RAF Brize Norton and the USAF

USAF

 The Americans were at Brize Norton from 1950 to 1965
 

1960 to 1965

To understand the reasons for the USAF take-over at Brize Norton, it is first necessary to go into the background of their return to the UK after the war. In 1948, with tension between the East and West on the increase, the British Government invited America to re-deploy air force units to England. Preparation for just such an eventuality had been under way in fact since an informal agreement was reached in 1946 between General Spaatz, Commander US Strategic Air Forces in Europe and Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder whereby five East Anglian bases would be prepared to handle B-29s if required.

Matters came to a head in April 1948 with the start of the Berlin Blocade and on the 7th August the establishment of USAF units in the UK was once more put on a permanent footing. In November 1948, having been assured the long-term use of British bases, the USAF decided that the East Anglian bases could prove vulnerable and that it was therefore desirable to build four new B29 bases further inland behind the British fighter screen. A lengthy search for suitable sites in both England and Scotland finally resulted in the choice of the closely grouped airfields at Fairford, Greenham Common, Upper Heyford and Brize Norton, and an arrangement for developing these airfields for USAF use was signed in April 1950 by the then US Ambassador, Lewis Douglas, and the Under-Secretary of State for Air, Aidan Crawley - the so- called "Ambassadors Agreement."

An advance party of American Army engineers surveyed all four bases during April and May 1950 in order to determine what resources would be needed to provide each airfield with a 9,000 ft runway, additional hardstands and lighting. Then, on the 7th June, the 7503rd Base Complement Sqn was moved from Marham, Norfolk, to Brize Norton.

It is interesting to record at this point that very little of all this was being given away in public, as a look at the pages of the local paper, the Oxford Times, reveals, In the issue dated Friday, 2nd June, the possibility of American forces occupying Brize and Little Rissington was discussed at a meeting of the Witney Rural District Council. A statement from the Air Ministry was read out which said that American forces were not interested in Brize Norton, this just five days before the first Americans arrived! Then, in the issue of the paper for Friday, 9th June - two days after the first arrivals - the Air Ministry was quoted as saying that no decision had yet been reached as to which airfield would be occupied by the Americans for B-29B-50 operations!

At about the same time as the arrival of the unit from Marham, the 928th Engineer Aviation Group moved in, followed on the 26th August by the 803rd Engineer Aviation Battalion and work started in earnest. On the 16th April 1951, in a formal ceremony, the station was officially handed over to the USAF and on the 18th March the parent unit was redesignated the 7503rd Air Base Wing.

Just over a year later, the airfield work was completed and in June 195 2, the USAF commenced its first operational use of Brize Norton in spectacular fasion. On a rare foggy day the drone of many heavy piston-engined aircraft circling the area could be heard, and finally, one by one, in came a total of 21 11th Bomb Wing Convair B-36s the ten- engined bomber known as the Peacemaker, or more unofficially, the "aluminum overcast". The aircraft stayed for about a week, with little or no flying being done before departing one evening at 2 minute intervals back to the States.

Not long after this, on the 6th November, the 7503rd was succeeded by the 3920th Air Base Group, later to become the 3920th Strategic Wing, the unit which was to look after Brize Norton for the rest of its occupancy by the USAF. Thus, with the organising of the station back- up system complete, the way was clear to start full scale bomber deployments on a permanent basis, and accordingly, on the Ist of December 1952, the 352nd and 353rd Bomb Squadrons of the 301st Bomb Wing flew in with Boeing B-50 Superforts, with KB-29P tankers for their ninety day stay, being replaced in their turn by the 43rd Bomb Wing, and so on.

The next year, 1953, was one of considerable advance, and it was also marked by several notable visits by VIPs, starting on the 15th February when General Curtis E LeMay, late of the renowned USAAF 8th Air Force, made a tour of inspection. On May 22nd, the Duke of Edinburgh visited in a Viking of the Queen's Flight and many other high ranking officers and US Senators were to inspect the base before the year was out.

On the construction side, 195 3 brought the completion of the direct fuel-line from the Esso terminal at Purton on the 30th June and the opening of the new control tower, situated on the south side of the runway, on the 30th August. However, by far the most important event of the year was the arrival of the first unit of Boeing B-47 Stratojets, with the first element of the 305th Bomb Wing touching down on the 4th September for the then customary three months tour of duty. These were the forerunners of several hundred of their type which would ultimately visit Brize during the next 11'h years.

