Creating RAF Harwell

Some time in early 1935 there was a knock at the door of the bungalow stables near Chilton. Leonard Cundall opened the door to two uniformed men, with only one thing to say. “Mr Cundall there’s going to be a war”. Within 6 months the Air Ministry had compulsory purchased the land for £11,6500. The land would be used for one of many new airfields being built as part of a national war effort. The John Laing engineering company won the contract to build 66 airfields for the RAF expansion period prior to World War Two. Reportedly the area south of Harwell village had been used as an emergency landing ground for night flying since WW1. There has also been talk of the area being used as a glider training ground around this time as well. The ground is surprisingly flat, and a big open space, perfect for air training. The John Laing engineering company was also famous for building the Mulberry Harbour system, which was the artificial harbour built for the Normandy landings. They also build the Royal Ordinance factory in Sellafield, Windscale nuclear power plant, the M1, and the reconstruction of Coventry cathedral. Of the 66 airfields Laings company built, Harwell was the first to be constructed. The work started on the airfield in June of 1935. 

Paratroops of 22 Independent Parachute Company, British 6th Airborne Division, waiting to board the Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle Mk V that will drop them over Normandy, RAF Harwell, 5 June 1944. H 39065 War Office official photographers.

In RAF tradition all airfields have pretty much the same layout. This makes sense when you think about it as if a new pilot flies in from another group they know where to go to find the mess hall or where to get paid or where to find the Commanding Officer. Another tradition is that every building is numbered in the order of construction. No. 1 was the guardroom at the entrance to the site. After initial construction the site had 202 individually numbered buildings, and then almost another 100 houses on top of this for people to live. The hangars had a slightly different numbering system, the four hangars were originally named H1-H4, but at the outbreak of war they were renamed H7-H10. At the other end of the numbering B199 was a Gymnasium that doubled up as a chapel. There were no buildings west of Hangar 10 when the site was built. There was a gunnery range in this area that was there to realign the aircraft guns, but this was subsequently occupied by the B220 radio chemical facility, the first major building built by Chivers post war. Two civilian houses were demolished to make way for a a deep underground fuel store, building B3. It contained 6 large cylindrical tanks, with excavated dirt piled on top to produce bomb proof mounds. The second building was pulled down to become the main runway, which is now Frome Road. Aldfield farm to the north and Upper farm to the south escaped demolition. Upper farm stables were requisitioned though. The long building with large doors was perfectly sized to be turned into an aircraft cleaning shed. Go in one side dirty, come out the other side clean!

The Harwell site taken in 1944 with the A34 running from left to right at the top. According to the markings it was taken in April 1944.

The naming of the airfield comes with an interesting story. The 800 acre site sits mainly in the parish of Chilton. A third of the site is in East Hendred parish, with the smallest section being in Harwell. Up until the Commanding Officer got there, it likely had some sort of code name or number. When the CO arrived the subject of the name had to be handled. He lived in the largest of the houses in the northern end of the site in South Drive. He declared that the airfield should be named after whichever parish his house resided in. That parish happened to be Harwell, therefore RAF Harwell it was. As it was a very early airfield it had many flaws. Even worse, it was a bomber training station, with new and inexperienced pilots everywhere. The first big issue was that the three runways intersected in the middle (almost). This is a huge issue, as it would only take a single bomb to take out all three runways. Plus there is a much larger risk of the new pilots crashing in the centre when trying to launch at the same time. There was also a hugely complex system of taxi tracks. There were also over 120 dispersal pads for the planes/gliders scatted around the site. These pads are there to disperse parked aircraft, so if there is an air raid it will minimise the damaged caused overall. Also called hardstands, they also stopped damage to other planes if there was an accident while “bombing up”. These pads tended to be 150 ft (46 m) in diameter and at least 150 ft from the funnel track, this was actually a rule for all buildings on the site.

The pathfinders of the 22nd Independent Company and the Advance parties disembark from their trucks at RAF Harwell alongside the Albemarles of 295 Squadron that will carry them to Normandy. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.

One big thing that they overlooked in the design was the location of the munitions dump. They placed it at the end of the shortest runway, now known as Severn Road. The other issue with this particular runway is that it had a slight hill. When going along the runway you couldn’t actually see the other end over the brow of the hill. There are many stories of young pilots with huge bomb payloads barreling down the runway to then realise they did’t have enough speed to make it. They would have to ‘prang’ the aircraft into the field between the end of the runway and the bomb store fence. There was no reports of any explosions caused by this though. One other notable point is the building materials used in the construction of many of these buildings and tracks. The runway of a bomber station was often up to 9 inches (23 cm) thick, and took 18,000 tons of dry cement and 90,000 tons of aggregate, then covered with a layer of asphalt. In later airfields the hardcore used was often from destroyed buildings, and were carried by train to the sites. Harwell initially opened in February 1937 with a grass airfield but got replaced with concrete runways between July and August 1941.

