particulates on filter paper and a compressor system for whole air samples collected in high-pressure holding spheres. The aircraft, which was due to be withdrawn from service recently, has found itself once again in demand as the 'threat' of Putin's forces using nuclear weapons in Ukraine escalated as the Russian troops found themselves bogged down against unexpected high levels of resistance.
An RC-135V lines up on the runway at RAF Mildenhall
This KC-135 is seen rolling out at RAF Mildenhall after returning from a mission. The aircraft, which is operated by the 6th ARW at MacDill AFB, Florida, was on TDY at Mildenhall and had departed earlier that morning as 'LAGR990'
Over the last 2-3 decades, the numbers of military aircraft throughout the world has seen a steady decline in numbers. The fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact alliance, led to western European countries and the United States particularly, no longer seeing the need to have large numbers of aircraft at their disposal. Add in the much-enhanced multi-role capability of modern military aircraft in comparison to those from the 1960s-80s, which generally had very specific roles - requiring larger numbers and more types in service, and the military enthusiast has seen a huge decline in the number of airfields available to visit, as well as a noticeable decline in the numbers of based aircraft, and the number of 'visitors', which at most airfields are almost non-existent!
RAF Lakenheath has also seen a large increase in activity in recent months, together with a ‘changing of the guard’ in terms of air superiority.
Back in November 2021, 15 Seymour Johnson based F-15E Strike Eagles arrived at the base and were still in situ as of late March 2022, albeit having conducted a NATO Air Policing mission in Amari, Estonia, during January, and a NATO Enhanced Air Policing mission from Lask, Poland as it became clear that Putin’s intentions regarding Ukraine were becoming more and more threatening. The 4th Fighter Wing Strike Eagles took over NATO’s Enhanced Air Policing Mission from the 493rd Fighter Squadron, who returned to home to RAF Lakenheath, having completed their final air policing mission with the F-15C Eagle.
The twin-seat F-16D #90-0800 seen above wear's the green fin-band of the 555 Fighter Squadron, the partner unit to the 510FS at Aviano. The two squadrons each have two twin-seat aircraft on strength so presumably neither of the 'Buzzards' F-16Ds were available for the deployment
Along with the increased activity from the based squadrons and the Seymour Johnson Strike Eagles, 3rd March saw a total of 14 Aviano based F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 510FS/31FW arrive at Lakenheath. The unit was scheduled to participate in the annual Frisian Flag exercise at Leeuwarden air base in late March/early April - the aircraft departing for The Netherlands on 24th March. In the interim, the 31st Fighter Wing jets made good use of Lakenheath, flying numerous air-to-air and air-to-ground sorties most days of the week.
Part of a 4-ship flight, 'Knife 11' departed Lakenheath for the ranges at Donna Nook, where it should have dropped its load of 6 x 500lb Mk.82 practice bombs. However, inclement weather over the ranges meant that the aircraft returned with a full load
#88-1671 is seen taxying out and departing RAF Lakenheath in January 2022. Operating as Sanpan 11, the aircraft was part of a 2-ship flight
The aircraft wears the markings of the 336th Fighter Squadron 'Rocketeers'
'Shield' flight seen making a missed approach at RAF Lakenheath
'Escalating Tensions in Ukraine'
On 24 February, Russia launched a comprehensive invasion of Ukraine, marking a major escalation of the ongoing conflict that had seen Russia annex Crimea back in 2014. The Russian Federation had followed the annexation of Crimea in February 2021 when the President Vladimir Putin recognised the two breakaway areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent. Following months of military build-up on the border with Ukraine, Putin then ordered his forces to enter the Donbas region, saying that troops had been sent in to “perform peacekeeping functions”.
Relations between Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had started in 1992, with Ukraine applying to begin a formal NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 2008. To this date, Ukraine has still not become a member of NATO, although it has made clear that it would like to become a member, benefiting from the Alliance’s umbrella of protection it would afford. Unfortunately, this has probably led to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as it seeks to ‘protect’ itself from having NATO on its borders.
