Gary Parsons talks to the commanding officer of the RAF’s Tornado GR4 training unit, XV(R) Squadron, as it celebrates its centenary. Additional info by Gareth Stringer, with images as credited.
With the relocation of the Typhoon squadrons from RAF Leuchars in Fife to RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, the latter has its future set with the Eurofighter. As the last remaining Tornado unit at Lossiemouth celebrates its centenary, XV(R) Squadron would seem to face an uncertain future as the swing-wing bomber fleet draws down by 2019.
When the RAF announced that the Tornado GR4 would be withdrawn by the end of the decade, a gradual reduction in the number of squadrons was inevitable. At the beginning of 2014 there were five frontline squadrons and an operational conversion unit (OCU) flying Panavia’s fighter-bomber, but in March 12 and 617 Squadrons disbanded at RAF Lossiemouth, leaving just XV(R) Squadron in situ.
Today the last three frontline squadrons are based at RAF Marham in Norfolk (12 Squadron reformed in January 2015) and it was expected that XV(R) would relocate there in the near future, or even disband, with a training flight established to train the handful of new pilots required over the following five years. But as yet neither scenario has happened – indeed, XV(R) Squadron is set to operate from RAF Lossiemouth for a while yet, alongside the Typhoon.
The current commanding officer of XV(R) Squadron is Wing Commander Jon Nixon, a former Tornado display pilot and staunch advocate of the type. “There is a manning requirement to maintain the Tornado force to its out-of-service date (OSD) in 2019 because we’re not in a position where we are going to ‘lock in’ those aircrew until the end of time,” he says. The Tornado force is providing people crossing over to Typhoon at Lossiemouth and Coningsby, and hence there is a high turnover of aircrew. “We also need to feed the training system, putting pilots into cockpits at Linton-On-Ouse and Valley as instructors,” adds Wg Cdr Nixon.
Alongside training new pilots there will be refresher courses for experienced aircrew, but the last ab-initio weapons systems operator (WSO) went through the OCU last March. “Flt Lt Jamie Lamb was the last,” adds Wg Cdr Nixon. “We’re still going to train refreshers, but our current assumption is that we’ve got enough to see us to the end. You’ll probably find there’s not many fast jet Tornado WSOs hanging around in staff jobs, because they’re going to be needed! But we could train new WSOs without too much difficulty if needed.
“We also have a role of training qualified weapons instructors (QWI), which is likely to grow rather than shrink, but while we are just training for the Tornado force here, those skills will probably be of longer term benefit to the Typhoon Force as it develops its own air-to-ground role. We have some good air-to-ground experience that we can pass on, potentially to F-35 Lightning II as well. Nobody’s saying we specifically need Tornado QWIs for F-35, but common sense would say you’d need a good mix of people from both Typhoon and Tornado in those cockpits.
“The three frontline squadrons still require quite a through-put too. Plus, we are a reserve squadron, so if the frontline has to go on operations I’d expect us to fill gaps both in the air and on the ground. When 12 and 617 Squadrons were in Afghanistan, if they had to send anyone back home for any reason it’d often be one of our guys or girls who’d get a bag and head off to theatre. Having that reserve and extra resilience is an added benefit of the OCU, though our primary role remains as a training unit of course.”
However, it is true to say that the OCU is not of the scale it used to be – in the past a dozen or more Tornados would grace the flightline when it was feeding seven frontline squadrons, but today, typically six jets will be used on any one day. “Our through-put is probably going to be about six ab-initio pilots per year for the foreseeable future,” continues Wg Cdr Nixon. “Five years ago we were allocated 5,000 hours per annum – our task for the 2014 financial year was approximately half that, so we have downsized, we’re scaling back delivery of training of aircrew to the frontline. Obviously there comes a point at which you have to ask the question of whether it’s worthwhile, but it will probably be relatively late – say 18 months before the final OSD – so until then I think we’re going to be roughly this size.”