The final happening of the year was the first accident to occur since the USAF take-over. On the 27th November, an RAF Vampire made an emergency landing and overshot, fortunately without injury, although the aircraft was severely damaged.

Further consolidation during 1954 saw the base being assigned its own C47 (43-15943) on the 14th August, and the first major exercise on the 22nd September. Code-named "Operation Blueplate", the exercise involved the deployment to Brize of 15 B-47s of the 43rd Bomb Wing, at that time on temporary duty (TDY) at nearby Fairford. The aircraft stayed for two days.

At the close of the year on the 21 st November another first was achieved with the arrival of an advanced party from the 321st Air Refuelling Squadron, the first KC-97 unit on TDY. The only accident in the area that year did not, in fact, involve a Brize Norton aircraft. During the night of the 20th July, a large

explosion and fireball were seen to the south; a B-47 had taken off from Fairford and almost immediately come down in open country close to Radcot Lock on the Thames with the loss of all three crew members. Crash rescue, firemen and security personnel were despatched to the scene from Brize Norton since it was closer than the aircraft's parent base. In October 1978, the scene was revisited, and after a few minutes searching in the newly ploughed field, several pieces of wreckage came to light, including a throttle pulley and panel fastener marked "Boeing".

A fire of a different sort was discovered by an air policeman on the 9th April 1955, when one of the old T2 metal hangars, now used as a store was set ablaze and totally burnt out with an estimated material loss of nearly two million dollars. The collapsed remains of the building were still much in evidence a month later when Brize opened its doors to the public for its first "Open House".

An impressive array of aeroplanes was drawn up on static display including: B-47E 2287 on TDY, KC-97G 53-108 of the 310th ARS, F-86D Sabre 24091 of the 514th FIS, 406th FIW at Manston, accompanied by T-33A 35055 from the same unit, F-84G Thunderjet 1951 of the 79th FBS, 20th FBW at Wethersfield, Essex, RB-45C Tornado 48-019 of the 47th BW at Sculthorpe, Norfolk, B-36J 52-2220, F- 84F 26382 from the 81st FBW at Bentwaters, Hunter F 1 WW641 `B' of 54 squadron at Odiham, Hants, Hastings C 2 WJ331 `GAX', Vampire T 11 XD437 `49' of 7 FTS Valley plus unidentified Provost T 1 and Canberra B 2.

Shortly before this event on the 4th May, a KC-97G of the 310th ARS had crashed 90 miles southwest of Iceland while operating from Brize, but despite this, another public relations exercise went ahead on the 20th of the same month, when a reporter from the Yorkshire Evening News was taken in a KC97 on a refuelling mission, thus becoming the first British journalist to be taken on this type of flight.

However, by now it was evident that the new runway, and some taxiways were in need of repair, and consequently, the airfield was closed from November 22nd to 28th for inspection, and then closed completely on the 16th December for the work to be carried out. The "Open House" on 19th May 1956 was thus a very quiet affair as the repaired runway was only re-opened for daylight use on the 16th July and for full use again on the 4th September, when 4 B-47s made the first use of it by jet aircraft.

Another claim to fame for the base was established on Thursday 17th January 1957 when the first Boeing B-52 to make a scheduled overseas flight landed after a flight from Castle AFB, California. The aircraft was B-52B 3395, "City of Turlock" and was flown by Major Ben H. Clements of the 93rd.. Bomb Wing. A press day for the local papers was held the next day, and although in later years Brize would have something in the order of 90 visits by B-52s, this was the only time a `B' model was to be seen here or anywhere else in the UK.

Yet more runway work was necessary between August and September and then on the 12th December, the 3920th Air Base Group was assigned its first jet aircraft with the arrival of two RB-47s for the use of command personnel in maintaining type proficiency.

1958 began with the first overlapping of B-47 wings on rotation. Between the 1 st and 31 st January, elements of both the outgoing 68th Bomb Wing and

the incoming 100th Bomb Wing were present on the airfield at the same time. Shortly after the exchange had been completed, on the 3rd March, a 100th BW aircraft accidentally jettisoned an underwing fuel tank whilst flying locally. It came down in the back garden of a retired Wing Commander's house at Ashton Keynes, fortunately for all concerned, causing no damage to people or property!