A slightly better quality photograph of RAF harwell, you can clearly see the dispersal pads and the concrete runways. 

The buildings themselves were made from the classic red brick but the food preparation and storage areas were made from a brick named ‘grano’. Short for granolithic stone it was a mixture of sand cement and granite dust. The resulting stone was hard wearing and was perfect for the constant cleaning and wiping of food storage areas. The issue found later was that the high granite content meant measurable amounts of natural uranium/thorium. The food areas were slightly radioactive. They were also found in the walls of offices in the aircraft hangers and in the BISO, the aimens mess! Plus most dials on compasses and equipment were painted with radium, another radioactive material. Turns out Harwell always had some radioactive heritage.

A Short Stirling Mark IV (LK115, ‘8S-Z’) of No. 295 Squadron RAF, taking off from Harwell, Oxfordshire (UK), towing an Airspeed Horsa glider. Credit: Royal Air Force/ Imperial War museum

By the end of the war over 500 airfields had been built, and most of these issues were ironed out in later designs. The original site was only designed to last 10 years, but even today a huge amount of buildings on that Harwell site still remain in some state. There are a few sections of runway still left, and even a few of the dispersal pads are still visible underneath the undergrowth. 

Thank You for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or any other sort of history. Alternatively follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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The Secret of Salton Sea Naval Base

Salton Sea Base Sign
Welcoming visitors to Salton Sea Base while it was run by the Sandia Corporation.

Salton Sea Naval Base is not known as one of the famous military test sites in the United states. Although it isn’t as revered as places like White Sands or Edwards AFB it is still the location of some of the most important testing during the second world war. It aided in the development of the Fat Man, the bomb that eventually ended the second world war by destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. With many aerodynamic testing, and target practice for the bombers, at one point it was one of the most secret places in the United States, now it is basically a desert, with broken buildings, occasionally being found by urban explorers.

Building from the pier
A building found 100m up from the pier, showing signs of wear. Found by urban explorers recently. Credit: Saltonseawalk.

Salton Sea is a shallow saline lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault. The U.S. Navy inspected the site in January of 1940, and commissioned it as the Salton Sea Naval Auxiliary Air Station in October 1942. The base was designed as a training base for seaplanes, and was located just to the south east of Salton city. Although it only initially took claim of the northern end of the Lake, it eventually controlled part of the southern end too. Technically speaking it is a Naval Station and not a Navy Base, but most references refer to it as a Test Base.

Overhead view of Salton Sea in 1947
An overhead view of Salton Sea base in 1947.

View of Salton Sea base
Aerial view of Salton Sea boat docks, showing how remote the place is. Credit: Center for Land Use Interpretation.

Throughout the 1940’s it functioned as an active military weapons test site. Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets led the 393rd Heavy Bombardment Squadron during 1944 and 1945 through a series of classified B-29 practice flights from Wendover, Utah to the Salton Sea, where they would drop dummy atomic bombs onto a floating white raft. This was used as the testing site for the fateful atomic weapons attacks that ended the second world war for Japan. It is said that Tibbets dropped the first atomic bomb himself on Hiroshima in a plane named after his mum, Enola Gay. The prototypes were tested at Salton Sea.

instrument lab 1951
Image of the instrument lab of the Salton Sea Navy Base taken in 1951.

The crews made hundreds of practice runs over the Mojave and Salton Sea. The bombs they used were full size mock-ups, sometimes filled with concrete, other times containing everything except the nuclear part. This often meant being filled with explosives. During one Salton Sea run, an engineer dropped one of the Fat Man mock ups too soon. It narrowly missed the town of Calipatria. The bomb buried itself 3m into the ground, but luckily didn’t explode. Bulldozers rushed to the scene to erase the evidence.

UXO sign at Salton Sea
A sign warning of Unexploded Ordnance around the Salton Sea base area, with all the testing over the years it is understandable. Credit: Saltonseawalk.

Area Closed
A sign telling all visitors that the area is closed to all users.The guys who took the pictures ignored this warning though. Credit Saltonseawalk.

