Cosford’s home for ‘Big Cats’
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aviation and the historic aviation scene in the UK. In this latest instalment of aviation indulgence, we will be taking a closer look at an important post war RAF strike jet and how, like many other British military aircraft before and since, appeared to be withdrawn from service somewhat prematurely. We will also see how quite a number of these much loved airframes have gathered together at a new home in the Midlands and how enthusiasts can still spot these impressive ‘Big Cats’ at the regular events held at this popular site. We will also see how despite an RAF career which began over 45 years ago, these handsome strike jets are still as photogenic today, as they were when serving as an effective airborne deterrent against potential Eastern Block aggression during the 1970s and 80s. The subject of this 116th edition of Aerodrome is the SEPECAT Jaguar and the last UK stronghold of this flying big cat.
A very different aeroplane
Britain and France decided to work together on the production of a new supersonic jet trainer, replacing the Magister and Gnat trainers which were in service with both countries at that time
The idea of nations collaborating on major future aviation projects, has become almost commonplace since the end of the Second World War, with contributing nations each looking to secure the most effective aircraft whilst mitigating some of the crippling development costs associated with such undertakings. Although seemingly a pragmatic solution to a rather expensive problem, these collaborations rarely tend to run smoothly, either for political or ideological reasons, or simply differences of opinion regarding the roles and capabilities of the aircraft under development, however, despite this, some extremely capable combat aircraft have emerged from these international ventures. In what proved to be one of the first major Anglo-French military aviation collaborations of its kind, the project which resulted in the production of the SEPECAT Jaguar proved to be a rather successful demonstration of Entente Cordiale and even though the resultant aircraft was very different from the one intended at the outset of the programme, it would go on to become one of the most important NATO aircraft of the Cold War Era.
At a time when European governments were under severe financial pressure and aviation projects were rarely assured of being progressed through to full production, both the French Air Force and the RAF found themselves with a similar need for an advanced supersonic training aircraft. The French were looking to replace their Fouga Magister trainers, whilst Britain were in need of a more modern aircraft to succeed the diminutive Folland Gnat and as both requirements appeared to be almost identical, discussions on a joint project undertaking seemed sensible and were explored. Both nations were looking to equip their respective forces with an advanced supersonic training aircraft, allowing student pilots access to an aircraft which was more suitable for their transition to the latest front-line combat aircraft already in service, as well as those currently in development. This led to the establishment of the SEPECAT company as a joint venture between Breguet of France and BAC in the UK, with the two working together on the development of the new aircraft and future production lines to be active on both sides of the channel.
Another view of one of Cosford’s two seaters, this time taken during one of their popular nightshoot events
Although fair to say that the French had always maintained that the new aircraft should possess a light ground attack capability, it did not take long before additional requirements were also placed on the design, such as the ability to deliver nuclear munitions and to possess a reconnaissance capability, both to be performed at supersonic speeds, if required – there was even talk of a carrier based variant for the Aeronavale. Indeed, their requirements were now much more for an extremely rugged and reliable aircraft which was capable of conducting nuclear strike missions, whilst also possessing STOL performance and the ability to operate from rough field sites, should the need arise. The thinking behind this was that in the event of war, most of their front-line bases would have been knocked out during initial strikes and the ability to operate a nuclear capable strike aircraft from roads, fields and any number of secret dispersed locations around the country would give France a strong deterrent force. Whilst ordinarily these changes during development could have placed a strain on the international partnership, the period since the initial agreement had been signed also brought about a change of requirement for the Royal Air Force. The cancellation of several significant indigenous aviation projects meant that Britain’s need for a strike jet now outweighed her need for supersonic training aircraft, as the new warplanes this trainer was originally intended to provide pilots for were now no longer proceeding. By 1970, the RAF’s initial order for the new Anglo-French jet, which by that time had been named ‘Jaguar’, had changed from predominantly training aircraft, to 165 single seat strike variants, with just 35 of the two seat tandem trainers. Making this development all the more poignant, each one of the two seat variants would only now be used to provide training support for pilots destined for Jaguar squadrons.
The RAF’s ‘big cats’ show their teeth
From this angle, it is really easy to appreciate the rugged design of the Jaguar and how its robust undercarriage allowed the aircraft to be operated from grass runways, if required
The first of the RAF’s new Jaguar GR.1s entered service with No.54 Squadron in 1974, supplemented by several two seat T.2 variants, used to introduce future Jaguar pilots to the RAF’s latest aircraft. British aircraft were equipped with a more capable nav/attack system than their French counterparts, however, for an aircraft which was destined to ply its trade in a low level, high speed environment, you might also assume that it would be equipped with the very latest terrain following radar technology, but this was not the case. Many articles written about the Jaguar over the years describe it as a relatively simple aeroplane, easy to maintain and operate, but not blessed with all the latest radar technology. With no perceived need for a large nose mounted radar dish, the Jaguar had an attractively sleek profile, which looked all the more impressive when seeing it being operated at low level and at high speed, its usual operating environment. It was a real pilots aeroplane, requiring the flying skill of its pilot to get the very best out of this beast.
