Nimrod began its journey in 1964 as a product of the design tables at Hawker Siddeley Aviation's famous Chadderton, Manchester works. Initially designated HS.801, Nimrod was developed from the de Havilland Comet 4 and its purpose was to succeed the venerable Avro Shackleton MR.2/3 aircraft employed on maritime patrol duties, seeking out Soviet ships and submarines, while at the same time protecting the Royal Navy's own fleet of missile boats.
The first two prototypes, XV147 and XV148, were actually produced from incomplete Comet 4Cs at Hawker Siddeley's Chester plant before being modified at the company's Woodford site in order to make them more suitable for their designated role. The most obvious external differences over the aircraft from which they were developed included the addition of a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) boom at the rear of the aircraft - used to detect the presence of submarines - the mounting of Electronic Warfare (EW) sensors on a redesigned tail-plane and a more bulbous nose to house a superior radar system. An internal weapons bay, capable of deploying aerial torpedoes, mines, bombs and other stores, was also fitted.
Unlike the contra-rotating propeller driven aircraft it was set to replace, Nimrod would be powered by four turbofan engines - the Rolls Royce Spey RB.168 Mk 250 - each capable of delivering 12,160lbs of thrust, and derivatives of which featured not only in several aircraft types from that golden age of aviation, like the BAC One-Eleven, Buccaneer and Phantom, but also in a turbo-shaft form as a means of powering ships. The Spey provided better fuel efficiency over the Comet's AJ.65 Avon engines, particularly at the low altitudes where Nimrod would spend the majority of time plying its trade. In spite of this, XV147 was still fitted with Avons in a bid to reduce risk and timescales.
Indeed, as fuel was burnt, and thus weight reduced, it was considered standard practice to shut down up to two engines, and even though the remaining two had to work harder, it was still a more efficient strategy than having all four engines running at a lower RPM. Should one of the two active engines experience difficulties, compressed air could be drawn from a running engine and used to expedite a fast restart on one of the good, inactive engines.
Nimrod's first flight took place on May 23rd 1967 from Chester, as XV148 flew to Woodford. Shortly after, an order for 46 Nimrod MR.1s, as they were then designated, was received from the Royal Air Force and the first production aircraft, XV226, made its maiden flight on June 28th 1968 before being delivered to Boscombe Down for a variety of trials and development works; as were the next three aircraft that followed it off the line.
XV230 consequently became the first aircraft to enter operational service with the RAF when it arrived at St Mawgan on October 2nd 1969 for the type's newly formed Operational Conversion Unit (OCU).
Flt Lt Billy Speight, who joined the RAF in 1962, was posted to 204 Squadron on the Shackleton at that time, but was present at St Mawgan for Nimrod's arrival. Fast-forward to March 26th 2010 and with some 12,000 Nimrod hours now to his name, Flt Lt Speight was present at RAF Kinloss to deliver 'The Nimrod Eulogy' to an audience of VIPs, personnel, families and veterans, during which he reflected upon that very day:
"On the 2nd of October 1969 I stood beside the south dispersal at RAF St Mawgan and watched the arrival of XV230, the first Nimrod MR Mk.1 to enter service with the then Coastal Command. Six weeks later, on the 27th November it flew in formation with nine Shackletons to mark the disbandment of Coastal Command and the creation of 18 Maritime Group as part of the newly formed RAF Strike Command.
"On that day in October 1969 I was a Shackleton Air Engineer of some 23 summers who watched with envy as the crew emerged from this shining aircraft which was to quote "grey overall with a white fuselage top decking and vertical tail surfaces, black serial numbers and a black nose radar panel". There the crew stood in their blue flying suits with collar and tie and holding their Aero-light headsets, for this was a brave new age. Unlike us Shackleton people they would never have to carry on a teapot or saucepan for honkers stew. All was new and modern and the crews would be pampered like race horses before the off. Even the ground crew would remain spotless in their white overalls, for no oil or grease will ever drip from an aircraft such as this."
Eleven months later, the first detection of a submerged Soviet nuclear submarine was recorded by the RAF and Nimrod when sonar operator, Al Thomas, and his crew, operating out of St Mawgan, detected the November-class hunter killer.
In 1971, Nimrod took part in the Fincastle Competition (which later became known as the Fincastle Trophy) for the first time. Aimed at testing the skill-sets of British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand Air Force crews in anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, intelligence and surveillance gathering roles, the Fincastle Competition was something in which Nimrod excelled. Between the years of 1971 and 2008, the event was held 35 times, with the Royal Air Force claiming top honours in no less than 15 of them.
A 201 Squadron crew conducted Nimrod's first SAR tasking in November 1971; a role which would become increasingly important during the type's long service. Indeed, for almost the entire life of MR.1 and MR.2 variants, the squadrons would take it in turns to provide an aircraft and crew on a one-hour standby in case they were required to attend a rescue or incident.