Not so fortunate though was the pilot of an F-86D Sabre of the 86th FIW stationed in Germany, which, with another from the same unit, was carrying out GCA runs at Brize Norton on the 10th May. While flying on the downwind leg of the circuit, one aircraft hit trees alongside the A40 road near Burford, crashed and disintegrated, killing the pilot. Great anxiety was caused when only 23 of the 24 rockets the aircraft had been carrying could be found and it was several days before an RAF mine detector unit came up with the missing one.

On the 14th May, the B-52s returned with the arrival of six aircraft from the 92nd BW at Fairchild AFB, Washington, to participate in the RAF's annual bombing competition. The aircraft involved were all `D' models and were serialled, 5112, 6584, 6599, 6667, 6668 and 6674. In marked contrast to more recent times, the USAF scored a runaway victory in the contest, being placed first in all categories but one, in which they came second.

Shortly afterwards, on the 26th May, Brize witnessed its first "Ban The Bomb" type march, when 250 protestors made a peaceful protest, which included handing in a petition at the main gate to a selected airman. It had been decided that all officers would remain in the background to avoid provoking anti- American elements in the crowd.

On June 27th, two KC-135s arrived after flying from New York in the record time of 5 hours 27 minutes. Two days later they returned, setting a further record for the west-bound leg of 5 hours 51 minutes. 1958 was again a year of VIP visits including a three hour meeting between the US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, and the British Foreign Minister, Selwyn Lloyd, on the 19th October, and a brief tour of the base by Vice-President Richard Nixon on the 28th November.

However, by far the most significant event of the year was the ending of the old-style full B-47 wing deployments with the return to the States of the 100th Bomb Wing on April 1st. Thereafter, the B-47 units were only to stay in this country for about three weeks at a time in considerably reduced numbers under the so-called "Reflex Alert" system. The numbers present at any one time were reduced from the 40 to 50 of the old system, to approximately 20, and little, if any, flying was undertaken between arrival and departure.

1959 was, by comparison, a rather quiet year. The B-47 detachments continued in the new pattern and completion of long-awaited over-runs at last allowed full utilization of the 10,000 ft runway length. In November, the anti H-bomb marchers returned this time over 500 strong, but again, no incidents arose.

On September 14th, 1960, whilst three B-47 aircraft were on their way to Brize Norton for a standard deployment, two aircraft collided over the Atlantic and one came down in the sea. An immediate search for the-3 man crew was instigated, and that same day, 10 KC- 97s arrived at Brize to help. However, several days intense activity failed to find any trace of the men or their machine and the search was abandoned.

two of the B-47s assigned for proficiency flying, reflecting the reduced commitment.

The plan for the run-down of the base was published on the 1 st September and called for the last USAF personnel to be off the base on the 31st May 1965. However, the Reflex operations continued right up until the official hand-over of the base on Ist April 1965.

It seems that the last year or so of Strategic Air Command (SAC) operations was treated as something of a "last-fling" with an intense programme of alerts, exercises and visits by various other strange types; many locals still recall the U-2 which spent some days here around this time. Amongst the many aspects of operational life which the local population had to learn to live with was the use during exercises of smoke-screens, when evilsmelling smoke, produced by burning so-called "Fog Oil", would drift for great distances across the countryside. In fact, when the wind was in the right direction and strong enough, the good people of Carterton even had to put up with Fairford's smoke.

By far the most common form of exercise though, was the "Broken Arrow" alert, which simulated a B-47 accident and was practised almost once a week to test emergency procedures. This was especially important when it is remembered that aircraft on Reflex duty were armed with nuclear weapons.

The final 17 aircraft Reflex detachment came to an end on the 3rd April 1965, the last aircraft to leave being B-47E 0.31884. The aircraft on this last tour were drawn from the 380th Bomb Wing, which on returning to the States, was disbanded to reform at a later date as a missile unit.

Not long before the final pull-out by the USAF, it was announced that one of the four 7th Air Division bases would be retained after all in order to support limited SAC operations in the future, in particular, RB-47 and KC/RC-135 missions. Although the Americans were known to favour Brize Norton, they were over-ruled by the RAF's wishes and the final choice fell on Upper Heyford.

 

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