Airfield Viewing Guide - MoD Boscombe Down
A somewhat secretive airfield home to QinetiQ's varied fleet and the Empire Test Pilots School. Located South-East of Amesbury, just off the A303 in Wiltshire.
What you can expect to see
"I didn't see anything, officer". Seriously, all sorts of stuff; the QinetiQ (formerly DERA)/EPTS fleets have among them Alpha Jets, Hawks, Lynx, Apache, Merlin etc. Visitors can be just about anything in current MoD service plus various foreigners. New types entering the inventory are evaluated at Boscombe so it can be a good place to hang about at if you want to see anything not yet in squadron service.
Lightning gate guard (taken from
inside the station near point A); author
Assuming you're arriving from the A303 and coming into Amesbury, follow signs for DERA Boscombe Down. The main gate (A) is just off a small roundabout with a bus stop on the North side of the roundabout. You can park here briefly if you want to ask permission to take photos of the gate guard, which is the world's only remaining Lightning T.4, positioned further inside the station. I had no problem when I asked; others have been less lucky.
Jaguar on approach (taken from the
bridleway between points D and E); author
Driving South along the station perimeter you'll soon see hardened aircraft shelters on your left. The Northern-most one (one in from the fence) used to be home to the Boscombe Down Museum and from the fence here (B) you have limited views of anything parked in front of the HAS and the two others nearby. Photography is a no-no from outside because of both the fence and the regulations in force here, which prohibit photography. The museum were planning on erecting a fence around their area so that they can open up to the public on a regular basis; sadly Qinetiq and the MoD did not co-operate and the museum has since moved to a new home at Old Sarum airfield. From outside the perimeter fence here the view of the main ramp is poor because the road is fairly low in comparison to the ramp.
Continuing past this point you'll come to a point where the road curves right with a rough track off to the left. This track runs up past the perimeter fence and is drivable if you take it easy - and if nothing's coming the other way! The trees and bushes either side make it useless for any view onto the airfield as you go along it, plus there's a fair number of buildings just the other side of the fence to kill off any remaining views. However, as the track rises (C) the view of the main ramp is clear and you should be able to read serials using binoculars, and you have a good view of the taxiway along the side of runway 05/23 - aircraft waiting to line up on the runway can be sat here sometimes. Anyway, let's not go up this track, as the next spot is easier to reach from the main road. Continue to the junction with the A345 and turn left. Continue down the A345 and take the second turn on the left (signposted 'The Winterbournes'). After the slip-road you turn sharp left and there is room for a car or two on the roadside here (D). From here and the nearby footpath, you can get photos of aircraft on approach to runway 05, though they can be rather high. Departures are even higher. The advantage of this spot is that unlike the next one, it's not too close to the perimeter that it has the possibility of making the security bods nervous. There is a bridleway crossing the field here leading back towards the approach lights - with no gate here it is possible to drive into the field and park up in the corner, though it can be muddy. A walk along the bridleway can vary your angle on approaching aircraft.
Hawk landing (taken from point E); author
For an alternate spot to this one, go back out to the main road, turn right and take the next right - you're now at the end of the main 05/23 runway, and there is a rough layby (mind those potholes!) on the corner of the road here (E). You are below the level of the end of the runway so views onto the airfield are non-existent and departing aircraft will be rather high by the time they get this far. Approaching aircraft are a bit lower than at point D. A short walk towards the byway leading up to point C will find another open area by a crash gate - from here you can see aircraft taxiing to the runway, but you are lower than they are and their wheels are obscured by the lie of the land. The MoD police usually tolerate people parking in the rough layby at point E, but not by the crash gate. Anyway, runway 23 is more often in use (and if the incoming aircraft is on an ILS approach, it can only be on runway 23 as the others are not equipped for ILS). So, moving onward... drive further along this road to the East/North-East and you'll begin to get some view of the runway but there's nowhere you can stop and hang about without getting moved on.
