Mon 28 July 2014

Airfield History
VGS History

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Unit History

VGSs formed as Gliding Schools for Home Command back in the early 1940s, with some Units now reaching their 60th Anniversaries. 637 VGS was one of the last Units to be formed and in 2006 celebrated its 40th Anniversary.

The Unit's Crest was redesigned in 2005 after the Unit's change of name, but bares the same Motto and emblem as its predecessor. The Crest pictures a Red Pelican situated on top of a Hill with a cloud at its base. The symbolic reference of the Red Pelican reflects the Unit's association with RAF Little Rissington as the Home of the Central Flying School. The Cloud on top of the Hill reflects the frequent orographic cloud that accumulates over RAF Little Rissington in moist South Westerly airflows! The Motto 'Classis Summus' is loosely translated as 'Top of the Fleet'

The Unit's 12 Chapter Tale!

  1. In the beginning
  2. Years of Growth
  3. Troublesome Years
  4. A New Home
  5. An interesting site for Gliding
  6. The conversion to powered aircraft
  7. Operation Desert Storm
  8. Troublesome Years - revisit
  9. A degree of noise
  10. A trial for a new home
  11. A New Hope
  12. Today

In the beginning

637 Volunteer Gliding Squadron (637 VGS) was first established as No. 637 Gliding School (637 GS), and was formed in the March of 1966 at Royal Air Force Gaydon. A former V-Bomber Station, Royal Air Force Gaydon was the home of No 2 Air Navigation School operating the Varsity and Valetta Aircraft from a single 9000ft long runway, 06/24.

The original staff of 637 GS comprised a Flight Lieutenant A-Category Instructor - ex 632 GS, a Civilian C-Category Instructor - ex 633 GS and a Civilian 'Grade 2' Pilot, also ex 633 GS. Newly recruited staff comprised three Squadron Officers from the Air Training i Corps and numerous civilians, some with gliding experience and others with just a few hours powered flying.

637 GS was established as a single-line Gliding School, operating the wood and fabric covered open-cockpit Gliders, the Sedbergh TX.1 and Kirby Cadet TX.3. The School's fleet comprised one Sedbergh TX.1 (WB960) and two Kirby Cadet TX.3's (M870 and XE807). Ground equipment comprised one Eagle Winch and one Land-Rover.

The first operational day was on April 2nd, 1966. The weather, within Gliding Order Book limits, was not for the faint­hearted. The majority of the Staff having no issued flying clothing, let alone cold weather gear. The weather forecast for the day read:

Wind Velocity, 060/12-15kts; Visibility 3 nautical miles, Intermittent 1.5 nautical miles; Continuous drizzle, intermittent Sleet/Snow; Cloud 5/8 at 800 feet, 8/8 at 1200 feet'.

The Officer Commanding (OC) 637 GS, Flight Lieutenant Les Stockdale and Group Captain Knight (Station Commander of Royal Air Force Gaydon) conducted the first flight. Group Captain Knight, en-route to a wedding, bravely took the seat in the Sedbergh TX.1 wearing his morning suit. On landing, he dusted the snow from his suit, gave the Gliding School his good wishes and proceeded on his way!

The tasking for the first 12 months was planned for Staff Training only. However, after just three months 637 GS with an A2-Instructor and a few C-Category Instructors, commenced training with Air Cadets. The first Cadet to achieve solo with the 'Cadet Proficiency' wings was a Cadet A Davies.

At the end of the first full year of Air Cadet training, 637 GS came top of the Air Cadet Gliding league. Remaining in place for a second year, the Gliding School won the 'Jack Oliver' award for 'Outstanding Achievement'.

Years of Growth

637 GS subsequently became a two-line Gliding School in 1968, operating two Sedbergh TX.1s and three Kirby Cadet TX.3s, two Eagle Winches, two Land-Rovers and a one-ton Bedford truck. The 9000 feet of runway at Royal Air Force Gaydon enabled the School to operate two gliding lines in tandem, one operating the two Sedbergh TX.1s for air experience gliding, and the second operating the three Kirby Cadet TX.3s for 'Gliding Proficiency' training.

