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RAF Odiham

The home of the Chinook but remember, don’t get too close!

FOR anyone who’s been within the vicinity of a Chinook, good sense tells you to keep well away from the aircraft until the all-clear is signalled by a member of the crew.

Recently, RAF Odiham in Hampshire felt it necessary to issue an ‘Important Safety Announcement’ to remind the public that “being in close proximity to Chinooks operating in confined areas places you and the crews at increased risk from downwash related incidents.”

While it wasn’t revealed how close the person(s) involved got to the tandem-rotor aircraft, it was clearly enough to justify a public announcement: helicopters are dangerous to be anywhere near when taking off or landing.

While human instinct is to get close to aircraft, even when they are operating, there appears to be a mistaken belief that helicopters are less dangerous than aeroplanes – planes fly in and out of closed-off airports and stations while helicopters can literally land anywhere where there is public space, such as a field or car park.

But good sense would tell you to steer clear of a helicopter coming in to land, especially a Chinook, the king of the British military’s helicopter force, the RAF boasting the largest fleet of the ‘Wokka’, or ‘Big Windy’, outside the US: the nickname relating to the unmistakable sound the aircraft makes.

Chinooks from 18 & 27 Sqn, Painted in their Squadron livery as part of their 100th anniversary celebrations

(Chinooks from 18 & 27 Sqn, Painted in their Squadron livery as part of their 100th anniversary celebrations)

The home of the RAF’s fleet is Odiham which, to those not au fait with the Hampshire countryside, is around eight miles east of Basingstoke, just south of the M3. Three Chinook squadrons operate from the station – Nos. 7, 18 and 27 – with 2020 marking the fortieth anniversary of the helicopter’s arrival in the RAF.

Unsurprisingly, Odiham didn’t start its operational life as a helicopter station, bearing in mind its official opening came five years before the first flight of the Sikorsky prototype that became the XR-4, the first mass-produced helicopter.

While Odiham saw aircraft operating as early as 1925, it’s ‘opening’ wasn’t until 1937, and that ceremony would certainly fall into the interesting category: the event was carried out by General Erhard Milch, Chief of Air Staff at the Luftwaffe in October 1937, two years before the outbreak of World War Two.

The story goes that he was so impressed with the Hampshire location while on his official visit, he’d earmarked the site as a potential HQ post-war, with orders to avoid damaging the airfield during the Second World War. While the tale may be apocryphal, the Luftwaffe never hit the station, but German aircraft did bomb the nearby town, killing five civilians, and the only attack that came close to hitting RAF Odiham was when Junkers, Ju88, crews mistook it for Andover.

Among the aircraft flying out of Odiham during WW2 were American Mustangs operated by Nos. 2, 4 and 63 Squadrons, and the Bristol Blenheims of Nos. 13, 53, 59 and 82 Squadrons.

13 Squadron Bristol Blenheim being prepared for a sortie at Canrobert, Algeria during the Second World War.

(13 Squadron Bristol Blenheim being prepared for a sortie at Canrobert, Algeria during the Second World War)

At the end of hostilities, Fighter Command assumed control, Nos. 54, 72 and 247 Squadron flying Vampires out of Odiham, Nos. 54 and 247 both converting to night-fighter units with Meteor F.8s in 1951.

Odiham closed as a fighter base in 1959, reopening as part of Transport Command in 1960, No. 72 re-equipped with the tandem rotor Bristol Belvederes, the beginning of the station’s long association with helicopters.

Among the more interesting non-military duties for No.72 Squadron was the work they carried out at Coventry – lifting the 80ft spire for the new cathedral, the old Coventry Cathedral destroyed by the Luftwaffe. Precision flying was required with a Belvedere also transporting the cross to the top of the spire, all filmed for posterity.

Among those involved was Wing Commander John Dowling who flew Lancasters in WW2 with 115 Squadron Bomber Command, learning his helicopter skills with the Far East Casualty Evacuation Flight.

72 Squadron Westland Wessex HC.2 at RAF Odiham wearing tactical camouflage in 1971

(72 Squadron Westland Wessex HC.2 at RAF Odiham wearing tactical camouflage in 1971)

No. 72 transferred to Westland Whirlwind helicopters in 1964, and then the Westland Wessex, joined by the Pumas of Nos. 33 and 230 Squadron in 1971. Probably the most harrowing incident to occur at Odiham was on November 12, 1970, two Wessexes colliding and crashing with five RAF personnel killed, those who died remembered on the Odiham memorial to helicopter personnel killed over the years.

The late 1970s saw military chiefs again looking at the Chinook, with Odiham the natural choice to house the 30 that were initially ordered. No. 18 Squadron was chosen as the first operator, returning from RAF Gutersloh in Germany with No. 230 heading in the opposite direction with their Pumas.

Among No. 18s more memorable Chinook operations was related to the Falklands War, but occurred just as the Task Force had left port. HMS Invincible was three hours at sea when a loud banging was heard in one of the ship’s propulsion gearboxes. The part required for the fix weighed three tonnes, and needed transporting from Rolls Royce to the ship – just the sort of job for an Odiham Chinook. The only problem was the crew had never landed on a ship before and there was thick fog in the Channel, but problems are there to be overcome and delivery was successful with the repair to Invincible carried out.

But it wasn’t all good news on the way to the Falklands with three Chinooks lost along with, more importantly, 12 crew, when the Atlantic Conveyor was hit by an Exocet missile before it had the chance to unload its cargo at San Carlos Water on May 25, 1982. The remaining 18 Squadron Chinook, ZA718 (Bravo November), was left to work overtime, famously squeezing 81 troops aboard on one particular flight, around twice its usual capacity.

A Chinook CH47 helicopter, ZA718 Bravo November, releases decoy flares whilst flying over the desert in Afghanistan in support of British troops in Helmand province.

(Chinook ZA718 Bravo November, releases decoy flares whilst flying over the desert in Afghanistan in support of British troops in Helmand province)

The station has become synonymous with the Chinook after the first arrival in December 1980, entering service with 240 OCU. The HC.1s were replaced with HC.2s in 1993, with a further special forces variant, the HC.3, ordered in 1995 but due to avionic certification issues they remained in storage for several years, eventually being retro-fitted with HC.2 avionics in 2009 which enabled them to come in to RAF service.

Odiham is also home to the RAF Chinook Display Team and the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing (JSFAW), a combined RAF and Army body that coordinates the supply of air support to Special Forces.

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