If you find yourself flying out of RAF Brize Norton, the chances are you fall into one of three categories. You or one of your family could be a serving member of NATO forces, on route to a military base in Germany or Cyprus. If not, you probably hold an executive position in a world government, and have been in the UK for high level talks about some topic of pressing geopolitical significance. As the RAF's strategic transport hub, Brize Norton, near Oxford, caters for those international visitors who need the unusual level of discretion and security provided by armed guards and miles of constantly-patrolled razorwire perimeter fencing. This is where Airforce One touches down when Bill comes to see Tony. Until his death, King Hussein of Jordan would pilot his own jet here, and the Sultan of Brunei rather tackily arrives in a three-plane convoy, one 747 to go ahead to check the weather, the second for him, and the third for hangers-on and matching luggage.
If you're neither in government or uniform you are almost certainly travelling to Ascension Island or the Falklands, the RAF's only civilian passenger routes. Putting yourself in the hands of 216 Squadron is a significantly different experience from flying with an ordinary commercial carrier. The departure terminal, though arranged much like any other airport, is decorated in a functional style that, like the curling cheese and pickle sandwiches in the dispenser machine, could only be the product of the British military mind. Your fellow passengers in the lounge are more likely to be on their way back from a tour in the Balkans than a timeshare in Alicante. A glass display of weaponry confiscated from overeager warriors' hand baggage adds to a picture that is completed by the bus-ride across the tarmac, past camouflaged Hercules transporters, and ominous grassy mounds, concealing silos for who knows what kind of next-generation war machines.
216 squadron fly nine Tristar jets, converted so they can carry passengers, freight, or perform air-to-air refuelling, a role they recently took on during the Kosovo bombing campaign. Seats are arranged on palettes, so the planes can be quickly transformed from one use to another, and the refuelling tanks carry enough petrol to send the average family car round the world eighteen times. On the Falklands route 248 seats are slotted into the Tristar's wide body, which, as the stewards are quick to point out, is far less than the 300 a commercial carrier would cram in for the same purpose. So, you get more leg room with the RAF. The stewards themselves, dressed in olive green jumpsuits, are more Top Gun than trolley dolly, and even the drinks machine in the galley is constructed like a weapon system control panel, old fashioned bakelite dials marked 'hot cup 1' and 'hot cup 2' switchable to 'soup' or 'baby bottle' settings. While the RAF will operate a bar on board (a relief when it's 8 hours to Ascension, an hour an a half stop and another 8 to the Falklands), they are not primarily a service-oriented operation. Your lunchbox is a window into an alternative world of nutrition, featuring processed ham and cheese, plus that most retro of all snacks, a pork pie. As you board you are warned that weather conditions in the South Atlantic can be extreme, with cross winds often exceeding the Tristar's 30 knot safety rating. This means flight diversions, but since the alternative landing arrangements lead to an unscheduled day or two in Recife, Rio de Janeiro or Montevideo, this is far from the end of the world. The RAF experience is a charming way to fly, although when you arrive in the Falklands, the end of the world is more or less where you will be.
This piece first appeared in Wallpaper magazine*