Gordon Jones brings us another BlogGAR from RAF Mildenhall, where he reflects on his last few visits including catching his final RC-135U Combat Sent.
At the start of 2013, I predicted I would end up spending a lot of time at RAF Mildenhall and I wasn’t wrong. Having made a total of 16 visits over the year I had managed to shoot a range of aircraft including some we don’t get to see often in the UK, but it was the last four visits which stood out the most and the last, perhaps, being the best of them all.
At the end of October, a visit to Mildenhall to catch RC-135U 64-14847, my final Combat Sent after shooting 64-14849 in June, proved a success when the aircraft returned from a local sortie around midday, but the day also provided a number of other interesting aircraft.
Making an overshoot before the RC-135U arrived was Tornado GR4 ZA398, better known as ‘Shiny Two’, a reference to a nickname for II (AC) Squadron which operates the special scheme aircraft. The 100th anniversary special tail is a popular paint scheme and it has been the first time I’ve managed to shoot it. With higher hour airframes being sent to RAF Leeming to be stripped for spares to keep the rest of the Tornado fleet flying, it might not be long before this aircraft suffers that fate so I’m glad I’ve finally got it, and that is was fitted out with both the large drop tanks and a targeting pod.
Leaving Mildenhall after the RC-135U’s arrival was another interesting aircraft in the form of a US Marine Corps KC-130J from VMGR-352. This particular airframe is one of a small number to have undergone an upgrade enabling it to be fitted with the Harvest Hawk weapons system. Consisting of a targeting system and Hellfire missiles, the weapon system allows the cargo and refuelling aircraft to provide close air support. The system is planned to be rolled out throughout the fleet and various additional modifications are being worked on to provide more firepower. The system itself wasn’t fitted to this example, the kits will be in theatre and fitted as necessary, but it was still good to get an aircraft with a story behind it.
Next was a U-28 (based on the PC-12) assigned to the 319th SOS who are regular visitors to Mildenhall these days, although this is the first time I had shot one. The aircraft provides light transport between Mildenhall and the Special Operations Command Europe bases in Germany.
To end the day came an aircraft in a configuration I had wanted for a while now, a HH-60G Pavehawk with the Petro moustache painted on the nose and a pair of GAU-21 .50 cal machineguns fitted in front of the doors. This particular example was from 56th RQS based at RAF Lakenheath only a few miles away, and tend to operate mostly in the dark which limits the chance you get to shoot them. Sadly, the 56th RQS lost four airmen earlier this month and I’d also like to take this chance to offer my condolences to the family and friends of the crew who lost their lives when the Pavehawk flying as Jolly 22 crashed in Norfolk on 7 January.
My next visit turned up a Peterson AFB C-130H, a type I was surprised I had so few of. I don’t think I had realised how many of the Hercules that come through Mildenhall are now J models.
The following visit was a brief affair to catch the return of WB-57 Canberra N928NA operated by NASA. I had caught the same airframe going East in February but a delayed arrival had allowed the weather to close in and I ended up with a poor photo. The forecast for this visit wasn’t looking good but I chanced it again. This time though my luck held out and a break in the weather lasted just long enough to catch it with some sun on it.
The final trip was again another attempt to get a RC-135, did you expect any less? RC-135V 64-14845 had arrived earlier in the week on its return to the US and I thought it was a good chance he would leave on this day, and I was right. With Runway 29 being in use, the RC would use the recently built Echo taxiway that allowed the heavy aircraft direct access to the underrun rather than having to back taxy and turn 180 degrees; it also meant I could shoot the RC head on. That was the plan and rather unusually everything went to plan!
With the RC ‘in the bag’ my day was already a success but there was a C-32A in Presidential colours due in late in the afternoon, so I decided to stay at Mildenhall, and a good decision it was. KC-10A 86-0035 from the 305th AMW at McGuire taxied for departure and being a large and generally heavily loaded aircraft it also opted to take Echo onto the underrun, and that meant another head on.
Thinking I’d got lucky with two aircraft through Echo I was surprised to hear the visiting KC-135 63-8874 from the 22nd ARW at McConnell be directed to Echo as well. KC-135s aren’t usually heavy enough to need to use the underrun but all became clear when three locally based KC-135s from the 100th ARW taxied out together and took off one after another. All three had receivers waiting for fuel and had been given priority over the visiting KC-135 who was heading home to the US. Another head on shot in the bag.
Whilst waiting for the C-32A to arrive and wondering if it would do so before the sun dropped below the horizon, locally based MC-130J 10-5714 from the 67th SOS was bashing the circuit. This particular airframe was one of the new arrivals and it was a good chance to get a few good shots.
Arriving ahead of schedule, and more importantly before the sunlight was lost, was the C-32A 99-0003 from the 89th AW based at Andrews AFB.
A good end to a good day!