Meet the Yorkshire councillor who flew in two Gulf Wars and had a close call mid-air with a stray Russian bullet

Cliff Foggo is a Redcar and Cleveland councillor for Skelton East ward who recently took up the highways and transport portfolio on the local authority.

So far so normal. He’s also a former flight engineer with the RAF who flew refuelling missions during the first and second Gulf War and ferried the likes of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew about for training exercises. And he has the odd story or two to tell, such as when his aircraft was shot at apparently by the Russians. Not to mention his rather unusual surname.

Stuart Arnold met him to hear his life story.

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Sitting in Cliff Foggo’s study, or “office cum den” as he describes it, at his home in Skelton is something of a site to behold. There are two huge working model railway sets for a start.

Cliff Foggo

The walls are crammed with pictures of military aircraft and steam trains – from being a child he always loved steam trains – and there’s logbooks with details of his RAF service contained within them.

An American football is perched in the corner and several sets of keys have been swept into a little pile on top of one of the railway sets, along with lots of other random items that are out on display. In the middle of it all is his computer from which he conducts council business, more so when meetings were virtual during the covid-19 pandemic.

It’s all far from ‘tidy desk, tidy mind’, but Councillor Foggo strikes you as a man who has it all under control, as befits someone who spent his career in a technical, high pressure environment, frequently having to make speedy, rational decisions.

The 71-year-old Motherwell native, who is married to Lorraine and has two grown-up daughters, didn’t always have a military career in mind. “I served an apprenticeship as a draftsman with British Steel and then realised that it wasn’t for me,” he says.

Cliff Foggo flew in two Gulf wars

“Once I’d served my time I joined the RAF aged 21 as a direct entry air crew training to be a flight engineer.”

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So what does a flight engineer do?

“The flight engineer monitors all the systems on the aircraft, fuel, hydraulics, electrics, air conditioning, engines and if anything goes wrong you try and make the system safe so you can carry on flying,” explains Coun Foggo.

Cliff Foggo is now a Redcar and Cleveland councillor

“You have a pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer in the middle, with a navigator at the side – they are all as important as each other as you can’t operate with one of them missing. Nowadays most aircraft are computer controlled, in those days it was all manual controlled, so you needed somebody who understood the different systems, which is why the training takes so long to qualify as a flight engineer.”

He did his basic training at RAF Topcliffe, near Thirsk, North Yorkshire, where he met his future wife, and was then transferred to RAF Lyneham, in Wiltshire, which was where he began flying on Hercules aircraft – a high winged transport aircraft with four engines used to carry troops, cargo and to drop supplies. It was at Lyneham in the late 1970s that he was sent across to RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, as training crew, meeting Prince Charles and Prince Andrew and transporting the Royal pair during sorties when they were completing their parachute training.

In 1974 his RAF squadron was involved in the evacuation of British tourists from Cyprus after Turkey invaded, capturing the Northern portion of the Mediterranean island. Later in the decade after Guatemala threatened to invade Belize, in South America, he flew supplies for the Army troops who had been sent to the British territory to guard the peace.

Then in 1982, he was tasked with training air crews providing support for the Falklands War with Argentina so they could conduct air-to-air refuelling.

“You have to be able to understand the engineering side of it,” says Coun Foggo of the role he undertook during his RAF service. You also have got to have the ability to monitor lots of different gauges and pick out when something is not right.

“You have got to be able to sit back and say ‘This has happened, we will sort it out’ – you have certain procedures laid down that you practice and you just follow those procedures.”

Coun Foggo became a flight engineer instructor, spending three years at RAF Finningley, near Doncaster and from there moved to Brize Norton converting to fly on the Vickers VC-10 tanker, a British jet airliner, one of the fastest passenger aircraft ever. He was commissioned as an officer, having been master air crew, and ended up having ten engineers serving under him.

The Gulf War and ‘the undercarriage could have collapsed’

On the eve of the Gulf War in 1991, which saw Iraq invade Kuwait, he was serving on 101 Squadron, and in transit with Jaguar fighter aircraft to Cyprus, which had been anticipated as only a one-night stop before coming back home. But messages received extended their stay in Cyprus, and they were later ordered to fly to Thumrait in Oman, in the Middle East, taking the Jaguars with them, where he stayed for three months.

“We were refuelling American aircraft as well as the British aircraft, going from Oman up into the Gulf, around the bottom of Kuwait, so they could go off and do patrols in different areas,” says Coun Foggo.

“Families were allowed to send bits and pieces for us. When I eventually got home I had 13 different bags to take with me, clothes, food, books, sweets and things like that, anything that helped us pass the time.”

It was during this time that Coun Foggo experienced one of several dangerous moments he had while airborne with the RAF. “Where we parked the aircraft there was normally a 30, 40 mph wind blowing and the aircraft were getting sand blasted all the time,” he says.

“On one trip we came back and were on minimum fuel, because we had given it all away to the fighters. As we were coming in on the approach to the airfield, we dropped the undercarriage and both main legs wouldn’t come down, and we didn’t have much time to try and sort it out.

“There’s a manual release system for the undercarriage and I had to get down into the hold area where there are two levers that you pull and it mechanically lets the legs drop down. So in doing that we managed to land – if we had not got them locked down, the undercarriage could have collapsed as we touched down.

