Come in numbers 16 and 54, your time is upů
Gary Parsons reports from RAF Coltishall as the first of the last Jaguar squadrons are disbanded
Although it was Comic Relief Day, there wasn't much of an air of jollity about 11 March at Coltishall. It marked the formal disbandment of two of Coltishall's four front-line units, numbers 16 (Reserve) and 54 Squadrons, both having long, distinguished histories, but sadly unlikely to be seen again. At the same time the news of 7,000 service redundancies was made in the national press, underlining the strain the RAF is currently under to cut costs.
In a parade of some 550 personnel, the largest to be held at a single station for many years, all four of Coltishall's squadrons were inspected by the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup KCB, himself an ex-Jaguar pilot and commander of II(AC) Squadron in the mid 1980s, and Air Vice-Marshal Chris Moran OBE, Air Officer Commanding No. 1 Group. Battling against a cold, stiff breeze the parade was led by the Station Commander, Group Captain Graham Wright OBE, who will be Coltishall's last OC - a Jaguar pilot since 1977, he has been based at Coltishall for much of his service career and has close attachment to the base and North Norfolk, as does most who are posted there. The 'Coltishall buzz' soon affects any new postee, the small physical size of the station and its close-knit community making it a particularly pleasant and friendly place to be - some have been known to turn down promotion so that they could remain, rather than be posted away.
But, as with most things today, the beancounters claim the base is 'uneconomic' and it has been slated for closure, despite the double-whammy to the local populace with a concurrent draw-down at nearby RAF Neatishead. For sure the station is old-fashioned, with little major expenditure on infrastructure over the decades, but this adds to the charm and close-knit feel of the place. No dispersed HAS sites here, but an old-fashioned flightline in front of the hangars where all four squadrons sit side-by-side. History seeps from the Type 'C' hangars, from their wartime appearance to the Gulf War artwork on the inside of the doors. Legends such as Bader, Stanford Tuck and Johnson once walked these hangars and offices, and front-line fighters made their service debut on the taxiways and runways. Once a bastion of the country's defence in those dark days of 1940, Coltishall has since always been a fighter station, despite originally being planned as a bomber station in the late thirties expansion period, and is proud of its unbroken history since then. Remarkably the Jaguar has been part of that history for almost half of RAF Coltishall's existence, a thirty-two year spell of what will be a sixty-six year total, emphasising the longer service records modern aircraft enjoy.
Despite those thirty-odd years, the Jaguar still represents a potent package and probably best value in terms of 'bang-per-buck' in the current RAF inventory. But pressure is on for Typhoon to replace both the Jaguar and Tornado F3 and as quickly as possible, so the Jaguar's retirement was accelerated in 2004 in cost-cutting measures to allegedly pay for the recent action in Iraq. This has put pressure on Typhoon to be capable in the air-to-ground role sooner than expected, so the current plan is for the final Jaguar squadron, no. 6, to relocate to Coningsby in late 2006 to facilitate a work-up with Typhoon over the following twelve months or so in order to avoid a capability gap. Any delay to Typhoon being cleared for air-ground operations will extend the service career of Jaguar, so one can only surmise the cost of relocating personnel and maintenance equipment from Coltishall to Coningsby is outweighed by the cost of keeping Coltishall open for an indefinite period. So, current plans will see Coltishall close as an active airfield in late 2006, with complete closure once the need for Jaguar simulator training is finished.
Of concern to the locals is the future for Coltishall once the RAF has left. Many rumours abound about its sale back to the original landowners, but this is unlikely due to the issue of contaminated land and the cost of any clean-up operations. More likely is a continuing defence use, most probably by the Army, but this will depend on their need, something maybe not on its agenda with a shrinking number of regiments. At least a military use would preserve some of the buildings and history of the place, as has happened at Wattisham. Worst-case scenario would be a major developer to show interest, but its remote location and poor access may make this unlikely. The most suitable outcome would be as a new Norwich Airport, as there is significant pressure on the existing airport from locals and developers, where money would be available to improve road access to Coltishall to aid its growth as a regional airport.
But most of this was far from peoples' minds on a cold, blustery apron during a bleak March morning. More immediate was their own future in the next twelve months - many would leave the RAF, move with their families or transfer to an enlarged 6 or 41 Squadron. When asked how he felt after the parade, one pilot said "What do you think? They've just taken my squadron away."
Sunday 13 March saw 54 Squadron's standard laid up in Norwich Cathedral, symbolising the unit's long association with North Norfolk. 16 Squadron's standard is due to be laid up on Sunday 20 March at a memorial service in the Cathedral at St Omer, France where it was formed in 1915.
Morale is all important to an effective fighting force, and this will be a key challenge in the shrinking RAF of the next few years. As ACM Stirrup said in his speech to the assembled parade, "Today is not about looking back but looking forward to the future, because the spirit of 16 and 54 Squadrons does not end - this spirit is part of the RAF's future."
Lest we forget.