Protecting the Protectors – Tracing their roots back to RAF Binbrook’s Crash Gate 2, the Lightning Preservation Group (LPG), hold a number of events through the year which have become a ‘must’ on many an enthusiasts calendar. Jamie Ewan travelled to their home at Bruntingthorpe for a look at their first event of the year – a photography nightshoot with their Lightnings.
Found 5 minutes down the road from the birthplace of the jet engine, Bruntingthorpe has become a hub for aircraft preservation with a rather unique collection of examples within its massive 6.5 kilometre site. Unlike many of their stable mates which have been reduced to mere memories and nostalgic pictures, these icons of the jet age have been saved from extinction.
Like the Supermarine Spitfire, the Lightning holds a special place in the hearts and minds of those who knew and admired them just as strongly today as it was 40 years ago. This is evidenced by the number of people and groups set up as guardians for Lightnings that have survived in both Museum and private hands.
With 337 of the type built (including the prototypes during the production run), the aircraft has survived extinction – despite efforts of the 1957 Defence White Paper – at the hand of the ‘scrappers’ somewhat better than some of the other types that served during the height of the Cold War.
One such group that has taken on the role of ‘protecting the protectors’ is the Lightning Preservation Group based at Bruntingthorpe Airfield in Leicestershire. More than 20 years on from the last military flight, this band of Lightning fanatics, ex Lightning Force members and dedicated aviation enthusiasts work tirelessly to keep their Lightning F6s (XS904/BQ and XR782/JS) and the atmosphere of the Cold War memory alive.
The story of how the LPG became the custodians of two ‘home grown interceptors’ is the stuff of legend in both the UK and World preservation scenes and one that could take up pages of text and images. The same goes for each of the jets – XR728/JS (the groups first acquisition) for example, first flew on 17th March 1965 and went on to become ‘Binbrooks Flagship’ as the personal mount of the late Binbrook Station Commander Group Capt John Spencer.
Said to have been a radical departure from the tried and tested designs of the time, the English Electric Lightning was the brainchild of W.E.W ‘Teddy’ Petter and was conceived to meet a specification issued by the Air Ministry in 1947 (Experimental Requirement 103) becoming the only all-British Mach 2 fighter and the first type capable of supercruise – supersonic flight without an afterburner – in the world.
Prominently used by the Royal Air Force, the English Electric Lightning (officially named in 1958 by Sir Dermont Boyle) first flew on August 4, 1954 as the P.1A in the hands of legendary Test Pilot Roland Beamont and entered service as the Lightning F.1 in December 1959. Culminating in the F.6, the type still referred to as the ‘Skyrocket’ was operated by 12 squadrons in its 30 years service with the Royal Air Force – not at all bad for a aircraft only expected to remain in service for maybe ten years or so.
However, despite suffering from underdevelopment and the lacklustre fuel economy causing both a lack of range and endurance it enjoyed some limited export success with both the Royal Saudi Air Force and the Kuwaiti Air Force employing the type between 1967-1986 and 1968-1977 respectively.
Those arriving at the event for gates opening were greeted by the awesome sight of the numerous Cold War jets belonging to the various groups who call Bruntingthorpe home, including the unique architecture of the Blackburn Buccaneer, the huge Aero Spacelines Super Guppy and the still futuristic looking Handley Page Victor. Further up towards the 06 end of the airfield runway, many could not miss the instantly recognisable shape of the ex Royal Air Force Lockheed TriStars awaiting their fate in and around other types awaiting a new lease of life or left to the mercy of the ‘scrappers’.
Despite the huge selection of airframes in the attendees’ line of sight, it was the sleek lines of both ‘JS’ and ‘BQ’ out on the airfield that kept drawing everyone’s attention. ‘BQ’ became centre stage for the first time during the event as the sun descended down behind the jet creating a stunning silhouette of this Cold War Warrior.
Unlike the majority of nightshoots in the UK, in which the aircraft participating are static and in some cases perform engine runs whilst ‘under the lights’ so to speak, this event was set around a number of choreographed ‘QRA’ set ups involving the aircraft (the type having served the Quick Reaction Role from mid 1964 until early 1988), ground personnel along with the associated equipment both inside and outside of the Groups ‘Q Sheds’.
Acquired in 1994 from the former RAF Wattisham, the disused Quick Reaction Alert Sheds, which had housed the ‘Southern Q’ jets at the height of the Cold War, were officially opened in July 2010 after a superb effort to rebuild them. Having been stored in the open since their arrival (XR728/JS on June 24th 1988 and XS904/BQ following on January 21st 1993) the LPG’s Lightnings finally had a home. In the hours leading up to the event members of the LPG had worked to clear one of the sheds to make it look as authentic as possible – just one example of the hard work portrayed by those involved.
With scenes depicting both the aircraft and crew in various QRA situations, including a quick debriefing next to the aircraft and the aircraft being readied for a launch with the pilot strapping in, the organisers ensured there was plenty of time for a number of long exposures from a variety of angles.
Despite the chill in the air the pilots and ground crew who were instrumental in some of the depicted scenarios managed to keep still long enough – sometimes for minutes on end – for the photographers to get their images. Those that were not taking part in the scenarios were busy in the background hooking up and towing the jets, moving the lights and helping out where 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.
Once the scenes (XS904 adorned in its camouflage scheme taking centre stage for most of these) had been completed and the chaps involved with them headed off to warm up, the aircraft were placed back in their respective sheds and left for the photographers to shoot to their hearts content.
As well as the biting wind and dropping temperature, the addition of a wet pan to give some reflections, courtesy of one of the airfields fire tenders, added to the atmosphere.
The popularity of both the LPG and their aircraft is often proven by the sheer number of people supporting their events through the year, and digging deep when it comes to helping with fundraising. This was further evidenced with an announcement that tickets for the event had sold out in the weeks leading up to it. When asked at the briefing at the beginning of the night how many of the attending photographers had been to one of the LPG’s events before it was refreshing to see a lot of people keeping their hands down as first timers – cementing the popularity of a dedicated nightshoot (the first being held in 2013) with one of the most iconic jets of all time.
With some of the proceeds from the event going towards the project to bring Lightning F.3 XR713 to Bruntingthorpe from its current location at RAF Leuchars, who knows, maybe next year will see three Lightnings under the lights.
As today’s Royal Air Force are in the news somewhat regularly of late – due to launching both the Northern and Southern QRA in response to Russian Air Force Tu-95 Bear sorties, the event was a great reminder that it too was the RAF of yesteryear who looked over our skies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, 40 years ago!