Royal Air Force Coningsby or RAF Coningsby, is a Royal Air Force (RAF) station located at located 13.7 kilometres (8.5 mi) south west of Horncastle, and 15.8 kilometres (9.8 mi) north west of Boston, in the East Lindsey district of Lincolnshire, England. It is a Main Operating Base of the RAF and home to the Typhoon Force Headquarters and two front-line Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 units, No. 3 Squadron & No. 11 Squadron. In support of frontline units, No. 29 Squadron is the Typhoon Operational Conversion Unit and No. 41 Squadron is the Typhoon Operational Evaluation Unit. Coningsby is also the home of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) which operates a variety of historic RAF aircraft.
Second World War
Plans for an airfield at Coningsby began in 1937 as part of the RAF’s expansion scheme plan. However progress in the compulsory purchase of the land was slow and delayed the start of work for two years. The station opened in due course on 4th November 1940 under No. 5 Group, part of RAF Bomber Command. The first flying unit, No. 106 Squadron with the Handley Page Hampden medium bomber, arrived in February 1941, with active operations taking place the following month when four Hampdens bombed Cologne in Germany. The squadron was joined in April 1941 by No. 97 Squadron equipped with Avro Manchester medium bombers. In May 1942, aircraft from Coningsby participated in the ‘Thousand Bomber’ raid on Cologne.
The original grass runways were found to be unsuitable for heavy bomber operations so the station was closed for nearly a year between September 1942 and August 1943, whilst paved runways were laid in preparation for accommodating such aircraft. At the same time further hangars were constructed.
The first unit to return was the now famous No. 617 ‘Dambusters’ Squadron. Equipped with Avro Lancaster heavy bombers, the squadron was stationed at Coningsby from August 1943. Due to its specialist nature, the Dambusters carried out limited operations whilst at Coningsby, with the most notable being Operation Garlic, a failed raid targeting the Dortmund-Ems canal in Germany, when five out of the eight Lancasters on the mission failed to return home. As the squadron required more space, its moved to nearby RAF Woodhall Spa in January 1944, swapping places with another Lancaster unit, No. 619 Squadron, which itself later moved on to RAF Dunholme Lodge.
Further Lancaster squadrons were based at Coningsby during the final months of the war, including No. 61 Squadron from RAF Skellingthorpe, No. 83 Squadron and No. 97 Squadron.
Following the Second World War, Coningsby was home to the Mosquito-equipped No. 109 Squadron and No. 139 Squadron, then became part of No. 3 Group, with Boeing Washington aircraft from 1950. On 17th August 1953 52-year-old Air Vice-Marshal William Brook, the Air Officer Commanding of No. 3 Group, took off from the base in a Gloster Meteor, and crashed into a Dutch barn at Bradley, Staffordshire.
The airfield received its first jet aircraft—the English Electric Canberra—in 1953. During 1956, the station expanded with the runway being extended. Avro Vulcans arrived in 1962, which were transferred to RAF Cottesmore in November 1964.
From 1964–66, the station had been initially designated to receive the proposed RAF strike aircraft, the advanced BAC TSR-2, which was cancelled for purported economic reasons in April 1965 by the Labour Government. The TSR2 was planned to join No. 40 Squadron at Coningsby in 1968 to replace the Canberra.
The TSR2’s intended replacement—the American General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark—was shelved on 16 January 1968 when its costs overshot the UK’s budget (it would have cost £425m for 50 aircraft). The TSR2 had large development costs, whereas the F-111 (also known as Tactical Fighter Experimental, or TFX) could be bought off the shelf. Coningsby was planned to get the General Dynamics F-111K, the RAF version of the F-111; also in the 1966 Defence White Paper, it was intended that the Anglo-French AFVG, later the UKVG, would replace the TSR2 (it did eventually as the Tornado). 50 F-111Ks were planned with 100 AFVGs (to enter service by 1970); Denis Healey claimed the F-111s and AFVGs would be cheaper than the TSR2 programme (158 aircraft) by £700m. As Minister of Aviation throughout 1965, the Labour MP Roy Jenkins had also wanted to similarly cancel the Olympus-powered Concorde, but the 1962 Anglo-French treaty imposed prohibitive steep financial penalties for cancellation; the Hawker Siddeley P.1154 and HS.681 were cancelled at the same time.
