Photo gallery: Former pilot recalls glory days of RAF Coltishall’s famous Jaguar
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press ©2003
A new book reflectson the history of an aircraft that was universally popular with all associated with it. MARK NICHOLLS reports on the Jaguar Boys.
The roar of Jaguar engines was a familiar sound over the skies of Norfolk for many years.
Famously based at RAF Coltishall, until its closure in 2006, they were aircraft that entered service at the height of the Cold War yet later found almost continuous deployment for the final decade and a half of their RAF career in the Gulf theatre of operations with the greyish hue of the sleek single-seaters transformed into vivid pink as they became the 'desert cats.'
From patrols across Germany and the northern NATO frontiers, flying bombing and reconnaissance missions in the Gulf War of 1991 and policing skies in central Europe and northern Iraq, they were at the crux of RAF air power for many years.
Within the cockpits were pilots who had tales to tell, of stories spanning four decades of service.
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However, these accounts were often untold or unheard, apart from within the Officers' Mess or across the concrete apron with the rich odour of aviation fuel drifting on the breeze.
They were tales that only a privileged few were privy too but that, it seems, is set to change with the publication of a new book on this famous 'Norfolk aircraft' entitled Jaguar Boys.
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Behind the project is former Jaguar pilot Group Captain Ian Hall, though what sets the book apart is that it is far more than one man's account.
Jaguar Boys is the story of the ground attack and reconnaissance aircraft told by several of those who flew in it, and also some of those who were responsible for ensuring it was well-maintained and ready to pounce as and when required.
The book begins with accounts of the early days of the aircraft and its initial role, testing and training for pilots, operations as part of NATO in the Baltic and from bases in Denmark and Norway, operations in Africa and the Middle East in Oman, and its role in the Gulf War and later policing the no-fly zones over northern Iraq.
With introductions to each chapter from Group Captain Hall, now retired, the book also has a fascinating account from Jaguar display pilot Flight Lieutenant Ian Smith including his recollections of a very near miss between his plane and a Pitts Special Display Team plane over RAF Innsworth with the crowd of thousands spread out below.
Jaguar Boys is one of a series of publications, which also includes Lightning Boys and Buccaneer Boys with the people who flew their aircraft telling their own story. For the latest book, Group Captain Hall drew on the knowledge of former RAF colleagues for the chapters, contacting 'Jag mates' to write a section.
'I last flew the Jaguar in 1984 but we have some contributors who were flying right up to the end in 2006 and they are not just pilots, there is also an engineer's account.
'My time with the Jaguar was relatively short although I have followed it ever since but the real value of this book is that it has a dozen or more different viewpoints. Although the Jaguar could be quite challenging, everybody who was associated with it has a lot of affection for the aircraft. But the contributors have all been in different situations or run across different problems and all have come at it from slightly different directions.'
While the Jaguar was instantly recognisable in Norfolk, particularly to those living around RAF Coltishall where 6, 41 and 54 Squadrons were later based, there were also Jaguars in Scotland and parts of Germany.
Originally designed as a trainer, the Anglo-French Sepecat jet became a Cold War strike/attack aircraft of impressive capability, and despite an initial reputation for lack of performance, it proved a critical role in numerous operations. Equipped with the latest in weapon-aiming and navigational equipment, it eventually became the backbone of the RAF's tactical strike-attack and recce forces for a decade from the mid-1970s.
Jaguar Boys – pilots, engineer and ground crew – tell of the aircraft's drawbacks and joys, their sadness at losses, and their pleasure at its development into a readily-deployable and outstandingly-capable fighter-bomber for the post-Cold War era before the Gulf War signalled the start of a hectic sequence of operational adventures and upgrades with action over Iraq and in the Balkans.
'On operations it surprised everybody with its adaptability,' said Group Captain Hall. 'In the Gulf Conflict it flew more missions per airframe than any other British type, moreover without any losses. It played its part in the increasingly unstable world order thereafter and then it was cut off in its prime.'
The book – which he believes, will appeal to military enthusiasts and former and serving RAF Personnel - is slightly irreverent, with some of the less positive aspects of the Jaguar detailed such as the accidents and other hairy moments.
'I think the Jaguar's finest hour was in the final few years; it ended up a most extraordinary and capable aircraft and very different from how it was when it was first introduced, mainly through electronic upgrades while the airframe remained virtually the same.
'It was very easy to deploy, toward the end the squadrons were extremely well practised at packing up and moving on. When they were deployed operationally they could be up and gone very quickly to perform in active theatre.'
Ian Hall joined the RAF at 18 and during seven fighter-bomber tours with two on Jaguars, flew five different operational types including Hunter, Phantom and Tornado. He served in Bahrain, Germany, Belgium, Norway and Canada. On Tornado, he was 31 Squadron commanding officer and now edits the 31 Squadron newsletter. His last role was as a Group Captain and assistant director of Air Ops at the MoD in London before retiring from the RAF aged 50 in 1998. He later flew civilian aircraft for Flybe and KLM from Norwich Airport.
Now 66, he lives in Horstead, near Coltishall, from where he reflects fondly on the sound of the Jaguars overhead in years gone by.
'After I had finished flying the Jaguar, I used to have what I called the first 'sign of spring'. It was not the birds or the bees, it was the Jaguar display pilot beginning his work up for the new season. He would start high and then gradually get clearance to perform lower and lower until he was screaming across the rooftops.'
One question that could be asked, considering the longevity of some of these warplanes is was the Jaguar retired too soon?
'The Typhoon is doing the job now and is clearly a far more capable aircraft. On the other hand, there was a gap wen the Jaguar was first stood down and it was so easy to deploy and like many defence assets it would have been better running a little longer.'
Jaguar Boys – True Tales from Operators of the Big Cat in Peace and War is published on July 14 at £20. There will be a Norwich launch of the book with Ian Hall joined for the evening by retired Squadron Leader David Bagshaw (one of the book's contributors) in the Jarrold Book Department, London Street, Norwich, on Thursday, July 17, at 6pm. Tickets are £5 and available from Jarrolds, by calling 01603 660661 or from www.jarrold.co.uk/events