A Supersonic Gathering
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular fortnightly look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK. As we currently find ourselves in the main Airshow/holiday period of the year, this latest blog will be the second of our ‘Holiday Editions’, which by their nature are a little shorter in length and a little more image rich. We felt that this was more appropriate that actually deferring the regular posting of our blogs – we hope that you agree. So what do we have for you this time? As it will be a little shorter, we have decided to bring you details of an unusual event which took place at Bruntingthorpe, over the weekend of 16th/17th June and saw four examples of the same iconic British jet gathered together in the same historic location for the first time in many a year. Affording some excellent photographic opportunities and the only chance to see these four aircraft lined up together anywhere in the world, this was most definitely an event not to be missed. Join us as we head for the Lightning Preservation Group facility at Bruntingthorpe airfield for their rather unique RAF 100 tribute.
Lightning strike x 4
Aviation enthusiasts in the UK have to be considered amongst the most fortunate in the world. Not only does their hobby allow them access to a large number of Airshow events to consider attending each year, but there are also a significant number of groups and societies dedicated to the preservation of our nations aviation heritage situated around the country, most of which will be more than happy to allow you to experience the fruits of their aviation labours. One such enthusiast organisation is The Lightning Preservation Group, who since 1988, have been dedicated to the preservation of at least one example of the spectacular English Electric Lightning supersonic interceptor, undoubtedly one of the most exciting aircraft ever to take to the skies. Their infatuation with the Lightning is quite understandable, as the aircraft occupies a unique position in the history of British aviation, as the only all-British built Mach 2 plus capable interceptor aircraft, which is now considered to be an icon of the Cold War period. If the Spitfire was Britain’s most famous piston engined aircraft, then the Lightning was surely its jet powered equivalent.
Thanks to the Bruntingthorpe based Lightning Preservation Group, the awesome English Electric Lightning is still able to captivate aviation audiences old and new, as they keep the legacy of this magnificent aircraft very much alive
At the time the English Electric Lightning entered RAF service, it represented a significant advancement in aviation technology, providing the Royal Air Force with huge capability boost and making them the envy of the aviation world. As Britain’s primary interceptor fighter during some of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history, the Lightning earned something of an iconic status amongst aviation enthusiasts and is certainly regarded as one of the finest achievements of the British aviation industry. In all, nine RAF Squadrons were equipped with the mighty English Electric Lightning, which defended the airspace of the UK, Near and Far East and the former West Germany from possible enemy airspace incursions. Designed as a ‘Supersonic Dash’ interceptor, where everything was done at great speed, the Lightning excelled in every aspect of its intended mission profile and whilst it has always been tarnished with a reputation for having relatively short range and poor fuel carrying capabilities, these only really became issues after the aircraft had entered service and its mission profile changed somewhat.
With the final RAF Lightnings being withdrawn from service in 1988, the LPG were eager to ensure that at least one of these magnificent aircraft should be saved from an uncertain future and preserved for the nation to marvel at in the years to come. They were successful in tendering for an aircraft and were offered a secure home for it by the owners of the former RAF and USAF base at Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire – on 24th June 1988, English Electric Lightning F.6 XR728 announced its arrival at Bruntingthorpe with a series of enthusiastically performed passes, before beginning an illustrious new career as the prized position of the Lightning Preservation Group. Since that date, the LPG have gone on to acquire a further two examples of this famous interceptor, XS904 and XR713, which surely make this group not only the custodians of a trio of Britain’s most capable Cold War jets, but also valuable contributors to the preservation of the country’s aviation heritage, not to mention becoming a popular destination for aviation enthusiasts hardly able to believe their good fortune.
