The following information is based on information from Wikipedia (I’ll update where necessary)
The beginning: 1930s into war
During the build-up to the Second World War, the Air Ministry began constructing major airfields across the United Kingdom under what was known as the Expansion Period. RAF Little Rissington was one of these airfields.
Royal Air Force Station Little Rissington officially opened in 1938, comprising the domestic site and a grass airfield and is seen as the home of the Central flying School. Building of the station began in 1936 on top of a hill which, at 750 ft above sea level, made it the highest airfield in regular use in the country. The unusual met situations this created was food for Examanier’s questions to the would be A2 candidate over many years. The first unit to serve there was No 6 Service Flying Training School who were joined by No 8 Maintenance Unit which specialised in the preparation, storage and issue of aircraft. For a short period at the start of the war, the station supported the Accountant Officers’ School and the Equipment Training School.
In 1941 the runway was laid and as the demand for pilots increased, No 6 (Pilots) Advanced Flying Unit was formed in 1942.
During 1942, three asphalt runways were laid. Extra land was added to accommodate Sites A to E. Later in the war, the main runway 05/23 was extended northerly (later to become the main runway for instrument landings), 09/27 and 14/32 were extended easterly and south-easterly respectively.
Although the unit was disbanded three years later, it trained 5,444 pilots who collectively gained 705 awards for gallantry, including 4 Victoria Crosses. At the end of the war No 6 Flying Training School was reformed on the station and then moved to RAF Tern Hill the following year in preparation for the arrival of CFS.
Up to 1945 the station accommodated No. 6 Service Flying Training School and No. 8 Maintenance Unit. No. 8 Maintenance Unit was originally designated No. 8 Aircraft Storage Unit (ASU), however as the Second World War increased its momentum, so did the number of aircraft being stored. During the mid-1940s dispersal areas began openly storing aircraft, that had arrived straight from the manufacture. Due to security concerns, the level of security protection stepped up during the war, including the Station’s own fighter force of several Spitfires. Later in the war, various satellite airfields were used to spread out the increased number of aircraft.
The Central Flying School opened again in 1946 at RAF Little Rissington and during the severe winter of 1946 – 1947, RAF Little Rissington was cut-off from the outside world by blizzards. After two days of digging, contact was re-established with the outside world in the shape of the Old New Inn at Bourton-on-the-Water, which was to become a second home for generations of QFIs. In 1948 the CFS task was to turn out 240 QFIs per year and this was increased by the end of the year to 360. Flying took place on the Tiger Moth, Harvard, Mosquito, Lancaster, Spitfire and one hour on the Vampire was included in the course, to give some jet experience. At this time RAF South Cerney was opened for the basic phase of the CFS Course. The Empire Flying School disbanded in 1949 and the Examining Squadron rejoined CFS. In response to Government calls for further economy, South Cerney was closed for about a year, the course was shortened and type flying was limited to the Meteor. The following year the Korean War broke out, the commitment rose to 750 students per year and South Cerney was re-opened. Things don’t change much. In the early 1950s the first Chipmunks in RAF service were flown by the Oxford University Air Squadron; thereafter, the type replaced the Tiger Moth with all 17 University Air Squadrons, as well as equipping CFS and many RAF Volunteer Reserve flying schools. The RAF received a total of 735 Chipmunks which were manufactured in the UK.
In 1952 the Central Flying School Association (CFSA) was formally established. Membership of the Association is open to all past and present personnel on the posted strength of CFS and an annual reunion and dinner is held at CFS. It was at about this time that the first CFS Meteor aerobatic team began to make its name, led by Flight Lieutenant Caryl Gordon who was later to become the Duke of Edinburgh’s flying instructor.
RAF flying training became a two-stage scheme in 1953, using the Piston Provost and the Vampire and the following year RAF Little Rissington became CFS (Advanced) and RAF South Cerney became CFS (Basic). The same year the Helicopter Development Flight was formed with 2 Dragonfly helicopters at RAF Middle Wallop and later moved to RAF South Cerney. In 1954 the first RAF Jet Provost students commenced basic training. Their instructors were experienced QFIs who had been previously converted to type. The first CFS course to graduate Jet Provost QFIs was No 199 Course; they left CFS in November 1959. In the same year the CFS helicopters took the public eye when they formed part of the winning RAF team in the London-Paris Air Race. In 1960 the Central Flying School received a further honour when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother accepted the appointment of Commandant-in-Chief.
