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Striking I Defend, XXV(F) Squadron

Author: Robin Powney
Photography: Author & Paul Tiller
100 Sqn Hawk XXV(F) Sqn Tornado F.3
XI(F) Sqn Typhoon FGR.4
XXV(F) Sqn Tornado F.3

It’s been known for a long time that the Tornado F.3, the mainstay of the United Kingdom’s air defence for the last 23 years, is now in its twilight years and about to start drawing its pension thanks to the induction of the Typhoon into Royal Air Force front line service. It also seemed as if these 23 years or so spent chasing off Bears and Blackjacks over the North Sea should be ignored as until the Friends of XXV(F) Squadron Day, there hadn’t so much as a peep when it came to any special publically accessible events to mark the F.3’s passing from RAF service. Visions of the “let’s get shut of the Jaguar before anyone notices” methodology sprang to mind yet that all changed on 29th March when XXV(F) Squadron, who have played some role in the defence of British interests for 92 years and have flown the F.3 since August 1989, and RAF Leeming opened their gates for their charity-supporting “Air Enthusiasts Day”. You have to hand it to XXV(F) Squadron – letting the best part of five hundred folk into what amounts to their workplace when just days away from being disbanded cannot have been easy for them.

After a seemingly extensive drive round the airfield to the car park, two Hawk T.1s formed probably the most expensive set of gate posts I’ve ever seen – one of which was 100 Squadron’s 90th Anniversary special Hawk, the other being a 208(R) Squadron jet from RAF Valley. However, these two Hawks also gave the first indication of what was to come in terms of ‘barriers’ round the aircraft – large bright yellow cones and a lengthy piece of white tape. Admittedly the tape was easily moved allowing for untold amounts of angles for photographic shots, unlike a fence would be but it would have been great to have not had anything at all and at least no-one had the visionary-like idea of putting silly little numbered traffic cones in front of each aircraft so you knew what it was. You’d like to think that attendees of a photocall would have a fair idea as to how to conduct themselves when presented with aircraft without barriers but I do, however, see why there may be a need for the tape as someone will inevitably either walk straight into a expensively priced sharp object or will have to stand for twenty minutes whilst they wait for people to extricate their heads from tailpipes. Furthermore, the odd rogue reflective yellow “Dalek” cone and a bit of tape is also less detracting than twenty pair of legs sticking out of an inlet or exhaust whilst the turbine blades of an EJ200 or RB.199 are fully documented down to the sub-atomic level. I dare say insurance and the ever interfering Health & Safety people had more say than XXV(F) Squadron and RAF Leeming, especially given that most (if not all) of the RAF personnel would bend over backwards to help if they could.

Hawk "gate posts" 100 Sqn Hawk T.1
XXV(F) Sqn Tornado F.3 XXV(F) Sqn Tornado F.3
XXV(F) Sqn Tornado F.3 XI(F) Sqn Typhoon FGR.4
29(R) Sqn Typhoon T.1 XI(F) Sqn Typhoon FGR.4

Leading the RAF contingent was, as you’d expect, the Typhoon and no less than four examples were sat somewhere on Leeming’s tarmac. Sadly 3(F) Squadron hadn’t made it up north but their XI(F) Squadron and 29(R) Squadron stable mates at Coningsby did make the trip. Parked out on the cross-runway in the static line were a 29(R) Squadron T.1 and F.2 alongside an XI(F) Squadron FGR.4. Though outwardly very similar (OK, pretty much identical with the obvious difference being the PIRATE pod just forward of the canopy on the port side) to an F.2, the FGR.4 designation gives some idea as to its intended role – Fighter, Ground attack & Reconnaissance – although at this stage, the austere capability runs to Lightning III targeting pods and Paveway laser guided bombs. It’s still some way from a true swingrole aircraft that can fight its way in, put a Paveway or two through a window and fight its way out but it’ll get there. A further XI(F) Squadron FGR.4 was tucked up in one of the HASs representing a Typhoon on QRA alert. In the HAS next to the “QRA Typhoon”, one of XXV(F) Squadron’s own F.3s was also on show in a similar on-QRA-duty fashion, complete with air and ground crews who seemed quite happy and content in answering a whole multitude of questions. Maybe it’s their heritage and original intended role but Tornados of  any mark seem to take on a whole different type of look when hidden away inside a dark HAS, a sort of “what you looking at?” demeanour. In amongst the HAS complex was the small-ish building at the heart of the QRA business – basically where the crews ‘live’ when on alert – and in said building were some stunning images of XXV(F) Squadron F.3s chasing off the Russian bombers… by far the most interesting of which were those featuring the Blackjacks! Glossy white Tu-160s in pristine condition, one of which was seemingly show-boating as the crew obviously knew the RAF had cameras with them! Where do we sign up to have a bash at QRA duty???