Sea King on approach (taken from
South-West of point G); Roger Long
Follow the road down to Porton village and turn left onto the A338 towards Boscombe village. There is a lane leading up to the end of runway 35/17 (F); go up past the houses and you'll soon be at the perimeter fence. However runway 35 is very rarely used so there's not much point going up here. If it is in use, passable views of approaching aircraft can also be had if you park up on the A338 before you get to Boscombe (G). There's normally a number of places to park off the road. The beginning of the track going to point F is useful in you want perfect underside shots!
QinetiQ Hawk T.1 on short final
(taken from point H); author
Anyway, as 23 is more likely to be in use, keep going through Boscombe, into Allington village. Just outside the village there's a small turning to the left opposite an unusual round-shaped building - take this (Allington Track) and you'll soon see the station perimeter fence re-appear on your left. When the fence is at its closest to the road it will suddenly end, continuing to the West instead. There's lots of room for parking here (H) and you'll often find a couple of people parked up to watch any movements.
BAC TSR2 on short final (taken from
near points H and I... honest); BAE Systems
From this point you have a commanding view right down onto runway 23/05 and across much of the station. A public bridleway runs West along the fence here and offers various points (e.g. I) where you view aircraft on approach to runway 17, or read off serials from aircraft parked on the main ramp - the HAS complex is rarely used nowadays. You can't take your car down here so please don't try! For photography of aircraft on approach to runway 23 point H and the surrounding area would be excellent but there is the possibility of the MoD police getting twitchy about people doing so this close to the fence - generally they are okay but there is just the occasional day when they're not!
Andover on final approach
(780mm, taken from point J); author
On such days, 'out of sight, out of mind' seems to work well here, so moving a little can work wonders. Cross the road and you'll notice a gravel track extends into the field over here, changing to a grass track pretty soon. There's room for a few cars to park along the edge of the track if you don't want to leave your car by the station fence. This track extends along to some trees where it joins the minor road to the North (J) and from along this track you still have an excellent view of approaching aircraft, while keeping a prudent distance from the station itself. While it's not an ideal spot in that aircraft are still a bit high as they pass you here, a longer lens can give you some dramatic near head-on shots here. You're also raised up so can see over the perimeter fence. The bridleway (a former railroad) continues on this side of the road too and offers an alternative if even lower viewpoint.
Alpha Jet on final with Apaches in the distance
(550mm, taken from near point K); author
Continuing to the end of this track and turning left, you can drive to the other side of the approach - e.g. by point K there is a rough bit of ground just off the road on the left. Continue to the junction and turn left again and there is a similar parking place on the left there too. Either of these can be good for approach shots late in the day when the sun has moved to the other side of the approach, though 300mm won't be big enough for smaller aircraft.
That's about it for Boscombe Down; one of the twitchier places in the UK but it can be very rewarding (in terms of unusual sights, not good photographic spots) if you play by the rules and don't antagonise the authorities. Many people have taken photos here for years and never been bothered but I do know of at least one person who has had film confiscated from his camera after taking pictures through the fence... yes, film - that gives you an idea of how long ago that last happened! It also has to be said, most of the types pictured on this guide have either retired or about to... some up to date shots would be welcome.
Plenty of shops etc. in Amesbury, can be a bit of a sod to get parked but there are a few public car parks. The services on the A303 are probably easier to get to and park at - look out for the bizarre sculpture made out of (among other things) a Gazelle helicopter pod and boom.
Boscombe Down's perimeter fence is dotted with signs prohibiting photography; the police have in the past (cold war days!) been strict in enforcing this and CCTV cameras around the perimeter keep an eagle eye on anybody hanging around so if you point a camera into the base you could expect company pretty quick! Photography of aircraft on approach or parked within a few feet of the fence seems to be tolerated, especially if you keep your distance from the fence and in more recent years they've lightened up a lot but it's still one of the more stressed-out bases in the UK. People just sitting and watching the movements or reading off serials without a camera are rarely bothered.
The Boscombe Down Aviation Collection is now located at Old Sarum airfield, about 15 minutes drive to the South - well worth a visit!
Contributors: Roger Long, Howard Curtis, author, Roger Cook, David Tanner, Fighter Control forum.