On Tuesday 28th June 2011 for the last time a Nimrod R1 landed at RAF Waddington. The dedicated airborne signal intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft has been withdrawn from service after a small extension to the planned out of service date of 31st May 2011. Unlike the Harrier and Dominie the Nimrod R1 was not a victim of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The out of service date was decided back in 2008 under Project Helix which aimed to make an assessment of whether the Nimrod R1 fleet should be upgraded or replaced. The final decision was to replace it with the American RC-135V/W Rivet Joint that would be customised for the RAF and operated under the name Air Seeker. Until the delivery of the first Air Seeker in 2014 personnel from 51 Squadron will dual crew USAF RC-135s. The training of the first RAF crews on the Rivet Joint began in January 2011.
Throughout the 37 year operational history of the Nimrod R1 little has been said of its capabilities and even less of its activities despite its involvement in every major British operation since its introduction. The secretive nature of the role undertaken has prevented 51 Squadron from revealing much of what they do. What is known is that the Nimrod R1 is a very capable SIGINT platform able to perform communications intelligence (COMINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) roles. Whilst it was originally built for the Cold War to gather intelligence on enemy air defence networks and force deployment the Nimrod R1 has continued to prove its worth in the Falklands, the Gulf, Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan and most recently over Libya.
Flt Lt Dave McRitchie Mission Commander with 51 Squadron spoke about operating the Nimrod R1 over Afghanistan and Libya.
“We are looking to pull in information that is required for that particular day and do analysis and get it off to whoever needs it at the time. Target set might differ slightly but our processes will essentially be the same. Immediate focus is to support the agencies and assets we are tasked to support.”
He continued to explain the contribution the Nimrod R1 had made.
“Feedback we’ve been given from UK and coalition commanders has been the Nimrod R1 is appreciated and has made an immeasurable contribution where ever it has been involved.”
Three Nimrod R1s were originally delivered with XW664 being the first. It arrived at RAF Wyton in mid-1971 and underwent almost two years of work to fit out the specialised equipment before flying its first training sortie in late-1973. The first operational sortie was flown on the 3rd May 1974 and both XW665 and the XW666 went into service later the same year.
On the 16th May 1995 the Nimrod R1 fleet suffered its first and only loss. XW666 suffered a catastrophic failure of engine number 4 whilst on a test flight after a major service. Flight Lieutenant Art Stacey managed to safely ditch the airframe in the Firth before the wing structure burn through and all seven crew members were safely picked up from their dinghies by a RAF Sea King from nearby RAF Lossiemouth. The loss of the airframe was a big problem for the in demand fleet and an urgent order to convert a Nimrod MR2 to R1 standard was issued. XV249 was removed from storage five weeks after the loss of XW666 and after a major service was delivered to BAe Woodford on the 23rd October 1995. It took almost all of 1996 to remove the ASW kit used for the MR2 role before it could be fitted out as an R1. The install of the specialist kit started on the 10th January 1997 under ‘Project Anneka’. This being a reference to Anneka Rice who appeared in a TV series called Challenge Anneka at the time where she was set challenges to complete in a short amount of time. By 2nd April 1997 it was ready for an air test, considering the original fit of the other R1s had taken close to two years this was an amazing effort by the people involved. By the end of April 1997 XV249 was declared operational.
Whilst the airframes were getting older the equipment on the inside went through a series of upgrades and enhancements to keep it at the cutting edge. In the 1980s an upgraded weather radar and INS was added to improve navigation along with wing pods that looked very similar to the Yellow Gate electronic support measures added to the Nimrod MR2. The biggest upgrades were made in the 1990s starting with Project Starwindow that added an open architecture system similar to the one used on the RC-135 Rivet Joints. The upgrade included two high speed and twenty two networked digital receivers, digital direction-finding, console upgrades and the ability to both perform analysis and produce reports of the data in-flight. Also added that decade was the ‘Special Signals’ capability which is believed to be a digital recording and playback system for COMINT. Further COMINT software upgrades were added in the 2000s with the addition of Tigershark. The exact nature of the software is not known but it has been suggested it was to assist with operations in Southeast Asia. Project Extract was followed adding more automation to the process of capturing radio and radar emissions.
