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History of RAF Brize Norton

Construction of RAF Brize Norton began in 1935 with the official opening taking place on 13 August 1937. The station's first unit, No. 2 Flying Training School (2 FTS) transferred from RAF Digby in Lincolnshire on 7 September 1937, and was joined by No. 6 Maintenance Unit (6 MU) on 10 October 1938.
From June 1939 a detachment from 110 Squadron at RAF Wattisham was established with Bristol Blenheim Mks I and IV up until March 1942. 2 FTS was renamed 2 Service Flying Training School (2 SFTS) in September 1939, when it re-equipped with the Airspeed Oxford.  For a short period of time in 1940, 16 Service Training School, equipped with North American Harvards moved to Brize Norton, with 2 SFTS continuing to use the airfield until 16 July 1942, when the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit (HGCU), equipped with Whitley glider tugs and Horsa gliders moved in.
No. 296 Squadron and No. 297 Squadron both moved in on 14 March 1944 with their Armstrong Whitworth Albemarles, displacing the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit, which moved to RAF North Luffenham. The two Squadrons took part in the Invasion of France on 6 June 1944 and Operation Market Garden in September 1944, before No. 296 Squadron added the Handley Page Halifax V to their inventory and moved to RAF Earls Colne on 29 September 1944, with 297 Squadron moving to Earls Colne a day later.
The HGCU returned on 15 October 1944, and stayed in situ until 31 December 1945. The Transport Command Development Unit (TCDU) moved in during 1946, whilst 297 Squadron returned after the Second World War on 5 September 1946 with the Halifax MkA7 and A9. After the TCDU left in June 1949, 2 Squadron of the Central Flying School, equipped with Harvards, moved in, followed by 204 Advanced Flying School, equipped with de Havilland Mosquitos, staying at Brize Norton until March and June 1950 respectively.

All the RAF's fixed-wing transport assets were finally consolidated at Brize Norton with the transfer of the entire C-130 Hercules fleet by July 2011, and the entry into service of the Airbus A400M and Voyager fleets. To coincide with the introduction of the new and larger types in service, RAF Brize Norton’s ‘Base Hangar’, which was constructed in 1967 to service the Vickers VC-10, Short Belfast and later, the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, underwent a number of changes and adaptations to enable it to accommodate more modern aircraft. A new maintenance hangar was also constructed for the Airbus A400M Atlas aircraft, which was officially opened on 1 February 2018, at a cost of £70m.

Lockheed C-130 Hercules C4/C5

RAF Brize Norton

'Global Gateway'

RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, is the largest Royal Air Force station in the United Kingdom, with approximately 5,800 Service Personnel, 1,200 contractors and 300 civilian staff working on the base. Home to the RAF's Strategic and Tactical Air Transport, and Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) forces, its 50+ strong fleet of aircraft provide rapid global mobility in support of UK overseas operations and exercises, as well as AAR support for fast-jet aircraft both on operations and in support of UK Homeland Defence. RAF Brize Norton is also the ‘gateway’ for Service Personnel and their families, operating regular flights through its Air Terminal to locations as far away as Cyprus, and the Falkland Islands, almost 7,900 miles away in the south Atlantic.

The first Atlas for the Royal Air Force was delivered to Brize Norton in November 2014. Serialed #ZM400, the aircraft is seen in the image left in June 2016. The Atlas' distinctive eight-bladed propellers, measuring 5.3m (17.5 ft) in diameter, are manufactured in France from woven composite material. Its state-of-the-art scimitar-shaped blades turn in opposite directions on each wing, driving the A400M at cruise speeds of up to 430 knots, making the Atlas one of the fastest turboprops around, and enabling speeds and climb performance similar to that of turbofan-powered aircraft.

© Clay Gilliland

#ZZ336 is seen above in its smart new livery - 'Flying the Flag' for the United Kingdom

Vickers VC-10 C.1K #XR807 was the second of the type delivered to the RAF way back in 1966 as a C.1. This particular aircraft served with both 10 & 101 Squadrons and continued in service until 2010. It is seen here on approach to Brize Norton

Major infrastructure redevelopment began at Brize Norton in 2010 ahead of the closure of RAF Lyneham in 2012 - Brize Norton becoming the sole embarkation for British troops and the main operating base for RAF air transport and air refuelling aircraft. With the number of aircraft stationed at Brize Norton due to increase from 28 to 67, a major infrastructure redevelopment named ‘Programme Future Brize’ was established in 2009, the project involving the overhaul of virtually every element of the airfield's infrastructure, including IT, engineering, housing and personnel.

