RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 5)

After Part 4, in this, the final part of Trail 62, we round off our look at RAF Leuchars. We have seen how to grew from a balloon training ground in the pre-war years to a training station for early flyers. Then on to maritime patrol, the Cold War and QRA status. Now as the years pass, defence cuts rear their heads once gain, Leuchars is once more under threat from politics.

The 1970s would see a return to training here at Leuchars with both the RAF and the Royal Navy embarking on new ventures with the Phantom – McDonnell Douglas’s all round, all-weather, multi-role aircraft. With new models, come new training units, and with the arrival of 111 Sqn the famous ‘Treble One’, in November 1975, also came a training support unit – the Post Operational Conversion Unit (later known as the Phantom Training Flight). The primary role of this unit was to train Fleet Air Arm aircrews for carrier borne models of the Phantom.

A No. 111 Squadron McDonnell Douglas F-4K Phantom FG.1, an aircraft closely associated with RAF Leuchars. (License: GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)

By the early 1970s, the shortcomings of the Lightning were now more than apparent, a lack of range and loitering ability becoming more obvious as the Phantom’s capabilities outshone it. A slower, but far more advanced Phantom, was proving to be more than just a suitable replacement for the now ageing ‘rocket of the skies’.

Whilst the Phantom was phased in and the Lightning phased out, pilots of the Lightnings continued to be wary of its tendency for engine fires, a problem that had  been present for some time. One such incident saw Lightning XS918 catch fire before the pilot (Flying Officer Doidge) manged to eject over the North Sea, West of The Bell Rock, 9 miles East of RAF Leuchars. Unfortunately controversy surrounded several aspects of the pilots kit, after he ejected he became detached from his survival kit, an inquiry highlighting ‘modifications’ to his clothing that may or may not have led to his tragic loss of life. In what appears to have been common practice amongst many airmen, changes were officially made to the kits supplied to aircrew in light of the accident.

The transition between Phantom and Lightning was a smooth if not rapid one. At Leuchars, the final farewell was made at the annual open day in September 1975, when six of 23 Squadron’s Lightnings and and four Phantoms of 43 Sqn formed a flypast. The Lightnings passing over the airfield in dramatic style saying a last farewell to the station where it has performed its duties so well for many years. With their disbandment in October, the baton and well and truly been passed over to a new breed of aircraft.

Between 1972 and 1978, Leuchars saw further sporadic returns of the Royal Navy, with 892 Squadron from HMS Ark Royal utilising the ground space for its operations. By 1978 though, 892 Sqn was disbanded, and their ship – the Ark Royal – decommissioned, bringing an end to this relationship between the navy and Leuchars. However, the FG.1 Phantoms used by 892 were absorbed into 111 Sqn, replacing the FGR.2s they had been operating before.

The end of 892 Sqn was marred by a tragic accident When rehearsing for the final solo display, the aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG 1 ‘XT868’ flown by Cdr. C. C. N. Davies and his navigator/observer Lt J. Gavin, suffered multiple engine failures whilst flying low, downwind along the runway axis. The aircraft entered a tight right hand turn through 180º to fly dead stick back along the runway. The Phantom’s right wing then struck the ground, and with the aircraft now perpendicular to the runway, the pilot ejected followed almost immediately by the observer. In their exits, the pilot was severely injured whilst the observer was sadly killed.

The decision to scrap the angled-decked carriers of the Navy would in turn have an eventual knock on effect at Leuchars. With both naval Buccaneers and Phantoms transferring to the RAF, no new training would take place – the Navy now looking toward the introduction the Harrier. The Phantom Training Flight would for now, remain at Leuchars though its role ‘downgraded’ to performing refresher training, ensuring that a round the clock, carrier based status was maintained in the UK.

It was also at this time that another film crew arrived – this time from the BBC – who used Ark Royal and her on-board flying units, including 892 Sqn, for their documentary ‘Sailor‘. The iconic insight into carrier operations was perhaps made even more famous by its theme tune of a similar name sung by Rod Stewart.

The 1970s saw continuous and increased intrusions into the the northern airspace around the UK, and as a result QRA scrambles became more common place at Leuchars than any other UK station. A massed show of force on Lenin’s centenary provided a massive ‘target’ for the QRA aircraft, with no less than 60 ‘Bears’ and ‘Badgers’ filling the skies on one day alone over the North Sea. A major headache for the QRA crews, it did however provide an excellent photo opportunity even allowing for a Marham Victor to shadow a Soviet Tu-95 ‘Bear’ much to the annoyance of the AOC No.1 Group when he got to hear about it.

