TTTEnd of an era by Gary Parsons
Another month, another disbandment...such seems the way of the last few years. This time it was the turn of the Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment at RAF Cottesmore, bringing to an end eighteen years of International training harmony between the nations of Great Britain, Germany and Italy.
Formed on 8 May 1979 with the signing of an agreement by senior government representatives of the three nations, who agreed that crews destined to fly the new swing-wing aircraft should be trained side-by-side at a single establishment, the TTTE was responsible for the initial training of all Tornado GR1 aircrew as well as providing additional courses for experienced aircrew. Funding was allocated according to workshare in the project, accordingly Germany 42.5%, Great Britain 40% and Italy 17.5%. Cottesmore was chosen as the base for TTTE operations, having previously been placed on Care & Maintenance after withdrawal of its Canberra fleet to nearby Wyton and relocation of 115 Squadron to Brize Norton. One of the first units to transfer to the refurbished station was the Tornado Aircrew Course Design Team which had until then been located at HQ Strike Command at High Wycombe, their task being to create the syllabus to meet the requirements of the three air forces.
Commanded by a RAF Group Captain who is also the UK's senior representative for the TTTE, RAF Cottesmore also hosted a senior German and Italian officer of equivalent rank, they being representatives for their nation plus responsible for the welfare, administration and discipline of their aircrew. The first station commander was Group Captain M. G. Simmons, who passed through the Tornado Ground School course at Manching in West Germany (at the time) as a preliminary to converting to the Tornado on the very first TTTE course. The first Tornados were delivered to the base on 1 July 1980, being both RAF machines (ZA320 & ZA322), followed by the first Luftwaffe aircraft on 2 September (43+05). Italian aircraft were not to arrive until 5 April 1982, by which time the training syllabus was well underway and several courses had been completed. When formal courses commenced on 5 January 1981, there were fifteen aircraft on the fleet out of a planned total of forty-eight, allocated as Germany twenty-three, Britain nineteen and Italy six. All servicing was provided by RAF groundcrew.
The post of Officer Commanding TTTE rotated through the nationalities, having the title of Chief Instructor, and the first to undertake this task was Wing Commander R. P. O'Brien, an ex Buccaneer pilot with 2,900 hours to his credit at the time. Split into different flying units, the flying element of the TTTE was the Tornado Operational Conversion Unit (TOCU) which comprised 'A', 'B' and 'C' Squadrons, commanded by a German, Brit and Italian respectively, and the Standards Squadron, responsible for advanced training, instrument rating checks and special tasks (for example training the instructors and refresher training). Also assigned to the TTTE was the Chief Ground Instructor, again the post rotated through the nations, who controlled four principal types of training aid; the Basic Flight Simulator, the Full Mission Simulator, the Nav-Attack Systems Trainer and the Basic Avionics Procedures Trainer.
To prepare for pilot training at Cottesmore, five courses of five pilots and navigators were run during 1980 by Messerschmidt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB) under the designation Service Instructor Aircrew Training, but most of this was ground-based, only nine pilots and six navigators undertaking a 13 hour flying course at Manching. These initial five courses formed the staff for the four TTTE squadrons, the first students being accepted on 5 January 1981 to begin the ground school course. Once the first aircraft were received training began in earnest, a typical course consisting of four weeks of ground instruction and nine weeks of flying. All instruction was in English, not such a problem as one might think as it is the international language of air to air communications. This enabled mixed nationality sorties to be done, further fostering relations between the three nations. No weapons training has been done at Cottesmore, this was and is a function of the Operational Conversion Units in each air force, currently 15(R) Squadron at Lossiemouth for the RAF, but the course contained a 'weapons' phase where the student pilot is introduced to low-level laydown and loft attack profiles on simulated targets.
Typically, the flying phase of the course would consist of simulator work, three 'transition' flights, two formation sorties, a simulator check, two instrument flights, another sim check, another 'transition' flight and then solo. From here the student pilot would team up with a student navigator to train as a team, with a few check rides with an instructor from time to time. With a peak of ten crews per course, and the three main squadrons operating thirteen week courses, up to 160 crews per year passed through the TTTE.
