RAF East Fortune
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RAF East Fortune
RAF-era buildings still stand on the airfield, now the National Museum of Flight
|Operator||Royal Naval Air Service|
Royal Air Force
|Location||East Fortune, East Lothian|
|In use||1915-1920, 1940-1947|
|Elevation AMSL||0 ft / 0 m|
Royal Air Force Station East Fortune or more simply RAF East Fortune is a former Royal Air Force station, just south of the village of East Fortune, a short distance east of Edinburgh in Scotland. It was used as a fighter station during World War I and for training and night fighters during World War II. The motto of the station was "Fortune Favours the Bold".
In the post-war era the runways have been taken over for local private aviation use, while the former RAF buildings have been used for the National Museum of Flight since 1976.
The foundation of East Fortune as a flying station pre-dates the creation of the RAF; East Fortune was established as a fighter and airship airfield in 1915 and becoming an RNAS station in August 1916. By early 1918, East Fortune was one of 66 Training Depot Stations (TDS). The function of the TDS was to train for flying and squadrons were often grouped together in threes at the TDS stations. East Fortune was TDS station No. 208.
In April 1918, when the Royal Air Force was inaugurated, No. 22 (Training) Group RAF was supposed to be formed at East Fortune. The group was established in July of the same year before moving to Stirling. No. 22 (Training) Group RAF is one of the few active Groups still operating within the RAF.
In 1919 the British airship R34 made the first ever return flight across the Atlantic and the first east-west crossing by air, flying from East Fortune to Mineola, New York. The flight took 108 hours and 12 minutes.
In February 1920, the airfield and associated buildings were closed and listed for disposal. During the inter-war period the hangars and airfield buildings were demolished, while the domestic site was sold to the South Eastern Counties of Scotland Joint Sanatorium Board for use as a tuberculosis sanatorium.
The airfield was reactivated during World War II, the land being requisitioned in June 1940 for use as a satellite airfield for nearby RAF Drem. However, it was subsequently decided to develop RAF East Fortune as a night fighter operational training unit (OTU), and on 4 June 1941 No. 60 OTU arrived from RAF Leconfield. This was a RAF Fighter Command unit which gave newly qualified pilots and other aircrew fresh from RAF Flying Training Command experience of operational aircraft types and tactical/technical training specific to night fighting, before they were assigned to operational squadrons. The OTU employed a mixture of trainer and operational aircraft types for this purpose; initially crews were trained on Boulton Paul Defiant and Bristol Blenheim night fighters, but from October 1941 the obsolete Defiants began to be replaced by the Bristol Beaufighter.
As the war progressed the majority of the Luftwaffe's bombers were assigned to the Russian Front and Mediterranean Theatre so the threat of night attacks on Britain diminished and the need for additional night fighter crews was reduced. From June 1942 part of 60 OTU was devoted to RAF Coastal Command daylight strike training on Beaufighters, and on 24 November 1942 the whole OTU was transferred to Coastal Command for this purpose. Re-designated as No. 132 OTU the unit initially employed Bristol Blenheim, Beaufort and Beaufighter aircraft, but by the end of the war the de Havilland Mosquito was the main type used. In addition to its training role, RAF East Fortune had also been available as an emergency diversion airfield for heavy bomber aircraft.
No. 132 OTU disbanded on 15 May 1946, and the domestic site was returned to the Sanatorium Board. Thereafter the airfield saw little or no use by the RAF, although it was allocated to the United States Air Force in 1950 as a dispersal base for strategic bombers during the Cold War. To accommodate such aircraft the main runway was extended across the B1347, but in the event East Fortune was never used by the USAF and the site was eventually sold by the Air Ministry in 1960. East Fortune enjoyed a brief revival as an airfield during the summer of 1961, when Turnhouse Airport was closed for construction work and all civil and air force traffic was diverted through East Fortune with the airport recording just shy of 100,000 passengers. The extended runway at East Fortune was used for this purpose throughout the summer of 1961.
After refurbishment East Fortune Hospital reopened as a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1949. As the number of TB patients was declining, from the mid 1950s spare capacity at the hospital was used for the long term accommodation of patients with learning disabilities and as a recuperation facility for general medical patients. Subsequently the hospital primarily provided long-term geriatric care, which became the sole use in 1985 when the last mental health patients left. The hospital was gradually run-down during the 1990s and finally closed in 1997.
Accidents and Incidents
During both world wars flying accidents during training were all too common, and many airmen were killed and injured on non-operational flights. One of the earliest fatal accidents involving East Fortune occurred on 17 March 1916 when a Farman HF.20 from RNAS East Fortune plunged into the Firth of Forth with the loss of both crew..
Relatively inexperienced aircrew flying in high-performance war-weary aircraft relegated to training duties unsurprisingly suffered high accident rates, and there were particular risks associated with the types of training undertaken at East Fortune during the Second World War. Night fighter training obviously involved extensive night flying during the blackout, whilst coastal strike training involved extensive low-level flying with the attendant risk of CFIT accidents and insufficient altitude to bail out in the event of mechanical failure. Neither the Beaufighter or the Mosquito were straightforward aircraft to escape from in the event of an emergency, and the Beaufighter was a notoriously difficult aircraft to fly if one of the engines failed. Accordingly, there were many serious accidents involving aircraft operating from East Fortune, including:
- On 15 August 1941 Defiant N1692 of 60 OTU crashed into a farm building during an attempted forced-landing near Haddington, killing the pilot.
- On 29 August 1941 Defiant T4042 of 60 OTU crashed into high ground in the Lammermuirs whilst on a training flight from East Fortune, killing the pilot.