Two sets of Lindholme Gear were carried in the weapons bay, and, should the need arise they would be dropped in a long line, downwind of any survivors. Developed during the 1940s, each set would comprise five cylindrical containers joined together by lengths of floating rope. The containers would carry an inflatable dinghy (which would inflate on contact with the water), rations and clothing; hopefully providing enough shelter, protection and sustenance until a rescue craft could reach them.
Meanwhile a secondary order for Nimrod was placed for an additional eight MR.1 airframes in January 1972, though it was widely suggested at the time that the order was more about safeguarding British aviation industry jobs than it was about fulfilling a need for more examples of the type.
Famously, Nimrod's first real taste of semi-hostile operations began in 1973 with the so called "Cod Wars" - Operation DEWEY to the MoD - an on-going dispute between Britain and Iceland over fishing rights that saw a number of British nets cut and the subsequent deployment of a number of Royal Navy warships and tugs to protect the British fleets. Nimrod did a sterling job in keeping an airborne watch on what were, at times, pretty unsavoury proceedings right up until the point on December 1st 1976 where the British government conceded defeat and agreed that sovereign vessels would no longer fish within the disputed waters.
Of course there were many less well publicised involvements too, such as anti-piracy patrols of the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea and Operation BACK SCRATCH which was used to calibrate the once top secret chain of listening devices laid on the ocean floor, known as SOSUS, that were used to track Soviet submarines around the world, and that were made famous by the book and film 'The Hunt for Red October'.
1977 brought with it a new role; that of fishery protection and the monitoring of oil rig and pipe installations, under the banner of Operation TAPESTRY. This continued several times a week until, in 1986, a fleet of dedicated aircraft took over this responsibility.
Vicious storms caused the Fastnet Race to go drastically wrong on August 14th 1979. More than 300 yachts had set out on their 605-mile voyage three days earlier, but the Force 11 gusts encountered between Land's End and Fastnet sank 23 yachts and led to the largest peacetime rescue operation staged at that point in time. 136 people were rescued, but tragically 15 lives were lost; but without Nimrod's ability to locate vessels in distress and direct helicopters to provide assistance, who knows how high the loss of life may have been?
Although conversion to MR.2 standard commenced in 1975, XV236, the first aircraft redelivered as Mk.2 standard did not arrive at RAF Kinloss until August 23rd 1979. The primary focus of the upgrade was on the navigation and attack systems, including the introduction of the Thorn EMI Searchwater radar that, until recently, was still considered to be one of the most capable maritime search radars ever developed. The increase in computational power resulting from the upgrade of the four on-board computers was said to be fifty-fold over the Mk.1.
Flt Lt Speight also reflected upon MR.2s arrival in his Nimrod Eulogy: "Wow, were we impressed! A radar that could determine the shape of contacts, an acoustics suite that would be the scourge of any submariner and the envy of all other Maritime Patrol Aircraft crews, a new electronic sensor measurer (ESM) and an upgraded navigation system.
"The crews slowly converted to the upgraded aircraft and they all had to undergo training with our industry partners at British Aerospace (the nationalised organisation that had absorbed Hawker Siddeley and several other manufacturers in 1977) Woodford to learn the new skills required."
Nimrod's value in the SAR role once again came to prominence in March 1980 when the Alexander Kielland, a drilling unit used to accommodate oil rig workers, capsized in Norwegian waters in the Ekofisk oilfield area of the North Sea. Operations continued around the clock for seven days in the search for survivors, with Nimrod tasked in both search and co-ordination duties. More than 80 ships and 20 helicopters were involved in the rescue effort for a disaster that unfortunately claimed 123 lives.
Tragedy struck the Nimrod fleet itself later that same year though. At 0730, in semi-darkness on November 17th, XV256 lost three engines after flying through a flock of Canada Geese on departure from RAF Kinloss. The crew, who were on the final flight of their conversion course from MR.1 to MR.2, had their numbers boosted to 20 by the presence of a checking crew and an additional Air Engineer. Flying essentially on the power of the number 4 engine alone, the aircraft was unable to climb or sustain its altitude and, 27 seconds later, thanks to the impeccable skill of the crew on the flight-deck, made a smooth, slow contact with the relatively soft tops of a young pine forest, some 1300m from the end of the runway.
Fire rapidly broke out which engulfed the aircraft, but incredibly all except the pilot and the co-pilot survived. In recognition of their outstanding performance and handling of the situation, Flight Lieutenant Noel Anthony RAAF, the pilot flying, and Flying Officer Steve Belcher, his co-pilot, were posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross and the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air respectively.
No fewer than 77 dead birds were found on and around the runway following the accident, and no-one knows just how many were actually ingested by the engines.
