My last visit to RAF Leeming was back in early 2007 and many things have changed since. More non flying units have moved in, a number of new buildings have gone up to replace the WWII era ones but the biggest change of all was both 25(F) Squadron and their Tornado F3 are no longer flying.
In early 2007 the Tornado F3 was still very much in front line service and the ones assigned to 25 Sqn were tasked with the role of Quick Reaction Alert (QRA). At the time they were operating QRA – South from RAF Coningsby alongside the Typhoon fleet who would take over the role in 2008. With the Typhoon assuming the role 25 Sqn were stood down and their F3s were transferred to the remaining F3 squadrons based at RAF Leuchars who were tasked with operating QRA – North. This left the HAS sites at RAF Leeming empty and the only fast jet flying was the Hawks from 100 Squadron.
By 2010, 6 Squadron had stood up at RAF Leuchars and with their Typhoons taken on QRA – North and the Tornado F3 was withdrawn from service.
My visit this year (2011) I once again found Tornado F3s in the HAS sites but unlike four years ago when they were defending our air space they are here to meet their end. Previously, when aircraft were withdrawn and couldn’t be sold on they were given to museums, used as ground instructional airframes and a few may have faced a sad end on the fire dump. The Tornado F3 is the first aircraft that is meeting a different end.
RTP – Reduce To Produce
Since the Tornado F3 shares a lot of common components with the Tornado GR4 that is still in service the F3s are undergoing spares recovery. This is where they strip the aircraft and remove the parts that are in high demand by the GR4 fleet. This is phase 1 of the process. BAE Systems have been contracted for this and are producing between 800 and 1200 parts per airframe. BAE have added a phase 2 where they recover further parts that they believe would be useful as spares. This has been done at their risk and the RAF is currently looking at the lifespan and demand of these additional parts to see if they want to extend the contract to include those as well.
The process sees the engines come out and go back to Rolls Royce, the wings, tail and tailarons are removed before all the components and wiring is removed. By the end all that is left is a metal ‘canoe’ that is transported off site to be melted down and have the various metals recovered.
The process has been termed ‘Reduce To Produce’ or RTP. It’s not a new process, it has been previously used on the Harrier fleet where the airframes too badly to be repaired or with high flying hours underwent spares recovery under RTP. Sadly, most of these were the Harriers that took part in Op HERRICK and were mission marked.
All of this is bad news for aircraft enthusiasts as it will get harder and harder for private individuals and museums to get their hands on airframes as they are withdrawn from service. Some argue the RAF has lost its sense of history but with an estimated £55m of spares expected to be recovered in phase 1 it is hard for the RAF to spare an airframe in these times of ever reducing defence spending.
The RTP hangar had five F3s in it. Three complete aircraft and two being processed (one in phase 1 and the other in phase 2). Three of the airframes I had shot before (all being ex-25 Sqn aircraft but now wearing 111(F) Squadron markings). Two I had shot in 2007 at RAF Leeming and the third one took part in the RAF Role Demo at RAF Waddington in 2008.
Whilst stripping the aircraft down the engineers discovered the art work added to the aircraft whilst undergoing work at St Athans that had been there without anyone knowing. The engineers decided to recover as many of these as they could and to save them from being melted down with the rest of the airframes.