The biggest installation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the United Kingdom (UK) nowadays is RAF Brize Norton. The station is situated near the settlements of Brize Norton, Carterton and Witney, about 100 kilometers to the north-west of London. The station is extremely busy. Entering the main gate of RAF Brize Norton one can read the following very applicable and illustrative welcome sign, which says: "Welcome to the gateway to operations". With more than 40 large transport and tanker aircraft which are almost all constantly in use for military or humanitarian operations, this message couldn't be more true.

On behalf of the Station Commander Group Captain Simon S. Edwards Wing Commander Evans says: "Our station is indeed the biggest in the UK. After the personnel and aircraft of RAF Lyneham moved to our airbase in the summer of 2011, our airbase offers jobs to approximately 9,000 personnel. Of these 5,850 are service personnel, 341 are civilian staff of the Ministry of Defence, 642 are contractors and almost 3,800 are parented service personnel at other units." But, RAF Brize Norton wasn't always as big and busy as it is today.

RAF Brize Norton's history

The history of the installation began in 1935 when the airfield was constructed, to be opened on 13th of August 1937. A month later the first unit to be stationed there, the Flying Training School, arrived. During World War II the station was used for various forms of flying, such as training and gliding. The glider units which were based at RAF Brize Norton, 296 and 297 Squadron, later participated in the airborne landings at Arnhem, the Netherlands, during Operation Market Garden as well as in other droppings of personnel and supplies elsewhere in Europe during World War II.
On the 31 December 1945 the airbase became the home of the Transport Command Development Unit and the School of Flight Efficiency. Between 1951 and 1965 the airfield was under control of the United States Air Force (USAF). The main task of the USAF being there was to support US Army engineers engaged in extending the runway and building taxiways, hard standings and accommodations. Due to the Cold War gradually building up at the time, RAF Brize Norton amongst other bases in the UK was frequently used for operations conducted by the US Strategic Air Command.
After the RAF took over control again during the mid '60s, the RAF invested even more into the base as the USAF already had done. Facilities and personnel were build up to make the airfield the Strategic Air Transport of the RAF. Through the years RAF Brize Norton became an airfield where a large part of the RAFs transport and tanker fleet was stationed. From the airfield the RAF operated with aircraft like the Hawker Siddley Andover, Shorts Belfast C1, Handley Page Victor (after 21 aircraft were converted from bomber to tanker during the '70s), Lockheed TriStar and Vickers VC-10.


Together with the Head of Establishment the Station Commander runs the airfield. The Head of Establishment leads the supporting and logistic side of the airfield. The Station Commander leads all squadrons and wings which are directly involved in the airline operations. Together all personnel at the airfield stand for the following mission: "Deliver together safely".
Flight Lieutenant Gav Scott, pilot of the RAF C-17A, explains: "Our operations are organized within several squadrons and wings. The station is organized into seven wings, comprising engineering, logistics and administrative elements. They are all dedicated to the maintenance of our operational output and training. Airline operations take place within the flying squadrons, the Airborne Delivery Wing (parachutists), the 47th Despatch Squadron and Operations Wing. Logistics and other supporting tasks are resorted, amongst others, in the Airfield Wing, the Base Support Wing and Reserve Squadrons."


Concentrating all the RAFs transport and tanker capability at RAF Brize Norton is an outcome of the GATEWAY program. The C-17 pilot explains: "Program GATEWAY will design the future operating model by which RAF Brize Norton will deliver effective, efficient and safe air mobility to meet the UK's future Rapid Global Air Mobility requirement. The program will try to ensure that our people and our fleet of aircraft are employed in the most agile and effective manner. The program's aim therefor is to transform RAF Brize Norton as the UKs primary Air Mobility base to develop an optimized, effective and efficient Rapid Global Air Mobility Force in support of UKs future air mobility needs." The program started in 2013 and is planned to be completed not later than 2018.

Flying squadrons

The core business of RAF Brize Norton obviously takes place within the flying squadrons. Wing Commander Evans: "As a result of program GATEWAY the fixed-wing Strategic and Tactical Air Transport and Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) capability of our air force is based here at RAF Brize Norton since the 1st of July 2011. The seven operational squadrons are divided into tactical and strategic units." Gav Scott continues in more detail: "No. 10 and 101 Squadron operate the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT), or Voyager K2/K3 tanker as named by the RAF. No. 99 Squadron flies the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III, since 2001. No. XXIV Squadron operates the Lockheed Martin C-130J/Hercules C5 as well as the Airbus A400M/Atlas C1 during the period the no. LXX Squadron prepares to be the first operational RAF unit to operate the Atlas C1. Last but not least, no. 30 and 47 Squadron have the before mentioned Hercules in their inventory."

