Airfield Viewing Guide - RAF Coltishall
RAF Coltishall disbanded on April 1st 2006 and flying operations
have ceased. From 1940 to 2006, the men and women of RAF Coltishall served the nation in wars both
hot and cold. Located in a particularly nice part of the country it was always a pleasure to visit Colt
and watch the flying - thank you RAF Coltishall, for everything. This guide no longer serves a purpose,
but I will leave it up here in its final state for posterity. Note that both the replica Hurricane and
real Jaguar gate guard airframes have been removed - the Jaguar is now in front of County Hall on the
Norwich ring road (not visible from the road, you need to drive in and park to see it).
With Coltishall's closure, the last remaining Jaguar squadron - 6 Squadron - moved to Coningsby and continued flying until disbanded on 31st May 2007, nearly 6 months earlier than expected. Since then an area of the station's technical site has been fenced off to form HM Prison Bure, with the old accomodation blocks now being used for prison accomodation and some smaller buildings demolished to make room for new buildings. An additional temporary fence was erected around the airfield itself, and a single security guard looks after the now entirely disused site, which is fast becoming overgrown in the areas not now returned to agriculture. The station housing has been sold off. The station's own buildings are of course suffering from lack of any maintenance and it seems likely that the story of RAF West Raynham will be repeated here - years of neglect followed by finally selling it off for redevelopment. The last three RAF Jaguars flew into retirement at DCAE Cosford on 2nd July 2007; the very last Jaguar flight in the UK was flown by the QinetiQ Jaguar T.2 (XX833) at Boscombe Down on 20th December 2007.
An association has been formed with the specific aim of perpetuating the memory of the station and fostering the one aspect that could not be drawn down, namely the Spirit of Coltishall.
|Mick Jennings MBE, well known to many enthusiasts at Coltishall for his time there as a WO and later CRO, has gone one better on his previous book about RAF Coltishall and has written a much larger volume - "RAF Coltishall - Fighter Station", available to buy from Amazon UK. It's a comprehensive 304-page history of the famous Battle of Britain fighter station and if you are at all interested in RAF Coltishall it is a must-buy!||Wing Commander John Sullivan, OC of the last RAF Jaguar Squadron - 6 Squadron (The Flying Canopeners) has published a superb pictorial record of the last year of the Jaguar in RAF service. It is available to buy from Amazon UK and is another must-buy.|
Located North of Coltishall village, about 7 miles North of Norwich in Norfolk, RAF Coltishall is the RAF's major Jaguar station, home to no less than four squadrons of these lovely felines! It's also one of the most enjoyable airfields in the country, blessed with an enlightened and relaxed attitude from both those on the station and those off it.
|279.200||6 Sqn Ops|
|339.300||41 Sqn Ops|
What you can expect to see
Jaguars of various marks (GR.3, GR.3A, T.2A, T.4 - but mostly GR.3s and up these days) from 6 and 41 Squadrons. You won't find a station with more Jags than this - not even Cosford with all its instructional airframes! Sadly 16 and 54 Squadrons disbanded as part of the Jaguar force draw-down in March 2005. 41 will join them in oblivion by 1st April 2006, and 6 Squadron will move to Coningsby on the same day, leaving Coltishall to a lingering and quiet death.
Activity during the week varies with what the resident squadrons are up to; sometimes they deploy away and the result could be very quiet indeed in the past, but when they're at home you can expect a busy day. In common with most RAF stations, almost all the action is during office hours, with weekends and evenings horribly peaceful. Weekends do sometimes see Jags returning from deployments - though occasionally they'll land at Norwich airport and then make the short hop home on the Monday. Evenings in moonlit periods also sometimes see some night flying - this is usually publicised on the RAF Coltishall web site.
On many days other UK military types put in an appearance - e.g. Hawks, Tornados, Tucanos, the odd Sea King. When it comes to foreign types, you may see an F-15 from Lakenheath shooting an approach, and it is common to see a couple of them mucking about high up in the sky. Nearby Norwich airport means the odd civvy type bumbles across the sky - certainly you're likely to see helos off to the oil rigs, but none of this traffic is going to be low enough to be of interest.
