Sea Vixen celebration
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. Even though we are now only weeks away from the start of the 2019 Airshow season, you never turn down an opportunity to attend a new aviation event if one should present itself. In this latest edition of Aerodrome, our destination is the vast airfield complex at Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire and a specially arranged event to mark the 60th anniversary of a very important preserved aeroplane. Before we begin, I would just like to express my gratitude to several overseas readers who contacted us recently, sending extremely supportive comments about our blog and how they love reading the articles featuring aviation museums and events around the UK – if it wasn’t for Aerodrome, they simply would not know about many of these developments. We have also received several suggestions for future Aerodrome blog subjects readers would like to see covered, including a rather impressive list of the world’s most significant aviation museums. Most of these museums are overseas and whilst I would dearly love to visit these locations and give the museums the full Aerodrome treatment, I feel that I may struggle getting official clearance for such an undertaking – you never know though, stranger things have happened! There is an answer to this problem however and without wanting to appear flippant, it involves our fantastic worldwide readership. If Aerodrome readers were to review their own aviation museums, we would be more than happy to include their words and pictures for the benefit of fellow Aerodrome readers, allowing everyone to experience some places of aviation interest which most of us would never have the opportunity to visit in person. If anyone would like to pen such a review and feature in a future edition of Aerodrome, please send details to our usual firstname.lastname@example.org contact e-mail address and let’s see how many of the world’s aviation museums we can cover. Right, back to the main subject of this week’s blog and some classic Cold War jet action.
When arriving at the security barrier at Bruntingthorpe, you are greeted by the sight of this rather distinctive Jaguar Jaguar
Although most Aerodrome readers would probably admit to not engaging with the social media phenomenon quite as effectively as younger members of society, it can still be an excellent source of information for aviation enthusiasts, especially if you ‘like’ some of the myriad of individual pages dedicated to the preservation of Britain’s aviation heritage. It was from one of these social media posts that I first learned of an event planned to mark the 60th anniversary of the maiden flight of one of Britain’s most important preserved jet aircraft, an event which also offered the opportunity to visit a part of Bruntingthorpe airfield I had never been to previously. With decent weather forecast for the day and the promise of static engine runs from several of the aircraft in the Classic British Jets Collection, this was an early season opportunity that was just too good to miss. This latest event review will also mark a change in direction for Aerodrome, where I intend to periodically produce blogs which are more picture heavy and less wordy – if we announce an edition as Aerodrome through the lens, you will know to expect an image rich version of the blog, keeping supporting text to an absolute minimum. As always, I would be interested to hear your opinions on how you feel about this blog development – here goes.
Bruntingthorpe has been linked with Britain’s aviation heritage since it opened in late 1942, initially as an operational training base for Bomber Command crews, but also later as a home for British jet pioneer Frank Whittle and his Power Jets Ltd company. They operated from workshops on the site, developing his top secret jet engine and conducting flight trials whilst World War Two was still raging – interestingly, jet powered Gloster Meteors went on to operate from Bruntingthorpe for a time and bringing this connection right up to date, Britain’s last airworthy Meteor flew in to the airfield earlier this year, for a future in the care of the Bruntingthorpe based Cold War Jets Collection. Following the end of the war, RAF overcapacity resulted in the airfield being placed under the care and maintenance programme until early 1957, when it would welcome the USAF and their mighty six engined B-47 Stratojet nuclear bombers as its illustrious new residents. Despite spending millions of pounds on facilities at the airfield, SAC’s stay at this Leicestershire base would turn out to be a short one and by the autumn of 1962, the last US aircraft had left the airfield and it was handed back to MoD control. Many of the older, more historic buildings were demolished over the next few years and with no plans to use the facilities for RAF operations, the airfield was eventually sold into private ownership.