During the 1950’s the base was used by Sandia National Labs as a range for missile testing, with over 1,100 missile tests being conducted there. Sandia was the principal contractor for the Atomic Energy Commission after the war, and they renamed the site Salton Sea Test Base in 1946. They used the site to test weapons, space capsule parachute drops, drone airplane tests, and Nike missile launches. 150 different tests were conducted annually over a ten year period some using depleted uranium. Sandia ended operations in 1961 when they moved to a new remote site. The main reason for moving was a fight with rising waters of the lake.

Building A1
Located a few hundred meters into the base, Building A1 is one of the more interesting surviving buildings, you can see that it has not been looked after. Credit: Saltonseawalk.

Building A1
The building marked A1, one of the only buildings still standing. On top an Alaska Pedestal, used to hold tracking equipment for missiles. Credit: Saltonseawalk.

During the 1960’s it was mainly abandoned, and in the 1970’s it was occasionally used for live munitions practice.  Most buildings suffered substantial damage. The site was listed as inactive in 1986, but the facility found renewed life as a site for Gulf War training maneuvers during the 1990’s. As most of the original buildings were destroyed, the base was decommissioned and turned over the the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the mid-1990’s. The Site was used during the early 2000’s as a research site for salinity control. There are no plaques or monuments to the achievements of Salton Sea, and the parts it played in winning the second world war, and very little online about it.

Pier at Salton Sea
A great picture of what used to be the pier at Salton Sea base. Credit: Saltonseawalk.

Thank You for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space or electronics, or follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.


When Planes Need an Eye Test: NOLF Webster.

webster overall map
From Google Maps. the locations and distances between the 4 photo resolution markers. Taken in 2007.

In a previous post, I put together lots of images of photo resolution markers, from across the USA. This post is about the four markers found at a little known airfield named Naval Outlying Field Webster in Maryland. In posts on this subject in other blogs it is often incorrectly named Walker Field, just to make things confusing. The four markers are in a straight line, with an almost exact 2000ft between them. This is likely for some sort of calibration testing, so the planes have an exact known distance to calibrate their cameras from. They are in parallel with one of the main runways to make it easy to maintain them, and as another reference for the planes.

Photo res marker 1
The most eastern photo resolution marker at Naval Outlying Field Webster. Taken in 2007 by Google Maps.

NOLF Webster is located 12 miles south west of Naval Air Station PAX River. It was bought by the military from a set of jesuit fathers during WW2 for just $96,000. It was bought as a auxiliary airfield for PAX River, to send aircraft to on busy days. PAX River is a very famous aircraft testing base, with lots of history associated with it. Part of the history is the photoreconnaissance training school found there. That explains the reasoning for the photo resolution markers just 12 miles to the SW.

Photo res 2
The second photo resolution marker at Naval Outlying Field Webster. Taken in 2007 by Google Maps.

NOLF Webster is good as an air base due to it’s great location. It has a good approach by water from two sides, especially good for testing and training. The other approaches were mainly woodland and fields. The three runways are built in accordance with the prevailing winds, with two of the runways being 5,000ft long. The base was heavily used in the 1950’s as a ‘touch and go’ site for training at PAX.

photo res 3
The third photo resolution marker at Naval Outlying Field Webster. Taken in 2007 by Google Maps.

In the 1960’s the former electronics test division moved in, now known as Naval Air Navigation Electronics Project (NANEP). They helped develop many air navigation systems. They stopped the interference with operations at PAX River. They may also have been a big part on the development of the photo resolution markers found there.

photo res 4
The fourth photo resolution marker at Naval Outlying Field Webster. Taken in 2007 by Google Maps.

Most of the images I have used are taken in 2007, but the final one (of the fourth marker) is taken in 2015, where it has a slightly different pattern. This is maybe to define markers between each of them, so the planes know the final one. There don’t seem to be any other changes according to the images found on Google Earth.

photo res 4
The fourth photo resolution marker at Naval Outlying Field Webster. Taken in 2015 by Google Maps.

Hope you enjoyed this short post, If you enjoy stories and posts on space and electronics, take a look at some of the other posts on my blog. Thank You for reading.

Pioneers in Aviation: William Boeing

William Boeing was an aviator with a different upbringing than what you would imagine, nothing to do with engineering or even military. Aiming to profit from the Northwest timber industry from an early age, yet he went on to create one of the biggest aerospace companies ever known, one known in almost all households.