Whilst NATO has not involved itself formally in the Ukraine – Russia conflict, NATO and EU member states have supplied weapons and support to Ukraine in a variety of ways. In addition, NATO has reinforced its eastern flank, noticeably with a variety of aviation assets.
The United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE) has been heavily involved in supporting missions over NATO’s eastern flank, with RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom heavily involved – both bases having seen a large increase in activity over the last couple of months.
The 493 Fighter Squadron will transition to the F-35A Lightning II soon, following in the footsteps of the newly re-formed 495 Fighter Squadron Valkyries, which began to take delivery of its F-35s in December 2021, when the first four aircraft arrived at RAF Lakenheath. A further four were delivered in February 2022, and by mid-March the ‘Valkyries’ were flying regular missions.
Of note in recent months is the fact that a number of the 493rd Eagles have been flying without any unit markings as seen in the image on the left.
'Old Smokey' pours on the power as the WC-135W gets airborne off Mildenhall's Runway 10, its four Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-5 turbofans churning out the tell-tale smoke trails associated with the aircraft
RAF Mildenhall has supported NATO missions for many years, with the based 100th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) providing air-to-air refuelling support to USAFE and NATO partner aircraft on a daily basis. Mildenhall has also regularly hosted Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance assets from Offutt Air Force Base (AFB) 55th Wing, the RC-135s providing dedicated electronic surveillance that can be employed in all theatres on both strategic and tactical missions.
A 'Buzzards' Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcon approaches the runway threshold at Lakenheath
A rather bland F-15C Eagle from the 493rd Fighter Squadron operating as 'Hitman 2' is on a low approach to RAF Lakenheath earlier this year
McGuire-based 305AMW KC-10A Extenders have been providing air-to-air refuelling for
A Mildenhall resident Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker belonging to the 100th Air Refueling Wing is seen departing the base on 8th March 2022 as 'LAGR240'
'GRIM REAPERS F-15 FAREWELL'
On the subject of the 493rd Fighter Squadron, some of their F-15Cs had started to appear without the familiar LN tail-code back in 2021 as the squadron started to wind down its Eagle operations, with the first three aircraft returning to CONUS during September to take up residence with the 131 Fighter Squadron/104 Fighter Wing Massachusetts Air National Guard. A further three aircraft returned stateside in February, with the two twin-seat D-models following in March 2022 – making a total of 10 F-15s that had departed to CONUS by mid-March.
Supplementing the based Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers with the 100th ARW, a small number of additional KC-135s began Temporary Duty (TDY) at Mildenhall to support the additional missions being flown over NATO territory in Europe. To supplement the KC-135 fleet, some of the USAF’s larger KC-10 Extender aircraft from both the 60th Air Mobility Wing and the 305th Air Mobility Wing commenced TDY at the base to support refuelling missions along NATO’s eastern border – again flying missions on a day-to-day basis.
aircraft monitoring Russian activity along NATO's eastern flank. KC-10s from the 60 Air Mobility Wing at Travis AFB have also supported the mission
Using the callsign Nacho 223, this KC-10A Extender from the 305 Air Mobility Wing taxi's out to Runway 10 at RAF Mildenhall to conduct a mission over eastern Europe. This particular aircraft, serial #79-1712 is one of the oldest KC-10s in the USAF inventory. Like the rest of the fleet, it will soon be replaced by the new Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tankers entering service
15 Seymour Johnson based F-15E Strike Eagles arrived at Lakenheath in November 2021, later deploying to Amari, Estonia, and from Lask, Poland, where they conducted NATO Air Policing missions
Seen making a missed approach to Lakenheath's Runway 24, #19-5484 wears tail markings for the 48 Fighter Wing
A Boeing WC-135W ‘Constant Phoenix’ aircraft (photo right and below) had also taken up residence at Mildenhall back in early January, as the build-up of Russian forces along the Ukraine border started. The 45th Reconnaissance Squadron/55 Wing, at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, operates the WC-135, which has an atmospheric collection suite as part of its configuration, allowing the mission crew to detect radioactive debris in real time. The WC-135W is also equipped with external flow-through devices to collect
495 Fighter Squadron 'Valkyries'
Two of the Aviano F-16s deployed to RAF Lakenheath wore the USAF's 'Have Glass V' paint scheme seen above - an evolution of the standard 'Have Glass' program. The aircraft are covered with Radar Absorbent Material made up of microscopic metal grains that degrade the radar signature of the aircraft and is similar to the one used on the F-35 Lightning II
In addition to aircraft joining the Massachusetts Air National Guard, some have also found their way to the Oregon ANG at Portland, which is rather a strange choice for the former Lakenheath jets as the unit is scheduled to receive the new F-15EX later this year - so the aircraft may find their stay there quite short-lived.
