Gary Parsons reports on Waddington's annual airshow, held over 1/2 July. Pictures by the author unless credited otherwise
It was very much a story of saying goodbye to an old friend, and welcoming a new addition to the RAF's inventory at this year's airshow, the twelfth in the modern series that started back in 1995 after the event moved south from Finningley. After fifty-five years faithful service, we are finally saying goodbye to the Canberra from operational service, and as a final salute the last type, the PR9, headlined the flying programme at Waddington airshow with one of only two public appearances, the other being at RIAT later this month. In contrast, we welcomed the first public appearance of the Sentinel R1 Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR), destined to join the Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) fleet at Waddington later this year, the sleek shape of the Bombardier Global Express-based machine complementing the classic lines of the Canberra.
Operated in its twilight career by 39 (1 PRU) Squadron, the Canberra entered service with the RAF on 25 May 1951 with 101 Squadron at Binbrook, just a few miles across the Lincolnshire Wolds from Waddington. Its consequent service record with 63 RAF squadrons and overseas sales success are adequately recorded elsewhere; suffice to say it is one of the British aircraft industry's greatest achievements. Produced in many variants, the final PR9 is the sports version, boasting two Rolls-Royce Avon engines and a performance that embarrasses many a jet fighter, referred to as a 'Mosquito with jets'. The PR9 has a larger wing than the archetypal Canberra, and such is the power available from the Avons that take-off is attempted at only ninety percent, so as to not stress the airframe too much! In its element at altitude, its operational ceiling is officially classified as secret, but is in the region of 60,000 feet. Flown by a crew of two, the PR9 has a 'fighter-type' offset canopy for the pilot and location of the navigator in the nose cone - this is a most unwelcoming place to the uninitiated, just two small windows provide light to the cramped confines in the very front of the aircraft, an array of switchgear and monitors set into the hinged nose confronts the unfortunate soul.
Quite incredibly, the prototype PR9 made its maiden flight way back on 8 July 1955, the aircraft built under licence by Short Brothers, Belfast. In total twenty-three PR9s were built between 1958 and 1962, the first operational sortie flown in April 1960 by an aircraft from 58 Squadron. Of the three aircraft operational at the end of June, XH131 is the oldest, being constructed in March 1959 - at forty-seven years old, she is older than most of the pilots that fly her.
39 Squadron's association with the Canberra began on 1 July 1958 when it re-equipped with ten PR3s and one T4 trainer aircraft. The unit used the PR3 for aerial survey photography for map making, operations being conducted over East Africa and Aden. In October 1962 the PR9 arrived - it was larger than its predecessor and had improved performance, navigational equipment and cameras. The squadron returned to the UK on 1 October 1970, relocating to RAF Wyton although survey detachments continued, including Africa, Fiji and Jamaica. In May 1982 the squadron became No1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (1 PRU), but by 1992 there was a need to expand again and the unit was reformed as No 39 (1 PRU) Squadron in July. The squadron flew its last operational sortie on 18 June this year, returning home to Marham on 23 June (see separate article).
The squadron's current Commanding Officer is Wing Commander C T Mitchell RAF, who took over on 7 February 2004. He will oversee the disbandment of the squadron and the retirement of the Canberra on 28 July at Marham, sure to be an emotional event for many service personnel who have worked with the aircraft over the last fifty years. Few have served longer than display pilot Terry Cairns, who performed a remarkable display in XH134 over the Waddington weekend. At sixty-two years of age, he will retire together with the aircraft he made his own.
Some may consider the retirement of the Canberra leaves a capability gap as no direct replacement is planned - when pressed about this, Mitchell stated "We will continue to provide Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities through a mix of in-service systems and new equipment programmes." A political answer for sure, as it is known that the retirement of the PR9 has been put off as long as possible, but with only three aircraft airworthy the unit has become unsustainable. The last three aircraft, XH131, '134 and '135 are being offered for sale, although they will be limited in use due to the near-expiry of pressurisation cycles on the fuselage. But, as a low-level mapping system, it has no peer - could it be that we'll see a civilian operator contracting a service back to the MoD in future?