On April 6th 1982, two Mk.1 aircraft from 42(TB) Squadron (XV244 Crew 1, captained by Flt Lt Smith & XV258 Crew 4, led by Flt Lt Norris, while Crew 8, who were commanded by Flt Lt Turnbull, were also split between the two aircraft as passengers), arrived at Ascension Island and formed the first permanent detachment under the heading of Operation CORPORATE - the codename given to the British military involvement in the Falklands War. Their first tasking was received the very next day and was carried out by Flt Lt Turnbull & Crew 8 in XV258. Its purpose: to provide a surface surveillance mission of 6 hours 10 minutes and a communications link between the nuclear patrol submarines working in advance of the Operation CORPORATE Task Force. The first of two MR.2 variants - the non probe equipped XV230 - arrived at Ascension on April 13th and just four days later XV255 joined it from Kinloss. The first MR.2 mission was flown by XV230 on April 15th which dropped the secret orders for Operation PARAQUAT to HMS Antrim.
It was in direct response to the Argentinean occupation of the Falkland Islands that work was started on an in-flight refuelling probe installation for the MR.2 fleet, and, just a handful of days later, on April 27th 1982, XV229 flew for the first time with just a probe fitted to allow crew training to be carried out - one of many recovered from various Avro Vulcans that were, at the time, being drawn-down themselves.
Under MOD 7000 two standard fuel bowser hoses were run from the air-to-air refuelling (AAR) probe via the cockpit escape hatch, down along the floor underneath the crew seats inside the cabin, until they were able to be connected to the main refuel gallery in the vicinity of the galley of the fuselage, and this enabled them to take fuel from the RAF's fleet of Handley Page Victor tanker aircraft. This modification led to the designation MR.2P, and 206 Squadron conducted continuous 24-hour airborne trials of the aircraft's avionics systems to ensure that everything continued to function as it should. In the end they settled on a 19-hour limit on endurance, and crews were trained in the black art of AAR in a matter of weeks. NB: there are records of one sortie which lasted in excess of 28 hours.
By May 28th the aircraft had received a further upgrade which delivered the capability to carry and release the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile - the intention being to use them against the Argentine Air Force's Boeing 707s (XV232 was the first aircraft cleared for use) themselves configured for maritime patrol and surveillance against the British naval task force. Unsurprisingly it led to Nimrod being referred to as the world's largest fighter aircraft. Additional stores added to the MR.2P's armoury included the Stingray Torpedo, AGM-84A Harpoon ASM (first operational mission flown by XV237 on June 19th), as well as 1000lb iron or BL755 cluster bombs.
Some 74 days after the outbreak of war, the conflict came to a close on June 14th with the two sides having lost 904 men between them. During that time Nimrod had amassed 111 missions, including the longest-distance operational mission ever recorded, flown by No 206 Squadron Crew 5, commanded by Flt Lt Ford, and set by XV232 on May 21st, taking in 8453 miles in 19 hours 5 minutes. The last CORPORATE mission was flown from Ascension by XV234 on August 17th, which then returned back to Kinloss on August 19th 1982 via Gibraltar. It was operated by No 201 Squadron Crew 1, commanded by Flt Lt Moncaster and carried some appropriate very short lived artwork to record the fact.
Following the cessation of hostilities the decision was made to bring the whole MR.2 fleet up to 'P' standard, which actually lead to the suffix being dropped, while in the spring of 1985 extra Electronic Surveillance Measures (ESM) pods were added to the wingtips of the Mk.2 fleet and, by the end of the year, all 35 planned MR.1 to MR.2 upgrades had been completed.
XV257 was written off on June 3rd 1984 following a bomb bay fire, caused by a detached reconnaissance flare. The aircraft took off from its base at RAF St Mawgan to take part in a SAR exercise, and, as was normal procedure, the first navigator switched the flare release units contained within the bomb bay to 'live' shortly after take-off. Just 30-seconds later the flight-deck crew received a warning in the cockpit of a fire, which prompted them to issue a 'mayday' call and steer back towards St Mawgan.
Observers on the ground reported seeing the aircraft trailing smoke, several flares burning, and numerous objects falling away from the airframe, including a parachute.
Thankfully the aircraft did make it back to the ground safely, and though the fire services were on hand immediately, the aircraft was damaged extensively and struck off charge.
206 Squadron and the Nimrod were heavily involved with the rescue efforts at the Piper Alpha oil production platform in the North Sea on July 6th 1988. On that fateful night an explosion and subsequent fire destroyed the platform, killing 165 of the 224 men onboard at the time, as well as two crewmen from a rescue vessel. To this day it still remains the world's worst offshore oil disaster.
Operation Granby, the name given to British military operations during Gulf War I, began in 1990 and stretched into 1991. For the Nimrod this initially meant operating in support of the United Nations blockade on trade with Iraq, monitoring shipping and operating from their Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in Oman and Cyprus. As the situation in the region escalated however, the role that Nimrod was asked to perform changed somewhat, and crews found themselves supporting the United States Navy's Carrier Groups. One particular 42 Squadron crew was credited with assisting in six 'kills' as well as one 'probable'. Nimrods were used to 'spot' enemy ships and their crews would then guide assets to them to ensure their destruction. XV244 carried "Battle Star 42" artwork and was adorned with 14 mission symbols and four ship 'kill' markings. Naturally, a Nimrod always remained on SAR standby in the event that any friendly aircrew should be shot down and require assistance.
