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Phoenix flies north

Courtesy of RAF websiteGary Parsons reports on 56(R) Squadron's migration north to RAF Leuchars

And so another chapter in Coningsby's long and distinguished history is closed. The departure of 56(R) Squadron on 27 March marked the end of Tornado F3 operations (except for the current QRA) before the airfield closes in June for substantial construction work to herald the arrival of Typhoon in early 2004, a process that began some five years ago with the disbandment of 29 Squadron in October 1998. 5 Squadron followed last year, leaving just 56(R) and the F3 OEU in residence, leading to the culmination of withdrawals in late March with the OEU relocating to Waddington and 56(R) to Leuchars.

Duck!Brought forward a day early to avoid potential weather problems over the Tay estuary, 56(R) certainly departed in style with a spirited eleven-ship airfield attack and diamond-nine flypast - not quite Red Arrows precision, but nonetheless impressive as virtually no practice had been possible in the preceding weeks.

First F2s arrive, 5 November 1984

It brings to an end eighteen years of Tornado training at the Lincolnshire base - it's hard to believe that it was 1984 when the first F2s arrived to form the nucleus of 229 OCU (65 (Reserve) Squadron), the newly-formed unit that would pave the way for the transition to the radar-equipped F3 a couple of years later. 229's career was relatively brief, as it would adopt 56 Squadron's crest on retirement of the Phantom from RAF Wattisham in 1992.

Since then the Phoenix has been a familiar sight in the Lincolnshire skies, as it provided all Tornado F3 conversion training and the regular official display jet for the airshow circuit. Its role won't change with the move to Leuchars, and will continue for as long as the F3 remains in front-line service with the RAF. The F3 won't disappear from Coningsby completely, as the OEU will return once reconstruction work is complete and will be part of a bigger Strike/Attack unit that will relocate from Boscombe Down. Curiously F3 training won't completely disappear either, as the F3 simulator will remain at Coningsby primarily for OEU work. Plans are also afoot to mount an F3 on the gate as base 'guardian' - but where this will leave the current Phantom is unclear.

Last flight for ZE256

A move such as this is not simply one of flying aircraft from A to B - the instructors' families are also of prime importance, not to mention associated admin and support staff. Many are given the choice to move or to another posting nearer home, but of course competition is fierce. Some will remain at Coningsby and help prepare the base for Typhoon, such as Dave Wood who is a full-time reservist in the RAF. Dave has extensive experience of both the F3 and 56(R) Squadron, for he was the unit's OC between 1997 and 2000 when serving full-time as a Wing Commander. He has over 2,000 hours on the F3 and recently left the RAF to become BAE Systems' Typhoon Training Facilities Manager at RAF Coningsby, preparing the base for its transition to the Eurofighter from early 2004. Dave had a particular favourite F3 - ZE256 (the last two digits maybe say why) and the trip to Leuchars was a last chance to fly together, for it was the final flight for both with the RAF. Dave had flown '256 to Malaysia for Exercise 'Golden Eagle', and also to Alaska - thus it was fitting that he should pilot it to Leuchars on its last ever flight, where it will be retired for ground-based engineering training. He was accompanied on the flight by the Senior Engineering Officer of 56(R) Squadron, Sqn Ldr 'Doc' Docherty.

Last to leave - ZH555Coningsby has a history of bringing change to the air force - or intended change, at least. It was originally earmarked for the introduction of TSR2 into RAF service - but we all know what happened there. It was then destined to cater for its successor, the F-111 - but we all know what happened there too. So, it had the distinction of introducing the Phantom to RAF service, although the Navy got some first. But, with the Tornado F2/F3, it really did usher in a new type of largely British design, and one hopes that Typhoon will prove an equally successful prospect.


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