Chilbolton Observatory is one of Hampshire’s finest abandoned airfields. During World War II it was once home to squadrons of Spitfires, Hurricanes, Mustangs, Typhoons, and Vampires.
Opened in 1940 as a satellite airfield for RAF Middle Wallop it was used by the RAF and USAAF.
After the war it was used for flight tests before being closed in 1961. Today it is the site of Chilbolton Observatory, a facility that carries out atmospheric and radio research.
The footage in the video below was taken using a DJI Phantom Vision+ quadcopter drone in June 2014. You can clearly see that the car park of today was once part of the main runway.
Today, crop marks in the fields reveal the locations of two of its three runways while in this image the runways, dispersal points, and perimeter track can clearly be seen.
In 1941, with the Battle of Britain won the previous year, the airfield was designated a Care and Maintenance facility.
1944 saw the arrival of the USAAF in the form of Spitfires and Mustangs from the Tactical Reconnaissance Squadrons of the 67th Reconnaissance Wing.
Between 1945 and 1946 it was back in the hands of the RAF. The airfield saw the arrival of several more squadrons of Hawker Tempests (a derivative of the Hawker Typhoon), Spitfires, and Mustangs.
(Note: In October 2016 at Goodwood Airfield the Hawker Typhoon RB396 Restoration was launched.)
For example, 247 Squadron’s Tempests F2 andTyphoon Ibs arrived on 20th August 1945, and departed on 7th January 1946. A few month’s later the squadron’s first de Havilland Vampire jets arrived.
When the RAF vacated in 1946 it was taken over by the Vickers Supermarine company and became the location for tests of their new aircraft which included the Supermarine Attacker, Supermarine Swift and Supermarine Scimitar.
The Folland aviation company also used it as a test area for the Folland Gnat and Folland Midge aircraft.
The airfield was also used for location shots for the 1952 David Lean film The Sound Barrier.
By 1961 all major flying operations had ceased and the site was transformed into the location for atmospheric and radio research. Civilian flying continues at the Chilbolton Flying Club grass strip.
The Chilbolton Observatory radio telescope is a prominent local landmark and it is still used as such by passing aircraft. It is on the edge of the Middle Wallop MATZ (Military Air Traffic Zone).
Look carefully at the B-17 and note how shot up it is – one engine dead, tail, horizontal stabilizer and nose shot up. It was ready to fall out of the sky. (This is a painting done by an artist from the description of both pilots many years later.) Then realize that there is a German ME-109 fighter flying next to it. Now read the story below. I think you’ll be surprised…..
Charlie Brown was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot with the 379th Bomber Group at Kimbolton, England. His B-17 was called ‘Ye Old Pub’ and was in a terrible state, having been hit by flak and fighters. The compass was damaged and they were flying deeper over enemy territory instead of heading home to Kimbolton.
After flying the B-17 over an enemy airfield, a German pilot named Franz Steigler was ordered to take off and shoot down the B-17. When he got near the B-17, he could not believe his eyes. In his words, he ‘had never seen a plane in such a bad state’. The tail and rear section was severely damaged, and the tail gunner wounded. The top gunner was all over the top of the fuselage. The nose was smashed and there were holes everywhere.
Despite having ammunition, Franz flew to the side of the B-17 and looked at Charlie Brown, the pilot. Brown was scared and struggling to control his damaged and blood-stained plane.
Aware that they had no idea where they were going, Franz waved at Charlie to turn 180 degrees. Franz escorted and guided the stricken plane to, and slightly over, the North Sea towards England. He then saluted Charlie Brown and turned away, back to Europe. When Franz landed he told the CO that the plane had been shot down over the sea, and never told the truth to anybody. Charlie Brown and the remains of his crew told all at their briefing, but were ordered never to talk about it.
More than 40 years later, Charlie Brown wanted to find the Luftwaffe pilot who saved the crew. After years of research, Franz was found. He had never talked about the incident, not even at post-war reunions.
They met in the USA at a 379th Bomber Group reunion, together with 25 people who are alive now – all because Franz never fired his guns that day.
When asked why he didn’t shoot them down Stigler later said,
“I didn’t have the heart to finish those brave men. I flew beside them for a long time. They were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do that. I could not have shot at them. It would have been the same as shooting at a man in a parachute”.
Both men died in 2008.