In September 1992 the main focus of attention for the 'Mighty Hunter' moved to the Adriatic and the blockade on Serbia and Montenegro and, at the end of that month, the Nimrod Force found itself consolidated at RAF Kinloss following the withdrawal of the type from RAF St Mawgan.
Two months later in November, Staff Requirement (Air) 420 was endorsed by the government and an initial data gathering phase was authorised - its purpose: to provide the Royal Air Force with a new Maritime, Reconnaisance and Attack aircraft to replace the Nimrod MR.2.
No less than 17 contractors registered an interest and a competitive tendering phase began in January 1995. On offer were the Dassault Atlantique 3, the Lockheed Orion 2000, the Loral/Marshall Valkyrie (refurbished ex-US Navy P-3 Orions) and the BAe Nimrod 2000. The options of upgrading the existing MR.2s and simply doing nothing were also tabled for consideration.
BAe was relatively short of work at the time and the Nimrod 2000 proposal from them was considered to be 'low risk' by the government. Essentially each Nimrod MR.2 fuselage would be rebuilt and "zero-lifed", fitted with new, larger wings to house new engines while the electronic suites would be given a complete make-over. The Rolls-Royce BR710 turbofan engine (also used in Gulfstream V and Global Express aircraft) was chosen to replace the aging Speys, and the glass cockpit selected would be derived from that used in the Airbus A340. An updated version of the highly exalted Searchwater radar, known as Thales Searchwater 2000 (Thorn EMI having been taken over by Thales in the years following the MR.2's introduction), was also made available, boasting the ability to scan an area the size of the UK every ten seconds! The whole package would allow up to 20 times more technical and strategic data to be processed and displayed than the MR.2.
Following the loss of XW666, one of just three R.1 model Nimrods in existence, on May 16th 1995 after a mechanical-failure started a fire and forced a ditching in the Moray Firth (all crew escaped safely), an urgent replacement needed to be sought. The R.1 variant was extremely busy monitoring the no-fly zone over Bosnia at the time and so, MR.2 XV249, which had been sitting in storage, was selected as the aircraft to become the RAF's "new" R.1, and BAe was offered a contract to perform the conversion some five weeks later under the banner of Project ANNEKA.
After a major servicing at RAF Kinloss the aircraft was delivered to BAe Woodford, where its ASW equipment was removed and the external changes were made, but it was April 11th 1997 before XV249 made its first flight as a bona-fide Nimrod R.1.
Tragedy struck the Nimrod fleet once again on September 2nd 1995, when XV239 was performing at the Canadian International Air Show in Toronto, as part of a tour that had already seen the crew display at CFB Shearwater. During the display the aircraft entered a stall from which there was insufficient height to recover, and XV239 broke-up as she contacted with the waters of Lake Ontario. All seven souls on board were killed.
On July 25th 1996 it was announced that British Aerospace's Nimrod 2000 tender had been successful, and, on December 2nd of that year, a fixed price contract for £2.4bn was awarded to them to supply 21 Nimrod 2000s, a training system and initial logistical support. By this stage, however, the company had won several other key contracts and both people and resources had become considerably scarcer. As a consequence packages of work were bundled up and sub-contracted out to a number of different partner companies and across various BAe sites (Woodford, Brough & Filton).
The first three fuselages were duly delivered by Antonov An-124 to FR Aviation at Bournemouth from RAF Kinloss on Valentines' Day 1997 to commence the conversion process.
By 1999 Rolls-Royce was ready to deliver the first of the new engines, but at that stage BAe, who later that year became BAE Systems, still didn't have any airframes in their possession that were ready to accept them. A review of the whole programme was ordered towards the back end of that year which noted that the project was already running three years late and the Nimrod 2000 name was quietly dropped in favour of Nimrod MRA.4. Following contract renegotiations, in which BAe was heavily penalised, it was reluctantly agreed that deliveries would now be expected to commence in 2002, with an In-Service-Date (ISD) scheduled for April of the following year. It was also decided that the conversion programme would be brought back 'in house' and was moved to the company's Woodford facility.
A further renegotiation of the MRA.4 contract also took place in 2001 and confirmed an additional delay to the planned ISD as well as a reduction in airframes from 21 down to 18.
Following the horrific terror attacks on the mainland United States in 2001 which paved the way for the start of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Global War on Terror, Nimrod played a key role in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), though details of the type's early involvement are still rather sketchy.
