May 02, 2022
5 mins read
An Army Air Corps Lynx AH.9 "parked" on the public road that runs across Wiley Sike, the southern section of the Spadeadam EWTR in north-western Cumbria, pictured during a Forward Air Control exercise in the early 2000s. The border with Northumberland lies in the trees in the middle background of the photo. It's a fairly desolate place with few inhabitants. (Author's photograph)
The Electronic Warfare & Training Range (EWTR) at RAF Spadeadam ("Spade") in north-western Cumbria used to be a favourite haunt for me during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Originally a testing facility for the rocket motors destined for the (abortive) Blue Streak IRBM in the 1950s, in the mid-1970s the huge expanse of moorland and forest north/north-east of Gilsland was turned into an electronic playground for RAF and other NATO aircraft, allowing crews to hone their skills in avoiding simulated Soviet air defence radars and SAM batteries. The Russian systems were "emulated" to provide realistic training scenarios for ground-attack crews flying Harriers, Buccaneers, Jaguars, Tornadoes and Typhoons, plus F-16s, Tornadoes and AMXs from NATO air arms. Transport aircraft were also frequent visitors, their crews flying at extremely low level in attempts to avoid detection in simulated "real world" missions. In addition to the EWTR side of things, a dummy airfield (nicknamed "Colinski" by personnel after a former base commander, I believe) was constructed within the range, well away from public view, and several former Belgian Air Force T-33 Shooting Stars and French Air Force Mystere IVs were placed around it to provide a realistic target. Simulated Russian SAM launchers and ZSU tracked anti-aircraft vehicles were emplaced at points around the range to provide "the bad guys". If that wasn't enough, so-called "Smokey SAMs" could be fired when aircraft were over the range, giving a fairly realistic but non-threatening representation of SAM launches.
One of the numerous former Belgian T-33 Shooting Star jet trainers placed around the EWTR range at Spade. This one was moved from further into the facility to a position close to the road at the western end of Wiley Sike and therefore quite accessible to the public. Note the red star painted on the tail and the "hits" sustained by fragments from small practice bombs. (Author's photo)
On the hillside at the north side of Wiley Sike, about 1/2 mile from the public road that runs across that part of the range was the "Impact Area", a practice bombing range for RAF and NATO aircraft. Two former Belgian AF T-33s, serials FT-01 and FT-29, were placed there along with a few old tanks and other vehicles. Aircraft releasing small (15 lb or so) practice bombs came in from the south, over the Wiley Sike road and directly overhead the small car park (4 cars maximum) before dropping their ordnance on the Impact Area and then pulling up. The practice bombing didn't happen all the time. The range officers (later contracted to SERCO) would drive from the base to Wiley Sike and run up red flags at the flagpoles sited at points along the public road, so that visiting civvies wouldn't stray north of the road where all the excitement happened. On non-exercise days, there was nothing to stop you actually walking up to the range targets on Wiley Sike from the road, although it was across a bog and you had to be dressed for it, lest you lost a shoe in the process! Signs told you not to pick anything up as it might explode - sound advice. The two T-birds were well and truly holed and I think they were eventually moved to the mock airfield site some years ago. A series of pretend buildings were erected in their place and I believe these are still there, although it's years since I've visited Wiley Sike.
Even though it's actually trespassing on MOD land to reach the mock airfield site, some people still manage to access it - especially at weekends when the range isn't open and few patrol vehicles are driving around the handful of tracks that criss-cross that part of the facility. These are some of the former Belgian T-33s on the "airfield". The "runway" here is a flat bit of land between two earth berms. (This isn't my photo, I pulled it off the 28 Days Later website: it was taken just last year)
Halfway between the road and the T-33s was a small bit of land, a square that was fenced off. Buried deep down in the peat here were the remains of Hurricane Mk.IIC BN382 from No.539 Squadron, based at RAF Acklington, near where I currently live in Northumberland. The aircraft somehow dived into the bog at Wiley Sike on 4th October 1942 during a low flying and navigational training exercise. The pilot was killed in the crash.
Some years ago, tree felling on the range uncovered the remains of a missile silo, presumably built for the possible deployment of Blue Streak should it have been successfully tested. Planning would have no doubt included remote sites such as Spade - the site had previously been known as the Spadeadam Wastes.
One of two former Blue Streak rocket motor firing stands at Spadeadam which were located on Greymare Hill. They hadn't been used since the late 1950s and were unsafe structures, therefore had been fenced off to even base personnel - and visiting cadets. (Lotrgamemast, public domain)
Around the southern edge of Wiley Sike runs a river in a deep and reasonably narrow valley. Occasionally helicopters fly along it during exercises - I've even seen Chinooks down in it, so low that you even couldn't see their rotor discs from the car park next to the public road. Mad pieces of flying. Every time I tried to go down there for photos, the helicopters didn't use it! Some folks did eventually get shots, but it was a complete lottery.
You'd occasionally hear very loud bangs whilst parked at the Wiley Sike car park or walking along the road there. No, it wasn't the military playing games or the RAF dropping practice bombs out of sight of the Impact Area. A company which tested industrial pipeline sections to destruction had a small facility within the range area, a perfect location to build up the pressure inside a sealed section of pipeline to the point where something gave and there was a small explosion. And - keeping this piece relevant to those interested in UAP matters - Royal Marine Commando personnel carried out "drone swarm" tests at Spade in 2021. Spadeadam might trace its existence back to a failed UK missile programme from the mid-to-late 1950s, but its current existence sees it embedded within modern military technology. A fascinating place - and if they're still running tours like they used to do back in the late 1990s, well worth signing up for if you ever get the chance.