Wearing the camouflage scheme synonymous with the aircraft’s low level strike operations, this Jaguar looks very different to how the final service aircraft were presented
In RAF service, the rugged design of the Jaguar made it an ideal aircraft to be operated effectively on deployment, sent to bring its particular strike qualities to bear wherever conflict demanded. Flying missions in support of NATO ground forces, the aircraft would be required to destroy local ground targets in high speed, low level, single pass sorties, with aircraft immediately returning to base to be re-fuelled and re-armed for further sorties, should these be required. The rugged nature of the aircraft’s design meant that its forward operating airfield would usually not be too far away from the action and whilst fully equipped RAF or other NATO airfields would normally be used, the ability to also operate from disused airfield sites or even motorways was always available to Jaguar squadrons. To illustrate the aircraft’s impressive rough field capabilities, BAC operated Jaguar GR.1 XX109 from the almost completed, but yet to be opened M55 Motorway, near Blackpool, in April 1975, an event which proved to be of great interest to Britain’s media at the time. The aircraft performed several landing and take-offs on the carriageway and was even armed with bombs under the convenient shelter of a Motorway bridge, before taking off again for one final time. The Jaguar’s high set wing and long, robust undercarriage legs allowed the aircraft’s engine intakes to be positioned high above the ground, making the ingestion of foreign objects much less likely and operation from unprepared sites and various dispersed locations possible. Although this was undoubtedly an impressive feature of the Jaguar and one which presented the RAF with an aircraft possessing great operational flexibility, its ability to operate from motorways would never actually be called upon during its service life. For an aircraft which started its development as a supersonic trainer, the SEPECAT Jaguar would go on to become the RAF’s primary ground attack aircraft of the 1970s and one of the world’s most effective offensive strike jet.
Service with distinction
Gulf War warrior. Jaguar GR.3 XX725 was repainted in this special scheme to commemorate the types significant combat contribution to the Gulf War of 1991
As the capabilities of the Jaguar and its highly trained aircrews quickly began to realize their potential, more RAF squadrons both at home and in Germany would be equipped with the new aircraft. With UK based Jaguar units providing reconnaissance and back-up support for squadrons deployed in Europe, the main Jaguar force would reside at bases in Germany, and at the height of their strength, RAF Germany could boast no fewer than 6 fully equipped Jaguar squadrons, replacing both Phantoms and Harriers in the low level interdictor and close air support roles. Proving to be an extremely effective deterrent against the threat of an Eastern European ground incursion, these aircraft were a highly visible presence in the skies above Germany, patrolling the border in a constant show of NATO force, ready to react at a moment’s notice. Thankfully, the apocalyptic 'East versus West' scenario for which Jaguar crews trained relentlessly never came to pass. RAF Jaguars would go on to benefit from successive upgrades, which kept the aircraft positioned as one of the most effective strike aircraft in the world, but the introduction of the Panavia Tornado in 1982 gradually saw this latest generation of interdictor strike aircraft slowly ousting the Jaguar from its prominent role in Germany, with the first squadrons converting to Tornados in 1984 and the last Jaguars replaced by 1988.
The Gulf War of 1991 required 12 RAF Jaguars to be sent to the region to do exactly what they had been designed to do, provide effective ground attack support on deployment to a combat hotspot. As it transpired, this deployment would mark the beginning of an almost continuous five years of overseas deployment for RAF Jaguars, as the Gulf War was followed by operations in support of the Kurds in Northern Iraq and further deployment in support of UN operations in the Balkan region. During the Gulf War, the RAF’s Jaguars were to benefit from the application of a temporary ‘Desert Pink’ paint scheme and even though their usual mission profile needed to change from low to medium altitude operations, the Jaguar still performed with distinction. With 618 combat missions flown during the Gulf War, only 7 sorties were reportedly lost due to aircraft unserviceability and of even greater significance, no aircraft were lost as a result of combat. Indeed, the aircraft performed so well during the conflict that remaining RAF Jaguars all received further upgrade, ensuring their continued effectiveness in the demanding role of tactical strike and interdiction, with the relative simplicity of the aircraft and its excellent serviceability record ensuring it outshone many of its more modern aviation counterparts.
