Bentwaters airfield's origin dates to 1942 when construction began on a Royal Air Force station called Royal Air Force Butley for use by RAF Bomber Command. On 28 January 1943 the station was renamed Royal Air Force Bentwaters. It was opened for operational use in April 1944. In December it was transferred to No. 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command . During the Second World War, RAF squadrons at Bentwaters were:No. 64 Squadron RAF between 29 December 1944 and 15 August 1945 with North American Mustang III moved to RAF Horsham St Faith.
No. 65 Squadron RAF between 15 May 1945 and 13 August 1945 with Mustang IV moved to RAF Fairwood Common.
No. 118 Squadron RAF between 15 December 1944 and 11 August 1945 with re-equipped Mustang III moved to RAF Fairwood Common.
No. 126 Squadron RAF between 30 December 1944 and 5 September 1945 with Mustang III then upgrading to Mustang IV in August 1945.
No. 129 Squadron RAF between 11 December 1944 and 26 May 1945 with Mustang III, swapping to Supermarine Spitfire IXE in May 1945.
No. 165 Squadron RAF between 15 December 1944 and 29 May 1945 with Mustang III until May 1945 then the Spitfire IXE.
No. 234 Squadron RAF.
No. 245 Squadron RAF.
Two other units were also based at Bentwaters, these were No. 226 Operational Conversion Unit RAF and No. 7 Fighter Command Servicing Unit.
In addition to its RAF use, United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) fighters flew escort missions for RAF Bomber Command from Bentwaters beginning on 4 May 1945. The USAAF designation for Bentwaters was AAF Station 151.
During the postwar years, the RAF retained Bentwaters for flying various aircraft, including first-generation jet aircraft. before finally closing the facility on 26 August 1949 when it was placed into 'care and maintenance' status.
The squadrons were:No. 56 Squadron RAF reformed here on 1 April 1946 and stayed until 16 September 1946 with the Gloster Meteor F.3 moving to RAF Boxted.
No. 74 Squadron RAF between 2 June 1946 and 9 June 1945 with Meteor F.3s moved to RAF Colerne.
No. 124 Squadron RAF between 5 October 1945 and 18 February 1946 with Meteor F.3s moving to RAF Fairwood Common. The squadron returned on 20 March 1946 and stayed until 1 April 1946 still with the Meteor F.3 before being renamed 56 Squadron.
No. 2707 Squadron RAF Regiment.
No. 2791 Squadron RAF Regiment.
No. 2839 Squadron RAF Regiment.
Control of Bentwaters was transferred to the United States Air Force on 16 March 1951 by the Ministry of Defence, and the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) designated it a primary installation of HQ USAFE on 7 September 1951. Bentwaters was to play a key role in the defence of Western Europe during the Cold War when large numbers of USAF aircraft were assigned as part of the air arm of NATO.
On 16 March 1951, the USAF 7506th Air Support Group was assigned to Bentwaters. Their mission was to bring the facility up to NATO standards. During most of 1951 and 1952 USAF construction upgraded the operational facilities, as well as the construction of support facilities. Early USAF units at Bentwaters were as follows:9th Air Rescue Squadron (July 1951 – November 1952) (Boeing SB-29 'Super Dumbo'). This unit flew air-sea rescue missions with aging B-29 aircraft adapted to drop airborne lifeboats. It received its nickname from earlier "Dumbo" missions that picked airmen up when they crashed at sea. The unit departed in November 1952 for RAF Burtonwood.
7554th Target Tow Flight (March – December 1952) (Stinson L-5E, Douglas TB-26C). This unit flew aerial targets for gunnery practice by NATO aircraft.
The 81st Fighter-Interceptor Wing became the new host unit at Bentwaters in September 1951. The 81st, in various designations, remained at RAF Bentwaters for over 40 years during the Cold War era. The 81st FIW was a North American F-86A "Sabre" equipped unit, being activated at Moses Lake AFB, Washington in May 1950. In August 1951 the 81st flew initially into RAF Shepherds Grove, then in September transferred its headquarters to RAF Bentwaters.
The 81st FIW's operational squadrons were:91st Fighter-Interceptor (Blue)
92nd Fighter-Interceptor (Yellow)
116th Fighter-Interceptor (Red)
Markings of the 81st FIW's F-86s consisted of a blue vertical stabilizer with three yellow lighting flashes, with the squadron colour painted with a lightning flash along the fuselage.
