As we head into the winter months, events in our hobby are few and far between and normally limited to the odd nightshoot. The Lightning Preservation Group (LPG), however, do not let the season slip by without one last hurrah. Harry Measures was at their Bruntingthorpe base for a night with the protectors protecting the protector at the Lightning Preservation Group Twilight Run.
Dubbed the Twilight run, the LPG’s last event of the year normally sees one of their two preserved English Electric Lightning F.6s perform a fast taxi in the dying light of the day, followed by an impromptu nightshoot in front of their immaculate Q-Sheds, which are home to the group’s two steeds. Held annually, this year was slightly different, with not one but both of the running Lightnings (XR728/JS and XS904/BQ) down to perform. As well as that their latest acquisition, English Electric Lightning F.3 XR713/C, was to take a starring role in the nightshoot. What a delightful proposition, three examples of the ‘home-grown’ interceptor in one place and unique to the Lightning Preservation Group Twilight Run.
On the day of the run, the weather was not looking particularly appealing – thoughts of the sodden Cold War Jets day in August sprung to mind but what else do you expect from a bank holiday! Thankfully, during the drive to the Leicestershire airfield the weather changed dramatically, revealing a blue sky with a lovely cloudscape to boot upon arrival. On the gate, the tickets were £25 – the same price for advance tickets. This was a slight increase on last year’s cost, but is to be expected given there would be double the number of Rolls-Royce Avons shaking the ground.
Before the run, there was plenty of activity around the ex-RAF Wattisham Q-Sheds, and people were free to roam the extent of Bruntingthorpe’s collection of Cold War warriors. While the LPG’s engineers were busy preparing both F.6s for their run, XR713 took centre stage, much to the delight of the assembled photographers and avid Lightning fans. Pushed back into the sheds, it is quite possible that XR713 sat on Quick Reaction Alert at Wattisham in this very shelter while based there with 111 Squadron from mid-1965.
With the golden hour fast approaching, the evening’s runners were soon towed out to the huge 3000 meter runway. As per the Cold War Jets days held during the year, the spectator area runs parallel to the runway and is fenced off, but still ludicrously close to the action.
As the last twinges of day pieced the darkening skies, both Lightnings – one in the hands of Dennis Brooks and the other John Ward – soon filled the air with the screech of their AVPIN starters as they started up one after the other, sending a plume of smoke into the cold air. After running through the post start checks, the jets were marshalled into position for their ground shaking static ‘burner runs. Aligned on the runway at the very end of the crowd line, both Lightnings were chocked, and then lit the number one Avon (the bottom of the two) simultaneously; indeed the timing could not have been more accurate! Sadly, as with older aircraft, occasionally a technical problem rears its ugly head. The evening was one of these times with XS904 developing a problem that prevented the number 2 Avon from lighting leaving XR728 to do the honours alone.
With the static burner runs complete, the chocks were pulled and both machines pirouetted to return to the end of the runway, with XS904 lined up to depart first. Due to the aforementioned problem, it was an afterburner free affair, which made the photography rather challenging – the lovely soft evening light had been lost about 20 minutes earlier – Oh for that large bank of cloud that parking itself firmly on the horizon! With XS904 having disappeared over the crest of Buntingthorpe’s runway, XR728 lined up and poured on the coals. For those too young to have seen a Lightning in service, this is as close – quite literally – as you can get to it… in the UK at least! Seeing it in the fading light only adds to the spectacle with the afterburner cones clearly visible, and almost as long as the jets itself.
As both Lightnings made their way back up the runway and shut down opposite the crowd line, most of the spectators made their way back across to the Q-sheds. Those that stayed by the runway were rewarded with the unmistakeable silhouettes of the Lightning against a stunning sunset sky. Perhaps in future leaving the jets on the runway for a little bit longer, or even setting up some portable lights would offer something different to the Q-Shed cameos that are set up when the jets return to the hangar. Of course, the star this year in that regard was XR713 under the lights for the very first time. Recently purchased from the MOD and transported to Bruntingthorpe from the now closed RAF Leuchars in Scotland, the jet is just one a handful of F.3s to escape the mass culling that the variant faced in the 1970s. In fact, the aircraft is one of only five complete Lightning F.3s to remain.
With the final photo opportunity being all three of the LPG’s Lightnings around the Q-shed, the evening drew to a close. With the price of the event equal to that of a normal Bruntingthorpe Cold War Jets day, one has to consider that although there is less on offer in terms of aircraft, the event has a much more intimate feel to it. Of course, the main draw is seeing a Lightning thunder down the runway in full afterburner, which is even more spectacular in the dying light of day. On the whole, the Lightning Preservation Group Twilight Run is a welcome way to break up the off-season, for more reasons than one.