One aircraft from the Core Fleet has been adapted to provide an enhanced VIP cabin for the secure and official transport of senior ministers and members of the Royal Family. But, as if to reinforce its multi-role capability, the aircraft received its new paint scheme in June 2020, and was back providing AAR support to RAF Typhoon FGR4s and Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning aircraft during Exercise Crimson Ocean just one day after returning to Brize Norton. The aircraft is photographed as it returns to RAF Brize Norton on 8 August 2020 after another refuelling sortie off the coast of Scotland.

Alongside the frontline squadrons at RAF Brize Norton, 24 Squadron operates as the Air Mobility Operational Conversion Unit (AMOCU) and is responsible for aircrew training and engineering training on the C-130 Hercules, A400M Atlas and C-17 Globemaster. Formerly a frontline C-130 Hercules unit, 24 Squadron took on the AMOCU role in 2013. Also based at Brize Norton is 206 Squadron, which moved from Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, in 2014. 206 Squadron is the RAF Test and Evaluation Squadron, involved in testing and evaluating heavy aircraft such as the Hercules and Atlas. Both 24 and 206 Squadrons use aircraft from the frontline squadrons on an 'as and when required' basis.

Capable of rapid, strategic delivery of troops and all types of cargo to main operating bases anywhere in the world, the Globemaster’s load-bearing rear ramp and digitally controlled loading systems, enable large, complex items of equipment, including Chinook helicopters, military vehicles and other heavy items of specialist kit to be transported. Continuing demand on the C-17 fleet led to a sixth aircraft being ordered in 2007, followed by a seventh in 2009, and subsequently an eighth example was purchased in 2012.

The C-17 can transport 100,000lb (45,360kg) of freight more than 4,500nm (8,334km) while flying at altitudes above 35,000ft.  The aircraft’s design enables high-angle, steep approaches at relatively slow speeds, allowing it to operate into small, austere airfields and onto runways as short as 3,500ft long and just 90ft wide.

The Airbus A400M Atlas provides both tactical and strategic airlift, complementing the C-17 and C-130 Hercules fleet. Atlas can carry up to 116 fully equipped troops, and vehicles up to the size of a Chinook helicopter. It can also deliver its payload not only in the traditional manner, but also by parachute gravity extraction where suitable. Operated by 70 Squadron, Atlas fits in nicely between the larger Boeing C-17 and the smaller Lockheed C-130 Hercules operated by the RAF.

The Atlas C1 is considerably more fuel efficient than the larger Boeing C-17 Globemaster at low altitude, but still provides the RAF with a strategic capability. Faster than the C-130 at higher altitudes, Atlas also has a larger payload than the C-130 Hercules, yet maintains the Hercules' rough field capability. The RAF will eventually have 22 Atlas C1 on strength, with 20 already delivered and the final two aircraft being scheduled to arrive in 2021. Together with its airlift capability, Atlas also can also provide a full aeromedical evacuation capability for high dependency and highly infectious patients – able to carry up to 66 low-to-medium dependency stretcher patients, or 4 high-dependency stretcher patients. 

Airbus Voyager KC2/3

Although it wears the test serial EC-400, the aircraft above is actually the penultimate aircraft for the RAF and will eventually become ZM421

Boeing’s long-range, strategic, heavy-lift transport aircraft is operated by 99 Squadron. With eight of the type in service, the C-17’s 169,000lb payload is capable of strategic delivery of everything from 100 fully-equipped troops to Chinook helicopters and large battle tanks, over 4000 nautical miles using paved or unpaved airstrips. The C-17s range can also be extended with its air-to-air refuelling capability. The first Globemaster (#ZZ171) joined the Royal Air Force in May 2001 after the Ministry of Defence (MoD) agreed a seven-year ‘lease and support’ contract with Boeing and the US Air Force (USAF) for four aircraft.

