Past, present and future in the air at RAF Cranwell

Alastair Stewart

Former ITV News presenter

Sir Frank Whittle, top row centre, began his theoretical work on jet propulsion while at RAF Cranwell. Credit: Alastair Stewart

By Alastair Stewart, ITV News presenter

Part II of Alastair's visit to RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire:

The RAF call it their 'spiritual home'. The library boasts both the personal volumes of founding father Lord Trenchard and many of T.E. Lawrence's private papers. From the rotunda over the entrance hall hang the standards and colours of squadrons, lost to the mists of time. They have a point.

But it was the young men and women of tomorrow's RAF who impressed me most and gave that claim validity.

A 'spiritual home' only has meaning if, beyond books and cherished memorabilia, it preserves the values, ethics, beliefs and traditions of the institution laying claim to such a vaunted title.

They were bright, engaging, fiercely loyal and challenging.

What values, even ethics, they asked me, did we apply in selecting stories and images for our bulletins? Were we there to report news or didn't we occasionally slip into offering opinion? Who 'trained' our reporters who put themselves in harm's way to better inform the public of what 'they', the armed services, were doing?

Chilcott, political balance, a shrinking armed forces and trust in the media.

We ranged wide and I enjoyed their persistence as much as their courtesy.

A tour included paintings of aircraft from the very 'old days' - cloth and wood - and the more recent 'old days' - three 'Valiants', in formation: the first V Bombers, designed to threaten armageddon to save us from it, or so it was argued.

The trio of Valiants immortalised in oil paint on the walls of RAF Cranwell. Credit: Alastair Stewart

My father had commanded 207 Squadron at RAF Marham in the 1960s when, 24/7, four of them sat at the end of the runway, carrying armed nuclear weapons, poised for QRA - 'Quick Reaction Alert' - the infamous four minute warning. Had it happened, they weren't expected to return. There wouldn't have been much to return to, I suppose. Nightmare days.

There were paintings, photographs and memorabilia of Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine who began his theoretical work on it whilst at Cranwell. He graduated with 'flying colours' partly because his examiner didn't understand the entirety of his 'compression-thrust' thesis but got enough of what he was getting at and where it might take aviation.

A young engineering-branch cadet of today reminded me the Germans had given Whittle a real race: "Time wasn't on his side; but he won - thank God."

Whittle was a smoker. Cranwell has his ashtray, with turbine motifs around the edge.

Sir Frank Whittle's ashtray, with its crest of Cambridge University's Peterhouse College, is on display at RAF Cranwell. Credit: Alastair Stewart

Over lunch, there was banter about private schools - a seriously impressive 'Pauline' was both clever and fun - and state schools. There were 'lads and lasses' who'd come through the educational ranks of the state sector and got into Cranwell on A Levels and personal qualities. They enjoyed just as much respect as the gilt-edged, A* A level, graduate types. And there were men and women, black and white, young and just a tad older.

In years to come these men and women will, perhaps, shoot down aggressors or deliver aid to needy refugees; or, most likely, both. They will be brave and bold individuals, or impressive commanders of brave men and women; or, most likely, both.

The framed photograph of Alastair Stewart's father given as a gift on his visit to Cranwell. Credit: Alastair Stewart

They were good people and I was honoured to spend time with them.

And they gave me, as a memento, a framed photograph of one of their forbears who war and poverty robbed of the opportunity to go to Cranwell but who just joined up and served, most of his working life.

My late, and much loved, father.

A class gift from some class people.