Milestones for the TTTE included during 1991, in its tenth year of operation, achieving 100,000 flying hours. Three years later, it would reach the graduation of Course 200 and see the first female RAF pilot pass through. The last course to graduate was Course 273, bringing the total of students to nearly 3,400 in eighteen years. By February 1999 a total of 163,000 flying hours had been achieved, with very few incidents; ironically the worst was no more than a month before disbandment, when ZA330 was lost in a mid-air collision with a private aircraft, both aircrew plus the civilians being killed in the impact. The pilot, Italian Matteo Di Carlo, would have been the last Italian student to graduate; his instructor navigator, Flt Lt Greg Hurst, was an experienced RAF Officer. This sad event was an unfortunate conclusion to what had been a remarkable safety record over the previous eighteen years.
Tornados are still very much operational with the three air forces served by TTTE, so why disbandment? It is true that the numbers of aircraft in service have fallen, but with the mid-life update to the Tornado in the form of GR4 the aircraft is finding new roles and the RAF has taken the view that training can be accomplished more effectively as part of the Operational Conversion Unit of 15(R) Squadron; consequently some aircraft will move north to expand the fleet at Lossiemouth. Germany will expand its current pilot training facility at Holloman in New Mexico, USA for both Luftwaffe and Marineflieger aircrew and Italy will train its pilots and navigators at Ghedi. Group Captain Andy White, the last commanding officer of the TTTE, explained it so; "The requirements of the three nations involved in TTTE have now diverged to the point where it no longer makes sense for us to continue training alongside each other. But I am sure that the lessons learned and the friendships forged as a result of this close co-operation will continue to pay dividends for many years to come".
The senior officers of the German and Italian air forces also added their sentiments. Oberst Uli Rapreger, Senior German Officer said "As guests of this country, we were always made welcome. We will be leaving behind both friends and a country that has made us feel welcome and included us in their lives. " Colonnello Antonio Rocchelli, Senior Italian Officer added "I should like to extend my thanks and gratitude to the people of Rutland for accepting us into their lives. Their tolerance and hospitality have made us feel welcome guests."
A cold morning on 24 February saw a final parade and ceremony attended by the Chiefs of Air Staff from the three nations. Three Tornados, one from each air force, provided two low-level flypasts over the parade ground before disappearing into the ether, afterburners aglow.
Chief of the Air Staff for the Royal Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns, addressed the press briefing with the following; "I think in terms of numbers the achievement is quite staggering, more than 3,400 aircrew from our nations have actually been trained on the Tornado, both pilots and navigators. Many more have come back to this unit to learn to instruct on the aeroplane, either as flying instructors, weapons instructors, and so on. So I think in terms of output, the achievement has been staggering. But, I think it goes far more than that; I think that the Tornado and the Tornado squadrons of the European air forces, our three air forces, have been the European backbone of our offensive air power during the Cold War and our marvellous aeroplanes still have a very significant part to play in the future of NATO and indeed our international relationships."
All flying will cease by 31 March with all the Tornados leaving shortly after. For Cottesmore, there is a bright new future as the home of the operational Harrier fleet of the British forces, both RAF and Navy. A press release issued the day before the closure ceremony stated that all RAF and FAA Harrier jets will be co-located at Cottesmore and nearby Wittering as part of Joint Force 2000, previously identified as part of the Strategic Defence Review. Approximately 500 Royal Navy personnel will relocate from RNAS Yeovilton sometime during 2003, the entire operation falling under the umbrella of RAF Strike Command. A statement issued claimed "JF2000 is a radical initiative aimed at forging even closer links between the RAF Harriers and RN Sea Harriers to form a truly joint, flexible and deployable force ideally suited to the demands of the new strategic environment." It is expected that the individual squadrons will still retain their respective identities once the move has been made.
In the more immediate future, 4 Squadron will arrive in April with 3 Squadron following a month later, enabling Laarbruch to close before the summer. Much building work is happening at Cottesmore to facilitate the arrival of the jump jet, most notably a new ASP is being formed in front of A and B hangars to the south of the airfield. One aspect of the TTTE that will be sadly missed is the Community Day airshows that were held most years until 1997; although primarily a families day, it attracted a good range of visiting aircraft with its German and Italian connections. Let's hope that the Laarbruch units don't forget their foreign traditions and continue with future events in a similar vein!
With the introduction of Eurofighter Typhoon into service within the next quinquennium, the question was asked whether a similar facility to TTTE would be set up to train the aircrews of the four participating nations. ACM Sir Richard Johns replied that it was possible that certain elements of the training could be amalgamated, and this was being investigated, but it was unlikely that it would be on such a scale as seen at Cottesmore. One can try to come up with suitable abbreviations, such as QETE (Quadrilateral Eurofighter Training Establishment), but if it happens it will have a tough act to follow!