Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Plane-spotting – A dangerous business for anoraks and governments

           At first it is only a small spot at the cloudy horizon. But seconds later the Tornado fighter bomber flashes past with super-sonic speed and huge explosions rock the ground. Dark mushroom clouds of smoke ascend into the air, while the jet is gone as fast as he came. But instead of cries from wounded people you can hear cheers of joy and applause.
This scene from the video below was in fact not recorded in Libya, but in the Royal Air Force base Waddington near the University town of Lincoln. During its annual RAF Waddington International Air Show, which is the largest of all RAF shows in the United Kingdom, over 130.000 visitors and many members from foreign air forces visit the area.
But once the marvelling crowd has dispersed and the fumes of the jets have been blown away, another species of aircraft enthusiasts still remain. I meet two of them after a dangerous bicycle ride on the car-infested A-15 at the Waddington Aircraft Viewing Enclosure (WAVE). As I learn later, this tarred spot was custom-built by the RAF and even houses a snack bar, the Sentry Point.
Guests at Waddo: Suchoi-30. £ 22 million
At first a bit reluctant that someone  actually wants to talk with them about their passion, the duo soon becomes forthcoming. Ian Moore, a grey-haired pensioner from Scampton explains why he spends the whole day close to a busy road: ‘I am here because I am retired, and I do it out of interest for airplanes. I take pictures and write down aircraft registration numbers.’
His fellow Graham Cortney, a burly forty-something with mirrored aviator sunglasses adds: ‘I am very interested in the photography side of aircraft and travel around the county to visit aircraft museums, but I also keep a list of all the aircraft that are coming to Waddington. I record them in a book called Military Aircraft Spotting.’
Eurofighter Typhoon. £ 72 million
While he explains his passion for aircraft spotting, the ‘aircraft enthusiast’, as he refers to himself, sits in a camping chair and adjusts the frequency of his creaking scanner. When I ask whether it was legal to overhear the communication between the tower and the pilots he just shrugs and says: ‘It is not really legal, but the RAF allows it, they don’t bother us as long as we don’t make a nuisance of ourselves.’
He says that with the ability to overhear radio traffic as far as Coningsby, he often hears of near misses when pilots who come in the wrong way notice that there is a plane coming in from the other direction. ‘There are a lot of things that happen all the time in the air but do not get recorded much because it is such a commonplace.’
Not an usual anorak...
The two are aware that the public considers them to be a little bit weird. ‘They think we are nutters’ laughs Mr. Brittain, while Mr. Cortney adds: ‘Especially the young people, who go clubbing every night, they call us old fuddy-duddies and anoraks.’ A prejudice that Naomi Green, a nurse from Lincoln, confirms. ‘These anoraks are definitely weird’ she says. ‘Who else would sit around the whole day and look at planes?’
But Mr. Cortney says it is an interest. And he points out that they also are a part of the fight against international terrorism: ‘For example if we see a car full of Muslims who set up big receivers and aerials. It might look a bit suspicious then and we let the RAF know. We can report any stranger that comes in.’ In fact, aircraft spotters around the country have been approached by the police and asked to act as a lookout and to report anything suspicious.
Iraqui insurgents in Lincolnshire?
On my remark that Muslim aircraft spotters have a hard time to indulge in their hobby at the moment Mr. Cortney remarks gravely: ‘Yes, you don’t know whether they are friendly and if they are not working for somebody else. But it is very rare you get Muslims up here. Mostly we get a lot of Dutch and French people.’
Antonov AN-124. £ 56 million
We are joined by Ron Brittain, an 80-year old plane-spotting veteran, who remembers a time when he actually saw suspicious people near the air base: ‘A few years ago the RAF regiment were having an exercise and this battered old pick-up truck drove in here with three of four people dressed up as Iraqis. They got their AK-47s in the back of the thing and the back was down and they parked just here in the spotting area, which was the wrong place. They were supposed to be in the exercise area. They were playing the enemy. So the chap that used to run that place then he rang the base, and then he rang the civil police. And the police came in and all these people suddenly realized they were in the wrong place.”
Rendition-linked aircraft N478GS in Prestwick
Apart from reporting potential terrorists, aircraft spotters are also involved in reporting other suspicious observations, only this time to the embarrassment of the authorities.
An American Gulfstream jet that was named in a 2006 inquiry by the European Parliament into alleged CIA ‘torture flights’ was seen by aircraft spotters touching down both in Birmingham and Prestwick airport in 2009. Human rights campaigners are convinced that planes of that type were used to transfer suspected terrorists to countries that turn a blind eye to torture.
Good spot for spotting?
Mr. Brittain is proud of the role that aircraft spotters had in the detection of those flights and says that it was now nearly impossible for them to go unnoticed: ‘There are plane-spotters at the American bases in Britain twenty-four hours a day.’     But his hobby is not without risk. In November 2001, twelve aircraft spotters were arrested by Greek authorities while they took pictures of planes and were subsequently accused of spying. Sentenced to three years in prison initially, they were fortunately acquitted in the appeal procedure and even won an apology by the foreign office of the United Kingdom for not offering them enough support during their year-long plight.
Mr. Moore, however, does not sympathise with them: ‘There are rules for each country and if you don’t respect them it’s your own fault’ he says, and listens with half an ear to the creaking scanner, where the next pilot is asking for clearance to land. 

