From air base runway to cycle path

Whenever I show a cycle route on a former railway line there are always people who bemoan that lost railway. In this case that may be different: Soesterberg has a cycle route on an old air base runway. The entire former strictly closed military Air Base Soesterberg has become a very open public nature reserve (with a military aviation museum) after the province of Utrecht bought that former air base to give it back to nature. The name was changed from Air Base Soesterberg to Park Air Base Soesterberg (Park Vliegbasis Soesterberg).

billet en français

The former runway turned into a cycle path. It is 45 metres wide and 3077 metres long.
Thanks to multiple entrances and exits the runway cycle path can even be used for meaningful journeys, but most people will use the area for recreation.

The aviation history in the town of Soesterberg near Utrecht started around 1910 when two car dealers got permission to fly aircraft from the heath. They organised air shows, pleasure flights over Utrecht and they even built their own airplanes. The “flying heath” drew a lot of attention initially, but the initiative was short-lived. After just a few years, in 1913, the Dutch government acquired the air field and its mainly wooden buildings to set up an “army aviation branch” that would eventually become the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF).

An air show on 10 August 1911. The wooden building on the far left is the only structure of that era that still exists. B/W picture Utrechts Archief. Inset my own picture.
Staff Sergeant United States Air Force John A. Graham working for the Munitions Maintenance Branch of the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron, on a bicycle in December 1973. Picture: the Netherlands Institute of Military History (NIMH)
Inset some emblems of the 32nd TFS at Soesterberg Air Base.

In World War II the Germans occupied the air base and they upgraded the airfield by building three hard-surface runways, they also built hangars and other amenities. However, everything was completely destroyed in 1944. After the war, it took 6 years to rebuild the air base, but the three runway layout was kept. The air base was completely operational again in 1951. US fighter jets were stationed on Soesterberg Air Base in 1954, under NATO agreements to help guard the air space of the Netherlands and other NATO countries in Western Europe. One of the runways had to be extended when super sonic air planes arrived. That runway became 3,077 metres long (10,100 Ft) and 45 metres wide. It was finished on 8 August 1956. This is the runway that is now used as a cycle way. (The shortest third runway was closed in the early 1970s and the second runway is still partly in use today for gliders.)

In 1969, a member of the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron Wolfhounds, stationed on Soesterberg Air Base, dedicated a movie to his unit. From the narration:

“We are stationed on part of Soesterberg Air Base, the oldest military air field of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, established in 1910. The American part of the base was named New Amsterdam in honour of the original Dutch settlement in the United States, now known as New York. Soesterberg Air Base performs a vital role in the NATO air defence posture. USAF’s 32nd TFS is operating under the Royal Netherlands Air Force Soesterberg unit. The 32nd TFS is the only USAF unit that operates under foreign command. […] Actually, we are a small American community within the Dutch community. As we are under Dutch command we proudly fly both Dutch and American flags in front of our head quarter’s building.”

Aerial picture of the air base with two runways in May 1975. You can still see the third and shortest runway connecting the other two, but that had been dismantled. Picture: the Netherlands Institute of Military History (NIMH)
The view from the control tower in 1980. Picture Military Airfield Directory.

In the 1980s, that American community consisted of around 1,600 army personnel, but with their families the total American population in Soesterberg was around 3,500 people. They had their own supermarket, with tax free American food products, a base chapel, a theatre, a bowling alley, schools and their own radio station and TV channel. In 1987, the Netherlands’ first drive through McDonald’s opened in Soesterberg, so that the American population there would feel even more at home.

The sky line of Utrecht in the distance while a fighter lands on the runway of Soesterberg Air Base. Still from a documentary about the air base by RTV Utrecht. Judging from the buildings in Utrecht this must have been shortly before the closure in 2008.
Western maps did not show the air base on the heath north of Soesterberg.
Russian military maps showed exactly where the air base was located on the heath north of Soesterberg. Maps from an article in AD. It is interesting to see the Dutch names in Cyrillic script.

Growing up in Utrecht, just 14 kilometres from the base, during the Cold War era, I remember the fighter jets flying over our home. I never really knew where the air base was located exactly, even though I now know I passed it often on a very nearby road. The base was hidden in the forest and was never shown on Western maps. Of course Russian military maps did show the exact location of the air base. It was absolutely no secret to the Russians. My father had been very interested in military aviation ever since he saw the WWII bombers fly over as a child. He would often go plane spotting at Soesterberg. I remember going with him to an open day at the air base in 1978. Apparently, I was not really interested enough though, because we only did that once. My father went alone to many other such events during the 1980s. At the end of his life he was even able to visit the Military Aviation Museum that was opened in 2014, after the air base had been closed in 2008.

Some US Air Force air craft in the outside area of the National Military Aviation Museum. I could cycle between the air planes when the museum was closed due to COVID.

The Americans had left the base in 1994, after nearly 40 years, when NATO restructured operations at the end of the Cold War. The air base was bought in 2009 by the Province of Utrecht, with the intention to turn the 380 hectares into a nature reserve. A lot of the former ammunition bunkers and other air base buildings have been left for nature to take over. Because the area had been closed to the public for so many years there is a diversity of endangered plants and wild life. That also has consequences for the former runway cycle path. It is closed from 15 March to 15 August every year, because the Eurasian skylark breeds in the grass next to that runway during those months. The rest of the year you can use the former runway to cycle, walk or roller skate. When you do, you could notice that although everything looks completely flat, there is actually a 14 metre height difference from beginning to end.

Map of the new functions of the former Air Base. There are woods (dark green), grass lands (light green), and heath (purple). Some walking and cycling routes are marked as well. In the bottom the runway that can be used for cycling, except from 15 March to 15 August. Picture: Utrechts Landschap.
My public transport bicycle on the runway with the camera attached to the handlebars.

For more information there is another video about 40 years of American presence in Soesterberg and a thesis: ‘The Sound of Freedom’ The regional socioeconomic impact of the American presence at Soesterberg Air Base (1954-1994) by Lourens Stijnen.
There are other former runways that you can cycle on, such as this one in Blackbushe (UK) and this one at the former airport Tempelhof in Berlin.

My report on the former runway that was turned into a cycle way.
Ride on the former runway of Soesterberg Air Base, starting on the public road.
Ride in 360 degree view. (The orientation is in the wrong way, but you can turn the image in the right direction yourself, sorry about that!)

5 thoughts on “From air base runway to cycle path

  1. The runway is already part of the Fietsersbond’s Routeplanner. (I entered a trip from Soesterberg to Den Dolder).
    But it doesn’t show up on GoogleMaps for either cycling or walking.
    Another example of Dutch efficiency on show for its cycling citizens!

  2. A poignant story. I’m imagining the peace that exists there now after it’s deadly history.
    Australia, at Tindal RAAF airbase in the Northern Territory, is currently paying for and building a just as wide but even longer runway for US military bombers, as one part of an aggressive US empirical “posture” against China.

    On the lighter side, did I see that does the Soesterberg runway also now has the world’s widest zebra crossing?

    Lastly I’m very impressed with the closure during the bird breeding season. In summer too! As a volunteer guardian of a threatened beach-nesting species here in Australia I would like to see something similar happen to protect the breeding birds from lethal intrusions by people and off-leash dogs.

    I hope you are recovering well.

    Cheers,

    Jim

  3. Very cool, as a Dutch person I did not know this place existed and is accessible for civilians. It reminds me of ‘Tempelhof’ in Berlin, which has got a similar function.

  4. I have ridden on the runway and it’s certainly an unusual experience. It feels absolutely vast. I had no concept of the enormous scale of such places until visiting it on my human scale bike. Very much recommended.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.