RAF Mildenhall, home of the 100th Air Refuelling Wing, is one of the most popular bases to visit in the UK, with a wide variety of movements passing through every week. Ben Montgomery and Sam Pilcher present a special guide from Aero Resource documenting everything from history, spotting locations and callsigns, to photographic information, all to help you get the most out of your visit.
The History of RAF Mildenhall
RAF Mildenhall was built in 1934, and has been in constant use since the 16th October of that year. During World War 2, Mildenhall was operated as a Royal Air Force base by RAF Bomber Command. After the end of hostilities, the base was placed into standby until July 11th 1950, when it was reopened as a joint USAF-RAF base. The base was assigned to Strategic Air Command, and became home initially to the B-29 Superfortress, then to the B-50 Superfortress in 1952, and soon after, to B-47 Stratojets and KC-97 Stratotankers in 1953, until 1958. In March 1959, Mildenhall was transformed into the base of today, when the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) moved its main UK Terminal to the base. Mildenhall was then effectively the United States gateway to Great Britain, and Europe.
In August of 1959, the 53rd Weather Squadron was transferred from Alconbury to Mildenhall, and flew the WB-50D Superfortress, tasked with collecting weather data for MATS. The 53rd were deactivated only a year later. In 1965, Mildenhall welcomed its next unit, the 7120th Airborne Command and Control Squadron, who upon their arrival converted from the C-118 to the EC-135 “Silk Purse” aircraft. In 1966 Mildenhall received another unit, the 513th Troop Carrier Wing, along with their 20 MAC C-130 Hercules aircraft. For the next decade, life at Mildenhall remained steady, with no more significant unit changes.
In July of 1978, the 306th Strategic Wing was transferred to Mildenhall, to continue supporting its KC-135 Stratotanker and RC-135 squadrons. The RC-135s were based at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, and flew with the 55th Reconnaissance Wing, also known as simply the 55th Wing. From 1978 until the present, they have been regular visitors to Mildenhall.
The next significant event in Mildenhall’s history was the arrival of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, Detachment 4. The 9thSRW controlled the rotational deployments of the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird aircraft through the base, for missions over Europe. It is still unknown as to the date these aircraft began operating over Europe. The aircraft operated from Mildenhall until January 18th 1990, when Detachment 4 left Mildenhall.
On February 1st 1992, the 100th Air Refuelling Wing took on the responsibilities of the 306thSW, and became the host unit at RAF Mildenhall, where it still remains today. Before this time, the European Tanker Taskforce was based at RAF Fairford, before transforming into the 100thARW, and moving to Mildenhall. In May 1993, RAF Alconbury was returned to the Ministry of Defence as part of the USAF European drawdown, and the 352nd Special Operations Group moved to RAF Mildenhall, bringing its MC-130 and MH-53 aircraft with it. The MH-53s flew at Mildenhall for the last time on the 13th September 2007, and were operated by the 21st Special Operations Squadron. The MC-130H Combat Talon aircraft still remain, operated by the 7th SOS, as do the MC-130P Combat Shadows, operated by the 67th SOS.
The 100th Air Refuelling Wing
The 100th ARW is the unit most people now associate with RAF Mildenhall. The 100th was activated at Mildenhalll on the 1st of February 1992, and has been stationed on base since then. Their heritage can be traced back to the 1st June 1942, when the 100th Bombardment Group was created, as an unmanned unit. On 1st November 1942, the 100th moved to Walla Walla Air Force Base in Washington, and received their first pilots and B-17F aircraft, before relocating to Wendover Field in Utah. After training the unit flew to Thorpe Abbots, Norfolk, England on May 25th 1943. On the 25th June, the 100th flew their first combat mission, against the Bremen submarine yards. It was from here onwards that the 100th was nicknamed “The Bloody Hundredth” by the other bomber units, a name which still sticks today. It was due to the unusually large losses that the 100th took on some raids, on occasion loosing 12 out of 13 aircraft. The 100thBG flew their last combat mission of World War 2 on April 20th, 1945, before being inactivated in New Jersey on December 21st of that year.
The unit was briefly reactivated as a training and reserve unit between 1947 and 1949, after which time it was stood down for 5 1/2 years. On January 1st 1956, the 100th were reactivated as a medium bombing unit at Portsmouth Air Force Base, New Hampshire. They undertook global strategic bombing training and air refuelling from this location for the next decade.
The wing was redesignated the 100th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, and moved to David Monathan AB on the 25th June 1966. The 100th spent another 10 years here, operating the Lockheed U-2, and associated drone aircraft. The aircraft were relocated to the 9thSRW in 1976, and the 100th was again redesignated, to the 100th Air Refuelling Wing, and moved to Beale AFB. From here they provided refuelling support for the 9thSRW from 30 September 1976, until March 1983. The Wing was again inactivated at this time.
The Wing was briefly reactivated as an Air Division at Whiteman AFB in 1990, but was inactivated again a year later. In 1992, they were reactivated as the 100thARW again, and have been based at Mildenhall since.
The current commander is Colonel Chad Manske.
So what can you expect to see at Mildenhall today?
Sadly, flights today that pass through Mildenhall are of a much smaller scale than they used to be. A weekday visit would definitely be advised if possible. The based units (100thARW, 352ndSOG) do not fly at weekends, unless they are flying operational missions. This could mean seeing the occasional local KC-135R or MC-130 going off on a mission. During the weekdays, it is almost certain that there will be at least one movement from the local MC-130Ps, MC-130Hs or KC-135Rs.
Mildenhall’s main attraction to the spotter or photographer is not just the based aircraft, but the wide variety of other movements that Mildenhall can attract. Almost any aircraft can turn up on a day, and it is not unusual to go and see the Visitor Ramp filled with a variety of types, from visiting KC-135R Stratotankers, to C-5 Galaxytransports, and even AC-130U Spooky II gunships!
