Gary Parsons reports from RAF Coltishall as the airfield closes as a flying station
Sixty-five years old, and pensioned off - RAF Coltishall officially closed as a flying station on 1 April, ending its career with a day packed with parades, flypasts and invited guests.
Formally declared operational on 23 June 1940, Coltishall would forever be a fighter station, retaining its post-war character to the end - no high chain-link fence or Hardened Aircraft Shelters would invade the tranquil North Norfolk backdrop. Perhaps this is what sealed its fate - a lack of investment over the years meant it was left behind by other airfields in facilities, so when the future Typhoon basing strategy was announced in the late nineties it was no surprise to hear Coningsby, Leeming and Leuchars were the preferred locations (although Leeming too has since fallen by the wayside), the writing being on the wall for the Norfolk airfield. Despite its strategically advantageous position close to the North Sea, no defence use could be identified and so it was announced in 2004 that the base would close by the end of 2006.
To 'enable' this closure, the airfield's resident Jaguars have been transferred to RAF Coningsby until withdrawn in late 2007, primarily to ease single-seat pilot experience into the growing Typhoon fleet. Jaguar pilots will form the core of 11 Squadron and a fully Typhoon-equipped 6 Squadron in due course. The cost of transferring maintenance, admin and families must have been outweighed by the savings of closing Coltishall early; however, it is a shame that the Jaguar could not have seen out its days at its spiritual home. Jaguar had been based at Coltishall for thirty-two years, remarkably almost exactly half the active life of the airfield! 54(F) Squadron arrived from RAF Lossiemouth on 8 August 1974 to begin an unbroken association of aircraft and airfield that has been unmatched in RAF history, despite the threat of closure at various times since. 6 Squadron followed shortly after in November, with 41(F) Squadron on 1 April 1977. Ironically 6 Squadron had previously been a Phantom FGR2 unit based at Coningsby, so its latest move is not to unknown territory.
Because of its lack of modernisation, history seeps out of every corner of the base. The C-type hangars retain their wartime appearance, being low-budget pre-cast concrete versions of the more familiar brick 'hipped' types seen at pre-war expansion period airfields such as Marham, West Raynham and Watton. Coltishall's late commencement in 1939 necessitated some cost-cutting to enable it to be ready in mid-1940, but it largely retains the layout and charisma of the time. Famous names have commanded the station; Stanford-Tuck, famous Battle of Britain fighter pilot; Topp, who led that famous twenty-two Hunter formation at Farnborough; and latterly Wright, who as an Air Commodore is the highest ranking officer to command the station. Air Commodore Graham Wright has always been a Jaguar man, serving his entire career with 6 and 41 Squadrons at Coltishall since qualifying for his wings in 1985. "It's a place of history - and one that we all absolutely love", said Wright, shortly before climbing into one of the last four Jaguars to leave the airfield. How did he feel? "Emotional. We've had a long time to prepare for this, but it's still emotional. My life has been inextricably linked with this place, as have many others."
Coltishall seemed to engender a community spirit quite unlike any other station - maybe it was its limited access, or closeness to the idyllic North Norfolk coast, or maybe its austere character and surroundings. Whatever, that spirit, together with the input to the wider locality, will now fade away. Some, like the Media Communications Officer Mick Jennings, can't imagine a service life away from Coltishall, so are leaving the air force. Addressing the station parade was Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, himself a former Jaguar pilot and Coltishall resident in the late seventies, who summed it up in his address - "Some say you can take the man out of Coltishall, but not Coltishall out of the man. Its place in the history of the nation will endure - I'm delighted Norwich Cathedral is taking the Battle of Britain mace and is going to sustain that very important link between us and this part of the world."
Coltishall's future is now set for a fast-track disposal, the Ministry of Defence keen to avoid the debacle that is West Raynham, a site that has sat for fifteen years neglected and abandoned. The whole of Coltishall airfield will go on the open market in the summer, with a number of local landowners interested - no doubt with an eye on the commencement of the Norwich Northern Distributor road and the acres of aggregate Coltishall's runways and taxiways offer. Rumours of Norwich's airport moving are unfounded, the current operator Omniport confirming that it has no interest in the site. With development pressures in Norwich, this may be a missed opportunity - expansion at the current Horsham St Faiths site will be come ever more difficult with creeping development encroaching around it, with the certainty of ever increasing noise and safety fears. Coltishall offers an opportunity similar to that realised at Finningley, where a vacated RAF airfield has been successfully turned into a growing and vibrant regional airport - only the poor access roads offer any reason to think twice, but the commercial value of the existing airport site would easily offset the cost of a link road from the A140. But, in a couple of years, the runway could be gone, together with the chance of Norfolk developing a truly regional airport.
For the enthusiast, it's the loss of another classic setting - read Binbrook, Wattisham, Honington or Bentwaters in the last eighteen years. A pleasant summer's day spent between crash gates 2 and 3 was always an enjoyable affair, the tranquil setting only interrupted by the roar of afterburners - which is why we were there, of course - or the toot of the Wroxham to Aylsham light railway away in the distance. Always a friendly place, it was somewhere relationships through a common interest were forged.
So today you don't mind the rain - it is your last chance to say goodbye to this hallowed place. It's the end of an era and you want to soak up the atmosphere just one last time.
You're not alone - hundreds of like-minded souls line the fence, paying homage to one of the RAF's most famous airfields. No matter that the sun has disappeared, and the rain gets heavier by the minute - at least you are here.
The author would like to thank the RAF Coltishall MCO and his staff for all their assistance in the past. Bon voyage!