While the Canberra graced the Waddington sky and filled a corner of Alpha dispersal, across on Foxtrot was Sentinel R1 ZJ692, making the type's first official public appearance. While the retirement of the Canberra has been often delayed, so has the introduction of the ASTOR system that should have been in service a year or so ago. Early problems with the weight of the aircraft have been resolved and it is expected to enter service with 5(AC) Squadron between November 2006 and April 2007. Despite the early weight issues the Sentinel is a sprightly performer, as its arrival at Waddington's press day proved, its climb rate claimed to be better than that of the Bae Hawk. The engines are the same as those fitted to the Nimrod MRA4 aircraft, being two Rolls-Royce BR710 two-shaft turbofan engines producing 14,000 to 17,000 lbs of thrust at take-off.
5(AC) Squadron is a mixed-force unit with an eventual complement of 160 RAF/140 Army and 5 Royal Navy personnel, underlying its main task of battlefield co-ordination. The aircraft will be crewed by two RAF pilots with a WSO and two image analysts, one of which will be from the Army. As much an integral part of the ASTOR system as the aircraft are the mobile ground units, operated by Army personnel and also based at Waddington. The radar is an upgrade of the Raytheon ASARS-2 side-looking airborne radar used on the American U-2 and has been reported to provide images of the battlefield at ranges of 160 km and altitudes up to 47,000 feet. ASTOR is operated under a ten-year fixed-price contract with Raytheon Systems Limited, all maintenance and training being included in the package.
Hopefully next year will be the first opportunity the squadron will get to participate in the traditional station flypast that opens the air display - this year it was left to a solo E-3D Sentry as 51 Squadron was busy overseas with its three Nimrod R1s, none being available for the airshow. The squadron was represented in the static park however in the shape of Nimrod MR2 XV246, saved from the scrapman at Kinloss and a possible future conversion to R1 standard - Project Anneka II, anyone?
Where were the furriners...
This brings us on to the thorny subject of the static parks and the lack of international participation once again - last year we saw the signs of a drawdown in NATO participation at airshows and the trend continued this year with a vengeance. It's a problem that is getting serious and one that the airshow team is working hard to correct, but with little luck to date. Date clashes with overseas airshows are cited as one reason, but this shouldn't really have a major effect as distances aren't great and the display aircraft are there; it's just that they don't seem to get sent to the UK anymore (other than RIAT, of course). One wag referred to it as the 'RAF Waddington PFA rally' as there were so many small civilian aircraft filling the static lines - a bit cruel, as there were some gems for the enthusiast, such as the Greek Air Force RF-4E and the two anniversary specials from nearby Cranwell.
Cambrai held its Meeting Nationale over the same weekend but was graced by no less than three European F-16 demonstrations! Waddington could only attract an Austrian Air Force Saab 105 in the jet category, while welcome it's not exactly in the 'turn & burn' Fighting Falcon or MiG-29 class. The presence of the Royal New Zealand Air Force's P-3 Orion and Boeing 757 in the flying programme was welcomed by many enthusiasts, but otherwise it was the RAF 'circus' supported by civilian display teams, of which there were perhaps too many for a true 'international' line-up.
So, accepting it was Waddington's weakest programme to date, there was still much to enjoy, not least the fantastic sub-tropical weather - undoubtedly Waddington's finest since 1995, two days of scorching hot sunshine putting paid to the myth that it's always wet and cold in the wilds of Lincolnshire. Aside from the Canberra celebrations, the other major theme was the 70th anniversary of the Spitfire, and a unique formation comprising two Battle of Britain examples and privately-owned T9 MJ627 flown by ex-BBMF leader Paul Day was a highlight for many.
Even the England quarter-final didn't deter the crowds on Saturday, it being clear on Sunday that it was another successful weekend and hopefully another sizeable donation can be made to the RAF Benevolent Fund and other charities. Last year's show raised £338,000, and each year sees an increase, a testament to the event's popularity with the public and the professional organisation behind it (some grumbled about poor traffic management exiting the event this year, but such issues are rare and are sure to be put right).
But aircraft participation is becoming a real issue - if the enthusiasts don't come, neither will their families and friends, and this year's fantastic weather may have masked a down-turn in the enthusiast numbers. The airshow team is acutely aware of the problem and is working hard behind the scenes to address it - hopefully next year's airshow on 30 June/1 July will see a return of the international flavour.