As a military aviation enthusiast, getting a chance to access a frontline fast jet base is certainly not an everyday occurrence. Therefore, it’s no surprise that when the RAF Marham Enthusiasts Event was announced in early April there was a strong interest in it, not least due to the planned star participant. Adam Duffield went along to spend the evening at the home of the UK’s Panavia Tornado Force. Additional pictures from Mark Ranger.
RAF Marham, located in West Norfolk between Swaffham and Kings Lynn, is home to the frontline operational Tornado Force. Originally opened in 1916, this centenary year for the base not only marks a significant milestone but also sees it start a major transformation. Currently home to three flying units – IX(B) Sqn, 12(B) Sqn and 31 Sqn – the station is already gearing up to receive its future aircraft, the F-35B Lightning II, with significant infrastructure and building work already taking place.
Until the new aircraft start to arrive in 2018, the station will remain home to the vast majority of the RAF’s Tornado GR4s (with XV Sqn currently still based at RAF Lossiemouth, Moray) and it was those aircraft that were to be the basis of the enthusiasts day on May 19, although for many it was most likely the advertised appearance of a single jet that brought the most interest – the Operation Granby schemed GR4 (ZG750). Unveiled in February at Lossiemouth, ZG750 has been repainted into a ‘Desert Pink’ scheme—similar to the one worn by the type during the First Gulf War. Complete with shark mouth markings, it not only serves as a reminder to that conflict but also to honour 25 years of almost continuous operational deployments since then including, most recently, significant involvement in Operations Telic, Herrick and Ellamy along with the current deployment as part of Op Shader striking ISIS targets.
Since its unveil, it has been on the wish list for many enthusiasts to capture however, shortly after a ceremonial flypast over the dedication of the Operation Granby memorial at the National Arboretum, the aircraft sadly went unserviceable. After some time (and many rumours on the airframes potential fate!) it was ferried down to RAF Marham to undergo maintenance at the BAE facilities on base.
At the time of the event announcement, ZG750 was the star item and the hopes of catching it certainly would have been the key reason for many to attend. Unfortunately, as can sometimes happen, the maintenance had overrun slightly longer than originally anticipated leading to the unavailability of the airframe for the event. Realising the importance to many of this single machine, the organisers gave the option of postponing the event until it was available or continuing ahead at a reduced price with the aircraft available – the latter option being chosen by the majority of those due to attend.
Due to start at 18.30 with around two and half hours on base, the event was planned as more of a day/sunset photoshoot with the likelihood of any night shooting aspect being very remote given the sunset time of just 10 minutes before everyone was due to leave base. Around 85 of the original 100 attendees gathered in a carpark just off base to be ferried inside – the lack of the Granby jet seemingly not deterring many from the evening.
After being dropped at the edge of the northern taxiway which runs parallel with the main 24/06 runway, a short briefing was given before the gathered masses were let loose. Immediately noticeable were three GR4s positioned on the taxiway for static shots. To the northeast was a pair (ZD745/093 & ZA542/035) angled towards each other whilst 31 Sqn’s ‘Goldstar’ Centenary jet (ZA548) was placed slightly further down the taxiway set against a backdrop of a number of Rubb hangars. Celebrating their centenary in October 2015, the event itself was organised and ran by members of the Squadron, therefore it was more than fitting that it be their flagship aircraft featured prominently. Originally formed with the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c, it was hoped that an example of the type would be present to display alongside its current day steed however, it was not to be.
It was however, the freedom to roam around that made this event something special for many. Whilst the static airframes would have kept some happy, it soon became apparent that operational activity going on was drawing the most attention. At the southeasterly edge of the taxiway area access was allowed to where a pair of jets were ‘hot pitting’. Having arrived back from a sortie whilst the masses were still gathering outside the base, this pair of aircraft held the attention of many throughout the evening with them departing out twice during the course of the event. The hot pit process involves an aircraft returning from a sortie and shutting down a single engine before a crew swap takes place followed by refueling. The entire process takes around one hour but, by keeping the jet running and not allowing a cooling cycle, better operational serviceability can be had and faster turnaround for missions achieved. With the hosts generously allowing visitors to stay until the second launch had completed (an hour after the original finish time of the event!), it has to be said that witnessing a Tornado afterburner launch in almost complete darkness (with typically added British rain by this point!) is a sight to behold.
All through the evening our 31 Sqn hosts were more than accommodating and forthcoming with information, none more so than when it came to the Weapons Load Training Cell where they were more than happy to explain what was on show. Tucked inside were a pair of ground instructional airframes including a rare example of a Tornado F2 (ZA267) in amongst a variety of inert weapons showing the range of armament that can be carried by the Tornado GR4. These included Paveway IIs and IVs along with Storm Shadow cruise missiles of which a single example was fitted to a GR4 – ZD715. This particular airframe, with its mixed unit markings of 617 and IX Squadrons still wears its mission markings from its role during Operation Ellamy over Libya with 63 Paveway, 5 Brimstone and 2 Storm Shadow releases marked on the port side of the cockpit.
Somewhat as a surprise turn of events once on base was the announcement that two minibus shuttles would be running throughout the evening to take small groups to the other side of the base to view a single particular airframe – the Granby jet! The excitement for some was visible on their faces as it was revealed pictures would be permitted although the aircraft was still undergoing maintenance and would be tucked up inside a HAS with scaffolding surrounding it. Ferried across in groups of 8-15 people, there was a constant queue of people waiting to head across for the 30 minute round trip.
En route to the HAS complex, many were offered the chance to stop off at the three gate guardians present on the base and normally hidden away from public viewing or photos. English Electric Canberra PR.9 XH169 represents the bases role as the final operator of the Canberra when it retired from service in 2006. Finishing its service with 39 Sqn, the scheme applied shows the aircrafts heritage with the crests of its former squadrons displayed proudly on the special marked tail. The Canberra’s predecessor (in Marham terms) is also represented with Handley Page Victor K2 XH673 in its 55 Sqn markings saluting the stations role as a former V-Force base (with the Valiant having been based there also) before the type was finally retired in late 1993. The final jet in the trio is that of Panavia Tornado GR1 ZA407 which is displayed on a plinth with wings swept back and climbing to the sky.
After the short drive around the northern end of the runway, visitors were dropped outside the HAS complex. Hidden within the trees it is a surprisingly picturesque setting (which would be perfect for a future event, if the organisers are reading this!) and, to allow unhindered access to ZG750, a second aircraft had been moved outside (ZA614) giving yet another airframe to shoot. It was however, the Granby jet that held the focus of many and despite it being backed in to the hangar with the port wing hidden behind scaffold, it was still great to be able to get a look at the elusive scheme and see it in a real maintenance setting.
At the end of the evening, those that had attended the RAF Marham Enthusiasts Event all left content having experienced some excellent hospitality and, most importantly for many, a chance to shoot the Op Granby jet. Whilst the original cost of £50 may have seemed steep to some, it certainly didn’t seem to affect the numbers attending with the event ‘selling out’. However, with the original plans failing to materialise (which included a number of visiting aircraft), the attendance fee was reduced accordingly to £20 and certainly represented excellent value for money given the operational movements that also occurred – including a surprise display from the RAF Typhoon team! With feedback already being gathered and talk of future events to help raise money for the station’s charities, we are sure that future events will build on this solid foundation and attract significant interest from the enthusiast community.
AeroResource would like to thank all at RAF Marham who were involved with the organisation of the event, especially those 31 Sqn personnel on hand during the evening who were excellent hosts.