When compared to so many other types it once shared the skies with, the Blackburn Buccaneer has survived in far better numbers – some 48 complete airframes are still in existence today. The first production example of the S2 variant, Blackburn Buccaneer S2 XN974, has been the focus of a near 18-month restoration effort at its Yorkshire Air Museum home. AeroResource’s Jamie Ewan was invited to join guests as the jet was ‘rolled out’ and unveiled in its original guise.
Taking to the air for the first time on June 5, 1964, the story of how Blackburn Buccaneer S2 XN974 ended up at Elvington is one that makes it no ordinary ‘Bucc’. Starting life as a loaner to the Ministry of Aviation, the jet ultimately ended its career with British Aerospace in 1991. However, one things is for sure, no one who witnessed the jet power into the skies of Yorkshire from Blackburn’s Holme-on-Spalding-Moore facility that day could have imagined that it would still call the county home more than 50 years later. In fact, no one could have imagined that the jet would find that home a stones throw from where that very first flight took place. But low and behold it has happened – XN974, a Yorkshire built aeroplane calling its namesake’s air museum home and just 13 miles from where it came into existence!
Like most airframes, the exacting history of XN974 is one that, in many ways, is worthy of the coverage alone. Spanning three decades, the aircraft was used primarily by the manufacturer (who later became Hawker Siddeley) and the Fleet Air Arm for proofing trials before seeing numerous embarks on various carriers – HMS Ark Royal, HMS Eagle, HMS Hermes and even the USS Lexington during ‘cross compatibility’ work in 1965. After flying ‘tropical trials’ out of Pensacola, Florida the jet made history on October 4, 1965 during the trip home when it became the first Royal Navy aeroplane to fly the transatlantic route non-stop – covering the 1,950 miles from Goose Bay, Canada to Lossiemouth, Scotland in just 4 hours 16 minutes. As if that wasn’t enough, three months later XN974 also set an endurance record for the type with a flight lasting just short of 9 hours.
Delivered to the Royal Air Force for use as a prime avionics development and weapons system testbed in January 1971, it was used extensively by British Aerospace out of their Warton facility in Lancashire, including high-altitude air-to-air refuelling trials with Tornado GR1s in preparation of Operation Granby – the British military operation during the first Gulf War. With the Buccaneer entering its twilight, British Aerospace donated the jet to the then fledgling Yorkshire Air Museum (YAM) where it was flown into on August 19, 1991. Eight years later it became the very first ‘live’ aircraft exhibit on the site and has been a regular since then during YAM’s ‘Thunder Days’.
Now, nearly 25 years after it arrived, XN974 has been returned to its former glory following a near 18-month restoration effort led by Andre Tempest and his team after the aircraft had started to show signs of its age both technically and cosmetically. After flying in to the museum wearing the dark green and sea grey ‘wraparound’ camouflage synonymous with Royal Air Force ‘Buccs’ in their later role, XN974 has now been restored in to its original Royal Navy livery – a superb effort from those involved especially during the winter months in the sites draughty T2 Hangar. As Museum Director Ian Reed said, “It really is a thing of beauty and a tribute to the skills of Andre Tempest as an aircraft painter and Grant Sparks and other Aircraft Heritage volunteers who have contributed greatly to the project”.
Draped in the Royal Navy Ensign that once flew aboard HMS York and generously donated to the Museum by the York Royal Naval Association, the aeroplane was officially unveiled by Commodore Paul Sutermeister, president of the Royal Naval Association North East Region, and Ian Reed, who removed the 9ft flag from the gleaming jet. As the latter put it “There is no doubt that Buccaneer XN974 now looks absolutely pristine in the striking sea grey colours with white undersides and Fleet Air Arm decals as if it had just come off the production line at Blackburn”. One could quite easily see what he meant as the jet was greeted with a huge round of applause from the gathered crowd – some of whom started their careers with this very jet over half a century ago in the crowd. Ted Puckering, a former worker who did just that said, “When I started with the company in 1965, this was the beast I worked on, to see it here is very emotional”.
A relic of the past preserved for future generations, Commodore Sutermeister cemented that by saying “I think it’s marvellous and good for the younger generation to see just what we did have and what we did, we worked wonders with them, and this one was a workhorse for both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force”.
With many other ex-Blackburn workers, Buccaneer Pilots and even apprentices in the crowd, one has to wonder what memories came flooding back as the jet wound up its Rolls-Royce Speys – Ollie Suckling doing the honours with Andre Tempest taking the back seat. Winding the engines up to near full power, Ollie performed a short taxi and functional demo – the wings, rotating bomb bay, control surfaces, arrestor hook and flaps all being exercised having been kept live since arriving at the museum. Lasting just over 10-minutes, fuel flow indicators in the rear cockpit (something not fitted to the rest of the production run) showed the fuel burn for each engine at almost 250lbs!
One of three Buccaneers present at the museum (the other two being XV168, an ex-BAe gate guardian and XX901, a veteran of both Operation Granby and Pulsator – both being static exhibits), the run officially welcomed the aircraft back to the Museum’s ‘live’ aircraft fleet, all of which are due thunder down the airfield’s runway on August 27 during the first ‘Rolling Thunder Day’ in a number of years.
Dark grey and white has never looked so good!