In the aviation world there are few sights as recognisable as the tail of a 100th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) KC-135. The "Box D" proudly displayed on their jets is a nod back to the heritage of the 100th Bomb Group, The Bloody Hundredth, the group which their current wing evolved into. The 100th ARW was reactivated as Europe's sole KC-135 tanking wing at RAF Mildenhall on the 1st Febuary 1992. The Wing is the only Air Force wing that is authorised to display its Second World War heritage tail markings. The significant losses that the Bloody Hundredth suffered in the Second World War makes the display of the "Box D" particularly poignant on the modern tankers.
I was fortunate enough to be part of a base tour on the 14.6.16 at RAF Mildenhall, and we were hosted by the 100th ARW, and shown around by airmen of the 351st Air Refueling Squadron. The tour provided an excellent insight into the mission that the 100th ARW provides and the capabilities and history of the KC-135 airframe. The wing flies missions to support the EUCOM, AFCOM and CENTCOM theatres. They provide air-to-air refueling of USAF and NATO assets, and support the various operations in these areas. As the sole USAF tanker wing permanently based with the USAFE, they are a busy unit. The wing has 15 KC-135 aircraft and around 60 pilots. Unlike other USAFE bases in Britain, RAF Mildenhall is open 24/7 to provide constant support to USAF assets in Europe. The wing operates the KC-135R airframe, this update on the venerable -135 design offers a capable tanker in an older airframe. The CFM-56 engine adds an increase in thrust and reliability, and a substantial modernisation to the fleet. These crucial upgrades are necessary as the replacement aircraft, the KC-46, will not be delivered in sufficient numbers soon enough to replace the aging KC-135 fleet.
The KC-135 is predominantly a boom aircraft, that is to say it delivers its fuel from a large, single boom at the rear of the aircraft. This boom is controlled by the "boom operator", he directs the large boom with manipulations of the flight control surfaces mounted in a "V" at the end of the boom. The system can refuel one aircraft at a time, but it lessens the work load on the receiving aircraft as the pilot has to fly in formation with the tanker, with the boom operator maneuvering the boom to mate with the aircraft. The KC-135 can also use the probe and drogue system to refuel NATO & US Navy aircraft. When using this system the KC-135 has mounted pods on the wing, while retaining use of the boom. It can also use an adapter on the boom, but this means that the tanker is strictly a probe and drogue tanker, rather than a hybrid of sorts. This flexibility keeps the tanker fleet in high demand, and extends its support to other nations and services.
The 100 ARW are due to move to Germany at some time during the Mildenhall closing process. The closing of Mildenhall will mean that the USAF has no tanker capacity, nor 24/7 divert/stop off in the United Kingdom. While there is some doubt that Mildenhall will actually shut, the fate of the base officially is sealed . The USAF pulling more assets out of the UK in an effort to save money is an unwelcome reality of the expensive procurement of the latest defence projects the United States is pursuing. However, with the changing pace of threats and also policy, it is easy to doubt the decision. Still, until the final jet departs the runway, the 100 ARW will continue to provide around the clock tanker support to US & NATO operations from the UK.