After a parliament debate on 1st May 1967 about the prices of both F-111 and TSR2, Denis Healey simply wanted an aircraft programme that involved no research & development. Healey claimed that, over fifteen years, the TSR2 programme would cost £1,700m and the F-111 and AFVG would cost £1,000m—a large amount in 1965; none of the costings for these two figures were forthcoming, or how both numbers were arrived at, and could well have been fiction. AFVGs were also planned to replace the Buccaneer in the Royal Navy—Tornados were never were flown by the Royal Navy, as the carriers for them, the CVA-01s, were cancelled. But the Royal Navy did operate fourteen Phantoms on Ark Royal, until the new smaller carriers entered service—48 Phantoms had been designated for the Fleet Air Arm, with twenty of these ending up at Leuchars, and Ark Royal’s Phantoms ended up at Leuchars in 1978. Eagle was never converted to Phantom use as it was deemed too expensive, and the carrier would simply be scrapped in January 1972, with its Sea Vixen aircraft. Another alternative considered by the Labour government in July 1965 for the TSR-2 was to order Spey-engined French Mirage IV aircraft, to be known as the Mirage IVS; it would have avionics from the TSR-2, and be partly made by BAC at Warton.
Spey-engined Phantoms (the plane the government eventually bought, having been ordered in February 1964 for the Fleet Air Arm, instead of the P.1154) were chosen in 1966 for the station’s future as with the scrapping of aircraft carriers the Phantoms were not needed for the Fleet Air Arm, with all RAF Phantom training taking place on the airfield, and the station became part in Fighter Command until December 1967, when it joined Air Support Command as the Phantoms were initially in a ground attack role. Phantoms first saw operational service with the Fleet Air Arm in 1970. The first Phantom FGR2 (Fighter/Ground attack/Reconnaissance) arrived at Coningsby on 23rd August 1968, with the first aircrew OCU course (228 OCU) beginning in October 1968. Air-defence Phantoms (FG1) also entered service in 1969 at RAF Leuchars. On 18th May 1970, a Phantom flew from the base non-stop to RAF Tengah, covering 8,680 mi (13,970 km) in 14 hours and 14 minutes at an average speed of 602 mph (969 km/h). In April 1968, Strike Command was formed and the airfield was transferred to 38 Group.
41 Squadron joined in April 1972, and stayed until 1977. The other ground attack Phantom squadrons (four of them) were at RAF Bruggen. 111 Squadron replaced their Lightnings (from Wattisham) with Phantoms from 1st October 1974. On 1st January 1975, 29 Squadron joined and stayed until 1987, when disbanded. On 1st November 1975, 23 Squadron joined until February 1976, when moved to Wattisham. In March 1976, 56 Squadron joined until July 1976, then went to Wattisham.
The Phantom’s role changed to air defence in October 1974 when the airfield transferred to 11 Group in RAF Strike Command, when the SEPECAT Jaguar (situated in Norfolk) took over the ground attack role. 111 Squadron were the first to take the new air defence Phantoms. During 1975, the UK’s air defence transferred to the Phantom FGR.2 from five squadrons of Lightnings. The UK was covered by NATO Early Warning Area 12. Three Sector Operations Centres were at Buchan, Boulmer and Neatishead; in the 1960s, the UK had the Linesman/Mediator radar system, which was obsolete by the 1970s. No 29 Squadron formed with Phantoms at Coningsby on 1 January 1975; until then the Phantom FG.1 had been operating with the Royal Navy only. On 3rd March 1975 a Phantom crashed into a nearby house, with both pilot and navigator ejecting. The Queen visited the station on 30th June 1976.
Panavia Tornado F3 squadrons began to form from November 1984, namely No. 229 OCU/No. 65 Squadron. Tornado training took place until April 1987, when the Phantoms left (to RAF Leuchars) and Coningsby had the first (No. 29 Squadron) Tornado air defence squadron. To accommodate these new aircraft, extensive hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) and support facilities were built. No. 5 Squadron arrived in January 1988, having previously operated the English Electric Lightning.
