Development News for Britain’s Airfields (3).

A third proposal for airfield development had been released in this last week. The first two, RAF Downham Market and RAF West Raynham have been highlighted in previous posts. The third, is possibly the most significant so far and one that like RAF West Raynham, sets a standard by which future developments could proceed. This site is that of RAF Coltishall.

RAF Coltishall – The Future

RAF Coltishall was home to around 56 RAF Squadrons throughout its life, these included the Jaguars of 6, 41 and 54 Squadrons along with a wide range of  aircraft from both the Second World War, Cold War era and the Gulf War.  It is a large site that accommodated around  1,500 people at its height, with four hangars, a single runway and both extensive accommodation and technical sites.

Vacated by the RAF  in 2006, it has been the subject of a public consultation since 2013. Questions were asked about the possible future use of the site which included light aviation with air displays, a change to affordable housing, industrial use and site redevelopment. Norfolk County Council took the future of the site very seriously, knowing how much it meant to both the local people of Norfolk and Britain’s aviation heritage. The results of this consultation have now been released and can be accessed through the link at the base of the page.

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The Control Tower at Coltishall may be part of a Heritage Trail

As with West Raynham, a site like Coltishall, that is complete, offers a unique opportunity to develop the buildings and structures whilst retaining and highlighting the heritage value that it represents. The buildings and infrastructure are ideal for a small self-contained ‘village’ that encourages links with both the local and wider community as a whole.

Norfolk County Council have recognised the importance of this site in particular, and as a result, much of it is now listed as ‘ancient monuments’ or locally listed buildings. These include: the World War 2 dispersals, Cold War blast walls, hangars, tower and communal buildings. It survives today in its entirety, primarily because the entire airfield is designated a Conservation Area by Norfolk County Council. This status gives protection against some of the more virile development and ensures in part, the preservation of the site for future generations.

Norfolk County Council have now released their proposed plans for the site, which include a harmonic development of both the main technical and accommodation areas utilising the buildings in situ where they can.

These plans may mean the sad loss of the main runway and grassed areas, probably both being returned to agriculture or open green space. It would also suggest a loss of much of the perimeter track as well.  However, their plans do include creating a public heritage trail, viewing platform and sign-age to promote and explain the uses of Coltishall, as it was throughout its aviation life. There are also suggestion of ‘interpretations’ of both cold war and second world war aircraft in their respective pens.

Just this week however, a private enterprise (led by a cycle shop owner) put forward a proposal to use the three-mile perimeter track as a cycle track for recreational and competition cycling opportunities. Further proposals include  a £300,000 development of the former operations room into a cafe and cycle workshop.  Landscaping would also be included making it a hub for recreational activities linked by cycles paths to Norwich, Hoveton and Aylsham.

Financial support has not yet been granted for this particular part of the proposal, but it is hoped that the site will be open mid 2016.

Norfolk County Council are considering the plans in line with their own heritage and development ideas. If it all goes ahead, then once developed, RAF Coltishall is likely to be the best preserved airfield in the UK that has not only been developed but opened to the public. Furthermore, if these proposals are to come to fruition, it could become a model for future development of Britain’s old wartime relics.

Details of the Council’s proposal can be found here.

The overall plan can be found here.

RAF Coltishall appears in Trail 7.

The End of an Era – Vulcan XH558 Bows Out.

The end of October marks the end of an era, with the grounding of Avro Vulcan XH558. After an eight year reign as Queen of the skies, she finally bows out after the three main technical companies that support her, withdrew their support. In her last flight on October 28th 2015, she completed a short 15 minute flight, the culmination of 228 flights and 346 hours flying time. After a long taxi to runway 02 at Robin Hood Airport, she performed her last flight to a small crowd of gathered people whilst streaming the event live on YouTube. Creating her own cloud, she had the grace of an angel, performing a touch and go before landing for good and so closing the book on this remarkable story.

Vulcan XH558 Landing at Waddington

XH558 lands at Waddington July 2014

The Vulcan was the last of the Cold War bombers to fly and achieved a great following across the country. The ‘Vulcan effect’ as it became affectionately known would draw thousands to street corners, road sides and airshows just to see the graceful bird and hear her incredible howl.

The first flight of XH558 as she returned to the sky after a 14 year restoration.

