Number 4 School of Technical Training celebrates 80 years of engineering excellence in South Wales

Since 1938, the Royal Air Force has proudly delivered high quality engineering training in the heart of the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales. This followed the issue of Air Ministry Order No 493 in 1938, transferring Number 3 School of Technical Training from RAF Manston to RAF St Athan as part of the newly formed Number 4 School of Technical Training (No 4SofTT).  Established on 1 September 1938, in the build-up to the Second World War, No 4SofTT’s first role was instructing Flight Mechanics, Flight Riggers and Drivers Petrol.

An Illustrious Past

In June 1942, No 4SofTT began training Flight Engineers to conduct in-flight technical tasks on the RAF’s multi-engine heavy bomber aircraft. By October 1942, one of the School’s earliest graduates, 1504874 C J Symes, had gone onto earn a Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM). He would be the first of 377 Flight Engineers trained by No 4SofTT who would be honoured for their bravery and professionalism, through Distinguished Flying Crosses, DFMs or other decorations.

The School has the prestigious honour of having trained 15 of the 19 Flight Engineers who flew in the Lancasters on the Dambuster’s Raid by 617 Squadron on 16/17 May 1943 (Operation CHASTISE). Eight of these Air Engineers sadly perished during the mission, and were poignantly remembered in the 8 light emitting diodes in the RAF100 Relay Baton; a small nod to the School’s past.

Further heroism was displayed by Sgt Norman Jackson, another Flight Engineer graduate from No 4SofTT. Whilst serving on 106 Squadron at RAF Metheringham, he was part of a bombing raid on Schweinfurt when his Lancaster was hit by anti-aircraft fire, setting the starboard wing ablaze and seriously injuring Sgt Jackson. Knowing that action needed to be taken, and despite his injuries, he climbed out onto the aircraft wing with a hand-held fire extinguisher to attempt to put out the fire. During this effort Sgt Jackson fell from the aircraft, but only after he had tackled the blaze.

The aircraft eventually made a forced landing. Surviving his fall from the Lancaster, Sgt Jackson was later captured and became a Prisoner of War. For his actions, Sgt Jackson was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious gallantry award for members of the British Armed Forces.

Over the course of the Second World War and immediately after, No 4SofTT conducted ab initio training for 22,599 Flight Engineers. This figure included trainees from allied forces from Canada, France, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Rhodesia, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands. At its peak, No 4SofTT were training a staggering 5,000 Flight Engineers simultaneously in 1943/44.

The quality of training delivered by No 4SofTT was rewarded in August 1944 when His Majesty King George VI approved the Unit’s crest. The badge comprises four outstretched cubit arms conjoined in soltire, symbolic of propellers and four engine aircraft, with a gear wheel in the centre to acknowledge the technical aspect of the School.

Post-war, No 4SofTT continued training flight mechanics and also instructed Administrators and Safety Equipment Workers and Assistants. In July 1955, the School began training Airframe, Engine, Armament, Electrics and Instruments trades, which would later be joined by Mechanical Transport Mechanics and General Mechanics.

Also in 1955, No 4SofTT commenced Boy Entrant training. Boy Entrants were 16-year olds joining from secondary modern or grammar schools, receiving 18 months of technical training in their respective trades. The School would continue to train Boy Entrants for 10 years, with one of the last Boy Entrants from No 4SofTT being AC Anthony Rowley, the father of the current Commanding Officer of No 4SofTT, Wg Cdr Steve Rowley. AC AG Rowley would go onto serve an illustrious 39-year career in the RAF, ending his service as a FS on the E-3D Sentry aircraft at RAF Waddington.

In 1969, General Fitter Workshop and Ground Support Engineer trades were added to the list of specialisms delivered by No 4SofTT. A directive in 1972 gave the direction that all aircraft engineer training would transfer to RAF Halton. At this point, No 4SofTT was training students from Jordan, Malaysia, Sudan, Kenya, Argentina, Pakistan, Nigeria and the USA.

By the late 1980s, No 4SofTT’s role had decreased to focus on General Engineering and Mechanical Transport trades. This was reflected in the reduction in the manpower footprint of RAF St Athan, which included 14,000 servicemen and women at its peak in 1978, but by 1988 was down to just 4,000 personnel.

The Present

Today, No 4SofTT still operates at Ministry of Defence St Athan (re-named to MOD St Athan in 2006).  The role and training requirements of the School have constantly evolved, but it continues to train highly-skilled ground-based technicians, specifically the General Technician Trade, Trade Group 5 (TG5).  It also delivers Trade Management Training for both TG5 and TG6 (Mechanical Transport Drivers) as part of its portfolio of Phase 3 courses, along with specialist technical training to all services and across the Whole Force.

The wonderfully diverse General Technician Trade maintains a wide variety of equipment to enable and sustain aircraft and ground-based operations in the UK and around the world.  From emergency fire vehicles to ground power units, aircraft loading equipment to dental tools and Land Rovers to protected mobility vehicles, the engineering capabilities of General Technicians are awe-inspiring.  The Workshops Trade can even fabricate aircraft components from raw materials in deployed locations and austere conditions.

With approximately 200 Phase 2 trainees and 40 Phase 3 students at any one time on No 4SofTT, the School is always busy and striving to deliver the best experience to the Trainees and output to the front line.  The training delivered by the School is also aligned to a Level 3 Apprenticeship Award, the initial step of many career progression opportunities offered by the RAF.  This commitment to professionalism and investment in talent by the RAF was recently recognised by the National Apprenticeship Service, with the RAF named as the winner of the Macro Employer category (5,000+ employees) and included in the prestigious Top 100 Apprenticeship Employers List.

The School is not solely focused on its primary training function, it also plays an active role in the local community, such as supporting charitable endeavours and promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).  In ‘2018: The Year of Engineering’, No 4SofTT has undertaken 11 major STEM events as well as numerous minor engagements, reaching out to over 35,000 people and raising their awareness of engineering; many of the 35,000 have been young adults or children.

2018 has also been a busy year on No 4SofTT for other reasons, the School took great pride in manufacturing the RAF100 Relay Batons as well as contributing a disproportionate effect to the RAF100 Campaign in South Wales and beyond.  No 4SofTT also had the prestigious honour of holding the first Phase 2 graduation of the RAF’s second century, sending the first RAF engineers to the front line in the next epoch of the Service.

The Future

There has been uncertainty over the future operating location of No 4SofTT for many years, most recently since the cancellation of the £14Bn project to build a Defence Technical College at MOD St Athan in October 2010.  Now, the Defence Estates Optimisation Plan and operating efficiencies are driving the potential relocation of the School.  As at the end of 2018, the Defence College of Technical Training (DCTT) has conducted a Strategy Estimate to assess the future operating model of this 1* pillar – it did not just examine the location of No 4SofTT, but also other engineering Schools within DCTT.

It is hoped that a decision on the future operating location of No 4SofTT will be made soon.  Whatever this order, No 4SofTT will undoubtedly maintain the professionalism and engineering excellence it has become renowned for during the past 80 years.  ‘Knowledge Sustains’ is the motto of No 4SofTT and this principle will be applied no matter where the School finds itself in the coming years.  However, its proud and auspicious history in the heart of South Wales should never be forgotten.

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