Custodians of Britain’s Cold War jet heritage
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK.
Anyone fortunate enough to be able to call themselves an aviation enthusiast will no doubt attest to the fact this fascinating hobby evolves constantly. Over the years, new aircraft enter service, then reach the end of their useful life, either to suffer the ignominy of an unceremonious scrapping or for the lucky few, a new life as a much loved museum exhibit. Those destined for preservation will often be taking the place of older, existing exhibits, which in turn may have their immediate future placed under some doubt, as the freshening up of displays can be essential in maintaining visitor numbers. Indeed, enthusiasts of a certain vintage will no doubt remember seeing aircraft in museums which have now been off public display for many years.
The long term preservation of Britain’s aviation heritage is something everyone should be concerned about, but usually relies on the selfless commitment of a relatively small number of people, especially at locations which are away from the prestigious RAF and Imperial War Museum sites. With that in mind and in response to some rather worrying news affecting the world of historic aviation over the past few weeks, there really could only be one subject for this latest edition of Aerodrome and that is a visit to the former RAF airfield at Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire. Join us as we celebrate the best in British jet powered aviation and enjoy the unique experience of a Cold War jets taxi day event, before we discuss why these shows may never be quite the same again.
Maintained ready for action
The pride of Britain’s aviation industry, these aircraft are not ready to sit quietly in a museum and thanks to the support of an army of committed volunteers, they don’t have to
During the long and depressing winter months, the time between Airshow seasons can be made a little more palatable by paying a visit to one of Britain’s many aviation museums, in order to obtain a welcome period of aircraft indulgence and to prevent the potential onset of aviation related Seasonal Affective Disorder. Allowing us all the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with some of the world’s most famous aeroplanes, each one of us will undoubtedly have our own favourite venues and indeed, particular favourite aeroplanes, but no matter how impressive and aesthetically pleasing these museum exhibits may be, there is something missing.
Few people would argue with the opinion that aeroplanes are the most exciting and dynamic machines ever created by man, built with one specific aim in mind, an aim which has captivated humans for hundreds of years, the desire to conquer the skies. For that reason, wherever airfields offer enthusiasts the opportunity to see historic aeroplanes starting their engines, roaring down runways and in some cases even taking to the air, people will often travel great distances to enjoy such an experience and do so several times each year.
One venue which certainly offers the aviation enthusiast a unique experience, the former RAF airfield at Bruntingthorpe may now look very different from the days when it served as a bomber training airfield during WWII, but on two very special weekends each year, it attracts an ever growing number of people from all over the country, all of whom have a fascination for post war British jet powered aeroplanes. The Bruntingthorpe based Cold War Jet Collection are the custodians of an impressive number of classic British jet aircraft, many of which are maintained in serviceable condition by a small army of experienced volunteers, each one determined to play their own small part in the preservation of Britain’s jet heritage. It is also home to the Lightning Preservation Group and their magnificent trio of English Electric Lightnings, two of which are again in serviceable condition – a little part of Leicestershire that is alive with the sound of jet engines.
Even though most of these magnificent aircraft will probably never grace our skies again, many of them are maintained in such a condition as to be capable of performing fast taxi runs under their own power down the length of Bruntingthorpe’s impressive 3.2 km runway, serving up an intoxicating aviation experience which is reminiscent of scenes which regularly occurred at airfields all over the country during the post war years, a time when Britain’s jets ruled the skies.
Over the years, the opportunity to gain close access to this magnificent collection of aircraft has resulted in ever increasing numbers of enthusiasts heading for Bruntingthorpe on two bank holiday weekends each year
The organisers of the twice yearly (usually) Cold War Jets Taxi Days go to great lengths in allowing visitors extremely close access to these magnificent aeroplanes during these events, just one of the many reasons why attendance numbers have increased steadily over the years. Indeed, unless you are prepared to make the effort to either turn up early or stay late, obtaining clear pictures of the aircraft can be something of a challenge on taxi days, as each one is usually surrounded by an entourage of besotted admirers in the hours leading up to the main event itself, many of whom are surprised at how close they are allowed to get and are determined not to pass up this opportunity.
