RAF Lakenheath – Raptor Town UK – 04/05/2016

RAF Lakenheath – Raptor Town UK – 04/05/2016

Ever since the twelve F-22A Raptors of the 325th FW’s 95th FS arrived at RAF Lakenheath for an unexpected deployment I had been on the look-out for a free, good weather day where Runway 24 would be in use to hopefully catch them recovering late in the afternoon against the trees on the southside of the runway.  Finally, with just a few flying days of their visit left, the stars aligned for Wednesday, 4th May.

Fully expecting plenty of other people to have the same idea, I decided on a 0600 departure from home and had an essentially clear run all the way down to Lakenheath, arriving at 0705.  It had been a long time since I’d completed that journey in such a respectable time!  My assumption about everybody and their dog being present proved to be correct, and it was great to catch up with lots of old friends once more.

We didn’t have long to wait for the action to begin with F-15 engines starting a matter of minutes after my arrival.  Curiously, though, after clearly pulling away from their respective hard-standings, things went rather quiet and nothing appeared at the Runway 24 Last Chance area….  Was Runway 06 in use???  The windsock very definitely suggested it should not be, and a quick tune of the scanner to ATIS showed that 24 was indeed the active.

For whatever reason, the F-15s were all undergoing their Last Chance checks at the Runway 06 end before taxying down the Northern taxiway to depart from Runway 24….  As it turned out, every single one of the 27 Eagles that departed in the ensuing couple of hours followed the same procedure…. At this point, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that you’ll find no Eagle shots in this entry (there’s just too many pics for one post!).

The Raptors, however, did taxi to the runway via the taxiway passing the 24 Last Chance area.  Unlike the Eagles, though, they had all undergone their final checks in situ ahead of taxying, and so only two pulled on to the Last Chance ramp, which was slightly disappointing as it meant missing a nice light / angle combination that I’d rather taken for granted on the other six F-22s to fly that morning.

From the Forest Entry, on steps, it’s possible to shoot recovering aircraft in the flare over the Runway 24 threshold, initially against a background of vibrant green trees and then some bright red-roofed buildings.  These were also shots I was missing from the Raptors’ stay, so I made the most of conditions to add some of those to the collection.

In hindsight, and knowing this would be my last visit for them, I should have repositioned for some more dynamic angles, at least of the last couple, but I didn’t.

Most of the F-15Es that had flown that morning hot-pitted (engines-running refuels) and launched again.  Content that the Raptors were unlikely to fly again until the afternoon, Michael Hind and I decided it was breakfast time, and so a cheeky burrito stop at Angels Café in Mildenhall was very much in order.  We were back at RAF Lakenheath in time to catch the first recoveries of the second wave, while six further jets were still sat waiting to launch once more.

The biggest problem we were likely to encounter with the desire to shoot our late-in-the-day Raptor recovery shots was them launching too early.  The sun is pretty much straight down the runway at 1500L, so it was a positive step that nothing had called to taxi before then.  The bottom line, though, was that the later the F-22s launched, the better.

The first pair taxied out at 1520 and frustratingly waited for their F-15C escorts on the Runway 24 Last Chance ramp, rather than taxying across to the Northern taxiway to hold – that was the other main ‘target shot’ on the list, though we knew we would need a little luck to get it.  What made it worse was that although there was surprisingly little heat-haze present, the two F-15Cs and two F-22As decided to launch in stream, so as soon as the first F-15C had turned onto the runway, any hope of getting any shots of the following three aeroplanes evaporated.

The second and third pairs taxied at 1550 and 1620 respectively, with the first pair recovering shortly before the third pair got airborne.

The fourth and final pair were forced to hold (again, on the Runway 24 Last Chance!) for quite a substantial period of time as Swanwick was not prepared to release them due to the excessive number of fast jets in the skies at that time.  While it was obviously annoying the Raptor pilots, it was playing into our hands.  They finally got airborne at 1655, and it looked like our primary wish would be granted.

The light was really starting to come good and with around 15 Eagles still airborne and four Raptors, we were in for a very good hour 90 minutes or so.  With so many opportunities, it was time to drop the shutter speeds and go for some blurred backgrounds.

At 1820 the last jet landed and an amazing day came to a close.  A post on the Fighter Control forum suggested there were no fewer than 87 take-offs and 87 landings in the day, which is pretty epic by modern standards.

I’d spent three days in the area during the deployment, and they’d been some of the most enjoyable I’ve had in aviation in a very long time; fantastic weather, lots of flying, plenty of variety and surrounded by some of my favourite people in this game.  Superb!

Related Images: