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Abandoned since 1993 - but maybe one day an aeroplane will reside here once more?Bentwaters - back from the dead?

Graham Haynes reports on stirrings in deepest Suffolk

2003 marks the tenth anniversary of the USAF departure from RAF Bentwaters. For the majority of those ten years, the future of Bentwaters was uncertain but in February 2001 it was sold to a Suffolk farming family - the Kemballs - who use the base to run their 'Bentwaters Parks' business venture.

For local aviation enthusiasts, it was particularly good news to find out that the Kemball family have a keen interest in preserving the aviation heritage that Bentwaters has become synonymous with in its 49-year history.
To this end, plans for a museum were announced at the 81st Fighter Wing Association's 50th anniversary reunion, held at Bentwaters in September 2001. The original idea was for a room in the control tower to be set aside for memorabilia, photos, etc. but this idea was subsequently changed to something that was more deserving of the memory of the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing.

Many of the original fittings are untouchedThe new plan sees the former hardened wing operations centre as the nucleus of the museum with a number of other key buildings and areas on the base being selected for restoration and inclusion on a proposed bus tour. The wing operations building (or command bunker as it is also known) has an interesting history itself. It was from this building that Operation El Dorado Canyon (the 1986 USAF raids on Col Gadaffi's HQ in Libya) was planned and controlled from. In addition, the Bentwaters 'Cold War' Museum, as it will be known, will also encompass the other half of the former Twin-Base complex - RAF Woodbridge.

On 31 May work on the museum project started in earnest when a volunteer workforce began clearing unwanted fixtures and fittings from the command bunker. This building lends itself perfectly for a museum, as even without any exhibits one can spend ages just looking around trying to visualise the activity that would have gone on whilst it was operational. The physical size of the command bunker also means that it will take a large number of exhibits to fill it, a task that will take several years to achieve. Having said that, the project team have decided on what each room will be used for, with some rooms being restored to how they would have appeared 'operationally'. The accompanying ClickCAD drawing gives a good idea of the prospective layout of the 'Cold War' museum with all aspects of the Twin-Bases history being covered.

The amount of work involved in setting up a museum should not be underestimated. It has been a long hard slog up until now and it isn't likely to get any easier anytime soon. One of the most difficult areas so far has been trying to acquire one or two ex-Bentwaters aircraft types for display at the museum. There are a surprising number of these still around including Inside the Command Postan A-10 at Alconbury, 14 ex-81st TFW F-4Cs in storage at Torrejon and a few ex-81st FBW F-84Fs currently residing at a number of airfields in Germany. Although the latter two types ended their operational lives with NATO air arms (Spanish AF and Luftwaffe respectively), the USAF, or to be exact the USAF Museum, still have the final say in their fate as they were purchased via the Mutual Defence Assistance Program (MDAP). In the UK the IWM at Duxford is responsible for co-ordinating the USAFM 'loan' scheme and since 11 September 2001 it has become increasingly difficult for private, foreign (i.e. non-U.S.) organisations to obtain surplus USAF airframes. It may turn out that is not possible to acquire any airframes for the museum but that will in no-way affect the project as a whole. For now, the airframe acquisition process will take a back seat, as all efforts will be concentrated on restoring and preparing the museum infrastructure, in particular the command bunker. Hopefully, a few years down the line, Bentwaters will once again be an attraction for aviation enthusiasts, young and old, and will prove to be the perfect location for re-kindling those memories from the 'good old days'.

Happier times - an aggressor F-16 taxis past 'Commie Corner'To tie in with the museum the 'Bentwaters Aviation Society' has been created, the membership of which will also form the basis of the volunteer workforce mentioned earlier. In addition to the museum work it is also anticipated that the BAS will meet on a monthly basis in a dedicated meeting room located within the command bunker. Meetings will have a similar format to those of most other aviation societies with slide shows; guest speakers, etc. in addition to organised visits to airbases and aviation museums. If anyone would like to find out more about joining the Bentwaters Aviation Society and helping with the museum project please feel free to contact me.

Graham Haynes, Technical Advisor, Bentwaters Museum Project


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