Waddington's Wycombe Wanderers
John Heard / Focal Plane photography reports from RAF Waddington on the recent detachment of French Navy Super Étendards for Exercise 'Wycombe Warrior'. A tale of expectant optimism and bitter frustration for all those who went to see them fly!
The closure of the BAe Systems ACMI late in 2004 was, for many enthusiasts, a huge disappointment. After spending years of watching the visiting fighters here many feared that RAF Waddington would become just another sleepy hollow. However, in mid-March spirits were temporarily raised as rumours spread that a small detachment of FN Super Étendards were expected to be deployed towards the end of the month to take part in Exercise 'Wycombe Warrior'.
With the rumour-mill in full swing many enthusiasts naturally turned up at Waddington to watch an expected late lunchtime arrival on Friday 18 March, but things didn't quite work out that way! Indeed it was not until around 15:00 local that four Super Étendard Mordernisé (SEM), drawn from 17F at BAN Landivisiau, eventually pitched up in the circuit as 'French Navy 5413' (s/n 3, 30, 41 and 65).
After landing the four aircraft taxied to RAF Waddington's 'Charlie' dispersal and shut down for a respite until their mission tasking the following week, Exercise 'Wycombe Warrior 03-05' being scheduled for 22-23 March. This meant that for Monday (21st) there was no flying scheduled, but it was expected that two missions would be flown by the Étendards on both the 22nd and 23rd, with a morning and afternoon sortie widely rumoured to be planned for each day.
Once again things didn't quite go the way the rumours had scripted and Tuesday dawned grey and overcast, shortly to be followed by heavy rain which saw the mission times not only slip, but eventually cancelled due to the very poor visibility and unavailability of tanker support. Nevertheless the weather for Wednesday was forecast to be much better with long spells of sunshine touted; we should have known better!
With Wednesday dawning bright and sunny, spirits in the WAVE car park at Waddington were at last high amongst the gathered enthusiasts, but at around 09:30 the dark clouds loomed and the impending gloom was palpable amongst everyone as the low overcast rolled in from the west. However, with the first mission expected around lunchtime all seemed not lost as the weather slowly lifted. But then more bad news as it was confirmed that the French quartet would now only fly a single mission starting around 14:00 and that they wouldn't be coming back after the sortie.
And so it was that shortly before 14:00 the four Étendards called the tower for their taxi clearance ready for departure (once under the callsign 'French Navy 5413 A-D'), and by 14:10 it was all over, the four aircraft turning out towards the east climbing for their tanker ('Tartan 38') in AAR 5 ready to fly their one and only sortie of the five-day deployment.
So came to an end a rather frustrating and disjointed detachment; a deployment that seemed initially full of promise but which failed to live up to its full potential.