The Jags exhibit particular patterns of behaviour - T-Birds tend to take off on their own, single seaters tend to line up for departure in groups of two or four but vary between taking off in pairs or in trail. There's no telling how long they'll be gone but it's not usually longer than an hour and a half or so. Arriving back home, they usually do an overhead recovery and then go into the landing circuit, but quite often they just suddenly appear on finals, having done a radar approach. Like most RAF types though, they practice landings and approaches a lot and it's rare to see them just show up on finals and land straight away (unless something's waiting to take off - or lunch time is near!). Climbing away from a practice approach, if they turn left they're going back into the circuit and will be back shortly. If they turn right they'll be gone for 5-10 minutes (doing a radar approach).
|Assuming you've come into Coltishall village, take the B1150 North, following the sign for RAF Coltishall. The road begins to curve right and there's a left turn - signposted 'Byway to Little Hautbois'. Take this turn. You'll pass two or three turnings on the right, and then the landing lights will become visible ahead of you. There are a few places where you can park off the side of the road (A, B). Aircraft on approach are clearly visible here but are quite high as they pass over the road.||
Jaguar GR.3 approaching (taken from near point A); author
Jaguar GR.3 on finals (taken from point C); author
|There is a raised construction just inside the field North of the road here (C) which can give you a stable and safe position from which to take photos, but the trees along the roadside mean you have only a split second to compose and take a photo. There are a number of rough laybys further along the road and as the road rises, some can be useful for taking photos of Jags on final approach - but only late in the day when the sun has moved behind you - and you'll need a 400mm lens. If the various small rough laybys to be found round here are all full or you'd prefer to park on more level ground, there is a dedicated parking spot for the Bure Valley Way further up the road, on the right just before it turns sharply to the right (D). Steps lead down to the railway line and the footpath that runs alongside it. If you parked further back, you can walk up the side of the field from B to get to the footpath and railway line.|
|Now, along this footpath there are a few spots where you can scramble up the bank (such as E) for a good raised view of anything approaching, but this is good only in the morning and early afternoon after which the sun shifts to being in your face. So for better photos of aircraft landing, we need to cross the railway line into the field at the end of the runway. Before we continue further, one warning: if aircraft are taking off from runway 22 (i.e. towards this field), I wouldn't advise using this field. It has on more than one occasion been bathed in exploding jet fuel after Jaguars have jettisoned drop tanks on take-off. If you do use this field then at least stay well clear of the centre-line.||
Tornado GR.4 approaching (taken from point E); author
Jaguar GR.3 taxiing (taken from point F); author
|Anyway, assuming they're taking off from this end, let's continue. There's a large gate just opposite the footpath from B to allow you to cross the line into the field. The train is a little steam one that only runs about four times a day if that. If you hike over the field more or less due North towards the perimeter fence (a small wooden affair), you'll soon see the blast pen walls and the hangars (F). Jaguars taxiing from the hangar area are hidden by the various walls and buildings until they get onto the final bit of taxiway to the runway, but then you have a nice clear view of them taxiing towards the runway. Once positioned on the runway, obstructions such as the barrier net arms and various signs make photos of them pointless however, and as they move along the runway they go down into a dip as well. Early in the morning the sun also makes photography problematic here.|
|For another angle on things, walk over the field to point G. I'm sure the guys in the control caravan at the end of the runway will be happier if you do this by walking away from the runway end first, and making sure nothing is on approach - they can get very low over the fence here and it's just common sense to cross from one side to the other in as safe a manner as possible. Anyway, at point G you'll find an inspection chamber for the pipeline or sewer or whatever it is that runs from the fields down by the road all the way up here. This offers a nice raised spot for taking photos of aircraft taxiing onto the runway, lighting up their burners, or landing. You can always walk over to the fence as well for a closer look. This is probably the best position within this field - it's well off to the side for safety, the sun is behind you until late afternoon and best of all, you can hide from the wind by sitting down behind the inspection chamber!||
