Part five: Phantastic Phantom's arrival by Dave Eade

Not many can boast of receiving even one Phantom for their birthday. On 25 February 1976 (my 32nd), I was privileged to watch the arrival of 23 Squadron complete with a diamond-nine plus box-four of newly painted F4M Phantom FGR2s. So, Wattisham moved from being Lightning equipped to a much more sophisticated piece of kit. It seemed that the Phantom was built to replace the Lightning in that it remedied all the so-called shortcomings decried of its predecessor. So often in British aviation history, politics has been the bigger enemy, and the insistence on some forty percent of the F4K and M version being of UK manufacture added more shortfalls than benefits. The vast reshaping of the rear end to accommodate two Rolls Royce Spey engines gave the RAF the slowest and heaviest of all the Phantom variants, we are led to believe.

Armed with a massive four Sparrow air to air missile (up-rated to Skyflash eventually) and four Sidewinders, the F4M was also capable of fielding the Vulcan rotary cannon. With a radar kit borne of the Vietnam campaign but steadily up-graded (a bonus not allowed for the Lightning) it become probably the best in Europe. A Phantom's range was such that the need for airborne QRA tankers disappeared overnight. A standard fit would include all eight missiles, plus a fuel tank on each wing and one on centre-line.

Once both 23 and 56 squadrons became Phantom equipped, Wattisham settled into the routine of deployments, exercises and QRA that was a fighter base in the latter seventies and eighties. When received onto the squadrons, Phantom aircraft were painted in the ubiquitous standard camouflage grey-green scheme. Squadron markings altered subtly as the years went by, but it fell to 56 Squadron to pioneer a change in finding a colour-scheme more fitting for air defence work. Similar work was going on in other air forces, with variations on light blue to grey being tried. Delivered in October 1978, XV474, coded 'F' with 56 Squadron, was the first RAF aircraft to have what became known as an air-superiority scheme. Light grey overall with miniature roundels and squadron emblems were tried, before the final scheme was settled on which used a pale colour for the emblems as well. But, 'esprit de corps' meant that within a short while squadron emblems were back to normal size and colour, however.

A minor diversion was provided in 1979, when to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first transatlantic crossing, two aircraft from 56 Squadron were painted in a special scheme and flown over the Atlantic, piloted by Flt Lt Alcock (grandson of the original) and Flt Lt Browne. Flown into the International Air Tattoo at Greenham Common, both of these aircraft were somewhat unusual in having no serial markings, but were in fact XV424 and XV486.

4 March 1982 also provided spotters some excitement when, while on 'bolthole' from nearby Honington, Buccaneer XW537 from 237 OCU stalled on finals and deposited itself, minus crew, neatly in two pieces in a field between the airfield and the village of Battisford.

Events some 16,000 miles away in the South Atlantic were to play an important role at the Station during 1983 and '84. With the conflict in the South Atlantic over, it became obvious that a fighter defence system would become vital, in case the Argentineans felt like chancing their arm again. So it was that 23 Squadron aircraft were ferried from Wattisham, flown by a selection of crews from all the air defence units, to become the deterrent in the South Atlantic. Eventually, the squadron was to lose its identity and be reduced to a flight of three aircraft, but initially it involved regular three month deployment of replacement crews to maintain the watch. Ground crew were the losers in the deployment stakes, in being away from home six months, not three. 

This was going on at a time when hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) were also being built on many bases. The construction of these had not yet started when it fell once again to Foxtrot from 56 Squadron, to try out an emergency landing system for the base. The short cross-runway was in poor state of repair, and would certainly have given a 30-ton plus Phantom a problem or two when forced to land there. So, one early winter’s morning the minor road passing the base was closed to traffic (and spotters), with no access allowed to the favourite Crash-gate 2 site, while an intrepid air-crew carried out touch-and-goes on the perimeter track near the road. Although no mishaps occurred, the building of HAS shelters, and the subsequent use of this track for taxiing to the runway, probably precluded any further use.

Slowly, through major servicing at St Athan, the Phantom fleet adorned an all-grey overcoat. This led to a very scruffy look to the aircraft when other than fresh from maintenance, as shoe-scuffed black marks from ground crew became the normal adornment to busy aircraft.

The loss of 23 Squadron to the Falklands led to an increase in aircraft complement on 56 Squadron, but reports of poor morale due to lack of rivalry on the station were heard. Although never instigated for this reason, the idea of a two-unit base always added that element of competition, which enabled crews to hone their skills to the limit. Completion of hardened shelters led to squadrons being sited as far away from each other as geographically possible and Wattisham took on a totally new look, with one site adjacent to the small industrial estate at Nedging Tye and the other to the west of the airfield, nestling next to the small hamlet that lent its name to the base. It had previously been instantly obvious to spotters whether the base was active, with each squadron lining up the machines booked for flying on the day across the main operations pan; when they towed them away, it was time to go home! The arrival of HAS sites meant that no aircraft were visible on the ground until taxiing to the runway. This ended the long-established practise of dispersing fighters at points all over the airfield when on exercise or TACEVAL. 

In 1984, the Government took one of the strangest decisions in the history of air defence. Loss of a squadron to the South Atlantic meant that the UK Air Defence Region was under pressure in the south of England. It was decided to purchase an entire squadron of second-hand Phantom F-4J, from storage in the USA. Ex-Navy machines, these were deemed to be the nearest to the F-4K and M, which equipped the RAF squadrons. Rumours beat the official machine in that this move would allow the re-instatement of a famous fighter unit, 74 Squadron – the Tigers. The squadron had laid dormant since disbanding in Singapore as a Lightning F6 unit attached to the FEAF.

On 30 August 1984, as the sun dropped below the horizon, two 56 Squadron aircraft escorted the first F-4Js into Wattisham. Horror struck as the new colour scheme became evident – duck-egg green with tails adorned with a tiger. The final straw was to see one aircraft, which had been delayed due to technical problems in the US, arrive a few weeks later complete with an all-black fin. Consensus was that this would never last, but instead of being removed, it became the model for the rest of the squadron and before long all F-4Js were similarly adorned.

Several hardware clearance problems plagued 74 Squadron at first, but eventually the F-4J was recognised as the best of the three marks in service with the RAF (FG1, FGR2 and F-4J). Reheat response was said to be superior and manoeuvrability better. It soon therefore befell 74 to provide the Phantom demonstrator, the RAF having previously decided to remove this aircraft from the display scene. Unconnected was the early loss of one airframe, ZE358/H in a fatal crash in Wales during air to air exercises, this being the only F-4J lost, although one, ZE363/W, was rarely seen and became a 'hangar queen' for most of its life. During its relatively short service life the 'J proved to be a popular mount for Wattisham's crews, but political events elsewhere would bring about its untimely demise after seven years of service, more of which in part six.