In 1939 Ascension became important as a HF/DF radio station covering trade routes. After the United States entered World War II, an airstrip was built using a US task force to supply and augment extensive amphibious aircraft antisubmarine patrol operations ongoing from the early days of the war, it was known as "Wideawake", after a nearby colony of Sooty Terns (locally called 'Wideawake' birds because of their loud, distinctive call, which would wake people early in the morning).
The first aircraft to land on Ascension Island was a Fairey Swordfish from HMS Archer in 1942. In 1943 the United States Army Air Forces set up Wideawake Airfield, by arrangement with the British government. The airfield was abandoned at the end of the war, and fell into disuse. The Americans returned in 1956, and reopened the airfield in 1957. The runway was lengthened and widened in the mid 1960s to allow for larger aircraft. The U.S. Air Force then, and later NASA established missile tracking facilities based at Cat Hill. Although NASA usage ended in 1967, the Air Force continues its usage with several hundred personnel, mostly contractors.
RAF Ascension Island was re-garrisoned by the RAF in 1982 and used extensively as a staging base during the Falklands War. Operation Black Buck, the long range bombing raid, was carried out from there. The base continues this staging post role for the Falkland Islands, for both the RAF and the United States Air Force.
RAF TriStar refuelling at Ascension during a stop en route to the Falkland Islands.
The station comes under the overall jurisdiction of the Commander British Forces South Atlantic Islands, an officer of one-star rank. As of 2013, this has been held by Air Commodore Russ LaForte. The RAF base on Ascension Island is run on a day-to-day basis by around nineteen RAF personnel, headed by a Wing Commander.
The RAF presence on Ascension is backed up by United States Air Force personnel, who contribute a similar number of service personnel to ensure the effective running of the station, under the command of Captain Eduard Rodriguez, who is responsible to the RAF Station Commander.