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End of an era at RAF St Mawgan

Peter Mitrovich looks at the closure of one of the RAF's major airfields

At 22:40 on Sunday 30 November, an Air South West flight bound for Plymouth left RAF St Mawgan, marking an end of military air traffic control at the airfield. Operations at the airfield were due to be handed over to the local authority on 1 December, but the CAA refused to grant a licence as it had a number of concerns. The new control tower was not ready; this issue will hopefully be resolved as staff have now moved in and are completing a number of familiarisation exercises. Taxiway signing and lighting was another issue; work on these will hopefully be complete in time for the next CAA inspection on 18/19 December. Another and possibly more difficult problem is the condition of the airfield itself; ground conditions and drainage to the grass areas adjacent to the runway will need to be significantly improved before the CAA inspection next week.

A consequence of this is that all flights have been cancelled until at least 20 December, affecting thousands of passengers. Flights have been re-routed to Plymouth, Exeter and Bristol - transfer costs will be met by the local authority. A Ministry of Defence Spokesman said "The MoD vacated the airfield on 1 December in accordance with our agreement with Newquay Cornwall Airport. We regret that we have not been able to agree to the request to extend our support to the airport - this is because RAF Personnel who are employed at the airfield are required for operational posts elsewhere."

Andrew Mitchell from Cornwall County Council said "We are very disappointed that the RAF has not been able to continue to operate the airfield beyond 1 December. We would like to place on record our sincere appreciation for the cooperation we have received from the RAF throughout this project."

The handover process has been a major undertaking for the local authority, the first time that a military airfield has been transferred to a civilian operator without closing the airfield to normal flying. The vast runway at St Mawgan has been resurfaced, reduced in width and had new lighting installed without causing any delays to scheduled flights, all work being carried out at night. A new control tower has been built, new radar and navigation aids installed and a new fire station is under construction. Perhaps the most noticeable change from the outside is the fence that now encircles the airfield. Large sections of it are actually within the old airfield boundary, some taxiways on the north side are outside the new security fence but inside the old MoD boundary; this 'sterile' area is actually owned by local authority and remains out of bounds.

The remaining MoD site will still be known as RAF St Mawgan, however this has also been fenced off from the airfield. The fence runs along the centre of some taxiways and divides the HAS site; only two Hardened Aircraft Shelters remain part of RAF St Mawgan. The original airfield at Trebelzue also remains part of RAF St Mawgan. This area has an interesting history, for twenty years it was home to a US Navy weapons facility, which stored nuclear weapons for use by NATO Maritime Patrol Aircraft. The future of the sixty-five year old control tower (VHT type - Very Heavy Transport) is in doubt as there are plans to demolish it next year. Only two VHT towers were ever built, the other at Heathrow demolished many years ago.

Final flourish

The final year

The drawdown of RAF St Mawgan has been a quiet affair with very little publicity - the Sea King Training Unit (203(R) Squadron) departed for RAF Valley earlier this year with very little fuss. XZ599/P was the last Sea King to leave on 12 May, the event marked by a flypast over the domestic site; waiting on the Squadron pan were two crash vehicles spraying water high into the air as the helicopter flew overhead.

The drawdown did not prevent or discourage units from deploying to St Mawgan for periods of training over the last year. During February six Typhoons from 29(R) Squadron stayed for a fortnight; May saw both 801 Naval Air Squadron and XV(R) Squadron at the airfield for a week; the final unit to operate from St Mawgan were the Grob Tutors of 3 AEF during July and August. The majority of these units operated from the old Nimrod line (Treloy line) - sadly these acres of concrete are now empty, a boundary fence stretches along the centre line of the taxiway preventing its future use as an aircraft operating area.

Many people have expressed an opinion about the role of Cornwall County Council and the Ministry of Defence, firstly in the decision not to base JCA in Cornwall and secondly in the protracted handover process. Whatever your opinion, I am sure you will agree that the Royal Air Force has lost a first class airfield, and the people of Cornwall will (eventually) gain a first class airport.


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