|Near Wallingford, Oxfordshire in England|
Benson village (left) and RAF Benson (centre and right) from the air
|Type||Main Operating Base|
|Area||261 hectares (640 acres)|
|Owner||Ministry of Defence|
|Operator||Royal Air Force|
|Controlled by||Joint Helicopter Command and No.2 Group|
|In use||1939 – present|
|Group Captain Adam Wardrope|
|Identifiers||IATA: BEX, ICAO: EGUB, WMO: 3658|
|Elevation||61.8 metres (203 ft) AMSL|
|Source: RAF Benson Defence Aerodrome Manual|
Royal Air Force Benson or RAF Benson (IATA: BEX, ICAO: EGUB) is a Royal Air Force (RAF) station located at Benson, near Wallingford, in South Oxfordshire, England. It is a Main Operating Base and home to the RAF's fleet of Westland Puma HC2 support helicopters, comprising No. 33 Squadron and No. 230 Squadron. Other flying units comprise No. 22 Squadron, the rotary wing Operational Evaluation Unit and No. 28 Squadron which is the combined Puma and Boeing Chinook HC4 operational conversion unit. Lodger units include the Oxford University Air Squadron and No. 6 Air Experience Flight, both flying the Grob Tutor T1. The National Police Air Service and the Thames Valley and Chiltern Air Ambulance are also based at the station, both operating Airbus H135 helicopters.
RAF Benson opened in 1939 and during the Second World War operated as a training station and later in the photographic reconnaissance role. Post-war, Benson operated under RAF Transport Command throughout the 1950s and 1960s. During the 1970s various signals and administrative units were present and in the early 1990s the station began its current support helicopter role.
Early years and the Second World War
Construction of RAF Benson began in 1937 as part of the 1930s RAF expansion programme which was instigated in response to the threat of war from Nazi Germany. Construction was undertaken by contractors John Laing & Son. Benson was officially opened as an RAF station under No. 6 Group in April 1939, under the command of Group Captain R T Leather AFC.
The station's first aircraft were two squadrons of Fairey Battle light bombers. No. 103 Squadron arrived from RAF Boscombe Down in Wiltshire and started flying in on 3 April 1939, to be joined in the next few months by No. 150 Squadron which arrived from RAF Abingdon, also located in Oxfordshire. Once the Second World War started, both No. 103 and No. 150 Squadrons moved to France as part of the Advanced Air Striking Force. 1939 also saw the establishment of No. 12 Operational Training Unit (No. 12 OTU), tasked with training pilots, observers and air gunners on the Fairey Battle and Avro Anson.
In the early hours of 2 August 1940, a Fairey Battle took off from Benson for a cross-country training exercise but crashed into a nearby hill. The crew included Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, founder of the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire, who was killed. On the evening of 29 November 1940, Fairey Battle I L5071 took off from Benson for a training flight. It reached an altitude of around 1,000 feet (300 m) but then dived and crashed about 1 mile (1.6 km) north-west of the airfield. The Battle was crewed by three members of the Polish Air Force, all of whom were killed. They are buried in St Helen's parish churchyard in the village of Benson.
Benson's long association with Royalty began in September 1940, when the King's Flight relocated to the station. However, this initial association was short-lived, as the flight was disbanded in 1942 so it could form the core of No. 161 Squadron at RAF Newmarket in Suffolk, to which responsibility for the transportation of Royalty was transferred. The Battles and Ansons of No. 12 OTU were replaced in December 1940 with Vickers Wellington medium bombers.
Benson was selected in 1941 as the home station of No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (No. 1 PRU), an experimental unit tasked with evaluating and developing new methods of obtaining photographic intelligence over enemy territory, led by pioneer in the field Squadron Leader Sidney Cotton. Utilising Supermarine Spitfires, the unit found that their camouflage and operating altitude allowed them remain virtually invisible to enemy defences and avoid interception. Additional fuel tanks on the Spitfires allowed missions to take place deep into enemy territory. Analysis of imagery was undertaken by the intelligence unit at nearby Ewelme Manor, a short distance from the station. The unit was the first to discover the Germany Navy battleship Bismarck, near Bergen in May 1941. As a result of its work, the station gained considerable fame as the home of photographic reconnaissance for the remainder of the war.
New paved runways were built in 1942. One of the new runways required the permanent closure of the Old London Road in Benson. As a result, the Royal Engineers built the present road (part of the A4074) between Benson and Crowmarsh.
In June 1943, No. 1 PRU was formed into No. 106 Wing, with five units (No. 540, No. 541, No. 542, No. 543 and No. 544 Squadrons). The Wing was elevated to the status of No. 106 (Photo Reconnaissance) Group in April 1944, with two de Havilland Mosquito and two Supermarine Spitfire squadrons (No. 543 Squadron having been disbanded when the aircraft strength per squadron was increased). The group was assigned to Coastal Command's photo reconnaissance assets, with the whole of Northern Europe as its operational area. Spitfire and Mosquito aircraft flew missions over occupied Europe, including the provision of battle damage assessment images after Operation Chastise, the attack on German dams by No. 617 Squadron in May 1943.
By December 1944, Benson had two runways extending to 609 metres (666 yd; 1,998 ft) which had been constructed using concrete and wood-chips. There was a selection of hangar types, including four C-type hangars, four over-size (O) blister hangars and fourteen extra-over-size (EO) blister hangars. Ten concrete hard-standings were available, and a total of 3,198 personnel were based at the station.
After the end of the Second World War in 1945, Benson retained a photographic reconnaissance role into the early 1950s, with Mosquito aircraft and, from 1952, English Electric Canberra PR.3 aircraft operating in the role.
In 1953, Benson came under the control of Transport Command. No. 147 Squadron and No. 167 Squadron formed what was known as The Ferry Wing, which was responsible for the ferrying of aircraft across the globe. It was disbanded in 1960 when RAF squadrons became responsible for the collection and ferrying of their own aircraft.
Thereafter, Benson became the focus of the RAF's medium-range tactical transport fleet, operating the Armstrong Whitworth Argosy C.1. The first of six Argosys arrived on 20 November 1961 to form the Argosy Operational Conversion Unit (OCU). The OCU later moved to RAF Thorney Island in Hampshire. In February 1962, No. 105 Squadron formed to establish the first front-line Argosy unit. It was soon followed by No. 215 squadron. By the end of 1963 both units had departed for the Middle East and Far East respectively. Two further Argosy units were established, No. 114 Squadron and No. 267 Squadron, both operating from Benson until the early 1970s.
With the departure of the Argosy's, the only flying unit which remained at Benson was the Queen's Flight. This remained the case throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Notwithstanding, the station remained busy with several administrative and support units taking up residence. These included the headquarters of No. 38 Group (part of RAF Support Command which relocated from RAF Odiham in Hampshire) and the Tactical Communications Wing (TCW), both of which arrived in 1972. They remained until 1976 when No. 38 Group was subsumed into RAF Strike Command and relocated to RAF Upavon in Wiltshire, whereas the TCW moved to nearby RAF Brize Norton. They were replaced by the RAF Support Command Signals Headquarters (SCSHQ) and the Radio Introduction Unit, which arrived from RAF Medmenham in Hampshire during 1977. SCSHQ remained at Benson until 1981.
Flying activity increased in January 1983 when the Hawker Siddeley Andover arrived at Benson from RAF Brize Norton. Operated by No. 115 Squadron and supported by the Andover Training Flight, the Andover Serving Flight and the Support Command Flight Checking Unit, the Andovers were used in the radio and navigation-aid calibration role. The Support Command Flight Checking Unit disbanded in early 1987, with its role transferred to No. 115 Squadron.
In July of that year, the closure of nearby RAF Abingdon, resulted in several new units moving to Benson, namely the University of London Air Squadron and Oxford University Air Squadron both flying the Scottish Aviation Bulldog T1 and No. 6 Air Experience Flight with the De Havilland Chipmunk T1. The Mobile Catering Support Unit (MCSU), featuring a training facility and three Air Combat Support Units, arrived in November 1992.
The headquarters of the Support Helicopter Force (SHFHQ) relocated to Benson from RAF Gütersloh in 1993, after the German station's closure that year. The headquarters of No. 1 Group was located at Benson between 1993 and 1996.
