Gill Howie provides an account of the final days of Tornado GR4 operations with No. XV(R) Squadron before its disbandment
Formed a little over 102 years ago at Farnborough, Hampshire, No.XV Squadron (colloquially referred to as Fifteen) initially took part in bombing raids and conducted reconnaissance missions from France to the Western Front in World War One. During World War Two, XV Squadron was successively equipped with Blenheim IV, Wellington, Stirling and Lancaster bombers. In more recent times, the squadron was perhaps better known for its operations with the Tornado GR1 and Tornado GR4, including a major combat role in the 1991 Gulf War. The squadron returned home to RAF Laarbruch, Germany, in the spring of 1991 and disbanded as a front-line Tornado GR1 squadron later that year.
Fifteen was not gone for long. On April 1, 1992, it was re-formed with reserve status to carry out a training role previously undertaken by the Tornado Weapons Conversion Unit (TWCU) based at RAF Honington, Suffolk. Tenure at the Suffolk base lasted until November 1993 when Fifteen moved north to RAF Lossiemouth, Moray, its home until disbandment on March 31, 2017. During its tenure at Lossiemouth, the squadron’s training role increased in 1999 to include all RAF Tornado GR4 aircrew training when it absorbed the RAF element of the Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment. Fifteen’s latter-day role was specialised training of RAF Tornado GR4 crews, a role no longer large enough for a dedicated unit due to the drawdown of the Tornado GR4 Force. All remaining training will now be conducted at RAF Marham in Norfolk (the first, and now, final operating base for RAF front line Tornado squadrons) by No.IX(B), No.12 and No.31 Squadrons.
On March 17, the squadron carried out its last operational flight with the Tornado GR4. It was a bittersweet moment for the crews; for some it was not only their last flight with XV(R) Squadron, but also their last trip in a Tornado, and for some it marked the end of their RAF career.
A route taking in various locations around Scotland had been planned, but typically dreich weather on the day forced some last-minute changes. After reviewing and adjusting the original flight plan, five Tornado GR4s took off from Lossiemouth just after noon for the sortie, which included a formation flypast over Aberdeen Airport and Leuchars, before heading back north at low level towards Tain, then returning to Lossiemouth for a formation flypast and airfield attack. (In the editor’s opinion, no aircraft can perform an airfield attack quite like an RAF Tornado GR4) After the show all five aircraft rejoined the circuit to land.
As a measure of the experience held by the ten pilots and navigators who flew the final sortie, between them they had amassed some 38,500 flying hours or 4.39 years in the air.
On their return, the crews were welcomed back by RAF Lossiemouth Station Commander, Group Captain Paul Godfrey, together with family and friends.
Commenting on the squadron’s disbandment, Wing Commander Paul Froome, Officer Commanding XV(R) Squadron, said: “It has been an emotional day for me as commanding officer, but I am immensely proud of the whole team [who make] up this fine squadron. It was nice to be able to fly over some areas of Scotland that have supported us throughout our time based here at Lossiemouth.”
After Fifteen’s fleet of remaining jets depart Lossiemouth, either for RTP (return to produce or plain old scrapping) at RAF Leeming or transfer to the Tornado GR4 Force at RAF Marham, the facilities that XV(R) Squadron has called home for almost a quarter of a century will be redeveloped in preparation for the arrival of the RAF’s P-8 Poseidon fleet and an additional Typhoon squadron. No.XV Squadron may have passed, but the Tornado GR4 has more time to serve and will do so from RAF Marham until 2019.
Will Fifteen be gone for long this time around? These days nobody in the RAF wishes to speak about a possible future for those number plates laid to rest. Behind the scenes, senior ranking RAF officers do have a bit of a matrix to work right now when trying to retain as many of the RAF’s oldest squadron number plates and giving them to units that will stand-up on Typhoon, P-8 Poseidon, Protector UAV and the F-35B. With five or six units destined to operate the four types listed, there’s an opportunity for those senior ranking officers to once again resurrect its 15th squadron. Mark Ayton