Museum delivery flight for a ‘Mighty Hunter’
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.
In the previous edition of our blog, we saw how one of the aviation highlights of last year’s Royal International Air Tattoo marked British engineering prowess at its best and allowed enthusiasts an irresistible opportunity to enjoy the unique attributes of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier (although a late development Spanish Navy variant of the aircraft) one more time. The subject for this latest edition of Aerodrome is another extremely capable post war British aviation type, one which could claim to be the most advanced maritime patrol platform the world had ever seen.
Accessing the extensive Aerodrome archives once more, we head back to 2010, where we take our place amongst the gathered enthusiasts and members of the local press at a grey Elvington airfield, as we awaited the arrival of a significant new exhibit for the Yorkshire Air Museum, one of the RAF’s last ‘Mighty Hunters’.
A Comet with attitude
British Aerospace Nimrod MR.2 XV250 resplendent at her new Yorkshire home, with another illustrious aviation resident in the background
The years which followed the end of the Second World War saw aviation development continue to make great strides, with the British aviation industry very much at the forefront of world leading technical innovation. With jet propulsion being the order of the day and a seemingly insatiable desire to achieve ever greater speeds for fighter and attack aircraft, a peacetime world also began to reconsider the use of aircraft for less aggressive applications. Affordable and comfortable air travel had finally been realised with the introduction of the Douglas DC-3 in the 1930s and 40s and indeed, as the world tried to put the horrors of war behind it, post war air travel was still the domain of the piston powered airliner. All that changed on 27th July 1949, as the world’s first jetliner took to the air from an airfield in Hertfordshire.
In a development which caused much consternation on the other side of the Atlantic, the de Havilland Aircraft Company had been working to produce an effective jet powered transport/passenger aircraft for several years, with the culmination of this work resulting in the first flight of their Comet from Hatfield aerodrome in 1949. Immediately presenting Britain with a huge technological advantage, the new aircraft was truly revolutionary, capable of carrying passengers over great distances and at great speed – the new aircraft also happened to be extremely easy on the eye.
With production orders immediately placed by BOAC, this operator was soon able to boast the first jet powered service for fare paying passengers, when a Comet flew the London to Johannesburg route in May 1952. Just as it seemed Britain could claim to rule the civilian aviation skies and with de Havilland taking all the commercial spoils, disaster struck and a series of crashes highlighted structural defects in the aircraft and the immediate grounding of the Comet fleet. Pressurisation test highlighted problems with the design of the early Comets and all subsequent aircraft would be the subject of significant modification, however, despite restoring its reputation in the months which followed and proving itself to be an exceptional aeroplane, Comet sales would never recover from this setback and the world of jet powered civilian aviation now belonged to Boeing.
With the Royal Air Force finding themselves in need of a high speed transport/passenger aircraft and with the Government keen to be showing faith in the Comet design, the modified C2 (and T2 training) variant entered service with Transport Command in the mid 1950s, aircraft which would go on to provide exceptional service in this military role. By the time the uprated C4 variant had been adopted by the RAF, the Comet had matured into an exceptional aircraft, but one which failed to re-establish its potential on the world’s civilian aviation markets. In RAF service, surely these beautiful and extremely capable aircraft were too good for transporting anything but VIPs and high ranking military officials – it was almost like operating a military private jet service for troops. Could their be another, more suitable application for the Comet?
Comet 4C XS235 ‘Canopus’ is an example of the latest variant of the Comet to see RAF service and was actually the last Comet to fly
As an island nation, the need for Britain to possess a capable maritime patrol aircraft was without question, one which could scour the oceans for both surface and submarine threats and to provide search & rescue support in times of emergency. Since April 1951, that role had been performed by the piston engine powered Avro Shackleton, an aircraft which could trace its lineage back to the famous Lancaster of WWII, but by the mid 1960s, the RAF were looking for a more capable replacement. De Havilland’s were confident that their Comet could be adapted to meet this requirement and set about modifying two unfinished Comet 4C airframes, equipping their classic airliner with a very different set of capabilities.
Although the resultant aircraft still displayed much of its jetliner heritage, the new aircraft was a different beast altogether and rather than undertaking point to point scheduled flights like its predecessor, it would now be mounting long standing patrols, covering many square miles of open ocean in the search of anything unusual. The fuselage of the new Nimrod MR.1 had undergone a dramatic redesign and now incorporated a cavernous internal weapons bay, with the front extending forwards to house a powerful radar unit in the nose of the aircraft. The tail was altered to equip the aircraft with electronic warfare sensors and greater range and fuel efficiency was achieved by the adoption of powerful Rolls Royce Spey turbofans in the four wing root mounted engine bays.