Another view of XX725 in its Gulf War tribute scheme, this time as it took its place in the impressive RAF Centenary static display at the 2018 Cosford Airshow
Despite being held in high regard and posting an impressive RAF service record which spanned more than 30 years, the days of the RAF Jaguar were now numbered. Even though the last remaining aircraft had only recently received significant upgrade and were clearly capable of providing many years of effective service, from what was undoubtedly a combat proven aviation platform, a decision was taken to retire the Jaguar by October 2007. With their home airfield at Coltishall scheduled for imminent closure, the last RAF Jaguars of No.6 Squadron were sent to Coningsby in April 2006, where the clear intention was to continue operations for at least the next 18 months. In a development which appeared to be delivered with undue haste and certainly showing little respect for the combat legacy of the aircraft, the MoD announced the following April that Jaguar operations would cease by the end of the month, an announcement which gave the squadron just 6 days’ notice. Once more highlighting the flexibility of Jaguar operations over the years, No.6 Squadron managed to deploy most of their remaining aircraft to Lossiemouth one final time, the day following the announcement was made and did their utmost to provide a fitting tribute to the legacy of their famous aircraft. They even managed to repaint a couple of their aircraft in special commemorative schemes, as they attempted to acknowledge the impressive RAF career of the SEPECAT Jaguar, even if the MoD were prepared to let it slip away relatively unnoticed.
A home for abandoned 'Big Cats'
Famous cat by night. Jaguar XX119 holds the distinction of performing the final flight of an RAF Jaguar and was given a suitably impressive special scheme to mark the occasion
With No.6 Squadron scheduled to disband at the end of May 2007, their remaining aircraft had been assigned to No.238 Squadron, No.1 School of Technical Training at Cosford. The airframes would be used by students at the facility to provide them with maintenance, technical and weapons training, in addition to ground handling instruction, the later resulting in several aircraft being maintained in what was described as ‘flight condition’, albeit with inhibited engines. The first aircraft arrived at Cosford in May and ended with the delivery of Jaguar GR.3A XX119 on 2nd July 2007, the aircraft which had the honour of performing the final flight of an RAF Jaguar. This proved to be rather fitting, as XX119 had been the recipient of a spectacular new paint scheme during the final days of RAF Jaguar service – the scheme appeared to show the aircraft’s standard overall grey scheme peeling back to reveal a striking orange and black Jaguar markings scheme, with the tail also sporting the squadron badges of all the units which operated the Jaguar during its service career. This attractive aircraft came to be known as ‘Spotty’ and has gone on to be highly regarded amongst aviation enthusiasts. It is now one of the major benefits of a visit to RAF Cosford, especially during their annual Airshow, or one of the specially arranged photography events which take place throughout the year.
Home for the RAF’s big cats. Although not accessible on normal museum days, the annual Airshow and specially arranged photographers events allow people to inspect Cosford’s magnificent collection of Jaguars
Unfortunately, even this almost acceptable retirement for the RAF’s last Jaguars would have to come to an end and by 31st August 2016, the Adour engines of the final taxiable aircraft would be heard reverberating around the Cosford site for one final time, before falling silent forever. With the engines reaching the end of their life and more modern computer based training methods providing students with the instruction they needed, these famous old strike jets were afforded one final opportunity to patrol around the Cosford site under their own power, in a final moving tribute to the RAF service of these magnificent aircraft. Even though these beautiful jets are now just a static shadow of the low level strike warriors they once were, Cosford now preserves an impressive collection of Jaguars in relatively good condition, including a number of the attractively presented disbandment aircraft. To this day, the Jaguar still cuts a dashing aviation profile and makes for an attractive photographic subject for Britain’s aviation enthusiasts, who are all extremely pleased that relatively large numbers of these famous aviation ‘Big Cats’ have made a home at the RAF Museum Cosford.
Press Day opportunity
During the pre-centenary Airshow press day, famous ‘Spotty’ Jaguar XX119 was positioned at the far end of the airfield, pushed into a revetment area, allowing for some interesting photography
With one of the most impressive aviation collections to be found anywhere in the world, most people need little encouragement to plan their latest visit to the RAF Museum at Cosford, particularly as their current exhibit inventory includes several historic aircraft which have arrived from the Hendon site, which has recently undergone significant renovation. Add to this an annual Airshow which is always well supported by people from the surrounding area and Cosford is now firmly established as a regular destination for many thousands of enthusiasts, as well as those simply looking for an enjoyable day out. Already offering so many reasons to visit, their 2018 Airshow promised to be one of the highlights of the year, with an exciting flying display line-up supplemented by an impressive display of static aircraft, all arranged in celebration of the RAF’s centenary year. This unique collection of aircraft also included several of the museum’s priceless exhibits, which would be spending a short time out on the airfield and only because of the significant nature of the occasion – this collection of aircraft could not be seen anywhere else in the world. In advance of the show, Aerodrome were fortunate enough to be invited to a special preview event for members of the media on the Friday prior to the Sunday Airshow, as the showground was being prepared and aircraft were being moved to their display positions.
