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Nimrod

The ‘mighty hunter’ that ensured enemy movements were under constant surveillance

THE RAF’s electronic surveillance aircraft have made headlines recently, with Russian video footage released of operations over the Black Sea involving a RC-135W Rivet Joint.

The current tensions between Russia and the UK are a throwback to the height of the Cold War, when surveillance duties fell to a stalwart of the RAF that gave 40 years’ service protecting British territory and the military personnel who serve the country.

It was the early 1960s that defence chiefs highlighted the need to replace the ageing Avro Shackleton fleet of maritime patrol aircraft, a call for ideas extending beyond UK shores. But it was the Hawker Siddeley company who came up with an aircraft that proved most persuasive, the HS.801 prototype convincing the British government that a variant of the de Havilland Comet was the answer.

The initial aircraft constructed had the original airline passenger windows, many later removed, with the first flying on May 24, 1967, the MR1 officially entering RAF service in October 1969: the aircraft had Rolls-Royce Spey engines, an internal weapons bay, an extended nose for radar and new tail section with a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) – used to locate the movement of submarines – and electronic warfare sensors mounted in the top of the tail fin.

Nimrod MR1 XV262 landing at RAF St Mawgan in July 1981

(Nimrod MR1 XV262 landing at RAF St Mawgan in July 1981 - Mike Freer)

The initial order was for 46 MR1s with seven squadrons operating the new aircraft – six at home and one based in Malta, 203 Squadron converting from Shackletons at Luqa in 1971. The Nimrod primarily served in both maritime patrol and anti-submarine operations, with secondary roles including anti-ship operations and long-range search and rescue.

At RAF Kinloss, 120 and 201 Squadrons converted to Nimrods, followed later by 206 Squadron; at St Mawgan it was initially 38 (R) Squadron, a ‘shadow’ squadron identity assigned to 236 OCU, and No. 42 Squadron.

In the mid-1970s, three of the Nimrods were converted for the signals intelligence (SIGINT) role, visually differing from their sister aircraft by the absence of the MAD boom at the rear of the aircraft. While the existence of these Nimrods was never officially acknowledged at the time, described only as “radar calibration aircraft”, they were a replacement for Comets operated by No. 51 Squadron, with the internal equipment replaced for the new role; the aircraft crew consisted of two pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator, and up to 25 personnel operating the SIGINT equipment.

Nimrod R1 XW665 landing at RAF Waddington in 2009

(Nimrod R1 XW665 landing at RAF Waddington in 2009 - Mike Freer)

In 1975, work began that saw 35 MR1s upgraded to MR2 specifications, with the focus on improving electronic apparatus, receiving new EMI Searchwater radar amongst other improvements. There were also plans to modify a number of Nimrods for Airborne Early Warning (AEW) duties, later shelved due to cost, the RAF eventually opting for seven Boeing E-3 Sentry aircraft.

The MR2s had a range of up to 5,000 miles at a cruise speed of 500mph, and while their primary duty was electronic surveillance, they had a bomb bay with a 20,000lb capacity: it could carry a range of armaments including air dropped torpedoes and missiles, naval mines, even nuclear depth bombs and WE.177A nuclear depth charges.

Nimrod MR2 XV254

(Nimrod MR2 XV254)

Several years later, when the Falklands War began, in-fight refuelling was added to a number of the aircraft, with some also fitted in 1982 with hardpoints to allow the carriage of air-to-air sidewinder missiles as a defence mechanism.
Nimrods were initially deployed to Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island, operating patrols in protection of the Task Force, and on standby for potential rescue efforts for the long-range bombing missions of the Avro Vulcans. One of the Nimrod’s most noted missions was on May 20, 1982, an 8,452-mile flight providing early warning and submarine surveillance – the longest flight of the conflict.

In the build up to the Gulf War in 1991, Nimrods were deployed to Oman, conducting patrols across the region; most of the surveillance flights took place at night, primarily directing aircraft against Iraqi naval assets.

The Nimrods returned to the Gulf during the Iraq War in the early 2000s, with further operations carried during the conflict in Afghanistan: the Nimrod deemed ideal for intelligence gathering in the mountainous terrain where much of the Taliban were located.

However, Afghanistan was also the location for the darkest day in the history of the Nimrod’s service with the RAF, the crash of XV230 over Helmand province seeing all 14 on board killed, including 12 members of 120 Squadron based at RAF Kinloss.

On September 2, 2006, the Nimrod was two hours into a routine mission in support of NATO and Afghan ground forces when it suffered a catastrophic mid-air fire shortly after completing air-to-air refuelling. The disaster was the greatest single loss of military lives since the Falklands.

But the success of the Nimrod in its primary surveillance role saw new variants investigated up to early part of the 2000s, the MRA4 planned to replace the MR2s. After major problems with delays and costs, the project was eventually cancelled in 2010.

One of the last missions carried out by a Nimrod was as part of Operation Ellamy over Libya in 2011, the stalwart of the RAF eventually withdrawn in June 28, 2011, after more than 40 years’ squadron service.

It would be two-and-a-half years’ later that the first Rivet Joint arrived at RAF Waddington, also known as Airseeker, the dedicated surveillance aircraft operated as part of a support arrangement with the US Government, No. 51 Squadron operating the new surveillance plane. And several years’ later, the multi-role maritime patrol duties of the Nimrod, as well as surveillance and search and rescue, were taken over by the Boeing Poseidon MRA1 (P-8A).

The recent film of Russian Sukhoi Su-27s shadowing a RC-135W and its two Typhoon escorts is clear evidence, if it were needed, that the Cold War days of the Nimrod have returned, a spokesman for the RAF labelling the flight plans of its aircraft as “a routine operation in international airspace over the Black Sea”.

“The aircraft and their crews operated in a safe and professional manner throughout,” said an RAF spokesman. “At all times, the patrol flew in international airspace and at no time did it enter Russian airspace.”

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