The Nimrod was a very different looking aircraft to its predecessor, but if you look hard enough, you can still see a little Comet in her
When the Nimrod MR.1 entered Royal Air Force service in October 1969, it provided Britain with the world’s first, and for many years only, land based jet powered anti-submarine maritime patrol aircraft, one which would excel in this role for the next 40 years. Having proved itself to be an invaluable military asset, the Nimrod underwent further development and capability enhancement, which resulted in the introduction of the much more effective MR.2 in August 1979, an aircraft which was without equal in the world of military maritime surveillance and one which would probably still be highly effective had it been in service today.
The enhanced capabilities of the Nimrod MR.2 variant allowed the aircraft to mount 10 hour patrols without the need to refuel, however, as the aircraft now benefitted from an inflight refuelling capability, the length of these missions was now only limited by the endurance of the 12 person crew. Bristling with an array of electronic sensors and equipment designed to effectively detect submarines, if the crew managed to find one whilst on patrol, the Nimrod also possessed a devastatingly effective offensive capability and if cleared to attack, the target submarine was in grave danger.
Bristling with electronic equipment, the RAF’s Nimrod was arguably the world’s most capable maritime anti-submarine surveillance aircraft, even at the time when it was withdrawn from service
If intercepted by enemy aircraft, the Nimrod was well capable of looking after itself. Equipped with sidewinder air-to air missiles, this queen of the skies had some real attitude and unlike the aircraft operated by BOAC and BEA, could be flown extremely aggressively. With the RAF benefitting from all the structural enhancements incorporated following the problems highlighted on early Comet jetliners, Nimrod’s were solid, dependable aircraft, extremely stable at the low altitudes often flown during detection sorties and giving the crew a great deal of confidence whilst flying over open water for more than 8 hours each flight. The jet engines were also a benefit during submarine hunting missions, as it was much more difficult for a sub to detect an approaching Nimrod than the throaty growl emitted by an Avro Shackleton.
Another essential role performed by the Nimrod was that of long range search & rescue, a role which it could be assigned to undertake at any point during its patrol mission. On every sortie, a section of the weapons bay was reserved for carrying life rafts and other survival equipment and with such a large expanse of ocean around the UK to cover, one Nimrod crew was always maintained at a maximum 1 hour readiness 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Sentinels of the sky which would go on to coordinate many an ocean rescue mission.
The RAF Nimrod proved to be so successful in its maritime and submarine hunting role, that the only aircraft capable of replacing the Nimrod was another Nimrod. Planning to replace the existing MR.2 fleet with the much improved MR4A variant, which would have seen the Nimrod patrolling the world sea lanes well into the 2040s, protracted development delays and massive cost overruns resulted in the cancellation of the programme and the destruction of all aircraft and test airframes. Carried out at the old BAe facility at Woodford, the Nimrods were taken to the far side of the airfield and placed behind large, sheeted fencing to keep the aircraft out of the public gaze, before being unceremoniously cut up by the scrap man, with distasteful haste. Local residents described how the aircraft seemed to make moaning noises as they were being cut up, sounds which caused real distress for those who heard it, at what was a politically sensitive time for the country.
A historic, yet distressing sight. These screens erected at BAe Woodford hid the destruction of Nimrod MR4A airframes from the public gaze. Although extremely late and costing much more than originally planned, the cancellation of this project and the withdrawal of the remaining RAF Nimrod force left Britain without an effective maritime patrol aircraft
The withdrawal of Britain’s Nimrod force in 2010 was a ridiculous decision in the eyes of many people and left the UK without an effective maritime patrol aircraft. Politicians argued that other aircraft and partner nations would step in to take the place of Nimrod, but attempting to replace the world’s most effective maritime patrol aircraft with stop-gap alternatives was total folly and fooled nobody. It left the UK’s ocean surroundings vulnerable to potentially hostile incursion for an unacceptably long ten year period, with this cover gap only closing with this year’s service entry of the Boeing P-8A Poseidon – we can only speculate as to how many times the Russians took advantage of this ridiculous situation!
First RAF Nimrod MR.2 delivered for preservation
First pass for Nimrod MR.2 XV250 as it approached Elvington Airfield and the Yorkshire Air Museum, as it embarked on a new career as a museum exhibit
With the RAF’s Nimrod fleet scheduled for retirement in 2010, several UK museums registered their interest in obtaining one of these last remaining airframes, understanding that their bid would depend on the ability to fly the aircraft into their site safely, with adequate fire and emergency cover in place for the safe completion of the delivery operation. With the aircraft still having a residual value approaching the £500,000 mark, qualifying criteria for consideration was understandably stringent, with bid negotiations taking many months.
