Interview with Air Marshal Sir Christopher Harper KBE MA CMgr CCMI RAF - Director General of the NATO International Military Staff - who was the Reviewing Officer at the 41(R) Squadron Centenary Parade on Thursday (July 14).
• As 41 Sqn was your first posting – how important was it that you were here personally to be involved with the Centenary Celebrations?
“Well I think everybody holds the first operational Squadron that they serve on in a very special place and certainly 41(R) Sqn taught me an incredible amount, not only the Air Force, about flying fast jets, but also about people. Leading people, being with people and being with people in times of hardship and adversity and working together as a team. That experience set me up for the rest of my career. I remember the time extremely fondly, it’s the time when I got married as well, so a very important point of life, certainly a very important point of career. Yes I hold 41(R) Sqn absolutely in a very, very special place.”
• You were also an OC of 41 Sqn – what legacy did you leave after your tour?
“That’s a really tough question, because what we in the Royal Air Force rarely do is self-promote. It’s one of those things that is a little more common in the corporate and business world, but I believe I worked with a team, for a team in delivering a team effort. During the time I was commanding 41(R) Sqn, we were involved in active operations in the Balkans and fortunately there were no casualties or fatalities due to combat losses. Sadly, we did lose a pilot who was training for those operations. I must say that even though it was a very horrible time, because we were dealing not only with the aftermath of that with that young man’s family, but also in making sure that we completely rebuilt the confidence and strength of the overall 41(R) Sqn team. It was, I hope, that I left behind a very strong, positive, pro-active team for my successor and actually, if I dare say, looking at the team that I saw perform that incredible Centenary parade today, it seems to me that the Sqn has gone from strength to strength.
• You still have links to the Sqn via the Presidency of the Association – would you say that 41 Sqn is your favourite Sqn in your career?
“Do you know what? The answer to that is unequivocally “Yes!” It was my first Sqn and I commanded the Sqn and I was very fortunate to go back to RAF Coltishall as the Station Commander, as the Jaguar Force Commander, and of course, 41 (R) Sqn was part of the triad of Jaguar Sqns on the station at the time. At that point, I couldn’t show any favour to one or the other, but yes, 41(R) Sqn has a very, very special place in my heart.”
• What is the best memory of your involvement with 41 Sqn?
“41(R) Sqn, and I don’t know why, it sets itself apart from any other Sqn in this regard, but it’s always had a reputation for being a family unit. I mean by that, not only the brothers in arms that make up a family on any unit that has to bear arms, go to war, which has to develop martial spirit amongst its members, but it’s always had this incredible bond of the families of the people who serve on the Sqn. Also those who want to come back, remain associated with the Sqn and that range is from veterans, at the parade today we’ve had 2 ex Spitfire pilots from the WWII era join us to ex Sqn Commanders to ex members of the Sqn. I was absolutely delighted to see some of the NCOs who served with me at 41(R) Sqn at RAF Coltishall, other engineers and ground crew to support personnel from the rest of the Sqns history. It’s just a magic family sense and I think it is that perhaps, that sets 41(R) Sqn apart from the rest.”
• What element of the Centenary Celebrations have you enjoyed most – appreciate Gala Dinner yet to come!
“It’s just such a treat to come back to a frontline flying unit, to be involved with people celebrating a very special day, to soak up the atmosphere that goes with the camaraderie that is always there on units such as this. Actually just to reacquaint oneself with that, working in a high profile, busy, international job in NATO headquarters over in Brussels, it’s fabulous for many, many reasons and it’s a very privileged appointment to have. One’s heart is always with a frontline fighter Sqn and whenever one gets the opportunity to return, it’s a great, great time!”
• What message would you give to the future personnel of 41 Sqn?
“41(R) Sqn has an incredibly important role now, testing and evaluating and contributing to the development of the equipment which we need on our frontline and the Sqns role is dealing with of course the Typhoon and Tornado in that regard. We have not, as a nation, invested considerably in Defence over the last few years, so the only way we are going to maintain a winning edge is by having a technological advantage. It’s a Sqn like 41(R) Sqn that will make absolutely sure that advantage is exploited, that its brought to bear in a timely and efficient manner and that, therefore our frontline force can benefit from the experience of being completely confident in what it is that they have to offer.”