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RAF Waddington International Air Show – Rest in Peace By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

The first RC-135W Rivet Joint flight in RAF service.Sad though it will be for the many people that over the years have worked so hard to make the annual Waddington International Air Show at the huge RAF base in Lincolnshire the huge success it became and for the many visitors who regularly attended I am not really surprised that in an age when the term ‘security’ has been forced to take on a new level of meaning that the Royal Air Force should have decided that the 2014 Waddington airshow was the last.

Certainly the most active and arguably the largest of a much reduced number of operational Royal Air Force bases, RAF Waddington is located just over four miles from the City of Lincoln. The base is the home of No’s 5, 8, 13, 14, 39 and 51 and 54 (R) Squadrons together with 2503 (County of Lincoln) Squadron RAuxAF Regiment together with a number of other important activities including the Air Warfare Centre, a facility that provides integrated mission support at the operational, tactical and technical levels plus also, the Air Battlespace Training Centre that provides collective training including using synthetics for the air component and Joint Battlespace.

For all the quite understandable disappointment expressed that the 2014 Waddington show was the last I am afraid that in the uneasy world we live in today we have no choice but to make significant allowances within the decision that has been taken for the nature of the work that is undertaken at RAF Waddington.

For a start I would mention No 13 Squadron which is responsible for operating the Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) if you prefer and that is known in RAF parlance as the Reaper MQ9A. I would also mention No 5 (AC) Squadron which operates the Raytheon Sentinel, an airborne battlefield and ground surveillance capability that in RAF service is known as Sentinel R1 (ASTOR) due to the capability including Airborne Stand-Off Radar. No 14 Squadron operates the Shadow R1 aircraft which is part of the wider Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance capability housed at RAF Waddington and that includes No 8 Squadron’s E-3D Sentry AEW1 capability, essentially a communications based platform that is used in the hugely important Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) role the platform capability of which is designed to separate, manage and display targets individually on situation displays within the aircraft, or can transmit information to ground-based and ship-based units using a wide variety of digital data links. Finally and most importantly, RAF Waddington is also the home base of No 51 Squadron which operates the hugely important RC-135W Rivet Joint capability and that in RAF parlance is known as ‘Air Seeker’. The RC-135W platform is equipped with a variety of sensors, allowing its crew to intercept and exploit emissions across the electromagnetic spectrum providing both strategic and tactical level intelligence.

As can be imagined for the above detailed squadron and platform list that I would describe as being the primary Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability in the UK military inventory requires also that RAF Waddington must place great emphasis on high level security. Clearly, with the level of threat against us showing no sign of decreasing and with Royal Air Force ISR capability being increasingly deployed internationally providing, for example, assistance to our NATO allies in the Baltic states region, in Iraq and Syria helping the fight against ISIL and, as had occurred a couple of years ago when Sentinel R1 capability from No 5 (Army Cooperation) Squadron deployed to Mali to assist the French Government, in other places too. Operation of the RPAS platforms at RAF Waddington is also highly sensitive in terms of levels of security required as of course is operation of Air Warfare Centre itself.

I have had the good fortune to spend a substantial amount of time at RAF Waddington and to engage on some of the many different mission they are required to undertake. Much as I would wish the Waddington International Air Show to have returned next year I share the view that it is no longer conducive to hold the event at the base.

But it is certainly important that apart from RAF Cosford, the Royal International Air Tattoo and at the various private trade and air show events such as the bi-annual Farnborough International that the Royal Air Force shows itself and what it does to the public. Whilst it is very true that the Red Arrows, the Chinook display team and during the past year, the brilliant Hawk T2 Role Demo Team from 4 Squadron at RAF Valley provide a vitally important link between the Royal Air Force and the public at various private air shows around the country more must be done to replace the large number of military shows that have disappeared from the annual calendar of events. As the home base of the Red Arrows RAF Scampton and being the original wartime base of 617 Squadron, Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s famous ‘Dambuster’ squadron I would imagine that, presuming the base continues to have a future in the RAF base inventory following the upcoming SDSR 2015 defence and security review, that this could be an ideal location to hold an annual air show event in Bomber County. I hope so anyway and having had its own runway resurfaced just two years ago that is one problem that would not be about to present itself. Mind you, having had little investment over the past thirty years I accept that there are limitations. The other point that I would emphasise is the value of holding open day events at RAF bases in which the public can learn what the modern RAF does. The Royal Navy have done that well over the years – the Royal Air Force should take a leaf out of the ‘senior service’ book.

Although there was no airshow event actually held at RAF Waddington last year due to the main runway being closed for major rebuilding work we must not ignore the fact that the two-day long Waddington International Air Show is regarded by the people of Lincolnshire as being one of the main highlights of year. In 2014, the last year in which the Waddington International Airshow was held, I was fortunate to attend as a guest of RAF Waddington Commanding Officer, Group Captain Richard Barrow. It really was a truly fantastic show with aircraft having come from various parts of the world. The event attracted no less than 140,000 visitors and this if nothing else shows its value and importance from a PR basis.

Importantly, events such as the Waddington show are outside of time involved in putting them together more than often self-financing. As I have already suggested, they are a very useful way that the Royal Air Force can get the message about what it does, how and why over to the public.

Time was not so very long ago when most of the large Royal Air Force bases held an annual show event that the public could come and see military and other aircraft flying or ion static display. Time was when ‘Open Days’ where common or, during September the base would open in celebration and remembrance of the Battle of Britain. Sadly the vast majority of military airshow found themselves cancelled either by reason of cost, time and effort required or, as in the case of RAF Leuchars for example and which held its last show during 2013, due to closure as an RAF base.

Today there are less than a handful of airshow events involving the military although as mentioned before, that is not to suggest that the Royal Air Force or Royal Navy do not actively engage at many privately organised air show events. The Royal Navy go one step further and, as far as I know, continue to open RNAS Yeovilton and Culdrose bases to the public in what they term as their respective ‘International Air Days’.

The Waddington International Air Show may not be the last airshow event to be held on an active RAF base, assuming that the RAF St Mawgan show is no more, I believe that honour is now down to RAF Cosford, Staffordshire and which is, along with the superb facilities at Hendon the second home of the RAF Museum. Clearly the Waddington show will be very much missed and although the Royal Air Force have, as I have already implied, suggested the possibility of holding a future airshow at RAF Scampton perhaps in time to celebrate the Royal Air Force centenary year in 2018 there is as yet no confirmation of guarantee that this will occur.

CHW (London – 30th September 2015)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785


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