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99 Squadron

The Squadron that ensured the smooth operation of Her Majesty’s final flight

FOR a unit best known for undertaking gruelling flights to war zones, or journeying to far-flung corners of the globe in the aftermath of the devastating effects of earthquakes or similar natural catastrophes, it was a one-hour flight in 2022 that brought No. 99 Squadron to the attention of many of the public.

A Globemaster C-17 took off from Edinburgh Airport bound for RAF Northolt, carrying the late Queen Elizabeth II to London ahead of the state funeral that brought the country to a halt.

While the Queen’s Colour Squadron rightly took most of the praise for the ceremonial duties in the spotlight of the world’s media, behind the scenes the crew of ZZ177 ensured the monarch’s final flight ran smoothly.

The C-17 was operated by personnel from No. 99 Squadron based at Brize Norton, and they spoke of being “humble and proud” at playing their part in the operation to return the Queen to London.

The serenity of the ceremony at Edinburgh Airport on September 13 may have been alien to the crew of ZZ177, more used to carrying evacuees traumatised by war or natural disaster out of danger zones, but even the roar of the C-17s engines ahead of its departure from the Scottish capital seemed to capture the sombre mood that surrounded the death of the monarch.

The squadron itself started life as a bomber unit, its origins dating back to the First World War, formed at Yatesbury in Wiltshire in 1917. It was immediately dispatched to France, operating de Havilland DH.9 bombers, taking part in daylight raids against German forces. However, due to strength of the German military and unreliable nature of the DH.9, the squadron sustained heavy losses, performing far better when converting to the DH.9A.

A Vickers Vimy bomber

(A Vickers Vimy bomber)

Post-war, the squadron relocated to India in 1919, patrolling the North-West Frontier before being disbanded and reformed in April 1924 flying Vickers Vimys out of Netheravon in Wiltshire. The squadron transferred to a number of different RAF stations, operating a range of aircraft before they became the first unit equipped with Vickers Wellington bombers shortly before the outbreak of WW2.

The first mission of the Second World War flown by No. 99 Squadron was early in September 1939, three Wellingtons setting off from RAF Mildenhall to drop leaflets over Germany – the idea at this point of the war was to limit bombing missions over civilian areas to avoid alienating neutral powers such as the United States.

One early bombing operation was scuppered by low cloud and enemy fire; at this time bombers were flying without escorts in the mistaken belief they were capable of defending themselves against enemy fighter planes. On December 14, 12 Wellingtons of No. 99 Squadron set off to bomb German warships moored off the coast of Lower Saxony with six lost without a bomb being dropped; an 800ft cloud base prevented the mission going ahead with five aircraft shot down and one crash-landing near Newmarket before it could reach Mildenhall.
Ground crew check the bomb load on a 99 Squadron Wellington at Jessore, India, prior to a sortie over Burma.

(Ground crew check the bomb load on a 99 Squadron Wellington at Jessore, India, prior to a sortie over Burma.)

However, more successful missions were completed over Germany and Norway, the squadron forming part of No. 3 Group RAF, Bomber Command, before moving to India in 1942, taking their Wellingtons with them. They were involved in attacking Japanese forces in Burma, and in September 1944 transferred to the American heavy bomber, the Consolidated Liberator, the extended range of these aircraft allowing No. 99 to reach targets in Thailand and Malaya. The squadron were then on the move again to the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean ahead of a planned invasion of Malaya in August 1945, but the Japanese surrender soon after saw them disbanded on the island in November of that year.

They were reformed at RAF Lyneham as a transport squadron and were heavily involved in the Berlin airlift, flying Avro Lincolns in and out of the German capital. The transport role continued through a variety of different conflicts – dropping paratroops into Egypt during the Suez crisis in 1956 – swapping their Lincolns for Handley Page Hastings and then Bristol Britannias, effectively a passenger aircraft.

Bristol Britannia C.1 of 99 Squadron in 1976.
(Bristol Britannia C.1 of 99 Squadron in 1976.)

By 1970, the squadron had moved to RAF Brize Norton, their present home, continuing to answer the call of countries across the globe whose citizens needed evacuating due to war or natural disaster.

In 2000, No. 99 reformed to become the sole operators of the C-17 Globemasters, their first duty with the new aircraft as part of Operation Bessemer: deploying Lynx helicopters and support equipment to Macedonia as NATO introduced a peacekeeping force into the Balkan country. The squadron was also involved in Operation Telic in Iraq and Operation Herrick in Afghanistan in the 2000s, along with further humanitarian work in aftermath of the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 that affected large parts of Asia, and in 2010 it was also involved in evacuations following the Chilean earthquake and floods in Pakistan.
99 Squadron C17 aircraft taking off from RAF Brize Norton

(99 Squadron C17 aircraft taking off from RAF Brize Norton)

In 2021, the squadron was integral in the evacuation of military personnel and at-risk individuals from Afghanistan during Operation Pitting, marking the end of Britain’s 20-year military involvement in the country that began a few months after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Five Globemasters from Brize Norton flew in and out of Kabul Airport during the biggest airlift since the Berlin blockade of 1948-49, at many times operating under the most extreme of circumstances, with desperate locals trying to exit a country ahead of the return to power of the Taliban.

The first C-17 arrived on August 15, and between then and August 28, 46 flights from Kabul were undertaken by No. 99 Squadron’s Globemasters – one flight took 436 people out of Afghanistan, triple the aircraft’s designated carriage limit and the largest capacity flight in RAF history.

In 2022 it was just the single occupant of a C-17 that caught the world’s attention, but as in all cases with No. 99 Squadron, respect and duty was front and centre of the operation.

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