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History of RAF Fylingdales and the ‘golf balls’

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This article explores the history of RAF Fylingdales, located on the North York Moors and the ‘golf balls’. We look at when they were removed, why, and RAF Fylingdales’s purpose today.

RAF Fylingdales, located in North Yorkshire, offers a constant early warning service against ballistic missiles for both the UK and US Governments. In this article, we discuss the history of RAF Fylingdales, what happened to the ‘golf balls’ and RAF Fylingdales today.

History of the ‘golf balls’ at RAF Fylingdales

The US and UK joined forces to establish a system that could detect ballistic missiles. A site in the North York Moors was chosen, and the building of the iconic golf balls began in 1960. By September 1963, the RADAR system was fully operational. The giant radomes were used to give the UK and US governments an early warning system of a ballistic missile attack from The Soviet Union during the Cold War.

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Raf Fylingdales Golf Balls on the North York Moors
Raf Fylingdales Golf Balls on the North York Moors – Pre 1992. © Copyright Lynne Kirton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The large radomes at Fylingdale were an impressive sight, towering five stories high and containing massive 84ft tracking aerials. The protective shells that surrounded them were made up of 1,646 panels, each around six inches thick. These iconic ‘golf balls’ were in operation from 1963 to 1992, when they were replaced by the modern grey pyramid structure we see today, known as the solid-state phased-array radar (SSPAR). The original circular radars were dismantled and taken apart after being retired.

RAF Fylingdales today

RAF Fylingdales, or Royal Air Force Fylingdales, is a station situated on Snod Hill in the beautiful North York Moors. In English, its motto, “Vigilamus” means “We are watching.” Today the station still operates as a radar base and is part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS). The information that RAF Fylingdales collects is shared between the United States and the United Kingdom under intelligence-sharing arrangements such as the UKUSA Agreement.

Raf Fylingdales
Raf Fylingdales today. © Copyright Neil Theasby and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Its primary objective is to warn both governments early of an impending missile attack, also known as the four-minute warning during the Cold War. Its secondary function is to detect and track orbiting objects, and it is a crucial part of the United States Space Surveillance Network. RAF Fylingdales also has a third function, the Satellite Warning Service for the UK. It monitors satellites used by other countries, allowing secret activities to be carried out in the UK when they are not overhead.

The station is utilised by the armed services, defence manufacturers, research organisations, and universities, all of which take advantage of its facilities. The site is operated by about 320 staff members, including Service Personnel, Ministry of Defence Police, and civilian staff. RAF Fylingdales is part of the UK Space Command.

You may notice the Station in the distance on your way to Whitby. However, you cannot visit the Station. All visits to the Station are by appointment only. You can learn more by visiting the Royal Air Force website. It is certainly a place of intrigue! We hope you have found this article useful, you can let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Header image credit: Alan Denney from London, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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9 thoughts on “History of RAF Fylingdales and the ‘golf balls’”

  1. I remember the fylingdales golf balls through the transition to the pyramid of today! Also fortunate to be invited to look over the site.

  2. I am an American that was in the initial contingent manning Fylingdales. We spent three wonderful years in Whitby, and our youngest child was born there. While there, we hosted weekly Bible studies for adults and youth. We still have contact with some of the youth who are now in their 60’s and 70’s. Indirectly, we supported the beginning of The Whitby Evangelical Church. My wife and I are in our 90’s.

    • What a lovely story! And what a testimony you both have of Gods goodness throughout your life, I should be most interested to know where you are both living in the world today?

      • I was fortunate enough to work for RCA at Fylingdales in 1967/66 as a transmitter technician. Prior to Fylingdales I had been a Radio Officer with Marconi International Marine serving in the British Merchant Marine. I had met a young lady from Flamborough Head when studying at the North Eastern School of Wireless Telegraphy in Bridlington and left the MN after a few years to be close to her!!! It didn’t work out so I went back to sea and a year or so later went home to Cape Town where I still live. Vernon Surtees

    • I worked as an employee of RCA UK from April 1972 to November 1973, when I returned to the Royal Navy. I worked as an inspector in the QA Department that was managed by Mr. Bert. Seymour.

  3. What a fascinating history! My Grandad, Dennis Shakeshaft, worked at Fylingdales (retired in the early ’90s). He has just celebrated his 98th birthday.

  4. Aged just 10yrs old I recall a summer holiday at a farmhouse B&B just outside Robin Hood’s Bay during 1958. Most days my parents and myself would wander into the village via the steep cobble-stoned narrow incline down to the slipway at the bottom.

    We’d actually arrived at R/H Bay via steam train, the coastal line still being open at that time.Back then my father didn’t own a car, in fact most of our neighbours didn’t either.

    One day whilst visiting the village and reaching the bottom of the bank, you can possibly imagine our surprise to discover a huge, brand new U.S. model car parked directly in front of The Bay Hotel. I’m not sure what particular make the car was, but by looking thru the vehicle’s windows further astonishment was in store,….in the rear there was a small TV-set mounted behind the front bench-seat!

    To see such a car anywhere in the UK during the 1950’s would have been a rare enough experience, but to find one on the quayside of a remote N.Yorkshire coastal fishing-village was puzzling in the extreme.

    Fully remembering this event from my childhood, It took myself decades to realise that the car would most probably have been issued to representative U.S. technicians (was it the RCA Company?) carrying out initial reconnaissance work with RAF personnel at Fylingdales prior to construction of the iconic ‘golf-ball’ complex beginning during 1960.

    Possibly a ‘perk of the job’ to those techy-guys whilst working overseas, yet just how that ‘in car’ tiny TV set functioned in the UK I cannot imagine? It seems the concept of such a luxury ‘extra’ in a new vehicle had only been developed in the USA that same year – a mere 4yrs after my parents had purchased their first 14″ TV-set for our home!

  5. David Hunter
    In the mid 1980 Yarm Labour Party organised a visit to Fylingdales E.W.S. using a coach.
    At the gate-house we transferred to a contract coach and went ‘underground’ to the control room
    There were giant screens with a posse of operators sitting below them., American and RAF
    They did an exercise for us, we watched in awe as objects in space appeared on the screen. Even the camera lost by Neil Armstrong on a space walk.
    There was a huge fish tank in th background, I asked the quide “What happens if you see an enemy object come up”? – His reply “We watch the fish in the tank, there’s not much else we ccn do” !
    The main computer room was real to real computers then – how things have moved on now


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