Plane spotters help police

How the Britons ended up as spies



RAF Waddington: Your local specialists in bomb- and eavesdropping

         ‘I was a sea boy, like the Hitler youth, 15 years old in 1944’ said now 82-year old James Ross when I chatted with him about his experiences during the Second World War in his home village of Waddington. 
I met the vigorous pensioner in the Horse & Jockey pub in the High Street of the sleepy little village, which lends its name to the nearby airbase. He is more than willing to go back in time and talk about the turbulent days of his youth, when the airbase played a vital role in the fight against the Axis powers. 
German JU-88 multirole aircraft
    ‘There were German intruder fighters coming from Holland nearly every night. They were going round the airfield and tried to catch the bombers when they started. They shot quite a few down’ he says, and describes how he ‘saw some of the aircraft, the Junkers 88, going round the air base, just over the rooftop level in the moonlight.’
        His memories shed light on the constant feeling of fear that was prevalent during the years of the Second World War and the imminent danger that German bombs posed for the population of Lincolnshire. Unfortunately, the presence of a military facility was one the reasons which made life in and around Waddington more dangerous.
RAF Waddington in 1939
The Royal Air Force Base Waddington, which was built in 1916 as a flying training station, came into full use in 1937, shortly before the war began in 1939. The fact that the surrounding area was very flat made it destined to become a bomber base, as these heavy planes needed much time to gain altitude. As most of the county shared this landscape feature, a total of 45 air bases were finally built here during the war, and the rural and once peaceful Lincolnshire soon became known as Bomber County.  
       Another reason for the massive increase of military installations was the proximity to the enemy. While most of the fighter bases were located in Kent to fend off the German planes stationed in France, the bomber bases were erected in this part of Britain, which is one of the nearest to Germany. 
Waddington air crew in front of their bomber
     After the Luftwaffe had started to shift her focus from military installations towards bombing civilian targets, large bomber fleets took off from the airfields of Lincolnshire to carry out retaliatory attacks on German cities. ‘You had about 700 bombers going over there at night’ recalls Mr. Ross. ‘I used to stay up at night, watching them from the window sill. There was always something happening.’
      But soon he came to see more action than he wished for. The Germans desperately tried to stop the constant attacks on their cities and harbours and sent their own planes to destroy the attackers on the ground. And they also attacked civilian targets.
Destroyed church in Waddington village
        ‘Once there was an intruder raid, and this Junkers 88 was going to attack Scampton, He came down, and he saw this two lights on the road. He hit the car, took it off the road, killed the man in it, and he just crashed in the next field because he was that low’ says Mr. Ross.
The village of Waddington and the air base were not spared from devastating attacks. In 1941, two parachute mines of one ton weight each flattened 70 houses of the village including the 12th century church, and killed one person. On the same day bombs dropped by a single Luftwaffe plane took the lives of eleven female members of the Air Force Auxiliary Services, who had sought refuge in an air-raid shelter in the airbase.
Damaged airmen's mess, RAF Waddington
     But these attacks happened infrequently and did never seriously hamper the activity of the airfield. Thus, aircraft from Waddington could take part in many operations against Nazi Germany and its allies. Dangerous and costly missions such as the daylight raid on Augsburg, the preparation of D-Day and the sinking of the battleship Tirpitz were hailed by the press. However, planes from Waddington were also involved in the bombing of the French town of Royan, in which as many as 800 French civilians were killed.

Avro Vulvan on display
Throughout the war the air base was not only home to British pilots, but also to members of the Australian, American, and Polish Air Force. The price they paid for their participation in the war was high. Altogether, RAF Waddington lost more bombers during operations than any other Bomber Command station in the UK, a total of 345.
       After the war, RAF Waddington was one of the few wartime bases in Lincolnshire that were not closed. It became the home of the Avro Vulcan, a strategic jet bomber which carried nuclear bombs and was a part of Britain’s airborne deterrent forces during the Cold War. 
Russian map of RAF Waddington
       How serious the Soviets took this threat became evident not long ago, when old Soviet maps of the airbase were discovered in Russian archives. The maps of the airbase and its surroundings show bunkers and hangars, details that are still not available on official maps of the UK. A spokesmen of RAF Waddington was quoted in the Lincolnshire Echo, saying that ‘to see the level of detail they have managed to achieve so long ago is remarkable.’
      The air base also shot to fame in 1982, when Vulcan bombers provided by RAF Waddington bombed the runway of the Argentinian air base of Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands, and thereby marked the entry of the United Kingdom into the Falklands War.
Pinochet leaves the UK
It also was the place where Augusto Pinochet’s flight to Chile took off after he had been released of his house arrest by then-Home Secretary Jack Straw in 2000. His plane was stopped on the taxiway in order to allow the crew to take an expensive silver-plate on board, a gift from Margaret Thatcher to her ally from the Falklands War.
         Today, the air base remains a vital part of the RAF and is home to several intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition aircraft and the accompanying ground crew. Several of the station's surveillance planes are currently based in the RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus, where they take part in the UK’s war against Libya.