During the Gulf War, Tornados from Coningsby were based for three months at Dhahran International Airport. Tornado engines were serviced on the northern section of the former RAF Woodhall Spa, denoted as RAF Woodhall.
Coningsby was the first airfield to receive the Phantoms, the Tornado ADV and was the first to receive its replacement, the Eurofighter Typhoon. Typhoon arrived in May 2005 with No. 17 Squadron, after the RAF first publicly displayed the aircraft at Coningsby in December 2004. No. 3 Squadron moved to RAF Coningsby where it became the first operational front line RAF Typhoon squadron in July 2007 and No 11 Squadron became operational at RAF Coningsby shortly thereafter. From 2019, No. 12 Squadron, temporarily integrating Qatari air and ground crews in order to provide training and support as part of the Qatari purchase of 24 Typhoons from the UK, is also expected to be based at RAF Coningsby.
In October 2019, RAF Coningsby signed a twinning agreement with Fighter Wing 73 (Jagdgeschwader 73) of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) to enhance opportunities to meet and train with one another. The wing, based at Laage in north eastern Germany, also operates the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Role and operations
RAF Coningsby’s mission statement is ‘To develop the future, deliver the present and commemorate the past of the Royal Air Force’s combat air power.’ The station is home to nearly 3,000 military personnel, civil servants, and contractors. BAE Systems Military Air Solutions, who produce the Typhoon, are also stationed on the airfield with the contract to maintain the aircraft.
The station commander is Group Captain Mark Flewin. The station’s Honorary Air Commandant is Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. The station is under the command of No. 1 Group (Air Combat).
The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 provides the RAF with a multi-role combat capability for air policing, peace support and high intensity conflict. RAF Coningsby is the home to two front-line Typhoon units, No. 3(F) Squadron and No. 11 Squadron. They are accompanied by No. 29(R) Squadron which is the Typhoon Operational Conversion Unit which trains new crews.
Quick Reaction Alert
Since June 2007 Coningsby’s Typhoons have been responsible for maintaining the Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) South mission (QRA(I)S). Aircraft and crews are held at a high state of readiness, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to respond to unidentified aircraft approaching UK airspace. QRA missions range from civilian airliners which have stopped responding to air traffic control, to intercepting Russian aircraft such as the Tupolev Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack.
Test and Evaluation
The fourth Typhoon unit is No. 41 (Test and Evaluation) Squadron which is part of the Air Warfare Centre. The squadron develops operational tactics and evaluates new avionics and weapons systems. Formerly the Fast Jet and Weapons Operational Evaluation Unit (FJWOEU), it is a merger of the Strike/Attack OEU (previously based at MOD Boscombe Down), the Tornado F3 OEU (previously based at RAF Waddington) and the Air-Guided Weapons OEU (previously based at RAF Valley).
Battle of Britain Memorial Flight
Coningsby has been home of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) and the associated visitor centre since March 1976 when it arrived from RAF Coltishall. The BBMF operate one of two remaining airworthy Avro Lancaster bombers in the world, alongside; six Spitfires of various types; two Hurricanes; a Dakota and two Chipmunks, the latter type being used for pilot training.
No. 7 Force Protection Wing Headquarters provides operational planning, command and control to two RAF Regiment field squadrons attached to the wing, No. 63 (Queen’s Colour) Squadron (based at RAF Northolt) and No. 2623 (East Anglian) Squadron (RAuxAF) (based at RAF Honington) whose purpose is to protect RAF bases at home and abroad from ground attack. Part of No. 5 RAF Police Squadron, under the command of No. 8 RAF Force Protection Wing at RAF Waddington, is also based at the station and provides policing, security and guarding.
Air Land Integration (ALI) Cell
No. 7 Force Protection Wing includes the Air Land Integration (ALI) Cell, which provides a forward air control capability. The ALI Cell trains and provides Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACS) and Tactical Air Controller Parties (TACPS) to support RAF and joint operations. The ALI Cell moved to Coningsby from RAF Honington in Suffolk and came under the control off the wing in June 2018.
Expeditionary Air Wing
No. 121 Expeditionary Air Wing was formed at Coningsby on 1st April 2006 to create a deployable air force structure.
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