As part of the celebrations to mark the station’s 75 year anniversary, Royal Air Force Benson took the very positive decision on 4 May to take its personnel, ground equipment and two of its helicopters into the local community near Wallingford, Oxfordshire.  Ian Harding reports for GAR.

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Puma HC2 ZJ955 in the ‘Black Peter’ colour scheme © Ian Harding –

This special event, which proved highly popular, was held during the May Day bank holiday weekend in Benson village to acknowledge Benson and Ewelme villages’ support to RAF Benson throughout its history. Events included a parade of troops marching to the music of the Central Band of the RAF, a church service at Benson’s St Helen’s church as well as various displays on the village green itself.

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The red and black 28 Sqn Kukris markings are visible on this Merlin HC3 © Ian Harding –

The day was rounded off perfectly with several flypasts by a Spitfire from the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (Spitfires were based at Benson from December 1940 and later joined by Mosquito) and the departure of two helicopters; an AW101 Merlin HC3 and one of its latest, upgraded Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter) Puma HC2s wearing special markings. Part of a pool of Puma helicopters available to both 33 and 230 squadrons, HC2 ZJ955 present has been painted in an all-black scheme to commemorate the tragic loss of 230 Squadron Sunderland III JM673 ‘P’ (‘Black Peter’) and its ten man crew on 28 November 1944 during a mission off Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) whilst serving with the South East Asia Command.

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The crewman checks the area is clear © Ian Harding –

An exhibition on the field told RAF Benson’s story. The base was opened in 1939 (Fairey Battles and Avro Ansons were succeeded by Wellingtons in 1940). In 1941, RAF Benson was chosen as the home for the experimental unit to carry out photographic reconnaissance over enemy territory and for the remainder of World War Two. Interestingly, the Bismarck was spotted near Bergen in May 1941 by a pilot from RAF Benson while Benson-based aircraft photographed the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe Dams shortly after the attack by the Dambusters in 1943.

The King’s Flight (later the Queen’s Flight) was located at Benson until 1995, when it moved to RAF Northolt, West London, where it still resides. In November 2009, all elements of the Puma Force were co-located for the first time in over 20 years when 230 Squadron returned to RAF Benson from RAF Aldergrove, Northern Ireland. 2013 saw the Merlin Force return to RAF Benson from Operation HERRICK following over ten years of continuous operational deployments in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The Merlin climbs away from the field © Ian Harding –

Today, Merlin and Puma helicopters remain key components operating under the Joint Helicopter Command (JHC). 2014 is certainly a pivotal year for the base as its Puma Force continues to transition to the materially upgraded HC2, while the first of its Merlin HC3/3A (28/78 Squadron) are scheduled to enter the process of upgrade and ‘marinisation’ in preparation for service with the Royal Navy and Commando Helicopter Force at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, Somerset (2017-2020). In total, 25 aircraft will be upgraded to Mk4 configuration with Phase 1 of the Merlin Life Sustainment Programme (MLSP) scheduled to commence at AgustaWestland, Yeovil, during November 2014.

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ZJ955 is one of 24 Pumas receiving the upgrade package to HC2 standard © Ian Harding –

The Puma Life Extension Programme involving 24 aircraft (more advanced avionics, new engines, communications, Defensive Aids Suite, a glass cockpit etc) has certainly breathed new life into the platform providing a significant step up in its reliability and operational capability. Crew training is already well advanced and the expectation is that 18 HC2s will have been delivered to RAF Benson by the year end.