The year was 2005 and a much younger but still equally enthusiastic military radio monitor and aviation enthusiast was sitting in his radio shack tuning through the radio bands on what would now be classed as some ‘historic’ radio equipment listening out for anything of interest.
The shack was actually at the time taking up a large part of my bedroom in my parents house which looked more like a command centre or news room as opposed to the bedroom of someone approaching their 20s. It was no secret that since a young age, I always had a fascination with the secret world of military aviation and living on the west coast of Scotland, RAF Machrihanish on Kintyre naturally grabbed my attention
Over the previous years as I went through my teens, started exploring the early internet and meeting various people in the hobby, it was obvious that RAF Machrihanish had its own unique place in history. As with all things of this nature, the exact details of this history may never actually be fully known apart from the small group of people who were involved at the time. Even to this day, I still enjoy reading old newspaper articles and magazine features on this base and the endless rumours of its connection with the US Navy SEALs, the space shuttle programme, stealth aircraft and other black world projects.
The history and rumours of the mysterious RAF Machrihanish will no doubt feature in a future blog post!
During the early days of the internet I had some very basic looking websites where I could post some photos and general ramblings about my aviation and radio hobby. We need to remember however this was the very early days of the internet being readily accessible to people. Having a website back then involved a lot more technical work than it does these days so just having a presence was quite an achievement at the time.
It was through one of these websites that I received not one, but two cryptic e-mails which suggested that RAF Machrihanish be playing host to the 352nd Special Operations Group USAF in the coming weeks for a large scale exercise and Operational Readiness Inspection. I would find out somewhat down the line the designation of the exercise would be EXERCISE ASPHALT.
It didn’t take long until the deployment started becoming a reality with the commonly used callsigns of SHADOW and TALON being intercepted working on the Scottish Military airband frequencies conducting logistical trips between their home base of RAF Mildenhall and the widely discarded RAF Machrihanish. During the peak of the build up, the transit flights were in excess of six per day, highlighting that it’s no small task to deploy and operational squadron to a remote airfield over 400 miles away.
Three MH-53 Pave Low helicopters using the callsign KNIFE deployed in the coming days to take a semi-permanent residence at Machrihanish for the duration of the exercise, while the MC-130 Shadows and Talons were coming and going between both bases.
It was no secret at the time that Special Forces actively used the western regions of Scotland for training given its varied terrain, climate and of course the wild Atlantic. It makes for the ideal playground for all forms of clandestine operations training from beach insertions, underwater operations and operating in extreme terrains.
For the milcom monitor however it was a very testing time trying to listen in on the action. While a large amount of their radio communications would without a doubt be done via secure means, the civil and military airband frequencies were usually a good place to listen to try and get some sort of idea what was happening. Given the location even this would prove a challenge.
RAF Machrihanish sits in a dip surrounded by hills to the east and from my home location, I also had the Isle of Arran obstruction my line of site. Needless to say a lot of the flying would be getting conducted at low level which further impacted on any intercepting opportunities. With the terrain and radio intercepting issues coupled with the rarity of the deployment, there was only one thing left to do…
Back then packing the kit for a road trip was surprisingly easy compared to these days. I only had one camera and two lenses and at the time would only need one hand held radio. I have sat this morning trying to remember exactly what radio it was I had with me a the time. I am reasonably confident it was the Uniden Bearcat 3300XLT which incidentally I still have and occasionally use to this day.
From the west of Scotland the direct distance between the mainland and RAF Machrihanish isn’t that significant. Geographically however to get there by road it is quite an epic trip having to route up towards to Glasgow, along the A82 past Loch Lomond and keep going to Tarbet, then turn left onto the A83 and keep going for what seems like an eternity.
I can still remember the horrendously early alarm clock going off around 4am having set aside four hours to complete the journey. It sounds a bit excessive but again this was back in the day before smartphones and SatNav systems being common place. The route had been planned the day before using a paper road map, something I dare say many of the younger generation these days wouldn’t actually be able to interpret.
The drive was uneventful and it was a glorious sunny day in early September when the base slowly came into view in the distance as did an MC-130 Combat Shadow taxiing for departure. It was at this point, the radio now burst into life with a clear line of sight to the base on the Campbeltown Tower frequency 125900MHz with the air traffic controller giving SHADOW 61 clearance to take-off. In a child-like dream coming true, I was now watching a USAF Special Forces aircraft departing from the enigmatic RAF Machrihanish.
Incidentally this wasn’t my first time at the base having visited numerous times in the previous five years trying to catch a glimpse of any military aircraft at the base. It also meant I knew exactly where to go to get the best view and that was straight down a farm track to Crash Gate 7 right beside the Gaydon Hangar, the former Navy SEAL complex and the main USAF dispersal area.
As it transpired, the Sunday was the final build up day with the Exercise officially starting the next day so there was a final push to get all the necessary aircraft, equipment and personnel to the base. Throughout the day, there were another six ferry flights conducted between RAF Mildenhall and Machrihanish conducted by the MC-130 Shadows using the callsign SHADOW and two flights by the MC-130 Combat Talons using the callsign TALON.
Given the location and the units involved, it didn’t take long until the USAF personnel tasked with base security took an active interest in our presence. Fortunately it was all very friendly and the guys seemed happy to have someone else to talk to for a while and were more than happy to chat about the exercise, the aircraft involved and give some hints as to when things would be moving. They didn’t even bat an eye when my radio started blasting out air traffic control chatter from the control tower.
The surreal aspect of the exercise is that given the location of the base and also the fence line which can only be described as mediocre, we were actually far closer to everything that expected. The size of the gaps in the fence were nothing short of frightening, and when we jokingly asked ‘Wilson’ from the USAF Security detail what would happen if someone got through the fence, he just casually replied they would likely have to shoot them. Whether they were being serious or just playing with us at the time I guess we will never know.
The last time the 352nd Special Operations Group had deployed to RAF Machrihanish was in 2001 for Operational Springbank, albeit Exercise Asphalt superseded this exercise both in terms of the number of aircraft and personnel deployed.
Needless to say, most of the interest activities were conducted under the cover of darkness. I dare say the exercise would have reminded the local residents of the days when the airbase was a hive of military activity during the 80s and was a significant contributor the local economy. Every military radio and aviation enthusiast will have key events in their aviation career which they will always remember, and this deployment is without a doubt one of them.
I actually made a good friend within the 352nd Special Operations Group on the back of this exercise. They are now retired from the US Air Force however we still keep in contact to this day.
The mix of USAF Special Operations and my favourite ‘secret’ base was the perfect combination to make this a lasting memory. It was nearly 15 years ago but I can still remember the sights and that wonderful smell of aviation fuel on that sunny September day. Looking back at the photos, I can’t help but wonder what they would look like today if this exercise was replicated. In 2005 I was in the early stages of my photographic career and needless to say the camera technology was nothing compared to even basic digital standards on mobile phones these days.
Even given the relative low quality of the photos, I think they are both unique and significant as they are not the usual standard airshow photos or aircraft operating from their home station. These are US Special Operations aircraft, captured operating in the deployed environment at a remote and at the time widely disused military airbase.
It would turn out this wouldn’t be my only successful visit to RAF Machrihanish but more on that another time.