In addition to the Sedbergh TX.1s and Kirby Cadet TX.3s, Gliding School Staff were able to fly in the open-cockpit single-seat Kirby Prefect TX and the enclosed Slingsby Swallow TX(at the time the only high-performance glider in the Air Cadet Organisation).

Royal Air Force Gaydon was the home to many Air Shows in the 1960's, and 637GS regularly appeared in the line-up alongside such aircraft as the English Electric Lighting, Vulcan, Victor and the Gnats of Red Arrows from Royal Air Force Little Rissington. The duty of the aerobatic display, usually in the Kirby Prefect TX, fell to the Gliding School's Chief Flying Instructor (CFI) - then Flying Officer Alan Skitt.

Troublesome Years

In 1972, No.2 Air Navigation School moved out of Royal Air Force Gaydon and with that the cessation of operational Royal Air Force flying. Royal Air Force Gaydon closed shortly after, although 637 GS continued to operate out of the airfield sharing the site with a parascending club, two radio-controlled aircraft clubs and various motorcycle clubs. Although the prime user, 637 GS was severely restricted. The tandem operations could no longer continue and the Gliding School had to operate launching from the wide concrete perimeter track, landing on the parallel runway or grass area between the two. The vacant technical site of the Station became a large refugee centre, housing the refuges in the exodus of Asians from Uganda under the tyrannical regime of President Ide Amin.

In 1975, the Defence Estates Organisation, at the time the PSA, leased aerodrome land back to the original farmers pending a decision to its future. 637 GS became further restricted to two grass areas and the south western half of the runway, which was bounded by electric fences to keep the sheep and cattle from straying across the flight line.

Flight Lieutenant Jim Morrow became the OC 637 GS in February 1975 when Flight Lieutenant Les Stockdale retired. The CFI became Flight Lieutenant W (Bill) Jones, a former WW2 ATS Spitfire and Hurricane Pilot.

In 1977, the future of Royal Air Force Gaydon was decided, and the aerodrome was sold for the development of a multi-purpose car testing ground. With this, 637 GS had to relocate.

The eleven years at Royal Air Force Gaydon was a successful, safe and enjoyable period for 637 GS. Two accidents occurred in the period with thankfully no injuries or fatalities. The first was a Sedbergh TX.1, which crashed during launch whist being flown solo by a Flight Staff Cadet under training. This was because a two-seat Spitfire had flown low across the launch line and Winch Driver had no option but to guillotine the cable to avoid a collision. The second accident had been a Kirby Cadet TX.3 in a collision with an airfield ILS aerial.

A New Home

In November 1977, 637 GS moved to the once hallowed ground at Royal Air Force Little Rissington, the recently vacated home of the Royal Air Force Central Flying School and the Red Arrows.

Occupying one of the Type-C Hangars on the front line, the first operational flight for 637 GS at Little Rissington was made on November the 5th 1977. The flight was flown by Flight Lieutenant Ian Ladley, an instructor from the Central Gliding School and Flight Lieutenant Jim Morrow in a Kirby Cadet TX.3 (WT871). It was appropriate that Ian Ladley was there to conduct this first flight. During his professional career, Ian had been both a Pupil and an Instructor at the Royal Air Force Central Flying School stationed at Royal Air Force Little Rissington.

Shortly after 637 GS commenced operations at Royal Air Force Little Rissington, the Station became the home of the Royal Irish Rangers and Royal Air Force Little Rissington was renamed Imjin Barracks. In 1979 the Royal Irish Rangers vacated Little Rissington, but during 1981 were replaced by the United States Air Force in Europe, when the Station was again renamed Royal Air Force Little Rissington. Under USAF(E), Royal Air Force Little Rissington become the largest military contingency hospital in Europe.

In 1982, 637GS renamed 637 Volunteer Gliding School (637 VGS). During this same year, the VGS was forced to vacate its Hangar and Office accommodation, to make way for the conversion of the buildings into hospital wards and operating theatres. 637 VGS was internally relocated to the Station's southern technical sites, residing in a vacant E-Type (Lamella) Hangar. In addition to this, 637 VGS took over the Air Traffic Control Tower for its Office accommodation.