AMX taxiing onto runway (taken from point G); author
Jaguar T.4 landing (taken from point G); author
|Anyway, for the days runway 22 is in use let's keep going, but let's do it on foot as there is nowhere to park for this next bit (leave your car at point D). Continuing on the road you come to that very sharp right hand turn which is a bridge over the railway line. The road curves left and there's a track on the right - go down it. This is a local access road for some houses and there's nowhere you can park without blocking it. Nor can you continue down it to the end because this track rapidly becomes tractor-only territory with big ruts and deep muddy puddles! You can walk up the track (wellies advisable) and along the edge of a field, then round a wooden fenced enclosure to the corner of the perimeter fence. Turn right and go through a gap in the hedge and you're at point H. From here you have good views onto the aprons where the Jags normally park, plus a good view across to the runway - good for stuff landing on 04 or departing from 22, provided nothing is in front of you - unfortunately there are often vehicles and other obstructions here. Anything landing on 22 finishes its run just opposite you and taxis in towards you. Unfortunately the sun is in your face until late afternoon so photos are problematic.|
Back to the car and turn right over the bridge and follow the road. The road curves left and then right to take you North for a while. The next opportunity to turn right will be at a crossroads, signposted (with a little white sign easy to miss) for RAF Coltishall. Take that turn. There's a right turn here (the one before the one by the Spar shop) which leads right down to point H, but unfortunately this is all MoD property so if you park anywhere here you run the risk of sparking a security scare. All in all it's best to get to point H in the manner already described, rather than coming back to find that your car's been blown up!
|Anyway, keep going straight and you'll go through some housing and then into some more leafy surroundings with a big grass verge on the right. The main gate is along here, and as you continue the entrance will show up on your right (I). Sadly the Lightning gate guard that stood here for so long has now gone, destined for a new life on a roundabout at Farnborough. It's now been replaced by a Jaguar so all is not lost on the photography front! A replica Hurricane is mounted on the roundabout within the station here; usual routine - ask permission at the main guardroom before trying to take any photos, even of the Jaguar outside. They've never been known to say 'no' here.||
Jaguar GR.1 gate guard (taken from point I); author
Jaguar T.2 taxiing (taken from point J); author
|Continuing East along the road, there's a left turn at the end. Ignore this and continue straight ahead. This road quickly becomes narrower and curves to the left, with a white gate in front of you. This is normally unlocked and open, so don't go left - continue through the gate. However please note that in the past this gate has had a sign saying that this is private property - it may be that the current owner isn't so bothered, but bear this in mind and if you are asked what you're up to, be polite! You'll come to one more identical gate, again normally open, keep going. At the end of this lane you'll find crash gate 1 (J). There is just about enough room for a small car to park to the right of the gate, but you're better off parking further back among the ferns - the sides of the lane are pretty firm so don't worry about getting bogged down (but if you do, don't blame me).|
|From this crash gate you can't see the aprons at all, but you do have a pretty decent view of the end of the runway, and more importantly the taxiway from the aprons is only about 20 feet away from you. If 22 is in use, the Jags taxi from behind the trees to your right, and give you plenty of time for photos; however for head-on shots the sun is in your face from around mid-morning onwards. Obstructions such as the control tower van make landing shots a bit hit and miss, but if 04 is in use you'll get nice shots of stuff taxiing off the runway, though again the sun can be a problem through much of the day - only really useful at the end of a winter's day.||
Jaguar GR.3 taking off (taken from point J); author
Jaguar GR.3 - very late afternoon! - asymmetric reheat pass (taken from point K); author
|If you walk back down the lane and keep looking to your left you'll soon get a limited view of the aprons and should be able to read off tailcodes with a scope or binoculars - don't expect to get serials though. Spotters have been seen walking across the fields here towards the perimeter fence but the attitude of the farmer who owns this land is unknown. Back into the car and drive down the lane to just past the white gates, and take the right turn. Follow this road as it twists and turns past a church (take it easy because there are speed bumps, with very little paint on them to warn you of the fact). At the crossroads at the end, turn right. You'll soon come to another crossroads - take another right.|