The undoubted highlight of the day is the chance to see and hear these aircraft blasting down the huge runway at Bruntingthorpe, with the organisers once again affording visitors close access to the aircraft, ensuring you never forget this experience. Proud to exhibit their aviation charges to the gathered masses as they are put through their paces on ‘Exercise Day’, organisers inform visitors in advance that they are in for a noisy treat and that the use of ear defenders is advised during the taxi run demonstrations – they do, however, fail to tell you about the ground tremors when these aviation behemoths roar past you at full tilt. As you can imagine, these days can prove to be rather intoxicating.
Bank Holiday indulgence
Not a barrier in sight – is it any wonder why Bruntingthorpe has become a popular destination for jet aviation enthusiasts
With events usually scheduled to take place over the annual Spring and Summer bank holiday weekends, whilst the rest of the nation is either at the cinema, enjoying a day at the beach or probably more likely, in the pub, Bruntingthorpe provides a unique aviation experience for the more discerning members of society, people who enjoy seeing Britain’s jet powered aviation heritage coming to life, even though they may be putting their ear drums at risk.
I count myself extremely fortunate to have been able to attend several of these events over recent years, with my latest visit taking place in August last year. With Britain basking in something of a heatwave at that time, organisers were expecting a bumper crowd for this most recent event and they were not to be disappointed. With visitors allowed to walk amongst the Collection’s aviation delights in the morning sunshine, prior their more active roles in the afternoon’s proceedings, there appeared to be a never ending stream of vehicles making their way onto the airfield throughout the day and the many trade stalls in attendance prepared for a bumper day.
For most of the previous fast taxi events I have attended at Bruntingthorpe, all the action was taking place at the north-eastern end of the runway, not far from where the Lightning Preservation Group QRA hangar is situated. Here, you can choose to take your place along the crowd line in preparation for the fast runs, or take an elevated position on a grassy bank overlooking the very end of the runway. Having never previously been up there during the show and in an attempt to secure some different photographic angles, that was the spot I was intending to take for this latest event, but as I was ushered onto the airfield by the parking marshals, there was something wrong – we were being directed to the opposite end of the airfield.
Lightning trio. The jet powered equivalent of the Supermarine Spitfire, Bruntingthorpe airfield can boast no fewer than three preserved examples of the magnificent English Electric Lightning
Anyone who has been to a Bruntingthorpe event will know that the site is huge and as we drove down a perimeter track for what seemed like miles, past the Boeing 747s and Former RAF Tristars and VC10s which are in open storage on the airfield, it really did seem like we were in a different county to the other end of the airfield. Eventually, you could see where the Cold War Jets had been arranged at the very south-western end of the runway, which would clearly be the location for the day’s activities – so much for my elevated position. Taking the opportunity to catch up with one or two friends who were also at the event and to obtain a photographic reference of every aircraft in attendance, the main action of the day would be taking place along the length of the runway and as the crowd line appeared to be filling up fast, this was no time to stand on ceremony and a suitable spot for the afternoon had to be secured.
Britain’s icons of the air
Many of Britain’s early jet powered aircraft adopted a cartridge engine start procedure, something which has become a popular and rather spectacular feature of the Bruntingthorpe fast taxi display days
We begin this review of the latest Cold War Jets fast taxi day by looking at three absolute giants of the British aviation industry, each one ground breaking in their own way and each one deserving of the title ‘Classic’ – Canberra, Hunter and Buccaneer. One of the most striking residents at Bruntingthorpe, English Electric Canberra B(I)8 WT333 is an aircraft which never actually saw Royal Air Force service, but is one which now serves as a fitting tribute to one of the British aviation industries most successful post war aircraft.
