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RAF Benbecula

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Benbecula Airport, 2007
Benbecula Airport
© Greg Morss

RAF Benbecula began as a wartime airfield which developed from an earlier civilian airstrip known as Balivanich, located on a spit of machar (grassy dune land), on the northwest corner of the island of Benbecula.

The airfield is now Benbecula Airport, which lies near the B892 northwest of Balivanich, and operates flights to Glasgow, Stornoway and Barra. The airport is operated by Highland and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL), a company wholly owned by the Scottish Ministers and sponsored by the Scottish Government Transport Directorate, and has the International Air Transport Association (IATA) location code "BEB".

World War II

The airfield was originally commissioned with three runways which had an unusual construction comprising of bitumen laid directly on to sand. Hangars at the airfield were also unusual in that they were half size T2 types, the smaller size being intended to present a reduced profile to the winds expected at the site. The airfield was operational between 1941 and 1947, and became an important base for North Atlantic patrols flown against German U-Boats.

Surveillance photographs taken by the Luftwaffe show the airfield under construction in 1942, when many of the buildings and the runways were only partly completed. Aerial photographs taken by the RAF in 1946 show the completed airfield with runways, hangars, bomb store, and accommodation camps in place, together with the usual surface shelters. The airfield was also equipped with a Battle HQ, which would have been used by the defenders to deny use of the airfield to an enemy in the event of an invasion.

South Ford Bridge or O'Regan's Bridge

South Ford Bridge was completed in 1942, and was a single lane bridge which became the first crossing to connect Benbecula with South Uist over South Ford, a hazardous area of shifting sands which separates the two islands.

The bridge, also known as O'Regan's Bridge, Gaelic, Drochaid O'Regan, was an 82-pier concrete bridge of 875 yards (800 m) named after a local priest who led a long campaign calling for its construction, and finally got his wish when the RAF base on Benbecula and the ferry port at Lochboisdale, on South Uist, had to be provided with a reliable connection. Completion of this first bridge was considered to be a highly significant development for the area, and it had been planned for the opening to be carried out by King George VI. Unfortunately, the potential dangers presented by such a journey for the King under wartime conditions made this impossible.

The original South Ford Bridge survived until the 1970s, by which time it had suffered considerable deterioration.

Modern bridge and causeway

Modern bridge and causeway, 2009
Modern bridge and causeway
© Barbara Carr

It was replaced by the combination of a short bridge which leads from Benbecula to the tiny Creagorry Island, and a causeway which then connects with South Uist, with the pair having a combined length of almost half a mile (1 km). Although it was formally opened in November 1982, the new crossing was not completed until May 1983, when it became the island's first two-lane link with footpaths.

Consultants on the combined £2.2 million project were Blyth and Blyth, who had also been responsible for the original bridge at South Ford some 40 years earlier. Construction was carried out by Edmund Nuttall Ltd, with 75% of the funding coming from the Scottish Office.

Cold War

RAF Benbecula appears to have taken on two rôles during the Cold War.

In 1958, RAF Benbecula became the control centre for the South Uist Missile Range, a facility established there by the Army, and operated in conjunction with the radar tracking station established on St Kilda in 1957, during Operation Hardrock. The South Uist range is variously referred to as Benbecula, the Hebrides, a rocket range, missile range, testing range, and as RAF Benbecula, which can lead to some confusion when reading accounts of the facilities.

RAF Benbecula also provided long range surveillance of the North Atlantic for use by the United Kingdom Integrated Command and Control System (ICCS), an ageing system which the United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment (UKADGE) project was tasked with replacing during the 1970s. This process continued with further changes during the 2000s, with the United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment Capability Maintenance Programme (UCMP).

The radar Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) at RAF Benbecula was under the control of RAF Buchan during the Cold War, and continued for some years thereafter. Although the centre is reported to survive Benbecula, RAF Buchan was closed down in 2005, to be replaced by a Remote Radar Head (RRH) on a nearby hilltop site. The CRC at Benbecula was also closed and replaced by an RRH, which is now all that remains of the centre. As with RAF Buchan, the RRH is under the control of the United Kingdom Air Surveillance and Control Systems Force Command (ASACS), and the United Kingdom ASCACS Command and Control System (UCCS) now forms the backbone of the UK's ground-based, permanent, static, air command and control installations.

Postwar

With the end of World War II, control of the airfield transferred to BEA (British European Airways) in 1946 for civil aviation use, and two of the three original runways, RWY 06/24 5,500 feet (1,681 m) and RWY 18/36 4,000 feet (1,200 m) were retained. Formed in 1946 by an Act of Parliament, BEA was a British airline which existed from 1946 until 1974. Under the act, BEA compulsorily acquired the aircraft fleets and routes of most of the United Kingdom's private airlines, and went on to operate most of the scheduled air services within the UK and Europe.

Many of the original World War II buildings and structures still lie scattered amongst the more modern features which have been added to the airfield, many of which have been developed in the area around the control tower. None of the original aircraft hangars remain on the site, with reports of two being sold to Royal Dutch Airlines in 1949, and rebuilt at Schipol Airport.

The airport continues to provides support facilities for RAF Benbecula and the South Uist Missile Range. In the period 2001/2002, the airfield was reported to have benefited from a £500,000 upgrade, completed in readiness for its participation in the Eurofighter Typhoon test project. As part of the testing carried out during April 2002, the £16 billion aircraft successfully test fired an AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile) on the South Uist range, which was reported to be the first firing of such a missile from a Eurofighter.

Station golf course

Golf club, 2007
Golf club
© Greg Morss

Benbecula Station golf course lies to the east of the runways, and the clubhouse has been installed within one of the former wartime buildings which remains on the site. A community interest company was set up by Benbecula Golf Club with the intention of purchasing 43 acres of flat ground which it currently rents from the MoD. Leased from the airport, the land was valued at £31,100 in January 2008.

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