Personal memories from RAF Scampton, by Wing Commander Bill Ramsey
Wing Commander Bill Ramsey, former OC RAFAT (Officer Commanding the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team – the Red Arrows), BBMF (Battle of Britain Memorial Flight) Lancaster pilot and last captain of Vulcan XH558, shared some of his many memories from his time spent on arguably the RAF’s most famed operational base. Bill, it turns out, is the longest serving OC in Scampton’s history and probably the only pilot to have flown all three of its most iconic aircraft: the Avro Lancaster, the Avro Vulcan and BAE Hawk T.1.
The outline article includes memories from his time flying Vulcans from Scampton as part of Britain’s nuclear deterrent; a flight with General Antoshkin, a Hero of the Soviet Union, in the back seat of a Tornado, through to his time as Officer Commanding RAF Aerobatic Team – the Red Arrows.
It was a dark November evening when I first caught sight of the Station as I drove up the A15 on my way to report for my conversion to the Vulcan B2, after completing flying training. I was well aware of Scampton’s illustrious wartime history and not a little excited to be going there.
Passing the Lincoln Showground I gradually became aware of a growing yellowish light off to the left. As I got closer I was able to see this was caused by the sodium security lights illuminating and reflecting off the undersides of the Vulcans parked on (Foxtrot) Dispersal. What a moment! The scene just oozed with the size and menace of this incredible aircraft. In through the gates, check-in at the guardroom and into the Officers Mess.
At that time, Scampton was home to Nos 27, 35 and 617 Squadrons and 230 OCU (which included the four Handley Page Hastings of No 1066 Squadron). That meant more than 200 aircrew on the base, many of whom lived in either the Mess or Station Married Quarters. That in turn led to one of the liveliest bars I ever encountered – particularly on Friday night ‘Happy Hours’ when it was packed to the rafters. A constant din through the all-enveloping cigarette/pipe/cigar smoke haze as the rival squadrons heatedly debated which was, in fact, the best (or at least the loudest). It turned out that each squadron had a repertoire of, usually bawdy, songs which were sung lustily, and surprisingly well, often into the wee small hours. I enthusiastically joined the choir!
It’s May 1975. Having completed a comprehensive Vulcan ground school, and a few flights with a Qualified Flying Instructor. Mine was a bluff Yorkshireman with a number of stock phrases: ‘Steady on lad, it’s not a bloody Hunter!’ and ‘Boom-Boom, double engine failure, pull’t RAT’ stick in the mind. (RAT = Ram Air Turbine.)
We got to our first crew solo. My Captain was a brand new one, still a Flying officer after he had lost a year’s seniority for some misdemeanour or another, aged only 24. I was just 21, so it was a big moment as we stood nervously under the aircraft before climbing in. As the moment approached we went for a ‘High 5’ but our hands missed. Slightly disconcerting!
We survived and went on to fly together for the next three years on No 35 Sqn, before I left RAF Scampton for what I imagined would be the last time. Not so…
Thirteen years later and the Cold War was over. The Chief of the Air Staff had been to the Soviet Union (I think it was still called that?) and flown in one of their latest fighters. In turn their display Team, the Russian Knights, came to Scampton to visit The Red Arrows who by then were based there (as now, in 4 Hangar which had also been No 35 Sqn’s), accompanied by General Antoshkin, the Air Commander of the Moscow Military District. He was promised a flight in a Tornado.
And so it was, I was tasked with a return to Scampton, bringing four Tornados with me (to ensure one would be serviceable to fly him!). I spoke no Russian and the General no English. I’m still not sure how we got through that day! He was an incredibly brave man. It turned out he had commanded the helicopter regiment that repeatedly dropped sand into the Chernobyl reactor in an attempt to stabilise the situation; with serious health consequences for all concerned – something they had been aware of whilst doing it.
In mid-1993, I came back to Scampton to join the Examining Wing of the Central Flying School (CFS), which by this time, together with the Reds, was the sole user of the airfield. Whilst still a busy place it was a bit less lively, than it had been back in the seventies. I suppose it was all rather scholarly befitting its CFS role. During this time, it was decided Scampton was to close at some point in1996. On 23 November 1995 my log book tells me I flew the final Red Arrows Hawk from Scampton to its new home at Cranwell. A low flypast in salute and that was that. My log book entry declares it was the last jet movement from RAF Scampton. Wrong again!
And so, to 2001. I’d been promoted again and posted back to RAF Scampton one more time (it had just re-opened again) to become Wing Commander Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team. My secondary duty was Officer Commanding RAF Scampton (a post I held for four years, making me the longest serving OC in Scampton’s history).
By now the Station was, sadly, largely derelict apart from a few key buildings and hangars, but with the Reds aircraft, the Hunters of Hawker Hunter Aviation Ltd (HHA) and Tucano 3rd line maintenance it was actually still a fairly busy airfield. HHA also kept a Buccaneer and, perhaps surprisingly, an Su-22M at Scampton (which I used to fast taxy occasionally). We set about restoring the former Sergeants Mess into an all-ranks Combined Mess and, by the kindness of Fred and Harold Panton of East Kirkby and the Commandant RAFC Cranwell, were able to bring some of Scampton’s historic memorabilia back home. I like to think we did a pretty good job! Once, I had occasion to go back into the derelict Officers Mess – now that definitely raised the hairs on the back of the neck! The ghosts of long-gone voices still echoing in the silence. It was a great time, but in truth the estate was looking its age. In February 2005 I left once more for the last time.
In early October 2015 I returned to RAF Scampton for what really was the last time. This time at the controls of Vulcan XH558 to fly a display practice to be filmed by the helicopter providing aerial filming for Channel 4’s Guy Martin Vulcan documentary. As it turned out that was also the last ever ‘full’ Vulcan display (it’s included as an extra on the DVD if you have it and a lovely film it is, even if I say so myself!). The weather was perfect and the ideal way to say a nostalgic goodbye to ‘my’ airfield.
As I read this, I think it’s fair to say RAF Scampton has been gradually closing since the first day I got there, so, whilst sad, the closure announcement isn’t really a surprise. For my part, I’m immensely proud of my association with this most iconic of airfields, to have commanded it and to have flown all three of its most famous aircraft , Lancaster, Vulcan and Red Arrows Hawk – I don’t think anyone else can say that.