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Those were the Days

Mick Britton looks back at the halcyon days of the USAFE in England

Time was when USAFE bases in the UK welcomed the host nation's public with open arms by holding Open Days (previously known as Armed Forces Days), when they would open the gates to all and sundry with free entry (and often a free programme of the day's events). Various parts of the base organisation would be barbequing typical examples of American cuisine, such as burgers, hot dogs and spare ribs to sell as a fund raising venture along with cold beer from ice buckets at PX prices.

American fayre

There were also the aircraft to see with usually a small air display of sorts (often featuring based aircraft as well as one or two imports from other US bases and other NATO partners) - a report of Wethersfield's Armed Forces Day that appeared in the magazine Flight International of 24 May 1962 recorded 'The static display contained a varied collection of types, (notably) an F-105 from Bitburg and a Grumman AO-1AF, the first to land in England.' The flying display featured a mass take-off by ten of the based F-100 Super Sabres and low-altitude aerobatics by the Italian Air Force Frecce Tricolori team. Unfortunately the attendance was a disappointing 10,000 when 120,000 had been expected (although this was probably partly explained by the weather as maybe gauged by the headline of the report 'Wethersfield Under the Weather').

It seems to have been USAF policy at that time to open three bases per year to the public on rotation, as an advert for the following year's Open Days in the 18 April 1963 issue of the same magazine revealed that these would be held at the bases of Bentwaters, South and West Ruislip (3rd AF HQ) and Prestwick. Of these, only the first was an actual main operating base and was to feature a full flying display. The magazine's original owner had kindly annotated the report by adding details of the aircraft types that were (presumably) present including B-66, B-45, F-86D, F-84F and F-105.

Living up north and far from any USAF base, I was unaware of the delights of these Open Days until 1981 when a friend with a mutual interest in aircraft living in Solihull invited me down for the weekend to attend one held at Upper Heyford, home of the 20th TFW, equipped with the F-111E, in July 1981. Interestingly the unit had previously been based at Wethersfield, having relocated to Oxfordshire in 1970. It was an unaccustomed pleasure to be waved through the gate, halting only to receive a complimentary programme from a friendly Afro-American servicewoman with a cheery and genuine "Have a nice day". A small but varied static had been arranged among the hardened shelters, including visiting aircraft from Denmark (J-35), Germany (F-4F and F-104G) and Norway (F-5), beside the usual collection of stock USAFE types like the F-4C, F-5 and F-15 as well as a resident 'Aardvark' and RAF Lightning. A small flying display, lasting just a couple of hours, featured A-10, F-15, Jaguar, Lightning and the Red Arrows, culminating with four F-111s performing their party piece of a flyby with different wing configurations.

The following year I visited Alconbury for the first time, which was the nearest USAF base to home by some margin, being situated just two hours drive down the A1 by the Cambridge exit. This had more variety of resident aircraft types including the RF-4C Phantoms and F-5s of the 527th Aggressor Squadron in their Soviet style paint schemes, which kept the NATO fighter jocks on their mettle, shortly to be joined by a couple of the elusive TR-1 spy planes (nicknamed the Dragon Lady). Whilst this had quite a large static, it was comprised exclusively of USAF and RAF aircraft and I recall being disappointed by the lack of any European visitors, although this was partly compensated for by the presence of a pair of stateside-based F-4Cs from Seymour Johnson that had stopped over on transit. The flying display was not particularly memorable but included flypasts by four-ships of the resident RF-4Cs and F-5s (as did all subsequent ones whilst those types were in residence). However the following year's Air Tattoo (as Alconbury's Open Days were termed) was much more memorable, featuring a more varied static and the first public flying display in this country by the highly secret Lockheed SR-71Blackbird from the Mildenhall-based Detachment 4. Although I attended several more Alconbury Air Tattoos, this was far and away the best. The fare at Alconbury also seemed more varied than at other American Air Shows and I remember my and wife and I having our first taste of Mexican Tacos and racing to consume the contents before the crispy shells broke up.

Whilst Alconbury's Air Tattoos were almost an annual event until the base's closure in 1995, others like Upper Heyford and those in deepest East Anglia (such as Bentwaters) were open less frequently. I never actually attended one of Bentwaters Open Days as this was the least accessible USAF base, being situated east of Ipswich (and I now regret missing out on the full set) but I did manage to make it to Lakenheath when it was opened for two successive years in the early nineties, just before the F-111s were replaced by the F-15s. Again I was not overly impressed by the content of either the static or the flying display, but the first occasion was memorable on two counts being the first occasion that a visiting B-1 was put on public display (it was actually guarded by MPs with dogs) but security was less tight elsewhere among the hardened shelters where the static aircraft were more spread out and I was able to walk out into the middle of the airfield and photograph the Mystere decoys that were there in significant numbers and showed signs of having been used for Battle Damage Repair training. Lakenheath also possessed an example of the F-105 Thunderchief (or Thud), that stalwart of the Vietnam War and original 'Wild Weasel', which was difficult to photograph as the cockpit was open attracting a queue of people awaiting their turn to sit in it and live out their jet-jock fantasies for five minutes.

In general a more relaxed atmosphere seemed to pervade American Open Days than the usual RAF 'At Home' Days. For one thing the static aircraft were not usually behind barriers (apart from one notorious occasion at Alconbury) and hence more accessible, sometimes quite literally, as the first times I managed to get inside a Nimrod and Victor were at such events. The Lakenheath events were almost the last of the summer wine as by the early nineties the Cold War was officially over and President Clinton was looking to drawdown the USAF by some 300,000 personnel. Upper Heyford and Bentwaters were among the first wave of base closures announced after the Gulf War and Alconbury was a casualty of the next round. In 1992 the final such events were held at both Bentwaters and Upper Heyford, the cover of the latter's programme proclaiming 'The End of an Era'. It certainly was as in March of the following year the last A-10s left Bentwaters and that December the last F-111s left Upper Heyford. That was also the year that saw Alconbury open its gates for the final time.

By the mid-nineties the only remaining USAF Open House was the biggest and best; Mildenhall's Air Fete, which had been held since 1976. Although missing the early ones I managed to attend every single one from 1984, although sometimes it was touch and go getting in - 1997 and ours was among the last hundred cars squeezed into the base with latecomers being directed to park at nearby Lakenheath and bussed in. As Mildenhall outgrew its humble origins as a typical USAF Open House to become one of the world's largest military air shows by the eighties and an annual pilgrimage for aircraft enthusiasts from all over western Europe (to the point where Bus enthusiasts would hover outside the gate logging the vehicles carrying the aircraft enthusiasts), it is pointless trying to add to what has already been written. The 25th Anniversary Show held on the 26/27 May 2001 seemed much like any other - the traffic was backed up along the northern approach road from Ely further than we had ever seen it so we turned around and headed across the Fens to Lakenheath, using the route along which coaches had been directed in previous years. This dodge worked a treat as the eastern approach from Lakenheath was comparatively lightly trafficked. It was a hot sunny day and both the static and flying displays were up their usual high standard and we made our customary early departure to avoid the end of show traffic jam. Had we but known that this was to be not only the last Air Fete but the last occasion when the public would be admitted to an American air base in the UK, we would have been more disposed to linger and savour the experience.


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