It is starting to look a bit like an annual event - the temporary detachment of the most advanced US aircraft to East Anglia, and me chasing off to see them. Last year it was F-22 aircraft coming over; this year it has been both F-22 and the new F-35.
So, a couple of weeks ago, my friend Graham and I decamped to Lakenheath and Mildenhall for the day. Arriving about 09:30, we joined the hoard of photographers.
We were immediately rewarded with the sight of F-15s on the flight line at Lakenheath, and shortly after that, a different engine sound as F-35s started to nose their way round from the perimeter and onto the stand. It did not take long before they were off. The F-15s all put on an impressive display of afterburner on takeoff, and left long trails of jelly air. The F-35s, to start with, took off dry, without a trail of flame. However, the later departures all used the burner.
We retreated to the car to warm up: I don’t know what it is about Suffolk in April, but it always seems to be bloody freezing. After an hour or so we could see people getting moving again: their radio scanners must have picked up transmissions about returning aircraft. The planes returned in formation flights of two to four, neatly breaking into the circuit and landing with good spacing; perfect for the assembled photographers.
Once they had returned, we headed to Mildenhall, for lunch in John’s field. It is bit like trying to photograph wild birds: you know where they may show, but without any idea of whether or not anything will come along. We were lucky: not long after our arrival, a distant shape appeared in the landing pattern. Four engines: at first we thought it was a tanker, but then realised it was the rarest of species, a Rivet Joint RC-135W. It was returning from an intelligence flight up to the Baltic around the Kaliningrad area.
We’d scarcely had time to finish sandwiches when many of the people in John’s field turned round to face upwind. This was odd. Aircraft land into the wind, so whatever was coming was approaching with the wind behind them. (Looking into the wind means you expect to see something coming downwind). A black speck appeared on the horizon; it quickly grew larger and in a moment swept past us. It was an F-22 equipped with long range tanks; it had probably flown straight in from the US, and wasn’t hanging around to go into the circuit before landing. A second quickly followed.
We stayed in John’s field only a little longer. The F-35s would probably be turned round for afternoon sorties, so we headed back to Lakenheath. We were greeted by the sight of F-35s appearing again. As in the morning, we were able to get them departing and returning.
It was just one of those lucky days when the aircraft and opportunity all came together, even if there was a solid grey overcast all day.
Parenthetically, the F-35 detachment to the UK and Europe has gone pretty much uncommented in the media. Of course, routine training in interoperability, which is how it is badged, is normal, and not news. But at a time when there is a new President in Washington, who portrays relations with Russia as being at an all-time low, I should have thought the operational detachment of the most advanced military aircraft to Europe worth a modest amount of attention. Apparently, refuelling is the most attention-worthy feature of their visit. The F-35s, heading back to the US at the time of writing, also visited Estonia and Bulgaria. Radar tracks show the RC-135s continuing to regularly sniff the Baltic breeze. (Of course, the Russians return the favour as part of their regular routine.)
As always on these occasions, I took far too many pictures. Sorting them out has been something of a chore. One thing that has helped is that I’ve downloaded the trial of Photomechanic. I’ll come back to that in a future blog: it is pretty expensive, so I’ve not yet decided whether I’ll buy it. But for sorting out and tagging large numbers of pictures, it really helps. Talking of which … this.