15% DISCOUNT

RAF Boulmer

Boulmer reaffirms its status as the Guardian of the UK’s airspace

EARLIER this year it was announced that RAF Boulmer in Northumberland had been the recipient of a technology that allowed the station to map in real-time, friendly and hostile aircraft – the GUARDIAN system improving the functionality of the network that links the radars of the UK and NATO.

The new command and control system, part of an £80m MoD upgrade, speeds up the delivery and improves the accuracy of information received at Boulmer, significantly enhancing UK security.

Surveillance is the watchword for RAF Boulmer’s role in the defence of the UK, the station providing a 24/7 monitoring site of British airspace, linking to the tactical control of combat and support aircraft. It plays a critical role in the nation’s Quick Reaction Alert, QRA, operations, the procedure that sees Typhoon jets airborne within minutes of a potentially hostile aircraft entering or approaching British airspace.

The Control Reporting Centre, CRC, based at Boulmer identifies the aircraft before a decision is made whether Typhoons need scrambling and, if so, the CRC has direct contact with the QRA pilots.

The high-tech operations and workforce of around 1,000 is a world away from how Boulmer’s RAF life started 82 years ago at a site near the current location, five miles east of Alnwick. With Luftwaffe bombing missions targeting airfields across Britain, Boulmer became one of many decoy sites set up, comprising grass fields cut to resemble airstrips, with plywood models of Hurricanes and Spitfires arranged in a bid to divert German bombers from nearby sites such as RAF Acklington and RAF Milfield.

It was clearly successful in its role as it attracted the attention of several German bombers, two high explosive bombs dropped on nearby fields on the evening of September 16, 1940. Three years later it was decided to turn the dummy station into a real one, Boulmer becoming a satellite for RAF Eshott, complete with three runways; the airfield came under the control of No. 57 Operation Training Unit, OTU, their Supermarine Spitfires and Miles Masters operating from the site until the end of hostilities.

Like many stations that were established between 1939 and 1945, it was seen as surplus to RAF requirements at the end of the war, with Boulmer effectively mothballed for several years, an area near the original site returning to military operations in the early 1950s as the Cold War intensified. The site was earmarked to form part of the air defence ROTOR radar system, a network of stations – mostly based on or near the coast – stretching across the country to counter potential attack from Russian bombers.

Former ROTOR Locations

(Former ROTOR Locations)

Opening in August 1953 when 500 Signals Unit moved in, it remained under the control of RAF Acklington as part of 13 Group. The importance of the station grew in the years following, and it was designated a Group Control centre in 1957, responsible for RAF radar stations at Buchan on the Aberdeenshire coast in Scotland, and Killard Point in Northern Ireland – the site’s radar capabilities were continuously improved, positioned to detect the movement of Soviet long-range bombers and able to penetrate jamming technology.

In the 1960s, Boulmer’s operations were further expanded to incorporate civilian responsibilities, ‘Border Control’ effectively providing air traffic control, ATC, co-ordinating civil and military aircraft in the area. The ATC role continued until the late 1980s when it was centralised at two locations – Prestwick in Scotland and West Drayton near Heathrow Airport.
202 Sqn Sea King

(202 Sqn Sea King)

Alongside surveillance operations, Boulmer became home to the Search and Rescue helicopters of 202 Squadron, making the short move when Acklington closed in 1975: they stayed for around 40 years, arriving with Westland Whirlwinds which were replaced by Sea Kings in the late 1970s.

Regular upgrades to the radar capabilities of Boulmer continued throughout the 1980s and 90s, with its importance to Britain’s air defences strengthened by the arrival of the School of Fighter Control, SFC, from West Drayton, delivering the training required by Fighter Control officers, and in 1994, No. 1 Air Control Centre, ACC, reformed at Boulmer, a deployable radar and tactical control unit whose remit is to protect the UK’s airspace from hostile aircraft.

The underground bunker at Boulmer, first established in the 1950s, underwent a major development programme in 2002, as part of the UKADGE Capability Maintenance Programme, UCMP, and two years later the station’s newly-refurbished NATO Control and Reporting Centre, CRC, took over all air defence functions previously administered at Remote Radar Head locations at Buchan and Neatishead – the so-called ‘golf ball’ sites. As the country’s sole CRC, Boulmer has responsibility for the 24/7 surveillance of the UK’s airspace, liaising with RAF Air Command at High Wycombe and the QRA sites at Lossiemouth and Coningsby, as well as NATO allies across Europe to maintain effective air cover of the Northern Air Defence Region.

Like many RAF stations over the years, the future of Boulmer came under threat in the early 2000s, proposals including transferring many of its functions to Scampton. The process had actually begun with No.1 ACC moving in a bid to bring the Air Surveillance and Control System, ASACS, closer together in Lincolnshire, however, a rethink was undertaken and in 2008 it was announced that Boulmer would remain open beyond 2012 as the ASACS hub.
ASACS Force Command

(ASACS Force Command)

The 2012 London Olympics saw Boulmer handed responsibility for the air security operation involved, and in 2021 the CRC and the ASACS Operational Control Unit were allocated Nos. 19 and 20 Squadron titles respectively, in recognition of their key roles in the delivery of Britain’s air defences.

Away from its surveillance duties, Boulmer is also the home of a Met Office weather reporting station, used to help create the Shipping Forecast broadcast daily on BBC Radio 4, and has its own 25-metre shooting range used by local Air Cadets.

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1 comment

  • The ROTOR map is missing RAF Skendleby in Lincolnshire. A Operational C.H.E.L station and Readiness G.C I unit.

    Kevin Lloyd-Jones

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