'Biggest Game Boy in the world' at RAF Coltishall

Warplanes left RAF Coltishall for ever earlier this year. But Jaguar jets are still “flying” on the airbase, as Richard Batson discovered on a “recce” mission.

Warplanes left RAF Coltishall for ever earlier this year. But Jaguar jets are still “flying” on the airbase, as Richard Batson discovered on a “recce” mission.

Crows are biggest things with wings flying over the silent runways of the disused RAF station as it awaits a decision on its future.

But inside a plain-looking building near the old hangars a pilot is swooping low over the countryside, evading enemy missiles and unleashing a bomb on a radio station.

Inside the cockpit Wing Cdr John Sullivan is juggling with a joystick, flicking switches, watching dials, checking his electronic map, and homing in on his target.

After a mid-air refuelling session at 14,000ft, he swoops down through the valleys to less than 100ft, at speeds reaching 600mph, the patchwork of fields and blue sky spinning as he barrel rolls his plane to avoid detection and destruction by the enemy.

Around him there is a whoosh of jet afterburners, rattle of canon fire and squeal of tyres as he lands his Jaguar after a successful mission.

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But actually he is sitting about 10ft above the Norfolk countryside in a sawn-off cockpit mounted in a projection dome.

The clues that this is not for real - and a bit “staged” for the benefit of the EDP - are the aircraft carrier which launches a missile at him from a Welsh lake, and the fact he is allowed to buzz the airfield control tower, Top Gun style, then fly under the two bridges on the Menai Straits before landing back at RAF Valley.

It may be described as the “biggest Game Boy in the world” by its boss, but the £14m flight simulator - worth about the same as a real plane - remains a serious tool in keeping the Jaguar jockeys fully trained, despite the imminent demise of their aging jet.

The simulator at Coltishall, and Jaguars now at Coningsby in Lincolnshire, are both due for retirement in October after 30 years sterling service.

Moving the unit up north when the planes left in the spring was too expensive, so the pilots now make two-hour drives back to Norfolk for training which has helped hundreds of Jaguar fliers gain their wings, and keep their skills honed, since it was installed at Coltishall in June 1974.

Rookies do about 12 hours of basic training on the simulator, and another three hours on real planes before going solo. Existing pilots then use the machine for learning or freshening up navigation, night-flying, weapon-firing, and tactical skills - doing about 12 missions a year in the dome.

After they have climbed into the cockpit they can expect the unexpected. Their instructor sitting at a bank of screens in the room next door, has a battery of faults and incidents to test them to the limit.

At the press of a button an engine can be cut out, the plane struck by birds, mechanical problems induced, clear weather turned to cloud and fog - and that is before the enemy opens fire.

Head of the unit Clive Crouch, a former Vulcan bomber pilot with 30 years flying experience, said they could even throw in problems before take off.

“We can create an engine fire before they unstick from the runway at 200mph, and see if they do the right things - which is deploying the arrester hook, putting out the tail chute, closing the engines and braking,” he explained.

“We had a pilot here a few years ago who suffered a bird strike just after take off and lost an engine. He did all the right drills, dropped his tanks, and after he landed safety phoned us up to thank us, saying 'it was just like it was in the simulator.'

“That was really motivational for us,” said Mr Crouch, whose unit is now run by private company Thales.

The key thing about Jaguar fliers was for them to have the mental capacity to deal with being the sole pilot - having to deal with navigation, weapons, and aircraft systems as well as actually flying the plane.

Wing Cdr Sullivan, who has done two tours at RAF Coltishall during his 22 years' service, said that while the simulator cockpit did not recreate the movement, G-forces and vibration of a real plane is was “realistic enough.”

The 39-year-old added the simulator really came into its own when the Coltishall Jaguars were flying in Northern Iraq before the 2003 war, and “every mission would see attempts to shoot you down, which was a daunting prospect for young pilots - who were grateful for the preparation beforehand.”

Despite the added bits of “jolly” added to his simulator mission, he emerged from the mock cockpit with beads of sweat on his forehead, showing that it can test even the best - though he was quick to add that his bomb was a Delta Hotel - dead hit.