The 495th Fighter Squadron introduced the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II into the 48th Fighter Wing inventory, being the first USAFE unit to operate the 5th generation aircraft. The first F-35s arrived at RAF Lakenheath in December 2021, with the base eventually having two F-35s squadrons, each operating 24 aircraft. As mentioned previously, the second F-35 will be the 493rd Fighter Squadron 'Grim Reapers', who are currently losing their F-15C/Ds, and with their first aircraft already noted in squadron markings in the United States. Once the two squadrons are fully operational Lakenheath will be home to two F-35A squadrons and two F-15E squadrons.
At the time of writing, Russia continues to pound Ukraine, albeit with slow progress and certainly not at the speed at which Putin expected to ‘take’ the country. Ukrainian resistance is strong and without doubt at a level of intensity the Russian invaders did not foresee. The expectation is that NATO’s contribution to defending Ukraine’s independence will continue, with both RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall no doubt continuing to be at the forefront of that support in terms of the aviation assets - albeit without any direct action from NATO. Quite how the whole situation will pan out is anyone’s guess, with NATO continuing to ‘hold back’. In the meantime, the local ‘Spotter’ community in East Anglia has been reaping the rewards of the increased activity at both bases – making it feel a bit like old times!
Of course, the resident F-15E Strike Eagles at Lakenheath continued operations unabated, with the 492nd and 494th conducting operations both here and overseas. In late March, the constant movement of aircraft continued as the 492 Fighter Squadron deployed 14 jets to Greece for the 2-week annual Inochos exercise at Andravida, whilst the 494 Fighter Squadron once again deployed 14 jets to Lask, Poland, to take over the NATO Air Policing role from the 4 Wing F-15Es from Seymour Johnson, whose jets returned to RAF Lakenheath once again.
By mid-March 2022, RAF Mildenhall had three variants of Boeing RC-135s take up temporary residence at the base, with four aircraft in total - one RC-153U Combat Sent #64-14849, one RC-135V Rivet Joint #64-14844, and two RC-135W Rivet Joint #62-4130 and #62-4131.
The RC-135s commenced their flying operations into eastern Europe, monitoring activity along NATO’s eastern borders and beyond most days of the week, no doubt providing information to NATO commanders and the Ukrainian forces defending their country.
As with the WC-135W, the RC-135s are operated by the 55th Wing at Offutt AFB.
This 4th Fighter Wing F-15E Strike Eagle seen on approach to Lakenheath wears marking for the 4th Training Squadron
Historically, the East Anglia region of the United Kingdom was a place that always attracted large numbers of 'spotters', mainly due to the abundance of bases it was possible to visit in a day or two. Add in the wide array of resident aircraft types and the frequent visitors from other UK and European bases and it was clear to see the attraction. Two bases that always saw large numbers of both 'spotters' and aircraft action were RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall, bases that are within a stone's throw of each other. For a variety of reasons, both bases have recently seen a large increase in aircraft activity and the subsequent increase in people trawling the fenceline in an attempt to photograph the action. We visited them recently to look at what's going on and re-live what almost feels like 'The Good Old Days'.
A Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint captured on finals onto Mildenhall's Runway 28