In 1962 Her Majesty received, on behalf of the School, the Cheltenham Sword when CFS was granted the Freedom of the Borough of Cheltenham, also in that year the first Gnat arrived at the school. Continuing the strong tradition of formation aerobatics at CFS, in 1964 the Red Pelicans were selected as the RAF Aerobatic Team. By 1965 the Yellow Jacks Gnat aerobatic team of RAF Valley reformed to become the Red Arrows and moved to RAF Kemble, near to Little Rissington, under the command of the Commandant. The team later became the official Royal Air Force aerobatic display team and their polished performance was recognised in 1966 by the award of the Britannia Trophy by the Royal Aero Club. For more information see “Formation Aerobatics”
Her Majesty the queen presented the Central Flying School with the Queen’s Colour in 1969, after initial resistance to the proposal within the Service had been overcome by the interest of the Commandant-in-Chief. The Commandant had the honour of meeting Her Majesty while seated in a wheelchair, having broken both ankles in an accident only a few weeks previously. The early 70s were a period of relative stability for CFS. Some innovations were made to the content of the course and the Jet Provost Mk5 arrived. The Red Arrows travelled further afield, flying to the United States of America and Canada in 1972. This was also the year that saw the formation of the Vampire and Meteor display team the ‘Vintage Pair’. In 1973 the Bulldog replaced the Chipmunk and the Jetstream replaced the Varsity in the CFS inventory, although following an accident the Jetstream was withdrawn from service for a few years. The fuel crisis resulted in the demise of the Red Pelicans and in 1974 the School lost its independent Group status and became part of 23 Group. In 1976 the long stay at RAF Little Rissington ended.
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Imjim Barracks: 1977 to 1979
After CFS’s departure, the airfield was used by the Army, and with the arrival of the Royal Irish Rangers Little Rissington became “Imjim Barracks”.
USAF(E) RAF Little Rissington: 1981 to 1993
With the arrival of the United States Air Force in Europe, Little Rissington became the largest military contingency hospital in Europe. The aerodrome was cleared for C-130 Hercules and C5 Galaxies. During the Gulf War, Little Rissington was held on its highest readiness state for several decades as it prepared for casualties. The USAF left Little Rissington in 1993 and it was handed back to the Royal Air Force.
The draw down: 1994 to 2005
Little Rissington was identified as surplus to requirements in the Government’s “Options for Change” package and the entire site was put up for sale. The domestic and main technical sites of the station were sold to a property developer and became a business park.
Revival: 2006 to present
Following a Defence Review, the planned disposal of RAF Little Rissington was stopped, and so the immediate future of the aerodrome was secured. Several buildings received some minor upgrades. At the end of 2006, an civilian aircraft maintenance firm called ‘Devonair’ moved in under an agreement with the Ministry of Defence.
Today, RAF Little Rissington remains active for elementary flying training, and aircraft maintenance. With the increasing reduction in military aerodromes, RAF Little Rissington is steadily becoming more active for military flying and ground training. Much of the original station is still almost untouched, though the control tower and several hangars have been demolished.
In 2008, RAF Little Rissington was designated a Core Site up to 2030, under the Defence Estates Development Plan 2008. While nothing has yet been confirmed, RAF Little Rissington has been looked at to support various changes:
* Satellite for RAF Brize Norton in supporting Project CATARA with C130 Hercules training and maintenance.
* Satellite for RAF Benson, to provide a relief landing ground for helicopter training, and potentially relief storage pending the future decision on the Lyneham estate.
Rumours of an underground hospital
It is a local belief that a nuclear-proof underground hospital built by the United States Air Force lies underneath RAF Little Rissington. In fact it is little more than a rumour, no such hospital exists. What did exist was a Flat Pack American Field Hospital stored in one of the hangers for about 7 years as part of the Cold War but it was never used.
However, it is widely accepted that tunnels were dug during the Second World War for the Royal Observer Corps. Whether this tunnel network was developed during the 1980s is unknown.
A bunker is attached to the Sick Ward/Medical Centre at the main technical site. It is commonly mistaken for the rumoured underground USAF(E) hospital. The ward/bunker is covered in earth for protection and to remove the need to move patients during air raids. It dates back to the station’s construction in the 1930s. Consequently it is above the surface and it is not nuclear-proof.