Page last updated at 12:20 GMT, Tuesday, 22 September 2009 13:20 UK

Last mission for Leuchars Tornados


Final mission for Tornados

For the past 17 years, 111 Squadron from RAF Leuchars in Fife have been providing fighter jets to patrol the skies over the Falklands Islands.

But now new Typhoon jets from an English-based squadron are taking over and the pilots, crews and planes from Fife are heading home. BBC reporter Cameron Buttle flew 8,000 miles to see the final missions of the Leuchars Tornados.

Out of the thick blanket of white cloud below us a Tornado jet sweeps majestically up to sit on the wing of the passenger jet taking us to the Falkland Islands.

We've just entered Falklands, and therefore British, airspace and the fighter jets of 111 Squadron from RAF Leuchars have been scrambled to meet us. This is how they practise intercepting aircraft illegally flying over the Falklands.

One fighter will glide underneath the jet, a procedure to ensure no "hostile" aircraft is using the passenger jet to hide their profile, or signature, on the radar screens below.

It's quite a momentous occasion handing over to the Typhoon jets
Flight Lieutenant Sarah Carmichael
RAF Leuchars

As we land, the Mount Pleasant Airbase comes into view. It's a drab collection of buildings spread over a few square miles of bleak and barren Falklands landscape.

When the Argentinians invaded in 1982 there was no significant military presence on the islands. Now there are more than 1,000.

The main reason for this vast base is the QRA - quick reaction alert. That's two Tornado jets, the pilots and the ground flight crews sitting waiting to scramble, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Within minutes, the fully-armed jets will be airborne and ready to intercept.

For 17 years QRA has been provided by aircraft from RAF Leuchars in Fife.

Today, Flight Lieutenant Sarah Carmichael from Edinburgh is on QRA. As she sits in the crew room her flight suit is zipped to her waist, her helmet hangs on a peg a few feet away.

"I think there is a lot of surprise that we're still doing this job down in the Falklands," said Sarah who works as a weapons systems officer. She sits in the back of one of the Tornados.

Tornado F3 in flight
The Tornados have been used in the Falklands for the last 17 years

She's proud to be one of the last squadrons to fly the Tornados. "Not only is this an amazing place to fly, it's quite a momentous occasion handing over to the Typhoon jets," she said.

It's a rough and treacherous hour's drive from the base to the island's capital Port Stanley, only 4x4s can make this journey safely, even on a reasonably fine day on dirt tracks.

The landscape is stark, dramatic and bleak. Stanley itself is a clutter of brightly-painted houses where about 2,000 of the 3,000 islanders live.

Everyone I met on a brief wander through the streets was adamant that the large military presence in the Falklands was vital.

Back at base, word has got round that the Typhoons are due in. It's an emotional moment for many, a piece of RAF history coming to an end has two Tornados and two Typhoons fly overhead in an immaculate formation.

The Leuchars Tornados will be dismantled, boxed up and sent back to the UK in the coming weeks.

Treble One Sqdn will still provide QRA cover for the northern UK air space from Leuchars. Right now crews there are sitting in flights suits ready to scramble into jets and be airborne in minutes.

But no longer can the Fife Squadron say they provide cover from the Faroes to the Falklands - and when the new Typhoon jet arrives at the base next year, the very future of Treble One squadron itself will be under review.

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