The most common type of visitor will be KC-135 Stratotankers, as the 100th ARW is the only KC-135 unit in Europe, and so can give the best support to visiting aircraft of the type. Unfortunately, the KC-135’s “cousin”, the larger KC-10A Extender, does not appear so much, but is by no means a rare visitor.
Likewise, the 352ndSOG is the only special operations C-130 unit in Europe, so most visiting MC-130, EC-130and AC-130 aircraft pass through Mildenhall. This is by no means gospel, as Ramstein AB can also receive a proportion of the flights. The 95thRS at Mildenhall also means that RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, RC-135U Combat Sent, RC-135S Cobra Ball and WC-135C/W Constant Phoenix aircraft are almost certain to visit, as opposed to stopping at another European base.
Ramstein AB in Germany is the main Air Mobility Command base for Europe, and as such gets the greatest proportion of C-17A Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy flights. Mildenhall still recieves a lot of these aircraft, with 2-3 C-17s in a good week, and sometimes a similar amount of C-5 aircraft. Ramstein also is home to the 86th Airlift Wing, who fly, among other aircraft, the C-130J Hercules aircraft. For the same reason as Mildenhall with the KC-135, Ramstein will therefore get more C-130 flights than Mildenhall. These flights are aircraft on temporary “Delta” deployment, with the majority of US C-130 movements transiting through Prestwick in Scotland.
The United States Air Force in Europe send regular visitors to Mildenhall, with C-21As from the 76thAS at Ramstein, and C-130J-30s from the same unit reasonably regular visitors. The United States Army also sends aircraft over, in the form of the UC-35A, the C-12U, and, less frequently, the RC-12K.
Then there are the rare, out of the blue visitors. Mildenhall does get more than it’s fair share of these, and from January 2009 to January 2010 received such aircraft as E-8C J-STARS, VC-32A, C-32B, E-4B “Nightwatch”, AC-130U Spooky II, C-40C, U-28A, MC-12W “Project Liberty”, B-1B Lancer, KC-130J Hercules, RC-12K, E-6B Mercury, E-3 “AWACS”, F-16 Fighting Falcon, OC-135B Open Skies, P-3 Orion/EP-3 Aries and many, many more.
The possibilities for movements are endless, so any visit could bring some form of Star Item, or, as with any other base, it could be an unlucky day.
Where to go?
Interested in photographic details? Click Here to view the Photography Page.
The Nook Campsite, “John’s Field”
One of the beauties of Mildenhall is that there are a large variety of locations to view from. The best, and most well known among them, is The Nook Campsite, commonly referred to as “John’s Field”. Situated right at the end of Runway 29, this campsite is dedicated to aviation enthusiasts and offers some fantastic viewing points. The main benefit is that the campsite offers unrestricted views of 90% of the airfield, and as such is brilliant for planespotting. There is also a large flatbed trailer placed alongside the fence, enabling photographers to see over the fence (don’t have any qualms about climbing on it, that’s what it is there for!). The Nook Campsite is also about the best place to go for shots of aircraft departing on 29, or arriving on 11. There are also great views for aircraft departing on 11, and arriving on 29. In a nutshell, this has to be the best place to go to view at Mildenhall. There is an image of it’s location on the left side of the next photos. Just make sure you pay the entry fee!
The Nook Campsite can be found at their website, www.thenookcampsite.co.uk
If you drive down the road to the Nook Campsite, and continue to the end you will find the Crash Gate. This is another good position to take photographs of aircraft arriving on Runway 29, and/or taxiing onto, or off of Taxiway Bravo. You will need a stepladder for this location, in order to see over the fence (unless you have a smaller lens and are able to see through the gaps).
Please be aware that there is a residential area on either side of Pollards Lane, and I am sure the homeowners there would prefer not to see photographers climbing on their fences to get a better view. Parking at the end of the lane is also tight, so it would be preferable if you could park further up the lane, so as not to restrict access.
Moving over to the other side of the base, Folly Road is another nice spot for photographs. Again, a ladder will be needed in this location to see over the fence. Car parking in this location is normally not an issue, space is available along the sides of the road, just try not to block the end of the road off (as this is the prime photography location). The map below shows the location of Folly Road, it is just a matter of navigating roads to get there.
In Mildenhall town centre, there is a large roundabout. Choose the road heading north (A1101). Follow this road along until you reach a roundabout. Cross this roundabout, and take a Left at the next one. (NOTE: There is a turning to the left “Folly Road” before you reach the roundabout, however, this will not take you along the photography location – there is a roadblock half way along). Once you have turned left at the second roundabout onto Hampstead Avenue, follow the road until you reach a turning on the right, signposted as “Folly Road”. Take this turning and follow it to the end.
The image on the left shows the location of Folly Road, and images taken from this location are displayed below.
The next best place to go, is another well known one, called “The Mound”. Unlike The Nook, The Mound is not owned by anyone, and as such is free. It is located at the far end of the airfield from the Nook Campsite, and requires 3-5 minutes walk to get to, from nearby car parking. The trip from The Nook Campsite to the Mound takes about 5-8 minutes by car. It might not be the easiest location for people with impaired mobility to get to, due to a dips and rises in the path, a fair distance to cover, and the occasional rabbit hole. This location is great for movements departing Runway 29, or arriving on Runway 29. Departures on Runway 11 tend to be very high by this point, and it is not as easy to move further away from the base to get a nice “side on” shot. There are also no facilities at this site, and no cover if it is raining, or cold. The shots below show views from the Mound, with the second showing the view across the Runway 29 underrun.
The Image on the left shows the location of the Mound.
Frequencies For Mildenhall