Superlatives used to describe the Canberra are many and mark this as a true icon of the aviation world – Britain’s first jet powered bomber, the most advanced aircraft of its type in the world, multiple world record holder and one of the longest serving RAF aircraft types to name but a few. Much more than simply a ‘big Meteor’, the Canberra would go on to qualify for the title of ‘multi-role aircraft’ and eventually see service with no fewer than 35 RAF squadrons. Built in an astonishing 27 variants, the Canberra would also be a success on the export market, with more than 15 nations electing to purchase this magnificent aeroplane.
Serving in a research and evaluation role for virtually the entirety of her flying career, WT333 arrived at Bruntingthorpe in January 1995, when her delivery flight was the final time she would take to the air. She wears the distinctive ‘Raspberry Ripple’ scheme adopted by Royal Aircraft Establishment aircraft, a scheme which was first applied to the aircraft back in 1978 during her career as a test aircraft. One of the most impressive aircraft to perform at any taxying demonstration day, as WT333 blasts down the runway, she demands to be recognised as an example of one of Britain’s finest aviation achievements.
The Hawker Hunter is regarded by many as the most attractive aircraft ever to take to the skies and another early British jet design which can claim to have been a world beater. The first Hawker designed jet powered aircraft to enter Royal Air Force service, the Hunter ensured that Britain had truly entered the jet age, equipping them with a thoroughbred fighting machine which was the envy of the aviation world. The aircraft which displayed at the Summer Bank Holiday show in 2019 was XL565, a two seat T.7 training variant of the aircraft and one which proves that even the additional width of a side-by-side cockpit arrangement cannot sully the lines of this beautiful aeroplane.
Hunter T.7 XL565 saw service with both the RAF and the Royal Navy during its military career, as well as FRADU and the Institute of Aviation Medicine at Farnborough afterwards, but was put up for disposal in 1993. Restored to taxiable condition in 2010, the aircraft actually incorporates sections from two other Hunters and is now presented in the colours she wore during her time with RAF No.208 Squadron in the Middle East.
A British aircraft type which has a strong representation at these Bruntingthorpe events is the Blackburn Buccaneer, another aircraft which has service links to both the Royal Navy and the RAF. A very large aeroplane, the Buccaneer was developed as an aviation answer to massive Soviet naval expansion in the 1950s and at the time of its service entry, was the most devastatingly effective low altitude carrier-borne strike aircraft in the world. One of the heaviest aircraft to have ever operated from the decks of a British aircraft carrier, the Buccaneer would also enjoy a long service life with the RAF and would be the mount of the ‘Sky Pirates’ during the first Gulf War.
Ever the entertainer, the Buccaneer’s display party piece is to wave its wings at the crowds staring adoringly at it, whether it wears the blue of the Fleet Air Arm, of the camouflage of the Royal Air Force. Displaying its clear naval heritage, the Buccaneer has the ability to fold up its outer wings for stowage on the decks of a relatively small British aircraft carrier and whilst this ability was never needed by RAF aircraft based at places like Honington and Lossiemouth, it always formed part of a Buccaneer display at Airshows. In the days when aircraft were engineered to be as tough as old boots, the Buccaneer shows that once again, Britain was leading the field.
At this latest Bruntinthorpe show, there were no fewer than three Buccaneers stretching their legs, XX900 and XW544 wearing the camouflage of the Royal Air Force and XX894 in the beautiful blue of the Senior Service.
One of the most spectacular products of the British aviation industry, people will travel many miles for the chance to see a Lightning perform a fast taxi run down Bruntingthorpe’s runway
When it comes to the subject of classic British jet aircraft, for many people, this begins and ends with one magnificent aeroplane – the English Electric Lightning. At the time the Lightning entered RAF service, it represented a significant advancement in aviation technology, providing the Royal Air Force with huge capability boost and a fighter which was most definitely second to none. 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.
With such aviation pedigree as this, it is no wonder that the aircraft of the Lightning Preservation Group have become some of the most famous historic aircraft in the UK today, with two fully serviceable examples housed in a former RAF Wattisham ‘Q shed’ on the Bruntingthorpe site and regularly taking part in fast taxy run events at the airfield. They also have a further Lighting F.3 (XR713) which is a static display aircraft and one which unusually wears the markings of two RAF Lightning Squadrons, Nos. 111 and 56 on either side of the aircraft.