Two more F.3s helped to fill out the attendance list, one being from XXV(F) Squadron’s stable and thoughtfully parked in front of a HAS alongside an Isaacs Fury II with the other being one of 56(R) Squadron’s jets from Leuchars complete with a hi-viz tail. XXV(F)’s black tailed F.3 wasn’t out on show as it hidden away in a hangar awaiting that evening’s hangar party and many other jets had already been pensioned off to Shawbury. Like XXV(F), Squadron the Firebirds are to be disbanded but where XXV(F) Squadron had just a few days left, the Firebirds won’t be disbanded until later this month. It does seem quite strange though that things have gone from a state of Tornado F.3s seemingly being absolutely everywhere to being a very endangered species with just two squadrons left once 56(R) Squadron are disbanded; admittedly 43(F) Squadron becomes a much larger squadron but no matter how you paint it, two squadrons is two squadrons. Putting it another way, in the space of just ten years, five F.3 squadrons have either been disbanded or moved onto the Typhoon, with the exception of 5 Squadron that now operate the Sentinel R.1 at Waddington. Cancellations struck here too as both 43(F) and 111(F) Squadrons up at Leuchars were also due to send a jet or two. Representing the Tornado mud-movers was 12 Squadron’s 90th anniversary “Fox” GR.4, still in remarkably good condition considering it first appeared in 2005! Sadly, this was the sole RAF GR.4 in the lineup due to both IX(B) Squadron and 617 Squadron cancelling on Friday; given the pretty awful weather on Friday though, it’s almost a small miracle that anything (except perhaps Noah’s Ark or a lifeboat) made it in at all!

XXV(F) Sqn Tornado F.3 56(R) Sqn Tornado F.3
12 Sqn Tornado GR.4
56(R) Sqn Tornado F.3
1(F) Sqn Harrier GR.7 KMW Nimrod MR.2
55(R) Sqn Dominie T.1 FRA Falcon 20ESM

Rounding out the RAF fast jet contingent was a single 1(F) Squadron Harrier GR.7 from Cottesmore yet considering the commitments that Joint Force Harrier, its personnel and the jets have to keep up, just this lone GR.7 was a welcome enough visitor. As far as additional RAF participation goes, 55(R) Squadron had brought along one of their Dominie T.1s whilst the ‘heavies’ were represented solely by a Kinloss Maritime Wing Nimrod MR.2. Given the state that the Nimrod MR.2 fleet is languishing in, quite how they found one spare that they could send to Leeming to sit on the tarmac for the best part of almost four days is a mystery – and as the day drew on, the Nimrod was eventually opened up for people to have a look inside. Accompanying the Dominie down at the far end of the lineup was a replica Spitfire Mk XI and one of FR Aviation’s Falcon 20s from just up the road at Teeside Airport. Sadly the rotary winged element of the RAF was poorly represented as both the Puma and Chinook never made it but, as briefly mentioned earlier, the weather on Friday probably had more than a small say in their absence.

If there were to have been awards issued for ‘best in show’, the two Armee de’l Air Mirage F.1CRs from ER02.003 “Savoie” based at Reims would have certainly been in with a shout. Not often seen on these shores, Mirage F.1s are popular jets and XXV(F) Squadron pulled off something of a coup in securing the attendance of a pair of the things! Even the CR variant, with the addition of the lumpy bit under the forward fuselage for an Omera 33 or Omera 40 camera, still looks a slick aircraft although their fat-at-the-front-but-skinny-at-the-back fuel tanks do look a little peculiar. However, the cockpit covers weren’t removed until well into late morning so, whilst Leeming was under wall-to-wall blue skies and sunshine, the F.1s were prepared for the kind of weather that gives Michael Fish nightmares – yet when the covers had finally been removed, luck had run out and the sun had been hidden by big grey clouds containing enough water to turn most of North Yorkshire into a boating lake. Typical! Some you win, some you lose, I guess, but at a photocall where their sole reason for being out in amongst the line up is for people to take photographs, leaving the covers on as late as they were was a bit of a disappointment. However, to quote an overheard comment… “A Mirage F.1 is a Mirage F.1. With or without covers on.” Quite. Hard to argue with that particular thinking.

