Published on April 20th, 2015 | by Jim Lee0
End of an era as BAe125 bows out of service with 32 Sqn Royal Air Force
The Irish Air Corps is not the only ones seeing a cutback in its fleet and in its ability to deliver part of its transport commitment. Across the water, the Royal Air Force (RAF) has seen the stand down of its BAe125 aircraft as the last few examples in service retired from No 32 (The Royal) Squadron at RAF Northolt during March. Described as “a reliable and faithful workhorse down the years, loved by the crews who operate it and enjoyed by its passengers” by Wing Commander Jon Beck, Squadron Commander who added that the withdrawal of the aircraft did not signify the end of the squadron. It continues to operate from Northolt in the command support air transport role using four BAe146 aircraft and an A109 helicopter. It did however mark the end of an era for the unit who have operated the aircraft type for more than 40 years.
Wing Commander Beck had the honour of piloting ZD703 as it returned to RAF Northolt from operations for the final time on 16th March. As a Squadron Leader he flew the very first BAe125 out to the Gulf on Operation Telic in 2003. He added: “I believe 32 is the only squadron in the RAF to have had an aircraft permanently deployed on operations overseas over the past 12 years. I am extremely proud of all the squadron personnel who have served with great professionalism in theatres across the world. In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, our BAe125s have operated across East and West Africa and the whole of the Middle East”.
Background and history
The RAF were early customers for the 125 which was out as a de Havilland project in 1961 and despite de Havilland having become part of Hawker Siddeley in 1960 it was known as the DH125 Jet Dragon. It was not until 1963 that the de Havilland name was dropped in favour of the Hawker Siddeley HS125. It was designed as a replacement for the piston engined de Havilland Dove series aircraft and as such it was most suitable as a navigation trainer and it is in this role that the RAF ordered 20 which were designated as the Dominie T1. Ironically, the Air Corps were also operating the DH Dove at this time and who were later to become an operator of the HS125. It also became the first type to fly for the Air Corps in the newly created Ministerial Air Transport Service (MATS) role.
The first flight of the 125, which was to feature a pressurised cabin with six passengers seats, took place on 13th August 1962 with the first customer aircraft delivered on 10th September 1964. Early models were powered by two rear-mounted Armstrong Siddeley (later Bristol Siddeley then Rolls Royce) Viper turbojets. These were superseded by the quieter and more economical Garrett TFE 731 turbofans and in fact some of the Viper engined models were refitted with the Garrett engine, which were quieter, more economical and their modular design allowed easy maintenance and reduced the engine’s unserviceability rate.
The original 125 project started in 1961 and the small business jet featured a pressurised cabin, with seats for six passengers. The prototype Dominie first flew in December 1964 and the type had a long and distinguished career in the training role until the last six examples, then operated by No 55 (R) Squadron, were retired in January 2011.
In the transport role, four HS 125 CC1s (XW788 to 791), were delivered to Northolt based 32 Squadron in April and May 1971. The CC1 was based on the Viper powered -400B series which featured increased operating weights, an outward opening forward door and was customised for VIP transport. Two further aircraft (XX505 and 506) were leased in September and October 1972 only to be replaced in April 1973 by XX507 and XX508. These two aircraft were based on the -600B version which featured a longer fuselage, an increased fuel capacity, with an improvement in operating weights and speeds. These were designated CC2s and apart from the additional length, the most obvious external feature was that they had six cabin windows compared to the five of the earlier models.
In 1977 Hawker Siddelely merged with the British Aircraft Corporation to form British Aerospace (BAe), and the 125 became known as the BAe 125. In 1982/3 a new version, the CC3, based on the -700B version with Garrett engines was introduced. Six aircraft were delivered (ZD620/ 621/ 703/ 704 and ZE395/396) commencing on 24th February 1983 with ZD620 with the final example ZE396 being delivered on 17th February 1984. They were joined by the CC1s and CC2s which had had their Viper engines replaced with Garrett TFE 731s. By the early 90s, the remaining CC1s were showing their age and in 1994 they were disposed of to the civil market followed by the CC2s in 1998, all ending their days on the US register.
The aircraft’s fuselage is divided into three main sections. The forward section contains a weather radar, the cockpit and the galley area; the centre section contains the passenger compartment, and the rear section contains a large equipment bay and two additional fuel tanks for extended-range operations.
On 1st April 1995, the Queen’s Flight moved to Northolt and merged with No 32 Squadron, which subsequently became known as No 32 (The Royal) Squadron. This resulted in the 125s, which had adopted a grey colour scheme commencing with ZD620 in 1988, being repainted into the same livery as the former Queen’s Flight aircraft. This was toned down in 2004 for security reasons as it was considered that it made the aircraft too identifiable and as such a target for terrorist attack. They were also fitted with an electronic defensive-aids suite (DAS) that gave the aircraft almost 360º protection against infrared missiles.
More recent operational history
While the public role of the aircraft in providing a passenger service to the Royal Family and Government members is important, the aircraft can also be found all around Europe as well as further afield in their operational communications role carrying senior military officers, aircrew or moving vital cargo to small airfields in support for most RAF peacekeeping and humanitarian operations worldwide. The aircraft, with its robust engineering, flexibility of operation and rapid turn-around times have made it a very successful aircraft in these roles.
This is a mission that has also seen the squadron’s original two BAe 146s, supplemented by two more recent examples added in early 2012 providing vital services alongside the 125’s. The have provided a valuable service to commanders particularly during the conflicts in the Middle East, with multiple missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stressing the importance of the squadron’s work, Air Vice Marshal Steven Hillier, air officer commanding the RAF’s 2 Group organisation, commented that the unit had delivered ‘strategic-level effect’ and have adapted to “non-traditional tasks”. One unidentified 32 Squadron pilot said his proudest day in the RAF was flying his aircraft into Baghdad in 2006 to deliver a wounded soldier to a US hospital for an operation that saved her sight.
