When rumours circulate that heavy bombers are due in the UK, it’s rude not to try and catch them. Shaun Schofield headed up to RAF Fairford to try and do just that.
It’s always a pleasure to see RAF Fairford busy outside of RIAT week. So often when driving past, the base is lifeless, but with Exercise Saber Strike now well under way, the place has been a hive of activity, with equipment and personnel arriving en masse during the first week of June. Complementing this were a number of tasty aircraft, headlined of course by a trio of B-52s.
When the rumours surfaced that potentially eight of these monsters were expected to take part in the exercise, a day’s holiday was immediately booked. It’s always a gamble, but with the RIAT media event taking place on the Wednesday, the following day seemed a safe-ish bet. As it transpired, the aforementioned trio actually arrived on the Wednesday, but with more aircraft seemingly due to appear, there was still hope that I’d get lucky. Sure enough, the glorious weather put things in good stead early on and everything was nicely poised for some B-52 arrivals.
Hearsay was rife on the fence, everyone seemingly having heard something different. Figures of six, five, three and, worryingly, zero BUFFs due in were all being touted, but as the day wore on, and with no firm information on any more aircraft coming forth, it soon became clear that our luck was about to run out. As it transpired, there were only ever three BUFFs due. Consolation came from being able to shoot the three jets that had arrived previously, but with the real aim of the day being to shoot them in the air, it was one of the more disappointing days on the fence.
It wasn’t a complete whitewash however, with an afternoon departure by the Red Arrows offering my first chance to see them in their lovely new anniversary scheme. The real highlight of the day though was provided by two early morning U-2 departures, an unexpected surprise, especially having never witnessed the aircraft take off before. An Atlas Air 747 and National 757 arrived after each respective departure, with both coming from Whiteman AFB. The former dropped off a healthy load of ground equipment, whilst the latter brought in more personnel, all of which was offloaded into the B-2 hangars. Very interesting….and a pre-cursor for what would arrive later on!
Later, a quick visit to Brize, to try and further save the day, but with way things had already gone, it was unsurprising to find the base virtually devoid of activity, with only a Hercules and Voyager arrival being of any real interest.
Not the most productive of days then, but that’s the way this hobby goes, some you win, some you lose. As it happened, those charters from Whiteman were preparing for the arrival of a pair of B-2 Spirits, which turned up a few days after my visit. So, there was only one thing to do: go back to Fairford and try again!
Having used the early part of the following week to gauge an idea of when both the B-52s and B-2s were flying, it seemed I would be unlucky not to catch them at the second attempt, on the Friday. Fifteen minutes out from arrival at the base, the sinister shape of ‘Spirit 01’ could be seen climbing out. By 1100, with only the arrival of a C-17 on an embassy run, and little sign of the B-52s moving, it was looking distinctly likely that it was going to be one of those days, the only saving grace being that with the B-2 out on a sortie, it had to return.
Sure enough, by early afternoon it did, in perfect conditions too, a real treat for the masses gathered up the Western end of the airfield as it rolled out all the way to the end of the runway and took the loop. There was a bonus too, for the Spirit had been tanking with a pair of KC-135s from Mildenhall, one of which landed at Fairford whilst the other performed a number of overshoots. Both jets were waiting while the ‘Spirit of Indiana’ had a hot refuel and crew change in preparation for another sortie with them. After the final overshoot, both the ‘135 and the C-17 departed before ‘Spirit 02’ left for another long sortie.
By now, it was perfectly clear that the BUFFs were going nowhere, so we endured another long wait whilst the Spirit was out on its jolly. Relocating to the eastern end would give a different perspective on the jet as it landed. Part of me wanted to play it safe and go for the side on shot, but with it being such a rare aircraft, the experience of being more or less underneath it as it arrived, for what would be the last time of the week, was too tempting. Quite an awe inspiring moment, that’s for sure.
Despite the disappointment of missing the B-52s flying twice, the Spirit and U-2s certainly made both trips worthwhile, all things considered.