Only at Bruntingthorpe – the iconic shape of the Lightning posed dramatically outside a genuine former RAF QRA shed
Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the enthusiasts who maintain the LPG is the fact that two of their historically important aircraft are maintained in fully functioning condition and have been for many years. For most people who were not lucky enough to see a Lightning fly during its RAF career (and for those who will never forget the experience), the opportunity to see Britain’s most famous jet fighter at close quarters and experience the thrill of having one blast down the runway in full afterburner for your viewing pleasure is unique to Bruntingthorpe and draws many thousands of people to the bi-annual Cold War Jets fast taxi days which are held at the airfield for that specific reason. Not content with simply preserving their aircraft for future generations to admire, they also needed to protect their Lightnings against the elements, whilst at the same time enhancing the experience of the many enthusiasts who regularly visit their facility. In 1994, the group managed to secure a genuine Cold War Quick Reaction Alert ‘Q shed’, which was formerly stationed at RAF Wattisham, where it housed a pair of Lightnings ready to defend Britain’s air space at short notice. Following a successful fund raising campaign, the newly erected ‘Q shed’ was opened in 2010 and now protects Lightning XR728 and her stablemate XS904 from the elements, as well as being the focal point for many of the popular LPG enthusiast events arranged each year. This magnificent building is almost as big an attraction as the aircraft it houses and certainly makes a spectacular backdrop to any photographs taken during a visit to Bruntingthorpe.
2018 is a significant year for the Lightning Preservation Group, as it marks 30 years since the Lightning was withdrawn from RAF service and 30 years since the historic arrival of XR728 at Bruntingthorpe. Let’s take a closer look at the aircraft the group now have on display at their impressive facility.
English Electric Lightning F.6 XR728
The first of the aircraft secured by the LPG, XR728 is maintained in ground running order and is one of two Lightnings the group owns which is capable of performing high speed taxy runs, using afterburner
Originally constructed as an F.3 variant, XR728 made its first flight from the English Electric facility at Samlesbury in Lancashire on 17th March 1965. It was flown to Warton later the same year for conversion to F.6 standard and made its Royal Air Force debut with No.23 Squadron at Leuchars in 1967. In an RAF career which spanned almost 21 years, this magnificent aircraft served with Nos 5, 11, 23 and 56 Squadrons, as well as time spent with the Lightning Training Flight. During the final days of the RAF Lightnings, XR728 was allocated to the Lightning Preservation Group, where she could be protected from potential disposal and hopefully preserved as a significant achievement for the British aviation industry.
On 24thJune 1988, XR728 arrived over Bruntingthorpe airfield in the hands of Flt Lt Chris Berners-Price, who proceeded to perform several passes along the length of the runway, before finally touching down and heralding the beginning of a new chapter in the history of this famous aircraft. It is reported that this aircraft was the favoured mount of RAF Binbrook’s Station Commander, Group Captain John Spencer, in whose markings the aircraft is presented. Significantly, this magnificent aircraft is maintained in ground running order and short of still having its certificate of airworthiness, this Cold War beast is good to go. Able to perform fast taxy run demonstrations in full afterburner, this stunning aircraft blasts down the length of the runway at Bruntingthorpe several times each year to the delight of enthusiasts, who are allowed to experience what it must have been like to see a QRA Lightning taking off to repel the latest Soviet airspace incursion during the dangerous years of the Cold War.
English Electric Lightning F.6 XS904
The second aircraft purchased by the LPG was XS904, which has been presented in this attractive camouflage scheme since around 1995. Here it is pictured lurking menacingly in its authentic RAF Wattisham QRA shed
This particular Lightning made its first flight from Samlesbury on 26th August 1966, on a delivery flight to nearby Warton for storage. Carrying the code ‘A’, the aircraft was assigned to RAF No.11 Squadron at Leuchars, but also served with No.5 Squadron during its 20 year RAF career. XS904 was one of the nine Lightnings which took part in a spectacular 9 ship formation during the ‘Last Lightning show’ at RAF Binbrook on 22nd August 1987.