Despite the fact that there are plenty of aviation highlights at one of these Bruntingthorpe shows, there is no doubting that the Lightning pair are an irresistible attraction for many in attendance and the thrill of having one of these stunning machines blast past you in full afterburner is an aviation experience to be savoured, a real treat, though perhaps not for the eardrums – these things are loud!
English Electric Lightning F.6 XR728 enjoyed an RAF career which spanned almost 21 years and saw service with Nos 5, 11, 23 and 56 Squadrons, in addition to time with the Lightning Training Flight. During the final days of the Lightning’s Royal Air Force service, XR728 was allocated to the Lightning Preservation Group, where she could be protected from potential disposal and hopefully, preserved for future generations to admire. Arriving over Bruntingthorpe airfield on 24th June 1988 in the hands of Flt Lt Chris Berners-Price, the Lightning performed several passes along the length of the runway, before finally touching down and beginning of a new chapter in the history of this famous aircraft.
The LPG’s other serviceable aircraft English Electric Lightning F.6 XS904 made its maiden flight from Samlesbury on 26th August 1966, when it was flown to nearby Warton for storage. Carrying the code ‘A’, the aircraft was initially assigned to RAF No.11 Squadron at Leuchars, but would also go on to serve with No.5 Squadron during its 20 year RAF career. XS904 was one of the nine Lightnings which famously 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 would later have her military marking removed as the aircraft 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 Deputy Chief Test Pilot Peter Orme, the aircraft swept in low across the airfield at Bruntingthorpe in company with a BAe Tornado F.3, as it performed what turned out to be the final military flight of a Lightning, following the decision taken by British Aerospace to withdraw 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 back into the camouflage markings of RAF No.11 Squadron ‘BQ’, a scheme which she retains to this day.
The big guns come out to play
Sometimes bigger is better and in the case of the Vickers VC-10, a ‘Queen of the skies’ can still captivate on the ground, by performing a high powered blast down the runway, to the detriment of our ear drums
As impressive as the Buccaneers, Hunters and Lightnings are, when it comes to aeroplane displays, size really does matter and Bruntingthorpe can boast a collection of real beasts. An aircraft which possesses impressive aviation credentials, Handley Page Victor K.2 XM715 ‘Teasin’ Tina’ is a firm favourite with the Brunty crowds, particularly as she commemorates Britain’s successful contribution to Operation Granby and the 1991 Gulf War. Victor air tanker sorties flown during this deployment posted an incredible 100% serviceability rate, a proud boast for the Victor force and an achievement unequalled by any other unit.
Following an RAF service life which spanned 23 years, XM715 arrived at Bruntingthorpe in November 1993, just months after Avro Vulcan XH558 had taken up residence there. Following the return to flight of XH558, the Victor used the freed up hangar space to undergo a concerted period of maintenance and emerged wearing a smart new paint scheme and newly applied nose artwork.
Usually the finale act of any Cold War Jets fast taxy day, as the four Rolls Royce Conway engines blast this massive aeroplane down the runway, she really does appear to be begging to be allowed a quick circuit of the airfield, something she very nearly achieved during a highly publicised incident which took place in 2009. This date is now accepted as the last time a Handley Page Victor took to the air.
An aircraft which can boast a career as both a civilian airliner and a military tanker, Vickers VC10 K4 is a true ‘Queen of the skies’ and another four engined aircraft which is capable of making its way down Bruntingthorpe’s runway under its own power. As the crowd barriers are appealingly placed for enthusiasts at these events, as the VC-10 passes by, the outer section of the wing appears to pass over our heads and when this is combined with the melodic sound of four Rolls Royce Conway engines at a high power setting, it is no wonder why people keep coming back to these shows.