While the squadron’s six BAe 125 CC3s have provided valiant service, eventually thoughts got round to an out-of-service (OOS) date, and initially 2022 was proposed. However financial and other considerations led to that date being brought forward to 31st March 2015. Even before this decision was announced, the Royal Family had begun scaling back its use of the Squadron’s aircraft after media criticism about the cost of using the military aircraft and their use of RAF aircraft was by then down to just a handful of times a year, according to official figures. For the Queen’s visit to Ireland in May 2011 for example, Cello Aviation’s BAe 146-200, G-RAJJ was used. In addition two helicopters (G-XXEB/C) are operated by the Queen’s Helicopter Flight, part of The Queen’s Private Secretary’s department of the Royal Household, and are tasked by the Royal Travel Office at Buckingham Palace. Use of military aircraft by Government members has also been reducing with the option of hiring executive jets on a day-by-day basis, by buying large blocks of business or first-class seats to move larger delegations around or in some cases chartering commercial airliners.
By the time the OOS date was announced, one aircraft (ZD704) had sustained substantial damage at Kandahar Airport in Afghanistan on 23rd April 2013 in a hail storm. Although there were no injuries it was not until 17th October that members of the USAF’s 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron helped to move the aircraft for transport back to England where it was decided that it would not be restored to service. The aircraft was last reported as stored at Hawarden Airport, near Chester, in North Wales. Another aircraft destined to end its days here is ZE396 which was retired in February and ferried to Hawarden on 25th February for spares recovery. ZD621 is scheduled for permanent display outside the Squadron’s building at Northolt. Its preservation is a fitting tribute to an aircraft that has served the RAF well for almost 50 years. The remaining three aircraft (ZD620, ZD703 and ZE395) were put up for sale by the UK’s Disposal Sales Authority in February and the tender required that the aircraft be removed from RAF Northolt by the planned OOS date. Prospective bidders were advised that as there was an extensive list of restricted and required for future use items that will have to be removed from the aircraft after their last RAF flight, future use as flying aircraft was considered unlikely. The three aircraft were ferried to Dunsfold, in Surrey, on 25th March as part of the disposal process. The aircraft have between 13,000 and 14,600 hours. The last recorded visit of the type in this jurisdiction was last December when ZE396 visited Baldonnel as the KRF85 arriving at 17:28 on 16th and departing at 09:50 the following morning.
A final word to Flight Lieutenant Andy Robins, a former Tornado pilot who has flown the 125 for the past six years, their retirement has generated mixed feelings. He said: “I’m sad to see it go but am also glad to have been part of its service history. Since 1971 many people like me have operated in it taking UK Government, military personnel and VIPs all over the world, in and out of various conflicts but also in the calmer waters of the UK and Europe”.
“It has also been a privilege to see how the RAF can assist the Government at the very highest levels but also the compassionate aspects of being able to bring back servicemen and women to see their dying relatives. 32 is uniquely blessed with an incredible variety of flying and I’ve been incredibly proud to fly with a whole variety of people throughout my career and 32 Squadron exemplifies that” he added.
We could not let this opportunity pass without mention of the BAe 125 in Irish Air Corps service. The Air Corps operated three different examples between 1979 and 1992, and as noted above, it was the Air Corps first jet VIP transport aircraft. Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 was the catalyst to acquire a business jet to deal with the major increase in intra European travel that membership entailed. In spite of a government decision to approve such a purchase in early December 1972, a change of government in March 1973 reversed that decision. However with Ireland due to assume the presidency of the EEC for a six month period in the second half of 1979, the acquisition of an aircraft, capable of travelling from Dublin to Athens (then the furthest EEC capital), was reconsidered.
In May of that year an order was placed with British Aerospace for a 700 series aircraft for delivery in February 1980. To cover the period of the EEC presidency, a -600B, G-AYBH, one of two company prototypes and a company demonstrator, was leased. The aircraft which was delivered to Baldonnel 1st June 1979 was given the Air Corps serial ‘236’. One of the original pilots to train on the aircraft was the former Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations) of the Defence Forces, Major General Ralph James, then a Captain. The others were Commandants Mick Hipwell and Kevin Hogan and Captain John Goss. Following an extensive period of training and route proving, it’s first MATS mission took place on 15th June, which was to Brussels. Unfortunately on 27th November, ‘236’ was damaged beyond repair in an aborted take-off from Baldonnel due to multiple bird strikes. It was returning back to the UK for scheduled maintenance at the time but fortunately there were no injuries.
British Aerospace promptly provided a replacement aircraft, another -600B, registered G-BBCL a 1973 example, which had been in service with two civil operators prior to it being returned to the manufacturer. The aircraft was assigned the Air Corps serial ‘239’ as ‘238’ had been reserved for the 700 series aircraft on order. It was delivered to Baldonnel on 6th December 1979. With the delivery of the 700 series aircraft ‘238’ taking place on 13th February 1980, ‘239’ was returned to the manufacturer on 28th of February. ‘238’ went on to give valuable service to the Air Corps for the next 12½ years delivering over 8,170 flying hours before being withdrawn from service in October 1992. The aircraft was sold in Mexico and departed Baldonnel for the final time on 2nd December 1992. It took up the Mexican registration XA-TCB before becoming N70HF and more recently N752CM. It is currently registered to Foxone 77 LLC based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
We would like to thank Sqn Ldr Tenniswood, Royal Air Force for providing information for this item and to Niall Grant and Gerry Barron for the photos used.