A snippet of aviation history

Back in 2011 I reported on ‘Aircraft of the Tiger Meet‘, an annual event for squadrons in NATO countries that have the tiger as part of their emblem, crest or motto.  In that post, I told what I’d been able to find out about how it began and developed, and provided lots of pictures of the aircraft involved.  (Another post a year later had some images of a very impressively tiger-themed Saab Gripen fighter.)

I’m currently reading the biography of the recently deceased Air Vice-Marshal John Howe, Royal Air Force.  (His obituary may be read here.)  He was a former South African who rose to the heights of the Royal Air Force.  One of his career highlights was to command 74 Squadron RAF when it became the first unit to receive the then-new English Electric Lightning fighter in 1960.  Here’s a spectacular photograph of him flying a Lightning in a vertical dive during an air show in 1961.

74 Squadron was known as the ‘Tiger Squadron’, and incorporated a tiger’s head in its crest, shown below.  The tiger’s head can also be seen on the tail fin of John’s Lightning, shown above, along with a tiger-colored pattern on either side of the RAF roundel below the cockpit.

John Howe maintained friendly relations with the USAF’s 79th Tactical Fighter Squadron, which was then based at RAF Woodbridge in England flying F-100 Super Sabre fighter-bombers.  It also used a tiger’s head in its crest.

I’ll let Air Vice-Marshal Howe’s biographer take it from there.

One very significant event occurred on 25 November [1960] when five members of the 79th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the USAF were guests of honour in the Officers’ Mess at Coltishall.  John was fully aware of the USAF’s Tiger Squadron an hour’s drive down the road at RAF Woodbridge:  indeed, first contacts had been made a few years before John’s arrival as CO.  What made him pick up the phone one day and make a call to his counterpart on the 79th can be put down to serendipity.  But the discovery that the man he was talking to at the other end of the line was Ed Rackham, an old friend of his from Korean War days and by now a Lieutenant Colonel, led directly to the foundation of the NATO Tiger Association.  It was immediately agreed that the two commanders should get together socially:  then it was agreed that there needed to be operational contact as well, particularly as John wanted to show off his squadron’s shiny new aeroplane.

74 Squadron Lightnings in formation (click the image for a larger view)

Legend has it that at the (very late) end of a (very successful) party at Woodbridge in which 74 Squadron and the 79th participated, Lieutenants Mike Dugan and Merrill McPeak (each of whom incidentally went on to become USAF Chiefs of Staff) were instructed to find a French Air Force Tiger Squadron to join them in the future.  A directive had just gone out from C in C United States European Command that every opportunity should be taken to further professional and social relationships between the two countries and here was an ideal opportunity to do so and with the Brits participating as well.  At Cambrai such a French squadron was found (EC1/12), and as a result on 19 July 1961 the first ever Tiger Meet was held.  Lightnings flew beside F-100 Super Sabres and Dassault Mystères.  John is rightly proud of the part he played in creating such a long lasting and meaningful example of co-operation between NATO countries and beyond, for the Tiger Meet has grown beyond recognition since the first humble gathering.  The NATO Tiger Association thrives today.

So there you have it . . . a chance reunion between a former South African Air Force pilot, now flying for the Royal Air Force in England, and a US Air Force pilot he’d met in Korea, leads (initially in England, then all over Europe) to an international institution that’s survived the Cold War and is still going strong.  That’s a very tangled geographical web!



  1. The best bit was as a Young Kid growing up in the Area being priviliaged to watch RAF Lightnings from RAF Wattisham barrel role down the runway over the top of the USAF Phantoms at Woodbridge/Bentwaters. Both bases used to have regular "Alert" competitions, but because of the quicker start up, roll out and climb rate of the Lightnings they normaly would win. Health and Safety would have a fit today as those lightnings came down the flight line at 100 feet.
    As I lived on a fairly long straight Road in the area we also had the USAF practice straffing runs down the road. The excitement of watching a Phantom come so low that as 10 or 15 of us kids waved at the pilot he Saluted us back and you could clearly see the pilot in the plane as he banked across the road was something to behold.
    Good times, even if the Phantoms were only there incase the Soviets decided to wipe East Anglia out of existance !

  2. Thunder and Lightnings by Jan Mark, about a boy and his love of the Lightnings at RAF Coltishall, was a seminal book of my childhood. That and the UK low flying system which routinely treated us to high speed low level RAF and USAF jets flying along the Ouse valley and over my house were some of the things which inspired me to join the RAF.

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