Watchkeeping on Ascension Island

Many of you may be dreaming about upcoming holidays on island resorts: palm trees, sandy beaches, snorkelling amongst tropical fish, cool drinks etc. But a number of British soldiers are spending their summer learning to use the Watchkeeper remotely piloted air system (RPAS) on an island that, albeit tropical, is not really a holiday paradise.

Ascension Island (graphic: The Times Atlas of the World)

Ascension Island (graphic: The Times Atlas of the World)

Ascension Island marked as 5a (graphic: The Times Atlas of the World)

Ascension Island marked as 5a (graphic: The Times Atlas of the World)

Ascension island, just south of the Equator (7°57′ 14°22’W to be precise), 2,250 kms east of Brazil and 1,600 kms west of Africa, is essentially covered by lava flows and cinder cones. Its tropical desert climate means the heat is only relieved on about 30 rainy days a year. It has no indigenous population; the 880 or so people who live there are present because of the Royal Air Force base, the BBC World Service’s Atlantic Relay station, a US Air Force base (which, together with NASA, operates a telescope for tracking orbital debris), a European Space Agency rocket tracking station, an Anglo-American signals intelligence facility, one of the Global Positioning System’s four ground antennas, and, most recently, the US Department of Energy’s mobile climate research facility. And, over the past few weeks, members of the Army’s Tactical Unmanned Air Systems (TUAS) Regiment, 47 Regiment Royal Artillery, 16 of whom are being trained as pilots for Watchkeeper this year.

Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island

Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island

The island may not be an ideal holiday destination, (Devil’s Ashpit and Comfortless Cove are just two of the names that might be slightly off-putting!),

Comfortless Cove

Comfortless Cove

but the British Army considers it perfect for RPAS training: the weather is ideal, the runway is uncongested and the civilian air traffic over that part of the Atlantic is negligible compared to airspace over Britain.

Training from Wideawake Airfield (where did that name come from I wonder?) on the island’s southern shores constitutes the final part of the pilot course that started in January with a phase of manned flying and a theory course at the Watchkeeper Training Facility in Larkhill, western England.

The Army desperately needs these pilots to be able to operationally deploy its £1.2bn system made by Thales. According to an article published on 1 Dec. 2015 by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism the British Army only had six fully trained pilots in September 2015, and two of those were civilians.

It quoted Major Tom Luker, second-in-command of the Royal Artillery’s 47 Regiment, as saying on 1 Dec. 2015: “I think you’ll be staggered by how few pilots we’ve got.” The article says “Watchkeeper has seen action only once – a fleeting deployment to Afghanistan where it flew for 146 hours between September and October 2014, just before the end of the UK’s combat mission there.”

Watchkeeper was supposed to be fully operational three years ago. The MoD says several factors are responsible for the delay, one of which is the shortage of trained pilots and support personnel.

If you would like to find out more about Ascension Island I recommend this fascinating web site.

Cat Hill, the US Air Force Base on Ascension Island

Cat Hill, the US Air Force Base on Ascension Island