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RAF Brize Norton

Brize Norton: the RAF’s largest station where overseas operations begin and end

TO the families of military personnel who have been killed on duty, RAF Brize Norton may not hold the greatest memories, the station most often seen in the media as the UK’s first port of call for fallen comrades.

The repatriation ceremonies held at the station became a far too regular event during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, each marking what was very much a personal loss to the family and friends of those killed in action.

The removal of coffins from aircraft was a stark reminder to the British public of the dangers of military service, and helped reinforce support for the services. Overseas operations typically start and finish at the site in Oxfordshire, unfortunately for some in the most sombre of circumstances.

Brize Norton is the largest station of the RAF for a reason, accommodating the strategic and tactical air transport fleets, boasting around 5,800 military personnel, 1200 contractors and 300 civilian staff, all geared towards providing rapid global mobility in support of overseas operations and exercises.

Last year it was pivotal during Operation Pitting, the RAF involved in the extraction of more than 15,000 evacuees from Afghanistan through Kabul Airport in just two weeks, with the total number of people evacuated during that time estimated at more than 120,000. It was the largest humanitarian aid operation undertaken in more than 70 years, made necessary after the Taliban regained control of the country.

The final Voyager from Kabul arrived at Brize Norton on August 29, the withdrawal of the last British troops ending a 20-year engagement in the country.
Brize Norton Print Modern Aircraft

(RAF Brize Norton Officially Licensed Print with Hercules, Atlas and Voyager. Click here to purchase yours)

The Voyager is one of the four key aircraft operating from the station alongside the Globemaster, Atlas and the C-130 Hercules; the Voyager also being the RAF’s sole air-to-air, AAR, refuelling tanker. In 2017, a sculpture was unveiled at the main gate highlighting the global reach of the station – a globe surrounded by the four key aircraft to mark the 80th anniversary of Brize Norton.

It was 1935 when work started at the site, the station opening two years later, comprising a circular grass area with nine hangars, a station headquarters and officers’ mess. The transfer of No. 2 Flying Training School, FTS, from RAF Digby saw the arrival of the station’s first active unit, a year later No. 6 Maintenance Unit joining them.

A couple of months before the Second World War began, the first operational squadron arrived at the airfield, No. 110 operating Bristol Blenheims. On August 16, 1940, the station was attacked by German bombers, a total of 35 Airspeed Oxfords and 11 Hawker Hurricanes destroyed in one of the biggest single losses of aircraft during the Battle of Britain – amazingly there were no fatalities.

An Airspeed Horsa Mk.1 of the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit at Brize Norton during the Second World War

(An Airspeed Horsa Mk.1 of the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit at Brize Norton during the Second World War)

In March 1942, No. 110 Squadron left the station destined for Asia, and they were replaced by the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit, No. 21 HGCU. With plans for D-Day stepping during the early part of 1944, the station was a base for parachute and glider operations by No. 296 and No. 297 Squadrons, equipped with Armstrong Whitworth Albermarles – both involved in landings in Normandy and Arnhem dropping paratroops and launching Horsa gliders.

Post war Brize Norton became strongly associated with the United States Air Force, USAF, who accepted control of the station in April 1951; B-36 Convair Peacemaker bombers and B-47 Stratojets among the many US aircraft deployed there in 1950s.

US deployments were routinely 90-days during the 1950s, changing to 30-day Reflex Alerts in which aircraft were held at high alert in special aprons at Brize Norton, fully armed with nuclear weapons. In September 1964, the USAF confirmed these operations would cease, Brize Norton returning to RAF control the following year.

V10s at RAF Brize Norton in 2003

(V10s at RAF Brize Norton in 2003)

With RAF Lyneham operating at its capacity, the early 1960s saw a need for an additional major strategic transport airfield, and Brize Norton was selected for the role – No. 10 Squadron equipped with Vickers VC10 jets and No. 53 Squadron with Short Belfast C1s arriving from RAF Fairford.

The VC10s were later modified for service as refuelling aircraft; three-point tankers capable of supplying one aircraft through a main hose – typically a large aircraft – and two smaller jets using underwing pods. No. 101 Squadron reformed at Brize Norton in 1984, operating the remodelled VC-10s.

Tristar of 216 Squadron

(Tristar of 216 Squadron)

The aftermath of the Falklands War in the early 1980s saw a rethink focusing on the RAF’s strategic transport limitations with regards to maintaining a significant military presence in the South Atlantic. After chartering BA 747s and Britannia 767s, a decision was made to reform No. 216 Squadron at Brize Norton in 1984, flying Lockheed Tristars. They were initially focused on an air transport role but that was expanded to air-to-air refuelling.

Brize Norton Vintage Print

(RAF Brize Norton Officially Licensed Print with VC10 and Tristar. Click here to purchase yours)

The early 2000s saw the first Globemaster arrive at Brize Norton, one of eight to be delivered to No. 99 Squadron, and in 2007 work began to repair and upgrade the runways, repatriation of British personnel switching to Lyneham.

However, the runways weren’t expecting temperatures of 40°C, with the recent dramatic spell of intense heat seeing flights suspended from the station as a result of the tarmac ‘melting’ – the surface became sticky leading to concerns for the safety of aircraft taking off and landing. Flights were diverted for two days with no impact on operational duties.

An A330 Voyager with the C-17 Globemaster III and C-130 Hercules in the background at RAF Brize Norton in 2014

(An A330 Voyager with the C-17 Globemaster III and C-130 Hercules in the background at RAF Brize Norton in 2014)

With the decision to close Lyneham, Brize Norton was redeveloped as the major airbase for the RAF’s transport fleet – the sole ‘Air Point of Embarkation’. All RAF fixed-wing transport assets were consolidated at Brize Norton, the number of aircraft increasing from 28 to 67, the station undergoing Programme Future Brize which began in 2009, an overhaul of the majority of the airfield’s infrastructure including engineering, housing and personnel.

By March 2011, 70 buildings had been refurbished with a new station chapel and chaplaincy centre opening ahead of repatriation returning to Brize Norton in September 2011.

As well as flying squadrons, the station is also home to 4626 Squadron RAUXAF, the aeromedical evacuation unit, and No. 1 Parachute Training School RAF, along with a number of other units.

With the station’s increasing influence on the public psyche, TV stardom beckoned ten years ago with a seven-part documentary series on Sky One broadcast, somewhat unoriginally entitled Inside Brize Norton, following the working lives of the station personnel. As the narrator explained, RAF Brize Norton is comprised of 8,000 men and women serving and living in a thriving community the size of a small town, operating 24 hours a day.

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