#ZZ336 is seen above wearing an AirTanker livery. The aircraft has since been painted in a full 'Union Flag' livery and converted to a VIP aircraft, although it is still regularly used for air-to-air refuelling operations

Hercules C5 #ZH881 is seen in the photo left, about to depart from Gran Canaria, in September 2016. The airport at Gran Canaria is a regular stop off point for numerous military aircraft, as it is strategically located in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of west Africa. This particular aircraft now serves with 101 Squadron of the Bangladesh Air Force as S3-AGE

The Lockheed C-130 Hercules is the RAF’s primary tactical transport aircraft and has been the backbone of UK operational tactical mobility tasks since it entered service in 1967. Frequently operating into regions where there is a threat to aircraft; its performance, tactics and defensive systems make it the ideal platform for such tasks

Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster long-range, strategic, heavy-lift transport aircraft is operated by 99 Squadron. With eight of the type in service, the C-17’s 169,000lb payload is capable of strategic delivery of everything from 100 fully-equipped troops to Chinook helicopters and large battle tanks over 4000 nautical miles using paved or unpaved airstrips. #ZZ178 is seen left, taxying to the end of Brize Norton's runway.

Boeing C-17A Globemaster

With the A400M earmarked to replace the Hercules, problems with its introduction and capabilities in the early years provided the C-130J a stay of execution. The Hercules clearly still had an important tactical role to play until the A400M was fully established and so it was that the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review reflected this thinking, with the announcement that 14 Hercules C4s would remain in service until 2030, including an upgrade and life extension programme. The C-130 currently operates with 47 Squadron at Brize Norton and despite the plan to withdraw all of the shorter versions, at the time of this article one C5 (#ZH889) still remains on strength, along with 13 of the larger C4s. However, the UK Defence Command Paper published in March 2021 once again saw the Hercules fleet slated for withdrawal in 2023, with no reprieve being likely this time.

Reserve pilots and engineers.  The first Voyager KC2 (#ZZ330) was delivered 5 April 2012 and began RAF operations with 10 Sqn on 12 May 2012, flying an air transport sortie from Brize Norton to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus. Although nominally based at RAF Brize Norton, one aircraft is always available on the Falkland Islands, primarily in support of the Typhoon QRA jets. The pooled fleet of Voyagers is operated by 10 & 101 Squadrons.

#ZZ177 received this 10-year anniversary scheme on its vertical fin in 2011

This particular aircraft was delivered to 99 Sqn in 2009 and is photographed at RAF Fairford during the Royal International Air Tattoo in July 2011

The Airbus A310 aircraft which had found favour with several air arms as the basis for conversion into a military transport or multi-role tanker transport (MRTT), was recognised as a potential replacement for the TriStar and VC10 in the early 1990s, with trials of a modified aircraft taking place in 1995.  It was expected that Airbus would offer the A310-MRTT for the UK’s Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) requirement, announced as a private finance initiative (PFI) programme in 2000. In the event, the procurement process was delayed and Airbus did not tender - and in 2004 the Ministry of Defence announced its intention to acquire a variant of the A330-MRTT. The fleet of 14 Voyager aircraft is divided into a Core Fleet of nine aircraft for the RAF, and five ‘Surge’ aircraft, which are available to the RAF but can also be made available to other parties, which includes providing military capability to other nations or civil leasing.

The C-130J Hercules C5s have all been withdrawn bar one aircraft that still remains in service at this time. Although relatively 'new' in terms of military aircraft, having only been in service for approximately 20 years, the fleet was worked especially hard during Operation Shader and Operation Telic in Iraq, and Operation Herrick in Afghanistan. The large number of hours flown put far more stress on the fleet than was expected, and with the introduction of the A400M Atlas, the Hercules was expected to be axed by the MoD. However, the C4 models (C-130J-30) escaped and the majority of the 15 delivered remain in service to this day.

This L1011 TriStar KC.1 is seen taxying out at Brize Norton in February 2006. It wears the white livery with dark blue cheatline that the type first wore in 1986. This particular aircraft (ZD952), was an ex-British Airways machine and was scrapped at Kemble in 2014

Airbus A400M Atlas C1

Following the 1982 Falklands War, the RAF found itself lacking in the strategic transport capabilities required to sustain the expanded military presence there. As a result, 216 Squadron reformed at Brize Norton in November 1984, initially flying six ex-British Airways and three ex-Pan-Am Lockheed TriStars. On 23 May 2001 the RAF's first C-17 arrived at Brize Norton, one of eight to be delivered to 99 Squadron. With the Lockheed TriStars then operating an air bridge flight to RAF Ascension Island, Brize Norton was redeveloped as the major airbase for the RAF's transport fleet.