By the end of the Second World War piston engine aircraft had been perfected. Six brutal years of aerial warfare had advanced flying machines into a new era: the Jet Age. But in the aftermath of this devastating conflict, surplus aircraft were sold off to private buyers and smaller countries, unable to afford jets. These sales started a movement of collection and restoration that we still enjoy today. The birth of the privately owned Warbird scene meant opportunities to see them being flown well after (almost 80 years now!!) they left service. These Warbirds are painstakingly maintained and operated by teams of highly dedicated and professional people all over the world. It is because of this that the number of Warbirds flying is on the rise. We are seeing many types being restored to airworthy condition all around the world. The interest in these vintage flying machines is increasing with each year, and as one project draws to a close another starts somewhere else. We are in a fortunate position where a mass Spitfire flypast is a regular event at the Duxford September airshow. We are also seeing an increase in almost perfect reproductions of World War One airframes. The Aircraft Restoration Company (ARC) based at Duxford recently restored a Blenheim to flight, as well as two Mk1 Spitfires. We are seeing more and more rare types being returned to the sky. This trend is world wide, with an active Warbird scene in New Zealand, Canada, America, Britain and many other nations. An original Mitsubishi Zero has been restored to flight in Japan, we have the B29 FiFi back in the air and an Me262 flying. The operators are growing in confidence, with the Canadian Heritage Warplane Museum bringing over their Avro Lancaster to fly with the Battle of Britain Memorial flights Lancaster and Vulcan XH558 in 2014 as a prime example. The Vulcan To the Sky team managed to complete the most complex restoration project privately undertaken to return Vulcan XH558 to the sky in the October of 2007. For 8 years the Vulcan raised an average of £2 million a year to keep XH558 in the air, a testament to the enduring popularity of the Vulcan and the passion classic aviation attracts. These are a few examples of a vast and wonderful aviation scene. There is a real willingness to preserve these aircraft in an airworthy condition, and display them at airshows as a living memorial to those who fought and those who gave there lives. This is one of the common themes among these operators; the theme of keeping history alive. To see, feel and experience these aircraft as a living display.
There is, however, a dark cloud hanging over the British Warbird scene: CAA regulations. A massive, unjustified, increase in airshow charges has pushed many airshows to cancel, and in turn removing the need for Warbird displays. The exposure and revenue that displaying these Warbirds at airshows creates is crucial to there continued operation and restoration. The CAA are using the hollow reasoning of safety to justify the price increase but they are just profiteering from circumstance. It is in these uncertain times, when the very future of airshows is somewhat grey that we need to support Warbird operators and airshow organisers. If we want to keep these mechanical monuments flying, to remember, honour and preserve the past, all while inspiring the future, we need to continue to attend airshows and support the operators. We must not let the pencil pushing, profiteering of the CAA ruin a vibrant and wholly worthwhile aviation movement. Warbirds are so important, they remind us of the past, honour those who fought and most of all, are pure, exhilarating fun.
On the 11th of April, 4 Raptors from the 95th Fighter Squadron at Tyndall AFB landed at RAF Lakenheath. These were the first jets of a 12 strong deployment to Europe. The deployment was announced semi-officially by the US Air Forces in Europe Facebook page in the evening on the 11th, and created a great deal of excitement in the spotting world. The purpose of the deployment, however, was centered around the commitment the USA has to Europe in the face of increased Russian aggression on the Eastern borders. The deployment saw around 220 airman from Tyndall deployed to Lakenheath, while a Raptor pair forward deployed to Romania and then Lithuania mid way through the deployment. Right from the beginning the USAF's official message was that of joint training, a chance to train with their NATO allies. Both The RAF and Armée de l'Air had flown with Raptors in a trilateral training exercise from Langley AFB in the last part of 2015. The Raptors coming to Europe was a strong message of reassurance, having the USAF's most modern fighter deployed in such a large number showed a great deal of support to Europe's forces.
On Thursday the 14th there was an official press day, with flying starting on the following Monday 18th. A bonus of the deployment was the Raptor's involvement in the 100th Anniversary celebrations of the Lafayette Escadrille on the 20th of April. The USAF sent a four ship Raptor and single B-52H for the flypast. The flypast marked a pivotal commemoration as the Lafayette Escadrille was made up of volunteer US pilots, these would be the first Americans to see combat in the air. The brave young men of the Lafayette Escadrille laid the foundations of the heritage and history that the USAF hold dear. The 95th FS pilots also visited some local schools to talk to students about USAF life and the Raptor's capabilities.
