By Maj. Chris Castle
21st Operations Group liaison officer
ROYAL AIR FORCE FYLINGDALES, U.K. — Sleek red jets roared in from the west, passing low over the cheering crowd. On cue, colorful smoke streamed from the back of each Hawk aircraft, leaving a dazzling fan of red, grey and blue clouds billowing in the air.
The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, commonly known as the Red Arrows, capped an exciting two days of events at RAF Fylingdales, marking the 50th anniversary of radar operations at the site. General officers from both sides of the Atlantic and other distinguished guests descended on this remote, moorland location to mark the occasion.
During the early 1960s, as the threat of ballistic missile attack from the Soviet Union loomed in the minds of American political leaders, the U.S. military implemented a system of early warning radars reaching across the northern expanse of North America and Western Europe. Complementing radars already under construction at Thule, Greenland, and Clear, Alaska, the third Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar, known as BMEWS, was placed on England’s North York Moors, a treeless landscape of rolling hills and stunning natural beauty. On Sept. 17, 1963, BMEWS Site III was declared operational.
Through the years, the radar has served as a symbol of the great collaborative efforts of Great Britain and the United States. The radar is situated on British soil, and operations and maintenance work is overseen by the RAF. The radar equipment itself comes from the United States, and American teams are tasked with sustaining and upgrading the complex software and computers that control the radar’s operations. Every day the radar is tasked by both U.S. and U.K. militaries to provide timely missile warning, missile defense and space situational awareness information. The dedicated crews of the RAF serve two masters, passing their crucial data to Cheyenne Mountain AFS and Vandenberg AFB in America, and to the U.K. Space Operations Coordination Center at RAF High Wycombe, near London. As the radar makes a critical contribution to the mission of Air Force Space Command, the 21st Operations Group has a liaison officer permanently assigned to the base.
The RAF Fylingdales team, led by Rayna Owens, RAF Fylingdales station commander, planned a series of events to commemorate the anniversary, including a formal dinner, complete with a four-piece RAF chamber music ensemble. The evening also included speeches by senior U.S. and U.K. representatives, as well as a former employee who was present for the first day of work 50 years ago.
On the following day, more than 600 visitors streamed onto the base to participate in a formal parade and inspection of the troops, a tree planting ceremony near the combined mess, the grand opening of the new RAF Fylingdales visitors’ center, and an airshow featuring several RAF demonstration teams, including the Red Arrows. Despite the chilly weather, the distinguished visitors, former employees, local dignitaries, family members and current staff all displayed the warm camaraderie that has served as the hallmark of RAF Fylingdales for the past 50 years.