On March 31, 2021, Sentinel will retire from operational service after 13 years. Since its first mission in November 2008, this surveillance aircraft operated by the Royal Air Force has amassed more than 32,300 flying hours on allied international operations including Libya, Mali, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and NATO-led humanitarian missions. To celebrate its history, we asked some of the people who played a key role in the Sentinel story to share their memories.
For those who worked on the Sentinel surveillance plane, the rule was this: service in the armed forces was preferred but not required. Collaboration with the armed services, on the other hand, was mandatory. And for an engineer like Paul, who headed Sentinel and Programme Delivery at Raytheon UK, working closely with the Royal Air Force became second nature.
“I studied mechanical engineering at university and then moved into project management. But I’ve always had in interest in defence as well as technology, so this is the industry I’m passionate about,” he said.
Working closely with the Royal Air Force is normal for Paul. Still, it took some adjustment to get used to his new colleagues’ schedules.
“Understandably, people with a military background don’t approach the job as a 9-to-5 because that’s not what they’re used to," said Paul. “They also possess a real mission focus and in-field, practical experience having been directly involved in operations. And that personal experience has been vital to making the Sentinel programme a success.”
Collaboration and Trust
Paul also attributes Sentinel’s success to a partnership model the UK Ministry of Defence calls the “Whole Force” concept whereby regular and reserve military personnel, MOD, civilians and contractors are working together as one team to deliver military capability,
“We’ve kept our focus on delivering the output: deploying fully mission capable aircraft wherever and whenever they’re needed. This customer focus is central to Raytheon UK’s strategy,” he said.
Another example of collaboration: Raytheon UK’s practice of deploying field service representatives to support the RAF wherever Sentinel was deployed,
“We entrust the RAF to manage and safeguard them as they would their own staff," said Paul. “Likewise, the RAF entrust our FSR experts to provide specialist technical support that’s essential to ensuring they safely complete their missions. It’s this mutual trust that brings everyone closer together and ensures success.”
Focusing the Mind
Beyond the practical implications of having worked on such a pivotal project as Sentinel, for Paul there’s also an emotional element to the retirement of the aircraft.
“One of the first things that hit me when I started working at RAF Waddington is that the car park is right next to the runway; you can see Sentinel when it rolls out of the hangar to prepare for flight,” he said. “Being so physically close to it makes it feel very real. While we can’t always talk about the direct, life-saving benefit of the products we supply and support, to see the Sentinel actively deployed certainly focuses the mind.”
While the project itself will leave a gap, it’s the people Paul will miss most. The diversity of skills within the RAF Waddington team brought business acumen, technical expertise and industry experience to the table, together with first-hand user knowledge and mission focus of armed forces veterans.
“Just as importantly as the professionalism, it has been a very enjoyable work environment, even in difficult times,” he said. “I truly believe that the people are the secret of our success on this programme, and I appreciate and respect their effort and the legacy of those who went before on Sentinel’s long and successful story.”