For me personally the Vulcan was the aircraft I used to watch as a child from my parent’s bedroom window; my first real close up, large jet aircraft and one of the many that drove my love of aviation. They would do circuits around Bitteswell airfield following maintenance or upgrading, so it seems fitting therefore, that the last time I would see her in person, would again be from my own back garden so many years later as she flew over my home.

vulcan take off

Lots of jet wash on take off at Waddington 2013

Famed for flying to the Falkland Islands and bombing the runway at Port Stanley airport,  Vulcans supported by 13 Victor tankers, undertook the longest bombing raid on military record. An incredible feat and one that will go down in history for a very long time, probably eternity.

Designed initially by Roy Chadwick and built by the Avro company, it was one of many iconic aircraft to leave the Avro works. Shown to the public for the first time at Farnborough in August 1952, a Vulcan went on in 1955 to perform an amazing barrel roll much to the amazement of the crowd. Designed to carry weapons of mass destruction, the Vulcan formed the backbone of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and would carry a nuclear warhead to Russia should the demand arise. Crews were on standby 24 hours a day, 365 days a year ready to take off knowing they would probably not be returning. The Vulcan had a  truly devastating punch. Her beauty and grace were matched only by her prowess and destructive power.

Vulcan Ready to launch

XH558 at Waddington June 2013

XH558 in particular was the RAF’s own display aircraft for 33 years eventually retiring from service in 1993. Bought and maintained by C Walton Ltd, she would go on to be cared for by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust. She was flown to Bruntingthorpe and refurbished to airworthy status  over a period of 14 years at a cost of £7,000,000. XH558 was then flown to her new home at Doncaster airport, itself a former Vulcan bomber station, RAF Finningley.

From there she would undertake a huge number of flights, displaying to thousands across a range of airshows around Britain, far exceeding her original target of 250 hours flying time such was the demand to see her.

Eventually though her time would come, and even with the huge public support, the technical skills needed and provided by: B.A.E., Rolls Royce and Marshall Aerospace, have finally been pulled and her flying days are now over.

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XH558 flies over for the last time.

XH558 will continue to reside at Doncaster in a Heritage centre alongside a new Technical School. She will be kept in taxiing condition, still run her engines and keep full electrical power. A new era dawns, and she joins the other grounded Vulcans, with  a new vision and a new life.

With the grounding of XH558, airshows across Britain won’t be the same, but at least she had the chance to fly again and amaze the thousands who flocked repeatedly to see a mighty Vulcan fly in Britain’s skies once more.

Sadly, I didn’t get to see her on her last tour of Britain, but even the Vulcan can’t be everywhere at once. I have some fantastic memories of her, from Waddington to Eastbourne, with the two Lancasters at Marham, and many, many more that I have gathered over the years.

For the chance to see a Vulcan in the skies again, to the team and XH558, from me personally, a very big heartfelt thank you.

 XH558 doing what she does best at Eastbourne 2015

The First of two tours forming the farewell flight of XH558 from inside the cockpit.

Pledges and support can continue to be offered for the upkeep of 558 through their dedicated website. Her history, visits and other information can also be accessed through this link.

RAF Sculthorpe – a relic of the Cold War.

In this second part of the Norfolk Trails, we visit three more of Norfolk’s treasures. Deep in the heart of Norfolk, two of them are very much complete, but the third is all but gone. However, all is not lost as it still an active private airfield, and some of its features have luckily survived.

The first of these three jewels on this trail is RAF Sculthorpe.

RAF Sculthorpe 

Located to the west of Norwich, Sculthorpe has its origins in the Second World War, but it has a larger claim to fame that it still retains to this day.

A once busy shop

A once busy shop now derelict and forgotten.

Designed initially as a heavy bomber site, and satellite to RAF West Raynham, Sculthorpe now has three runways one of 12,000ft and two of 6,000ft, all concrete. With its enormous technical and administration sites that housed up to 10,000 personnel, Sculthorpe was one of the biggest bases in Europe, an honour it retains to this day.

Sculthorpe had a limited Second World War life, being opened quite late in the war in January 1943. Following a years development and growth, it initially housed Mosquitos of 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) squadrons.  Originally based at Methwold, the Mosquito FB.VIs replaced the earlier and slower twin-engined Venturas. At Sculthorpe, these two units were joined by 21 Sqn who stayed until the following December, before moving on. Then the much heavier B-17s of 214 sqn moved in thus changing the role of RAF Sculthorpe. The B-17s were redesigned and adapted to assist in radio jamming trials, the early form of Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), the B-17 crews would also be joined by other personnel from the United States, who stayed carrying out this role, until just prior to the end of hostilities.

