RNAS Evanton, also known as Novar base, HMS Fieldfare, and later as RAF Evanton, is a disused airfield in Ross and Cromarty, Scotland. The airfield lies on the northwest shore of Cromarty Firth, 1 mile northeast of the village of Evanton.
It was originally established in 1922 to support the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, which had one of its main bases nearby at Invergordon and required a shore base for aircraft disembarking and embarking Aircraft Carriers. At first, the airfield was known as the Novar base, after the Novar estate which owned the land. Conditions were fairly primitive when the station first came into use, with only a canvas hangar and wooden buildings being provided.
With the Expansion of the R.A.F from 1936 onwards, numerous new bomber squadrons were being formed, and several airfields were established where these squadrons could come on short detachments, chiefly during the summer months, to practice bombing and gunnery. As Evanton was selected as one of such airfields, many improvements to the facilities commenced in 1937, where a Hinaidi type steel hangar and new buildings were made available by mid 1938.
As soon as war was declared in September 1939, the resident squadron served alternativelly to train the hundreds of new Observer/Air-gunners, which were much in demand for the expanding bomber force, later for Bombing and Gunnery, and finally air-gunners only. The station's facilities were improved in 1942 with the addition of two concrete runways, a perimeter track and several large steel hangars.
On the October 9th, 1944 Evanton became a Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) designated as "H.M.S. Fieldfare". A great deal of money was spent on expanding existing facilities for aircraft storage being capable to store over 450 aircraft. Next year it received surplus planes for temporary storage from closing down bases in North Scotland, Shetland and Orkney Islands. By early 1948 the last of the aircraft had been disposed of, and on March 24th that year, the station was finally closed. It was then placed on the Care and Maintenance scheme, and like the hundreds of other disused airfields it was still retained by the Government.
When the RAF strength increased in the early 1950s due to the Korean War, Evanton's runways were again in use for take off and landing practice, but by 30th September 1953 the airfield was closed again.
The GENETRIX program at Evanton
Around July 1955, members of the 1st. Air Division Survey Team of the United States Air Force (USAF), visited the airfield at Evanton, to verify that the facilities were adequate for one of the most secrets operations of the time. Code named "Grayback" and later re-denominated "Genetrix" the project's goal was to obtain photographic reconnaissance of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its satellites using stratospheric balloons carrying high resolution cameras. The platform -denominated Weapons System 119L or WS-119L- consisted basically of a polyethilene balloon, to which was attached through a special bar assembly a gondola containing an automatic photographic system, denominated DMQ-l, composed by a duplex camera which had two 6-inch lenses on opposite sides. The camera was capable of obtaining about 500 pictures, covering 50 miles on either side of the balloon path. On the bottom of the box a photo cell turned on and off the camera according to the illumination below. Additional items were a thermal box containing batteries and electronic gear, two ballast boxes and parachutes for descent and recovery.
After launched, the balloon would transit the target zone carried by eastward winds until exiting enemy territory where a signal would be transmited to terminate the flight. While the gondola would descent by parachute it would be catched in mid-air by a specially fitted C-119 plane, or if this failed, the package also could be snatched by that same plane from the water, or recovered later by boat.
In early stages of development of the project, it was considered that all balloons should be launched from Scotland, but three factors affected that initial scheme:
- A further study of meteorological data indicated that more complete coverage could be obtained if sites were wide dispersed in western Europe;
- Surface weather in Scotland was expected to be unsuitable for launch activities a large part of the time; and
- The distance from the target zone resulted in a day or so of balloon travel before the photographic mission could be started, an important factor when the criticality of balloon life expectancy is considered.
Thus, taken account of the factors mentioned above and based on studies of trajectory and surface weather, the general areas selected for the location of launch detachments for the project were Eastern Norway, West Germany, and Turkey. Then, under responsability of the Command in Chief of the United States Air Forces in Europe the specific sites were selected: besides Evanton, the other places from which would be conducted the launches were Gardermoen, Norway, Adana, Turkey and Giebelstadt and Oberpfaffenhofen both in Germany.
The unit assigned to Evanton was denominated Detachment 4 and was composed by 7 officers, 119 airmen and 5 civilians. The deployment to Scotland along with all the material needed to perform more than 500 balloon launches took place between August and October 1955. The hardware was sent by ship to Invergordon, then unloaded and transported to Evanton in trucks. The huge movement caused quite an impact in the population, who never before saw such a great number of trucks crossing the site. Even buildings shook with the vibration of the heavy traffic.