For the good people at the Yorkshire Air Museum, having registered their Nimrod interest as soon as they could and thinking they had satisfied all qualifying criteria, all they could do now was to sit back and wait. Over an 18 month period, they had done everything possible to secure one of the RAF Nimrods and on several occasions during that period, it appeared as if all their efforts would come to nothing, as unforeseen problems seemed to manifest themselves from nowhere. Finally, after what must have seemed like an eternity, the museum proudly announced that they had been successful with their bid and published details of their new aircraft’s delivery flight – this was an aviation occasion not to be missed.
With Elvington’s massive runway more than capable of accommodating the arrival of a Nimrod, the scene was set for a memorable date in the museums history and an occasion which would be of great interest to local media and aviation enthusiasts alike. The aircraft was scheduled to arrive at 10.30am on Tuesday 13th April 2010 and with large crowds expected, some event housekeeping had to be published in advance of the day. With heavy traffic expected on the day and the museum only capable of accommodating around 500 cars, everyone was advised to turn up early, as the police would be placing parking restrictions on the roads around the airfield, with officers in position to prevent unauthorised parking.
Second pass and the Nimrod prepared for its final landing. Just one more circuit for this first RAF Nimrod MR.2 to be presented for preservation
Touchdown, the flying career of XV250 was now over, but she was destined to become something of a star aviation attraction
In what proved to be a high profile aviation event, around 2000 enthusiasts, in addition to TV crews and members of the press, all gathered at the Yorkshire Air Museum for the Nimrod’s arrival, congregating on the northern boundary of the museum site, overlooking the runway. With the Museum’s famous Handley Page Victor K.2 XL231 ‘Lusty Lindy’ out on the airfield to welcome the illustrious new arrival, everyone was scouring the grey Yorkshire skies for their first glimpse of the Nimrod and to document its historic arrival at this magnificent museum site.
Earlier that morning, BAe Nimrod MR.2 XV250 crewed up at its home station of RAF Kinloss for the final time and would have the honour of being the first former RAF Nimrod MR.2 to be dispatched for preservation. Ambitious plans to perform an air-to-air photo sortie en route to Elvington had to be cancelled as the weather was just too poor and whilst the Nimrod was more than capable of negotiating the conditions, the photo-ship aircraft certainly wasn’t. Making the journey alone, this must have been a memorable, if emotional last flight for the crew and as they approached XV250’s new home airfield, they were determined to put on a performance for the gathered masses.
As the Nimrod’s landing lights pierced the gloomy Yorkshire skies, making the aircraft visible to the crowds gathered below, every camera on the airfield was directed towards an aircraft which would usually be photographing unidentified shipping on a long maritime patrol. With the crew doing their very best to make this a memorable occasion, the Nimrod made two circuits of the airfield, one with its wheels down, allowing us all one final opportunity to experience the awesome power of the aircraft’s four Rolls Royce Spey engines. As it finally came in to touch down on the Elvington massive runway, this would turn out to be the final time that many of us would see an RAF Nimrod in the air and the last time BAe Nimrod MR.2 XV250’s wheels would ever leave the ground again.
One aviation classic welcomes another. Victor K.2 ‘Lusty Lindy’ looks on with interest as her new museum mate arrives at Elvington
As the Nimrod arrived at the airfield, no one expected the police parking restrictions to extend to the star attraction of the day
As the crew of the Nimrod were greeted by museum officials and hand-over formalities concluded, the aircraft embarked on a new career as a much loved exhibit at one of the world’s most impressive museums, a huge centrepiece attraction of their aviation collection and a lasting reminder of Britain’s once great aviation prowess. With the museum’s intention to maintain the aircraft in a ground running condition, the aircraft was not only destined to become a significant visitor attraction at the museum, but also a fitting ‘living’ tribute to the service career of the RAF’s maritime ‘Mighty Hunter’ and the service personnel who paid the ultimate sacrifice whilst on operations in the aircraft.
Since arriving at Elvington, XV250 has become one of the most popular exhibits at the museum and thanks to the steadfast dedication of a relatively small team of volunteers, the aircraft regularly performs engine runs at the Yorkshire Air Museum’s Thunder Day events. Having been present for an engine run on several occasions, I can definitely confirm that the Nimrod likes nothing more than making a bit of noise and when the crew turn the power up, it is absolutely deafening – an experience which certainly keeps people coming back for more captivating Nimrod action.
Even though the many aircraft retirement and service withdrawal events I have attended over the years could induce something of an aviation related depression, at least I am able to say that I was there for the experience and have the photographic evidence to prove it. Having said that, I am very much looking forward to documenting the service introduction of the RAF’s latest aircraft acquisitions, including the Nimrod’s long overdue successor, the Boeing P-8A Poseidon.
Here is a final selection of images taken during Nimrod XV250’s arrival at the Yorkshire Air Museum in 2010.
This final selection of images is a photographic walkthrough of the day, starting with the arrival of the aircraft and ending with it settled into its new home later the same year
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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The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 14th February, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.
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