The Modern Era

 Phantoms & Hawks 


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It was the 1982 Falkland’s War which precipitated the return of the Tigers. The need to patrol the Exclusion Zone around the islands left a gap in Britain’ s air defence which 11 Group needed to fill. As to aircraft, the Tornado F3 was too far away and the Phantom was out of production. So as a short term measure ex US Navy F4Js were bought and refurbished. The airframes were selected from those in storage at Davis Monthan. Amongst them was 153783, a famous Black Bunny aircraft of the USN’s VX4. It became ZE352/G.

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The $125 million package included a full rework at the Naval Air Rework Facility at San Diego. Unwanted American systems were deleted, the radar was upgraded, wiring was incorporated to allow carriage of Sky Flash, and fatigue meters were installed. The aircraft were designated F4J (UK) One of the factors contributing to the advantages of the J over the British FGR2 were the engines – the GEJ79-GE- 10B which gave an almost instantaneous response in reheat as opposed to the RR Spey. It was a smokeless engine too which had considerable benefits in air combat.

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What emerged from the Rework Facility were pristine, distinctly coloured aircraft. Rumour has it the duck egg blue hue was applied because there was stock of this colour in the USN’ s inventory which they didn’t know what to do with! Standard RAF air defence grey was only applied when the aircraft later passed through deep servicing at St Athan. The 74 Squadron team at San Diego worked up on the Phantoms and the aircraft were brought back to the UK in five Tiger Trail crossings of the Atlantic. Wg Cdr Dick Northcote had been selected to command 74 and he took on the task of setting up the new fighter squadron at RAF Wattisham with relish.

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Once back into the full swing of operations 74 and their distinctive aircraft became a very familiar sight in East Anglian skies. The F4J was an aircraft well appreciated by its crews who were proud of this particular mark of Phantom and were quick to point out that once again the Tiger’ s had brought a new type into RAF service.

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Iain Walsh and Graham Williams revisited a former home of the Tigers when they flew into Norwich Airport (RAF Horsham St Faith) and saw the preserved Tiger’ s Head in the stores of AIR UK who had inherited the Squadron’s former hangar…. As did John Campbell and Ned Kelly. Under Dick Northcote and his successors Cliff Spink, Graham Clarke and Nick Spiller the Tigers once again became a force to be reckoned with and with good PR their name and reputation was soon to the fore in the air defence community.

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A proud moment for Association Secretary Bob Cossey was his chance to fly in F4J ZE363/W with Sqn Ldr John Sims. If you ask him he will still talk you through the experience as though it was yesterday!

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The F4Js were to have been in service with 74 for five years. They were then to convert to the Tornado F3. In fact they flew the F4J for seven years and then became the last operator of the Phantom FGR2 in the RAF prior to that type’s retirement. Graham Clarke oversaw the transfer from J to FGR2. Phantoms of the F4J and FGR2 standard carried this distinctive tiger’s head. Of interest has been the evolution of the Tiger’s tiger over the years as applied to their different aircraft.

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F4 Tiger Colours

Wg Cdr Graham Clarke was the CO when a new Standard was presented to the Squadron by AVM Boz Robinson on May 11th 1990. It poured with rain on the day after perfect weather during the previous days of rehearsal so the ceremony had to be held in a HAS. The new Standard was received by Will Jonas, the old one was marched off by Harry Day and despite the atrocious conditions Gordon James managed to lead a two ship flypast. With the retirement of the Phantom, the Squadron again faced an uncertain future. It was however selected to move to RAF Valley to transfer to the Hawk and assume a training role as part of 4FTS. Nick Spiller oversaw the Squadron’s standing down at Wattisham on October 1st 1992.  For the occasion a Phantom was painted up in a splendid tiger scheme – one of the only times a 74 Squadron aircraft has been so extensively adorned. Sadly the aircraft had been withdrawn from use and could not fly. It soon found its way onto the Wattisham Phantom scrap-heap – a sad, sad sight for all those who had flown and maintained the type over the years.

These photos are from Dave Pilsworth and were taken at the ‘Phinal Phantom Photo Call’

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This historic photograph, (above) was taken at the IWM Duxford – 74 Sqn Phantoms with the Squadron’ s new mount, the Hawk, tucked in behind, overfly Lightning Fl XM135.  AVM Boz Robinson and new Squadron Boss, Sqn Ldr Rod Arthur, transited from Wattisham to Valley in Hawk T1 XX226. This aircraft with its splendidly friendly tiger on the fin became a familiar sight over the eight years 74 was on Anglesey. XX332 was more representative of the Squadron’s aircraft, sporting a reduced Tiger and the new overall glossy black scheme adopted for training aircraft.

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TK Hawk Tiger Meet tc Hawk

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In September 2000 74 was once again disbanded, its future uncertain but with hopes that maybe, just maybe, it could reform on Eurofighter. Disbandment day was a day of conflicting emotions – a fitting farewell to a great squadron (for the third time since 1917) and a celebration of its achievements over the years. The salute was taken by AVM Boz Robinson who is also 74(F) Tiger Squadron Association President. The Association becomes ever more important now that the Squadron has stood down of course, its Standard laid up in the Rotunda at Cranwell.

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Fit Lt Bret Archer was acting CO of 74 at the end, Sqn Lr Glenn Mason having been posted out some months before.

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The disbandment was the occasion for the gathering of a number of Association members to say farewell to their old Squadron, Fit Lt Vinny Brown and his wife Denise, David Nall and Ray Morrell, James Brook and Eric Dickens, Eden Webster and his wife Joyce.

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74 Squadron may not for the moment exist but other Tiger Squadrons keep the Tiger tradition alive. Over the years Tiger Meets have attracted some highly innovative and eye catching tiger schemes, none more so perhaps than this superlative example from 439 Squadron of the Canadian Armed Forces. The aircraft is a CF-104G Starfighter.

Falklands 74 Crew

The crews of 74 (F) Squadron continue to serve!  This is one of (Buster’s) own.  Happy to have found that 5 ex-Tigers from the Phantom era were all in the Falkland Islands simultaneously with their Tornado F3s, I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the event.  Back row left to right – Buster, Stinky and Biffa (Iain Walsh, Clive Stinchcombe and Jerry Kinder). Front row – left to right Tony and Hatters (Tony Innes and Neil Hathaway).

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We also recently heard from Fred Page who many of you will remember from RAF Wattisham.  He was recently invited to attend a 23 Sqn Open Day and I have great pleasure to include a few ‘snaps’ of the event here (shown with Dai Whittingham and Ned Kelly).