Part Six: Phinal curtain for the boys in blue by Dave Eade
Events in the eastern bloc, long thought to be from where the threat to air defence would come, were to have an effect on the Phantom which nobody foresaw. The collapse of the Warsaw pact and resultant arms reduction treaties meant that the Phantom was sacrificed. Planned to continue to 2007, to be replaced one assumes by Typhoon, the necessity for two fighter squadrons in RAF Germany and nine in the UK could no longer be justified, especially as Tornado F3s, designed to fulfil the long range patrol, were also available with supposedly better kit. The Leuchars wing re-equipped with the F3, with its venerable FG1/ FGR2 mix of Phantoms returning to storage at Wattisham, for possible re-sale or to provide a pool of airframes for the remaining squadrons. Anyone who saw the way that the aircraft were stored in Number 1 hangar knew that there was no way these aircraft were going anywhere.
The Phantom OCU at Leuchars, shadow numbered 64 Squadron, also disappeared, some of the airframes finding their way to Wattisham to form the Phantom Training Flight, annexed to 74 Squadron. 74 Squadron's tenure of the F-4J drew rapidly to a close as the entire fleet standardised on the now availableFGR2 model in early 1991.
Sometimes the most spectacular events go un-noticed, such was the case when one January morning 74 launched nine F-4Js for a last diamond-nine over the local area. Landing on 05 runway, the aircraft taxied back to their HAS site each in turn folding its wings something that no other Phantom units in the RAF could have done wing folding being a cockpit controlled action only available in the F-4J.
Time was running out for all the Phantoms though, as once more the scrap dump at Wattisham started to fill with hulks of the now stripped FG1s from 43 and 111 Squadrons. RAF Germany lost its two interceptor squadrons as the German Air Force, now re-unified, ceased to have a QRA requirement. The ex-19 and 92 Squadron machines also came back to Wattisham so that by early 1991 all the Phantom airframes were located here.
July 1991 saw a sight over Wattisham that, a few years earlier, would have meant that we had lost the war! The collapse of the Warsaw pact had led to hands of friendship being extended to Iron Curtain countries, and the pending Tiger meet at Fairford IAT 91 was an ideal opportunity. Escorted by the obligatory Tiger marked Phantoms, a Mig-23, two Mig-29s, two L39s, an An12 and Tu154 of the Czech Air Force appeared on approach. To someone who had lived his life in the shadow of this airfield, and all the events that had taken place there, I have to say that this was the most memorable aviation moment of my life. To see Mig fighters over ones home sent a chill, but also a thrill, to the spine.
1992 was the phinal year of the Phantom. It was also one of the most spectacular years in the Wattisham skies. 56 Squadron was the first to go, but not before a photo call was held, with pride of place going to 56 emblem adorned Lightning F6 XP693 (courtesy of BAe), Phantom and Tornado F3. This showed the Firebird would still grace a RAF Fighter, the OCU at Coningsby being re-numbered from 65 (R) Squadron to 56 (R) Squadron to preserve the Squadron number with the 'greater' heritage.
Phantoms of other units came to say farewell, including German and United States Air Forces. A line-up on the taxiway showed all the resident Phantoms of 56 Squadron (in order P H O E N I X F T R) and 74 Squadron (T I G E R S Q N). Most will remember the day though for the torrential storm that hit Wattisham in the early afternoon, but not before some spectacular shots were had against the threatening black skies.
74 Squadron had won a fly-off with 56 Squadron during the early spring to select a crew to demonstrate the solo Phantom at air-shows in its final year. Squadron Leader Archie Liggatt and Flt Lt Mark Mainwaring were selected, and presented with two newly painted Phantoms for this task. An opportunity was missed in that the colour scheme chosen was conservative to say the least, especially when compared with continental display machines (KLu F-16, etc.). The team displayed locally at North Weald, Mildenhall, Lakenheath, Honington and the final Bentwaters display as well as many other parts of the UK and Europe.
74 Squadron HAS site was to the west side of Wattisham, and their aircraft had to taxi past Crash Gate 2 to get to or from the runway. Aircraft distance from 'spectators' was a mere 70 yards or so and much playing to the crowd (which was reciprocated with some enthusiasm) took place in those days. Spotters were always treated well by the RAF at Wattisham, and this crash gate became the second home to an increasing band of anoraks. It has to be said that the flying became superfluous to the banter on occasions, and it was often darkness or the oncoming chill that sent us home rather than the fact that the base had shut some hours before. Exercises led to many days holidays being taken just to 'sit on the wire'. Elder Forests, Priories and Hammers gave the only excuse necessary for supplies to be bought, flasks to be filled and scanner batteries to be checked.