Now surrounded by some rather expensive looking cars, this hangar was previously the home of Avro Vulcan XH558, during her restoration to flying condition
Although there are now more cars at Bruntingthorpe than aeroplanes, the airfield has retained its strong links to aviation and specifically the preservation of classic British jets, many of which are maintained in ground running condition. A number of groups dedicated to this work are now based at the airfield, with enthusiasts now becoming used to visiting Bruntingthorpe for a unique Cold War jets experience and the opportunity to see several of these magnificent machines blasting down the length of the runway, reminding everyone of what the RAF is missing. Arguably, the most famous resident at Bruntingthorpe and the one which brought the airfield to the attention of a much wider audience was Avro Vulcan B.2 XH558. As the last flying Vulcan in the world, XH558 had performed as the RAFs popular Vulcan Display flight for 7 years until 1992, when the aircraft made its final public display at Cranfield. Put up for sale, the Vulcan was purchased by C.Walton Ltd, who arranged for the aircraft to be flown to Bruntingthorpe, where it would form the centrepiece of their growing aviation collection. Arriving in Leicestershire on 23rd March 1993, the Vulcan would be maintained in ground running condition and for the next six years, become the star attraction at the regular ‘Rolling Thunder Days’, thrilling spectators as she trumpeted down the runway at full power.
Arguably Bruntingthorpe’s most famous former resident, Avro Vulcan B.2 XH558 was an Airshow favourite, wherever she was scheduled to appear
Not content with allowing the Vulcan to stretch her legs down the length of Bruntingthorpe’s runway, the aircraft’s owners had a dream that one day this mighty delta might return to the air once more. Hangared at the airfield and out of the gaze of the general public, the aircraft underwent a concerted period of restoration and unbelievably, they did it - they restored a Vulcan to airworthy condition. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, Avro Vulcan XH558 made her first triumphant post restoration flight on 18th October 2007 and with it, immediately became the most complex aircraft on the British civilian register. The rest, as they say, is history. The British public fell in love with this mighty flying relic of the Cold War and it went on to be the most popular Airshow performer in the history of British aviation. Many enthusiasts lament the fact that following the unfortunate end of her flying career, the aircraft was not allowed to return to Bruntingthorpe, which had become such a significant location in the history of this famous aircraft.
‘Big Bird’ takes centre stage
One of the most attractive of Britain’s Cold War jets, the de Havilland Sea Vixen was an extremely capable fleet defender
The main reason for my latest visit to Bruntingthorpe was to celebrate a significant anniversary for one of the Classic British Jets Collection’s most distinctive preserved aircraft, de Havilland Sea Vixen XJ494. The event had been arranged to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first flight of their beloved Sea Vixen and to allow enthusiasts the opportunity to get close to this Fleet Air Arm classic, whilst also throwing the spotlight on the work of the collection’s volunteer force. Preserving Britain’s jet aviation heritage for current and future generations to enjoy, these magnificent aeroplanes are maintained and safeguarded by a committed group of volunteers, each one offering their skills and free time so that these beautiful aircraft can avoid the attentions of the scrap man and provide enthusiasts with a ‘living’ aviation experience which is much more engaging than anything you get whilst visiting a traditional museum. An important aspect of the day’s events was the opportunity to experience the Sea Vixen performing static engine runs and potentially cycling her wing fold mechanism – this was clearly a significant draw for many, as XJ494 is now the only running example of the Sea Vixen in the world. Other attractions included the opportunity to view the CBJC fleet, as well as for many people, the first chance to see two of their latest aviation acquisitions, Gloster Meteor NF.11 WM167 and de Havilland Venom WR470. With several of these aircraft possibly also firing up their engines for our enjoyment and the Collection’s fund raising shop scheduled to be open for business, what better way can you think of for spending a pleasant Sunday afternoon on an airfield?
The de Havilland Sea Vixen is a particularly distinctive looking aircraft and one which holds an important place in the history of Britain’s Fleet Air Arm. An extremely large and powerful fleet defender, the Sea Vixen incorporated many design characteristics found on earlier de Havilland fighter aircraft, only much bigger – it was also destined to become the first British fighter aircraft to be armed solely with missiles. The aircraft’s main armament would be four de Havilland Firestreak air-to-air missiles, however, in a ground attack role, it could also carry two Microcell unguided rocket packs, each containing 32 projectiles and either four 500Ib, or two 1,000Ib bombs. With this impressive array of armament, the Sea Vixen was capable of carrying this load at speeds of around 690 mph at sea level, equipping the Royal Navy with their most potent aircraft, at the time of its introduction.