An interesting site for Gliding

Royal Air Force Little Rissington proved to be an interesting site and area for winch launched gliding operations. At some 730 feet above sea level, Royal Air Force Little Rissington is the highest paved aerodrome in the United Kingdom. With its domed shape, gliders situated at the launch point were not visible from the Winch. Initially launch signals had to be made via a remote controller on the crest of the dome. This was eventually dispensed with, when a large periscope was constructed and erected on top of the launch point control caravan. Additionally, signal lights were erected on top of this to indicate launch instructions to the winch driver. However, the winch driver still had to launched blind for the first stage of the launch.

As well as its height above sea level, and shape, Royal Air Force Little Rissington sits on top of a hill with deep valleys on three sides. This gave the site benefits from; rising air, generating hill lift, from afternoon and evening thermic activity from the steep sun-facing south-western slopes and from wave conditions when the wind is from the north westerly direction. However this left the significant drawback that orographic cloud regularly forms over the airfield whenever a moist south-westerly airflow exists.

The Staff of 637 VGS proved to be a hardy lot, with winter temperatures often plummeting to levels well below freezing and snow when everywhere else was enjoying sunshine. These became good years for the VGS, with buoyant Staff numbers and high morale. Achievement remained excellent with many Flight Staff Cadets going on to join the regular Royal Air Force as aircrew. They still visit 637 VGS occasionally, along with former CFS instructors wishing to see the remains of Royal Air Force Little Rissington.

In 1978, Flight Lieutenant John Peace became the OC 637VGS.

The conversion to powered aircraft

In June 1981, 637 VGS converted to the Venture TX Mk1 and later the Venture TX.2. The Venture was military Training Mark 2 version of the Slingsby T61 Motor Glider. Royal Air Force Little Rissington proved to be an excellent site for motor glider operations, enhanced by the three asphalt runways. The USAF(E) also proved to be good neighbours, supporting the aims of the Air Cadet Organisation. With the aerodrome initially falling outside their operational requirements, the VGS's operations were uninhibited. And in 1986, Squadron Leader Gordon Gill became the OC 637 VGS.

With Royal Air Force Little Rissington's facilities, Motor Glider operations started to grow. 612 VGS detached from Royal Air Force Little Benson to work along side 637 VGS for a period, and 663 VGS (from Royal Air Force Kinloss) also detached to joined 637 VGS. In addition to this, 612 VGS also ran concurrent continuous courses in the summer of 1984.

In October 1990, 637 VGS converted to the current Vigilant T Mk1, initially operating four aircraft; ZH146, ZH147, ZH148 and ZH197 in the TX role.

Operation Desert Storm

In January 1991, Royal Air Force Little Rissington became an area of considerable activity, with the contingency hospital rapidly preparing itself for the Gulf War.

The sports field, until then a venue for regular American football games, were covered with temporary portacabin buildings. Two and three storeys high, beds were being made and families in the married quarters were moving out. With Medics moving in rapidly, the Station personnel increased in number from 33 to 2,500 as the USAF(E) were making preparations for war. In February 1981, the USAF(E) Base Commander ordered the cessation of flying operations, to enable the aerodrome to accommodate transport aircraft with the battlefield casualties. And so, on 17th February 1991 637 VGS flew its four aircraft out of Royal Air Force Little Rissington to a temporary home at Royal Air Force Benson.

With the end of the Gulf War, the USAF(E) Base Commander authorised 637 VGS to returned to Royal Air Force Little Rissington. Flying operations recommence in May of the same year.

Troublesome Years - revisit

In June 1993, following a change in the USAF(E) Base Commander, the strong support of ACO gliding operations at Royal Air Force Little Rissington waned. The E-Type (Lamella) Hangar that 637 VGS had been using was consequently condemned by the USAF(E) Estates Department. Given just one week to vacate, the adjacent E-Type (Lamella) Hangar was offered and the aircraft were relocated. Unfortunately, the new Hangar was in a far worse condition than the previous, and was rapidly condemned. Leaving no further hangarage, the VGS had one week to vacate the second Hangar before the estates department welded the doors shut with the four Vigilant T Mk1s and three Venture TX.2s inside.

The entire VGS fleet were returned to the Air Cadet Central Gliding School (ACCGS) Engineering Flight and 637 VGS was temporarily closed. With the unfolding events that had preceded, the Station Commander at Royal Air Force Cosford offered use of his airfield to help 637 VGS resume its operations. On 28th August 1993, 637 VGS relocated to share facilities with 633 VGS.

