RAF Saxa Vord

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RAF Saxa Vord
Station badge
Active 1957 – 2006
Country United Kingdom
Branch Royal Air Force
Type Operational
Role Remote Radar Head
Located Shetland
March Royal Air Force March Past

RAF Saxa Vord was a radar station operated by the Royal Air Force. It was situated on the island of Unst, the most northern of the Shetland Islands to the north of Scotland. Its radar provided long-range coverage of the airspace to the north of Scotland. The station's motto "Praemoneo de Periculis", Forewarn of Danger, reflected its role.

The island of Unst has played an important part in the defence of the UK since the outbreak of the Second World War. By 1945, there were two radar sites in existence — one on Saxa Vord hill, and the other at Skaw on the east coast. This latter is the older, being built in 1941, and was part of the Chain Home radar network as part of the defences of the Sullom Voe flying boat base. Skaw closed in 1947. Ten years later, 91 Signals Unit was formed, and became fully operational on 5 October 1957.

The present station was officially opened on 27 September 1957 as No 91 Signals Unit, and in 1960 was visited by Queen Elizabeth II. In the early days, the site was shared with the Royal Navy which worked in the Admiralty building. In the following years, RAF Saxa Vord was a vital part of Britain's air defence during the Cold War. During this period, there was a game of cat-and-mouse, originally with English Electric Lightning, then F-4 Phantom and finally Tornado F3 aircraft, intercepting Soviet TU-95 probing flights and escorting them out of UK airspace. RAF Saxa Vord consisted of three sites: the domestic site, the technical site and the married quarters called Setters Hill Estate (SHE).

The technical site was originally home to a Type 80 search radar, a Type 14 standby reporting radar and a Type 13 height finder. The Type 80 was unfortunately lost when it was blown away in 1959 and rebuilt with the radome being built in 1962. In 1979, there was a 649 search radar (Type 96) and height finder HF200, and these were planned to be replaced by the Type 93 in the mid 90s as part of the new IUKADGE system. When the Type 93 became obsolete a radical new method was tried. RAF Saxa Vord was a part of the Sector 1 of the UK Air Defence Region (the RAF covering most of NATO Early Warning Area 12, some 750,000 square miles). Sector 1 was the airspace north of the 55th parallel north. Being a Control and Reporting Post(CRP)/ Reporting Post (RP), it passed its radar picture and information (along with RAF Benbecula) to the Sector Operations Centre (SOC /CRC) RAF Buchan, which also received information from the Danish site on the Faroe Islands. It was also home to Shetland Radar, which provided a radar service to civilian helicopters transiting from Aberdeen/Sumburgh and Unst out to the oil fields.

Radome at Saxa Vord

From around 2000 until 2 April 2004, the station operated as RRH Saxa Vord, a Remote Radar Head operated from a parent station (RAF Buchan). On 2 April 2004, RAF Saxa Vord was upgraded from a Remote Radar Head to a full manned station, taking over control of the radar defences in the area. RAF Buchan will be downgraded to a Remote Radar Head. RAF Saxa Vord closed in April 2006.

RAF Saxa Vord was further north than Leningrad, and on the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. The station was named after Saxa Vord, which is the highest hill on Unst at 935 ft (285 m). It holds the unofficial British record for wind speed, which in 1992 was recorded at 197 mph (317 km/h) — just before the measuring equipment blew away.


Saxa Vord Resort

April 2007 saw the purchase of RAF Saxa Vord's Domestic Site, plus the road up to the Mid Site, by Military Asset Management (MAM).

Saxa Vord is being redeveloped into a new tourism venture: Britain's first "residential natural and cultural heritage activity centre", based on the island of Unst.

The first phase is complete and offers 20 self-catering holiday houses and a 16-bedroom bunkhouse, together with a restaurant and bar. 2008 will see the launch of a new hotel, leisure facilities and a guided walks/evening talks programme.

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Coordinates: 60°49′39″N 0°50′28″W / 60.82750°N 0.84111°W / 60.82750; -0.84111