Aircraft in service

The Hercules C5 tactical transport aircraft is the workhorse of the RAFs Tactical Air Transport fleet. The 22 aircraft in service at this time are used for operational missions involving droppings, parachute operations, air despatch, freight distribution and humanitarian aid. The aircraft are modified through the years of service. The current J-model, in service since 1999, has a revised flight deck with modern glass-cockpit and head-up displays, allowing a two-pilot flight deck operation. The aircrafts cockpit is fully night-vision compatible with the use of night-vision goggles. A separate Air Loadmaster station has been established in the cargo hold. The first Hercules, the K- or C1-model, came into active service of the RAF in 1967.
Flight Lieutenant Scott explains about the C-17A: "The Boeing C-17A Globemaster III provides the RAF with strategic heavy-lift capability. We have eight aircraft in service. This enables us to project and sustain an effective combat force and also peacekeeping or humanitarian missions worldwide. Even though RAF Brize Norton has a 10,000 feet runway, our C-17 can operate into small airfields with runways as short as 3,500 feet long and only 90 feet wide. " Primarily the C-17 was produced for the USAF. The C-17 is also in service nowadays with Australia, Canada, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, the NATO Heavy Airlift Wing in Hungary, India, and Kuwait. Production of the C-17 ended in May 2015.
Flight Lieutenant Luke Yates, pilot of the Voyager K2/K3, explains in short some of the capabilities the Voyager has: "The Voyager is based on the Airbus A330-200. The RAF operates its Voyagers since 2012, replacing the VC-10 and TriStar fleets. The last VC-10 was withdrawn from service in September 2013. The Voyager is a MRTT aircraft, meaning it can be used for airlift as well as for AAR, routinely dispensing over 40 tons of fuel per AAR sortie or transporting up to 291 passengers. The Voyager can also be used for Medical Evacuation (MedEvac). In the middle of the plane the chairs can be replaced for several hospital beds and medical equipment." There are two types of Voyager aircraft in the RAFs service. The K Mk2 is a two-point tanker, equipped with one FRL Mk32B 900E pod under each wing. The K Mk3 is a three-point tanker with an additional center line hose for larger receiving aircraft. The nine Voyager K2/K3 aircraft are not owned by the RAF but by a partnership of defence and aerospace businesses, called AirTanker. The RAF leases the Voyagers without an option to buy. This construction makes it possible to operate the aircraft within annual budgets. Buying, operating and maintaining these aircraft independently will not.
The first Airbus A400M was delivered at RAF Brize Norton on the 27th of November 2014. In total 22 aircraft have been ordered, in a schedule expected to be all delivered by 2019. Although the RAF will employ the A400Ms strategic reach and impressive payload capacity by initially operating it in the strategic air transport role, the Atlas is primarily a tactical airlifter. Squadron Leader J.J. Harisson of the no. XXIV Squadron says: "The tactical capabilities of the Atlas C1 will be developed over the next eight years. The Atlas will take over the roles performed by our Hercules C5 prior to the their planned retirement from RAF service in 2022. Before our newest addition to the transport fleet is fully capable for the tasks, we will test and evaluate the aircrafts capabilities further. Also aircrews and engineering personnel are constantly trained within the squadron. The Atlas will be operated initially by No. XXIV Squadron, our operational conversion unit."

Aircraft # Squadron Tactical / Strategic
C-130J Hercules C5 22 XXIV / 30 / 47 Tactical
C-17A Globemaster III 8 99 Strategic
A330 Voyager K2/K3 9 10 / 101 Strategic
A400M Atlas C1 5 (22) XXIV / LXX Tactical


Through the years the RAFs Strategic and Tactical Air Transport and AAR fleet operated in several military and humanitarian operations, providing AAR support to the RAFs and NATOs fast jets and transport of goods, personnel or civilians. Striking examples were its support during both Gulf Wars (1991 and 2003) and Kosovo (1999) and Afghanistan. The UK participation in the US led operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan was called operation Herrick and lasted from 2001 to 2014. The last two permanently based Hercules C5's returned from Kandahar Airfield to RAF Brize Norton in November 2014. Besides its involvement in Afghanistan, RAF Brize Nortons fleet provided services during the military intervention in Libya in 2011 (operation Ellamy). Support is also given after natural disasters or other humanitarian missions, for example after the typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2014 or after cyclone Pam hit the island of Vanuatu near Australia in March 2015. Flight Lieutenant Scott about other current operations: "Right now our operations involve schedules to Cyprus and UK operational bases in the Arabian Gulf. Of course we provide airlift during numerous exercises. Examples of current ops are Medevac, repatriations of killed military personnel or civilians (operation Pabbay)." Scott continues: "Operation Shader is the code name given to the British participation in the ongoing military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The operation began on 7th of August 2014 as a humanitarian intervention, involving multiple humanitarian aid airdrops by transport aircraft and evacuation of refugees. As the crisis escalated, the RAF deployed strike and reconnaissance aircraft to provide aerial reconnaissance to Iraqi ground forces and Kurdish fighters." Besides those specific missions and operations, crews are constantly and almost daily trained for the tasks they have to perform.


Today RAF Brize Norton is as busy as ever, having become home to the entire RAF's transport and AAR assets. Even though the development of infrastructure at the airfield is ongoing, aircraft can depart 24 hours a day, seven days a week on worldwide operations. The airfields aircraft can be operated in any military or humanitarian hotspot or crisis anywhere around the world. In the future, as it did in the past, RAF Brize Norton will continue to play it´s part on the world stage, providing support and relief wherever it is most needed. It´s truly the gateway to the RAFs operations.

This article was published in Polish magazine 'Lotnictwo Aviation International ', edition 4/2015.