In the following months, a drawdown of USAF(E) in the United Kingdom had commenced, after a change in Presidency of the United States of America and shift in defence policy. The contingency hospital at Royal Air Force Little Rissington closed and the Station vacated by the USAF(E). Negotiations with the Wing Commander acting as caretaker for the drawdown suggested a move back to Royal Air Force Little Rissington could be achieved.

In July 1994, 637 VGS moved back to Royal Air Force Little Rissington. The move was not to be as straight forward, as had been predicted and would eventually become a costly affair. The VGS was allocated the main-site's second-line Hangar, located behind the Type-C Hangars. This Hangar had been used for triage, and the incorporated office accommodation was lead lined to facilitate the x-ray theatres, leaving no windows. Worse still, between the hangar and the airfield was a ten foot high Security fence with a gate just wide enough to squeeze the Vigilant T Mk1 tail-plane through. The aircraft had to have the wings folded every time they moved from hangar to airfield and back. Wing folding at an airfield 730 feet above sea level, exposed and with prevailing winds of 15 to 20 knots or more, was a precarious business and it was to be a testing time for the VGS.

Water to the site was to be cut-off, electricity not guaranteed and USAF(E) had removed all fixtures and fittings so no heating would be available. The Hangar became infested with vermin, and with no light or heating 40% of the Staff left the VGS during this period. 637 VGS operated for just over a year in this state and through a long and bitterly cold winter.

In temperatures of minus 10 degrees centigrade, an ACCGS admin inspection by torchlight highlighted the need for something to be done. A coincidental visit by the Defence Lands Organisation Property Agent identified that the redundant Fire Station could be made available and the VGS quickly moved its office accommodation. Although no electricity, water or heating existed, there was daylight and the gate in the security fence was eventually widened to enable the aircraft to pass through without wing folding.

Things were beginning to look up, or so we thought. The Defence Lands Organisation then decided put the entire site of Royal Air Force Little Rissington for sale, and commenced the search for a new home.

In the catchment area for Cadets, the most suitable site was the former V-Bomber Station, formerly RAF Pershore, the home of the then DRA. Negotiations commenced and favourable signals were given. Following a site evaluation, a move looked on the cards, with accommodation and a Hangar available.

On the day contracts for the move into ex-RAF Pershore were to be signed, it became evident that security implications, resulting from the merge of DRA and the ERA into DERA, would not permit access for Cadets from the ACO. 637VGS was forced to remain at Royal Air Force Little Rissington a while longer despite the intending site disposal.

Following the disposal of the Domestic and Main Technical sites, it became evident that the immediate sale of the aerodrome and Southern Technical Sites were not immanent. Improvements started with electricity, water, and heating laid to the VGS accommodation. The VGS retained use of their Hangar until the property developers Country and Metropolitan Limited had acquired the main technical site. The VGS was evicted from the Hangar and had to temporarily house its aircraft at Royal Air Force Brize Norton, with the aircraft parked under the wings of VC10's undergoing servicing. The VGS had to commence operations by flying out from Brize Norton daily until a planned Rhubb Hangar could be constructed as a temporary measure on the Visitors' Apron at Royal Air Force Little Rissington.

637 VGS was not alone in the uncertainty of their home. The nearby JSAT Gliding Centre at Royal Air Force Bicester, was in a similar situation with the impending disposal of Royal Air Force Bicester. In 1999, talks began to see if operating alongside one another at Royal Air Force Little Rissington would be viable and, if so, retention of Royal Air Force Little Rissington's aerodrome might be an option. The talks proved positive, new operating parameters were drawn up and plans for a new 'super' Hangar were submitted for planning approval.

A degree of noise

Submitting planning applications for a new hangar raised the profile of Royal Air Force Little Rissington. A number of new residents to the area, wrongly assured by their estate agents that the aerodrome was now disused, quickly organised themselves into a lobby group and set out not only to stop the move of the JSAT Gliding Centre into Royal Air Force Little Rissington, but to also close the VGS operation as well.