|You can see the landing lights in the fields on either side of the road now and there are numerous places to park the car off the side off the road (e.g. K for a view of the starboard side of anything landing on 22, L for head-on shots). The sun is never really a problem either; in the morning it makes photography from K marginal but soon moves out of the way.||
Jaguar GR.3 landing (taken from point L); author
World War Two graves (taken from point M); author
|A little further down this road you'll see a brick building on the left. This is a graveyard (M) which I think is worthy of a bit of your time. The gates are closed but not locked, so in you go and walk past the brick building, and pay your respects to the young men of many nations who fought and died and enabled us to hang around this RAF station watching aircraft as a hobby. The large cross marks the end of the well-kept war graves and the beginning of peacetime RAF graves.|
|Just past the graveyard there are lots more places to park for great side-on views of anything landing on 22. Departures from 04 are a little too high for decent photos here. Continue down the road and it turns left, with a supposed no-through road ahead and one to the right. Take this right; the line of cars on most days will give you a clue as to what you've found now!||
F-15E on finals (taken South of point M); author
Jaguar GR.3 taking off (taken from point N); author
|This lane leads to crash gate 3 (N) which is Coltishall's most popular spot for viewing (crash gate 2 is right at the end of the runway). There's lots of room on the left side of the road to park, and the fence at this end of the airfield is a tiny affair (and long may it remain so), so you have a clear view with no need for stepladders. The runway end is just opposite you and it gets nice and noisy. A 300mm lens is more than sufficient for decent shots. However from the crash gate itself the grass on the airfield obscures part of the runway so you'll often lose the wheels off the aircraft in photos, particularly in summer when the grass is higher.|
|Now it used to be easy to get into the field to your immediate right but a large and deep ditch has been dug which makes life rather trickier. If you're up for a bit of jumping around, go back a bit along the trees to a gap, and walk back up to the airfield fence and jump over the ditch at this point where it is narrowest, or risk hanging onto the fence to make your way across there. However it's safer to just go back to the start of the lane and take the long way through the field. Following the well-trodden path around the perimeter fence, you come up to within a few feet of the runway overrun extension (O), with a superb clear view of anything taxiing onto the runway, or waiting to depart. It gets very noisy here, and you can get superb pictures with a 70-210 mm class lens.||
Jaguar GR.3 beginning take-off run (taken from point O); author
Jaguar GR.3 on final with an engine fire (taken from point O); author
|The bush at the corner can hide approaching aircraft, so walk further to your right or back for landing shots. The local farmer has in the past seemed cool with people using it (usual rules - don't walk on his crops or leave rubbish); sadly some people ignored this advice and also parked on the roadside and walked right across the crops - hence the new fence and ditch to try and discourage use of this corner of the field - not that it's worked. The MoD plod have been happy enough with people using this area in the past and still seem okay with it. If runway 04 is in use, this can be a dangerous spot if Jags have to let go of drop tanks on take-off.|
One thing to watch out for here is any two-seat Jaguars taking off - t-birds have a habit of spraying fuel out of the fuel jettison pipe at the base of fin whenever they throttle up. When they ignite their burners, then, you occasionally have a split second burst of flame as that spray is ignited also - very hard to catch on film, and it very rarely happens. Single seaters with the new engines now sometimes spray a bit of fuel like this as well, though the older ones have generally lost the overflow during taxiing as they sit more nose-high anyway. Anyway, the sun is behind you most of the day here (particularly in summer), and never causes any hassle for photos; you could easily spend all day here and never bother with any other spot if runway 22 is in use. Even when it isn't, it's still good for taxiing or take-off shots. Late on a winter's day, it can be worth walking around to the other side of the runway for landing shots - again be careful nothing is on approach when you go round the end, they do get awfully low sometimes.