Wattisham had the honour of providing the Royal Flypast at the annual celebration of the Queen's birthday in June, and so did it style, sending up no fewer than sixteen in formation. Reminiscent of those halcyon Hunter days, the glorious summer sun during the week preceding the flypast afforded plenty of practice time, much to the delight of the locals! Later, in July, 74 Squadron held their last Families Day. The crowds of on-lockers outside the base had rarely been exceeded. A four-ship was flown by the Squadron, along with displays from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, Tornado GR1, F3 and others. Pride of place went to the solo display from Archie Liggatt and Mark Mainwaring. Un-noticed by the display team was the loss of a large piece of wing skin, which fell harmlessly to the official visitors on the airfield but perilously close to the onlookers in the surrounding fields.
Phinal phling came on 14 September when a mini Tiger meet was held at Wattisham for the first and only time. Visitors included soon-to-be-gone Fiat G91s from the Portuguese Air Force, Super Etendards from the Aeronavale, F111Es from the 20th TFW USAF and a KC135E from the Air National Guard. Many had retained their Tiger Schemes from previous meets, bringing some seldom seen colour to the Suffolk skies. Wattisham had the best paint job on the airfield, only problem being it was on XV404 which had been grounded for some time...if only the display aircraft had been painted like it! The meet also gave us our first glimpse of Hawks painted in 74(R) Squadron colours, hitting home how close disbandment was for the Phantom fleet.
Although mooted at the end of the Lightning era, it never seemed possible that Wattisham, the place where I had spent so many happy days, enjoying my hobby, would ever close. Growth of Stansted as London's third airport was squeezing airspace in North Essex and Suffolk and the Phantoms became ever more restricted in where they could play, more often than not heading for the expanses of the North Sea. Announcement came late in 1991 that the Phantoms were to leave, and that 'an alternative military use' would be found for the base. Speculation as to what this could be was rife, ranging from being put into mothballs pending Eurofighter's arrival, to complete closure. Most reckoned on a forward operating base for the Leuchars F3s, which would have occasionally brought Treble-One back to its proper home, but finally the announcement came that the Army were to move in to form an Airmobile Brigade with displaced helicopter regiments from Germany. It was very much a mixture of feelings, relief that the airfield was to be kept alive and not rot away but heavy, deep disappointment that the days of thunder were over.
People I had met over the years at Crash Gate 2 had not only taught me a great deal (serial collecting, scanners, telephoto lenses) but had helped me through a particularly rough period of my life, and for that I will always be grateful. Together we could look back over Elder Forests, Priories, and TACEVALs of the past and remember the thrill those days gave us along with the frustrations. No-one who has not sat in the rain for two days can possibly understand how it feels to be told "they all went to Leuchars!" Likewise, however, they will not comprehend the thrill when, having heard a raid call in on the scanner with that lovely word Tango, you see a series of dark smoke trails in the clear distance, and know that "the Spangs are coming!" If you dont know what that means you were not there!
Closure did come, though, and as the scrap dump over near Nedging Tye became more populated, first 56 Squadron then the other stored aircraft made their 'phinal' journey. I would like to think that the powers that be had a heart, but to see these giant beasts, who would daily defy gravity and leap to the sky that was theirs, reduced by chain saws to a mass of broken aluminium alloys proved otherwise. This was the first time I had liked the American idea of tipping their aircraft over the side of a carrier it is somehow more dignified. I know we cannot keep them all, but today we watch as even the ones we did keep are slowly condemned to the smelter.
Planes may die, but squadrons live on. It was some consolation on that day in October 1992 to know that the phoenix of 56 Squadron was continuing to fly at Coningsby. 74 Squadron hung its standard in the church at Ringshall, where it is today and will stay, overlooking that flight path for so long the way home for its pilots. A new standard was awarded and flew off to Valley in Anglesey, in a similar role to its compatriots of 56, to train the pilots of the future, until disbandment again came in 2000.
31 October 1992 was the day when RAF Wattisham stood down as a fighter base. Representative aircraft from units that had spent time there were to fly, one last time, in a formation over the field. Rarely has the fence been so crowded as it was that day. Led by a sole Phantom FGR2 in 74 Squadron colours a mix of Hawk, Tornado and Jaguar flew over the control tower before departing the base. That left only the few jets assembled as a static display to go. The honour of being the last aircraft to leave RAF Wattisham before it closed for flying went to Jaguar XZ398, piloted by the Commanding Officer of 41 Squadron. As quiet settled over the base and spotters were left to their thoughts, that lone Phantom having led the formation returned. A Mach 0.9 pass followed a touch-and-go into the vertical before landing the last time a Phantom would do so here.
The valiant few assembled back at the wire the next day, Saturday, to witness one last sad sight. The last two Phantoms, accompanied by a Hawk, taxied out and took off. The tower roof and ASP was crowded to an extent that I could not ever recall before. Several passes were made, and finally the Hawk departed, followed by one of the Phantoms destined for Duxford. The scene played out the day before was repeated a touch-and-go followed by a burner pass, and climb into the blue yonder.
It was over. There were regulars there that day that I have never seen since, but the emotion, in the late autumn sun, was touchable. You had to have been there!
Life for Wattisham would change dramatically, with the arrival of the boys in khaki -see part seven.