Along with a reduction in aircraft has come fewer personnel, but the squadron is still one of a substantial size, as Wg Cdr Nixon explains: “Including myself and my command team, we’re about 25 instructors, ten or so students and around 180 ground crew.” With the disbandments of 12 and 617 Squadrons at Lossiemouth the opportunity was taken to look at manning requirements across the Tornado force and as a result some instructors left XV(R) Squadron, leaving vacancies which were filled by local, ex-frontline personnel. “We’d normally expect four in instructor training,” explained Wg Cdr Nixon, “but we took six although we got them qualified to instruct pretty quickly. So, are we going to stay at Lossiemouth? The answer is yes in the short term – we were due to move to Marham but that is not going to happen, mainly due to the infrastructure requirements there for F-35.”
Another reason XV(R) Squadron will stay at Lossiemouth is that the base has two fully functional simulators, while there is only one at Marham. Wg Cdr Nixon sums up the issue: “A move to Marham would make it difficult for us. There are no plans to change the contractual agreement with Thales (the simulator provider) that the simulators would move to Marham. We currently utilise one full-time, and although the other simulator is underutilised by XV(R), we’re looking at ways to get some of the Marham crews to come here and use it. The real bonus of the sims up here is that you can fly a linked mission in both jets simultaneously.”
In early 2014 the squadron made the journey to Hill Air Force Base in the United States for Exercise Torpedo Focus, a live weapons training event. It is unusual for an OCU to make such a venture, normally reserved for frontline units. “Why did we do it?”, Wg Cdr Nixon explains; “Two reasons – first the jets went to support Red Flag 14/1 with IX Squadron, and to take the jets all the way to Nellis and back just to do one exercise wouldn’t have been efficient. Secondly we don’t have the airspace to use all of the weapons in the UK – so we took advantage of the vast airspace they have over the Utah test and training ranges, working with ground forces, talking with JTACs [Joint Terminal Attack Controllers] on the ground – it was a great opportunity. We took eight JTACs out with us and the students worked primarily with them, dropping live weapons. The guys go to the frontline having dropped pretty much all our live weapons – with the exception of Storm Shadow – so it’s really good for them. Secondly to that it was a great chance for us to go and do some staff training and we managed to generate some new qualifications for some of our more junior instructors. Lastly, the chance to take the squadron away to prove that we can deploy to a base thousands of miles away and operate an intense flying programme without any major issues is immensely satisfying. Yes, we’re a reserve squadron, our role is training, but if we were called to deploy on operations we’ve got the skills.”
There is one other unit in the RAF flying the Tornado – 41(Test and Evaluation) Squadron at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire is the operational evaluation unit developing new techniques and hardware to keep the Tornado at the cutting edge until OSD. It’s vital that XV(R) Squadron works closely with 41 as new equipment will need to be written into training procedures and instructors brought up to speed as soon as possible. “The whole Tornado force has an annual conference where we get together and look at what level the aircraft is at, what new equipment is coming in and how the frontline needs to develop tactics,” explains Wg Cdr Nixon. “A good example was the introduction of Link 16 into the aircraft, which provides much higher situational awareness than we’ve had previously. The needs of training change – five years ago we were still teaching the dropping of dumb weapons, but we don’t do that anymore because the frontline only uses smart weapons. The students that we train here are working with Brimstone, Paveway IV and Storm Shadow, and obviously the Tornado’s got a gun, which is still a great asset.
“Talking generically about future equipment, we know what the plan is. Being the OCU with a number of trainer aircraft, we don’t always have the latest equipment in the aircraft – Link 16 is a good example. So we try and work around that by putting the equipment in the sims, which are always at the latest frontline level, and we work with the students in a ‘building block’ approach. Again it comes back to what the frontline squadron commanders want us to teach – they don’t necessarily want a junior pilot who is brilliant at Link 16 but can’t actually land the aircraft! They want us to focus on the basics, make sure they’ve got that squared away then build up some of those operational capabilities.
“There’s still a good developmental programme for the jet which takes it up to OSD. Without getting into classified stuff, you can probably imagine the sorts of places that we might want to go in a Tornado, the threat systems that they have on the ground – whether that be infra-red or radar – making sure that we have those defences.”
