Page last updated at 16:36 GMT, Monday, 31 March 2008 17:36 UK

Veterans of all ages mark RAF's 90th

By Rob Corp
BBC News

Sqn Ldr Ian Blair
Sqn Ldr Ian Blair was among those honoured at Hendon

The RAF Museum at Hendon, north London, is a fitting back-drop for the start of events to mark 90 years since the formation of the Royal Air Force.

Hendon was the original London Aerodrome, where pilots of the fledgling RAF delighted crowds by showing off their flying skills in the skies above.

The museum's cavernous halls are now a living timeline.

From Gloster bi-planes to the latest Eurofighter Typhoon, the development of the RAF over 90 years is palpable - and made real by the smell of oil and paint.

But it is the wars the service has fought since 1918 that act as the punctuation in its story.

From WWI to the current fighting in Afghanistan, the RAF's 90th anniversary celebrations are focused on its achievements and its veterans.

The spirit now is equally as good as it was in years gone by
Ian Blair
WWII veteran

At Hendon on Monday, the day before the service's birthday, 25 veterans of conflicts since WWII were honoured by the Defence Minister, Derek Twigg.

Each received a commemorative badge, flown to the museum by an RAF Chinook helicopter - a machine more used to the deserts of Afghanistan than the London suburbs.

Among those being honoured was 89-year-old Squadron Leader Ian Blair.

'Current aggravation'

Born in the same year as the RAF was formed, he joined at the age of 16 "and a quarter" in 1934.

Within five years he was fighting Nazi Germany - ending up flying the famous Spitfire.

As one of Winston Churchill's "few", Sqn Ldr Blair wears his campaign medals with pride.

And despite his advancing years, he still keeps up with what he terms the current "aggravation in the Middle East".

Events of the last 15-20 years have been "quite an eye-opener", he says, "but the spirit now is equally as good as it was in years gone by."

Key moments in the RAF's 90-year history

Yet he feels that understanding of the RAF's contribution to the defence of Britain "could be improved".

"We don't get much recognition", Sqn Ldr Blair adds.

Senior Aircraftsman Nick Williamson's desert camouflage is a visible reminder amid the museum's exhibits, that the RAF's history is still being written.

As a member of the Queen's Colour Squadron (QCS), Royal Air Force Regiment, he has been deployed to Iraq twice, and came back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan before Christmas.

The RAF Regiment is responsible for securing operating bases in time of conflict - patrolling "beyond the wire" in places such as Basra and Kandahar.

But the QCS also carries out the RAF's ceremonial duties, be they guarding Buckingham Palace or repatriation services for fallen comrades.

The men and women of the Regiment spend six months "green" - engaged in front-line deployments - and six months "blue" (carrying out ceremonial duties) each year.

SAC Williamson describes his last tour of Afghanistan as "busy, hectic, interesting", but adds that he cannot say much because of what he was involved in.

'Special time'

His colleague Cpl John Stanley is a stark contrast, dressed in his formal RAF blue uniform.

He says that the ceremonial role has seen him travel the world, performing close-order drill in front of large audiences.

He has also been an honour guard for the repatriation of WWII fighter pilots, when their remains have been discovered in foreign lands.

Over 90 years, we have an awful lot to be proud of
Barry Furness
Retired RAF aircrew

But when asked what his "finest hour" in the RAF has been, it is more "green" than "blue".

"2003, across the border [from Kuwait to Iraq] and we achieved our mission", he says.

"But long-term, it has to the be the Battle of Britain."

Speaking at the veterans' ceremony inside the museum, the defence minister praised those receiving badges.

"It is a humbling experience to hear of the experiences many of you have had", Derek Twigg said.

"It is a special time for the RAF and this is a great opportunity to reflect on the greatness of the RAF.

'Different' RAF

"In Iraq and Afghanistan, there are amazing amounts of heroics, bravery and steadfastness of our Armed Forces."

While his words are welcomed, some of those in the audience remain concerned about the RAF being over-stretched.

Barry "Smokey" Furness served for 29 years in the RAF - 12 of those as a winchman in a search-and-rescue helicopter.

"I was what they call a Cold War warrior", he tells me. "I didn't get to do the war fighting, but I was doing the things the RAF does best".

His son, though, has just completed 22 years in the air force, including a six-month tour in Iraq.

"They are over-stretched", Mr Furness says. "It is a different air force.

"But over 90 years, we have an awful lot to be proud of."

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