Breighton’s Luftwaffe Eagle
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. In the previous edition of our blog, we attempted to prevent the onset of the winter blues by looking back at one of last year’s most enjoyable Airshow events, the Duxford Air Festival, which took place over the weekend of 27th/28th May. Although we did our best, if anything, the past two weeks have been even more depressing from a weather perspective, with the freezing temperatures and grey leaden skies seemingly determined to hang around for a little while longer, further delaying our preparations for a busy Airshow season to come. With that being the case, we have been forced into drastic action once more and there really is only one antidote - another trip back into the Aerodrome archives and a further collection of interesting aviation pictures to bring you.
Our blog subject for this latest edition is the picturesque general aviation airfield at Breighton in the East Riding of Yorkshire and a selection of pictures taken during two enjoyable mid-week visits made to the aerodrome in 2003 and 2006. Although the airfield is undoubtedly home to a fascinating collection of historic aeroplanes, my particular interest was a rather unusual Warbird restoration which was taking place there. This interesting aircraft went on to become a firm favourite on the UK Airshow scene, thrilling Airshow audiences at events right across the country, even though it is usually required to play the aviation ‘bad guy’. I will also be paying a personal tribute to the man who kindly took the time to show me round the airfield on both occasions and the distinctive Warbird he regularly flew on the UK Airshow scene.
Bombers bound for Breighton
A No.460 Squadron RAAF Vickers Wellington and crew at Breighton in 1942
Anyone who has been lucky enough to visit the relaxing setting of Breighton Aerodrome will probably have found the experience thoroughly enjoyable and been left wondering why this beautiful airfield seems to be such a well kept aviation secret. With its grass runway, diminutive red and white control tower and garden party atmosphere, this really is a pleasant way to while away a few hours in the company of like-minded aviation enthusiasts. With some delightful historic aeroplanes based in the collection of hangars at the airfield, it is difficult to imagine that this tranquil setting once reverberated to the sound of Bristol Pegasus and Rolls Royce Merlin engines, as RAF Breighton played a significant role in Bomber Command’s night offensive against Germany during the Second World War. With work beginning on the site in 1940, the airfield became active in early 1942 and welcomed the Wellington bombers of No.460 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force as their first residents. At its height, the facilities at Breighton housed around 1,400 people, with large maintenance hangars and outlying service bays for over 30 aircraft, with the runway layout itself being particularly unusual for a Bomber Command station. Rather than adopting the traditional triangular layout for the runway network, the local terrain dictated that all three runways crossed at the same point, giving it a star-like appearance when viewed from above. The airfield would later host other famous British bombers, such as the Handley Page Halifax, Avro Manchester and the more famous Lancaster with wartime operations resulting in the sobering statistic that no fewer than 169 Breighton based machines failed to return to their home airfield.
View towards the control tower as you approach the grass strip at Breighton
After the war and following a period where the airfield was held in a state of care and maintenance, it was to receive a new lease of life by trading its aircraft for missiles, becoming a site for the new Thor nuclear missile and later a station for Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles. The airfield was finally relinquished by the RAF in 1965 and released for return to agricultural land, although many of the former RAF buildings continued to be used for storage, retaining the aviation heritage of the site. During the 1980s, Breighton once more began to see sporadic use as a general aviation field, but it was the arrival of the Real Aeroplane Company in 1989 which stimulated a significant change in the fortunes of this former wartime airfield. Using land on the old technical site of the original airfield and erecting new facilities including a hangar and office space, Breighton soon became home for an eclectic mix of classic and historic aeroplanes, including a number of Warbirds which would become firm favourites with UK Airshow audiences and bringing this delightful airfield to the attention of many more people.
The enemy within (Yorkshire style)
I am almost embarrassed to say that my first visit to Breighton aerodrome only took place in 2003 and although the airfield was home to a stunning collection of historic aeroplanes, my real reason to visit was to hopefully view a rather enigmatic restoration project the airfield was associated with and one which had a distinctly Axis flavour. Aviation enthusiasts had become aware that the Breighton based Real Aeroplane Company were at the advanced stages of restoring a Hispano Buchon fighter to airworthy condition and with a distinct lack of anything with links to the Luftwaffe on the UK Airshow circuit, this was proving to be an exciting development. Having contacted airfield manager and Warbird pilot Brian Brown in advance of my visit, I had been granted the opportunity to produce an article on the airfield, taking pictures of the aircraft based at the airfield and granted access to the all important restoration hangar. As you might imagine, I was rather looking forward to breaking my Breighton duck and doing a little Messerschmitt hunting.
The unusual sight of a Messerschmitt being restored in a hangar on a Yorkshire airfield
The Hispano Buchon has become an extremely popular feature of the UK Airshow scene over recent years and whilst not actually a genuine wartime example of a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter, it is close enough for most people and a favourite aircraft of many. The aircraft is actually a post war hybrid aviation creation of the Spanish Air Force, who married Rolls Royce Merlin engines with a number of Messerschmitt Bf 109G airframes they had in long term storage. A licence agreement to build around 200 Bf 109Gs was signed with Germany in 1943 and a number of airframes were delivered in the same year – unfortunately, Germany was unable to fulfil its obligations and not all the components arrived in Spain - as the war had now turned very much in favour of the Allies, the outstanding parts never actually arrived. Most significantly, amongst the missing items were the Daimler-Benz engines which powered these famous fighters. Creating something of an interesting aviation dichotomy, this most famous of Luftwaffe fighters would go on to see active service with the Spanish Air Force using Britain’s most successful piston aero engine as its powerplant. If this were not interesting enough, a number of these aircraft would go on to fly in the UK, conducting mock battles with restored Spitfires and Hurricanes of the RAF.
With ambitious plans to produce a feature film to commemorate the decisive aerial struggle referred to as the ‘Battle of Britain’, a company called Spitfire Productions purchased around 27 Buchons from the Spanish Government and set about turning them into 1940s era Messerschmitt Bf 109E lookalikes. Obviously retaining their merlin engines, the aircraft had their rounded wing tips squared off, were equipped with tail struts and had replica machine guns added in an attempt to make the aircraft appear as similar to the Bf 109Es which took part in the battle. With the flying sequences taking place in both Spain and the UK, seventeen airworthy Buchons eventually arrived at Duxford airfield, which served as the home airfield throughout much of the filming and is seen coming under attack by several low flying Buchons in the opening sequence of the film. Following completion of the filming work, all the airworthy Buchons were made available for sale, with several aircraft being taken as payment for flying services during production on the movie by a famous pilot and aircraft collector, heading for his Texas ranch en mass – these would turn out to be well travelled Messerschmitts.
Hispano HA-1112-M1L Buchon ‘G-AWHK’
Although this magnificent Buchon appeared to be in one piece, there was clearly much work still to do
The aircraft under restoration at Breighton in 2003 was originally constructed at the Hispano Aviation Factory in Seville in 1959 and following service with the Spanish Air Force, was one of the aircraft acquired by Spitfire Productions, going on to star in the aerial sequences of the 1968 film ‘Battle of Britain’. Removed from the British register in late 1968, this was one of the aircraft taken in lieu of payment by Warbird collector Wilson ‘Connie’ Edwards and shipped to his Texas ranch. Once in the US, the aircraft went on to fly for a short time, but soon found itself stored in a large hanger on the owner’s ranch site with a number of other Buchons, where it would remain for many years.
In the mid 1990s, the aircraft returned to Britain once more having been purchased by Classic Aviation Limited and given the registration G-BWUE. Placed in the care of the Duxford based Old Flying Machine Company, the Buchon was once again back at the scene of its starring role in the Battle of Britain film, leaving enthusiasts hoping it would soon be returning to flying condition and once again taking to the skies above this Cambridgeshire airfield. Unfortunately, owning and operating Warbirds can be a volatile and expensive business and the aircraft was to change hands again during the summer of 1998, resulting in another change of location, this time arriving at the former Bomber Command airfield at Breighton. In the hands of the Real Aeroplane Company, this famous aeroplane was to undergo a full rebuild to flying condition and with this airfield already linked with the operation of restored examples of both the Spitfire and Hurricane, this little corner of Yorkshire was beginning to build something of a reputation as a potential Northern Warbird centre.
Looking from the back of the aircraft, it is easy to see the Luftwaffe lineage of the Buchon
During my visit to Breighton in 2003, I was allowed access to the workshop in which the restoration of the Hispano Buchon was taking place and whilst there was clearly much work still to do, the sight of this magnificent aircraft slowly making its way back to airworthy condition was one which certainly captured the imagination of this particular enthusiasts. With initial restoration works carried out by the specialists at Airframe Assemblies on the Isle of Wight, the aircraft appeared to be well on the way to a potential first post restoration flight and looked as if it had only recently had the propeller unit fitted to the Merlin engine. Here is a selection of images taken during this first visit which show an important stage in the restoration of this fighter, which is now very much a star of the UK Airshow scene.
A ‘Battle of Britain’ Buchon prepares for flight
Three years on and the Breighton Buchon was on the verge of its first post restoration flight
Having allowed myself to get a little excited at the prospect of seeing a Buchon flying in Yorkshire skies back in 2003, I could not have known that my next visit to Breighton would be a full three years further on with the project. With news of an impending first post restoration flight for the Real Aeroplane Company’s most enigmatic Warbird, the lure back to the airfield proved too strong to resist and I was once again indebted to Brian Brown and his particular brand of Yorkshire hospitality, as he kindly allowed me to pay a further visit to his airfield. Once again, the Buchon restoration was my main area of interest and as the aircraft was clearly now approaching the possibility of undertaking a triumphant first flight, I was not the only one desperate for news. Although the aircraft was still receiving treatment in the hangar at Breighton, it was in much better shape than I had seen it during my previous visit and had even been given suitably historic markings as befitted a project of this historic magnitude.
For the occasion of its first post restoration flight, Hispano Buchon G-BWUE (which was the UK registration it was carrying at this time) was given a smart new colour scheme and was resplendent in the markings of famous Luftwaffe ace Werner Schroer, who was credited with 114 combat victories from just 197 missions flown. The markings were those applied to Schroer’s Messerschmitt Bf 109G-2/Trop ‘Red 1’ of 8./JG27 whilst he was stationed on the Greek Island of Rhodes during the early months of 1943, with the colours very much suiting the sinister shape of Germany’s most famous fighter. Although my visit took place before the first post restoration flight of the Buchon, it would only be a few short weeks before this attractive aircraft took to the skies again for the first time in almost 35 years and the UK Airshow circuit had its very own Axis Eagle.
Looking resplendent in its new ‘Red 1’ Werner Schroer markings, the Buchon prepares to be unleased
In the hands of accomplished Warbird pilot Nigel Lamb, Hispano Buchon G-BWUE made its first post restoration flight from Breighton airfield on 19th May 2006, performing faultlessly for the duration of the flight. Over the next six months, the aircraft would fly regularly from its home airfield and local people must have started to grow accustomed to the sight and sound of their new and rather enigmatic aviation resident. Unfortunately, Yorkshire was not to benefit from the long term acquisition of this famous aeroplane, as it was sold to Spitfire Ltd before the end of the year, returning to Duxford once more, where it was to be operated by the Aircraft Restoration Company. The Buchon has since gone on to become a firm favourite on the UK Airshow circuit and in the hands of ARCo has thrilled many thousands of spectators as it chases Spitfires around the skies above Duxford – having also been fitted with a smoke system, the Buchon can also simulate having been shot down by one of the chasing Spitfires, although it must be tempting for the display pilot to turn the tables on Britain’s most famous fighter, as the Buchon is more than capable of out manoeuvring a Spitfire at these lower display altitudes.
This former Bomber Command airfield was hoping to witness the first post restoration flight of a Merlin powered Messerschmitt in 2006
Yet another change of ownership took place in 2009 and saw the aircraft becoming an asset of Historic Flying Limited, even though its home airfield was to remain the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. October 2014 saw the civil registration changed from G-BWUE back to the original G-AWHK registration the aircraft wore during the filming for the Battle of Britain film back in 1968, further underlying the historic importance of this aircraft and why it remains one of the most popular display acts on the UK Airshow circuit. Bringing the aircraft’s story right up to date, she was to star in a major film production once more as she played Messerschmitt Bf 109E ‘Black 2’ in the hit movie Dunkirk, retaining the distinctive yellow nosed scheme for the 2016 Flying Legends Airshow. One year later, the aircraft was to be one of the highlight participants in the 2017 Flying Legends Airshow, as she was given an attractive temporary weathered desert camouflage, once again wearing the colours of an aircraft flown by Luftwaffe ace Werner Schroer, this time Messerschmitt Bf 109E-7/Trop ‘Black 8’ and its famous ‘Leopard spot’ scheme, which clearly attracted significant enthusiast and media attention during the summer.
The former Breighton Buchon being towed to the display line at Duxford wearing the markings applied for its role in the film Dunkirk
Still turning heads, our Buchon was given this distinctive temporary scheme for the 2017 Flying Legends Airshow
It is to be hoped that this famous aircraft which began its association with Duxford airfield back in 1968, will continue to represent German air power from the Second World War on the UK Airshow circuit for many years to come and although it is not quite the ticket to admit, many UK enthusiasts are particularly fond of this perennial Airshow adversary. Even though its past history and immediate future is centred around Duxford airfield, its triumphant return to airworthy condition and subsequently the UK Airshow scene is very much associated with a small general aviation airfield in the beautiful East Riding of Yorkshire.
Long-time resident at Breighton, Hawker Hurricane Mk.XII G-HURR
Brian Brown – Yorkshire’s finest
I wanted to end this latest blog with a personal tribute to Brian Brown, who I was privileged to meet on several occasions and specifically during both of my review visits to Breighton. Brian was the airfield manager at Breighton and could be seen performing any number of tasks on any given day, from cutting the grass to painting the metal supports of the control tower. A proud Yorkshireman, Brian did not suffer fools gladly and would quickly tell you if he thought you were talking rubbish, but if he took to you, you could not wish to meet a nicer bloke. I must have always caught Brian on good days, as he was (nearly always) charming with me and after the usual safety briefing prior to wandering around the airfield, would invariably throw me his hangar keys and invite me to help myself.
Treasured possession. Brian making sure I left the hangar without taking any souvenirs
Many Airshow regulars of a certain age will probably remember Brian flying the Real Aeroplane Company’s distinctive black Hawker Hurricane XII G-HURR on the display circuit for many years, often in formation with their blue (and at one time pink) Spitfire PR.XI PL965. Tragically, the year after my 2006 visit to Breighton, Brian was to lose his life whilst flying the Hurricane during a display at Shoreham Airshow and whilst I can recall how upset I was at the time, I can hardly imagine how terrible a time this must have been for his family and close friends. I will always hold dear the few occasions I had the chance to enjoy Brian’s company and can never look at the former Breighton Buchon without remembering a real character and raising a smile to his memory.
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome. Later in the year, we will return to my Breighton airfield visits and feature some of the other aircraft I was lucky enough to discover at this delightful little airfield.
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