Royal Air Force Affiliated Service
Since the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, RAF Brize Norton remains incredibly busy as the nation's hub for military air transport (AT) and air to air refuelling (AAR). Movement of aircraft in and out of Afghanistan became not only more dangerous as the end date for Operation HERRICK approached, but also more urgent and pressing. Despite this, the recovery was completed safely and to schedule, with every delay and variation being contained and the subsequent effect minimised by Brize Norton personnel. At the same time, whilst the HERRICK recovery remained main effort, Brize Norton were also simultaneously coordinating aircraft into Sierra Leone in support of humanitarian efforts to combat Ebola, and providing aircraft to deliver relief supplies into the Sinjar Mountains of Northern Iraq.
Number 99 Squadron, flying C17 aircraft, has continued moving large and outsized loads all over the globe, and has recently been tasked to support relief efforts following natural disasters in both Vanuatu and Nepal. Despite the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, 99 Sqn has continued with an aeromedical evacuation role, moving several patients, most notably Will Pooley and latterly Army nurse Anna Cross from Sierra Leone to the UK for treatment. The C17 is the workhorse of choice for outsize and unusual loads, and has chalked up in excess of 100,000 hours flying since it came into RAF service in May 2001.
Number 10 and 101 Squadrons, operating the Voyager aircraft in both passenger and AAR roles continue to grow in capability and experience, playing a crucial role in the forward deployment of all three services, on both operations and exercises. The Voyager provides a modern, comfortable environment to travel in, and makes the trip to and from theatre much less stressful for the passengers. Reliability and efficiency is much improved over the VC10 and TriStar aircraft it replaced, something that is very welcome by the end user. The aircraft has the capability to deploy a RAF fast jet squadron, with the personnel and freight inside, and the jets refuelling from the Voyager once airborne, proving itself as a real force multiplier.
The Station continues to operate the C130 Hercules aircraft. This is a hugely versatile workhorse, and the RAF operate it in a number of roles, from flying aid into small runways following the hurricane in the Philippines, relief aid air drops by parachute onto the Sinjar Mountain in Northern Iraq, as well as the more traditional global movement of freight. It provides the ability to fly into smaller runways than a C17 can, and despite being the backbone of the RAF's AT fleet, is always the aircraft of choice where a bespoke payload is needed in an unusual location.
RAF Brize Norton is now flying the first few of its growing Airbus A400M Atlas fleet. Number 70 Squadron has the honour of being nominated as the first operational A400M Atlas Squadron, and is charged with bringing the aircraft into service, with 24 Squadron designing a staged programme to ensure that the aircraft are rolled out safely, something that involves the training of both air and groundcrew in new practices and procedures. Sized mid-way between a C17 and C130 the A400M Atlas will provide the tactical flexibility of the C130, but with a greater range and payload, and will soon become a familiar sight around the world.
Whilst the Station is set up to support the flying that goes on out of RAF Brize Norton, in reality is does much more; RAF Brize Norton really is greater than the sum of its parts, and delivers a quantifiable strategic effect, be it through the involvement with the drawdown from Afghanistan or the demands of new operations in Sierra Leone and Iraq. It meets defence's short notice, routine and unusual commitments, and does this without fuss or fanfare. The personnel of RAF Brize Norton routinely deliver together, safely.
Construction of the airfield at Brize Norton site began in 1935. Although most of the site lay within the parish boundary of Carterton, it was thought there would be confusion with RAF Cardington in Bedfordshire, so the station was named after the next nearest village, Brize Norton. The official opening took place on 13th August 1937, and No 2 Flying Training School, the first unit to be stationed here, arrived before the building programme had been completed. The Station was used for flying training until July 1942, when it became the home of the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit (HGCU), later renamed No 21 HGCU, which remained at RAF Brize Norton until December 1945.
Between March and October 1944 the Station was used as a base for parachute and glider operations by No 296 and 297 Squadrons, both equipped with Albemarles.
On D-Day, these Squadrons were involved in dropping paratroops and launching Horsa gliders for the purpose of capturing bridges, six miles inland from the coast, over the River Orne and Caen Canal. On the same day, two more gliders were placed directly on a coastal battery controlling the estuary of the River Orne, which was in a position to oppose the seaborne landings. All of these operations were completed successfully.
The Squadrons were involved in the airborne landings at Arnhem in September 1944, and were also engaged in dropping personnel and supplies to the resistance movements in Europe. On 31st December 1945, RAF Brize Norton was transferred from Flying Training Command to Transport Command, and became the home of the Transport Command Development Unit and the School of Flight Efficiency. The Army Airborne Transport Development Unit joined these units in May 1946. Flying Training Command returned to the Station with No 204 AFTS in August 1949, but their stay was a short one and they left in June 1950 when the Americans arrived.
