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"Flying Harder" The History of 618VGS

The Beginning

In 1942 when Air Cadet Gliding was formally established, one of the first schools formed was No.141 Gliding School at RAF Kidbrooke in South London. On 1st December 1945, it moved to Gravesend, from where in June 1946 it went to RAF Detling on the North Downs and then to RAF West Malling for the period between September 1949 and September 1950. Following a short stay, it returned to Detling when it disbanded and later merged into 146GS and 168 GS. In 1956, this unit became 615 GS at RAF Kenley, which remains in operation today.

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Manston

In 1962, No 677 Gliding School in Northern Ireland was closed for security reasons and the school equipment was used to form a new school, No 618 at RAF Manston in Kent. It was staffed by some ex—instructors of the old No 166 Gliding School, which disbanded in December 1955 at Hawkinge, Kent. Commanded by Flight Lieutenant J C “Jimmy” Farrell (later to become Wing Commander and OC of Kent Wing ATC), No 618 GS launched its first glider on the 24 March 1963. He was the former OC of 166 Gliding School. The first year was devoted to the training of staff and winch drivers on the fleet of a Sedbergh, two Kirby Cadet 3's, three Land Rovers and two “Eagle” twin drum winches.

 On 22 March 1964, Cadet Martin became the first student on a course to solo with 618. More students were sent on their first solos during that year and the first summer course was run, in which 16 cadets soloed in a week.

West Malling

Gliders first flew above West Malling between 1930 and 1933 when Mr. "Jimmy” C.H. Lowe-Wild designed and built his own primary gliders. He operated some from the local airfield at West Malling, which at that time was called Maidstone Airport. In 1930 the Kent Gliding Club formed. After World War II, it moved around various airfields in Kent, including a spell at West Malling, before finding their permanent site at Challock.

Following the U.S. Naval Facility withdrawal from RAF West Malling in late 1963, the airfield was placed on a care and maintenance status.  618 moved from Manston into West Malling in March 1965 and made its headquarters in the old dispersal spider complex near the threshold of runway 07. Its aircraft and equipment were stored into one of the large T4 Hangars where they remained until 1992.

  

1964 saw the arrival of the Short Brothers servicing section from Rochester. They had the contract for servicing RAF Chipmunk and other aircraft. The Gliding School had a very good relationship and worked side by side with Shorts as they had very few movements to hinder 618's operations. In 1968, they lost the service contract and un-powered aircraft exclusively used West Malling for some years.

In 1967, the fleet was increased to five Cadet Mk III’s and two Sedberghs, establishing 618 as a “three-line” school. In 1969 Squadron Leader Gerry Fuller became the "Boss”. During his eight years as OC, 618 lived up to its new motto of "We Fly Harder" in every way. Staff progress was rapid and many cadets flew at weekends, on "field days" and during six weeks of continuous courses. These courses had 22 students in two intakes and most learnt to fly solo in the week. When the Royal Air Force finally gave up use of West Malling in 1970, Kent County Council (KCC) bought it for only £475,000 to protect it from "undesirable development".

Expansion

Around two hundred cadets a year went solo on the "Mark III” during this era. On average, the School flew 12000 launches a year. In 1977, Squadron Leader Ben Newman took command of 618. His previous post was OC 623 GS at RAF Tangmere, which had disbanded when the RAF station closed. In 1979, 618 went up in strength again to Seven Cadet MkIII’s and three Sedbergh, with three twin drum winches and five Land-Rovers.

Detachments

The school made many annual detachments to the Air Cadet Soaring site at Halesland near Cheddar. Staff attending the courses were able to fly over the picturesque Mendip hills and the 618 songbook is full of ballads made up in the pubs of Somerset. The usual detachment was for one week per year and included 10 instructors and flight staff cadets. The aim was to improve the skills of the instructors at a site away from base. Halesland was the on the ridge and some soaring and cross county flying was possible. Back in Kent, at RAF Biggin Hill during the Battle of Britain Air displays each September, 618 detached a Sedbergh towed by a Chipmunk Tug from No.1 AEF at Manston. The Sedbergh performed an aerobatic display to please the crowds.

The glass fibre era

In late 1982, 618VGS was chosen by HQAC to become the first school to re-equip with the new glass fibre sailplanes. The SCHLEICHER ASK 21 VANGUARD T1 was selected and 10 initial airframes were delivered. During June 1983, instructors underwent conversion training at the Air Cadet Central Gliding School (ACCGS) at RAF Syerston. Each instructor received a weeks training at ACCGS. The first three Vanguards arrived at West Malling on 18th. June when final familiarisation on site took, place.  In September 1983, the last "Mark 3" flew at West Malling before being sold off. On 4th August 1983 Cadet Hazell became the first Air Cadet to be taught all through on the Vanguard, and went solo after only 29 launches.

From mid 1983 618 had to share the airfield once again when an aircraft completion company METAIR Ltd, later part of Hunting PLC, moved in. By November 1985, 618 increased its Vanguards to eight and became the sole user of this type. Sqn Ldr Newman was awarded the MBE for services to Air Cadet Gliding in 1982. He led the school  through the first years of the GRP era and this culminated, in 1998, to the award of the Sir Arthur Marshall Trophy for the best Winch launched gliding School.  Ben retired at the end of March 1988 to be succeeded by Squadron Leader Ian Aitken, who moved up from the post of Chief Flying Instructor which he held from 1984.