ER02.003 Mirage F.1CR
ER02.003 Mirage F.1CR
ER02.003 Mirage F.1CR ER02.003 Mirage F.1CRs
Esk727 F-16AM Fighting Falcon Danish Vipers
AG51 Tornado IDS JG71 F-4F ICE Phantom II

Normally, when anyone mentions F-16s on a participation list you can typically assume they’ll either be Belgian or Dutch – yet again XXV(F) Squadron did things just that ever so slightly different and got the Royal Danish Air Force to send over a pair of Vipers. The F-16BM was provided by Esk 730 with the F-16AM being provided by Esk 727 – both from the Dane’s sole Viper base at Skrydstrup and both in a surprisingly well turned-out state of cleanliness that non-American fast jets aren’t typically seen in. In addition to the Danes and French, two more visitors hailed from the continent; more specifically, Germany. Wittmund-based JG71 “Richthofen” had sent along an F-4F ICE Phantom II and Schleswig-based AG51 “Immelmann” had sent along a Tornado IDS – both very welcome additions to the line up and, no matter whose roundels you paint on the sides, a Phantom is always going to be popular with just about everybody. It does however seem quite bizarre that the RAF swapped their own F-4s for Tornado F.3s yet here we are, many years later and the Luftwaffe’s F-4Fs will out-live the RAF F.3s – by some margin too! Just a few years from now, RAF F.3s will probably form a can into which baked beans could well be poured yet the F-4Fs of JG71 will still be flying and still providing air defence to Germany. Admittedly they probably won’t be of much use against anything that starts with Su-30 but that’s hardly the point. Phantoms Phorever!

An extremely pleasant surprise was the last minute inclusion of Italian Tornados – they weren’t even on the “invited” list let alone the confirmed participants list yet on Friday afternoon, in typically British weather, two fully tanked-up 6º Stormo Tornado IDSs from Ghedi landed at Leeming. So, although IX(B) Squadron and 617 Squadron had not managed to make it into North Yorkshire, the 102º & 154º Gruppo jets more than made up for their absence. They also thoughtfully sent a pair of ‘proper’ Tonkas, i.e. absolutely filthy and looked like they worked for a living which, with 102° Gruppo being an Operational Conversion Unit and 154° Gruppo being Caccia Bombardiere Ognitempo Convenzionale / Speciale (or CBOC/S; roughly translated into Conventional/Special All-Weather Fighter-Bomber), they do! Though not actually officially part of the photocall and at the start of the day off limits, Phantom FGR.2 XV499 became “get-at-able” with cameras. With a paintjob that will take more than a little T-Cut and TurtleWax to fix, she’s still a Phantom. Oh, and as she’s normally tucked away well inside the perimeter fence, typically the only chance of getting any photos of her is somewhere roughly between forget it and no chance. Perhaps even less than that. Having seen service with some of the RAF’s most famous squadrons (such as 6, 19 29, 41, 74 and 92) including a stint down at Mount Pleasant, it’s a shame she’s not on public display somewhere but at least she hasn’t succumbed to the scrap man’s torch just yet.

Italian Tornados 154ºGr (CBOC/S) Tornado IDS
102ºGr (OCU) Tornado IDS
Phantom FGR.2 XV499
XXV(F) Sqn Tornado F.3 + Isaacs Fury KMW Nimrod MR2
ER02.003 Mirage F.1CR Phantom FGR.2 XV499

In terms of facilities, it’s hard to find fault here. Providing much welcome sustenance and drinks was a single field catering tent that offered proper food at perfectly agreeable prices. Airshow outlets could learn a thing or two about food from these guys as about £2 or so got you a bacon butty with a free cup of tea or coffee compared to the £2 for just the coffee that some vendors may try to charge. The cheeseburgers were pretty darn good value for money too – I wonder if they could perhaps be tempted to do a bit of moonlighting at a few airshows?! Meeting the needs of those who had a coffee or tea too many were ample toilet facilities for the 500 or so and perhaps the only thing that was could really raise a grumble was the price; at a minimum donation of £30 per ticket, it wasn’t cheap but then again, in the grander scheme of things it’s not that bad considering what was parked up and proceeds did go to charity. In this particular case, proceeds went to HELP for HEROES, a charity set up to help those wounded whilst serving in Iraq and Afghanistan – do feel free to use the link at the bottom to make a donation.

As the saying goes, you pays your money and you takes your choice and I, for one (and I am more than convinced that I am not alone in this view), am certainly more than happy to have made the trip to Leeming and wouldn’t think twice if I had the chance of doing it again.

1(F) Sqn Harrier GR.7
Danish Vipers
12 Sqn Tornado GR.4 ER02.003 Mirage F.1CR

So, to XXV(F) Squadron, thank you and you’ll be missed!

The above link will take you to the HELP for HEROES donation page.