Operation Iraqi Freedom - Gulf War 2 - got underway in 2003, and six Nimrod MR.2s were deployed to bases in Saudi Arabia and Oman in support of coalition forces. Five of the aircraft had been fitted with the L-3 Wescam MX-15 electro-optical turrets beneath their starboard wings - their purpose: to obtain reconnaissance imagery over the Iraqi landscape. This ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) role was very different to that performed during their normal maritime patrol duties, but Nimrod and her crews still pulled it off with tremendous effect, as Flt Lt Speight felt compelled to comment:
"The period from the Millennium until the present time once again saw the Nimrod MR Mk 2 give invaluable service both as a maritime asset but also in its new overland ISTAR role in support of ground forces. The part that the Nimrod force played in delivering truly strategic effect in Iraq should never be forgotten.
"Moreover, the Nimrod offered the adaptability and agility required to complete missions at long-range in support of UK and coalition ground forces, often under enemy attack in Afghanistan; the achievements of this maritime platform to deliver effect in both the maritime and overland roles are an exemplar of the flexibility of Air Power in the context of the modern battlespace."
By July 2004, The House of Commons Defence Committee was reporting a forecast cost increase of £700m and a further slip in the ISD for MRA.4 to 2009. As a consequence the decision was taken to reduce the size of the order further to 16 airframes, and it was suggested that this still might be four more than would be ultimately required. All was not doom and gloom on the MRA.4 front though as the first flight of ZJ516, the first prototype, finally took place on August 26th of that year.
On December 15th 2004 it was announced that the MR.2 fleet would be cut from 21 to 16 aircraft with the disbandment of 206 Squadron in April of 2005 - the rationale for this being that the submarine threat had greatly reduced and thus the remaining aircraft could take on a more general reconnaissance role, a process that would also see the number of crews reduced from 31 to 22.
On July 18th 2006, BAE Systems received a new contract worth £1.1bn to provide just three MRA.4 development aircraft and nine at production standard, with an initial operating capacity of four aircraft and six crews scheduled to be in place by 2010.
Unquestionably the darkest day for the Nimrod Force came on September 2nd 2006, while MR.2 XV230 - that very first production aircraft to enter operational service - was performing a reconnaissance flight in Afghanistan in support of coalition forces engaging the Taliban as part of NATO's Operation MEDUSA. Using the MX-15 electro-optical turrets, XV230 had been transmitting real time video imagery to ground stations and commanders.
Following an AAR rendezvous with a Royal Air Force TriStar tanker that lasted approximately ten minutes, a fire warning indicator suggested the presence of a fire in the bomb bay some eleven minutes after the completion of tanking. At almost exactly the same time a secondary warning of smoke in the underfloor elevator bay was received, and smoke began to enter the fuselage from both elevator and aileron bays. Less than 60 seconds later, the fire breached the aircraft's pressure hull, causing the cabin to depressurise and necessitating the use of the on-board oxygen masks.
The Captain issued a 'mayday' call and immediately turned course for Kandahar as he descended. By now the fire was noted as being present at the back of the starboard engines and additionally in the aileron bay.
The crew's final radio contact was received at 1546 local when they acknowledged the weather for landing at Kandahar. Just one minute later, XV230 was seen to explode and break into four sections at a height of around 750-1000ft. The fourteen crew on board comprised twelve members who made up 120 Squadron's Crew 3, while the remaining soldier and Marine were from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment. None survived.
In May of 2007, the MoD admitted that 25 fuel leaks had been recorded on the fleet in the previous six months and that, due to operational demands, the type had spent 3000 hours longer in the air in the preceding 24 months than was intended.
Further concerns about the safety of the Nimrod fleet were raised on November 5th 2007 when XV235, experienced a similar fuel leak to that which ultimately brought down XV230. On this occasion the aircraft landed safely and, as a precaution, the MoD imposed a second suspension on in-flight-refuelling for the type.
On December 4th 2007, the Board of Inquiry report into the loss of XV230 was published. Given the location of the crash - literally in the middle of a warzone - it was impossible to recover more than a few small components from the wreckage, and, consequently, the Board was unable to categorically prove what the source or cause of the problem was.
The scenario deemed most likely to have occurred was that fuel from the No.1 tank had overflowed, or that a leak from a fuel coupling or pipe, caused a build-up of fuel within the No.7 tank dry bay which then came into contact with an exposed element of the aircraft's crossfeed/supplementary conditioning pack (SCP) pipe work at temperatures of around 400 degrees Celsius and was ignited.
A number of contributory factors were also highlighted, and in total 33 safety recommendations were made by the Board.
Des Browne, the then Defence Secretary, immediately announced that an independent review into the Board of Inquiry's findings would take place, headed by Charles Haddon-Cave QC.
Following a protracted wait for an inquest into the loss of XV230 to be launched, Andrew Walker, the assistant deputy coroner for Oxfordshire, issued a narrative ruling in May 2008, stating that Nimrod had "never been airworthy from the first time it was released to the service nearly 40 years ago". He added: "It seems to me that this is a case where I would be failing in my duty if I didn't report action to the relevant authority that would prevent future fatalities," and "I have given the matter considerable thought and I see no alternative but to report to the Secretary of State that the Nimrod fleet should not fly until the ALARP (As Low As Reasonably Practicable) standards are met
His findings divided opinion greatly and, despite his claims, operations in Afghanistan continued until March 31st 2009 when all aircraft that were yet to have their fuel seals and engine bay hot air ducts replaced were temporarily grounded.
