Flight Line


Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history


91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing RB-45C Tornados painted in RAF markings, and with their RAF crews, at Sculthorpe in 1952 for the first of the Special Duty Flight’s two Operation ‘Jiu Jitsu’ missions over the Soviet Union.

Looking back over the Royal Air Force’s 100-year history, certain aircraft types have, either by their exploits or by the sheer universality of their service, become household names. The Supermarine S5/6/6B racers, though few in number — just seven built — earned their place in popular history as ‘the ‘planes that won the Schneider Trophy’, while the far more numerous Spitfire, Lancaster and Lightning are similarly well-known to most of the UK’s 66 million inhabitants.

Other aircraft types have equipped the RAF in greater or lesser numbers, yet their service is rarely mentioned in print and photos are rare. A classic example is the North American RB-45C Tornado. Until the publication of Paul Lashmar’s Spy Flights of the Cold War (Sutton Publishing, 1996), any suggestion that the RAF ever operated this four-jet bomber, resplendent with red, white and blue roundels and oversized fin flash but no (absolutely no) squadron markings or serial, would have been greeted with an invitation to pull the other one, on account of its having bells attached. Yet a number of US Air Force RB-45Cs certainly did don RAF colours to equip the Special Duty Flight at Sculthorpe for two very hush-hush overflights of the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, even if they were simply ‘on loan’ and carried their RAF markings for no more than a couple of days. (And even that was more than the CIA U-2s flown by RAF pilots, as covered in the last issue and this one; they never wore any RAF markings at all — Ed.)

Other American-built types served in the RAF’s front line for several years, but today are only dimly recalled. In the early 1950s, many Canadair-built Sabres were procured as a stopgap until the Hunter and Swift were ready for service, going on to equip a dozen squadrons. The fact that all but two of these were with the 2nd Tactical Air Force in Germany explains, at least partly, why they were so camera-shy, but it’s worth remembering that the figure of 431 acquired is almost three times the number of RAF Eurofighter Typhoons.

Another stopgap was the Boeing B-29, or the Washington B1 as it was known in RAF service. Seventy (a figure later increased to 87) examples were obtained on Mutual Defense Assistance Program loan from 1959, war-weary USAF B-29s being taken from cocooned storage, spruced up and delivered across the Atlantic. The Washington provided a suitable stepping-stone between the ageing Lincoln and the upcoming, but not yet ready, Canberra. Apart from the appearance by 12 Washingtons as ‘formation 18’ in the Coronation Review at Odiham on 15 July 1953, the type was rarely — if ever — seen in public.

The US Air Force RB-45Cs were simply ‘on loan’ and carried their RAF markings for no more than a couple of days

Even less visible were the 52 Lockheed P2V-5 Neptunes that equipped RAF Coastal Command squadrons (also Fighter Command’s Vanguard Flight/No 1453 Flight, but that’s another story) from 1952. Intended to bridge the gap until sufficient Shackletons became available, the Neptunes served for just a few years, and all were gone — more accurately, returned — by mid-1957.

Today’s RAF procures its aircraft in much smaller numbers. While 38 (or arguably 46) Nimrods were ordered from 1965 for the maritime role, just nine Boeing P-8 Poseidons will provide their replacement from 2020. Warplanes of the current generation have become more sophisticated, more capable, hopefully more serviceable and undeniably more costly. As a result, is there a point at which, given their unit cost, the decision might be taken at a military or political level that they have become simply ‘too expensive’ to risk in a live combat situation, and especially in a limited one? ‘Safety in numbers’ is still as true as ever it was.