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3(F) Squadron

Proud to be the first in line to protect the UK’s airspace

FIGURES released last year revealed that British jets have been scrambled around 140 times in the past 17 years to intercept Russian aircraft either in, or approaching, UK airspace.

That role is carried out by Quick Reaction Alert, QRA, aircraft, with No. 3 (F) Squadron part of the southern section based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, in 2006 becoming the first RAF front-line unit to operate the Eurofighter Typhoon.

However, the squadron’s motto, Tertius Primus Erit (the third shall be first), was established long before the Typhoon came into service, No. 3 formed in 1912 as the first unit to be equipped with heavier-than-air machines.

3 Squadron Tail Badge

(3 Sqn Tail Badge)

The origins of the squadron actually date back a year before they were formed, the unit originally part of No. 2 (Aeroplane) Company, Air Battalion, Royal Engineers, renamed No. 3 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, RFC, in 1912.

They were established flying various early aircraft models from RAF Larkhill in Wiltshire, including the Blériot XI, the plane named after the French aviator, Louis Blériot, who was the first to cross the English Channel by air in 1909.

On July 5, 1912, two members of the squadron, Captain Eustace Loraine and Staff Sergeant Richard Wilson, were killed near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, becoming the RFC’s first fatalities in an air crash.

At the outbreak of WW1, No. 3 Squadron headed over to France, based at Amiens from where they carried out reconnaissance missions. It was October 1917 when they switched to a fighter role, flying Sopwith Camels; 59 enemy aircraft were claimed by the end of hostilities, the squadron disbanding in October 1919.

They reformed in Bangalore, India, in April 1920 as a fighter squadron, lasting 18 months in the role before returning to Britain, relocating to RAF Leuchars as a naval observation squadron. In 1935 they were back overseas, deployed to Sudan during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, and at the start of WW2 they were based at Biggin Hill, operating Hawker Hurricane fighters.

3 Sqn Hurricane in 1942

In 1940, during Germany’s expansion westwards, they were one of several squadrons mobilised to France, supporting the British Expeditionary Force, BEF, the contingency of the army assembled along the French-Belgian border in support of their allies. They suffered heavy losses during the retreat to and from Dunkirk, and regrouped in Scotland, ‘B’ Flight of No. 3 detaching to help form the new No. 232 Squadron.

The remainder of No. 3 Squadron stayed north of the border for around a year, helping defend the naval base at Scapa Flow, before heading back south to become a night fighter unit; among the aircraft they operated on their return to England was the Douglas Havoc, equipped with searchlights, flying out of RAF Stapleford Tawney in Essex. In 1943 they switched to Hawker Typhoons and later Hawker Tempests, among their roles later in the war was the shooting down of German V-1 flying bombs.

They ended hostilities in 1945 based in mainland Europe, joining the Second Tactical Air Force, flying operations over enemy lines in a fighter-bomber role.

The squadron remained in Germany following the war, receiving its first jet, the De Haviland Vampire, in 1948; the second such aircraft produced in the UK following on from the Gloster Meteor. After transitioning through several different jets, No. 3 began operating English Electric Canberra bombers in 1961, by which time the squadron was flying out of RAF Geilenkirchen.

The squadron made the short switch to RAF Laarbruch in 1968, and a few years later they became one of the first units to be handed Harrier jump jets, the V/STOL (vertical/short take-off and landing) aircraft that was developed by British company Hawker Siddeley, and exported around the globe.

3 Sqn Harrier GR7

(3 Sqn Harrier GR7 - 📸 joolsgriff)

It was the beginning of a 30-plus years association with the iconic aircraft but while based in Germany the squadron suffered one its darkest days outside of war, two of their pilots killed flying two of the squadron’s Harriers while on a training exercise at Otterburn ranges in Northumberland.

Ft Lt David Sunderland and American colleague, Lieutenant John Carver, who was on an exchange with the squadron from the US Navy, both died when their aircraft collided while taking part in what was an attack involving six Harriers – the jets approaching the target from different directions.

Lt Carver was killed on impact with Ft Lt Sunderland ejecting, but too late for the seat to successfully complete its sequence.

After 44 years operating overseas, predominantly in Germany, the squadron returned to Britain in 1999, its new home RAF Cottesmore – forming part of Joint Force Harrier, three squadrons operating the V/STOL aircraft, all flying out of the Rutland station. The trio operated alongside the Fleet Air Arm Sea Harriers, with all capable of deployment from Royal Navy aircraft carriers, that capability utilised when taking part in Operations Allied Force (Kosovo, 1999), Palliser (Sierra Leone, 2000) and Telic (Iraq, 2003).

Stints in Afghanistan followed in 2004 and again in 2005, predominantly flying ant-terrorist missions, with the squadron completing its last Harrier sortie in October 2005 as part of Operation Veritas.

With the Harriers passed to the Fleet Air Arm, No. 3 Squadron disbanded on March 31, 2006, reforming the following day at RAF Coningsby as a Typhoon unit, a year later the latest RAF jet taking over the QRA role from the Tornado – the rapid air response to a foreign aircraft approaching British airspace.

3 Sqn Typhoon firing ASRAAM Missile

(3 Sqn Typhoon firing ASRAAM Missile 📸 MOD)

In 2011, the squadron were involved in operations over Libya as part of Operation Ellamy, and in 2012, the centenary of No.3, air crew were based at RAF Northolt for the duration of the London 2012 Olympics – the first time fighter planes had been stationed in the capital since WW2.

Today, like every day for the past 17 years, air crew of the squadron remain at Coningsby, on 24-hour alert to protect the UK’s southern air space from potential incursions, working in conjunction with their counterparts at the northern QRA based at Lossiemouth.

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