Meanwhile, the maiden flight of the first production MRA.4 aircraft took place from BAE Systems' Woodford plant on September 10th 2009, and, while it was pleasing to see this significant milestone reached, more than 13 years had passed since that initial contract was signed and the goalposts had been shifted so much that what had originally been an order for 21 aircraft had been shrunk down to just nine, while at the same time the associated cost per unit increased more than four-fold. Indeed the parallels that can be drawn with the failed Nimrod AEW.3 plan are striking.
The Haddon-Cave report into the loss of XV230 was published October 28th 2009 and was extremely damning. Of Nimrod he said: "Its production is a story of incompetence, complacency and cynicism. The best opportunity to prevent the accident to XV230 was tragically lost".
The report looked at where design changes had taken place and how their impact had, or hadn't, been accurately assessed. It highlighted three key points where thorough risk analysis and redesign could have prevented the crash of XV230 and the loss of her crew.
Haddon-Cave also concluded that a number of previous incidents should have provided more than enough evidence that action needed to be taken, most notably a ruptured SCP duct that affected XV227 in November 2004. During the incident, air approaching 420 degrees Celsius had damaged aileron and flap control cables, melted hydraulic pipe fairleads, damaged the front fact on No 7 fuel tank and caused damage to fuel seals. A recommendation was immediately issued for the installation of a hot air leak detection system; however its introduction was rejected due to the aircraft's planned Out of Service Date (OSD) of 2012.
A Nimrod 'Safety Case' - "designed to identify, assess and mitigate any potentially catastrophic hazards before they could cause an accident" had been drawn up between 2001 and 2005 by BAE Systems and the MoD Nimrod Integrated Project Team (IPT), while QinetiQ acted as independent advisors. It was the perfect opportunity to identify the design flaws which had been present, unrecognised, within Nimrod for years.
Tragically, as Haddon-Cave concluded, the process was completely undermined by a pre-conceived belief that Nimrod actually was safe - perhaps somewhat understandably given that it had a solid thirty year safety record behind it. Ultimately that meant that the production of the Nimrod Safety Case essentially became a "paperwork and 'tick-box' exercise".
All three bodies involved with the production of the Nimrod Safety Case were apportioned considerable blame in the report, and these failings cumulatively led to the miscategorisation of the fire risk posed by Hazard 73 (H73) - the Cross-Feed/SCP duct - as "Tolerable".
The Haddon-Cave report did not stop there however. Changes to organisational structure were also investigated, and it was recognised that the financial pressures imposed by the 1998 Strategic Defence Review had led to a move away from functional values, such as safety and airworthiness, and towards a more business oriented approach, where budgets and financial targets were the order of the day. An element of blame was also apportioned to the two senior personnel who presided over the Defence Logistics Organisation between 2000 and 2004.
The delays in the introduction of MRA.4 were also criticised, as was the MoD's procurement process as a whole. Had the MR.2 replacement's in-service-date not slipped repeatedly, XV230 almost certainly would not have been flying at the time of its loss.
Haddon-Cave was also keen to make the point that he disagreed with many of the assertions made by Andrew Walker when he'd delivered his narrative ruling to the inquest. He made it clear that he had not felt the need to issue any interim reports on his findings as it was his belief that the aircraft was essentially airworthy - and particularly so after many of the recommendations made following the crash of XV230 had been employed.
In summation he said: "In my view, XV230 was lost because of a systemic breach of the Military Covenant brought about by significant failures on the part of all those involved. This must not be allowed to happen again."
Bob Ainsworth, who by now had replaced Des Browne as Defence Secretary, said of Haddon-Cave's findings: "This will be very distressing reading for many, and particularly for the families who lost loved ones three years ago.
"On behalf of the MoD and the Royal Air Force, I would like to again say sorry to all the families who lost loved ones.
"I am sorry for the mistakes that have been made and that lives have been lost as a result of our failure."
Less than two months later it was announced on December 15th that not only would MR.2 be withdrawn from service - a year earlier than planned on March 31st 2010 - but the introduction of MRA.4 would also be delayed until 2012 on cost-cutting grounds. This would also signal the end of the Nimrod Line Squadron and the demise of the Maritime Engineer branch of RAF service.
ZJ514 (PA-04), the first production MRA.4, was finally handed over to the Royal Air Force on March 10th 2010, when Gp Capt Jerry Kessell, the MoD's Head of Underwater Capability, formally accepted the aircraft at BAE Systems' Woodford site.