With continued use, the runway needed a further resurfacing, and after the Phantoms of 43 Sqn had departed to Kinloss for a ‘Bolthole’ (where Station based aircraft deploy to temporary locations) deployment to carry out QRA operations from there, and those of 111 had left for Coningsby, Leuchars was left to the developers, and for an estimated eight months the airfield was effectively out of front line action.

Now with restricted runway use, the Whirlwind and Wessex helicopters and later Sea Kings, of 22 Sqn, would be the main users of Leuchars; their Air Sea Rescue operations combining with the Scottish Mountain Rescue teams, saving not only downed aircrew but stranded climbers as well . They would also be joined by the University Air Squadrons from nearby St. Andrew’s, Aberdeen and Dundee (later amalgamated to form the  East of Scotland Universities Air Squadron) who would use Leuchars for training with their Scottish Aviation Beagle Bulldogs.

Once completed, a second phase of work was then undertaken, new hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) were to be built. Common place on bases in Germany, these were designed to withstand conventional attacks, providing protection for individual aircraft whilst dispersed around the airfield. In an announcement made by Sir Michael Beetham the Chief of the Air Staff, Leuchars and five other airfields were to receive these ‘new’ shelters. It would take several years though before those at Leuchars were ready with its QRA aircraft safely tucked inside.

As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, the Phantom had now reached the end of its life and the new Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) the ‘Tornado’ would soon be appearing. The two Leuchars based squadrons, 43 and 111 were both stood down, the Phantoms removed and the Tornadoes brought in. 43 Sqn, who had been based at Leuchars since 1969 being the first to receive the new aircraft, a transition that saw all the Phantoms gone from the Scottish base within a year.

The introduction of the Tornado was not without its own political and military wrangling. Doubts cast upon the ability of the multi-role aircraft to perform as well as those aircraft it was designed to replace were raised by the military. History had shown some dramatic failures on this score whilst others, such as the Mosquito, had shown it more than possible with great success. Politicians however, seemed more drawn between upsetting the Americans who were trying to sell the F-15, and the multi national consortium Panavia Aircraft GmbH,  who collectively built the Tornado.  The decision would be a fine balance.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet incursions  around the UK’s airspace would drop, the need for interceptors had now seemingly reduced, and so a review of the RAF’s front line operations was once again on the cards. The withdrawal of both the Phantom and shortly after the Buccaneer, left the Tornado as Britain’s only front line defence aircraft.

With the Gulf War in the 1991, the Tornadoes of Leuchars would play a major part and all eyes would be on them, scrutinising their every move. The gradual phasing out of Buccaneers and Jaguars leaving a lot on the shoulders of Tornado crews.

In 1995 two 43 Sqn Tornadoes from Leuchars were involved in a mid air collision over the North Sea. One of the aircraft ZE210 collided with the second, ZE733, during a joining up manoeuvre at 12,000ft whilst using night vision goggles. The pilot of ZE733 lost control and the two crew (Flt. Lt. McCarry and Flt. Lt. Booth) safely ejected, being rescued by an Air Sea Rescue helicopter from RAF Boulmer.  The second aircraft, ZE210, suffered damage to the hood and electrics, which knocked out the navigational aids. On landing, it took a considerable time to extract the crew due to the damage sustained to the hood. The aircraft was not repaired instead being used for spares before finally being dumped at St. Athan. *8

RAF Leuchars Tornado ZE967 Gate Guard at Leuchars 2018.

The 2000s saw further upgrades to aircraft and new squadrons arrive. An Operation Conversion Unit for Tornadoes No. 56 (Reserve) Squadron, arrived in 2003. It was designed to upgrade pilots to the new variant Tornado. Absorbed into the long standing 43 Sqn, it remained on site and active until 2009 when it too was disbanded.

Further cut backs to finances meant the final departure of the Jaguars from bases in England. For Leuchars it would see the reforming of the University Air Squadrons into the ESUAS. A single training unit operating in conjunction with the three Scottish Universities .

After 2010 the Tornadoes were replaced by the Typhoons of 1 and 6 Sqns. 1 Sqn was reformed here on 15th September 2012, and joined 6 Sqn who had been reformed here on 6th September 2010, this offered an almost seamless transition from Tornadoes to Typhoons. These modern fighters now formed Britain’s front line of defence against potential aggressors taking over the QRA status for the north.  But in 2014, orders came through to move the RAF out of Leuchars transferring the aircraft, personnel and role to Lossiemouth in Moray. On 31st March 2015 at 12:00 hrs, ownership of Leuchars officially passed over to the Army, Leuchars’ named was changed to Leuchars Station, and its history as an operational airfield had finally come to an end.