- On 4 January 1942 Defiant N3495 of 60 OTU crashed near East Linton whilst on approach to East Fortune, killing both aircrew. A severe rainstorm had developed suddenly and all pupils airborne had been ordered to land, but the inexperienced pilot was believed to have been overwhelmed by the conditions and flew into the ground.
- On 15 January 1942 Defiant N3422 of 60 OTU crashed at Berwick Law, North Berwick after a high speed stall during air combat practice. Both crew were killed.
- Also on 15 January 1942 Defiant V1182 of 60 OTU failed to return from an exercise, and was presumed to have ditched or crashed into the Firth of Forth. Both crew missing, presumed killed.
- On 8 February 1942 Defiant N1705 of 60 OTU crashed near Kingston Farm, North Berwick killing both aircrew. Immediately before the crash the pilot radioed that he had collided with something in cloud and was attempting to return to East Fortune. Subsequently marks were found on high ground on Berwick Law suggesting that a glancing collision with terrain had occurred.
- On 24 February 1942 Miles Master W8623 of 60 OTU crashed at East Fortune killing the pilot.
- On 18 March 1942 Defiant N1629 of 60 OTU dived into the ground near Athelstaneford, killing the pilot.
- On 8 April 1942 Blenheim Z5871 of 60 OTU crashed near Long Yester, East Lothian killing both crew.
- On 28 October 1942 Blenheim L6752 of 60 OTU crashed near Ormiston in bad visibility, killing the pilot.
- On 29 March 1943 Blenheim L6691 of 132 OTU crashed near Athelstaneford after taking off from East Fortune at night, killing the pilot.
- On 14 June 1943 Beaufighter R2278 of 132 OTU crashed south of the airfield after stalling on overshoot, killing the pilot.
- on 19 September 1943 Beaufighter JL852 of 132 OTU ditched in the North Sea off Northumberland following an engine failure. The pilot was rescued by a passing ship but the observer was never found.
- On 2 December 1943 Beaufighter EL433 of 132 OTU crashed at RAF East Fortune after the pilot aborted a single-engined landing at the last minute. The aircraft crashed into the airfield's motor transport shed and exploded, killing both aircrew.
- On 27 February 1944 Beaufighter JL449 of 132 OTU crashed at RAF East Fortune during an attempted landing during a snowstorm. Both aircrew were killed.
- On 5 May 1944 Beaufighter JL581 of 132 OTU crashed near Gifford after an engine failed shortly after takeoff from East Fortune, Both crew were killed. 
- On 29 May 1944 Beaufighter EL240 of 132 OTU crashed near Haddington due to an engine failure shortly after takeoff from East Fortune, killing both crew.
- On 27 July 1944 Beaufighter JL776 of 132 OTU crashed into sand dunes at Dirleton gunnery range during a practice attack, killing both crew.
- On 12 August 1944 Beaufighter X8096 of 132 OTU crashed into the Firth of Forth near the Bass Rock, killing both crew.
- On 20 August 1944 Beaufighter T5219 of 132 OTU crashed near RAF Milfield (Northumberland) following an engine failure. The pilot survived but the navigator was killed.
- On 8 October 1944 Beaufighter EL338 of 132 OTU crashed on takeoff at RAF East Fortune, killing the pilot.
- On 22 October 1944 Mosquito LR559 of 132 OTU flew into Beech Hill House, a country house on high ground near Haddington. The accident occurred at night in rain and killed both aircrew and four people in the house, amongst them a niece and nephew of Field Marshal Haig.
- On 11 November 1944 Beaufighter LX944 crashed into the North Sea off St Abb's Head in bad weather. Neither of the airmen were ever found.
- On 15 April 1945 Beaufighter JM220 crashed into the Firth of Forth near Fidra during exercises at Dirleton gunnery range. Both crew were killed.
- On 3 May 1945 Beaufighter NE813 crashed into high ground near Cockburnspath, killing both crew.
- On 21 June 1945 Mosquito NT201 of 132 OTU overshot on landing at East Fortune after a radiator faring detached. The aircraft collided with a hut and both crew were killed.
During East Fortune's brief stint as Edinburgh's temporary airport during 1961 two notable accidents occurred. On a very wet Sunday in April 1961 a BEA Viscount airliner landing on a flight from Heathrow overshot the runway and ended up in the grass at the end of the runway after a 180 degree turn. Although the flight was fully laden there were no injuries. A few weeks later, on 26 May 1961, an RAF Percival Pembroke communications aircraft (serial number WV737) called at East Fortune to drop off two Air Vice-Marshals returning from a NATO meeting in Paris. Having done so the crew took off for the short flight to RAF Leuchars but almost immediately the aircraft suffered an engine fire, and had to be crash-landed near North Berwick. Both of the crew escaped from the crash alive, although the aircraft was destroyed by fire. An investigation determined that hydraulic lock had occurred in the port engine due to the pilot omitting to undertake required pre take-off procedures.
In 1976 the Scottish National Museum of Flight was opened on the site of the former RAF station's technical site. Each summer the museum hosts an airshow. It is one of the few airfield-based airshows in the UK where fixed wing aeroplanes can't land at the airfield.
The airfield is largely used for agriculture but the runways and taxiways are largely intact. Part of the runways are used for a car-boot sale each Sunday. The eastern end of the airfield is now used as a motorcycle racing circuit, and is home to the Melville Motor Club. The concrete extension of the main runway west of the B1347 is now used as a runway for microlight aircraft and as a scrap yard. This is the only part of the East Fortune airfield that can now handle aircraft, and they can be no larger than a microlight.
The former domestic site / East Fortune Hospital remains largely vacant. In May 2016, it was revealed that there are plans for the latter part of the site to be redeveloped as a village.
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