RAF Benson is located in the most genteel of countryside surroundings, around 9 miles South-East of Oxford, 12 miles North-West of Reading. Famous as the home of the RAF's Photographic Reconnaissance Unit during WWII, these days Benson no longer has anything to do with reconnaissance and is instead primarily a helicopter base.
|EGUB||01491 827245||RAF Benson|
|Chiltern Air Support Unit|
|Thames Valley & Chiltern Air Ambulance|
Home to the the Pumas of 33 and 230 Squadrons, Chinooks of 28 Squadron, plus the Tutors of Oxford UAS and 6 AEF, and the Thames Valley EC.135 'copper chopper' and air ambulance, activity levels are not fantastically high and even where there is flying, it is not the most rewarding station for photo opportunities. While the Tutors of course use the runways, helicopters tend to line up on them initially but then hover-taxi to the main ramp as soon as they can - so the North-East corner of the station is the busiest. Unfortunately it's also the least-viewable part! Occasional graduation ceremonies are held that involve flypasts or displays from visiting types and there is of course an annual Families Day that usually has an air display element to it. Since the transfer of the RAF's Merlins to 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons, these types are no longer a common sight at Benson, being based down at Yeovilton instead.
Activity is mostly during office hours on weekdays though the AEF Tutors do fly at weekends and the police/air ambulance helicopters may fly at any time.
Assuming you're arriving on the A4074 from Oxford or Reading, your first stop will be Benson's most popular viewing location. St. Helen's Lane/Old London Road leads down to a crash gate on the Western side of the station (A) and this offers an excellent panoramic view of RAF Benson. Sadly everything is too far away for good photos (and into the sun for much of the day), but spotters should be happy with their ability to read off serials from anything using the runways. Helicopters parked on the main ramp will probably be too distant to read off - small black serials on dark green helos don't help!
Leaving this spot, take a short drive back down St. Helen's Lane and turn left on to the A4074. Take the first left after this into a rough lane leading up to the perimeter fence (B). Mind out for broken glass and rubbish dumped in this lane though - you may be better off parking at the A4074 end. Incidentally, this lane used to connect with the Old London Road you visited earlier - before somebody built a runway nearby! Anyway, at the far end of the lane a short walk along the edge of the field to your right to point C gives you good side-on views to the runway (at least 400mm lens really required though), plus the chance to peer into the nearest hangar, opposite you on the other side of the runway. Sadly the sun is still in your face here for much of the morning and early afternoon.
Back to the car and back onto the A4074, turning left again. You'll soon reach a roundabout. Take the first left and shortly after this minor road turns to the right you'll see a small layby and outer marker building on your left (D). You're safe enough parking here, don't go past the wooden fence though. You're now dead on the extended centreline of runway 01 so approaching aircraft will fly directly overhead.
If you want a photo of the gate guard (a replica Spitfire in PRU colours), continue along this road, turn left, then left again and follow the road into the camp. The main gate is on your left (E) - do ask permission to take a photo though. As you continue past the main gate there are intermittent views of the main ramp (e.g. F), no good for photos because of various buildings and other clutter (plus the huge fence), and you cannot stop anywhere along here. Parking elsewhere and returning on foot would be advisable if you really want to read off that elusive serial, though I imagine even that may attract some attention.
Anyway, continuing on, ignore the first turning on the left - while the road down there is closer to the runway end, the lie of the land means you won't see much. Instead take the second left to point G. The land rises up North of the station, so you're higher up here and have a chance of more of a view of the station. For a similar spot on the approach to runway 19, continue down here, turn right, then left and watch out for the approach lights on your left (H). There are very few places you can pull over here, so it may be best to park in the next road on your left (e.g. I), and return to the approach light area on foot.
One final spot (J) offers an excellent view over the end of the runway, but you can't park here - it's residents-only parking and I have little doubt somebody would be out to complain if you tried leaving your car here for any length of time. You could easily park back in the village further West (South-West of point I) and walk or cycle back to this point though, and have a view through the fence of the airfield. A small step ladder may be of use for photos of anything actually touching down on the runway at this point.
That's it for Benson - a bit frustrating due to the combination of the lie of the land and the approach patterns of the based helicopters.
Benson seems fairly spotter friendly though I haven't tested the patience of anybody here long enough to say for sure!
Petrol and shops available in nearby Wallingford or along the A4074, a few shops in Benson village too.
Martin-Baker's airfield at Chalgrove is around 15 minutes' drive away to the North, via the backroads to Berrick Salome initially, then follow signs for Chalgrove.
Contributors: Pat Carty, Merv Thomas, author, Fighter Control forum.