The 116th FIS was an activated Washington Air National Guard squadron that remained at Shepherds Grove while assigned to the 81st. In November 1952 when the squadron was returned to state control, it was redesignated the 78th Fighter-Interceptor squadron.
The 78th FIS moved to RAF Sculthorpe in May 1956. The 78th briefly returned to Shepherds Grove in May 1957 before being reassigned to RAF Woodbridge in December 1958 when the USAF returned Shepherds Grove to the Ministry of Defence.
The mission of the 81st FIW was to provide air defence of the United Kingdom. It performed this mission jointly with the RAF, working with No. 11 Group RAF Fighter Command. The wing was the first unit of F-86's assigned to NATO and the first foreign air unit to participate in the peacetime air defence of the United Kingdom.
In October 1954 the mission of the 81st changed from fighter-interceptor to fighter-bomber operations, carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons. The wing was charged with tactical operations in support of USAFE and NATO, with air defence as a secondary mission. To reflect this change, the unit was redesignated the 81st Fighter-Bomber Wing and traded in its F-86s for the Republic F-84F "Thunderstreak".
On 8 July 1958 Bentwaters was operated as "twin base" with RAF Woodbridge and as a single unit under the newly designated 81st Tactical Fighter Wing. Along with the 91st and 92nd squadrons, the 78th Tactical Fighter Squadron was transferred from RAF Shepherds Grove when the USAF returned Shepherds Grove to the Ministry of Defence (MOD). The 78th TFS operated from Woodbrige, while the 91st and 92nd squadrons operated from Bentwaters.
Beginning in the Autumn of 1958, the 81st TFW was requipped with the McDonnell F-101A/C "Voodoo". The F-101 was configured as a fighter bomber, intended to carry a single nuclear weapon for use against battlefield targets such as airfields. The Voodos were equipped with Low Angle Drogued Delivery (LADD) and Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS) equipment for its primary mission of delivering nuclear weapons at extremely low altitudes. Pilots were trained for one-way missions into Soviet territory to increase effective range at some cost in negating pilot recovery.
In November 1965 the 81st received McDonnell F-4 Phantom II's to replace the Voodoos. The Bentwaters based 91st and 92nd squadrons flew the F-4C, and later the Woodbridge based 78th squadron was upgraded to the more capable F-4D during late 1972 and 1973. About 1970, two-letter Tail Codes were used initially for squadron identification. The tail codes for the 81st TFW F-4s were:78th Tactical Fighter - WR (Red tail stripe)
91st Tactical Fighter - WS (Blue tail stripe)
92nd Tactical Fighter - WT (Yellow tail stripe)
In 1972, squadron tail codes were abolished, and a standard "WR" was used for all aircraft assigned to the 81st TFW.
The 81st began conversion to the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II in June 1979. The A-10 being a single-seat, twin-engine jet aircraft designed to provide close air support (CAS) of ground forces by attacking tanks, armoured vehicles, and other ground targets. With the A-10, the wing's mission changed to close air support and battlefield air interdiction in support of NATO ground forces.
It was decided to expand the 81st with six A-10 squadrons distributed over both Woodbridge and Bentwaters as follows:78th Tactical Fighter (Woodbridge)
(Received A-10s 3 June 1979)
91st Tactical Fighter (Woodbridge)
(Received A-10s 24 August 1979)
92nd Tactical Fighter (Bentwaters)
(Received A-10s 25 June 1979)
509th Tactical Fighter (Activated 1 October 1979) (Bentwaters) (Grey tail stripe)
(Received A-10s 1 October 1979)
510th Tactical Fighter (Activated 1 October 1978) (Bentwaters) (Purple tail stripe)
(Received A-10s 1 October 1979)
511th Tactical Fighter (Activated 1 January 1980) (Bentwaters) (Black tail stripe)
(Received A-10s 1 January 1980)
This arrangement continued until June 1988 when the 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at RAF Alconbury became a Tactical Fighter Wing, and the 509th and 511th were transferred there on 1 June and 1 September, respectively.
With the transfer of the A-10s to Alconbury, the 527th Aggressor Squadron was transferred to Bentwaters. The mission of the 527th was to provide dissimiar air combat training for NATO pilots, using Soviet tactics. They flew the Northop F-5 Freedom Fighter's at Alconbury, however after 12 years of intense flying, by 1988 the fleet of aggressor F-5Es was getting rather worn out as a result of sustained exposure to the rigours of air combat manoeuvring. It was decided to re-equip the squadron with General Dynamics F-16C Fighting Falcons when the squadron was assigned to Bentwaters.
