25 years for Coltishall's Big Cat
Gary Parsons looks back at the Jaguar's silver anniversary
Over the weekend of 2/3 October 1998, RAF Coltishall was host to a variety of celebratory events to commemorate twenty-five years of operational service by the Sepecat Jaguar. It seems hard to believe that such a timescale had passed since the elegant fighter first entered service in September 1973, and that for most of this time Coltishall has been host to the majority of the fleet. Such is the service's love for the aircraft that it is destined to remain in service until about 2009, repeatedly escaping the reaper's axe in various defence reviews when many expected it to be a sacrificial lamb.
Celebrations over the early autumn weekend consisted of a public photocall on the Friday, including a flypast by a formation of sixteen Jaguars, and a families day with a flying display on the Saturday followed by a dinner and dance for invited ex-Jaguar pilots and guests. A cold north-easterly breeze persisted throughout the weekend, Friday enjoying a good spell of sunshine for the benefit of the photographers, with visiting aircraft such as AMX, Tornados and Tucano, but Saturday was cold and wet as low cloud and drizzle forced the flying display to stay low, the planes often disappearing into the gloom. Energetic routines by a Harrier, visiting French Jaguars and a Danish F-16 produced plenty of vapour, a more sedate demonstration by a privately owned Jet Provost and a flypast by the Battle of Britain Flight provided the spectacle for the families and invited guests. The solo RAF Jaguar display routine was the fitting finale, ably demonstrated by Flight Lieutenant Mark Cutmore, his final display before joining the prestigious Red Arrows for the 1999 season. As a gesture to past users of the Jaguar, some of the aircraft on display carried squadron markings of those that operated the type in Western Germany in the late seventies and early eighties, i.e. 2 (II(AC)), 14, 17, 20 and 31 Squadrons.
Designed as a joint venture between the then British Aircraft Corporation (now British Aerospace) and Breguet Aviation of France, the Jaguar first flew on 12 October 1969. Required to be primarily an advanced trainer for the British and a light strike fighter for the French, cancellations in other projects at the time saw the project develop into a supersonic strike and reconnaissance fighter that has been constantly updated with the passing decades, proving its worth with an unblemished war record in the Gulf during 'Desert Storm' in 1991. Capable of operating from rough airfields, the Jaguar is optimised for low-level strike missions at near-supersonic speeds, having a maximum speed of some 1,000 mph and a typical operational range of 850 miles. Although not terribly manoeuvrable compared to today's latest fighters such as Eurofighter and Rafale, it suits the role demanded of it admirably and remains a firm favourite with its pilots, as did its predecessor at Coltishall, the Lightning.
Coltishall's first experience of the Jaguar came in November 1974 when the first squadrons to equip with the type, 6 and 54, moved south from RAF Lossiemouth where they had been formed from the first pilots to graduate through the training component, 226 Operational Conversion Unit. A third squadron, no. 41, converted from the Phantom and arrived at Coltishall in 1 April 1977, beginning an unbroken period of twenty-one years to date in that the three main squadrons have served continuously without change; this is most certainly some sort of record within the RAF, if not any world air force. In this time span other squadrons have come and gone, as the Jaguar was the backbone of the strike force based in Germany through the late seventies and early eighties. Five other squadrons operated the aircraft in the strike role but it was replaced with the introduction of the Tornado GR1, only the Coltishall squadrons remaining from 1988 onwards in the operational theatre.
Two of the Norfolk squadrons, nos. 6 and 54, perform the strike/attack role, carrying an impressive warload beneath four wing pylons and a centreline fuselage one. Typical weapon loads include cluster bombs, 1,000 LB retarded and free fall bombs, TIALD (Thermal Imaging and Laser Designation) pods with associated 'smart' weapons and two 30mm cannon carried internally. TIALD is a relatively new fitment to the aircraft and enables targets to be identified and accurately hit, reducing the damage to surrounding buildings. While war is always an unpleasant contemplation, the development of such weapons does reduce the likelihood of innocent casualties and can at the same time be a more threatening prospect for an aggressor.
41 Squadron is the sole tactical reconnaissance Jaguar unit, combining its recce duties with that of the strike role when required. Although the aircraft is now nearly thirty years old, an ongoing programme of upgrades and improvements is maintaining it as a front-line fighter into the twenty-first century. New generation reconnaissance equipment, a sophisticated new mission planning system and a terrain reference navigation system ensure that it remains a viable player in the modern day scenario, which is a scene of constantly changing goalposts. Originally designed for the Cold War East European battlefield conflict, the duties it has performed throughout the '90s have illustrated how versatile and adaptable the aeroplane can be. From Operation Granby in 1991, where 600 daylight sorties were flown against Iraqi Naval targets and surface to air missile sites without loss, to Operations Warden, Grapple and Deny Flight over the skies of Bosnia, the Jaguar has proven dependable and reliable and most important of all, accurate when it counts.
The 'Coltishall Wing', with a fleet of some thirty aircraft, is expected to remain operational until the end of the decade, parliamentary funding and future defence reviews permitting. Also now at Coltishall is the training unit, now numbered 16(Reserve) Squadron, having moved down from Lossiemouth in early 2000 to make room for extra Tornado units at the Scottish base. Thus, the skies over Norfolk should be busy with the sound of the Adour jet engine for some time to come.