Prestwick has not only been invaluable in supporting Ukraine, but by acting as a temporary base during a recent period of extreme heat, the airport has also allowed military tanker aircraft to keep British and allied jets in the skies over Europe.
Of course, Glasgow Prestwick Airport isn’t an air base, but the last few months have seen almost daily flights from all over the NATO alliance. For those unfamiliar with the facility, the airstrip lies 29 miles southwest of Glasgow and is known chiefly for crowds of tourists heading to Tenerife.
Part of its appeal to aviation is that the airport has one of the best weather records in Europe owing to its position on the coast, making the likes of fog or mist rare. As a result, the airport often remains open when other airports around the country are closed due to poor weather.
The airport now has a new purpose
The airfield initially served as the transatlantic gateway to Scotland after the Second World War, but its popularity declined as passenger services transferred to Glasgow International Airport. However, Prestwick remains a hub for freight, holiday charter, and budget flights.
Although, it wasn’t always smooth flying. The airport endured some turbulence last decade when in 2012, then airport owner Infratil reported annual losses of £2mn, announcing that it planned to sell off or close the airfield. However, the airport remained unsold until 2013, when the Scottish Government announced it was hoping to take the airport back into public ownership — subsequently buying it in November 2013 for £1.
Massive international airlift effort underway
Since November 2013, the airport has been busy signing service contracts with the United States military and other allied forces. In addition, the airport remains a critical stopover site for American, Canadian and even Australian aircraft en route to other destinations in Europe and the Middle East.
To this end, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 436 Transport Squadron recently set up a temporary base at Prestwick with other NATO members co-ordinating flights in and out of the airport as part of the efforts to supply NATO forces on the continent as well as ship arms to Ukraine. A spokesperson for the Government of Canada’s Department of National Defence previously confirmed that Canada was using the base to move aid to Ukraine:
“On February 27, 2022, the Government of Canada announced the deployment of two C-130J Hercules tactical airlift aircraft, along with an air detachment of 40-50 CAF personnel, to contribute to allied and partner efforts in Europe. These aircraft, which operate out of Prestwick, have been transporting aid destined for Ukraine from within Europe.”
Charity flights of food and medical supplies leave Prestwick for Ukraine
It’s not just military aircraft using the airport to help Ukraine, with flights arriving to pick up various supplies. American charity ‘Samaritan’s Purse’ also flies a DC-8 cargo aircraft in and out of the airport every few days. According to their website, the group has set up an emergency field hospital and three medical clinics in Lviv and southern Ukraine.
“Samaritan’s Purse is providing food and non-food items to suffering families in Ukraine while airlifting medical supplies into the country as fighting rages on”, adding on their website, “We have distributed nearly 17,000 metric tons of food within Ukraine in partnership with the local church. Our water systems and newly constructed freshwater wells have provided more than 6 million litres of water to Ukrainians.”
Helping NATO keep their jets in the air
During the recent heatwave, Royal Air Force (RAF) Voyager tanker aircraft were flying from their temporary home at Prestwick to conduct air refuelling tasks over Eastern Europe as part of Western efforts to bolster the defence of NATO member states in the region.
The Voyager tankers were operating from Glasgow Prestwick Airport as a precautionary measure due to the extreme heat experienced in July 2022. The heat was so intense that it forced the closure of the runway at their home base of RAF Brize Norton.
The RAF told me in a statement: “During this period of extreme temperature, flight safety remains the RAF’s top priority, so aircraft are using alternative airfields in line with a long-established plan. This means there is no impact on RAF operations.”
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This closure came amid reports in the media that the runway at the base had “melted”, but that wasn’t entirely accurate. A contact at the facility told me that the runway hadn’t melted. He said, “The runway itself has not ‘melted’ as is being reported, as far as all of us on the station have been told. Rather, the decision to disperse assets of the Air Mobility Force appears to be an attempt to avoid a repeat incident of what happened last year.”
Last year, Brize Norton’s runway was closed while repairs necessitated by “recent extreme hot weather” were carried out. The wheel of a Voyager tanker was damaged when its tyre picked up melted tar from the Oxfordshire station’s runway, which is obviously not an ideal situation to operate aircraft in.
Having Prestwick in a cooler, more northerly location has once again saved the day for the armed forces. You’d be forgiven for thinking Prestwick was an airbase. The airport, often cited as a waste of money by opponents of the Scottish Government, has proven its worth.
Glasgow Prestwick Airport, once just a busy regional airport filled with thousands of holidaymakers heading to the Mediterranean, is now effectively a bustling NATO air base helping to defend Europe from Russian aggression. Not a bad deal for £1.
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