William Boeing

Born October 1st 1881 in Detroit, Michigan to a wealthy mining engineer Wilhelm Böing and Marie M. Ortmann. From Germany and Austria. Boeing Sr had made his fortune through timber and mineral rights near Lake Superior in North America. Up until 1899 young Boeing was educated in Vevey, Switzerland, when he returned he changed his name to William Boeing. Studying at Yale University, Boeing left before graduating in 1903. Starting a new life in Grays Harbour, Washington, he aimed to profit from the lands that he had inherited from his father, who had died of Influenza in 1890. He learned the logging business on his own, eventually buying more timber land and adding more wealth to the approximately $1 million estate left to him (around £26.8 in today’s money) by his parents. This included expeditions to Alaska. One of the main reasons for his success was due to him shipping lumber to the east coast using the Panama Canal.

In 1908 he moved to Seattle, to establish the Greenwood Timber company. He started off by living in an apartment hotel, but after just a year he got elected as a member of the Highlands, a brand-new, exclusive residential suburb. During this time, Boeing was interested in boats, and often experimented with boat designs. So much so in 1910 he bought the Heath shipyard on the Duwamish River. This was so he could build a yacht, named the Taconite, after the mineral that made his father’s fortune. His love of aircraft came from a trip while in Seattle in 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was a world’s fair publicizing development in the Pacific Northwest. Boeing was visiting as he had interests in the area. While there he saw a manned flight, and he became fascinated.

Taconite
The Taconite, the 125ft teak yaght built by Boeing

In 1910 Boeing attended an aviation meet in Los Angeles, where he tried to get a ride on a boxy biplane, he didn’t succeed. This didn’t deter him though, he took flying lessons at the Glenn L. Martin Fling School in Los Angeles, and even purchased one of his planes, a Martin TA Hydroaeroplane. James Floyd Smith, a Martin pilot travelled to Seattle to assemble Boeing’s plane and teach him how to fly it. Smith assembled the plane in a tent hanger on the shore of Lake Union, and so Boeing became a pilot. At some point, Boeing’s test pilot broke the plane enough for it to be unusable. Martin informed Boeing that the parts would take months to become available, obviously this was an inconvenience. In 1915, Boeing was introduced to Navy Lieutenant G. Conrad Westervelt, and they soon became close friends. When a mutual friend brought a Curtis-type hydroplane to Seattle later that year, they took turns flying it over lake washington. After just a few trips, Boeing and Westervelt felt that they could build a better airplane. Boeing decided to buy an old boat works on the Duwamish river in Seattle for his factory and set up shop, he was now in the aircraft business.

Boeing Plant
The Boeing Plant on the Duwamish River around 1917

Together with Westervelt they built and flew the B&W seaplane. This was an amphibious biplane that had outstanding performance compared to it’s competitors. This sealed the deal for him, and Westervelt. Together they founded Pacific Aero Products Co in 1916. Their first plane, basically the B&W Seaplane was named the Boeing Model 1. At this time, the world was in the middle of World War 1, and on April 8th 1917, the United States joined the fight. Suddenly there was a need for defence manufacturers. A month later, The name was changed from Pacific Aero Products, to the Boeing Airplane Company. The United States Navy ordered 50 planes from Boeing. When the war ended, the need for military aircraft dwindled, and Boeing started concentrating on the lucrative supply of commercial aircraft. He secured mass contracts to supply airmail, and also created a passenger airline that would later go on to become United Airlines.

B&W Seaplane
The B&W Seaplane, sitting on the water

In 1934 the Boeing company had become massive considering the time. It had an airmail business, commercial airline, manufacturing of planes and many other branches of interest. This sparked controversy in the US government, and he was accused of monopolistic practices. That year the Air Mail Act forced airplane companies to separate flight operations from the manufacturing of planes. At this point Boeing separated himself from the company, and divested himself of ownership. The company was then split into three sections. The United Aircraft Corporation a manufacturing arm, based in the east, Now United TechnologiesUnited Airlines which handled flight operations, and still functions as such, and Boeing Airplane Company which was manufacturing based in the west, this went on to become the Boeing Company that we all know today. By 1937 he had started spending most of his time breeding horses, and the new Boeing Company would not become truly successful until World War 2.

Boeing spent the remainder of his life in property development, and the breeding of thoroughbred horses. He was said to be worried about the tensions in the Pacific Northwest due to WW2. This led him to purchase a 650 acre farm east of Seattle. He called it “Aldarra”. He would go on to die September 28th, 1956 at the age of 74 (a year before the release of the release of the 707). He died of a heart attack while on his yacht. His estate was eventually sold off and turned into a golf course in 2001, but parts still remain today, including Boeing’s main home, and two smaller houses. His house in the Highlands was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also a creek running near his house in the Highlands was renamed Boeing Creek after him.

Boeing Creek
The Creek named after Boeing, running near his house in the Highlands