The USAF accepted control in April 1951. Until early 1952, the main task of the USAF elements at RAF Brize Norton was to support US Army engineers engaged in extending the runway and building taxiways, hard standings and accommodation. In June 1952, some 21 B36 Convair Peacemaker bombers were the first American aircraft to arrive at RAF Brize Norton. The first jet bombers to land here were B47 Stratojets in September 1953. A rotation of bomber wings and refueling Squadrons continued until April 1958, with the exception of a period of runway reconstruction from October 1955 until September 1956. In April 1958, the Reflex alert concept came into force and, under this arrangement units of Strategic Air Command were detached from the US for a 90-day tour of duty.
Seven USAF bomber wings provided B47 aircraft for Reflex duty at RAF Brize Norton, the last one returning to the US in April 1965.
In April 1965 the RAF took control of Brize Norton and it became a Transport Command airfield. Then, on the renaming of the Command in August 1967, it became an Air Support Command airfield. There followed a steady build up of personnel and facilities to make RAF Brize Norton the Strategic Air Transport (AT) base for the RAF. This included the construction of the Gateway House Hotel and the building of the £2 million Base Hangar, at that time the largest cantilever structure in Western Europe. Two Britannia Squadrons, No 99 and 511, joined the VC10s of No 10 Squadron and the Belfasts of No 53 Squadron in June 1970 to bring the station to full operational strength. Early in 1972, the station became part of No 46 Group, Strike Command and, in October 1975, became part of No 38 Group, Strike Command.
Following the 1974 Defence White Paper, 53, 99 and 511 Squadrons were disbanded. No 10 Squadron remained to provide its worldwide role, and was joined by No 115 Squadron in 1976, operating Argosy aircraft which were used to calibrate service ground radio and radar aids. Andover aircraft replaced the Argosys and, in 1982, No 115 Squadron was moved to RAF Benson. To replace the disbanded Nos 53, 99 and 511 Squadrons, the following major units moved into RAF Brize Norton during 1976: the Joint Air Transport Establishment; No 38 Group Tactical Communications Wing (TCW); No 1 Parachute Training School (PTS) and the RAF Movements School (RAFMS).
In 1982, many TCW and Station personnel were deployed to Ascension Island in support of the Falkland Islands’ conflict. No 10 Squadron was heavily engaged with moving personnel, stores and ammunition to Ascension Island, and the recovery of casualties from Ascension and Montevideo. At the end of the war, No 10 Squadron repatriated hundreds of servicemen back to their families. The Squadron then assumed the re-supply task for the new Falklands Garrison. Also in 1982, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Squadrons were formed. No 4624 (County of Oxford) Movements Squadron and No 2624 (County of Oxford) Regiment Squadron recruited locally and were based at RAF Brize Norton. In 1983, the first TriStar arrived, and the following year No 216 Squadron was formed and the first VC1O K was delivered to No 101 Squadron.
The usefulness of a large tanker force was graphically illustrated during RAF Brize Norton’s next major commitment, the Gulf War in 1991. No 101 Squadron deployed to the Gulf area, as did elements of No 216 Squadron. They provided air-to-air refueling (AAR) support for the RAF’s fast jet assets as well as providing support for the US Navy and Marine Corps. No 10 Squadron, along with the balance of No 216 Squadron, provided logistic support into theatre. TCW and many individual station personnel were also deployed to Saudi Arabia as part of the Multi-National Force.
With the demise of the Victor force in 1993, RAF Brize Norton became the centre for all AAR operations in the Royal Air Force. During 1994, No 19 Squadron RAF Regiment, which was based at RAF Brize Norton for the purpose of providing Rapier missile defence for the US Air Force bases at nearby RAF Upper Heyford and RAF Fairford, was disbanded.
Over the years, the Station has maintained its links with the USAF, hosting several large-scale USAF tanker deployments and culminating in a major operational deployment providing support for the Kosovo air campaign. RAF Brize Norton’s assets were widely used, with aircraft from Nos 10, 101 and 216 Squadrons all playing key roles, while the USAF detachment flew 24 KC135 aircraft from the station for the duration of the operation. At the same time, the nearby USAF base of RAF Fairford was launching B52 and B1 sorties. As a result, the airspace was quite crowded on occasion!
On 1st April 2000, the Station became part of No 2 Group. The complement of flying squadrons was increased to four with the formation of No 99 Squadron and the arrival of C-17 aircraft in summer 2001. Following the tragic incidents of 11th September 2001, RAF Brize Norton has played a significant role in the campaign against terrorism. Seven aircraft and 500 personnel deployed to support operations in Afghanistan, and 12 aircraft and 600 personnel deployed in support of Operation Telic in Iraq. For both operations, the station undertook the movement of record numbers of passengers and massive amounts of freight before, during and after fighting operations.