Previously wearing the colours of both BOAC and British Airways, ZD241 ended her flying career representing the Royal Air Force, illustrating the effectiveness of the aircraft’s design, which allowed its conversion to airborne tanker configuration. She arrived at Bruntingthorpe in March 2013 and is now cared for by a group of volunteers who are determined to make sure she continues to have a starring role at future Bruntingthorpe events.
Another Bruntingthorpe resident which has connections with civilian aviation, BAe Nimrod MR.2 XV226 is an example of one of the world’s most effective maritime surveillance aircraft and one which has been receiving plenty of media attention over the past few weeks, following the arrival of its replacement ten years after the Nimrod’s retirement. When selecting an airframe for future preservation, the team at Bruntingthorpe requested this particular aircraft partly because she was in great condition, but also because she was wearing special markings commemorating 40 proud years of RAF Nimrod operation.
Arriving for her new life as a preserved airframe in April 2010, XV226 would make a historic pairing with the world’s last military Comet, an aircraft type on which the Nimrod was based. If you are lucky, your attendance at a Cold War Jets taxy day will be rewarded by seeing both of these historic aircraft powering down the runway within minutes of each other, highlighting the aviation heritage of the ‘Mighty Hunter’.
As we have already touched upon, amongst the embarrassment of aviation riches which now reside at this former RAF station, De Havilland Comet 4C XS235 ‘Canopus’ has a genuine claim to arguably being the most historic. Resplendent in her distinctive Royal Aircraft Establishment livery, this aircraft has the distinction of being the last Comet to fly, something which occurred during her delivery flight to Bruntingthorpe in 1997.
The aircraft was the subject of some controversy following the end of her service with A&AEE, as she was originally scheduled to continue flying with new owners in the US, until an inexplicable export bad was placed on the aircraft – this development angered many and brought about a premature end to the flying career of this historic aircraft. Despite this unfortunate end to her service life, XS235 was lucky enough to find a new home at Bruntingthorpe, where she could be cared for by a group of volunteers who were dedicated to continuing the legacy of this incredibly historic aeroplane.
An uncertain future
We mentioned at the beginning of this feature that the world of historic aviation is constantly evolving and aviation enthusiasts are well versed in not taking anything for granted. Not wanting to sensationalise or to comment before all the relevant facts are available, several enthusiast groups have been reporting the possibility of significant changes for the aircraft and preservation groups currently based at Bruntingthorpe and an uncertain future for these hugely enjoyable fast taxy days.
Any visit to this airfield highlights the fact that the motoring industry is very much the dominant force at Bruntingthorpe nowadays and there are quite literally millions of pounds worth of vehicles of every brand and type stored around this massive site. Recent news suggests that this dominance is soon set to increase further and the future of enthusiast events at the site may be under review as a consequence. Some of the aircraft preservation groups at the site have already reported that they are looking for new homes via their social media channels and whilst an official announcement has yet to be made, it is already clear that any future Cold War Jets displays could be very different to those we have enjoyed over the past few years.
A final selection of images from the latest Cold War Jets fast taxi day, beginning with proof that both an Avro Vulcan and a Vickers Valiant took to the air on the day
As none of these preserved aircraft are capable of flying out of the airfield, the logistics (and costs) facing owner/operators based at Bruntingthorpe will be significant if they are forced to consider securing potential new homes for their aeroplanes and we can only hope that it doesn’t come to that. Currently, no dates have been set for any Cold War Jets open days in 2020 and it remains to be seen if this last August Bank Holiday show in 2019 will prove to be the final event of its kind at the airfield.
Whatever turns out to be the case, the owners and enthusiasts who have allowed us to enjoy these magnificent aircraft over the years deserve our gratitude and we can only wish them well for whatever challenges they may face in the future. Nevertheless, Bruntingthorpe will definitely be remembered as a spectacular haven for Britain’s Cold War jet legacy and a memorable place to visit for thousands of enthusiasts.
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. If you would like to send us a selection of your own pictures, or suggest an aviation related subject you would like to see covered in a future edition, please use our firstname.lastname@example.org address, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
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