“I’m an RAF reservist but I can’t be deployed.” Not many undergraduate students across the UK are able to say those words, and in fact, at York, only five can. One of these five is Harry Horsman, a second year Astrophysics student.
Harry is a member of the Yorkshire Universities Air Squadron (YUAS), the Yorkshire branch of the University Air Squadrons (UAS). Training units of the Royal Air Force, they are designed to “develop your potential to become an RAF officer, and prepare you for the Initial Officer Training at RAF Cranwell.”
There are 75 undergraduates in the Yorkshire branch, studying at universities across Yorkshire including Leeds, Sheffield, York and Hull.
What exactly does being part of the UAS entail? Harry explains that the training involved is far from the stereotypical image that we tend to have of the armed forces, that of running around fields and clambering over assault courses.
In fact, it is more a combination of physical fitness exercises and sport, with technical challenges such as learning to fly an aircraft. “We do force development, which is the soldier and infantry training, which can include survival skills, military training exercises and live rifle shooting.”
“The training is far from the stereotypical image that we tend to have of the armed forces”
As is expected, learning to fly is included in the training regime. “We fly the Grob Tutor 115E, a fully aerobatic aircraft used in initial flying training for RAF pilots, which is pretty cool. We do a slightly condensed version of the Elementary Flying Training syllabus, which can greatly benefit any Officer Cadets that go on to join the RAF in a pilot role.”
Harry hopes to do just that. Is the plan to go straight into the RAF after his degree? His reply, “hopefully, yes,” makes his answer very clear.
What’s also clear is his decision to obtain a degree before attempting to join the RAF, as being part of the UAS doesn’t guarantee an Officer Cadet immediate progression into the RAF. However, it does increase their chances in the selection process.
“You’ve got a much better chance of becoming a pilot with a degree. Statistically, it’s an incredibly difficult job to get into, so it’s good to have a degree to fall back on.” Harry goes on to explain, “You can’t neglect your degree for the RAF stuff because you haven’t got a guaranteed job at the end of it.”
Commitment levels to the UAS are high. Harry travels to RAF Linton-on-Ouse, thirteen miles outside of York, every weekend during term time for compulsory training. A typical training weekend starts on a Friday night and finishes on Saturday afternoon, leaving Sunday free for Officer Cadets to catch up with university work and meet deadlines.
“Everyone from the squadron turns up there after uni has finished. We normally have a guest speaker, usually a military veteran or someone currently serving. These presentations really increase your military and political awareness. Then on Saturday morning we have physical training, so something like circuits, and then sport.”
Harry enjoys having two different social circles and finds it refreshing to be with people who share his interest in the RAF, especially because “it’s good to get away from uni sometimes.” He goes on, “because you have to have regular fitness tests, everyone is very healthy, everyone is very outgoing, and everyone loves adventurous training, so you’re with a very like-minded group of people. You have your uni social circle, and then the squadron circle is completely separate.”
Despite his commitment to the UAS, Harry doesn’t find it difficult to manage university life and his role within the UAS, insisting that it is simply a case of “using your time well.” This is partly because his squadron doesn’t expect members to prioritise the UAS over their degree. In fact, they endorse the very opposite.
Harry explains, “If you miss a couple of weeks because of university, they will make allowances. They are very aware that your degree is the priority. If you start to slip in your degree they will notice.”
A place in the Squadron is valuable considering the opportunities that being a UAS Officer Cadet can bring. Since earning a place in the squadron a year ago (after signing up at the Freshers’ Fair), Harry has been skiing in France, and visited Holland, Belgium and the Falkland Islands. He’s grateful for this, and appreciates that it is a privilege to be given such memorable opportunities.
“It can really push you outside of your comfort zone when you’re hanging off a cliff by your fingertips”
He explains that he has been at his family home for only three days since January. “I’ve chosen not to go home. I just don’t think there’s any point going home when you can stay here and fly. There’s so much going on, so much to do on the calendar, especially during the holidays when I spend all summer in Squadron.”
Harry has many memorable experiences from his summer with the UAS. A few weeks ago he was in Arnhem, Netherlands, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Operation Market Garden and the Battle of Arnhem, which took place in WWII. He went to Nijimegen, also in the Netherlands, for the International Four Days Marches, representing his Squadron in a huge military event consisting of a 160km march over four days, which is “hugely important over there.”
Such events unite members of the armed forces from around the globe. “Military units from all over the world enter teams to complete it, I think there’s about 6,000 military personnel – Swedes, Germans, Americans and Dutch. That’s pretty cool. Then there are about 60,000 Dutch civilians that do it as well, so it’s a proper carnival atmosphere. It’s basically a 4-day walking party.”
A trip to the Falkland Islands this summer was particularly memorable for Harry, allowing him rare access to an important part of British history. “It was incredible. No one gets to go the Falklands. You’re out there for a week, and you look at the successes and failures of the conflict and look for lessons to be applied to future operations. There is also a big remembrance element, visiting cemeteries and memorials.”
It’s evident that Harry is grateful for his experience as an Officer Cadet in the UAS, and he admits that it he believes it to have had a noticeable impact on his personal development. “I feel like it has developed me as a person, as an all-rounder. It’s all based towards teaching you to become an Officer so there’s a lot of leadership stuff. You give so many talks and presentations; your public speaking ability improves, as do your management skills and having to balance your commitments. All the travel and the things you see, the people you meet, it gives you a very different perspective.”
Aspects of the training such as adventure training test not only an Officer Cadet’s physical capacity, but also their mental strength. Harry explains, “It can really push you outside of your comfort zone when you’re hanging off a cliff by your fingertips.”
Evidently, learning to fly an aircraft plays a huge part in RAF related Officer training. Harry hasn’t yet had much chance to experience this side of the UAS, but would like to be more involved this year.
“I haven’t done much flying, so I’m still a novice. Your first solo flight is after having already done 11 hours. So you’re literally flying a plane by yourself. Imagine your driving test; imagine how many hours you have to do before they let you drive alone. Whereas in the UAS you are given a plane to fly after 11 hours. Once you get to 30 hours you do navigation trips where you’ll fly all across the country on your own, land at another base, then come back.”
Flying planes, watching parachute drops and participating in military marches; has being a UAS Officer Cadet provided Harry with a wealth of once in a lifetime opportunities? “Absolutely.”