When Bears Roamed Suffolk
Graham Haynes remembers more active times in the Suffolk countryside
The arrival of the first 'Aggressor' General Dynamics F-16C Fighting Falcons at RAF Bentwaters on 14 June 1988 added a new dimension to the role of the Suffolk base. Assigned to the 527th Aggressor Squadron, the F-16Cs were to play the role of the 'bad guys' during air combat manoeuvring (ACM) training against fighters belonging to many of NATO's air forces. This had the prospect of being an interesting period for any avid aircraft 'spotter' as many of the aircraft participating in training with the 'Aggressors' would be based at Bentwaters for the duration of their respective courses. Sadly this was only to be the case for some eighteen months before the unit was deactivated and its F-16s transferred to other USAFE squadrons. Despite this, Bentwaters played host to numerous aircraft types from several NATO countries for this short period making the 'Aggressor' F-16Cs very welcome residents at the base.
Currently existing as the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron at Schriever AFB, Colorado, the 527th began life as the as the 312th Bombardment Squadron (Light) on 13 January 1943 and activated on 10 Febrauary 1943 at Will Rogers Field, Oklahoma, equipped with the Douglas A-20 Havoc. The unit flew a total of three aircraft types in its first year of service - in addition to the A-20, the 312th operated the Douglas A-24 Dauntless, the Vultee A-31 Vengeance and the North American A-36 Apache. The unit was redesignated as the 312th Bombardment Squadron (Dive) on 3 September 1942. Two more redesignations followed, the first occurring on 23 August 1943 when the 312th became the 527th Fighter-Bomber Squadron. The second redesignation came on the 30 May 1944, this time the unit became the 527th Fighter Squadron and re-equipped with the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. The 527th FS continued to operate the P-47 until it deactivated at Bolling Field, DC, on 31 March 1946.
The 527th FS was reactivated five months later, on 20 August 1946, at Nordholz, Germany, again flying the P-47. On 20 January 1950, the unit was redesignated as the 527th Fighter-Bomber Squadron and moved into the jet era when it re-equipped with the Republic F-84E Thunderjet. The 527th FBS operated the F-84E for three years from Neubiberg and Landstuhl Air Bases in Germany until it re-equipped at the latter base with the North American F-86F Sabre. The unit was redesignated as the 527th Fighter-Day Squadron on 8 October 1954 and deactivated sixteen months later, on 8 February 1956, with personnel and equipment transferring to the 461st FDS.
After a break of some twenty years, the unit was reactivated as the 527th Tactical Fighter Training Aggressor Squadron (TFTAS) on 1 April 1976 at RAF Alconbury. The squadron was part of the 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (later to become the 10th Tactical Fighter Wing), operating the Northrop F-5E Tiger II in the Dissimilar Air Combat Tactics (DACT) training role.
The first batch of eight aircraft were air-freighted into Alconbury on 21 May 1976 on board a Lockheed C-5A Galaxy direct from the production facility at Palmdale. Eight more Tigers arrived on 14 June with the final batch of four following ten days later, on 24 June. These aircraft were also airfreighted on board a C-5A. The 527th was fully operational a few months later with the first DACT course commencing in October 1976. The siting of an ACMI (Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation) range at Decimomannu in Sardinia resulted in the 527th maintaining a semi-permanent presence at this NATO base. This facility also enabled air forces other than the USAF to take advantage of the training provided by the 527th TFTAS. The Royal Air Force, France's Armee de l'Air, the Italian Air Force and the Luftwaffe were amongst those that benefited.
The squadron, which was redesignated as the 527th Aggressor Squadron (AS) on 14 April 1983, remained at Alconbury until 1988, flying its last mission with the F-5E on 22 June of that year. The control of the 527th AS was transferred to the 81st TFW at RAF Bentwaters and the F-5Es were replaced with the larger General Dynamics F-16C Fighting Falcon during 1988.
The first two of an intended complement of eighteen F-16Cs arrived at Bentwaters on 14 June 1988. These were single examples taken from the 52nd TFW at Spangdahlem AB and the 86th TFW at Ramstein AB. The squadron was officially activated on 1 July 1988, with the first four months dedicated to pilot conversion for the new aircraft. The 527th AS resumed their aggressor role in November 1988 when six McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagles from the 36th TFW at Bitburg AB, Germany arrived at Bentwaters for the start of a three-week DACT course. The 527th's complement of aircraft had reached twelve on 16 January 1989 when one more F-16C was delivered from Spangdahlem. The 527th AS made their first deployment to Decimomannu with the new type on 30 March 1989 when six aircraft deployed to the ACMI range for two weeks.
The 527th AS was to become a victim of cuts in US defence spending and a rethink regarding the role of Aggressor Squadrons within the USAF. In November 1989, having never achieved its original planned complement of 18 aircraft, the 527th AS began disposing of its F-16Cs in preparation for deactivation the following year. The first two aircraft to leave were flown to Spangdahlem on 29 November 1989. The 527th AS had reassigned its entire fleet of 12 aircraft by mid-1990 and was officially deactivated on 30 September of that year. Oddly enough it was to be the only F-16 unit ever to be based in the UK.
sudden demise of the 527th AS at Bentwaters left many enthusiasts wishing
they could turn back the clock, your scribe amongst them! One question
that always crops up in conversations is "If they hadn't been deactivated,
I wonder if they'd painted the F-16s ala F-5E-style?" That
question could be answered by taking a look at the 1/8 scale model that
once resided outside the Wing Command Post at Bentwaters and is now on
display at the American Air Museum, Duxford. Perhaps this is an indication
of what the powers-that-be had in the pipeline. I guess we will never
AS F-16Cs assigned: