As the year slowly wakes from its wintery slumber, February means one thing for many holding out for the approaching airshow season – Lightnings! AeroResource’s Jamie Ewan was one of those making a return to the home of Lightning Preservation Group at Bruntingthorpe for a night with their home-grown interceptors.
When Roland Beaumont took what would become the Lightning into the air for the first time back in 1954, little could he or the boffins behind it know that their efforts (and subsequent legacy) would still exist some six decades later. Yet unlike so many other aeroplanes of that time – the so-called Golden era of the jet age – that have now been relegated to mere memories and fading pictures hidden away and often forgotten, the Lightning has fared better at the hand of the ‘scrappers’. In fact, it has survived extinction – something it has done twice now when you consider the efforts of the 1957 Defence White Paper. Not at all bad for an aircraft only expected to be around for maybe ten years or so.
However, like so many other legends to have graced the skies, the Lightning holds a special place in the hearts and minds of those who knew and admired it – a sentiment that is just as strong today as it was all those years ago and it is that popularity that has seen numerous Lightnings preserved all over the world both in static and running condition in museums, private collections and dedicated groups. In many ways, the tables have turned and the one time ‘protector’ of the realm has become the ‘protected’.
One such group that has taken on the role of ‘protecting the protectors’ is the Lightning Preservation Group, better known as the LPG, based at Bruntingthorpe Airfield in Leicestershire. Now more than 20 years on from the last military flight by a Lightning, this band of Lightning fanatics work tirelessly to keep the atmosphere of the Cold War aircraft alive. Tracing their roots back to RAF Binbrook as the drawdown of Royal Air Force Lightning operations approached their culmination, the story of how the Lightning Preservation Group and their Lightning’s (two live jets and one static) is the stuff of legend – not only on home shores, but across the world having managed to do what many said was impossible. Preserving their strand of history, the LPG hold a number of events throughout the year to help raise funds and publicity of what they do in the hope of keeping not just the jets themselves but both the atmosphere and memory of the Cold War alive.
Having held their their first dedicated nightshoot back in 2013, the Lightning Preservation Group opened their 2017 season with another chance to shoot their three British made interceptors ‘under the lights’.
The immense sight of the numerous aeroplanes that call Bruntingthorpe home stretches as far as the eye can see and greets those arriving at the airfield – including the much missed shape of the ex-Royal Air Force TriStars still awaiting their fate almost three years after their withdrawal from service. However, for those who were making a return to the airfield, one thing was apparent – the sheer number of all manner of vehicles currently stored on the huge expanse of the Leicestershire airfield, especially when compared to the number there during the first night shoot held by the group.
That said, despite the number of distractions in almost every direction, it was the still radical looking Lightnings that drew the most attention, with both F.6s having been pulled outside their respective Q-Sheds – whilst the groups 111 Squadron marked F.3 had been dragged out on to the taxiway in the hope of casting a silhouette against the setting sun. Sadly the weather prevented any chance of that with a biting wind whipping round the airfield and a blanket of grey covering the skies above it.
Following a similar approach to their previous shoots, the event was set around a number of choreographed ‘set ups’ using the jets and the immaculate ex-RAF Wattisham Q-Sheds the LPG call home. Having housed the Southern Quick Reaction Alert jets at the height of the Cold War, the LPG acquired the sheds in 1994 and, in the hours leading up to the event, cleared out one of them to make it look as authentic as possible when the Lightning would have served the Quick Reaction Role from mid-1964 until early 1988. To add to the authenticity of what the LPG have created, their F.3, XR713, is more than likely to have actually sat in those very sheds while on ‘Q’ at RAF Wattisham in the sixties! Where else in the world can you see and be part of that?
With scenes depicting the crew in various poses in and around XS904 which included a quick debriefing next to the aircraft and the pilot climbing in to the cockpit, the organisers ensured there was plenty of time for numerous long exposures from different angles for each. Despite the chill in the air, the chaps re-enacting – Jed Jaggard and Andrew Brook who were instrumental in some of the depicted scenes – managed to keep still long enough (sometimes for minutes on end) to allow the photographers to capture the moment and the use of a wet pan added to the chance of shooting reflections throughout the evening.
Those not taking part in the scenarios were busy in the background hooking up and towing the jets about, moving lights and helping wherever possible. Yet another example of the LPG going the extra mile to provide a unique setting and transporting you back to the midst of the Cold War.
An added extra to this year’s event was the chance to shoot the cockpit of XR728 ‘lit up’ whilst it undergoes its winter maintenance. Better known as ‘Binbrook’s Flagship’ the aircraft wears the marks of the Lightning Training Flight and is coded with two of the most famous letters in the Lightning world, ‘JS’ – the machine having been the personal mount of Binbrook’s famed Officer Commanding, John Spencer. Climbing up a set of steps on the starboard side of the jet, you were met by a typical 1950s era cockpit bathed in the ominous red glow from the internal lighting. Looking into the tight confines of cockpit, one could easily imagine the contours of a pilots face being picked out in red as they plunged through the darkness chasing silver red starred Bears all those years ago whilst defending the realm.
As with a number of preservation projects, spares can be and are often an issue – most of those available at the time quite rightly ended up in South Africa to support Thunder City’s proud fleet of flyers. The LPG engineering team therefore undertake the building and overhauling of many components that would have been ‘off the shelf’ when the aircraft was in service, developing new skills as a result. Some of the required components are common and therefore can be easily obtained externally, such as when the team overhauling a starter needed a number of small seals they could be easily obtained, albeit at a cost of more than £40 each and a minimum order of ten – an expensive business! That said, the popularity of the LPG, their aircraft and what they do is shown by the sheer number of people supporting their events through the year and often digging deep when it comes to helping with fundraising. Cementing the popularity of a dedicated nightshoot with one of the most iconic jets to ever grace the skies, it was refreshing to see people keeping their hands down when asked if they had been to one of the LPG’s events before.
As today’s Royal Air Force protect the skies – the Northern and Southern QRA launching in response to Russian Air Force bomber sorties and stray airliners on a regular basis these day – the event was a great reminder that it too was the pilots and jets of yesteryear who looked over our skies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, 40 years ago!