Vikings arrive

To ensure standardisation throughout the fleet, 618 lost their Vanguards in February 1988 when the first of eight VIKINGS arrived at West Malling. Around this time, the property development of the large airfield site began to turn the Airfield into a business park. The first sign was building in the North of the field, which lost 618 its Grass N/S runway. To try to find an alternative site for 618, Squadron Leader Ben Newman and his team had begun a search for other greenfield sites in Kent. They were successful in finding a very large area at Grange Farm, on the North Downs near Boxley Village. This site was across the road from the old RAF gliding home of Detling. Squadron Leader Ian Aitken, with help from Headquarters Air Cadets, managed to put a convincing case for the conversion of this field from crops to a grass gliding area complete with individual storage for each Viking and conversion of some listed farm cottages to provide a headquarters and accommodation.

The Local Parish council was very supporting but Kent County council planning officials were distinctly hostile to the plans. Despite this, the problem of finding sufficient funding by the RAF put paid to these innovative plans.

The popular detachments to Halesland had ceased when the GRP fleet had entered service and Headquarters Air Cadets (HQAC) decided to find an alternative for instructor and advanced student to improve their skills.

The location chosen was Portmoak Airfield in Fife. The ridge and wave lift available made it a very suitable location for advanced training. Ever eager to be at the forefront, in 1992, 618VGS provided the staff and students for the very first course run by a VGS training advanced cadets on this site.

 By that year the building had increased to such an extent that Metair were persuaded to move to Biggin Hill. They left the large hangar and the control tower vacant and when the 618HQ was demolished in December 1992 the school moved into the Tower and put the aircraft and equipment into the large Hangar. Sadly, it was relatively short lived as 618 were given notice to leave West Malling by the end of September 1994.

The last Continuous course took place in August 1994. During that week, 10 cadets went solo. On the last Day of the course a reunion cricket match was held on the Airfield. with a pitch mowed especially for the purpose. The match consisted of the old boys playing the current Instructors. As usual, the Old Boys won. This was followed by a party and barbeque. All the Commanding officers of the School since its inception were present.

The last flight of a service aircraft took place on September 25th 1994 with Flt Lt Allan Melmore and Flight Staff Cadet John Wotton making a short circuit of the airfield in ZE558.

Quite fittingly, the last glider launch took place three days later when the privately owned Slingsby Cadet MKIII was flown by the former supply officer, Flt Lt (retired) Derek Smith and his wife Joan. From 618’s formation, until it left West Malling over 3000 cadets flew their first glider solo and gained their wings with 618VGS.

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Challock

 Due to the very good relationships with the British Gliding association (BGA) and in no small part to the work of Squadron Leader Robin Miller of ACCGS, HQAC struck an accord with the Kent Gliding Club. In its past the KGC had been resident at West Malling, before 618VGS was formed, and in 1963 they had purchased a small field at Challock near Ashford. As an experiment in operating an Air Cadet School alongside a civil club, an agreement was made for 618 to operate alongside the Ken Gliding Club. However, this was to be a very limited operation given the small size of the airfield at Challock.

With the limitations on space, not all the 40 or so 618VGS instructors could be accommodated. Therefore, many moved to other Gliding Schools to continue gliding with the Air Cadets although quite a few ceased Air Cadet gliding completely.

That same day, 28th September, most of the Schools equipment was moved to Challock. As there was a small blister hangar at Challock, only two Vikings were moved there. Challock operations began on 1st October 1994 with site familiarisation. Challock has no hard standings around the field, and when the winter weather changed for the worse, the winch began to sink into the surface. At one point, the winch was unusable for a month.

The first cadets attended in November and some of the best flying took place on the ridge, where, many sorties lasted over half and hour.

The operating difficulties increased and it became clear that a full operation to train cadets with the circuit crowded with club gliders was impossible. With great sadness, as the winter of 1995 approached, 618VGS suspended operations. It was never to resume flying at Challock. In March 1996, 618 ceased operations altogether and the staff dispersed to other gliding schools.

In October 1996, Flight Lieutenant Allan Melmore assumed command of the School. He and some of the staff joined 615 VGS at Kenley and were able to run courses at other airfields. The first took place in June 1996 When ACCGS at Syerston accommodated 618VGS to run its Basic Gliding course with students from Kent Wing ATC. A further two courses were held at Syerston in 1997 followed by one at Kenley in 1998. A final advanced course on the Viking was held at Portmoak in August 1998.

Conversion to power

618 worked hard for its existence over the period. In April 1999, 617VGS at Manston also ceased operating due to the closure of this base. All the staff of 617 moved to fly at Kenley with 615VGS. When the option to start up a VGS at RAF Odiham became a reality, instructors from both schools were chosen to go there. 618VGS reformed at Odiham with the Vigilant T1 motor Glider on 1st July. A new Headquarters complex of Portakabins was moved in to an area around the southern hangar.

 Instructors converted to the Vigilant during the summer of 2000 and one and later two Vigilants were positioned at 612VGS Abingdon for the work up. On August 19th 2000 a flight of four Vigilants from 612 VGS at Abingdon delivered the first two 618 Aircraft to Odiham. The first Gliding Induction course for a cadet was flown on September 3rd. Further staff members were recruited, and the third and final Vigilant arrived from Kinloss in November.

New Staff were recruited during the first few months and instructor training began and continues today. After many months of operating without mains power and water, the installation of services was completed in late 2001 and staff were able to begin improving the briefing and living accommodation.   

618VGS is now training cadets every weekend in the skies around Hampshire.

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