Work on RAF Coltishall was started in February 1939. The airfield, then known as Scottow Aerodrome, was initially built as a bomber base, on land near Scottow Hall. Following the established tradition, the station would have been named after the nearest railway station, which would have made it "RAF Buxton", but to avoid possible confusion with Buxton, Derbyshire, it was named after the local village of Coltishall instead. The airfield was completed and entered service in May 1940 as a fighter base. The first aircraft movement at Coltishall was a Bristol Blenheim IV L7835 flown by Sergeant RG Bales and Sergeant Barnes.
During the Second World War, Coltishall operated the Hawker Hurricane, and a notable Coltishall fighter pilot was Douglas Bader. It later became home to night fighters. At the same time the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm operated aircraft from RAF Coltishall over the North Sea. At the end of the war, Coltishall was briefly given over to Polish squadrons until they returned home.
In the 1950s, RAF Coltishall was a designated a "V-Bomber dispersal base", whereby the bombers of the V-force aircraft, the Avro Vulcan, Handley Page Victor and Vickers Valiant, could use in the event of their home base being damaged by enemy action.
Post-war, the station was home to a variety of units and aircraft including de Havilland Mosquitos, Gloster Javelins, English Electric Lightnings and - from 1963 - the "Historic Aircraft Flight" (now known as the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight). The last Lightnings left Coltishall in 1974, and were replaced by the Anglo-French SEPECAT Jaguar. The first Jaguar squadron, No. 54 Squadron RAF, arrived at Coltishall on 8 August 1974.
In terms of fixed wing aircraft, the station was exclusively a Jaguar station from then on, and some of the station's pink painted Jaguars participated in the 1991 Gulf War Operation GRANBY andOperation Warden, without sustaining a single loss of man or machine in combat, and in subsequent operations over Balkans (Operation Deny Flight)) and then later Iraq once more. Coltishall was also home to the yellow Search And Rescue (SAR) helicopters of 202 Sqn conducting air-sea rescue operations (Sea King) and latterly 22 Sqn (Wessex), but under subsequent reorganisation, the SAR operations were moved to RAF Wattisham, in Suffolk where they remain.
Coltishall eventually became the last surviving operational RAF airbase involved in the Battle of Britain, and a visible remnant in the form of a Second World War revetment still stands on the North-West taxiway.
With the anticipated arrival of the Eurofighter Typhoon in the RAF, the gradual retirement of the Jaguar force began. Coltishall was not chosen as a future Typhoon base for a number of reasons, and so, with no future RAF role for Coltishall, the station was earmarked for closure.
The UK's Ministry of Defence, in the Delivering Security in a Changing World review, announced that the station would close by December 2006. The first two Jaguar squadrons to disband, No. 16 Squadron RAF and No. 54 Squadron RAF, did so on 11 March 2005. The final Jaquar squadrons departed on 1 April 2006, when No. 6 Squadron RAF transferred to RAF Coningsby, but was subsequently disbanded on 31 May 2007 (to await delivery of theEurofighter Typhoon at RAF Leuchars in Scotland), and No. 41 Squadron RAF transferred to RAF Coningsby in OCU role. The final front line RAF movement from the station was by Jaguar XZ112, piloted by Jim Luke, on 3 April 2006.
Of the final gate guardians, the replica Hawker Hurricane was transferred to High Wycombe, and the Jaguar was formally named the Spirit of Coltishall, and was subsequently transferred to the grounds of Norfolk County Council , where she is dedicated to the memory of all those who served at Coltishall.
Some limited flying from light aircraft including those of the Coltishall Flying Club did continue after the end of RAF flying operations, until October 2006. While 1 April 2006 saw the disbandment parade for the station, it did not actually disband and finally close until 30 November 2006. Associated facilities such as the Douglas Bader Primary School were also closed. The final day of the station saw the gates being opened to the public - anybody with photographic ID was welcomed onto the station to have a look around and view the final closing ceremony, which saw a flypast by four RAF Jaguars, and a solitary Hawker Hurricane from Imperial War Museum Duxford.
On 30 November 2006, RAF Coltishall was officially handed over to Defence Estates (the MoD agency responsible for all UK Military sites) who are to handle the disposal of the site, and will be formally known as MoD Coltishall until its ultimate disposal