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RAF Finningley

Airport closure brings Finningley, and the future of Britain’s most famous Vulcan, back to the fore

WITH the last flight expected to depart Doncaster Sheffield Airport (DSA) in November, the news of its demise will no doubt bring to mind the role the site played in RAF history.

For 60 years before it was sold by the MoD, the location four miles south east of Doncaster served the military as one of Yorkshire’s most important flying stations, the Cold War seeing the site become a key V-bomber base, the Avro Vulcan synonymous with both DSA and Finningley.

But Finningley’s aviation history started more than a century ago, with the Royal Flying Corps, RFC, moving an operations unit to an air strip two miles south west of the village in 1915 – Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c fighters stationed at Bancroft Farm to defend the industrial centres of south Yorkshire from Zeppelin attacks.

Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2 Fighters were based at Finningley during 1915
(Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2 Fighters were based at Finningley during 1915)

Effectively mothballed following the end of WW1, the Air Ministry looked again at Finningley in the mid-1930s, acquiring a 250-acre patch of land in the summer of 1935, five hangars constructed along with a number of administration and technical buildings.

Squadrons 7 and 102 were among the first arrivals in the summer of 1936 flying Handley Page Heyfords, later converting to Handley Page Hampdens and Avro Ansons – Finningley prioritised for a training role during WW2, 106 Squadron arriving from RAF Cottesmore to provide operational training for No. 5 Group.
A Heyford of 102 Squadron

(A Heyford of 102 Squadron)

By August 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, No. 106 Squadron were placed on operational call, many of its early missions to drop mines close to the French Channel ports, the fear of invasion by German forces then at its peak.

In 1942, control of Finningley switched to No. 1 Group, No. 25 Operational Training Unit, OTU, – an offshoot of 106 Squadron – becoming focused on flying Wellingtons, Bomber Command utilising the aircraft based at the station. No. 25 OTU was disbanded in February 1943 with No. 18 OTU moving in a few months before a hard runway was laid, the station closed for flying over the winter of 1943/44, Finningley reopening to aircraft in May 1944 with No. 18 OTU returning from RAF Bramcote in Warwickshire. By the end of 1944 operational training requirements had been drastically reduced, the OTU disbanded early in 1945 and the Wellingtons relocated to other stations.

Post-war, Finningley’s training units returned to the station with No. 616 Squadron reformed in July 1946, operating de Haviland Mosquitos which were soon replaced by Britain’s first jet, the Gloster Meteor.

Gloster Meteor F.8 of 616 Squadron in 1955 wearing the distinctive unit markings.
(Gloster Meteor F.8 of 616 Squadron in 1955 wearing the distinctive unit markings.)

However, it was the Cold War that highlighted Finningley’s importance to the defence of Britain, the station seemingly being wound down by the early 1950s. But in 1955 a decision was taken to relay and extend the main runway to become one of the longest in the country, the south Yorkshire site selected to house the RAF’s new V-bomber aircraft.

With tensions increasing between NATO forces and their Soviet counterparts, and fears that high-flying aircraft could be brought down by surface-to-air missiles, a range of aircraft were selected to carry out low-level attacks, the V-bomber force carrying Britain’s nuclear arsenal: Avro Vulcans, Vickers Valiants and Handley Page Victors.

As well as its runway extension, unit stores were created to house the nuclear weapons, Finningley becoming known as the home of the V-bomber, all three aircraft stationed there at some point – No. 101 Squadron reformed there in 1957 flying the Vulcan, and soon after No. 18 Squadron arrived with Valiants, staying until 1961 when the end of the Valiant saw No. 18 disbanded. In 1961, No. 101 took its Vulcans to Waddington, effectively swapping with No. 230 Operational Control Unit, OCU, which stayed at Finningley throughout the 1960s.

A deliberate fire caused serious damage at the site soon after No. 230 OCU left, but the culprit was no foreign enemy: a serving RAF member carried out an arson attack on September 4, 1970, severely damaging No. 2 hangar, the blaze seeing three Varsity T1s from No. 6 Flying Training School, FTS, destroyed.

Robin Hood Airport Before Closure

(Robin Hood Airport Before Closure)

The early 1990s indicated a bright future for Finningley with a £5million investment in a new Air Navigation School, the station home to the Yorkshire Universities Air Squadron. But two years later the MoD announced its imminent closure as part of the Front Line First defence cuts, Peel purchasing the land and turning it into DSA, also known as Robin Hood Airport: part of the reasoning behind the name the fact that the location borders the counties of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire.

Despite the end of RAF activities, there was one iconic British military aircraft that returned to Finningley in the 2000s, and remains there today: XH558 was the first Vulcan B.2 to enter service in 1960, returning its spiritual home half a century later. Its maiden flight took place from Woodford on May 25, 1960, and it was soon transferred to Finningley with No. 230 OCU.

Vulcan XH558

(Vulcan XH558)

When the Vulcans were withdrawn from service, XH558 was selected for display duties, its limited time in the air meaning it didn’t have as many miles on the clock as its counterparts: an accident during a take-off from RAF Scampton in 1975 kept it grounded for an extended period, a gull strike seeing an engine disintegrate with a hole blown through a right starboard wing.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, XH558 formed part of the Vulcan Display Team, VDT, that delighted crowds at airshows, before being disbanded as a cost-cutting exercise – XH558 performed at RAF Cranfield for what seemed to be the final time in September 1992. It was bought and delivered to Bruntingthorpe, Leicestershire, and kept in serviceable condition with fast runs performed along the runway during special open days, but never leaving the tarmac.

It was purchased by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, VST, work beginning in 2005 with the aim of returning it to flight, taking to the skies again in October 2007. After several years where a combination of technical problems and authorisation issues saw its flying time limited, it flew again during the 2014 and 2015 airshow seasons.

It was planned to use XH558 as the focus of a new educational and heritage facility at DSA but those ideas were thrown into doubt with Peel Group, the owners of the airport, giving VST notice to quit in August this year, the summer of 2023 the final date when a new home must be found for the iconic aircraft.

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