Last bite for the Jaguar
Damien Burke reflects on the last days of the RAF Jaguar. Pictures by the author and Jamie Hunter/Aviacom
As has already been recorded here at Air-Scene UK, the RAF's Jaguar has been retired - prematurely - and the decision to remove the type from the RAF's order of battle months before the original planned out-of-service date put paid to all the plans that 6 Squadron had to show the old girls off to all and sundry throughout the airshow season.
Instead, the faceless bureaucrats wanted the Squadron - and their jet - to slink off quietly, without fuss and furore. What a good job, then, that the personnel of the Squadron - and in particular its OC, Wing Commander John Sullivan (aka 'JS') - exhibited some traditional British bulldog spirit - and stuck a proverbial two fingers up at the whole filthy idea.
No doubt the official RAF histories won't mention Jaguar paw prints painted on the path from 6 Squadron's Ops building to the nearest HAS...and then over the top of the HAS and on to the next HAS in sight. The same history won't record which pilot it was that blasted through a Welsh valley while rolling a full 360 degrees... or which pair of pilots bid a cheery "Hello spotters!" on the radio one day, after a discussion about how soon they'd get tired of just flying for the hell of it (never), and soon followed up with "We're Harrier pilots by the way" on the off chance officialdom was listening. As for the story of the last outrageous Jaguar paint scheme... well no doubt the bureaucrats were expecting something along the lines of the officially-approved special tails of previous years. One can only hope they choked on their G&Ts when they finally saw the photos of the 'spotty jet' showing off her bright orange skin against blazing blue skies.
The official end to the Jaguar was marked with a large '6' formation in the skies above Coningsby; the real end was the last flight into Cosford on 2 July, marked with no ceremony - indeed, the MoD didn't even bother to send an official photographer. Thankfully the personnel of DCAE Cosford were of similar minds to those in 6 Squadron and gave permission for a couple of civilian photographers (your author being one) to be on the airfield to record those final RAF Jaguar flights. Cosford offers an unusual photographic viewpoint for those outside the fence - the railway station platform is not far from the runway end, and is considerably higher, thus offering a unique viewpoint of aircraft touching down. However, for those final flights, being able to record not just the aircraft action but also the human stories was worth foregoing the raised viewpoint!
There were three batches of deliveries to Cosford. The first, watched on 18 May from the station, provided the never-before seen sight of Jaguars with brake chutes billowing in mid-air, splayed undercarriage legs still reaching for terra firma. Used to the unending acres of concrete of Coningsby, the tiny runway at Cosford was an excuse to try something many a Jag pilot had wondered about, and as one pilot said "There's nothing in the book that says you can't do it!" Coupled with a good variety of approaches and fast passes, it transformed the first of these sad occasions into a real spectacle that left wide grins on a sea of enthusiasts' faces.
With the cooperation of Cosford's SATCO and CRO, delivery batch two on 12 June was viewed from the grass runway next to the hard runway. Experience from the last time had shown that the brake chute in the air trick wasn't strictly necessary, and fuel states (and who knows, possibly a bit of a telling off about the first batch) meant each aircraft was limited to one practice approach and then one real one with no beat-ups in evidence. With only three Jaguars left behind at Coningsby, this meant many of the pilots in the second delivery batch were making their last ever Jaguar flight. The OC's jet, XX112/EA, took a rather different route to the ASP, rolling across the grass as a final demonstration that the Jag had been built with rough field capability in mind (it was a fairly smooth ride apparently).
Each Jag bore numerous scribbles from ground crew and aircrew, some of them unprintable, and after each jet had been signed by its respective pilot - often coupled with a final loving pat on the nose - it was time for a group photo. After that, with emotions hidden, the pop of a lifejacket inflating signalled which pilot had had his last ever fast jet trip (or so he thought at the time)! With the aircrew's ride home having arrived - would you believe a minibus? - it was time to go and see where these last Jaguars were being towed to.
Airshow goers at Cosford will have seen the grass covered humps of the storage hangars on the far side of the runway. Inside these rotting concrete carcasses, Jaguars await their next use. It's dark. The floor is covered with dust and occasional small chunks of concrete that have fallen from the roof. The Jags still stand proud, with haughty noses held aloft like a posh bird at a bus station. Many of them will be released from this dusty prison, towed across the main hangars on the airfield to be made safe for instructional use, and used to train the next generation of RAF groundcrew. A better end than the scrapman's axe, though that will come for some.
Back to those three Jags at Coningsby though, and herculean efforts of organisation with absolutely no notice meant that 6 Squadron managed to put together a limited number ticket-only enthusiasts' day for everybody to see the fabulous paint scheme applied to the 'last, last Jaguar'. XX119 had finally been snuck out of the paint shop the week before, hidden away lest officialdom spot her and order a nice boring coat of grey to be applied at the last minute. A single currency flight was arranged so that this paint scheme would be recorded in a superb series of air to air photographs, as seen here, and then it was back to hiding in a HAS until the enthusiast's day (and 6 Squadron Families' Day the day after). The Squadron did its visitors proud, with taxiing demonstrations from the desert pink Jag (XX725) while the final T-bird (XX835) and the 'spotty jet' basked in the sunshine, being photographed from every conceivable angle. There were other jets there too, but hey - this is a Jag article!
After that disastrously damp weekend, it was time for the final three to fly out and into retirement at Cosford. So it was that I found myself once again standing on the grass at Cosford, waiting for three Jags to make their presence felt. That brake chute in the air shot had been requested, but there were no guarantees. The first jet down - XX835 - popped the chute... after touchdown. Second jet down - the RAF's last Jaguar pilot 'Daubs' in XX725 - popped the chute... after touchdown! It was looking like we weren't going to get that lusted-after photo. But then again, the last pilot in the air was the OC... and as it turned out, he did us proud. A quick - and I mean quick - low pass over the airfield followed by an approach during which I'd have knelt and prayed for the 'chute shot' if the grass had been less wet... and joy of joys, the parachute snakes out of its container and opens with a thunderous crack, several seconds before XX119's wheels make their final mark on tarmac.
It is an arrival to remember, and a fitting end to the many years I've spent photographing this charismatic Anglo-French feline. As airborne totty goes, it was the last of the really good looking RAF jets, and the slightly pudgy shape of the Typhoon - tupperware triangle - is no competition. I'll leave you all with the inscription applied to XX112 by her pilot, JS, on the occasion of that aircraft's final flight. It could apply equally to the entire Jaguar force, not just this airframe: "Thank you for keeping us safe EA. You were always reliable! Rest easy!"
With thanks to JS, Smithy, Daubs, D-Reg, JD, Al and everybody else at 6 Squadron for their hospitality these last few months, and to Dick Delaney, Roger Talbot and everybody else at DCAE Cosford for their hospitality during the last two delivery flights.