Using emotion as the key trigger, the group identified that the number of movements at Royal Air Force Little Rissington would equate to a major international airport. Operations would focus on the good weather days, the weekends, the evenings, the quiet of the Cotswolds would be lost forever and tourism would be hit hard, a loss to the rural economy and a loss of jobs. And of course safety would be compromised; the local school at Great Rissington would have to close as it sat on the flight path. Planning permission for the new Hangar facilities were refused, and the Royal Air Force Gliding and Soaring Association (GSA) Trust had to move their attention to evaluating the use of the existing infrastructure at Royal Air Force Little Rissington. This left 637 VGS's future at Royal Air Force Little Rissington no longer assured.

At any opportunity the local population complained about noise from the Vigilant T Mk1, or if not noise, the fact that an aircraft passed overhead their village, even silent in the glide with engine off. No matter how many assurances were made and circuit patterns altered to avoid over flying, the complaints continued. The VGS Staff frequently had to deal with verbally abusive activists storming onto the airfield. Such were the extent of the activists, that VGS operations would frequently have to be suspended while the security breaches were dealt with.

A trial for a new home

In 2002, Royal Air Force Little Rissington was selected to film several sequences of the James Bond Movie 'Die another Day' and the new Thunderbirds Movie.

With the Airfields Disposal Review again putting Royal Air Force Little Rissington at the top of the list, a trial was scheduled at Royal Air Force Brize Norton, during the early summer of 2002 and therefore eliminating an disruptions between the flying operations and filming. This trial assessed the practicalities of operating the Vigilant T Mk1 alongside the VC10, Tristar, and C17 Transport Fleets. Flying a circuit pattern quite different from standard Air Cadet Gliding pattern, the VGS had to operate under full Air Traffic Control. Due to the Controlled Airspace, all training flights outside the circuit had to be conducted out of the Class-D Control Zone.

With Brize Norton's single runway, many weekends saw the VGS operating on the wind limits of aircraft, while others were stopped altogether due to the problems with crosswinds. Operations on Sundays would regularly cease at lunchtime when the Visual ATC stood down for lunch. Any aircraft still airborne would have to stay airborne for up to an hour until the Tower would be re-activated. The Hangar allocated to the VGS, also required wing folding the aircraft to get them in and out. Combined with the steep hill at the mouth of the Hangar this familiar turn of events from ten years previous saw the VGS's utilisation drop significantly with only one Cadet being sent solo during that entire period.

While operations were possible, a permanent move to Royal Air Force Brize Norton was not imminently viable, so 637 VGS returned to Royal Air Force Little Rissington accepting noise complaints and demonstrations on the aerodrome as normal as the orographic cloud that forms on the hill top. Due to contractual complications, the filming had only just started. The Thunderbirds Oil Rig mock-up rendered Runway 14/32 unserviceable for several months, and the influx of fake snow into the Hangar from the James Bond Ice Scene was relentlessly swept back out.

A New Hope

In 2003, the Royal Air Force GSA Trust eventually decided that the initial costs to move the JSAT Gliding Centre to Royal Air Force Little Rissington was too expensive and a more viable move to Royal Air Force Halton was preferred. The Lobby group that had caused the VGS so much aggravation consequently lost their reasons to protest and dropped their objections to the VGS's existence.

At the end of March 2005, Squadron Leader Ian Mullan became the OC 637 VGS, previously the OC 613 VGS. In September of the same year, the 'School' part of the unit's title was replaced with 'Squadron', after a decision was made by the Air Force Board. During the beginning of 2006, more investment was made to aerodrome's former Fire Station (presently HQ 637 VGS).


15 years on from the original intended sale of Royal Air Force Little Rissington, 637 VGS's home is now secured for the immediate future. The VGS HQ remains the Aerodrome Fire Station, and the Unit's aircraft is still housed in the Rhubb Hangar that arrived as a temporary measure in the mid 1990s. With the completion of several projects, the Unit received a new MT Fleet of Landrovers to support its operation, along with the HQ refurbished with new equipment.

RAF Gaydon

Gliding Era


RAF Little Rissington

Gliding Era


RAF Little Rissington Introduction to Power

637VGS - Vigilants and Ventures
637VGS - Venture Formation
637VGS - Motley Crew 1980s
637VGS - Vigilant airborne

637VGS - Ground School

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