Gill Howie/Squadron Prints was at Leuchars to see another RAF squadron lose its fast jets. Pictures by the author, Berry Vissers, Mark McEwan and Bob Franklin
The latest instalment to an illustrious 'Firebirds' Squadron history happened on Tuesday 22 April - the 'Fast Jet' era was over, and it was time to open the page on another chapter for 56 Squadron.
Formed on 8 June 1916 the 'Firebirds' celebrated their ninetieth anniversary in style in 2006, so when the announcement was made in February 2008 that 56(R) Squadron would disband and 43(F) Squadron would take over the 'training' role for the Tornado F3, plans were hastily made to mark the end in similar style. From SE5as to Hurricanes through Lightnings to Phantoms, the 'Firebirds' have been known throughout the world because of their distinctive red & white chequers. Many fighter aces have graced the ranks of '56'; Barlow, Maybery, McCudden and Ball, VC.
So here we are in April 2008 with the squadron on the move again - in 1936 King Edward VIII approved a Phoenix as the badge for 56 Squadron, to underline the squadron's ability to reappear intact regardless of the odds, be it war or MOD cost-cutting procedures. Once again the 'Phoenix will rise from the ashes' to re-establish at RAF Waddington as the ISTAR OEU on the Sentinel aircraft.
The farewell to the fast jet era began on Friday 11 April with a squadron dining-out and Squadron Association dinner, saying goodbye to many being posted out and hello again to former members of the squadron from years gone by. Saturday 12th saw a red & white themed hangar party, again with current and past members of the squadron and guests attending - a huge stage was flanked by F3 'Tango-Golf', the specially-marked flagship with the hangar decorated all over in red and white. The rest of the week comprised of briefings, paperwork, meetings and parade practice up until Friday 18 April when the squadron gathered to execute a 'Farewell Scotland' tour. The planned route was to take in all the places that had worked closely with the squadron over the last five years but after a trial run on Wednesday it was decided that RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss could not be included.
Diamond-nine day - Friday 18 April
There was an air of excitement around 'Firebirds HQ' from 07:00 - walking into the crewroom, the smell of fresh coffee was circulating around the building - the crewroom was still intact, but all the pictures had suddenly been adorned with orange stickers as part of the inventory of items moving south. 07:50 and the met brief was called, and at 08:00 on the dot the diamond-nine crews were sitting in the briefing room, watching all the plans for the 'Farewell Tour'. 08:45 saw everyone gather at the Ops desk to sign out their jets and get their final brief before walking to the jets at 09:00 - exactly as planned and on time for the 10:00 take-off. I watched it all happen and although there was an air of excitement, there was also an element of sadness, especially for the 'Boss', Wing Commander David Hazell - this was to be his last operational flight with his squadron - a squadron in which he had served with three times before, including the Phantom days.
Proudly leading the aircrew out to the line, the groundcrews' hard work and effort was obvious to see with the jets ready and waiting. Such an event commanded extra demands for the Press and TV cameras, so everyone gathered for the squadron photo, but time was pressing so after a few minutes they were off, checking their aircraft and starting to prepare for the 10:00 take-off. A Hawk would shadow the formation around Scotland with a photographer in the rear cockpit. Engines started and the Boss taxied out, leading nine other aircraft with the Hawk. It was truly amazing to hear 'Phoenix 1 - 11' check in on the radio. The first five lined up, the roar of the engines deafening, but what a thrill to watch. The others rolled and joined up with the first wave at the Bell Rock Lighthouse, some ten miles off the coast.
Once together, the formation routed towards Edinburgh - sadly the weather was not in their favour and they were not able to execute the planned route over Scotland's capital. However, on they went routing over Perth (Scone) airfield, along the River Tay, turning left to fly over Arbroath, heading towards Aberdeen. The weather got better the further north they went, the sun shining brightly. Once past Aberdeen airport, a right turn brought them back on track to Leuchars, flying over Arbroath again to get the right line for the flypast. Bang on time, the diamond-nine saluted the remaining squadron members with some of the groundcrew lying on the ground making the number '5' and '6'! A second flypast saw the formation fly back to the Bell Rock Lighthouse to split. Some people on the ground started to leave, but the best was yet to come - returning in pairs, each aircraft did its own salute to '56' - low and fast with burners and before we knew it, it was all but over. Ten Tornados headed towards the 56 Squadron line and that was it - pride and smiles were all over the ramp, a pride that every member of the squadron had worked together to achieve an excellent result and a historical day for 56 Squadron.
Squadron Standard - North to South
Arriving at RAF Leuchars on Tuesday 22 April was a little different from normal - not the usual line of many 56 jets, but two lines of empty chairs and two specially-marked Tornado F3s. Nothing else - from a busy flight line to quiet parade ground and a sense of sadness! Everyone smartly turned out in their blues, friends and families milling around and VIPs arriving.
Suddenly the sound of jet engines starting up and a brief tingle of hairs on the back of the neck as all eyes looked towards the old 'Q' sheds opposite the Visiting Aircraft Section where the last tasking of the Tornado F3s belonging to 56 would taxi out. Five aircraft took off (four for the formation and a spare) under the command of 56(R) Squadron on its last tasking as the Tornado Operational Conversion Unit.
Everyone stood and watched…not a word was said, just a feeling of pride. Everyone was seated by 10:45 and the parade marched on, standing guard in front of 'Tango Golf' and 'Whiskey Juliet'. The weather was overcast, the wind bitter but at least it wasn't raining. The parade was brought to attention by Wg Cdr Hazell as the VIPs, Air Vice-Marshal Chris Harper (Chief of Staff, Operations) and the Parade Reviewing Officer, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, a former Station Commander and member of 56(F) Squadron. The four F3s flew over in a box-four before the ACM reviewed the squadron. The Standard was then handed over to the receiving party from RAF Waddington, thereby ending 56's outstanding record of nearly ninety-two years as a fighter squadron.
The standard was slowly marched off with a flypast of the four Tornados leading a solo flypast of the new aircraft - the Sentinel. Out with the old and in with the new - a poignant moment indeed, and that was it - 56(R) Squadron was no longer based at RAF Leuchars. The parade was marched off and dismissed - tinged with sadness, I watched the OC dismiss his parade as the last task for the Tornados came to an end with them breaking in to the circuit - I watched the OC look skywards, and I wondered what he must have been thinking at that moment of aviation history. It must have been a sense of pride and achievement, knowing that everyone in the F3 fleet has a hint of 56's 'red and white' in their blood, as without the OCU there would have been no training of the front-line squadron crews.
The last Tornado returned to the ramp and a sense of fulfilment was visible on the returning crews - shaking hands with each other and smiles all round but that was it - all over and on to a new challenge for them all. Many are staying at RAF Leuchars and moving to 43(F) Squadron or to 111(F) Squadron - some are going elsewhere, changing aircraft types and some are going to desk jobs. The 'Boss' is staying put in the same building, in the same office with the same PA (thank you Rosie) but outside the squadron flag will no longer be red and white - that will change to black and white and become the home of 43(F) Squadron 'The Fighting Cocks'.
Being a part of this event had been truly memorable and special - our most grateful thanks must go to ALL on 56 - it has been a great pleasure, thank you.