Despite the fact that some of Britain’s rarest aircraft were being positioned on the showground for the enjoyment of a sell-out crowd which would be coming in their tens of thousands, many members of the gathered media on this Friday event found themselves congregating at the Shifnal end of the airfield and a section which was now home to several preserved examples of former Royal Air Force Jaguars. With much of the showground activity taking place away to our left (when looking towards the runway), we were left with a relatively unobstructed view of these 'Big Cats', with only fellow members of the press to be cajoled out of our pictures. Even better than this, two of the aircraft were placed in a revetment area, which allowed for a slightly elevated vantage point from which to take your pictures, once a rather slippery grass slope had been negotiated. Having helped several of my photographic colleagues to safely climb the steep bank surrounding the revetment, it was obvious that I would be the one to slip from top to bottom in ignominious fashion, banging my head in the process and sliding down on my back with ever increasing speed. I did, however, manage to protect my camera throughout the ride, a feat I was particularly proud of, despite my shame and embarrassment – there is always one, isn’t there!
It was all worth it. Obtaining some slightly elevated shots of the Jaguars was definitely worth sliding down a grassy bank, to the amusement of my fellow media professionals …. glad I could be of service
Last shot before my grassy toboggan ride – this slightly elevated position only accentuates the good looks of the SEPECAT Jaguar
Another look at ‘Spotty’, this time during an earlier visit to RAF Cosford
The event organisers had also arranged for some access ladders to be conveniently placed amongst the Jaguars, which many of us took advantage of during the afternoon, though my own turn proved to be a little more tentative, following my recent grassy toboggan ride. Accepting this opportunity to obtain as many pictures as we could from this fortuitous elevated vantage point, this proved to be an extremely memorable feature of the day, but was ultimately not the highest vantage point from which we would be allowed to view the Jaguars. Towards the end of the event, one of the helicopters scheduled to be undertaking pleasure flying duties during the Airshow had been secured to allow any members of the media who wished to do so, to gain a short birds eye view of the showground. With three people (plus the pilot) in the helicopter at a time, the flights would have to be rather short due to time constraints and the fact that the showground was live and aircraft movements on the airfield would have to take precedence. Some groups would be more fortunate that others and although my group expressed a preference to view the entire showground from above, an unexpected aircraft arrival dictated that we were forced to fly and hold in an area to the rear of the airfield, well away from where most of the action was taking place. As this proved to be the penultimate flight of the day, our pilot had very little wriggle room, but despite our inability to gain a clear view of the showground, we did gain an unexpectedly lofty view of the RAF Cosford site from the rear and as we came back in to land, the Jaguars we had been admiring earlier could be seen from our unusual high vantage point – most enjoyable.
Some of the images taken during my quick helicopter flight around the Cosford site. This view shows the top end of the museum, as far away from the runway as it is possible to get, with the Michael Beetham Conservation Centre at the top right and the Catalina marking the entrance to the Flight Test hall
As we headed back to our landing spot, the route took us back over Big Cat Country, affording this unusually lofty view of the Jaguars
It has to be said that the SEPECAT Jaguar looks good from any angle, but this helicopter grab shot was definitely on of the highlights of this extremely enjoyable press day event
The helicopter flight signalled the end of our visit and as much work still needed to be done on the airfield before it could welcome its first Airshow visitor, we were invited to return to our vehicles at the earliest possible opportunity. Although we were there primarily to inspect the aircraft assembled for this celebration of the first 100 years of the Royal Air Force, Cosford’s ‘Cat Collection’ proved to be an irresistible aviation draw for many in the group and despite the rather dull conditions, we all managed to obtain some rather memorable pictures. Even though these aircraft are not usually accessible from the museum side of the airfield, it is still sometimes possible to see several Jaguars on the airfield through the fence, during any visit to Cosford, however Airshows and specially arranged photographic events are certainly your best opportunity to see Cosford’s beautiful big cats. Now a major venue for an impressive collection of the RAF’s former Cold War strike jet, Cosford is making good use of these airframes, training a new generation of technicians destined for service in the Royal Air Force. Despite the aircraft being withdrawn from service with what appeared to be undue haste, we are now fortunate that this impressive collection is currently being preserved for our continued enjoyment (not their primary function, it has to be said), although such numbers can surely not be guaranteed indefinitely. As far as the RAF Jaguar is concerned, it is definitely a case of enjoying these protected ‘Big Cats’ while we still can.
Final farewell from arguably Cosford’s most famous Big Cat and one which effectively commemorates the proud service record of the RAF’s Jaguar force
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest Tonkatastic edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. As always, if you have any ideas for a future edition of Aerodrome, or if you would like to supply a feature of your own which will be of interest to our worldwide aviation readership, please send your suggestions to our regular contact e-mail address at firstname.lastname@example.org, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
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