Although the Admiralty allowed the USAF to use the base, the Royal Air Force (RAF) did not tell its naval colleagues the true nature of the exercise, which was presented to them as merely a meteorological study, which also was the public cover for the operation. Moreover, inside RAF only high rank officers were aware of the true nature of the project.
A month later than originally expected, on January 10, 1956 orders were cursed from the control center in High Wycombe, England, to start the balloon launches from all the sites at a maximum rate of ten by day. Several balloons were sent from Adana and Giebelstadt that day but none from Evanton as the British administration had failed to notify the Air Ministry that operations at Evanton were authorized. For this reason, no launches from Evanton could be made until late on 11 January 1956, when approval to launch was granted.
As occured in the rest of the sites, balloons from Evanton were launched using a 2 ton 6x6 heavy truck with a superimposed structure -denominated the fisher launcher- from which the gondola was suspended and released. The balloons launched from Evanton were pre-programmed to automatic turn-on it's location beacon after 90 hours of flight, which was the estimated time it would took them to cross the soviet territory. Later, that time would be extended to 120 hours to prevent soviet forces to track the signals emmited by the balloons if activation occured too early.
Below this lines can be seen a map showing an estimated pattern of dispersion of balloons launched from Scotland.
Facing an adverse weather, operations at Evanton progressed slowly during January. As expected, the rate of launches were by far very lower than other sites due to the harsh climate which was greately potentiated by one of the hardest winters in many years. A great number of balloons failed at launch, landing in nearby areas, some others gone stray, while the few which effectively succeeded in entering the target zone would transit a part of the soviet country which counted with the most effective air defenses, and thus, would have less chances to survive the trip.
With merely 60 succesful balloons launched by February 4th, the British Government through the Air Ministry, impossed an additional constrain requesting that launches at Evanton be restricted to only those which would not overfly East Germany. It was estimated that the new rule would prevent launches approximately 25% of the time, which, when coupled with unfavorable ground weather and unfavorable upper air trajectory, practically eliminated Evanton as a productive launch site. That same day, while Detachment 4, launched the last 10 balloons from Scotland, the Soviets strongly protested about the operation leading to President Eisenhower to stop the launches and to instruct accordingly to the Air Force to halt the operations.
To that moment, the total number of balloons launched from Evanton was 103, of which 60 were succesful, and 43 failed soon after launch, or gone stray.
Of the sixty balloons which entered the target zone, only one, which was launched on January 25th, managed to survive the crossing of the USSR and entered the recovery zone. It was terminated at 5:37 utc on February 1st, after traveling 158 hours and 22 minutes and was mid-air retrieved by one of the C-119 planes from the 456th Troop Carrier Wing over the Pacific Ocean. From the camera package 900 feets of films were exposed totalling 1006 useful photo frames.
After the halt of operations in February 6, the launch team at Evanton stood on alert in case orders could arrive to resume the launches, but instead, informally on 29 February and by message on 1 March 1956, USAF directed termination of the operational phase of the project. Less than a month later, on 26 March 1956, by Headquarters USAF directive, lst Air Division and Strategic Air Command relinquished operational control of operational units to parent commanders, thus starting the return to home bases of the personnel of each detachment and the final disposition of surplus material.
Evanton after the Genetrix program
After USAF personnel leaved Evanton in March 1956, the airfield was closed again, and any trace of the spy effort sunk into oblivion. Irregular civil aviation activity was maintained for a while, and even the place was used for car races in middle 60's, but by 1970's decade the site was totally abandoned and was sold off to civilian concerns.
It would be later converted for use as an industrial estate with steel scrap, fencemaking, textile and North Sea oil-related industries.
Today the A9 road splits the site but a number of airfield buildings survive, distinctively standing on different levels, including several hangars. Some of these facilities have been put to use as part of Highland Deephaven Industrial Estate and include a rare gabled roof hangar now operated by the charity Blythswood Care. Parts of the outline of the two hard runways which were built in 1942 can still be seen in aerial photographs like the one above, though Technip, an oil industry rigid pipe fabrication facility now dominates this part of the airfield by running east-west across the landing area and out into the sea.
In 1991, the Evanton involvment on the GENETRIX program was first digg out by aerospace historian Curtis Peebles, in a book entitled "The Moby Dick project", but the history largelly would remain in the realms of those interested in the world of Cold War intelligence. However the history would gain public attention again in 1998 when UK's Public Record Office desclassified several documents which exposed the Evanton balloon launches in the national press.
List of all GENETRIX balloons launched from Evanton in 1956