With the sleepy airfield at Carlisle converted into a forward operating base for some serious helicopter hardware, AeroResources’ Kevin Paterson decided it was time to dust off the cameras, charge the radios and head for the fence line for Exercise TAC BLAZE 16.
Each year, Carlisle Lake District Airport in Cumbria goes through a rather drastic transformation for two to three weeks as the airfield becomes home to a helicopter detachment from the Royal Netherlands Air Force.
The airfield that comprises of two paved runways is normally home to a number of general aviation flying schools but is also no stranger to the occasional military visitor. Make no mistake about it though, when the Tac Blaze exercises comes to town, everyone knows about it.
The routine movements of Cessna aircraft and gyro-copters are replaced with formations of Apache gunships, Cougar helicopters and CH-47 Chinooks. It’s not the just the aircraft types that are noticeable either as the roads around the airport and further afield become awash with Dutch military vehicles of all shapes and sizes.
Let’s also not forget about the fairly substantial Forward Operating Base which is erected on the airfield as well including Command and Control centres, accommodation, mess facilities, security and an extensive array of portable radar, air defence and communication systems. The vast majority of equipment arrives by road via Newcastle with equipment and personnel arriving by air and sea.
So having taken a bit of a sabbatical from aviation related road trips I felt this year’s Exercise Tac Blaze 16 was a good way to dust off the equipment and shake off the cobwebs. Just to make things that more interesting, the road trip south to Carlisle was going to take place straight after work with a finishing time of 0300 hours!
ALL ROADS LEAD TO CARLISLE
They say that planning is the key to the success of any mission or operation, so needless to say I had made sure that all of my camera kit and radios were charged and operational long before setting off. There’s nothing worse than missing something crucial because a battery isn’t charged properly or you left a vital component back at home sitting on your desk, like an aerial or tripod plate.
I wouldn’t be making this trip alone however and thankfully my good friend Tony had volunteered to do the driving in his ex-military signals Land Rover Defender. An incredibly well-suited choice of vehicle for spending the day watching and listening to a live foreign military exercise in the heart of Cumbria.
Leaving South Ayrshire shortly after 0500 hours in the fully packed Land Rover, it was only a few hours before we crossed the border and the SatNav indicated we were only 10 miles away from the airfield. Naturally a pit stop had been made on the way down for Food, drinks and essential snacks to keep us alert and our energy levels high.
Arriving at Carlisle airport, it didn’t take long before we were passing the main heart of the Forward Operating Base which could easily have been mistaken for a scene from the movie Outbreak. The majority of the infrastructure at the FOB was made up of large containers which were extended by tents on either side, many of which were sporting an array of antennas and dishes on top.
The large antenna farm within the FOB was extremely impressive and something I dare say every military radio enthusiast would be more than happy to have in their backyard connected to their radio shacks.
It has been many years since I’ve visited the airfield at Carlisle, also for a Tac Blaze exercise, however it looked as if time had stood still as almost nothing had changed despite the significant number of years having passed with the only exception to this being a new large building on the opposite side of the field. It also didn’t take long to find my favourite parking spot which looks directly across the airfield to the aircraft dispersal while maintaining a good view of the FOB as well.
After arriving on scene, it was a quick job to get the camera kit ready and the radio scanners rigged and running. Given the size of the airfield, all communications for inbound and outbound aircraft are conducted on the tower frequency of 123.600MHz making for a reasonably simple day in terms of radio monitoring.
Prior to leaving home a host of Dutch Air Force air-to-air frequencies had been programmed into the radios however for the duration of the exercises, but there seemed to be very little chatter on these known frequencies.
As with any live exercise it can be hit or miss in terms of the amount of movements (if any) on a particular day. Without any solid information or an inside source, you just have to hope the day you choose doesn’t end up being a rest day for the crews. Thankfully, in this instance, we weren’t to be disappointed.
The airfield at Carlisle provides some excellent viewing and it’s easy to anticipate when things are going to start moving thanks to the clear line of sight between the FOB and the aircraft dispersal. It didn’t take long for things to start happening as air and ground crews began prepping two of the Apache helicopters for flight prior to 0900 hours. Calling as Redskin 41 Formation, the pair of Apaches departed to the east for local area flying and some low level work.
Next on the agenda was Sabre Formation who departed at 1030 hours, comprising of Sabre 1 (Cougar); Sabre 2 (CH-47 Chinook) and Sabre 3 (Apache).
The big push came just prior to 1100 hours as fully kitted out Dutch Army personnel began emerging from the FOB and were loaded onto the two CH-47 Chinooks and a Cougar. These three aircraft were accompanied by two Apaches providing air support as the formation lifted and went off towards the Electronics Warfare Tactics Range at nearby RAF Spadeadam.
Throughout the day, the Apaches would continue to come and go from the airfield including returning for a hot refuel prior to heading back out into the area of operations. The close call function on the handheld Uniden Bearcat UBC35000XLT did pick up an air-to-air frequency of 312.200MHz which provided some brief comms, but monitoring Carlisle Tower was more than sufficient to keep track of what was going on in the skies around us.
Throughout the day there were also a number of general aviation movements but two notable arrivals were an RAF Merlin, which arrived from the range for a refuel, and one of the new UK SAR Helicopter Service S-92 Search and Rescue aircraft operated by Bristow Helicopters on behalf of Her Majesty’s Coastguard.
At first I thought it would likely be one of the aircraft from either Prestwick or Humberside, however when I heard the callsign of Rescue 936 I realised it one of the aircraft based at Caernarfon in Wales. They had been conducting training in the Lake District and were landing on for a refuel and crew refreshments prior to returning to base.
With all of the aircraft now returned and it looking unlikely that anything else would be moving that day, not to mention having been awake for over 30 hours, it seemed like a good time to pack up and head back up the road. We couldn’t come all this way however without getting a few quick photos of Vulcan XJ823 from the Solway Aviation Society. A bacon roll from Stobart’s Café located right beside the air traffic control tower was an essential purchase for the return journey.
As days out go, this trip for Exercise Tac Blaze was definitely worth it. As much as I enjoy airshows, I much prefer to see aircraft in their operational environment and have a look at the support infrastructure which accompanies the aircraft on their deployments as they would in the operational theatre.
If you haven’t visited Carlisle airport before for Exercise Tac Blaze, I would certainly recommend it. The combination of aircraft, excellent viewing opportunities and the facilities at the airport make for an excellent day out.
Boeing CH-47D Chinook D-667
Boeing CH-47D Chinook D-102
Boeing CH-47F Chinook D-892
Boeing AH-64D Apache Q-01
Boeing AH-64D Apache Q-05
Boeing AH-64D Apache Q-08
Boeing AH-64D Apache Q-30
Eurocopter AS532 Cougar S-458
Eurocopter AS532 Cougar S-459