As a photographer, I have always been fascinated by the stories that abandoned places can tell. The Upper Heyford airbase, once a bustling hub of military activity, now stands as a testament to the passage of time. In this blog post located in Oxfordshire, England. This former Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Air Force (USAF) base played a significant role during the Cold War. I'll share some of my favourite shots from my recent visit to the airbase, showcasing the hangers, Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) area, and the nuclear weapons store.
All images in this article are ©Carl Goodwin 2022 and are not to be reproduced or copied without express written permission by the author.
The Upper Heyford Airbase was first used by the RAF during World War I, but it wasn't until the onset of the Cold War that it gained prominence. In the1950s, the USAF took control of the base as part of their strategic presence in Europe. The airbase was then designated as the home for the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and the Tactical Air Command (TAC), which were responsible for long-range bombing and tactical fighter operations respectively. During its heyday, the Upper Heyford Airbase housed some of the most iconic aircraft of the Cold War era. Among these were:
1. Boeing B-47 Stratojet: This six-engine, jet-powered strategic bomber was the mainstay of the USAF's medium bomber fleet during the1950s and early1960s. Capable of carrying nuclear weapons, the B-47 played a critical role in maintaining a nuclear deterrent against the Soviet Union.
2. McDonnell F-101 Voodoo: A supersonic jet fighter, the F-101 was primarily used for reconnaissance and as an interceptor. With its impressive speed and advanced radar systems, the Voodoo was a formidable presence in the skies above Europe.
3. General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark: A versatile tactical strike aircraft, the F-111 was capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons. Its variable-sweep wing design allowed it to excel in both high-speed, low-level penetration missions, and long-range interdiction roles.
As the Cold War came to an end, so too did the need for such a significant military presence in Europe. The Upper Heyford Airbase was eventually closed in 1994, and much of its infrastructure has since fallen into disrepair. However, the base remains an important historical site, with its crumbling hangars and control towers standing as silent witnesses to a bygone era. As a photographer, I am drawn to the eerie beauty of these decaying structures, which serve as a poignant reminder of the tensions that once gripped the world. Through my lens, I hope to capture not only the physical remnants of the Upper Heyford Airbase but also the echoes of the past that still resonate within its walls.
One of the multiple abandoned bunkers
Internal entrance to the command centre
Inside of one of the abandoned buildings
The hangers at Upper Heyford are colossal structures, built to house a variety of aircraft during the height of the Cold War. As I wandered through these empty giants, I couldn't help but imagine the sounds of engines roaring to life and the buzz of activity that once filled these spaces. The peeling paint and rusted beams tell a story of decay, but the grandeur of the architecture remains.
Hanger doors are still operational on this hanger
QRA hanger that one housed F-111 aircraft
The QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) or Victoria Alert Hardened Aircraft Shelter complex was one of five distinct areas of protection at the former Upper Heyford Airbase1. The planes inside the nine aircraft shelters in the QRA, and the staff supporting them, were in perpetual readiness, engines running 24 hours a day in case a Soviet attack occurred2. This extra secure enclosure, on an already secure airfield site, had a double perimeter, razor-wire fence around it and a watchtower at its heart.
QRA Hanger and watchtower
Double fenced no mans land encircling the QRA area
Reverse view of entrance to QRA area
Nuclear Weapons Store:
Perhaps the most intriguing part of my visit was exploring the nuclear weapons stores. These highly secure facilities once housed some of the world's most dangerous weapons. The eerie silence and emptiness of these structures were both chilling and captivating. The United States Air Force began to operate nuclear bombers at Upper Heyford in the 1950s and it is during this phase that the Northern Bomb Stores were built. These consisted of four individual concrete mounded `Igloo’ stores built within a double fenced enclosure1. As more specialized nuclear weapons and delivery systems were developed, the storage needs changed and a further double fenced Special Weapons Storage Area was built immediately to the west. This included a guardhouse and pillbox controlled entrance and a set of two rows of a total of twenty-one Igloo cells for storing weapons1.
Outside of Nuclear trigger storage room
Blast door of Nuclear trigger storage room
Conclusion: My photographic journey through Upper Heyford airbase was a haunting experience, as I captured the ghosts of the past that linger within its abandoned structures. There is even a ghost story attached to one of the perimeter guard towers!
The base may no longer be in operation, but its history and stories will forever be preserved through these images. I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into a forgotten world and that it inspires you to explore the hidden stories that lie within the abandoned places around us.
Haunted Guard Tower