunities for you.”
Tony Keeling graduated with a first-class honours degree in aero-mechanical systems engineering and then, after graduating top of his class at Cranwell, commissioned as an engineering officer into the Royal Air Force in 1999. He joined the Military Aircraft Authority on its formation in 2010, set up after the Haddon-Cave enquiry into the crash of Nimrod XV230. He was also Officer Commanding Engineering and Logistics Wing at RAF Lossiemouth when the two Tornados collided over the Moray Firth in 2012.
Whilst the journey towards his commission had developed a strong vocational work ethic and a lasting commitment to unlocking potential in others, the tours at the Military Aircraft Authority and RAF Lossiemouth cemented Tony Keeling’s determination to improve safety. It is a determination that comes with a deep understanding of military life.
“We understand that choosing a career in the military comes with certain risks, but that means safety is a material priority for us. It’s because we understand risk that we work to eliminate it where we can. That we should always work to the safest possible outcome is a clear purpose for me.”
In 2016 Group Captain Keeling was invited to be interviewed for the position of Station Commander at RAF Wittering. Despite tough competition, he was successful and arrived at the Cambridgeshire Station in June 2017. His commitment to safety came with him. In September 2017 the Station held its first Total Safety day, and in October 2017 RAF Wittering launched its most successful social media campaign ever when it reached out to local horse owners before Chinook helicopters arrived for a temporary deployment.
“When I arrived, I knew there was expertise at every level and I wanted to let those people do their job without hindrance. To make that happen you need a values-based approach to leadership with a clear focus on people, the community and their safety and security. My job was, and still is, to create an environment of success, where people are free to innovate and where they are engaged and have a voice.”
Group Captain Keeling is a Royal Air Force LGBT+ advocate. Equality is a commitment that has its roots close to home. “When my son came out, I realised it was the bravest thing he’d ever done. The question I needed to answer was how could I be the best dad and best friend to my son. Working with the LGBT+ Freedom Network, we are increasingly making the Royal Air Force a progressive environment where people can be themselves – it’s about respect for differences and that’s how we get the most from our people.”
The last eighteen months have been busy. On top of the Station’s roles in supporting operations, exercises and flying training, RAF Wittering made a significant contribution to RAF100. For the Station Commander, the standout moment was the national final of Race for the Line in June 2018. Over sixty teams from schools across the country created rocket-powered cars and competed against one another to see whose was the fastest.
The Countess of Wessex, RAF Wittering’s Honorary Air Commodore, visited and the day was completed with spectacular display from the Red Arrows in clear blue skies. RAF Wittering delivered an outstanding event.
“Throughout the RAF100 celebrations we had high-quality people delivering high-quality outputs, over and above their day jobs. Despite all we had asked of them, they put together an amazing day that was enjoyed by hundreds of young people in complete safety; it was perfect.”
In the autumn Group Captain Keeling will take his place alongside other senior military figures and defence officials at the Royal College of Defence Studies. Like his appointment as Station Commander, it is an opportunity that will come only once. Whilst he acknowledges some sadness at the prospect of leaving RAF Wittering, he is also excited of the beginning of a new chapter in his career.
“The Royal College of Defence Studies is an exciting opportunity to broaden your understanding of how the government and nation state works, it’s going to be fascinating to sit alongside new people and get a new perspective of government.”
“When I left RAF Cottesmore in 1995 I never thought I’d be a Station Commander. Command of RAF Wittering and the A4 Force Elements has been a huge privilege, and every day I am humbled by the brilliance of our people. As a Station Commander you are deeply involved in the life of the Station and that means, to a greater or lesser extent, the life of its people. I am in no doubt that it is our people that earn this Station its strong reputation for consistently delivering on operations and going the extra mile in youth engagement, community relations, sport and support to charity. I am in awe of their collective achievements.”