RAF Mildenhall 19-20/04/2016 – HMX-1 / POTUS visit

RAF Mildenhall 19-20/04/2016 – HMX-1 / POTUS visit

With superb weather forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday in Suffolk and 325th FW F-22A Raptors at RAF Lakenheath and multiple assets supporting US President Barack Obama’s visit to London at RAF Mildenhall, it was absolutely essential to take advantage of the situation and get out with the camera this week. 

As of Sunday morning of last week, the prospects for the coming seven days looked anything other than inspiring, but by that evening almost every forecast you could find was coming around to the same way of thinking: Tuesday and Wednesday were going to be too good to miss, and, what’s more, there was every chance there’d be an opportunity to shoot some Runway 06 departures at Lakenheath on the Wednesday.

So inspired was I that I did something I’ve never done before for a visit to the area:  I booked a hotel room in Mildenhall!!  Despite living only 60 miles from the place, anybody who has had the misfortune to need to travel on the A14 between Huntingdon and Cambridge will know just how bad it can be at the best of times, let alone at rush hour.  And without knowing how late we might be there on Tuesday, it seemed prudent to spend a few pounds and take some of the pain out of the situation.  As it turned out, I managed to talk a few friends into doing the same.

The Tuesday was always going to be primarily about capturing the orientation flight for the HMX-1 helicopters – those which would be responsible for getting Obama around once he’d stepped off Air Force One at Stansted on Thursday.  Based at Quantico, VA, the unit positioned three MV-22B Ospreys to Mildenhall last Saturday with two VH-3D Sea Kings being off-loaded from C-17s on the Sunday.

Their plan – assuming they would not fly that morning – became clear early on Tuesday when a NOTAM was published detailing a 10-minute window where movements at Heathrow would be suspended.

Before that, however, a pair of C-5M Super Galaxys from the 436th AW based at Dover AFB, DE, were due to deliver Obama’s extensive motorcade, including “The Beast”.

Additionally, there were several KC-135 movements and a C-17 departure.

After deliberating long and hard – and with mild concern about which runway would be in use by that stage – we decided that the safest place from which to view the main event was John’s Field at the 11 end.

All of the helicopters operated from the very middle of the airfield, making the more dynamic shots that so many of us craved essentially impossible.  Thankfully, we had elected to be in the best place possible, though in truth that was not saying much.

With the wind still marginally favouring the 29 end, we returned to the Mound for their recovery, or so we thought!  The Ospreys did indeed recover to 29, but the VH-3Ds, delayed slightly by extending their journey, landed back via 11.  We made the dash back to John’s Field to get them, but they cut the corner on the approach and rendered the shots essentially worthless.

Mission accomplished – at least as well as it could be – it was time to head off to RAF Lakenheath for some early-evening Raptor action, but I’ll discuss that next time.

After a few beers, a pleasant curry and a little sleep, our second day also started at RAF Lakenheath, where we remained until just after 12.  An excellent late-breakfast was taken at Angels Café en route to RAF Mildenhall ahead of a superb afternoon in John’s Field.

We’d not even made it through the gate before it became obvious that something was on approach – a KC-135R from the 92nd ARW at Fairchild AFB, WA.  Not only that, one of the previous day’s C-5M Super Galaxys was also running, and by the time that had departed a USAF RC-135W from the 55th Wg at Offutt AFB, NE, had called up to land, too!  If only that was the norm at Mildenhall!

A further Fairchild-based KC-135R arrival preceded the return of the RAF’s specially-marked 51 Sqn Airseeker R1 (Rivet Joint), ZZ664, which had been up on a Joint Warrior mission during the morning.  Not content with a straight in approach, the crew of “DRAGNET31” flew no less than four approaches.

A McGuire (305th AMW), KC-10A Extender that had arrived the previous evening then departed ahead of MacDill (6th ARW), Seymour Johnson (916th ARW) and Fairchild (92nd ARW) KC-135s.

Finally, a pair of based MC-130J Combat Shadow IIs of the 67th SOS flew a series of take-offs and landings with minimal separation between them.  It was quite impressive and nice to see.

By now, though, the sun was moving around into a rather awkward position, so it was time to relocate to Lakenheath once more.

And so a quite brilliant couple of days at RAF Mildenhall drew to a close. 

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