The aircraft has subsequently moved to BAE Systems' Warton site where crews will initially be trained to operate the new variant. 42(R) Squadron will act as the training unit for the type and in the short-term will be focussed on the training of instructors, while those selected as frontline pilots for the MRA.4 will join either 120 or 201 Squadrons. It's hoped that once an initial release to service has been issued, provisionally scheduled for this summer, the aircraft will be transferred to RAF Kinloss.
The final weeks of the MR.2's service with the Royal Air Force saw a number of 'Farewell Tours' planned to take place around locations significant to the type's history, notably to Guernsey, St Mawgan, BAE Woodford and BAE Warton, however, the weather sadly put paid to some of the most pertinent ones. Right up until the end MR.2 was showing just what a capable platform it remains in Gibraltar, where it took part in Exercise NOBLE MANTA, and demonstrated that the type still ranks at the very top of the Anti-Submarine Warfare league.
Speaking at RAF Kinloss on March 26th, Air Vice Marshal Steve Hillier, AOC 2 Gp, acting as the Reviewing Officer, had the following to say about Nimrod:
"Much of the tremendous effort of the Force has gone unseen and unheard by all but a select few, played out hundreds if not thousands of miles from British shores, often in the greatest of secrecy, day and night, in all weather. When, perhaps decades from now, the details of some of those operations are revealed, many of you here now will remember them, and the significant contribution that has been made by the MR.2 to the Defence of the UK, throughout its tenure, with justifiable pride.
"It is testament to the flexibility of the aircraft and the people who have operated it that, the nature of MR2 operations has changed radically and grown ever more complex over the years of its service. Indeed, the MR.2 Force has, without fail, adapted, grown new skills, and proven itself to be a peerless asset time and time again. In meeting these challenges, the MR.2 Force has, particularly in recent times, operated close to the very limit of its capacity for extended periods, simultaneously at home and abroad, with demand for its services outstripping the available supply.
"I do not doubt that the agile, adaptable and capable service delivered by the MR.2 Force, and living up to the precepts of airpower, will be missed once it has gone.
"MRA.4 will be an exceptionally capable platform, one of the world's finest Maritime Patrol Aircraft and a worthy successor for the MR.2. Indeed, the MRA.4 has been designed and engineered to produce an aircraft which has significant potential, worthy of the Nimrod name and of the history that name encompasses. I hope that in years to come you and your successors will be just as proud of that name as you are today as we say farewell to the MR.2."
This is not quite the end for all of the MR.2s however. A handful have been ear-marked to join museums and aircraft collections around the UK, and the first positive confirmation of such came from Elvington Air Museum near York, who have announced that XV250 will be flying in to join their collection on April 13th. While there's considerable speculation about the other locations set to receive an airframe already, it would be wrong at this stage to name names.
Five front-line squadrons ultimately operated the MR.1 and MR.2 variants of the Nimrod: 42 Squadron - which became 42(R) Squadron in more recent times - equipped with the Nimrod at RAF St Mawgan in April 1971 before moving to RAF Kinloss in 1992 and was, at the time of the withdrawal, the MR.2's OCU. Calling RAF Kinloss home for the entirety of their association with Nimrod were 120 Squadron, which converted to the type from the Shackleton in February 1971, and 201 Squadron which became operational on the Nimrod in October 1970. Both were still active right up until the end, and all three reportedly have futures as MRA.4 squadrons. 203 Squadron, the RAF's Sea King OCU today, had been based at Luqa, Malta, until December 31st 1977 when they were disbanded and their Nimrod aircraft returned to the UK. 206 Squadron operated the type from RAF Kinloss from 1970 until its disbandment on April 1st 2005. Additionally, 236 OCU was the original Nimrod OCU and spent the duration of its existence as such at RAF St Mawgan, spanning the years 1970-1992.
From a personal point of view I still consider myself lucky to have had the chance to fly in the 'Mighty Hunter' - despite the fact that I, along with most of my fellow 1101 Sqn (Kettering & District) ATC cadets on-board, were sick as dogs! It was 1994 or 1995, and we'd travelled up to RAF Kinloss in September for a camp. The aircraft we flew on was one of the two special tails from the time - either XV240 or XV260 - and the callsign we used was "Oscar Eight Yankee" - that bit I remember vividly for some reason
It was a beautiful late-afternoon as we taxied out, and we were filled with a strange mix of both excitement and trepidation. We all knew of the aircraft's 'Vomit Comet' reputation, particularly as quite a few of those who'd flown on her earlier in the week had confirmed its validity first-hand!
Climbing away from the runway I remember looking out of the window and being more than a tad surprised to see the wing making a marked circular motion in the sky! The crew seemed quite confident that it was normal, so we sat back and relaxed in our seats as we headed out towards our target area - over the Moray Firth and out to sea. At that point in time the prospect of flying at low-level over the sea for a couple of hours sounded quite exciting.
I'll be honest, it didn't stay like that for too long! I vaguely recall wandering up and down the aircraft, having a look at the various workstations that their respective operators were sat at, while the picture out of the window got progressively greyer. By this point we'd descended down to our working height, which I seem to recall was a mere 250ft. It was pretty bumpy and there was quite a lot of turning involved!
We must have all started to feel a little rough as I remember several of us all camped around the same porthole, desperately trying to get some sort of lock on the horizon which would in turn allow our brains to figure out which way up we were! It didn't work, and eventually I think we all succumbed and filled at least one bag each - all except our civilian instructor who'd taken an air-sickness tablet before take-off!
I think we were out over the sea for about three hours, though it felt much longer, and when we were told that we were finally going home, the elation was soon quashed by the news that we were going to be bashing the circuit at what was now an essentially dark Kinloss for a while! It was a ride that I would quite happily have got off at that point, but it was good to get to view an approach from the door to the flight-deck, and the flying was at least much smoother than it had been earlier.
To this day it's still the only aircraft to have made me vomit .
I vividly remember hearing about the loss of XV230 while on an aviation tour to Russia. We were sat on a bus, driving through the streets of Moscow, when Geoff Hibbert sent me a text breaking the news the morning after it had happened. At that stage there was speculation that the aircraft had been shot down by a Stinger missile. Ironically, as things later transpired, that might actually have been easier for the families who lost loved ones to come to terms with .
Less than a month earlier I'd been on a visit to that eminently friendly Morayshire base that the Nimrod called home for so long, and in recent years I've been fortunate enough to get back a few times, primarily for the Air Warfare Centre organised CQWI and TLT courses. It was always great to see the Mighty Hunter plying its trade, even in the worst of weather and when the remainder of Station flying had been suspended.
I guess that only time will tell just how much of a gamble has been taken with the decision to drawdown MR.2 early, while, at the same time, delaying the introduction of MRA.4. Despite assurances that other aircraft will take on the work of the Nimrod in the interim, the simple fact is that a capability gap will exist, and not only in terms of SAR either.
While the Hercules, touted as one of those aircraft that will be used to fill the void, is a hugely capable aircraft at what it does, and indeed does perform SAR and maritime patrol tasks - amongst other duties as part of 1312 Flt in the Falklands - there's no denying that it's an inferior SAR platform to Nimrod in almost every regard, and of course that fleet is already busy enough in other theatres at present.
One of Nimrod's great strengths was in the provision of 'top cover' during a SAR launch, that is, directing other assets precisely to those in trouble.
The MR.2 may have already bowed out but the R.1 variant, still used primarily in the ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) role, will soldier on with 51 Sqn at RAF Waddington for approximately 12 months longer before it's replaced by the Boeing RC-135 'Rivet Joint' - an acquisition only recently announced under the Project HELIX banner which had originally been intended to provide an upgrade to the R.1s themselves.
The recent past for the maritime reconnaissance version of Nimrod has been chequered - there's no disputing that - but it would be wholly wrong for that to overshadow the outstanding service that the type has delivered to Her Majesty's Armed Forces, the United Kingdom and beyond, during her 41 years on the Royal Air Force's books.
It's only right that the final say on the matter goes to Gp Capt Robbie Noel, Station Commander RAF Kinloss:
"We are clearly sorry to see the Nimrod MR.2 retire but today is an opportunity to reflect on the marvellous contribution to national security made by the Maritime Patrol Force.
"The Nimrod has been involved in every major conflict in the last 40 years as well as protecting the UK's shores and supporting those working at sea through its Search and Rescue role. Much of our work has necessarily been shrouded in secrecy, but it is with great pride, affection and confidence that we say farewell to this version of 'The Mighty Hunter'.
"It is essential, also, that we pay tribute to those who have lost their lives while serving on and with this Force; we remember them vividly, and they continue to inspire our efforts. Equally, it is important to recognise the endeavours of the great swathes of personnel who have supported the Force: the Servicemen and women, their families, Civil Servants, our partners in Industry, and, of course, our fabulous local community.
"Having amassed over 3000 flying hours on this aircraft, I will certainly miss the MR2 but look forward, as we all do at Kinloss, to the arrival of MRA.4 in the next few months. The new version of 'The Mighty Hunter' is a huge leap forward, and I am particularly excited to be introducing it to Kinloss in the very near future."
"THE NIMROD IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE NIMROD" - Flt Lt Billy Speight, RAF Kinloss, March 26th 2010.
2011-06-04 - Norman B Thorpe
This is a wonderful story with pictures of a great aircraft which spent part of its service at RAF Ballykelly in Northern Ireland, of which i have a picture, and is in our little Shackleton museum at Magilligan not far from its base. We also have a model of the early nimrod in the museum www.shackletonaviationandspacemuseum.homestead.com
Norman Beverland Thorpe
2011-05-21 - Joćo Damićes
Excellent article. Great Plane. Is my favourite.
2010-04-06 - Pete Buckingham
Another excellent article Karl - and a fitting tribute to one of the true workhorses of the Royal Air Force....
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