The following year, XS904 was delivered to the British Aerospace site at Warton, where it was destined to be used as a high speed radar target in support of the BAe Tornado project. It continued to fly for a while in its former RAF camouflage markings, but later had the military marking removed as it continued with its trials work. Earmarked for disposal by the MOD in 1992, the aircraft was purchased by the Lightning Preservation Group and delivered to Bruntingthorpe on 21st January 1993. Piloted by BAe Warton by Deputy Chief Test Pilot Peter Orme, the aircraft swept in low across the airfield in company with a BAe Tornado F.3, this delivery was the final military flight of a Lightning, following British Aerospace’s withdrawal of the last four of their Lightnings from use as high speed targets in Tornado F.3 Foxhunter AI.24 radar trials. Once in the hands of the LPG, the aircraft was repainted in the markings of No.11 Squadron ‘BQ’, which it retains to this day. This aircraft is also maintained in ground running condition and is capable of performing fast taxy runs during the regular Cold War Jets events which take place at Bruntingthorpe.
English Electric Lightning F.3 XR713 (with a twist)
This aircraft was the latest example of the lightning to be acquired by the LPG, only arriving at Bruntingthorpe last year. In this view, you can see the distinctive RAF No.111 Squadron markings from its days at Leuchars
Is this a fourth Lightning for the LPG? No, the starboard side of the aircraft has been imaginatively finished as XR718, wearing the distinctive markings of No.56 Squadron ‘The Firebirds’
This aircraft was constructed as an F.3 at Samlesbury in 1964, making its first flight on 21st October 1964. She was first allocated to No.111 ‘Treble One – The Tremblers’ Squadron at Wattisham and this Squadron would prove to be significant in the history of this aircraft. At the end of its flying career, the aircraft served for many years as the high profile and much loved mascot aircraft of Treble One Squadron, outside their offices on the far side of Leuchars airfield. Wearing the iconic markings of this famous squadron, this aircraft became a favourite with squadron members and enthusiasts who were lucky enough to be allowed access to the aircraft during the annual Airshows and enthusiast days at this Scottish QRA base.
With the closure of RAF Leuchars, the aircraft was put up for disposal and the Lightning Preservation Group immediately began fund raising in an attempt to secure the aircraft, which has the distinction of being one of the most original surviving examples of the F.3 variant. They were successful in their bid and the aircraft became their third Lightning when it arrived at Bruntingthorpe in 2017 – wanting to do something a little special with their most recent acquisition, the group repainted the aircraft to look distinctly different dependent on which side you viewed it from. The port side of the aircraft retains her famous RAF No.111 Squadron markings from her time as a Leuchars guardian aircraft, whilst the starboard side was given striking new markings to represent XR718 of No.56 Squadron ‘The Firebirds’.
Unique four Lightning event for the LPG
Newly renovated Lightning ZF580 joins the LPG trio at Bruntingthorpe for a unique Lightning formation photo event
As the custodians of the most impressive collection of former RAF Lightnings in Europe, the Lightning Preservation Group were always going to plan a Lightning related event to make their own contribution to this year’s centenary commemorations of the Royal Air Force. They are also keen to draw attention to two significant anniversaries for both the Lightning and the LPG this year, as 2018 marks 30 years since the aircraft was withdrawn from RAF service and also 30 years since Lightning XR728 arrived at Bruntingthorpe as the group’s first aircraft. With news circulating that a recently restored Lightning was scheduled to take part in an ambitious RAF 100 static aircraft display at the RAF Cosford Airshow, LPG officials began negotiations which would hopefully see this aircraft also spending a short period of time at Bruntingthorpe, before heading back to its home at the Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre. Their efforts were rewarded and details began to circulate amongst UK enthusiasts that there may be the tantalising possibility of seeing four Lightnings together for a very special and quite unique photocall event.