|When runway 04 is in use, there is another spot near here which will enable you to get top-side shots of Jags if you have a big lens (500mm+). To get to it, drive back out away from the crash gate, turn left and retrace your earlier route to the main road. Go straight across at the junction and past the trees until you get to an open field on your left (P). From here, if the Jags are flying circuits, you will see them climb up over the trees to the South and curve round to the East of you, then North of you and finally disappear to your West. The distance they are away from you varies all the time but they are often close enough for good photos with the aforementioned big lens.||
Jaguar GR.3 curving round onto downwind leg (taken from point P, 600mm lens); author
Jaguar T.4 trailing brakechute (taken from point Q); author
|We have one final spot to visit. Drive back down the road and turn left. At the T junction turn right towards Coltishall and keep on going, past the pink pub, all the way down to the sign saying 'Coltishall' (within the 30 mph limit). There's a right turn to a group of houses immediately on your right. Take this, and also take the very first right in here. Now just follow this lane straight - don't take any turns off it. It's narrow and visibility is poor because of all the turns and hedges, so take it easy! You'll eventually arrive at crash gate 4 (P).|
|Crash gate 4 is the second major viewing point at Coltishall. There used to be a fair bit of room to park here and a very small fence, but sadly the landowner here has been doing some building work and the result is that the parking space is smaller, often has cars from the site parked on it, and horror of horrors - the MoD have put in a higher chain link fence and metal gate. From here you have a view across to the aprons (good binoculars a must though) and a good view of the runway too - anything landing on 22 finishes its roll across from you - sometimes they turn off right away but often go right to the end. Anything departing from 22 is still fairly low when it goes past you, and usually bank slightly towards you as they go past. Aircraft departing from 04 roll past you with burners blazing - a better view than at point N because the grass doesn't obscure the wheels. Aircraft landing on 04 have touched down by this point and it can be good for brake chute pictures - on the rare occasions they use them. Again a 300mm lens is sufficient for anything on the runway. The sun is once again behind you almost all day in summer, but is off to your left towards late afternoon. However the new fence and gate mean a stepladder is now required here, unless you're the only person here - in which case the earth to the extreme right is just about high enough to look over the fence. Sadly one of the fence posts will often get in your photos unless you're really tall! And that is it for RAF Coltishall, which was the best RAF station in the UK for viewing - if only all of them had such a relaxed attitude to spotters!||
XZ112 - the final Jaguar GR.3 departure from Colt (taken from point Q, 300mm lens); author
Please note: the Police usually cone off some of the roads from around point N to point K when there is a flying display (e.g. Families Day) planned - you will have to find an alternate place to park, which may be some distance away from the airfield. Please park in a considerate manner, and do not cause an obstruction - if you are parked badly you may well get towed away! (Having said that the last such occasion just found the road immediately up to the crash gate coned off, which was much better than expected.)
Petrol is available from 'The Island' in Coltishall village. There's a chip shop just opposite the Island too, but watch out - it closes at 13:30 and doesn't reopen until the evening. The nearby convenience store does sandwiches, rolls and pastries if the chippy is closed, and you don't fancy driving to Wroxham to see if the chippy there is open. Opposite the chippy there's an antique shop with lots of militaria, and round the corner there's a nice little place that does cream teas. The pink pub does creditable food, and the Railway Inn (on your right going out of Coltishall towards the pink pub) has a good collection of aircraft piccies on the walls. There's also a Spar convenience store not far from the main gate which does a limited selection of hot food plus lots of other stuff.
Norwich Airport and the City of Norwich Aviation Museum at Horsham St. Faith is about a fifteen minute drive away (lots of routes to it, all cross-country).
Contributors: Phil Carlton, author, Michael Anderson, Mike Tighe, David Tanner, Nick Challoner, Alistair Henderson, Fighter Control forums.