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United Kingdom Tour Part Three; RAF Lakenheath July 15, 2009

The 48th Fighter Wing USAFE; Text and Photograph's by Alex van Noye

After two very successful days at RAF Cottesmore and RAF Coningsby, RAF Lakenheath was on my list to be visited today. Lakenheath is the home base the 48th Fighter Wing of the United States Air Force Europe (USAFE). The wing is equipped with three F-15 units of which two of them fly the Strike Eagle.

RAF Lakenheath abbreviated as EGUL is primarily a base of the RAF but it is used by the USAF 48th Fighter Wing which is operating from here. Lakenheath is located in the east of England in the county of Suffolk. For the complete history of Lakenheath we need to go back in time to the period First World War. This area started as a shooting and bombing range for RAF aircraft coming from several airfields in the area. After the First World War this area was practically deserted. At the beginning of WW2 Lakenheath was soon used as a satellite base for RAF Mildenhall, the base was equipped as a bogus base for the German bombers to protect Mildenhall by misleading them. This base was also in use for several RAF detachments at the beginning of the Second World War. Later in 1942 the first RAF units, equipped with Stirling and Wellington bombers, were based at Lakenheath.

The first American influence became visible at Lakenheath in the beginning of 1944. Three bases in the UK were designated to be converted into a large base which could be used by the USAF heavy bomber fleet; Lakenheath was one of them. Finally the B-24 Liberator and later the B-29 Super Fortress came in active duty at Lakenheath. Since the arrival of the USAF in this period it's stayed an US air base until now. In 1950 Lakenheath would become one of the three USAF Strategic Air Command bases in the United Kingdom. The French president Charles de Gaulle ordered to withdraw all the non French nuclear forces from France in 1959. The 48th Fighter Wing was for the first time based at Lakenheath due to this order. The 48th Fighter Wing was based at Chaumont AB in France until 1959 but it was converted to Lakenheath in 1960. First it was a detachment at Lakenheath and later on it would be definitely based up here. Nowadays the 48th FW is still based at this British airbase.

The 48th Fighter Wing at Lakenheath is nowadays equipped with four squadrons. The

first unit of this wing is the 492nd Fighter Squadron which is equipped with the F-15E Strike Eagle and is distinguished by its blue tail band. The second unit is the 493rd Fighter Squadron which is equipped with the F-15C/D Eagle and is recognizable by its yellow tail band. The third unit is the 494th Fighter squadron which flies the F-15E Strike Eagle as well and is distinguished by its red tail band. Finally the fourth unit is the 56th Search and Rescue Squadron which is operational with the HH-60 Pave Hawk. All F-15's and HH-60's of this Wing are identified by the tail code LN. The name of this unit is: "The Statue of Liberty Wing" and therefore the badge of this wing show an image of the Statue of Liberty. The 48th Fighter Wing is the only unit within the USAF with both a numerical designation and an official name. In the past the Wing was equipped with the F-100 Super Sabre and the F-111 Aardvark.

At 9 am I arrived at RAF Lakenheath; the base was already very busy at that moment. It seems I had chosen the best week in this period to come over because there was a big stand-by exercise going on. In other words it meant that there was much additional flying activity. When I arrived at the fence of the base, a group of Strike Eagles was holding at the final checkpoint before they went airborne. The F-15C's of the 493rd Fighter Squadron were already airborne when I arrived. I watched the position of the sun compared to the main runway and I decided to move to the landing area. Not the most ideal situation, because the incoming aircraft are still flying pretty high. After one hour of waiting, the first Eagles checked in for landing. There were more than 20 eagles inbound for landing after today's first mission. I was surprised when none of the landed aircraft taxied to their parking spot to shut down their engines. They all taxied to the hot refuelling point on the base and changed crew while the aircraft was refuelled. After this, they all taxied back to the holding point near the main runway for a new mission. It seems this was a part of the exercise which was going on at Lakenheath because almost all aircraft behaved like this. After a while I decided to walk into the woods away from the airbase because I saw the Eagles continuous turning in for landing at that particular point. In the middle of the forest was an open spot which was ideal for photographing the banking Eagles.

After 4 pm the sun turned to the other side of the main runway; it was time to move to the other side because of this. Photo opportunities are much better on the north side of the base, sow from this point the best part of the day started. I took place at an old abandoned farm on the north side of the base right in front of the taxi track. The Eagles taxied just in front of me to the runway and were holding up there until they were cleared for take-off; photo opportunities were really great at this point. It took a while before every single aircraft was airborne. After one hour of waiting, the first eagles would return; they all were F-15C's. The sun was already low because it was 7 pm; as a result, the light was really beautiful on the aircraft. Especially at the end of the day when the sun was on the horizon, light conditions were beautiful when the Strike Eagles came in. The light on the aircraft was yellow and later orange because of sun set; it was pretty difficult to shoot because of sunset. I left this great base after a long photography marathon of over thirteen hours. It was already 10 pm and it became really dark at this moment. With this also the flying activity dropped to zero at RAF Lakenheath. Today because of the exercise I saw almost 30 different Eagles on this beautiful summer day. There weren't any moments today on which you could hear any running engines on this base; it really was a very busy day at this American base. I was very satisfied; with a big smile on my face I left Lakenheath. I would leave inbound RAF Odiham the home base of the British Chinook fleet next day where I had a base visit to see these helicopters.

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