Dave Eade goes to Belgium on safari. Pictures by him & Peter Esser.
The origins of the NATO TIGER ASSOCIATION go back to the mid-fifties, when a casual meeting of RAF Hunter pilots from 74 Squadron and F86 jockeys of the 79th Fighter Bomber Squadron led to the realisation that both used the tiger as their emblem. The use of aggressive animals in heraldry, of course, goes back even further to the beginning of time.
As every Tiger knows, however, its "hard to be humble" and from these "humble" beginnings grew one of the strongest associations of aircrew in the world. Now consisting of some seventeen active and fifteen probationary members worldwide, this bond, which even unites enemies of old, shows itself at its best in the annual "Tiger Meet". This event enables units to meet, train and socialise over a period of some ten days swapping both ideas and missions within the common bond of the Tiger as their unit symbol.
So keen are units to join in the "frolics" of the Tiger Meet that some spurious links have been formed on occasions extending the emblem from Tiger to anything that can loosely be called a cat. This has opened the door to Jaguars of both RAF and French Air Force squadrons and the Cats of the Spanish and German units holding this animal as their symbol. It sadly means that some units disappear with disbandment, which is tragically the case with founder member 74 Squadron whose Hawks and Phantoms have been ever present at the "Tigers Lair" over the years until Tiger Meet 2001. The RAF was, therefore, represented this year by the Pumas of 230 Squadron, whose role sits somewhat uncomfortably with the aggressors of the Tornado, F16 and Mirage F1s, to say nothing of the Mirage 2000 interceptors of lArmee de lAir. The invitation to the Italian Tornado F3 unit of 12 Gruppo was assured, however, despite disbandment of the true Italian air force Tiger unit, by the creation of a "Tiger flight" in 12 Gruppo, which still survives.
The complete list of full members is as follows today:
Unofficial members hail from Europe, Asia, Australasia and South America.
Early meets in the series led to a habit of aircraft decoration that, thankfully, has become prolific with the Tigers. Originated by the Canadian CF-104 units stationed in Germany, it is now customary to give one of the unit's aircraft a "Tiger" colourscheme. These vary from the subtle to the downright garish although it has to be said that this years were initially a little disappointing to yours truly. Past Meets have led to some superb artwork from the Dutch F16 units, the USAF KC135s and the Mirage F1s. As is also custom, the RAF has been dragged kicking and screaming into the paint-ring but rarely adding more than a token to its fighters.
Spotters interest is very high in the Tiger Association through representation on the web and in publications. The Tiger Association has been quick to use this interest and has held Spotters Days to enable Joe Public to get a good look at the colour-schemes. This year was no exception, with the OCU Squadron of 10 Wing of the Belgian Air Force at Kleine Brogel (KB) inviting the press and spotters to a day in the Tigers Lair. Organised for the benefit of the Belgian armed forces Benevolunt fund, the 'Spottersday' event was hosted by the OCU because 31 Tiger Squadron was too busy with the organisation of the Tiger meet itself.
Those that made the journey to the depths of Belgium could not have been disappointed in the results of their trip. It seemed as though nothing was too much trouble as one after the other aircraft going out on missions taxied past the gathered throng, many halting momentarily to pose for the photographers. To cap it all the skies were almost cloudless, temperatures soared and a great spirit was to be felt through the spotters arena (all the more disappointing to see well-known members of the press "putting their parts on" because the sun was in the wrong place). A static exhibition to rival many an airshow was provided including KBs own F-16 (FA116) adorned with its flamboyant colourscheme. Others in the line included the Tucano (472/312-JQ) and Jaguars (A90 and A133) from the French, F-15E 91-0601 from the USAFE at Lakenheath and a MIG-29 and F-4F from the German Air Force.
During the day various aircraft carried out fly-bys for the spotters, adding great flair to the sky. Memorable were the Dutch, in the form of a pair of Bo105s who scorched (as much as a Bo105 can scorch!) across the airfield on two passes, several A-10s from Spangdahlen and two formations of Alpha Jets a four and an eight-ship from down the road at Beauvechain. A BAF Hercules (CH-10) and the KLU VIP Gulfstream V-11 represented the larger aircraft. The helicopter brigades were not to be outdone with the RAF Puma accompanied in the static by Belgian Sea King RS-03, A-109 and, best of all, two Czech Mi-24s (0709 and 0836) with suitable tiger adornment.
On the other side of the airfield, missions were the order of the day as KB F-16s were flown with the visiting German Tornados, French Mirage F-1s and 2000s, together with Dutch and Turkish F-16s. Each formation on either take-off or landing was taxied by the Spotters enclosure and included where available the tiger-marked machine. This was especially delightful in the case of the Portuguese Alpha Jet from Esq-301, which would have taken the prize for the best colour scheme of the day in our opinion.
The Tiger-Meet is not only about aircraft, of course. It is about making bonds between comrades at all levels through the air arms of NATO. In the spotters enclosure souvenirs were there to be purchased from Tiger adorned aircrew and groundcrew and a great sense of fun was to be felt. The opportunity was taken to log and photograph the preserved F-84s and F-104s by many spotters on their way out from this thoroughly excellent Spotterdag 2001.