Accomodation Block

Barrack Block

It was really at this time that Sculthorpe came into its own. With the influx of crews from the States, more accommodation would be needed and quickly. A sustained period of redevelopment, improving of runways and hardstandings, saw Sculthorpe gain the designation of Very Heavy Bomber base. It was anticipated that the enormous Boeing B-29s would be stationed here, but when the war in Europe came to an end, further deployment at Sculthorpe ceased and the B29s never arrived. However, the rise in ‘Soviet Aggression’ and post conflict tensions during the Cold War and Berlin airlift, secured the immediate future of Sculthorpe. Atomic weapons were stored here ready, when the North American B-45 Tornado found itself becoming the front-line four engined bomber designed to attack Soviet targets from the UK. During 1952, the 47th Bomb Wing of the Strategic Air Command were redeployed here from the United States. This wing consisted of the 84th, 85th, and 86th BS, along with the 420th Refueling Sqn and the 19th Tactical Reconnaissance sqn. These units operated a number of types including the: B-45, B-66, KB-29, KB-50, and RB-45C aircraft.

Control Tower

The Control Tower in a setting sun.

Ninety day duty rotations saw aircraft like the mighty B-36 ‘Peacemaker’ fill the skies over Sculthorpe, until finally, political agreements and imposed de-escalation strategies between the Cold War factions, prevented further deployment of large-scale US bombers on European soil.

Gradually, as nuclear deterrents turned to missiles and naval based platforms, Sculthorpe’s activity began to slow. Being returned to RAF ownership in 1964, it was placed in care and maintenance, and held by only a small detachment of support staff. Then in the late 60s, the USAF returned once more, needing a base from which to operate its aircraft whilst other airfields were redeveloped and runways resurfaced. This brought new life to Sculthorpe, American F-4 Phantoms and C-130s were based here, along with other aircraft types from the RAF operating under similar circumstances. This process went on well into the late 1980s and Sculthorpe became a mecca for plane spotters for at least another few years.

Airmens huts

‘Hut 380’, a Second World War remnant.

This was not to last however, and Sculthorpe finally closed its doors in 1992, the enormous accommodation blocks and technical sites were sold off. Both these and many of the remaining buildings were left to decay, whilst planners gae thought to what they should be used for. However, like a phoenix, Sculthorpe returned from the dead yet again. The RAF, Army Air Corps and USAF using it for manoeuvres, with tilt wing aircraft, paratroops and rehearsals of supply drops over its enormous runways; much of this activity taking place at night. Even up until recently, C-130s have also been seen landing here, again rehearsing quick ‘stop-‘n’-go’ drops.

Looking at Sculthorpe, it is hard to believe its origins were in the Second World War. Being a real monster of the Cold War, Sculthorpe is clinging on by the skin of its teeth. The accommodation blocks that once housed 10,000 personnel are decaying and vandalised, refurbished areas are now sold off and accommodating local families. A small industrial area has been developed from the technical area, and the local farmer grazes his cows on the far reaches of the site. Many of the older orignal buildings have been left to rot and fall down. The American authorities still retain some ownership of the site, whilst a large part of it is in private hands.

Technical site buildings

A large part of Sculthorpe has been left to rot, piece by piece.

The original guard-house is no longer manned, and a number of other buildings close by are also empty. A small public track that once took eager plane spotters to the rear of the airfield, still allows views across the north of the now quiet site where a blister hangar continues to stand alone. The control tower is still intact visible in the distance from this point, as are a number of original Nissan huts and Second World War buildings hidden amongst new buildings and old developments.

Reunion 'memorial'

In remembrance of the 47th BW, 50th anniversary reunion, 2002.

Sculthorpe was once a bustling airfield, home to some of the world’s heaviest bombers, a mecca for aviation enthusiasts and plane spotters alike. Today, it is a decaying industrial site, a mix of old buildings and new developments, a remnant of the Cold War, it clings on to life by the skin of its teeth, maybe, just maybe, the Phoenix will rise up once more and spring into life again.

Blister Hangar

Sculthorpe’s remaining Blister hangar in a low setting sun.

From Sculthorpe, we travel a few miles south, a stones throw, to its sister station and another post war relic – RAF West Raynham.