It was relatively routine Tuesday afternoon back in February 2009 and I found myself sitting at my workstation watching the clock. Back then I was working as a sub editor for a daily newspaper but my main focus was being the military and Mode-S editor for PW Publishing’s RadioUser Magazine.
The perks of being a freelancer was no one was really that concerned that I always had my laptop flashed up at my work station and while others were away on their lunch breaks or spending endless amounts of time making coffee, I was working away chasing up leads, writing product reviews and planning road trips.
Another perk of being freelance was the ability to take time off at short notice without too much resistance which paid off on several occasions including this time round. Sipping the fourth coffee of the day, I had a quick check of the NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) system and noted an ominous red circle surrounding the former RAF Machrihanish.
A closer look revealed the NOTAM was for High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) parachute training due to take place in two days. While there was a chance it could be UK forces it was more likely to American Special Forces who still had a vested interest in the area as a training venue.
With that in mind there was only one thing to do. Send a quick e-mail to the editor to say I won’t be in on Thursday and then plan another road trip to Kintyre!
Back then, just like now, all the camera and radio equipment was kept in a state of permanent readiness so only required a quick check before loading up our very first mobile radio shack. As fate would have it, this would turn out to be the last road trip of this particular car following mechanical issues which appeared a few days later.
It is a good four-hour drive to Machrihanish from where we are located, and we certainly got some interesting looks as the mobile radio shack bristling with antennas rolled into the petrol station at silly o’clock.
It’s a long drive but with BBC Radio 2 as company the miles passed by with ease and the mobile radio shack pulled into Campbeltown shortly after 0930 hours. We quickly found a roll shop and with a roll and square sausage and a roll with bacon and egg sourced, it was a short three mile hop over to our usual haunt at the base near to the Gaydon Hangar and former SEAL complex.
Parking up in plain view it was obvious we were onto a good thing with the traditional hire vans spotted near to the old Navy SEAL building and a couple of figures spotted moving around wearing US military fatigues. It was now just a waiting game but it didn’t take long for the radios to crackle into life with a Uniden Bearcat 3000XLT and 3300XLT both mounted on the dash board.
Given its remote location, the airspace around Kintyre is really easy to monitor and the airfield only has one active frequency – the tower on 125.900MHz. The UBC3300XLT was scanning through the Scottish and London Military control frequencies while the UBC3000XLT was sitting on the tower frequency. A short time later the radio squawked into life with TALON 71 being handed over to Scottish Military requesting routing direct to Machrihanish. It was game time and the camera gear was unpacked and sitting out ready.
Despite being February, it was a surprisingly mild day and it wasn’t long before TALON71 had been given landing clearance and was taxiing down towards the Gaydon hangar and the SEAL complex. After parking up outside the complex literally a stone’s throw away, a small squad of jumpers emerged from the complex and boarded the aircraft.
Minutes later, the distinctive sounds of revving turboprop engines filled the air as TALON71 taxied towards the active runway getting take off clearance as they went and lifted off to begin the climb to their jump height overhead.
We can’t remember off hand exactly what their jump height was but once at altitude, TALON71 confirmed with the tower the jumpers were away and they were beginning their descent back into the airfield for landing. We didn’t see the chutes until very late but managed to get a couple of photos as they approached the landing zone on the base.
With all the jumpers confirmed safe on the ground, TALON71 was cleared to land and taxied back to the complex, including holding on the taxiway as the jumpers casually walked back as for them it was just another day at the office. After another short stop with engines still running, the jumpers and some equipment were loaded back onto the aircraft and the SEAL complex began to get closed down suggesting the training was over the for day.
As TALON71s engines revved again and requested taxi and departure clearance, they confirmed they were RTB to RAF Mildenhall and wouldn’t be returning. As the Combat Talon taxied away and departed routing south, we sat in the car listening to TALON71 working Scottish Military while appreciating we had witnessed and captured something quite unique.
With the action over for the day, it was time to pack away the camera equipment and start the journey back home but not before getting a quick commemorative photo to mark the occasion.
On the long drive back home, our thoughts went back to how the base must have looked back in its hay day when it was a permanent US facility with a detachment of US Navy Seals permanently based there. The base has such a rich history but sadly most of it remains undocumented given its remote location with only occasional snippets and some old archive photos available online.
Over 11 years on, we are glad that we have played our small part in documenting some of the history of the base over the years and the connection between the Kintyre peninsula and the US military.