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Air Force Veteran thrown into Gulf War in first few months of service

Wing Commander Paul Cockerton

Current role: Commanding Officer Maintenance Wing Base Auckland

Length of service: 32 years combined RAF and RNZAF service (RAF 27 Feb 1989 – 30 April 2006, and RNZAF 05 May 2006 to present).

15 January, 2021

Wing Commander Paul Cockerton was 18 years old when he deployed to Saudi Arabia with the Royal Air Force (RAF).

“I’ve been told that I was the youngest member of the RAF to deploy to the primary theatre of operations. I was a senior aircraftman rank at the time,” he said.

Wing Commander Cockerton worked as an airframe mechanic and was part of a composite flight servicing team on 16 Squadron RAF, which operated the Tornado GR1 aircraft. His role included fault rectification and flight servicings, including countermeasures replenishment and weapons loading.

When thinking about his deployment to the Gulf, Wing Commander Cockerton said the first thing that came to mind was the sense of adventure.

“As a very young airman this was my first deployment and my first overseas trip in the RAF. I had only been on 16 Squadron for a matter of months so I had done lots of training but was inexperienced.

“Traveling to Saudi Arabia was amazing, experiencing the cultural differences and meeting the people was all part of the adventure.

“In the early part of the air campaign, we launched aircraft through the night and then had to sit patiently for hours until they were due to return.

“We would stand outside waiting to see the landing lights in the distance and counting the number of aircraft returning. When they were all accounted for, that was the highlight every night. 

“The crews would take time to talk to us upon their return, showing us where they had been and what they had done – this camaraderie not only kept the ground crew informed of what we were achieving, but created a sense of one team.”

The deployment was not without its challenges, both on the job and personally. Keeping in touch with home was particularly hard as everything was done by letter and there was only one state-controlled phone in the local town, which they could use at Christmas to phone their families.

“I found that my father and brother had different ways of coping with me being in the war zone, one would be glued to the TV and radio, where the other ignored it completely.

“Another challenge was the long working hours. From our arrival in November 1990 until we departed in late March 1991, we worked seven days a week on 12 hour shifts.

“We had a ‘day off’ on Christmas and New Year’s Days plus one other planned ‘day off’ and one sick day in all that time. Fatigue was obvious and many of us took to doing our flight servicings twice just so we were sure that we hadn’t missed anything. 

“A final noteworthy challenge was losing aircraft and crew. The low-level profiles being flown by the Tornado GR1 meant that they took losses, which was hard. We had no time to dwell or be counselled, we simply carried on,” he said.

Deploying on such a significant operation so early in his service career has undoubtedly shaped Wing Commander Cockerton’s thinking and attitude.

“I do think it has shaped my work ethic, my sense of service before self and of being a small part of a high-performing team.”