© Pima Air & Space Museum

UNITED STATES AIR FORCE - The 1950s saw increasing tension during the Cold War, and by 1953 elements of the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) began to move into Brize Norton. SAC invested heavily in extending the runway, taxiways and dispersals, as well as constructing accommodation and weapons handling facilities. The station was assigned to the 7th Air Division and operated by the 3920th Air Base Group, which was renamed as the 3920th Combat Support Group, and then the 3920th Strategic Wing in 1964. The first major USAF deployment was that of 21 Convair B-36 Peacemaker (photo, left) strategic bombers of the 11th Bomb Wing in June 1952. SAC also based Boeing B-29 Superfortress and the KB-29 tankers of the 301st Bombardment Wing at Brize Norton on temporary duty (TDY) from December 1952 to April 1953.

The Voyager fleet (along with C-130 and Atlas aircraft) also provides a single aircraft detachment in support of 903 Expeditionary Air Wing (AEW), which is currently based at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, and has been tasked with conducting operations against ISIL in Iraq & Syria. Similarly, Voyager also provides a single aircraft in support for the defence of the Falkland Islands as part of 1312 Flight (which also has A400 Atlas support). 1312 Flight provides a mix of aerial refuelling, air transport, search and rescue and maritime patrol duties.

Return to Royal Air Force control
With RAF Lyneham, the home of RAF Transport Command's Bristol Britannia and De Havilland Comet fleets operating at capacity, the planned introduction to RAF service of the Vickers VC-10 and Short Belfast created a requirement for an additional major strategic transport airfield. The planned withdrawal of the USAF, its long runway and close proximity to army bases in the south of England, resulted in Brize Norton being selected for the role in 1963. Both 10 Squadron, equipped with the Vickers VC-10 C.1, and 53 Sqn equipped with the Short Belfast C.1 turboprop freighter, moved from RAF Fairford in May 1967, followed by 99 and 511 Squadrons from RAF Lyneham, both operating the Bristol Britannia, in 1970. The Britannia squadrons were disbanded in 1976, along with 53 Squadron and its Short Belfasts. In the same year, 115 Squadron moved from RAF Cottesmore with their Armstrong Whitworth Argosy E.1s, used in the calibration role, these later moving to RAF Benson in 1983. 101 Squadron then reformed at Brize Norton on 1 May 1984, flying converted ex-civilian VC-10s, heavily modified and updated by British Aerospace for military service as air-to-air refuelling aircraft. These converted VC-10s were all 3-point tankers; capable of refuelling one aircraft (typically another large aircraft) using the main hose or two smaller aircraft using the underwing pods.

#ZZ172 is seen at its home base of RAF Brize Norton performing an overshoot. Note the huge flaps that provide the Globemaster with its short-field performance characteristics

Voyager KC2 #ZZ330 received a 'RAF 100' anniversary tailfin in 2018 and is seen at Eindhoven, Netherlands, in April 2019 during the annual EART exercise. To the right are photographs of the Voyager's flight deck and monitoring station for air-to-air refuelling operations.

© Vince Horan

Known as the Hercules C.1, this version remained in service until 1975, when defence cuts saw 13 aircraft withdrawn and two squadrons disbanded. However, the last C-130K was not retired until October 2013 after almost five decades on the frontline. In December 1993, a MoD requirement identified the need to replace the existing Hercules fleet, resulting in an order for the C-130J model, a next-generation machine then under development and featuring the latest avionics systems. The order comprised ten standard C-130J aircraft, designated the C5 in RAF service; and 15 of the longer C-130J-30, designated C4 - with the first delivery scheduled for August 1998. The first operational example reached RAF Lyneham on 21 November 1999. Although initially planned to be in service well into the 2000s, having worked the fleet intensively during Operations Telic and Herrick, the C-130J accumulated flying hours far more rapidly than had initially been projected, resulting in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review calling for its withdrawal from service in 2022, a full decade earlier than planned.

Fuel off-loaded during AAR operations is taken from the aircraft’s wing and fuselage tanks, leaving the cabin free for up to 291 personnel. As a tanker, its capabilities include the ability to operate a ‘towline’, where the Voyager orbits around a prescribed area awaiting ‘receivers’, or in a ‘trail’, where it flies with a number of fast jets, refuelling them over long distances while taking responsibility for the formation’s fuel and navigation. Alternatively, it can operate as a passenger aircraft, delivering personnel safely into theatre. Voyager also provides the capacity for the movement of palletised and/or bulk freight in its lower fuselage hold.  