On 1 April 1995, the Queen's Flight, then equipped with the BAe 146 CC2 and Wessex HCC.4, merged with No. 32 Squadron and moved to RAF Northolt in London to become No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron, bringing Benson's long association with VIP transport to an end.
June 1997 saw the Westland Puma HC1 introduced at Benson, when No. 33 Squadron arrived from RAF Odiham. The Puma Operational Conversion Flight, previously part of No. 27 Squadron at Odiham and tasked with training crews on flying the helicopter, moved in during February 1998. Due to the increased level of helicopter activity at Benson, it was necessary to relocate the University of London Air Squadron to RAF Wyton in Cambridgeshire during 1999.
In October 1999, as a result of the Strategic Defence Review, the RAF's Support Helicopter Force was amalgamated into the newly formed tri-service Joint Helicopter Command. The new command, reporting to the British Army's Land Command, combined into one organisation the battlefield support helicopters operated by the RAF, Fleet Air Arm and Army Air Corps.
No. 28 Squadron reformed at Benson in July 2001 to equip with the AgustaWestland Merlin HC3 support helicopter which had newly entered RAF service. To accommodate the new aircraft and personnel, £25 million worth of investment was made at Benson, which included refurbishment of the four C-type hangars, upgrading of station services & infrastructure and construction of engineering facilities and 100 homes. By July 2003, approximately 1,400 military personnel, 166 Ministry of Defence civilians and 150 contractors were employed at Benson. A further Merlin unit, No. 78 Squadron, reformed in late 2007 to operate six Merlin HC3A's which had been purchased from the Royal Danish Air Force.
Doubt was cast over the future of RAF Benson during a review of Joint Helicopter Command's (JHC) airfields, known as Programme Belvedere. Consideration was given to closing at least one JHC airfield, with Benson's support helicopters potentially relocating to RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire. However, the programme was abandoned in May 2009, when it was decided to largely retain the existing JHC basing arrangements. Notwithstanding, in November of that year, the Puma Force was brought together when No. 230 Squadron relocated from JHC Flying Station Aldergrove in Northern Ireland, to join No. 33 Squadron at Benson.
The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2010 recommended that in order to replace the Navy's ageing Westland Sea King HC4, the RAF's AgustaWestland Merlin HC3/3A fleet should be transferred to the Royal Navy's Commando Helicopter Force. To gain experience of operating and maintaining the Merlin, Royal Navy aircrew and engineers were integrated into the Merlin Force at Benson during 2012.
The Merlin fleet was officially handed over to the navy during a ceremony at Benson on 30 September 2014. It was attended by Their Royal Highnesses The Duke of York, the Commodore-in-Chief of the Fleet Air Arm, and Prince Michael of Kent, Honorary Air Marshal of RAF Benson. Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford and Admiral Sir George Zambellas were also present. The ceremony marked the disbandment of No. 78 Squadron and its replacement by 846 Naval Air Squadron (NAS).
During July 2015, 845 Naval Air Squadron reformed and replaced No. 28 Squadron which disbanded. The last phases of the transition began when 846 NAS moved to RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset on 26 March 2015. The final Merlin (serial number ZJ131) along with 845 NAS departed on 16 June 2016, bringing nearly 15 years of Merlin operations at Benson to a close.
In May 2015, it was announced that the Chinook Operational Conversion Flight, comprising six Boeing Chinooks and 150 personnel would transfer to Benson from RAF Odiham, to form a joint Puma and Chinook Operational Conversion Unit. The move began in December 2015 as the unit joined their Puma counterparts under a reformed No. 28 Squadron.
Infrastructure and facilities
The RAF Benson site extends to 261 hectares (640 acres). It has one runway (01/19) which is 1,825 metres (5,988 ft) long and is constructed from asphalt and concrete. A second runway (06/26) along with the western taxiways are no longer in use, The airfield features two areas known as load parks (north and south), which are used by helicopters for practising under-slung load operations.
Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility
The Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility (MSHATF) is home to six helicopter flight simulators (three Chinook, two Merlin and a Puma version). The facility was established in October 1997 and is operated by Serco and CAE Aircrew Training Services through a Private Finance Initiative contract. It employs around 70 personnel and trains RAF, Royal Navy, British Army, NATO and foreign crews. As well as the simulators, there are also four computer-based ground school training classrooms and a tactical control centre, allowing for operational mission training. In October 2017, the MOD announced it would invest £90 million in the facility over eight years.
Role and operations
Group Captain Adam Wardrope DFC MA RAF was appointed as Benson station commander in late 2018, replacing Group Captain Hamish Cormack. Prince Michael of Kent was appointed Honorary Air Commodore of RAF Benson in 2002 and was promoted to Honorary Air Marshal of the RAF in 2012. The Support Helicopter Force is under the direction of Joint Helicopter Command, whereas other elements on the station are under the RAF's No. 2 Group (Air Combat Support).
Support Helicopter Force (SHF)
RAF Benson's mission statement is to "Deliver support helicopter operational capability". To fulfil this mission, the station is home to No. 33 Squadron and No. 230 Squadron, both operating the Westland Puma HC2, and forming part of the RAF's Support Helicopter Force. The Puma is a medium-lift helicopter used for tactical troop and load movements across the battlefield. The aircraft can carry up to sixteen passengers or twelve fully equipped troops, or up to two tonnes of freight carried either internally or as an under-slung load.
No. 28 Squadron is the combined Puma and Boeing Chinook HC4 operational conversion unit. It receives crews from the Defence Helicopter Flying School at RAF Shawbury and builds on their existing skills learnt from basic and advanced helicopter training to qualify them on the Puma and Chinook. Flying operations are supported by units such as No. 22 Squadron (the Operational Evaluation Unit for Joint Helicopter Command, known as the Rotary Wing Operational Evaluation and Training Unit prior to May 2020) and Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility which operates a variety of simulators.
Basic flying training
RAF Benson is also home to the Grob Tutor T1 light aircraft of the Oxford University Air Squadron and No. 6 Air Experience Flight. The units offer basic flying training and adventure training to University undergraduates and graduates and encourage members to embark upon a career in the RAF.
The National Police Air Service (NPAS) operate an Airbus H135 (formerly known as the Eurocopter EC135) from Benson. Prior to the establishment of the NPAS in October 2012, a Eurocopter Squirrel of the Chiltern Air Support Unit had been based at Benson since March 1998. Thames Valley Air Ambulance (TVAA) which moved from White Waltham Airfield in January 2007. The TVAA also operate the Airbus H135.
Flying and notable non-flying units based at RAF Benson.
Royal Air Force
- Support Helicopter Force
- No. 22 Squadron – Operational Evaluation Unit to all helicopters in JHC.
- No. 28 Squadron – Chinook HC4 and Puma HC2
- No. 33 Squadron – Puma HC2
- No. 230 Squadron – Puma HC2
- Joint Helicopter Support Squadron
- Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility
- Puma Depth Support Hub
- Support Helicopter Standards Evaluation Wing
- No. 6 Flying Training School
- National Police Air Service – Airbus H135
- RAF Benson Flying Club – Cessna 152, Slingsby T67 Firefly and Piper PA-28
- Thames Valley Air Ambulance – Airbus H135
Station badge and motto
RAF Benson's badge, awarded in August 1955, features a red rampant lion against the backdrop of an escallop. The lion relates to the Manor of Benson, having been granted in the 13th century to the Earl of Cornwall in whose Armorial Bearings a lion appears. The escallop, which is symbolic of early pilgrims, refers to the functions of this station.
Since 2012, Benson's gate guardian has been a full-scale replica of a wartime Supermarine Spitfire PR.Mk XI. It carries the markings of Flight Lieutenant Duncan McCuaig DFC who died whilst conducting a photographic reconnaissance mission over Bremen in Germany as part of Operation Crossbow. This aircraft replaced a genuine Spitfire PR.MK XIX that was being restored to flying status.
The station is home to two K8 telephone kiosks which are grade II listed. They are described by Historic England as "intact examples of the K8 model kiosk, an inventive Modernist adaptation of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's classic K6 design".
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