Twenty years of F3 displays
Mick Britton laments the disappearance of the Tornado from the display circuit, in particular the F3 variant, due for retirement from service within the next five years. Pictures as credited
For the second year running there will not be a Tornado among the RAF's display aircraft on the airshow circuit. To compensate somewhat for its absence, this article reviews the display history of the Air Defence Variant, the Panavia Tornado F2/F3, and focuses on the spectacular paint schemes in which some of the aircraft have been presented, among them some of the boldest ever to adorn RAF aircraft. At the outset, it is important to note that for the twenty-odd years that it has been in service, only two units have been awarded the honour of providing the solo display aircraft, these being the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) in its various identities, originally based at Coningsby but latterly at Leuchars, and the Leeming-based 25 Squadron.
The first display aircraft was one of the fourteen interim F2 mark aircraft delivered to 229 OCU at Coningsby, making its airshow debut in 1985, sometimes performing in a display of synchronised aerobatics with a Spitfire of the co-located Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Whilst this could be any one of the squadron's aircraft, it was usually ZD906/AN, in the standard unit markings consisting of the crossed 'Sword and Torch' badge on the tail and a red and yellow chevron on the nose.
However, within a relatively short time the unit acquired new F3 aircraft and a change of identity to 65 (Reserve) Squadron, retaining the OCU badge on the tail but also wearing the 65 Squadron badge of a black lion against a background of spears, contained in a white chevron on the nose. A new display pilot appeared who achieved something akin to near celebrity status - Flt Lt Fred Grundy, whose displays set the standard for all those who followed, is still fondly remembered by airshow aficionados today. To him fell the glamorous job of displaying the aircraft in various locations on the 'World Tour' undertaken by the first F3 operational unit, 29 Squadron, in 1988. Although this was ostensibly based around participation in an Integrated Air Defence Systems exercise in Malaysia, it was in effect a sales tour that saw Fred joining 29 Squadron at various locations to display the aircraft to potential buyers in places such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and the USA.
Fred enjoyed several seasons as the F3 display pilot, ending his reign in the 1990 season, when to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain display F3 ZE907 was painted in a most striking scheme with the red and white chevrons of the squadron colours covering its tail plane, evoking memories of the colourful schemes of the Lightning era in the early sixties (particularly the red and white chequered tails of 56 Squadron's aircraft), the excesses of which had led officialdom to cry 'enough' and issue toning-down orders, ushering in an era of drabness and uniformity. This lasted until the colour burst of special anniversary schemes that blossomed in 1990, of which the display F3 was possibly the boldest.
The following year witnessed the first 'changing of the guard' when the honour of providing that season's display aircraft was awarded to 25 Squadron at Leeming. The unit rose to the occasion in some style, the display crew of Flt Lts Archie Neal and Jim Brown flying specially-painted ZE339, comprising of a black spine and tail with central white stripe containing the squadron badge of a hawk on a glove, commemorating the unit's close association with Hawkinge in Kent. This aircraft had a good serviceability record, usually appearing at shows without a reserve and was retained for the following 1992 season alongside ZE982, the latter flown under 11 Squadron marks.
In 1993 the baton passed back to the OCU at Coningsby, which had undergone a change of identity (though not of colours) having adopted the lower number-plate of 56 Squadron upon its disbandment as a front-line Phantom air defence unit at Wattisham the previous summer. The unit made a spectacular arrival on the airshow scene fielding a colourful display aircraft ZE839/AR with an all-red spine and fin in which the squadron's Phoenix badge appeared on a white disk. The following year, its identical successor ZE789/AU was claimed by the North Sea on a training mission.
1995 ZE732/AS was in something approaching normal squadron markings, but
with red flashes applied to its upper and lower wing surfaces, though
strangely this aircraft too suffered the 'display jet curse' and crashed
into the North Sea in 1998. The 'Firebirds' continued to furnish the display
aircraft until 1997 when the honour returned to 25 Squadron once more
as reward for its Dacre Trophy success. Whilst for much of the season
they used a standard squadron aircraft, usually ZE162/FF, which at that
period had the squadron badge just in silhouette, on special occasions,
such as RIAT, they gave an outing to the squadron's flagship ZE165, known
as 'Zulu Kilo' after its unusual tail letters that commemorated the unit's
wartime code letters. This aircraft was also distinguished by its full
squadron markings with the badge in full colour and fighter bars on the
nose and fin. Its pilot rejoiced in the name of 'Willie' Hackett, his
displays answering that question (will he?) in the affirmative! During
the '98 season Willie and his navigator John Shields had a heavy display
schedule, appearing at a total of forty-one shows in locations as far
apart as Santiago in Chile (for FIDAE '98) to Finland's Arctic Circle
- a far cry from today, when relatively little of the RAF's heavy metal
This two-year stretch (1997-98) was to be the last occasion that F3 display duty went outside the OCU, which continued to fulfill the role after its move from Coningsby to Leuchars in the spring of 2004. The last display aircraft in 2005 sported a modest special scheme consisting of a red arrowhead on the tail bearing the legend 'Firebirds', the squadron's nickname. This device recalled the squadron's Lightning era, having adorned the noses of the Mk 6s in the sixties and early seventies. Given the imminent disbandment of 56(R) Squadron, as the unit will merge with 43 Squadron on 22 April, this opens up the possibility of a display F3 appearing in the markings of another squadron in the future if the type is allowed one last 'huzzah' on the display circuit before its withdrawal from service. Sadly it would appear the mandarins at Whitehall will prevent that, at least so long as the Role Demonstration involves Tornado participation.