The 527th AS flew its last F-5E sortie from Alconbury on 22 June 1988. On 14 July 1988 the squadron was transferred, transitioning to F-16Cs by mid-January 1989 at Bentwaters. However, in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the decision was made to terminate the entire USAF aggressor program. The 527th AS was inactivated on 30 September 1990.
An A-10 forward operating location was established at Sembach Air Base West Germany on 1 September 1978 when Det. 1, 81st Tactical Fighter Wing was activated. Revetments and a dozen hardened aircraft shelters were built and A-10A Single-seat forward air control versions began operations at Sembach during May 1979. Additional detachments were subsequently established at Leipheim, Alhorn and Norvenich Air Bases in West Germany and at two additional unmanned reserve Forward Operating locations which remain classified; one in the north of Germany and one in the south, both in rear of the other four named bases/airfields. A-10's and support resources routinely rotated to these Forward Operating Locations from RAF Bentwaters for training and Tactical Evaluations. The C-130 rotating to the detachments was affectionately called "The Klong". In the event of war in the 1980s, the Bentwater A-10's were to fight from Germany, and Bentwaters would host F-16's from Nellis AFB and from Myrtle Beach AFB, South Carolina.
With the end of the Cold War, the USAF presence at Bentwaters was gradually phased down. It was announced that the station would be closed and the 81st TFW would be deactivated. The Bentwaters-based squadrons were phased-down as follows:510th Tactical Fighter Squadron was transferred to the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base Germany on 4 January 1993. On 1 February 1994 it was inactivated at Spangdahlem, but it was reactivated on 23 March 1994 as a Block 40 F-16C/D squadron at Aviano Air Base Italy.
92nd Tactical Fighter Squadron was inactivated on 31 March 1993. Its aircraft were sent back to the United States to various Air National Guard squadrons.
The last A-10 aircraft departed Bentwaters on 23 March 1993, and the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing was inactivated on 1 July 1993. With the inactivation, the USAF returned control of Bentwaters to the Ministry of Defence.
Currently, Bentwaters airfield is inactive as a military facility.
With the handover of Bentwaters back to the UK Ministry of Defence in 1993, the facility was closed. It is now known as "Bentwaters Parks".
In 2003, work commenced on the Bentwaters Cold War Museum (BCWM). The museum opened on Sunday 27 May 2007. The museum is located in the former USAF hardened command post, believed to be the only such building open to the public in the UK. The main "war operations room" and "Battle cabin" have been restored to their original condition; the BT telephone exchange room, decontamination showers, and airlock have been similarly restored. Other rooms within the building have been turned into exhibition rooms, covering the history of RAF Bentwaters from the Second World War until the station closed in 1993.
Included in this are histories of the units that operated from the airfield, particularly the 81 TFW. Another room is dedicated to the history of the other airfield which was part of the "twin base" complex, RAF Woodbridge, again covering the period from the Second World War until the present day. Other exhibition rooms featuring information on the "Special Operations/Rescue Squadrons" that were based at RAF Woodbridge, and also the "Aggressor" Squadron based at Bentwaters.
The museum is run by volunteers from Bentwaters Aviation Society.
In 2001 many of the missions in the paintballing game show X-Fire took place in and around the facilities at Bentwaters.
Later series of Channel 4's consumer motoring programme Driven were based in one of the hangars.
In 2005 Bentwaters was used for the Space Cadets TV programme, where it played the part of a fake Russian space training and launch base.
In 2008 an episode of the History Channel's UFO Hunters entitled "Military vs. UFOs", was aired. The episode focused on RAF Bentwaters' 1956 and 1980 UFO incidents.
It is the site used for the BBC television programme "Dog Borstal", and more recently for some "Top Gear" stunts.
The site is also used for the Dave television programme "Driving Wars".
The site was recently used for the filming of Fast & Furious 6
In August 2012 it was used as the set for Derren Brown's "Apocalypse" episodes.
RAF Bentwaters was also one of the main filming sites for the 2013 movie The Numbers Station.
In June 2014 the station was used a wedding venue by the BBC for Don't Tell The Bride.
In 2016 the station was used in an episode of Amazon's The Grand Tour.