Eerie silence hangs over US bomber base: When Upper Heyford closes, only memories and a severely depleted local economy will remain. Christopher Bellamy reports

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The Independent Online
THE SILENCE, Colonel Mark Schmidt said, is deafening. 'The runway closed on 15 December . . . the engineers painted large Xs on it. The approach landing systems are turned off . . . the control tower is unoccupied. We've ceased air traffic control operations. The air space has reverted to UK control. The concrete remains.'

At its peak, the 20th Fighter Wing at the United States air base, Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, fielded 82 F-111 swing- wing bombers, poised to attack airfields and other strategic targets in Eastern Europe.

Some locals welcome the silence - as everyone welcomes the end of the Cold War, or so it is hoped despite stirrings in Russia. The closure of Upper Heyford in September will complete US plans to adapt their forces in Europe to a post-Cold War world.

But if a 'small vociferous minority' - to use Col Schmidt's words - had made noise an issue as the F-111s took off night after night over Steeple Aston and Upper Heyford, the announcement last May that the base would close silenced them. The local community is resigned to economic devastation.

In May there were nearly 8,000 people associated with the base, including 3,000 US military personnel, 4,000 dependents, 440 civilians employed by the MoD and 145 by the Americans. After the departure of the last aircraft last week there are 5,000, including 2,000 military personnel and 2,500 dependents - the civilian numbers have not yet begun to drop noticeably. But by September there will be no one there. The Americans used to spend nearly pounds 1m a month on rent and services outside the base and the value to the local economy of this huge community was many times that. 'People, their parents and grandparents worked on the base,' Col Schmidt said. 'It's lifestyle, it's more than money, more than numbers. When the last aircraft left there were tears in people's eyes.'

Down the road in the Barley Mow pub some young US servicemen had been having a farewell party, while others were enjoying a Christmas lunch. 'The closure of the base has devastated business in the immediate area,' Derek Howlin, the landlord, said. Fuller's, the brewery that owns it, has put it up for sale. 'What can you say? Not only from the business point of view but from the human one,' he said. 'Ninety per cent of our lunchtime trade is base-oriented. In the evening they tend to stay on base where they've got . . . bowling alleys, restaurants, bars. But every house in the area has a husband or son or whatever working on the base. They've all got their redundancy notices.'

The fate of the base is unknown. 'There are a lot of permutations of what could happen but nobody knows,' Mr Howlin said.

The local newspapers are full of speculation about what will happen to the base. Like other American bases recently given up - Woodbridge/Bentwaters, for example - it is of enormous potential value and it would be surprising if MoD financiers were not eyeing it for sale.

Col Schmidt understands the local dilemma but it is not his problem. He has been here six months. His mission is to close down the US operation and return the base to the British authorities in a 'usable condition'.

Compared with many RAF bases it is vast. There are rows of arched, hardened aircraft shelters, utterly and eerily deserted. There was not a single person about to give any sense of scale - just a collection of decoy aircraft with patched and broken fuselages which had been wheeled around the tarmac to confuse Russian spy satellites.

Col Schmidt came here from Incirlak, Turkey, where he controlled allied air operations over northern Iraq during the operation to protect the Kurds. Although he had not participated in Desert Storm during the Gulf war, his forces in Turkey had shot down Iraqi planes and attacked anti-aircraft sites.

Genial and open, he spent most of his career as an F-15 fighter pilot. 'They gave me about four sorties to convert to F- 111s,' he said. Just enough, he joked, to enable him to fly the last F-111 out of Upper Heyford. Many more people than expected turned up to see these ugly and formidable swing-wing bombers head for home. 'I didn't get to see it. I was in an airplane blasting off.'

Staff Master Sergeant Bill Daley, the base's historian, had particular reason to feel some emotion. 'I was here when the first two treble ones touched down. I was here when the last three went back,' he said.

His wife Pauline is English - from Upper Heyford. He met her when he was here in 1970, when the first of the new bombers arrived. After marrying and returning to the States they found themselves back in the UK in 1976. Sgt Daley is due to retire next year.

Would he be staying in Britain? 'Still thinking about it. I'd like to stay here - it's the schooling I'm worried about for my youngest son.' American children still attend a school on the base, which teaches according to the US grade system. Older children can attend an American school near by, which will continue to offer an American education, even though Upper Heyford has closed.

Back in the Barley Mow Derek Howlin was expecting a run of farewell parties.

'That's all we're getting now,' he said. 'The leaving parties. Unless, of course, some mad Russian . . .'

(Photograph omitted)