During the Raptors' time in Europe they trained with all of the 48 Fighter Wings Squadrons and RAF Typhoons. The opportunity to train with the F-22 is an important part of integrating the 5th generation fighter capabilities into standard operation. The USAF is having to utilise the F-22 in a different way after production was ceased. Having such a small fleet of 186 airframes means that the Raptor is having to act as an air superiority fighter in miniature, as well as a stealthy scout that can enhance the fighting capability of fourth generation fighters around it. The development of the TALON HATE pod for the F-15 and in turn having a functioning data link with the F-22 means that target information can be shared, and the lethality of the F-15C increased. While the TALON HATE pod is not in service as of publishing, the chance to train with the F-22 and use, and potentially fight, the capability the Raptor brings to the fight, is an important training opportunity and one that will become more important as the F-35 and other sensor fusion platforms enter service.
The deployment ended on the 8th of May with 8 Raptors leaving RAF Lakenheath, the rest of the jets returned throughout the week after. It was a welcome sight and sound to have F-22's in the UK, and one I hope will happen more frequently as the Raptor matures as a platform.
On the 10th of March this year I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to go on a base tour at RAF Lakenheath. The squadron that hosted us for the first part of the day was the 493rd Grim Reapers, the only pure fighter squadron of the 48th Fighter Wing. They fly the F-15C and F-15D in the air superiority role.
From the moment you step into their crew building you get the feeling you are walking into a fraternity of excellence. The first object you are greeted with upon entering the building is the remains of a Mig 29 Cockpit that a Reapers jet downed in Allied Force. The building is full of the history of their squadron and has lots of souvenirs of the various deployments and conflicts they have been involved in. They are proud of their history, and rightly so. The next thing your eye is drawn to when you walk the stairs to the 493rd FS floor is a board, with all the kills the squadrons aircraft have scored. Written upon it is: "WELCOME TO EAGLE COUNTRY, Air Superiority Starts Here.". Everywhere you walk there is activity, people working to get this squadron to fly all the sorties it has planned, to keep the jets running and to keep the pilots informed and prepared. To the outsider this is immensely impressive, but to them it is just business as usual.
We're given a brief tour by the most junior pilot of the squadron, he shows us around and describes each of the numerous rooms in the building. We are then taken into the squadron bar. This room has beverages from every corner of the globe and enough souvenirs to keep the visitor intrigued for hours, it is an impressive place. There are hints everywhere of various "tools" used to name new pilots, and the names of those who have gone elsewhere. There is a chalk board with fighter maneuvers scrawled on it, and two very weathered looking briefing sticks. The bar top is from Bitburg in Germany, the Reapers inherited a lot of the Bitburg F-15C's when the unit there deactivated and so they have a close connection with them.
After touring the Reapers crew building we were then taken to one of the numerous Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS). The principle of the HAS is to offer your aircraft adequate protection in the case of an airfield attack. The HAS at Lakenheath are ventilated and sealed and a jet can be started inside the shelter in the event of a NBC (Nuclear, Biological or Chemical attack). Inside the HAS we were shown F-15C 84-0010. This airframe had downed an Iraqi SU-22 in the First Gulf War, and displays a small green star on the nose to signify this kill. We were given freedom to look around the HAS and photograph the Eagles that were taxiing back. One of the Reapers pilots also toured us around the cockpit of the jet while we stood on the ladder. It was fascinating to see their true "office" up close. The aircraft is still incredibly capable for its age, under going almost constant updates to keep it relevant and potent well into the 21st century. It is a testament to the design of the F-15, an aircraft that entered service under the Nixon administration, to still be a fantastic air superiority platform. The introduction of the AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar) front end for the AN/APG-63 and its planned retrofitting for the F-15C means that the aircraft's potency will increase as it gets older.
After a wonderful morning being shown around the Reapers lair we were taken to the tower, which offered a wonderful insight into the workings of the ATC and some great photo opportunities. We also were toured around Airfield Management, The Weather Section and RAPCON. The tour offered a fantastic chance to see the 48th fighter wing up close, and a personal look at the 493rd. A massive thank you to the 48th Public Affairs team for supervising these tours and to Ross Henty and the 48th and 100 ARW Facebook page for organizing it.