Many of the new students who will arrive at XV(R) Squadron in the next three years or so will have come from the new advanced training system with IV(R) Squadron at RAF Valley in Anglesey, which is equipped with the all-digital BAE Systems Hawk T2. While the training syllabus there is designed to produce Typhoon pilots, it is also producing those destined for Tornado despite the swing-wing bomber being mainly an analogue-instrumented aircraft. The first students arrived from IV(R) Squadron in April last year. “Our initial impressions were that they were more comfortable with the head-up displays and modern avionic systems. The aim is to get them to our required output standard with less flying, with better value for the tax payer. We may also be able to download some of our training to Valley.”
Both Tornado and Typhoon OCUs were involved in the design of the T2 course with instructors looking at how they could shape advanced flying training. “We have quarterly meetings between our training officer and the IV(R) Squadron training officer,” confirms Wg Cdr Nixon. “Whenever we look at re-designing our syllabus we really think about the output standard from Valley – would it be better for them to do it there, etc. It’s value for money from the tax payer’s point of view and there’s also trying to get to that output standard in the most efficient and effective way we can. We also have a six-monthly high-level one-star meeting with the Force Commanders for Tornado and Typhoon and the Director of Flying Training from 22 Group. They talk about how the new Military Flying Training System [MFTS] is delivering the frontline needs for the best.”
One important difference the student experiences at the OCU is working with RAF ground crew for the first time. All through basic and advanced training he or she will have been working with contracted support personnel, but the OCU is their first exposure to the squadron environment and working as a close-knit team. “Sometimes the student thinks that the second they finish the OCU course that’s it, they’re Tornado pilots or WSOs and it’s all done,” explains Wg Cdr Nixon. “But their training carries on throughout their first tour – they’re still learning pretty much to the end. Where we draw the line between what we teach on the OCU and what they then get taught on the frontline doesn’t really matter, it can be quite flexible depending on what we think the frontline are going to have to go and do tomorrow, next year or, you know, three or four years down the line.”
Flt Lt Kieran Gilroy was on the second Hawk T2 course in 2013 and joined XV(R) Squadron in early 2014. “There were four of us,” he says, “two went Typhoon and two went Tornado. There are areas of the syllabus which they’ve changed on the Tornado in order to accommodate us because we’ve been able to do more advanced stuff on the T2 as opposed to the guys on the Hawk T1, mainly on the evasion side. I’d say it’s certainly prepared me well, particularly in kit management. The main new thing with the Tornado is you’ve got a guy in the back to help you – all the way up and through Valley it’s very single-seat minded training and then you come to the Tornado and you’ve a guy at the back who’s there to help you – it feels bizarre at first!”
The evasion training element of the course at Valley is specific to Tornado and is something that can now be replicated in the digital environment of the T2, unlike in the legacy Hawk T1. It is something that would previously have been taught at the OCU, but has now been ‘downloaded’ to Valley.
“With the T2 you had a big data entry panel under the HUD [head-up display] and pretty much everything is done through that,” continues Flt Lt Gilroy. “You don’t touch anything else, other than the throttle, and going from a completely glass cockpit to a lot of analogue displays has been quite weird – it’s the first time I’ve been in a jet with these. But you get used to it within a couple of trips.
“One of the easiest things for us has been the HUD. Previously aircrew arrived at the OCU with no HUD experience at all, but the one in the T2 is just fantastic.”
Initial training on the OCU is concentrated in the sim, with around fifteen 90-minute sorties working on procedures and simply flying the aircraft. After about six weeks the student will take to the air for the first time in a dual-control jet, of which XV(R) Squadron usually has six or seven at any one time. Flt Lt Gilroy recalled his first sortie in the GR4:
“I left my brain on the piano keys! One on the biggest shocks was just how well the Tornado performs at low-level – one of the first things we do is to fly over the sea at 250 feet at 200 knots, then put the power to full combat. That feeling of acceleration just keeps going and going and you’re pulling the wings back. It will easily go through the sound barrier without burning hardly any fuel – it’s just nuts! It’s definitely a heavier aircraft to fly than the Hawk – you can feel it in the turn. I’ve been told that when you fly a Tornado clean it handles very similarly to the Hawk and can apparently beat one in a dogfight.”
