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RAF Waddington

Waddington welcomes its first Protector as the station expands its ISTAR force

THE RAF took delivery of its first Protector recently, the remotely-piloted aircraft packed with a range of surveillance equipment that is able to operate at heights of up to 40,000 feet with a flight-time in excess of 30 hours.

The Protector will slot into the UK ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) programme, with a further 15 of the aircraft arriving at Waddington from the US in a phased delivery, the station the main operating base for airborne intelligence.

Protector MQ-9B Aircraft was delivered to RAF Waddington 30 September 2023

The Lincolnshire site, boasting an image of Lincoln Cathedral rising through the clouds in its badge, is one the busiest RAF centres in the UK, with a workforce of around 3.500; the Protector will replace the Reaper (MQ-9A), and joins the RC-135W Rivet Joint and Shadow R1 as the designated ISTAR aircraft.

Waddington’s surveillance role is fairly recent one, historically being known as a bomber station for much of its existence, but its origins were as a training centre when it opened midway through WWI, operating as a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) location where student pilots were taught to fly a range of aircraft, US Army personnel among those who received training.

RFC Waddington
(RFC Waddington)

Among the squadrons formed at Waddington, four miles south of Lincoln, during WWI were Nos. 105, 117 and 123, with a number of others located there for periods of the conflict. It was two years after the end of hostilities that the station was placed into care and maintenance, reopening as a home for No. 503 (County of Lincoln) Special Reserve Squadron in November 1926, operating a range of aircraft throughout the 1920s and 1930s, No. 50 Squadron arriving in March 1937 flying Hawker Hinds before an upgrade to Handley Page Hampdens.

Among other squadrons arriving as the threat of war loomed were Nos. 44, 88, and 110, No. 110 leaving for Wattisham in Suffolk before the outbreak of hostilities. On the same day as war was declared, September 3, 1939, Nos. 44 and 50 Squadrons were in action, attacking naval targets at Kiel in northern Germany.

During the Battle of Britain in 1940, with German forces seemingly preparing for an invasion of the UK, squadrons from the Lincolnshire station were involved in operations targeting barges in ports in northern France, believed to form part of a fleet of vessels planned to carry German troops across the Channel.

An Avro Lancaster of No. 463 Squadron RAAF at RAF Waddington in 1944.

(An Avro Lancaster of No. 463 Squadron RAAF at RAF Waddington in 1944)

As well as the first station to receive the ill-fated Avro Manchester, Waddington was the first to see the Avro Lancaster, in effect the Mk III Manchester, arriving in September 1941 for testing. Squadrons that arrived at the station during WW2 included Nos. 9, 97, 142 and 207, along with a number of overseas squadrons from nations including Canada and Australia.

One Australian crew, along with a RAF Flight Engineer, operating a Lancaster on August 31, 1944, departed Waddington never to return, the aircraft lost over the Monadhliath Mountains in a remote part of Scotland near Aviemore in the Highlands, all seven airmen killed. A recovery team from No. 19 OTU at RAF Kinloss retrieved the bodies of those lost, but with the crash site requiring a near 20-mile trip on foot to reach, sections of PD259 were only returned to Waddington as late as 2010, where they are available to view on request.

There remains confusion surrounding PD259, with another Lancaster bearing the same reference code recorded as going down over the Netherlands in October 1944, after being hit by heavy flak. The August 31 Lancaster, however, was crewed by No. 463 Squadron RAAF along with one RAF Flight Engineer, carrying out a navigation exercise over Scotland as part of final preparations for operational flying, but when an attempt was made to pull out of a high-speed steep dive, the aircraft broke up in mid-air.

Post war, Waddington was one of the first V-bomber stations, No. 83 Squadron receiving Vulcans in May 1957, a role the site maintained until 1984 when the last Vulcan unit, No. 50 Squadron, disbanded – other Vulcan squadrons at the Lincolnshire site included Nos. 9, 44, 83 and 101.

Avro Vulcan bombers from RAF Waddington flying in formation in 1957
(Avro Vulcan bombers from RAF Waddington flying in formation in 1957)

During the Falklands War in 1982, personnel from Waddington were involved in the most famous series of bombing runs in history, Operation Black Buck, then the longest bombing missions ever conducted. Vulcans of Nos 44, 50 and 101 Squadrons relocated to RAF Wideawake on Ascension Island, flying directly from there to the Falklands to bomb the Port Stanley runway: the 8,000-mile return flight aided by a series of complicated air-to-air refuelling plans, Handley Page Victor tankers working to create the airbridge.

In July 1991, the arrival of Boeing E-3 Sentrys helped cement the station’s surveillance and reconnaissance role, the Electronic Warfare Operational Support Element (EWOSE) relocating to Waddington from RAF Wyton in March 1995.

An E-3D Sentry lands at RAF Waddington
(An E-3D Sentry lands at RAF Waddington)

In the summer of 2014, the aircraft and squadrons of Waddington were dispersed while a major rebuilding programme began, the station reopening in November 2016, the centenary of the site marked while the upgrade was ongoing, a two-metre steel sculpture unveiled: the work incorporated designs of both the Lancaster and Vulcan bombers that were key to the station’s history.

In April 2020, No. 216 Squadron reformed at Waddington testing drone swarm technology, and the following year the RAF stood up the new ISTAR Air Wing, formed as part of the RAF Future Operating Model, comprising of Squadrons, Air Support Wing, Air Engineering Wing, No. 1 Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing, and the ISTAR OCU.

Along with its ISTAR role and being the main operating base for airborne intelligence aircraft and systems, Waddington is the home of the Red Arrows, relocating from the nearby RAF Scampton in October 2022, allowing the RAF’s aerobatic team to maintain its links with the county of Lincolnshire that have spanned 40 years.

Along with the Hawk jets synonymous with their displays across the UK, some 24 tonnes of equipment were moved the 13 miles by road between the two sites, which included two full-sized static aircraft, – one used for engineering training – a range of technical gear, and not forgetting the 146-strong personnel force that accompany the aerobatic team.

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