“The undercarriage down locks are packed with grease and the wind had blown sand into the grease, which had set hard and was stopping the undercarriage from coming down.”

During the conflict he was moved up to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, operating most times at night to refuel British Tornado jets and Buccaneer bombers based in Bahrain, or his squadron would transit out to the Red Sea to meet American F-14s which were taking off from US aircraft carriers.

“We would cast them off full of fuel so they could stay in an area as long as possible,” says Coun Foggo.

“There’s a coordination system used with so many aircraft flying around so they don’t interfere with each other. This was a seven month period we were out there and I got home twice for a week in that time.”

From 101 Squadron he moved back to Lyneham to 47 Squadron, where he spent another three years, and then took up a job in High Wycombe as a standards evaluation engineer. “I would go out and check that the standard of operating on all the aircraft in 2 Group was to a good standard,” he says.

“From there I moved up to RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire to the AWACS, which is basically a 707 plane with a radar dome on top. Nine months later we ended up back in Saudi Arabia for Gulf War Two in 2003.”

The AWACS aircraft were on station 24 hours a day during the war with shifts being shared between the Brits and Americans lasting eight hours on task and then a two hour transit back to base.

“Halfway through your shift you had to take on about 60,000lbs of fuel because you could never stay airborne for ten hours even with a max fuel load,” recalls Coun Foggo.

“We’d refuel from one of our tankers or an American tanker – that was interesting because trying to take on that much fuel takes a long time and pilots find it quite physically draining to stay in contact. There were troops on the ground and we could listen into some of the radio stuff that was going on, although it’s not stuff I can really mention.”

Coun Foggo eventually left the airforce aged 54 after 33 years and took a civilian post at Brize Norton teaching flight engineers converting onto VC-10s.

“I did that for three years and then the wife and I decided to move up here,” he says.

“My sister-in-law lived in Saltburn and we’d been visiting for quite a few years and we thought it was a nice area. We came up and had a look around and bought this house.”

The ‘Russian incident’

Coun Foggo recalls how when he was onboard the Hercules, he was based in Berlin for a short period – this being before the fall of the Berlin Wall – when various corridors were used for flights at specific times of the day. The Hercules was preparing to touch down when a message came over the radio from air traffic control.

“Air traffic said ‘It looks like you’ve got fuel coming off your right wing’”, says Coun Foggo.

“We quickly looked out and there was fuel coming out of the side of number four engine and the loadmaster said there was fuel coming out of the back of the wing. We stayed low level, shut down number four engine, and landed immediately.

“What we found out was that there was a bullet hole in the wing. The only reason it could have been there was that there was a Russian rifle range about six miles out of the airfield we were using.

“The bullet hit a high stress part of the wing and we ended up with a flap of metal hanging down and fuel was coming out, while there is an area behind the engine that is supposed to be dry and the bullet had gone through the sidewall and that was filling up with fuel.

“It was coming out of the drain ports on each side of the engine – it was quite a hairy situation.”

It was thought a soldier from the rifle range had used an AK-47 to accidentally shoot the plane. “We found copper casing from the bullet and the lead and the thing that tells you it is eastern bloc is that there was a steel core as well, and the eastern bloc were the only people using steel core bullets at the time,” says Coun Foggo.

“It was all kept very quiet afterwards and the Russians refused to accept it was their people that did it.”

The Foggo surname

Coun Foggo is often asked about his slightly unusual surname, although he says “there are a few of them around” in Scotland.

“We think it came across from Normandy with William the Conqueror,” he says.

“As time has gone on, the spelling has changed from one ‘G’ to two Gs. I’ve traced it back to probably about 1400.

“Interestingly enough there was another Foggo in the RAF so there were two of us. When I used to travel around the world I used to get the telephone directory out to see if there were any others and the place I found it most was Bermuda.”

Moving into local politics

Coun Foggo says he felt “not a lot was being done for Skelton” and was encouraged to stand as a councillor, before being elected. He says the biggest problem faced by any councillor is “you can’t always get things done you want to get done”, because of money constraints and other issues.

“Residents always want the best service, which they are entitled to,” he says.

“And all you can do is try and do the best for your area. I started on a new car park up at the Co-op about six, seven years ago and eventually got the land handed over to the council, and then it took another three and-a-bit years to manage to get the money to turn it into a car park.

“It has finished off the high street now, which looks really good with all the new shop fronts there. It is unrecognisable from when I first moved here 14 years ago, all you can try and do is to keep things moving on.

“There’s a retail park up the road and Skelton is now a desirable place to live – there’s a new Bellway housing estate they haven’t even finished yet and four houses are already sold. If you think about it, we have got the Moors about a mile and-a-half behind and the coast a mile in front of us and it is the best of both worlds.”

He says having a broad experience of life helps in the role of councillor.

“Most people in the RAF have a ‘can do’ approach to things and that helps when you encounter problems as a councillor,” he says.

“You look at it and say ‘How we can actually do this’ and the more experience you have the more chance perhaps you have of coming up with good suggestions.”

I wonder whether Coun Foggo, who is now passing on his expertise to air training cadets in Redcar, misses the vast and colourful experience he had travelling the world with the RAF?

“I’m quite happy now, I’ve had a great life and if I had to do it again I would do it the same way,” he says.

“I keep telling kids that if you find a job that you actually love doing then that is the best thing you can ever get – money doesn’t come into it.”