The unmistakable front profile of the Sea Vixen, with XJ494 now being the world’s only example capable of running under its own power
The Sea Vixen preserved by the Classic British Jets Collection is quite a unique example of the type and spend much of its life as a trials aircraft - as such, XJ494 has various equipment and non-standard instrumentation fitted which single her out as a rather special lady. As this event was scheduled to coincide with the 60th anniversary of her first flight, it will come as no surprise to learn that this took place from the de Havilland factory at Christchurch on 14th April 1959, but rather than follow this with delivery to a Fleet Air Arm squadron, she would be heading for Hatfield and use in Red Beard nuclear bomb development trials. This early British nuclear bomb was a little more manageable than previous designs, but was usually delivered by the carrying aircraft employing a low altitude toss bombing manoeuvre and XJ494 would be used in perfecting the delivery method for this powerful weapon. Spending much time as a trials aircraft with both the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment and the Royal Aircraft Establishment, this aircraft would also be used in development trials for the Anglo-French Martel stand-off anti-radar missile.
During her operational service life with Nos. 892 and 899 Squadrons Fleet Air Arm, Sea Vixen XJ494 was damaged following a mid-air collision with another Sea Vixen, which actually occurred before she was assigned to help in the Martel Missile trials. She would end her flying days at Farnborough, where she was later placed in storage, destined to be converted to drone configuration as part of the Flight Refuelling programme – this conversion would never actually take place. Almost ten years later, the aircraft was purchased by the Sea Vixen Society, who placed the aircraft on open display at the end of 1983, where the elements began to take their toll on the airframe. Perhaps the most significant date in the aircraft’s history occurred on 22nd June 1999, when Sea Vixen XJ494 arrived by road at Bruntingthorpe airfield, having been acquired by Dave Thomas, the driving force behind the Classic British Jet Collection. Their plans included preserving and maintaining the aircraft in engine running and potentially fast-taxying condition, however, this would prove to be a challenging and extremely costly undertaking, requiring the dedicated support of a small army of volunteers who all shared the same preservation vision for the aircraft. The current owner, Dave Thomas, is a driven man and he is determined to see this beautiful aircraft blasting down Bruntingthorpe’s runway under its own power, as a reminder of the days when the Royal Navy could call upon the services of this powerful twin-boom jet fighter – let’s all keep our fingers crossed that he is successful.
The sweet sound of jet engines
Famous de Havilland Comet 4c XS235 ‘Canopus’ was the first of the collection’s aircraft to fire up its engines
After receiving the obligatory safety briefing in the rather plush surroundings of an impressive new glass fronted building on the site, it was time for some serious jet action and the promise of several of the gathered aircraft firing up their engines for our enjoyment. As we all streamed out from the building, the first aircraft to burst into life was famous former Royal Aircraft Establishment Comet 4c XS235 ‘Canopus’, which had the distinction of being the last flying Comet in the world when it arrived at Bruntingthorpe in 1997. Some may remember the furore surrounding this aircraft and the end of its flaying career with A&AEE – she seemed destined to continue flying in the US, until an export bad was slapped on the aircraft, causing some people to question the sanity of the decision. Thankfully, she was one of the aircraft fortunate enough to find a home at Bruntingthorpe, where she is now maintained in fast taxi condition and can still be enjoyed by Britain’s aviation enthusiasts.
Without doubt, the most spectacular engine start up of the day belonged to de Havilland Venom WR470 and its classic de Havilland Ghost powerplant. This early jet engine requires the assistance of an explosive cartridge to turn the turbine blades sufficiently to allow main engine start and it is a noisy, dirty business – it is also happens to be a truly memorable aviation experience. Even though you know it’s coming, it still makes you jump, but if it catches you unaware, you could be in real danger of showing yourself up. If you are prepared, these early jet engines really can enable some spectacular pictures to be taken and this little Venom didn’t disappoint. WR470 was formerly owned by the Coventry based Classic Air Force Trust and only arrived at Bruntingthorpe in the Autumn of last year. Recently reunited with its Ghost engine, this would be the fist opportunity many of the visitors on the day would have had to see this aircraft being operated by its new owners, another one of the aircraft destined to perform fast taxi runs at future Cold War Jets open days.
