Gary Parsons reports from RAF Coningsby as 29(R) Squadron is declared 'ready for business'
Bucking the trend of recent squadron disbandments, 29(R) Squadron officially 'stood up' for operational service on 4 November at a wet and windswept Coningsby.
Timed to be close to the unit's 90th anniversary, the squadron standard was passed to the Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Al Mackay, and signified a major milestone in the introduction of the Typhoon to RAF service, as it indicated the squadron is now ready to begin training front-line pilots - the end of the beginning of Typhoon's service career.
29(F) Squadron last disbanded almost exactly seven years ago in the same hangar that this year's parade was held outside. Then it was unsure if it would ever see the light of day again - it was a time of post-Cold War contraction, 'Options for Change', and other front-line reducing agendas. Other famous squadrons have since been laid to rest, such as 74 and 92, but in 2001 it was announced that 29 would be resurrected as the Typhoon Operational Conversion Unit, responsible for the technical and tactical training of all engineers and pilots for the Typhoon aircraft.
29(R) Squadron began reforming in October, 2003 at the BAE Systems aerodrome at Warton in Lancashire where the Typhoon aircraft is being manufactured. The first groundcrew for the squadron became qualified to engineer the aircraft by Easter of 2004, with the first pilots beginning training in May of that year. For a period of eleven months they worked closely with 17(R) Squadron, the Operational Test and Evaluation Unit, to familiarise with the aircraft and to evaluate its capabilities. By April 2005 the squadron had five pilots and enough engineers to commence the task of developing the training system through which all future personnel would learn to operate the Typhoon aircraft. In June 2005 the squadron moved to Coningsby and by July it was teaching new pilots for 17(R) Squadron on a formal course. The Typhoon Training Facility at RAF Coningsby is also a part of 29(R) Squadron and is now a for all the ground based training of engineers and pilots alike.
The squadron's Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Al MacKay, explained further: "The plans are for sixteen aircraft, sixteen instructor pilots and between twelve to sixteen students at any one time. We won't be fully up to speed until the middle of next year. There are seven of us who are fully qualified as instructors, and I've got another seven pilots currently training up as instructors. They should be fully qualified to start training the next course at the end of the year. We'll have ten two-seat and six single-seat aircraft.
"It is a surprisingly easy aeroplane to fly - to take off, fly and land is the easy bit. The difficult bit is learning how to operate the aircraft tactically - how to fight it, operate its systems. There'll only be six to seven sorties to learn how to fly the aircraft - learning the systems and how to operate the aircraft effectively will be the bulk of the training. If the pilot has got relevant fast jet experience that will be about three to four months - if he's come straight through the training system, more likely five to six months.
"We'll concentrate completely on the air-to-air role in the syllabus as it stands, but then as we develop the air-to-ground capability we'll introduce that into the syllabus for later courses. In January we will have enough instructors to start training pilots - we'll have up to three courses running at any one time, starting with the ground school course, the first of which will begin just after Christmas. It will take most of next year to train enough pilots to fully equip 3 Squadron - as soon as we've done that, we'll start on producing pilots for 11 Squadron."
3(F) Squadron is due to transfer to the Typhoon on 1 April 2006 at Coningsby, but will not be fully manned for a few months and will start as an air-air unit, but will change to swing-role once the capability has been proven. 11(F) Squadron will reform later in the year, with 6 Squadron being the last Coningsby front-line unit to convert sometime in 2007.
"Course 4 will have the first ab initio pilots, starting in May" continued Wing Commander MacKay, "but we don't have a full simulator complex yet - when we do the pilot will spend half his time on the sim. We're not going to cut back on the flying side, as you can never replace the realism of actually being airborne." So the level of activity will be similar to that experienced when 56(R) Squadron was present with the Tornado F3, ensuring Coningsby becomes one of the busiest RAF stations in the country. For 29 Squadron, it signifies a long and healthy future, one that is certain to celebrate its centenary and beyond.