Following the break-up of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact in the early 1990s, it became apparent that there would have to be large-scale reductions in the strength of the armed forces. All of a sudden there was no obvious enemy and in those circumstances it was undoubtedly difficult to formulate a national defence policy let alone convince the British taxpayers that the UK military forces should continue to maintain their Cold War strengths in equipment and personnel.
'Options for Change' was a UK Government plan announced in 1990 to restructure the armed forces. As part of the RAF's 'draw down', there was great pressure to reduce support costs so that there would be minimal effect on the front line. Indeed, an RAF study entitled 'Front Line First' published in 1994 spelled that out quite clearly. Most of the RAF's money would be allocated to Strike Command. Support Command, to which the RAF Central Flying School and the Red Arrows and the other non-front-line assets then belonged, would have to make the most significant economies.
Rumours about the disbandment of the Red Arrows and the closure of their base at Scampton started to proliferate. As public relations spokesman for the CFS, the Red Arrows and Scampton as a whole, not forgetting the grave of Guy Gibson's black Labrador dog, I was kept busy fielding media enquiries. The first one to come my way about the possible closure of Scampton came from the Lincolnshire Echo, the County's daily newspaper, as early as January 1992 when they reported that:
"A rumour that RAF Scampton is to close has been denied. Squadron Leader Tony Cunnane told the Echo that every RAF station's future was being reappraised but RAF Scampton was under no more immediate threat than any other RAF station."
I was quite pleased by the way I had worded that statement; it managed to quell the rumour without telling an untruth and without actually saying anything useful. What more can a PRO, or his bosses, want?
Airfields cost a lot of money to maintain; the fastest and easiest way of saving millions of pounds in one fell swoop is to close down a whole airfield - especially if you can sell off the real estate as well. This does not mean that you must disband all the units based at the airfield: you simply redeploy them to other bases. It is not so straightforward with the civilian staff who usually do not wish to move home. The RAF's big problem with closing down one of the flying training airfields was that it would seriously reduce the runway time available for training pilots.
Student pilots have to practice lots of circuits and landings and it takes only four or five aircraft going round and round the circuit at the same time to fill any given runway to capacity. On top of that has to be added the number of more advanced students who are learning how to fly bad weather instrument approaches. An aircraft practising a typical radar circuit turns onto the runway final approach heading at eight to ten miles from touch down and if the exercise is to have maximum value the aircraft must be given priority to land at no less than about three miles from touchdown. Fitting in everyone's requirements can become a nightmare for the air traffic controllers - and for the harassed flying instructors who have to try and get as many approaches as possible into a sortie while finishing the sortie at the scheduled time.
It is for those reasons that the RAF has always made use of what are called Relief Landing Grounds. RLGs are airfields that have a decent runway but few, if any, resident aircraft. The RLG has to be within a few minutes' flying time of the main flying training school otherwise valuable time and fuel is expended in transiting between the two. In the early 90s Scampton had the use of two RLGs: the former Lightning base at Binbrook and the civil airfield at Sturgate near Gainsborough. Cranwell had the use of Barkston Heath and Fulbeck. Both Scampton and Cranwell could also use Waddington, on the southern outskirts of Lincoln. Waddington was not an RLG but training aircraft could use it on request and on an opportunity basis for circuit flying because for most of the time the airfield was not very busy. The Red Arrows did not very often use RLGs but the CFS aircraft based at, and operating from, Scampton had to make use of them, especially during the winter months when the Red Arrows used up so much of the available circuit time at Scampton.
Two other large airfields in our own Support Command, Linton-on-Ouse in north Yorkshire and Valley in Anglesey, were unlikely to be selected for closure because they were the main flying training schools and there was no obvious place for either to relocate their activities. It was, therefore, widely recognised that either Scampton or Finningley, the navigation and non-pilot aircrew training school, would have to go; most people reckoned that the axe would fall on Finningley. Accumulated wisdom within the lower ranks in the RAF was that it would be relatively easy to relocate the various units at Finningley to other bases within Support Command, but it would be well-nigh impossible to relocate all the disparate flying and non-flying units based at Scampton.