The Lockheed Hercules currently serves with 47 Squadron. As the RAF’s primary tactical transport aircraft, it has been the backbone of UK operational tactical mobility tasks since 1967, with the current C-130J fleet of C4/C5 aircraft having been in service since 1999. Frequently employed to operate into countries or regions where there is a threat to aircraft; its performance, tactics and defensive systems make it the ideal platform for such tasks.

Entering service with the Royal Air Force in November 2014, the A400M provides both tactical and strategic airlift, complementing the C-17 and C-130 Hercules fleet. Atlas has the ability to carry a 25-tonne payload over 2000 nautical miles, operating from normal runways and also unpaved airstrips. It can carry up to 116 fully equipped troops, and vehicles up to the size of a Chinook helicopter. It can also deliver its payload not only in the traditional manner, but also by parachute gravity extraction. Operated by 70 Squadron, Atlas fits in nicely between the larger Boeing C-17 and the smaller Lockheed C-130 Hercules operated by the RAF.

In a March 2008 agreement, AirTanker was selected to provide 14 aircraft under a 27-year contract.  This includes a so-called ‘Core Fleet’ of military aircraft, one of which has a VIP fit for use by the Royal Family or Prime Minister; supplemented by a ‘Surge Fleet’ of four civilian-registered aircraft that AirTanker uses commercially to generate additional revenue.  The surge aircraft are de-modified to A330-243 standard and can be recalled for military use if required. One aircraft is used for the regular flights to the Falkland Islands, South Atlantic - the South Atlantic Air Bridge, which was awarded to AirTanker in October 2013 and provides a vital connection between the UK and the Falkland Islands. The route takes the aircraft over 7,900 miles from RAF Brize Norton to the Falklands, via Cape Verde, with passengers being a mix of military personnel, contractors and civilians. Voyager's flexibility and versatile design, also allow it to provide an aeromedical facility with up to 40 stretchers on board if required.

The Airbus A330-MRTT Voyager is the RAF’s sole air-to-air refuelling (AAR) tanker and also operates as a strategic air transport.  The aircraft is in service as the Voyager KC2, equipped with a pair of Cobham 905E underwing hose and drogue pods for refuelling fast jets, and the Voyager KC3, which has an additional Cobham 805E Fuselage Refuelling Unit centreline hose for refuelling larger aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules or E-3D Sentry.

The AirTanker consortium owns, manages and maintains the aircraft and provides infrastructure, support, training facilities and some personnel, in particular Sponsored

From September 1953, units equipped with the Boeing B-47E Stratojet (photo below, right) began to be deployed to Brize Norton on 90-day TDY, with Boeing KC-97G Stratotankers(photo below, left)also being deployed in support from December 1954. From 1958, B-47 deployments changed from 90-day TDY to 30-day Reflex Alerts, in which the aircraft did little flying, but were held at a high degree of readiness and armed with nuclear bombs. Later deployments also saw KC-97 and Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers, and the first Convair B-58 Hustler and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers to land in the United Kingdom. However, in September 1964, the USAF announced that Reflex operations would cease and that RAF Brize Norton would be handed back to the Royal Air Force.

With RAF Brize Norton chosen as the base to operate the aircraft, 99 Squadron was re-formed, with the aircraft quickly becoming a key enabler of the airbridge operation that sustained Operation Herrick in Afghanistan. At the peak of Operation Herrick, the C-17 was required to service humanitarian and operational commitments elsewhere and so rather than taking an option to extend the C-17 lease by a further two years, the MoD bought the initial four aircraft and also ordered a fifth in 2006.

The Hercules is a highly flexible asset , with the ability to airdrop stores and paratroopers, and operate from short, unmade landing strips. To conduct these missions, it is vital that Hercules crews are highly skilled in low-level flying, with aircraft performing the same roles at night using night-vision goggles (NVGs), while station keeping equipment (SKE) enable it to remain in formation during poor weather. Its long-range capabilities can be further enhanced with its air-to-air refuelling capability.

The RAF began Hercules operations way back in 1967 when it took delivery of 66 C-130K models, which were essentially built to C-130H standard.

Seen on approach to RAF Brize Norton are a Hercules C4 (left) and a Hercules C5 (right). Note the detachable air-to-air refuelling probe on both aircraft above the cockpit. The C4 model is the 'stretched' version, with a 15ft longer fuselage. Due to their increased cargo-carrying capacity, the C4s are said to be the preferred variant for special forces operations. Also of note on the C4 model is an AN/AAQ-24(V) Nemesis directed IR countermeasures (DIRCM) mounted on the fuselage just in front of the rear horizontal stabiliser.