For the aviation enthusiasts, a cartridge engine start is always something to look forward to
With the other jets receiving some post engine run attention, it was time for the aircraft of the moment to take centre stage and for the Sea Vixen to light one of her mighty Rolls-Royce Avon turbojets. Currently, only one of the aircraft’s engines are serviceable, however, the team were still confident that this would generate enough power for the aircraft to cycle its wing folding mechanism, which really is something of a naval party piece for this beautiful aeroplane. As the engine burst into life, you really did get a clear appreciation of the awesome power of the Avon, as it seemed to give the Sea Vixen a life of its own – the aircraft appeared to be straining on its breaks and just wanted to be allowed to head towards the runway. The ground running team initially appeared to be struggling to get the aircraft do what they wanted it to, with the wings remaining steadfastly in their raised position and resulting in the engine falling silent much earlier than expected, however, this is a resourceful bunch and they were determined not to be beaten. After appearing to hold an engineering meeting in the aircraft’s starboard main undercarriage bay, the start-up process was repeated and this time, the wings lowered as requested, admittedly not quite as smoothly as the team would have hoped, but this was understandable as power from both engines is generally needed for this procedure. Close inspection of the wing fold mechanism shows just how complex this system appears to be and certainly leaves you with great admiration for the people who design and engineer aeroplanes, who really must be incredibly clever individuals.
This photograph is proof that the Classic British Jets Collection team managed to cycle the wings on their Sea Vixen, the main reason that most enthusiasts turned up on the day
After the obligatory checks following completion of the engine run, the Sea Vixen was attached to an aircraft tug and manoeuvred to a position in front of the Comet, taking her place in what turned out to be a unique de Havilland photoshoot opportunity. The selection of images displayed below were all taken during this enjoyable event and will hopefully give you a flavour of the day’s extremely enjoyable aviation proceedings.
This beautiful DH-82 Tiger Moth T7290 was the only piston engined aircraft present on the day, but we will see more of this classic a little later
This slightly elevated position certainly suits the handsome lines of this Jet Provost T.5A
The latest aircraft acquisition of the collection is Gloster Meteor NF.11 WM167, a particularly handsome aircraft
Classic British jets as far as the eye can see. Is it any wonder that Bruntingthorpe is becoming a major venue for European aviation enthusiasts
This aviation classic is well worth a second view. It is hoped that Meteor WM167 will soon take its place amongst the aircraft performing fast taxy runs down the length of Bruntingthorpe’s runway
An extremely attractive looking jet, this Hunter GA.11 in Royal Navy colours was formerly a FRADU machine and retains the Harley light in its nose
Another look at gate guardian Jaguar GR.1 XZ382 and its rather unique scheme
One of the largest aircraft at Bruntingthorpe is Handley Page Victor K.2 XM715, an aircraft which famously made an unplanned flight at the airfield on 3rd May 2009
More Victor goodness, this time in a view looking towards the aircraft’s distinctive nose artwork
Classic aviation Vintage Pair sitting amongst the thousands of cars at the airfield
Following the end of her engine run, Sea Vixen XJ494 was towed to the far side of the display area, to take her place in a rather unique quartet of de Havilland designs
The beautiful Comet may have been one of the world’s first successful jetliners, but Canopus proves the aircraft also had a successful military career
Evocative quartet. This interesting picture features four classic de Havilland designs lined up on the taxiway
From a different angle, this aviation grouping proved to be one of the undoubted highlights of the day
With the Tiger Moth making its way home, there was just one final opportunity to take this de Havilland jet image, before we were invited to return to our cars
The last word has to go to the ‘birthday girl’ and the main reason many of us made the trip to this latest Classic British Jets Collection event
As well as wishing Sea Vixen XJ494 a very happy 60th birthday, I would also like to congratulate the Classic British Jets Collection team for serving up a real aviation treat and allowing us all the opportunity to admire the magnificent aircraft under their charge. Every member of the team work hard to ensure these aircraft are maintained to an extremely high standard, ready to answer the call when the great British public fancy a little classic jet action. This is undoubtedly a costly business and the team need as much public money and support as they can get, not only to maintain their existing collection, but also to facilitate the exciting future plans they have in preserving Britain’s significant aviation heritage. Please keep an eye out for other enthusiast events arranged at Bruntingthorpe and support this unique collection of classic British jets if you possibly can – your money will be put to extremely good use and you will be assured of a thoroughly enjoyable aviation experience whilst on the airfield.
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. As always, if you have any ideas for a future edition of Aerodrome, or if you would like to supply a feature of your own which will be of interest to our worldwide aviation readership, please send your suggestions to our regular contact e-mail address at email@example.com, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
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