Located on the Ayrshire coastline, Prestwick Airport is no stranger when it comes to military aircraft with a long and distinguished history in aviation in Scotland.
In recent years, the airport has seen an increase in military use of the airfield both in day-to-day transits and becoming an integral part in key operations and training exercises, much to the delight of the dedicated local spotters and aviation enthusiasts. And the first Exercise Joint Warrior certainly wouldn’t disappoint the Ayrshire contingent, as Kevin Paterson reports.
Prestwick Airport History
Prestwick Airport originally began life as a training airfield back in 1934 but it’s ideal location was soon highlighted for commercial transport and it’s applications for the military were quickly identified with the United States Air Force having a permanent presence between 1952 and 1966.
This airport has had a strong military presence since its conception with an extensive Royal Navy anti-submarine contingent based at HMS Gannet throughout the Cold War and beyond.
The Royal Navy is still a prominent feature of the Ayrshire facility with one of the busiest helicopter search and rescue units in the UK based at RNAS Prestwick operating the venerable Sea King. This service will be replaced in 2016 by the new UK search and rescue consortium with Bristow Helicopters operating two Augusta Westland AW189 helicopters from a custom built facility currently under construction at the airport.
Throughout its life, Prestwick Airport has continued to be utilised by the military as a strategic refuelling point specifically by the USAF, RAF and more recently the Royal Canadian Air Force. The eyes of the world were on the airport in 2005 when it became the primary airfield for the participants of the 31st G8 Summit held at Gleneagles.
Exercise Joint Warrior 15-1
During recent years, Prestwick Airport has hosted a number of aircraft throughout the Joint Warrior series of exercises and the first Joint Warrior of 2015 was no different. Prior to the official exercise start, the signs that things were looking good for Prestwick were already clear with the arrival of several rotary assets in the shape of “EAGLE” flight – RN Merlin ZH828 and ZH841 and also from much further afield, “CANFORCE 412” – a Canadian Sea King 12412.
Traditionally the first Monday of Joint Warrior has proved interesting as the majority of the maritime participants leave their berths at Faslane and Glasgow and head southbound out into the River Clyde. This year however, the warship contingent departed on the Sunday which may well have been influenced by the tide levels and a planned protest at HMNB Clyde on the Monday.
As warships of all shapes and sizes routed past Gourock with snow-capped hills in the background, the airborne contingent also arrived in force at Prestwick Airport, with the 736 Naval Air Squadron Hawk T.1s and FRA Falcon 20s getting into position ahead of exercise start.
From that point onwards, Prestwick Airport transformed itself and the Ayrshire coastline into a busy military staging post with constant arrivals and departures of Royal Navy Hawks and FRA Falcons.
The sight and sound of the fast jet aircraft conducting run and breaks on their arrival became common place, much to the delight of the regulars at Prestwick and also for many in the nearby towns and villages.
Wednesday 15th April would prove to be one of the most memorable days at Prestwick Airport as far as Joint Warrior Exercises of recent times go. The skies were blue, the sun was shining and the airfield was busy with routing exercise movements.
Two RAF Merlins sat on the dispersal having arrived earlier in the week and rumours were flying amongst those at the airfield of a possible visit by the US Navy P-8A Poseidon which was operating from RAF Lossiemouth – rumours which quickly became a reality as the aircraft descending into Ayrshire under the callsign “Navy VLF430”. Interestingly, this was not a Joint Warrior mission callsign, perhaps indicating that the aircraft was performing additional training on top of exercise requirements.
It wasn’t long until the RAF added to the excitement as “OMEN formation” was heard working Prestwick Approach, self-identifying as two C-130J Hercules aircraft inbound from the south and requesting a run and break. Minutes later, the two aircraft in their distinctive olive drab paint scheme appeared low on the horizon before overlying the airfield and touching down in quick succession.
These aircraft had been reported to be working around the West Freugh area earlier that morning, and on landing, a small contingent of troops casually walked down the back ramp and into the hangar. They weren’t on the ground long however and were soon on their way low level back towards West Freugh loaded up once again with fully kitted up soldiers. OMEN formation would make a second brief appearance to Prestwick later that afternoon as well.
For anyone visiting the airport they could have been forgiven for thinking they were at a military installation as opposed to a civilian airport, just given the amount of hardware sitting around the aprons.
Things continued to get better when the P-8A got its departure clearance when the crew confirmed they would be returning to Prestwick on completion of their sortie in the Tiree area. With eight hours endurance it would turn out to be a long wait for the return flight but the wait was worth it. The return of the P-8A that evening was a very quick turnaround to drop off some passengers before departing back to RAF Lossiemouth. It is unclear why the P-8A made a very welcomed appearance at Prestwick Airport however it is hoped it may be a sign of good things to come in the future.
As Joint Warrior Exercises go, this was without a doubt one of the most exciting in recent years. The amount of military hardware involved was at a level not seen for a long time.
As each Joint Warrior passes it appears Prestwick Airport continues to have a bigger involvement and the amount of aircraft based and visiting the airfield continues to increase. I can’t remember the last time I was able to sit in my backdoor while hearing warships conducting live firing exercises with the sound of fast jets overhead at the same time.
To coin an old phrase from Prestwick Airport – the first Joint Warrior of 2015 was ‘Pure Dead Brilliant’.