Planespotting: RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath, home of the USAF

Alec Wignall

After years spent years following and spotting United States Air Force aircraft on training sorties across North Wales, I decided it was about time I took a trip to the USAF bases they come from, RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall.

Despite their RAF titles, these two military bases in Suffolk have been home to US Air Force units since the beginning of the Cold War when President Harry S. Truman ordered the Strategic Air Command bombers to set up bases in Europe. The two bases are surrounded by their own military towns, with accommodation and amenities behind towering security fences.

RAF Mildenhall

The history of Mildenhall goes back to the late 1920s when the British military developed the site in order to house a bomber base. The airfield opened in 1934 and soon attracted global attention when it was chosen to host the Royal Aero Club’s MacRobertson Air Race in October 1934. 

At the time, the race was the longest of its kind, departing from Mildenhall and finishing in Melbourne, Australia. Mildenhall was attended by a strong crowd of 70,000 spectators and a royal visit from King George V.

Almost five years later, on September 3, 1939, the first Vickers Wellington bombers left Mildenhall en route to Germany for the first of many bombing missions.

A KC-135R Stratotanker (Alec Wignall)

From the early 1950s and throughout the Cold War, the Strategic Air Command of the USAF grew its presence at Mildenhall and today RAF Mildenhall is home to four USAF Commands, the ‘USAF in Europe: Air Forces Africa’ and ‘USAF Special Operations’ being the most active.

United States Air Force in Europe: Air Forces Africa (USAFE – AFAFRICA)

Most notably under the USAFE-AFAFRICA Command is the 100th Air Refueling Wing, comprised of the enormous quad-engine Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers. These KC-135R have been in operation for nearly six decades and are used to refuel other military aircraft in flight.

A KC-135R Stratotanker (Alec Wignall)

A KC-135R Stratotanker (Alec Wignall)

Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC)

The 352nd Special Operations wing based at Mildenhall is home to both 7th and 67th Specials Ops Squadron, flying Bell Boeing CV-22 (Osprey) and Lockheed C-130 aircraft respectively.

The Boeing CV-22 Osprey, seen on the ground at RAF Mildenhall, is a tilt-rotor aircraft, capable of vertical takeoffs with the ability to hover like a helicopter. Once airborne, the engines can rotate through 90 degrees, effectively turning the aircraft into a long-range, high-speed turboprop.

The USAF Lockheed C-130 Hercules, here photographed performing a practiced diversion (PD) at RAF Valley in North Wales, is a military transport aircraft based at RAF Mildenhall. The aircraft provides a wide range of services within the military from airlifts and airdrops to weather reconnaissance. What makes the C-130J so valuable is its agility, capable of landing on dirt strips and beaches, with an incredibly short take-off and landing distance.

A C-130 Hercules (Alec Wignall)

RAF Lakenheath

United States Air Force in Europe (USAFE) – 48th Fighter Wing

The first United States Air Force in Europe (USAF) unit at Lakenheath was activated in 1949. Today, RAF Lakenheath hosts the 48th Fighter Wing, also known as the Liberty Wing. The 48th flies the F-15 Eagle (single-seater, air-to-air), F-15 Strike Eagle (two-seater, multi-role), and the more recent addition, F-35A Lightning II aircraft.

F-35A Lightning II's land at Royal Air Force Lakenheath (33333775974).jpg

F-35As at Lakenheath (U.S. Air Force photo)

The 48th Fighter Wing was previously stationed in France. However, following Charles de Gaulle’s decision to withdraw non-French nuclear forces from the country, the 48th redeployed to Lakenheath and arrived on January 15, 1960. It is now the sole unit based at Lakenheath.

An F-15 taking off (Alec Wignall)

The F-15s are all-weather tactical fighter aircraft, capable of flying Mach 2.5 (3018km/h) up to 65,000ft. The incredible thunderous roar of the afterburners on take-off is tremendous, literally shaking the ground as you stand watching them take to the sky. The F-15s are frequently out training in my area of North Wales and are a popular visitor attraction through the Mach Loop.

(Alec Wignall)

The newer F-35A Lightning aircraft are a recent addition to the Lakenheath 48th Fighter Wing, with four aircraft having arrived on December 15, 2021. These latest Lockheed fifth-generation fighters are designed for stealth with the ability to withstand 9G. In total there will be 24 aircraft in the new F-35 squadron nicknamed the ‘Valkyries’.

(Alec Wignall)

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