Designated an emergency landing ground, (Master Diversion Airfield or MDA) between 2015 and 2016 no fewer than fifteen aircraft used Leuchars for ’emergency’ landings. These included: Tucanoes (Linton-on-Ouse), Tornadoes GR4 (Lossiemouth); Hawks (Leeming); Typhoons (Coningsby) and F15s from Lakenheath in Suffolk.

A minor respite in 2020 saw the QRA Typhoons return briefly as work was carried out on Lossiemouth’s runway. Within a short period of time though, this was completed and the aircraft departed once more leaving Leuchars quiet again.

This move signified the last full use of Leuchars by the Royal Air Force, responsibility of this long standing Scottish airfield being handed over to the the British Army who now based the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Royal Engineers here. Various other non-flying units do serve here including The Military police units and 612 (R) Squadron, a medical unit of the RAF.

Whilst the defence cuts of 2010 indicated the closure of Leuchars, in October 2020, it was confirmed by the Ministry of Defence that they were looking into increasing both civilian and military usage of the airfield at Leuchars. Whilst there remains no intention to retain, or base aircraft here, the installation of fuel facilities does give hope that aviation will return in some form in the future. The indications are that by opening Leuchars to civilian traffic, it could bring revenue in to the hard pressed MOD*7.

Leuchars played a major part in two World conflicts being used primarily by the RAF throughout its life. The Royal Navy (Fleet Air Arm) have also been based here, as have the Army who are now the current main residents of the base. Other users include: the Dutch,  the Norwegians, the Canadians, Australians and New Zealand Air Forces as well as civil aviation organisations and University Air Squadrons.

More recently, with it being located closer to international airspace which is regularly penetrated by Soviet aircraft, the RAF’s Northern QRA aircraft were based here for many years before moving away to Lossiemouth in Moray, someway further north. Leuchars’ history is therefore long and very varied, covering a wide range of users in a multitude of roles.

RAF Leuchars has a history going back over 100 years. It was never upgraded to ‘A’ class status, and has only ever had two runways. Originally built from concrete and wood chip, the surface was upgraded to accommodate the jets of modern warfare, and the infrastructure has been added to as the airfield grew.

It has been home to a considerable number of front line squadrons along with an extensive collection of support flights, training flights and non-flying units. The number of people that have passed through its doors probably uncountable. It performed during the first World War, trained air crew in the inter-war years, and carried out vital work during the Second. Post war, it formed the front line of defence against potential Soviet aggression before returning to training through the University Air Squadrons across Scotland. Now home to the British Army, it is at least for the time being open for business, but as a flying military site, it is all but closed.

Its location has been in many ways its saviour. Operating maritime patrols and clandestine operations into occupied and neutral Europe. The Fleet Air Arm were formed from its units, and the Air Forces of several nations have been based here. It has a history that is so diverse and dynamic that very few other airfields in Britain can match it. As with other airfields across the country, its future hangs in the balance, I hope that this long living and prestigious site remains alive and well to honour all those who over the last 100 years have served from its runways.

Leuchars as an operational military site is not accessible to the general public and views across it are limited. It is thought that two rare First World War Double Royal Flying Corps General Service Aircraft Sheds are among the few original buildings that survive on the site. The accommodation areas have now been sold off to private buyers, but the airfield is intact as it is used as an emergency landing ground and by the ESUAS. With care, opportunities are there to see this historic and fascinating piece of Britain’s aviation history.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

Sources and further reading

*1 Fatal Air Accidents website 12th November 1918 – November 1919

*2 Royal Flying Corp Website

*3 An interesting film of 489 Beaufighters with invasion markings appears on the IWM website, it shows the take off and formation flying of the squadron along with some interesting ground shots too.

*4 For additional information and pilot stories about the ‘ball-bearing’ run see the Royal Institute of Navigation Blog.

*5 Thirsk, I. “de Havilland Mosquito – An illustrated History Vol.2“, Crecy 2006

*6 Further details about the BOAC Mosquitoes appear n ‘Mosquitoes on BOAC Service.

*7 The Courier.co.uk newspaper website.

*8, 11 Aviation Safety Network Website.

*9 National Archives AIR 27/2612/1

*10 Defence Transformation Volume 531: debated on Monday 18 July 2011 Dr. Liam Fox’s announcement to Parliament. UK Parliament House of Commons.

Gracie’s Guide to British Industrial History website.

Flying Magazine, (August 1972) website.

National Archives: AIR 27/1383

AIR 27/624/29

AIR 27/624/33

BAE Systems Website accessed 6/3/21.

For first hand stories of MRT work see Heavy Whalley’s blog

For a detailed account of life at Leuchars, read “Northern Q – The History of RAF Leuchars” by Ian Smith Watson.