Navigator



In the mid 1930s the R.A.F. entered into an 'Expansion Scheme' programme, which apart from the increase in squadron strength also increased the number of training establishments. The building of dozens of new aerodromes were also included in this scheme, and the central counties of England was chosen as the location for the majority of the flying training stations, as it was well behind the operational areas to the east.

Brize Norton was chosen to help fulfil the flying training requirement and work on the construction of this permanent type of RAF Station commenced in 1936. It was provided with five C type concrete hangars, grouped together at the N/W side of the large grass airfield, behind which was the standard compliment of technical buildings and all the other brick built structures, including numerous married quarters.

On completion of this first phase, the station was taken over by Flying Training Command in late August 1937, with the arrival from Digby of No.2 Flying Training School. This school was equipped with Hawker Hart, Fury and Hector biplanes, all of which were employed in giving advanced flying training to newly qualified pilots.

In common with several other training airfields, Brize Norton was also planned to be used for aircraft storage and maintenance. To fulfil this task several more hangars were now erected in small groups dispersed around the perimeter, some over a mile or more away from the main camp.

On the 10th of October 1938, No.6. M.U. was established here and began to receive the first of the many thousands of aircraft that were to be handled by this unit over the next 13 years. By the outbreak of war they had in store , or working upon Battles, Whitleys, Spitfires, Gladiators and Blenheims, some 200 aircraft in all..

In the mean time by March 1938 the resident F.T.S started to use Airspeed Oxford twin-engine trainers, and later still received a smaller number of Harvards for the single engine aspect of training. The pressure really built up for the requirement of new pilots in 1940, with an addition landing ground at Akeman Street having to be brought into use. It was also at that time that the school was retitled No.2.(Service) F.T.S. and concentrated on using Oxford aircraft.

In August 1940 the station was badly bombed by the Luftwaffe who caused much damage, destroying two hangars, together with their contents of 46 aircraft, the largest loss of aircraft at single blow during the whole war, but thankfully only one person was killed.

Although there were other changes of titles to this busy pilot flying training establishment whilst it was based here, it eventually disbanded on the 14th of July 1942 in order that a more pressing flying training role could commence at Brize Norton.

Although the station remained controlled by No.23 Group it then became involved with glider pilot training, when it became the home of the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit, which formed here on the 15th of July. The glider pilots had already qualified on the small Hotspur glider but now came to Brize to convert onto the large troop carrying Horsa. A huge fleet of ex Whitley bombers (34) were used for towing the many more gliders (56), with training taking place by day and by night, with as many as 2000 tows per month being performed.

From March to October 1944 the above unit temporarily moved out to allow the station to become an operational glider force base for the airborne assaults mounted in the Invasion of Europe, and the Arnhem landings that followed. During this period Nos. 296 and 297 Squadrons was present using Albemarle tugs to tow Horsa gliders, this time loaded with paratroops for real. This then was the stations finest hour when it was a truly operational base.

Incidentally, the resident No.6.M.U had been involved with the storage and issuing of gliders in a very big way from 1942 onwards, with more than 1000 Horsa gliders having been final assembled here before being flown out to their respective airfields.

The No.21 Glider H.C.U returned in Oct.1944, by then using Albemarles to tow the Horsa gliders, as there was still a requirement for more glider pilots to replace those lost on the Continent. The H.C.U continued with its training program even for a while after the war ended, and only departed for Elsham Wolds on the 31st of December 1945.

The station then became part of Transport Command and the first unit to be based here was the Transport Command Development Unit which experimented with such aircraft as Dakotas, Liberators, Yorks and Stirlings, but later received Hastings and Valettas, all being used for loading trials etc.,

From Sept 46 to Aug 47 there was also No.297 Sqdn in residence with its transport version of the Halifax, engaged in the transpotation of equipment overseas. However, on the 30th of June 1949 the T.C.D.U left for Abingdon and Brize Norton was again taken over by Flying Training Command.

A mixture of Harvards flown by the Central Flying School, or Mosquitoes flown by No.204 Advanced Flying School, pounded the circuit until June 1950, when the station became one of around 40 airfields in England to be handed over to the American Air Force.

This move meant the closure of No.6 M.U who had to disband and move their vast stocks of Meteors and Spitfires by the end of December 1951. During that past 18 months a major lengthening of the runway and other improvements had taken place in readiness for the huge American jet bomber force.

From June 1952 through to March 1965 several American bomber and flight re-fuelling squadrons had been in residence, commencing with B29 Super Fortress, B36 ten engine bombers, followed by B47 and B50 Strato Jet Bombers, and finally the B58 Hustlers and their attendant KC135 (modified Boeing 707) aerial tankers.

With the slow run down of the American Air Force in England they gave up the station and R.A.F. Transport Command took over again in April 1965, and immediately built a super large hangar to house the huge Belfast transport aircraft. By July 1967 all was ready when No.53 Sqdn arrived with these large new aircraft. Alongside came another squadron (No.10) equipped with the troop carrying VC.10 which were converted airliners. Also present during this era was 241 O.C.U converting crews onto Britannia and Comet troop carrying airliners.

The mighty Belfasts were disposed of in September 1976 but their places had already been taken by No.115 Squadron who arrived in February 1975 with four-engine Argosies (later Andovers) which were employed in radio and radar calibration duties. However, this seems to have over stretched resources because this squadron left for Benson in 1983.

When Abingdon closed in 1976 Brize Norton also became the home of the No.1 Parachute Training School which continues to function here on a limited scale into the mid 1990s with its display team the Falcans. Thanks chiefly to the American developments of the 1950s, the station has become the R.A.F’s main military transport and overseas passenger terminal. At the time of writing in 1995 it still has two resident squadrons equipped with VC10s and converted Tristar airliners, dashing all over the world.

Note: Since this article was written it has been decided that Brize Norton will host the newly reformed 99 Squadron who will be operating four C17 giant transport aircraft commencing in early 2001.