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RAF Coningsby

80 Years at the Forefront of Britain’s Air Defences

THE critical role the RAF plays in the defence of the UK is epitomised by the two stations designated as QRAs, Quick Reaction Alert, – RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland and RAF Coningsby in England – with staff on constant high readiness to respond to any unidentified aircraft approaching UK airspace.

3 Sqn Typhoon taking off from RAF Coningsby

(3 Sqn Typhoon taking off from RAF Coningsby)

RAF Coningsby is considered by many as the most important station in England, with reports of sonic booms in the vicinity of the Lincolnshire site becoming more and more commonplace as jets hit supersonic speeds on their way to either full-scale training exercises, or in response to active alerts of potential enemy aircraft.

With the current global situation surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, those reports are no doubt likely to increase, with both daytime and night-time training crucial to Coningsby’s pivotal role in the UK’s air defences. After night-time exercises caused a degree of consternation to some East Midlands’ residents earlier this year, Coningsby Station Commander, Group Captain Matt Peterson, thanked the local community for their support but rightly pointed out that the exercises were “essential to ensure we are ready to defend our interests around the world at a moment’s notice”.

RAF Coningsby Vintage Print Tattershall Castle

The station itself recently celebrated its 80th birthday, with construction of the airfield beginning two years before the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. Coningsby officially opened as an RAF station in 1940, with the first resident squadron, No. 106 Squadron, arriving in 1941. It was pivotal to the Allied Forces operations during the Second World War, serving as a Bomber Command Station, with a hard runway laid in 1943. Coningsby provided a home for 617 Squadron, better known as the Dambusters, from August 1943 to January 1944, before they moved to the now defunct Woodhall Spa station nearby.    

After the Second World War a new era in military aircraft saw Coningsby expand with the station receiving its first jet aircraft, the English Electric Canberra, in 1953, before the iconic Avro Vulcan was stationed at the Lincolnshire site from 1962.

One of the darkest days in Coningsby’s history was when it lost a former Station Commander in a mid-air collision between a McDonnell-Douglas Phantom and a Piper Pawnee crop sprayer near the village of Hilgay, Norfolk, in August 1974; the pilot and navigator of the Phantom, and the Piper’s pilot were all killed in the accident.  

More recently, Coningsby has been the home to two frontline Typhoon squadrons, comprising of around 30 combat jets flown by around 40 pilots; the ground crew serving the squadrons totalling around 400. The site is made up of around 3000 service personnel, including contractors, and is the training station for Typhoon pilots.

 

RAF Coningsby Vintage Print Lincoln Skyline

(RAF Coningsby Vintage Style Print) 

In its QRA role there are two frontline combat-ready squadrons, 3 Squadron and XI Squadron, the latter being the world’s oldest dedicated fighter unit, dating back to 1915. The station is also home to the joint RAF and Qatar Emiri Air Force Squadron, 12 Squadron; the Typhoon’s Operational Conversion Unit, 29 Squadron; 41 Squadron, whose primary focus is on Typhoon capability and tactics development; 7 Force Protection Wing, responsible for command and control of deployed air activity during contingency operations, with the Air Land Integration Cell coming under its command; and the Typhoon Display Team.

With the station effectively QRA South, it’s importance to the defence of the UK cannot be overstated. Located between Lincoln and Skegness, its position close to the east coast makes it ideal for aircraft to be airborne over the North Sea in a matter of minutes. 

RAF personnel up and down the UK, along with civilian air traffic control, monitor the near 8,000 aircraft that enter UK airspace on a daily basis; The UK’s Air Control and Reporting Centres, CRC, have the role to identify suspicious flying activity.

The sequence of events leading to Typhoons being dispatched from Coningsby when a ‘rogue’ aircraft enters UK airspace, or is approaching UK airspace, is as follows: 

  • the CRC contacts the National Air Defence Operating Centre, NADOC, with the co-ordinates of the flight and informs them they are bringing the QRA at Coningsby to readiness.
  • the two pilots of the Typhoons and their ground crew are scrambled, with the jets airborne within minutes while ground crews at Coningsby ready two more jets in the QRA hangars
  • ground teams at both the CRC and NADOC continue to monitor the rogue aircraft, with the government alerted at ministerial level to the issue; evidence is gathered as the Typhoons head to intercept the rogue aircraft.
  • attempts are made to communicate with the cockpit of the rogue aircraft and if they fail to respond a decision must be made – likely to be at ministerial level – what action will be taken, with the ultimate option available to bring down the rogue aircraft. 

Coningsby is steeped in RAF history, providing a base for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the associated visitor centre from 1976, transferring from RAF Coltishall which was closed in 2006, with the planes that defended the country 80 years ago resident alongside their modern-day counterparts. 

Battle of Britain Flight

(Battle of Britain Flight)

Today, Coningsby plays a pivotal role in NATO operations which have ratcheted up over recent weeks, with four Typhoons heading off from Coningsby to the Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase in Romania to commence a four-month deployment as part of the enhanced air policing of the Black Sea region – labelled Operation Biloxi.   

While defence of the UK’s airspace is the key role of RAF Coningsby, it still remains very much part of the local community. There are parts of the complex that are very much out of bounds, but the general public are welcome to visit the Battle of Britain visitor centre, and the RAF website is happy to keep locals informed of some of its operations, including night-time training.

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