The student pilot will do six trips in a dual-control jet – called the ‘picon’, or pilot conversion phase – before completing three sorties for instrument rating. “That was probably the biggest challenge,” says Flt Lt Gilroy, “as the instruments are nowhere as good as the Hawk T2 and you have to work hard at it. Four navigation and three formation flights follow, all based around low-level ground attack, and the latter phases of the course concentrate on weapons deployment and evasion.
Graduates will complete one full tour on Tornado before becoming instructors or streamed to fly the Eurofighter or F-35 – pilots like Flt Lt Gilroy will be perfectly placed to lend their ground attack skills to the evolving role of Typhoon and the introduction of Lightning II.
XV Squadron celebrates 100 years…
Formed on the 1 March 1915 at Farnborough, XV Squadron acted as a training unit supporting the Royal Flying Corps in the Great War. One hundred years later the modern incarnation of that unit, now XV(Reserve) Squadron of course, recently marked the start of its centenary year at RAF Lossiemouth with a formal parade in front of their families, colleagues and the head of the Royal Air Force’s combat fast jet fleet.
Wing Commander Jon Nixon led his personnel and the Squadron’s standard, as they paraded before Air Vice Marshall Gary Waterfall, Air Officer Commanding 1 Group.
Wg Cdr Nixon said:
“Apart from family events, the parade today has been one of the proudest days of my life. To be able to lead such a famous squadron in to its centenary year is something I could never have dreamed of doing when I first joined the Royal Air Force. I’m honoured to represent the men and women of today’s Squadron and those who have previously served.
The Squadron’s new, specially painted Tornado GR4 formed an impressive backdrop to the parade.
The Squadron’s illustrious history has included service in both world wars flying both fighters and bombers, including the Hawker Hind, Avro Lancaster, Handley Page Victor, English Electric Canberra, Blackburn Buccaneer and Panavia Tornado. XV received its first Tornado GR.1 as far back as 1983 when the aircraft arrived as replacements for the Buccaneers that had served the Squadron so admirably since 1970. Based at RAF Laarbruch, XV(R) was the first RAF squadron in Germany to equip with Tornado, was assigned to SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) and tasked with both battlefield support and tactical delivery of the WE177 nuclear weapon.
After a stirling performance in Gulf War 1 which saw the Tornado force, including XV(R), flying some of the conflict’s toughest missions, the Tornado Weapons Conversion Unit at RAF Honington was re-badged and XV(R) took on the responsibility for training all crews coming on to the Tornado fleet, a role the Squadron has held ever since. RAF Lossiemouth has been home since the Squadron moved north in 1994. See the gallery below for a selection of XV Squadron / Tornado images from the GAR archive.
One of the most famous stories associated with XV(R) Sqn is the connection with the MacRobert family. The three sons of Lady Rachel MacRobert and her husband Sir Alexander MacRobert were all killed within three years of each other in separate flying incidents; the eldest of the three was killed in action whilst on missions during World War II. Lady MacRobert’s response to her sons’ deaths was to donate £25,000 to purchase a bomber for the RAF and asked that it be named “MacRobert’s Reply”.
This was the start of a tradition that the RAF has kept alive. A succession of RAF aircraft has since carried the name. The current “MacRobert’s Reply” is a Tornado GR4 from XV(Reserve) Squadron, still identified by the cherished tail letter ‘F’.
XV(R) Squadron personnel will be raising money for the RAF Benevolent Fund (RAFBF) throughout their 100th year by holding or participating in numerous charity events, as they strive towards their target of raising £15000. “We’re not the first squadron to get there of course,” says Wg Cdr Nixon, “but we are one of the oldest squadrons in the Royal Air Force so we’re going to be doing a whole host of activities this year. We’ve looked at many different ways of raising money for the RAFBF and I am running the London marathon – hopefully it won’t take me 100 years to finish!
You can sponsor Wg Cdr Nixon by clicking HERE.
GAR would like to thank Gary Parsons, and of course Jon Nixon and everyone on XV(R) Squadron, as well as the media team at RAF Lossiemouth. Aim Sure!
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