English Electric Lightning F.53 ZF580 (presented as Lightning F.6 XR768’A’)
Two views of the CAHC Lightning from a rather dull press day at the recent Cosford Airshow. The distinctive black tail is still to receive its RAF No.74 Squadron markings
Lightning ZF580 made its first flight from Samlesbury on 28th November 1967 and was amongst a batch of aircraft produced for the Royal Saudi Air Force. Following the end of its service in the Middle East, she was flown back to the British Aerospace factory at Warton with all the other remaining Saudi F.53s as part of a deal to supply the Saudis with the new BAe Tornado F.3. Arriving back in the UK during 1986, the aircraft was held in open storage until selected to serve as a Gate Guardian at the nearby Samlesbury factory. Work commenced in 1990, with the aircraft originally standing on its undercarriage, then eventually mounted in a dramatic flying configuration on a plinth outside the factory, serving as a high profile landmark for the thousands of aerospace workers who either worked at, or visited this famous aircraft manufacturing site.
After 20 years checking on the workers engaged in producing aircraft and components at the Samlesbury site, the Lightning was looking a little the worse for wear and a decision was taken to replace the aircraft with a full scale fibreglass replica, which would be much easier to maintain, but using this aircraft to produce an accurate Lightning mould. After this work had been completed, an arrangement was made to pass the aircraft to the care of the Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre, based at the former RAF St Mawgan, who intended to commence a full restoration of the former gate guardian to static display configuration.
In quite a coup for the Cosford Airshow organisers, ZF580 arrived at the airfield looking absolutely magnificent, but still undergoing a few last minute presentation improvements even at this late stage. Anybody who was fortunate enough to be in attendance during the Friday press day will be able to confirm that it was still being worked on with regards to its markings and by the time the aircraft starred in the Airshow static display, it was looking a little different. Speaking to some of the officials at the Bruntingthorpe event, it appears that this work continued when the aircraft arrived in Leicestershire, as graphics professionals attempted to ensure the aircraft’s markings were as authentic as possible and is illustrated by the series of pictures included below.
Looking resplendent in the late evening sunlight at Cosford. By the time of the Airshow on Sunday, the aircraft was wearing her XR768 markings, including the iconic ‘Tiger Face’ motif of No.74 Squadron
In the search of perfection. If you compare this image to the one above, you will see that work was still continuing on the aircraft once it arrived at Bruntingthorpe. There are a number of changes, including repositioning of the tail ‘A’, a yellow trim to the tail flash and a resizing/repositioning of the pilots details. One for the real enthusiasts
The CAHC have finished their aircraft as Lightning F.6 XR768 ‘A’ in the markings of RAF No.74 Squadron ‘The Tigers’, which was the first F.6 variant of the Lightning to be produced by English Electric - it was a real coup for the LPG to arrange for this aircraft to be in attendance at Bruntingthorpe for this very special event. For anyone with even the slightest interest in British aviation history and particularly in relation to Lightning operations, this really was an event not to be missed and the pictures taken during this enjoyable weekend will surely prove to be some of the most memorable of this RAF Centenary year. Even the sun put in a couple of brief appearances, despite a decidedly gloomy forecast, as it also seemed determined to take a look at the magnificent aviation spectacle below.
As usual, the Lightning Preservation Group members did a fantastic job in ensuring that their aircraft were arranged in a number of different ways throughout the day to maximise photographic opportunities for those in attendance, who were all treated to something very memorable indeed. With limited elevated photography possible and the chance to sit in a Lightning cockpit if you so wished, this was a pure indulgence in all things Lightning, with the glorious line up of four aircraft being the undoubted highlight. The event ensured that whether you are an LPG regular, or were making your first visit to Bruntingthorpe, you will most definitely remember this as a very good day and will no doubt be planning your next visit to see these beautifully maintained Cold War warriors. I would like to thank Richard Norris of the Lightning Preservation Group for his hospitality and knowledgeable conversation during our visit and to congratulate him and his team for serving up such an aviation treat.
Here is a final selection of images taken during the spectacular Bruntingthorpe FOUR Lightnings event:
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back with more aviation related news in two weeks’ time, as we march inexorably towards our own significant centenary – the 100th edition of Aerodrome, currently scheduled for publication in early August. This might be a good time for readers to let us know what you think of our blog, how it could be improved and what you would like to see covered in future editions. Please send any suggestions to our regular contact e-mail addresses at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, where we will be only too pleased to hear from you.
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