The withdrawal of the type started in 2009 with XW665. It flew for the last time on the 27th October 2009. It had returned from a tour of Afghanistan and was retired just before it was due a major service after clocking up a total of 21,144 hours. The airframe is currently in storage at RAF Waddington and will be stripped before being scrapped. Operations continued with both XW664 and XV249.
XW664 was the first Nimrod R1 into service and was also the only Nimrod R1 to take part in the Falkland conflict, although details of this are still classed as secret. It seemed very fitting that XW664 was also the last Nimrod to fly an operations sortie on the 22nd June 2011. It had deployed to the Mediterranean as part of Op ELLAMY (the United Kingdom’s contribution to Coalition operations in support of UN Security Council Resolution 1973) flying out from RAF Waddington on the 5th May and returned to Waddington on the 26 th June 2011. The airframe had logged a total of 21,466 flying hours.
XV249 was also deployed as part of Op ELLAMY leaving on the 4th May and returning back to RAF Waddington on the 23rd May 2011 after being relieved by XW664. The airframe had recorded 18,488 hours as both a Nimrod MR1/2 and R1, a figure much smaller than the other two due to its time in storage before conversation. Before the extension to the out of service date XV249 had a large red goose painted applied on its sides (the symbol of 51 Squadron) as well as the station crest of RAF Waddington on side and RAF Wyton on the other side of the tail to mark the end of Nimrod R1 operations. After returning to the UK, it flew two farewell flights on the 8th and 9th June and a practice flypast on the 27th June 2011. The final flight taking place on the 28th June 2011 when the crew consisting of Mike Chatterton, Russ Warman, Drew Garven, Terry Randells, Ged Kilkenny, John Rose and Steve Hart performed two flypasts over RAF Waddington for the past and present service personnel who have worked with or on the Nimrod R1 who had gathered to say goodbye to a much loved aircraft.
The importance of the Nimrod R1 was underlined by the attendance of the Chief of the Air Staff Sir Stephen Dalton at the retirement event. He spoke highly of the aircraft and thanked the service personnel who operated it. Parked on static display behind the Chief of the Air Staff was XW664 and for the first time ever it was open for people to have a look inside. The event was so unprecedented that two hours after the doors had been opened there was still a queue of people, including service personnel, waiting in the rain to get a first look inside. All the equipment was still in place with only the hard drives containing the programs used to capture and analyse the information having been removed. The consoles in the forward section were single units dedicated to one role of the aircraft and the consoles in the rear section alternate between ELINT and COMINT functions allowing the operators to work together on the analysis of the captures. Space is very much a premium, especially in the rear section where the side by side consoles required both operators to turn their seats together. With all the electrical equipment and people on board it is not a surprise to hear that it would get very hot inside the cabin when in flight. The Nimrod R1 was designed to operate at high altitude where the air was much colder and so didn’t have any air condition built in. Recent operations in the Middle East and the Mediterranean have been conducted at much lower altitudes and without an aircon facility they can only cool the air down to the ambient outside temperature.
When asked about his time on the Nimrod R1 Flt Lt Dave McRitchie said – “Very, very fond memories of my time on the R1 and I’ve been involved on and off since 92 and so flying through the Balkans in the 90s, then Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently Libya. So it has been great to have such an operational focus and that really has been the hallmark of the squadron. Where there has been a UK involvement the Nimrod R1 has been.”
What happens next to the airframes isn’t clear at the time of writing. It is believed that one airframe (either XV249 or XW664) will go to the East Midlands Aeropark and the other one may go to another museum (Duxford has been rumoured but they have stated in the past they don’t want any more large aircraft they can’t house inside).