City of Angels
Damien Burke investigates the peace protesters at RAF Fairford. All pictures by the author.
It can't have escaped this site's readers that military action against Iraq has been inevitable for weeks. Part of the build-up to war was the much-heralded arrival in the Cotswolds of no fewer than fourteen of that most potent symbol of American military might - the B-52H Stratofortress. Deployed from Minot Air Force Base in Northern Dakota, the 457th Air Expeditionary Group from the 5th Bomb Wing's 23rd Bomb Squadron (the 'Bomber Barons'), includes not only the 'Buffs' but also nearly 1,000 men and women to support them. One B-52 wears prominent 23rd Bomb Squadron titling on the tail, being the CO's aircraft; another wears the "Let's Roll" nose art applied after September 11.
Now this isn't the first time B-52s have used RAF Fairford - memories are fresh of their use in the Kosovo campaign, and the previous Gulf War. But this time round, things are different. This time round, many don't want them there.
Enthusiasts are delighted with fourteen B-52s to photograph or record the serials of - but even then, many of them would rather they were seeing them for reasons other than their imminent use in a war the British public has serious difficulties with. Locals are as mixed as the public as a whole - and have more important things to worry about, such as keeping the village clean and tidy for the upcoming 'Best Kept Village' awards. Hordes of spotters, traditionally including a significant anti-social element of litter-bugs, has made that task trickier. The result is that the average local is not awfully pleased with aircraft enthusiasts - dropping litter, parking on verges, parking outside their houses...so the locals were happy to help put out some of the hundreds of 'no parking' cones on local roads, and peace has been restored. Did I say peace?
Dismissed as the 'great unwashed', 'spongers', 'hippies', 'crusties' and worse by some enthusiasts, peace protesters turn out to be different on closer inspection. Fairford's 'Peace Camp' has been set up on the verge of the closed road that goes to Gate 10 of the base. Subjected to police and USAF intimidation - and allegedly actual violence from USAF personnel on occasion - they constantly rotate a small number of people through the camp in order to avoid being arrested en-masse under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act. Unable to pitch real tents, they huddle around a small fire to keep warm during the long cold nights while they maintain their peace vigil. The banners say it all - 'Not in our name' they cry, the golden oldie of 'Make love not war' and most evocative of all - 'The Angel of Death is close by, can't you hear the beating of it's (sic) wings'.
The angels in question sit quietly behind the fence and reams and reams of razor wire. The wire is there because in earlier days of the vigil, some protesters scaled the fence and hung around under the B-52s awaiting arrest. One even hung a US flag on a B-52 - and was tackled to the ground two hours later as her reward, then charged with 'criminal damage'. Why do they do it? Because they feel they must. While most of us are satisfied with shouting at the TV when we disagree with a politician, these are people who are passionately committed to making their voices heard. A million people marching in London or an OAP scaling a fence at a quiet RAF base - both get media coverage after all. I didn't meet any hippies. Conditions are harsh, but they do their best to avoid being 'unwashed'. None of the protesters I spoke to were stupid - indeed their intelligence shone through when talking to them, and their knowledge of world events and what the police can and cannot do is impressive.
Some enthusiasts have advocated shooting dead anybody who crosses the boundary of a military base in times of tension like these. The young girl acting as unofficial spokesman for the protesters grins with humour at the suggestion: "Oh yes, shooting a British granny - that'd go down well with the public wouldn't it? I should think that would end Fairford's war role in a matter of hours, and then I could go home and try and rescue what's left of my finger nails". A police officer inside the fences merely shakes his head in disbelief that anybody could seriously suggest such action, and then helpfully suggests that if I walk further along the fence I could get a clearer photo of one of the parked Angels of Death. Not that he called it that, of course.
I may disagree with breaking into a base to express your displeasure with the decision to go to war - but I cannot but help admire the passion and spirit of people who are prepared to sit shivering in the wind and rain all night for their beliefs. Perhaps that's because I've lost count of the number of times I've sat shivering in the wind and rain all day waiting for some piece of metal to turn up on final approach so I can get a photo?
Now, speaking of piece of metal on final approach...though a B-52 isn't so much a piece of metal as a football field worth of the stuff! Lining up far in the distance and easily visible because of the huge amounts of smoke, two of the Angels are on their way in after a training mission over the North Sea and the Spadeadam weapons range. Suddenly the verge, previously populated only by four enthusiasts with cameras, is dotted with cars that have pulled over to watch this giant aircraft landing. As it sweeps ever closer we hear on the radio that one will be flying circuits for half an hour and for a while politics are forgotten. That means I have time enough to take pictures of two approaches including one unforgettable over-my-head experience before I rush back to the car to drive to the other end of the base. Parking at that end proves trickier and I finally find a spot and run to the runway end just in time to see the more active of the pair lifting off from its third touch-and-go.
It is an awesome sight - but then, that's why they are here. To instil awe, and fear, in the heart of the maniac in Iraq who should have been finished off first time. Watching the smoke pouring from the eight engines of this slab-sided monster I cannot but wonder why a nation with nearly a hundred of these aircraft ever bothered to try and drum up support from anybody else, and why anybody would seriously try and stand up to that nation.
After several circuits the B-52 finally touches down and the yellow brake parachute blossoms open behind her, gradually degrading this old girl's speed until she turns off and taxis back to her place among the others. Not one of them is less than 42 years old. But 42 is young - for an angel.
Angels present (in no particular order): 61-027, 60-0047, 60-0023, 60-0056, 60-0033, 60-0051, 61-0040, 60-0034, 60-0044, 60-0004, 60-0015, 60-0060, 61-0007 & 60-0026.