UK Military Aviation

SEP 15 2011
Military Aviation >> Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Culdrose - Then & Now

The Culdrose of 2011 is in many ways very different to the Culdrose of 1986. The first thing you notice is how quiet it is, with very little activity at what was once labelled Europe’s busiest helicopter base. Gone are the Gazelles of 705 NAS, the Jetstreams of 750 NAS, the Wessex of 771 NAS and most of the Sea Kings – Culdrose was awash with them in the mid ‘80s. There was 706 NAS doing conversion training, 810 NAS doing Operational Flying Training (OFT) and four front line squadrons (814, 820, 824 and 826 NAS) as well as the yellow aircraft of the RAF Sea King Training Unit (SKTU). Whilst the front line squadrons spent a lot of time away at sea, there were enough other aircraft here to keep the airspace busy.

Most of these squadrons actually still exist. 705 NAS is now part of the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS) at RAF Shawbury, 750 NAS is still at Culdrose and has recently replaced its once large fleet of Jetstreams (in 1986 the Squadron had 16 T2s and briefly 4 T3s) with four brand new King Air 350s, or Avengers T1s as the RN has decided to call them. At the end of June they were all present, but still awaiting their Release to Service from the recently formed Military Aviation Authority (MAA). Also still present, but about to be disposed of, was the very last Jetstream T2, devoid of engines as they had been returned to the manufacturer. 771 NAS is also still here and now operates the Sea King HAR5 from the site where 810’s hangar used to be. The RAF is still training Sea King pilots and crews, but it's now done by 203(Reserve) Squadron at RAF Valley in Anglesey.

The other Sea Kings still here are the ASaC7s, now operated by 849, 854 and 857 NAS. Developed in a matter of weeks during the Falklands conflict, the first aircraft were designated as AEW2s and operated by D Flight of 824 NAS. As their numbers grew D Flight became 849 NAS in 1985, a squadron with a long AEW history whose last mount had been the Gannet AEW2. 849 NAS was divided up into Flights, but has now been split into three separate squadrons.

The Sea King has been replaced in the Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) role by the Merlin HM1, with 824 NAS as the training squadron, which now operates from 705’s old premises on the south west corner of the airfield. 814, 820 and 829 NAS are the front line squadrons, with 814 and 820 having swapped premises since the mid ‘80s. Until the recent SDSR defence cuts 814 and 820 were the squadrons that operated primarily from the Invincible class ships. 829 NAS was previously the front line Wasp squadron based at RNAS Portland providing aircraft for small ships' Flights. It’s now doing the same role, but with a much bigger aircraft.

Having said it’s quieter, it is also a lot noisier, with Culdrose now being the home of the Fleet Requirements and Air Direction Unit (FRADU) and its Hawks, the first flyable jets to be based here since the mid 1960s. The Hawks are leased from the RAF and all but two of the RN's fourteen Hawks are at Culdrose, the other two being at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset for use by the Naval Flying Standards Flight (Fixed Wing).

FRADU's role hasn’t changed much in the intervening years, but its equipment has, along with its base. In the mid ‘80s FRADU was based at RNAS Yeovilton operating Canberras, of various different variants, and Hunters. The Canberras were replaced by the Falcons of Cobham (formally Flight Refuelling Ltd) based at Bournemouth, and the Hunters were replaced by the Hawks and moved to Culdrose, where they are operated by Babcock.

Culdrose has been home to non-flying jets for a long time, at what used to be called the School of Aircraft Handling (SAH), but is now known as the School of Flight Deck Operations (SFDO). The SFDO has a life size model of an Invincible class ship’s flight deck, known as the “Dummy Deck”, on which it trains its students using live aircraft. Its fleet of Sea Hawks and Sea Vixens from the 1970s and early 80s was replaced by former Red Arrows Gnats, which were subsequently replaced by Harrier GR3s. These were then replaced by Sea Harrier FA2s following that type’s premature retirement, and they are still in use today. The SFDO boasts a fleet of eight FA2s and two T8s, which can all be run and taxied but are not in a flyable condition. There are two more FA2s in external store and a further two tucked away in a hangar on W site. The oldest Harrier here is the third prototype Sea Harrier, which first flew in June 1979 as an FRS1. It also has a trio of Sea Kings, including the second of the original Sikorsky built prototypes, one of the prototype Merlins (plus a pseudo one) and a pair of Lynx, one of which is in store. One of the Lynx is a prototype, distinguishable by having three windows in the cabin doors.

The Dummy Deck is now known as HMS Siskin, after the previous HMS Siskin (RNAS Gosport), which was the original home of the SAH, from its formation in 1946 until it moved to Culdrose in 1959. A further Sea Harrier is on display alongside it.

Heavy maintenance is still carried out at W site, which is now the home of the Merlin Depth Maintenance Facility (MDMF), servicing both RN and RAF Merlins. It is operated as a partnership between the Ministry of Defence, Agusta Westland, Serco and Lockheed Martin, with maintenance being carried out by personnel from the RN, the RAF and Serco.

The other noticeable change is to the infrastructure, there has been considerable construction and re-construction over the years. Gone is Culdrose’s distinctive air traffic control tower, it has been replaced by another distinctive (but not as attractive!) building in a different position. The current control tower has the advantage of being accessible without having to cross an active taxiway, unlike the previous one. Many of the hangars have also been rebuilt with the newer ones providing a better lit working environment, and it’s a process which is ongoing.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the runway. The main runway 12/30 is still only 6006 feet long, which in jet aircraft terms is relatively short. In the ‘80s Culdrose saw a fair amount of visiting traffic, although the runway length did to some degree limit the larger aircraft. However it wasn’t unknown for Nimrods from nearby RAF St Mawgan to land here occasionally!

Still in use is Culdrose’s satellite airfield of Predannack, a few miles to the south on the Lizard peninsula. Used for helicopter training exercises it also boasts a newer control tower. It is home to the Royal Navy’s School of Fire Fighting, and as well as a purpose built training rig there are a number of derelict aircraft lying around the southern side of the airfield. It would appear though that these are no longer burnt, but are used instead for crash rescue training. Most of them saw service with the SFDO at the Dummy Deck before being replaced and moved south.

The first ones you come across on entering the airfield are opposite the control tower, where there is a group of Harriers, three GR3s and a T4. Further south are two more GR3s, another T4 and a lone Sea Harrier FA2. Also to be found here are a Dominie, a Canberra, most of a Sea King, a trio of Wessex and a very sorry looking Jetstream.

The Canberra B(I)6 is one of a pair of aircraft from the former Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A+AEE) at Boscombe Down which were regular visitors to Culdrose for weapon trials in the mid ‘80s. The Wessex comprise an HAS1, an HAS3 and an HU5, with the latter two lying on their sides. The HAS1 is a former 771 NAS machine and is in remarkably good condition considering it was retired in the late 1970s!

Another long term resident at Predannack is 626 Volunteer Gliding School, which now operates a fleet of Grob Viking gliders.

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