Last of the First by Gary Parsons
It was a beautiful day for disbandment, if there is such a thing. Friday the thirtieth of October saw the end of 29(F) Squadron for the second time in its history, the demise brought about by the Strategic Defence Review and the requirement to disband two current Tornado units (the other will be Bruggen-based 17 Squadron). To commemorate the occasion, a parade to pass the squadron standard to the RAF College was held inside 56(R) Squadron's Gaydon type hangar at Coningsby, partly in expectation of less than clement weather, ironically the day proving bright and clear in-between the incessant rain of late October, 1998.
In the presence of the Chief of Air Staff, ex-Squadron members, their families and personnel from other NATO Air Forces, the parade was addressed by Air Marshal Ian MacFadyen, a veteran of Two-Nine who has commanded the squadron twice, whose address reflected upon the great tradition of the squadron and that it "must not be extinguished". After trooping the squadron standard, it was accepted and 'laid up' at the RAF College, Cranwell. A four-ship flypast of Tornado F3s closed proceedings, although not marked as 29 Squadron machines they were crewed by such, with the call-sign 'Triplex'. One jet was on hand for the ceremony, ZE256/BX being the backdrop for the hangar parade, but this was the only one on the station left in 29 Squadron marks.
The tradition that Air Marshal MacFadyen referred to began on 7 November 1915 at Fort Grange, Gosport where the squadron formed as a Royal Flying Corps unit, initially with a rag-bag of aircraft but soon taking on DH2s. The Western Front beckoned and March 1916 saw the squadron over the trenches of the Somme, to start some of the epic air battles of the Great War. One of the aces of that conflict, Flight Sergeant James McCudden VC served with Two-Nine, notching up 57 kills. 1918 brought the formation of the Royal Air Force and 29 Squadron, now with the SE5a, served near Dunkirk until the end of the war. The following year saw the first disbandment of the squadron in the rapid cutbacks of the post-war era, but it was re-born in 1923 at Duxford equipped with Sopwith Snipes. Gloster Grebes followed in 1925, subsequently replaced by Siskins and Bulldogs in the early thirties. The Abyssinian crisis of 1935 meant Two-Nine was deployed to Egypt, Hawker Demons being operated at the time, supported by Fairey Gordons which were used for night patrols. This experience formed the basis of the squadron's future role for the next couple of decades.
At the outbreak of the Second World War the squadron was the first to operate the Blenheim in the night-fighter role, using the all-new aircraft intercept (AI) radar set. Beaufighters replaced the ageing Blenheim in September 1940, plus a certain young Flight Lieutenant Guy Gibson commenced his operational career, learning the skills that would prove invaluable some two and a half years later. Mosquitoes replaced the Beau' in 1943, still in the night-fighter role, continuing through to the end of the war at West Malling to form part of the post-war fighter defences.
In 1950 29(F) Squadron became the first night-fighter jet squadron with the introduction of the Meteor NF11, another 'first' but not the last. Javelins followed the 'Meatbox' and a place within the Near East Air Force in Cyprus, deploying to Zambia in the Rhodesian crisis. 1967 brought the lovely Lightning F3, a move to the tranquil Suffolk countryside of Wattisham where they stayed until 1974 and re-equipment with the Phantom FGR2 at the current home of Coningsby. Another 'first' was the firing of the Skyflash missile in service, which enabled the squadron to deploy Ascension Island, then later to RAF Stanley in 1982 as provision of air defence to the staging routes for the Falklands conflict. At this time, the squadron was under the control of Ian MacFadyen, who led the disbandment address in October 1998.
Back at Coningsby, the face of the station changed dramatically in 1984 with the construction of Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS), 29(F) Squadron being the first fighter squadron to operate from such a facility in the UK. Three years later the Tornado F3 was introduced into service, 29(F) Squadron being the first to operate the type (the F2 had only served with the OCU before this). A year later a unique operation known as 'Golden Eagle' was undertaken, which involved four F3s from Two-Nine flying around the world via Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Australia and America. The principal reason was to deploy fighters to Malaysia in support of the Malaysian Peninsular five nation defence arrangement, and is believed to be the first and only time a fighter squadron has flown around the world. The Tornados left Coningsby on 21 August 1988, returning some 11 weeks and 26,000 miles later.
Operational duty followed in 1990 and 1991 over the skies of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, although the squadron did not get into the thick of the action. November 1992 saw the squadron become the first F3 unit to participate in Exercise 'Red Flag' at Nellis, in the Nevada desert close to Las Vegas. This type of deployment has become a regular feature of Tornado operations today, 29(F) Squadron's results from that first foray giving the RAF a good reputation with the other participants; on one mission 19 kills were claimed for no losses. Since then, regular trips to Bosnia have been a feature of fighter life in the late '90s, something which the other remaining squadrons will have to take a greater share of.
Announced in August, the decision to disband a fighter squadron has met with mixed reaction, as demands upon personnel are high with many deployments regularly undertaken around the world. This was amply exemplified by Two-Nine in the months leading up to disbandment, whereby deployments to Cyprus (twice), Norway in March, Operation Cyclone Change, Poland, France, Denmark, Gibraltar and Belgium, at a time of reduced aircraft and crew members stretched resources to the limit. If a unit had to be lost, it was logical that it would be one from Coningsby as another would mean either Leuchars or Leeming left with only one; thus it had to be either 5 or 29 Squadrons, the latter pulling the short straw. Official disbandment was to be affected by 1 April 1999, but as the Station Commander Group Captain Al Lockwood explained, it was "left to Strike Command and Group HQ to decide when the best time was. In reality, we have suffered from pilot shortages - not only that, we wanted to let it come to an end as a squadron, rather than let it dribble away slowly as people are posted to other units; we wanted it to go out with a bang, not a fizzle." Asked about the lack of squadron aircraft to mark the occasion, he stated that during the last six months all aircraft have been pooled in a 'rolling fleet' due to a host of upgrade and modernisation programs. Most of the crews have found new postings with flying units, but the 'boss', Wing Commander Nick Randell, is desk-bound in the future with the Joint Services College. The HAS site vacated by 29(F) Squadron will be utilised by 5 Squadron, which will have an increased allocation of aircraft; the OCU, 56(R) Squadron will also see an increase in its responsibilities.
Optimism is high that the squadron standard will not remain dormant for long, as Group Captain Lockwood said, "The squadron is not closing, just resting". The impending deliveries of Eurofighters to Coningsby to form the initial OCU has inevitably raised expectations on the reserve squadron to be allocated, Two-Nine having perhaps the greatest claim at the moment, although the official line is that it has not been considered yet. As the disbandment ceremony leaflet proclaims on the back cover, 'Not so much goodbye .rather until we meet again!'