With the 2017 ‘offseason’ in full swing, November 4th saw the turn of the Lightning Preservation Group and their English Electric icons to provide an aviation solace with their annual Twilight run. Billed this year as an ‘ORP Scramble’, Jamie Ewan made his way up to their home at Bruntingthorpe for an ear-shattering night and takes a look back at the event.
The story of how an airfield in rural Leicestershire and the LPG became home to not just one live Lightning but two is that of legend in the world of aircraft preservation – both in the United Kingdom and across the world. Tracing their roots back to RAF Binbrook in deepest darkest Lincolnshire as the jet entered its twilight years, this dedicated band of Lightning fanatics hold a number of events throughout the year.
Having first taken place nearly a decade ago and dubbed the Twilight run, the event is not only the last chance to see two Lightnings strutting their stuff before the LPG undertake their winter maintenance programme, but it is also the only chance to see them doing it in the dying light of day – something that is unmatched anywhere in the world.
In recent years, the event has seen either one or both of the Lightnings head out onto the 10,000ft runway – either under power or towed depending on the night’s scenario – for a fast taxi (burners and all!) before returning for a couple of static burns in front of the crowd as darkness takes over ‘Brunty’. With the runner – or runners – cooling down, a nightshoot takes place along with the LPG’s static airframe in front of their immaculate Q-Sheds – themselves having housed Lightnings on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) at RAF Wattisham during the height of the Cold War. This year however saw a new scenario being played out – a ‘pairs ORP Scramble’.
Now, for anyone who has been to Bruntingthrope in the past couple of years, there is one thing you cannot have failed to have noticed – the sheer number of vehicles currently stored out on the airfield. In fact, when arriving at the airfield it was clear to see why the August Cold War Jets Day ended up being a much smaller affair this year – cars are taking up what looks like every conceivable space available, including part of the runway! What is also apparent is the huge amount of construction work in progress to create more hard standings – and yes you have guessed it for even more cars! With that in mind, it was a great move by the Lightning boys to get permission to run the scenario down at the car-free ‘Gilmorton end’ of the airfield and bus those attending down there.
With tickets, matching last year’s price of £25 (those purchasing on the gate again matching the advanced ticket price) there was a sense of ‘déjà vu’ I am sure for many making their way to the airfield – rain yet again smashing most of the country pretty relentlessly from the early hours. Like most things in the world of aviation, Mother Nature is one thing that cannot be ignored. And yes while the jets are only undertaking high-speed runs, it has to be taken into account to ensure it is done so safely. De facto, a run is essentially a pre-planned rejected take-off with the winds strength and direction along with any headwind component and any surface moisture all coming together to determine the exact ‘rejection’ point.
While the engineers went through their rigorous checks on the runners – some 40 or so points including removing any covers and blanks, undertaking oil and fuel replenishments plus completing the ‘fail-safes’ on the AVPIN starter systems for both engines – the group’s F.3 [XR713] took centre stage outside the ex-Wattisham Q-sheds the LPG call home. Wearing a rather smart ‘split scheme’ – 111 Squadron on the port and 56(F) Squadron on the other, although the jet was never on the strength of 56, it wears colours of a machine that did, XR718 that was delivered to the squadron direct from the production line in April 1965 and still exists today, albeit in private hands. Kudos to the LPG for keeping yet another strand of Lightning history alive and rekindling the memories of colourful spines, fin flashes and chequerboards!
[Ed note: have a look here at ‘713’s unveiling courtesy of Adam Duffield – https://www.aeroresource.co.uk/news/lightning-xr713-56-sqn-scheme]
With the clock ticking and the runners making the near two-mile journey up to the far end, Chris Norris of the LPG was on hand for his usual briefing for the gathered crowd before a couple of Brunty’s resident Bendy Buses ferried them up there.
Taking up up a fair old chunk of the LPG’s pan, it is clear to see how popular this event has become, especially when compared to the first Twilight run I attended back in 2013. But therein lies the question… what draws the people to the event? (I asked it while at another event recently) Is it a chance to shoot at one of the year’s ‘must’ events during the off-season, one that offers something different from previous years? A chance to get ludicrously close to not one but two live Lightnings? Is it the fact that the Lightning still holds that special place as strongly today as it did 40 odd years ago? After all the type is on par with the likes of the Spitfire, Phantom and Vulcan in terms of popularity. Could it be that ‘boys own’ fascination with the Bear hunter? Or is it the fact the LPG offers a chance to delve into an often forgotten period of time that until recently has remained somewhat dormant, the Cold War. While looking around, it was clear to see the crowd was made up of all manner of people – aviation enthusiasts, pure Lightning fanatics, those with a vague interest and even those out with the family.
During his brief, Chris gave the heads up on what was going to happen during the scenario. Instead of scrambling out of the Q-Sheds, both XS904 and XR728 would be sat ‘cocked’ on the ‘ORP’ or Operation Readiness Platform. Following the call to scramble, the pilots would arrive at the jets, start-up and belt down the runway in full afterburner before backtracking and finishing with a pairs static burn in front of the crowd.
Once up at the ‘Gilmorton end’ it was easy to see the advantages of the move – no cars, far more space, a much longer crowd line with the added bonus of a tree-lined background.
It was also very apparent on how close (ludicrously so!) to the action the crowd was going to be – in fact, far closer than the usual Cold War Jets days with the knee-high barriers being used to separate the crowd from the ‘live’ side actually sitting on the runway! A huge plus for anyone wanting to feel the sheer power of these still radical looking jets.
With those radical looking jets sat just off the runway and the ground crew going through their last checks – the scene was set. In fact, you could imagine a similar scene somewhere in Germany during the seventies during an air defence exercise, made even more so by two re-enactors in authentic Lightning pilot garb – Jed Jaggard and Rob Petifer doing the honours. Now, with the event becoming more popular by the year, it was somewhat incredulous to see just a handful of people taking advantage of the scene being played out before them – especially given the fact that both Jed and Rob were left to their own devices as the last twinges of day retreated. Nevertheless, a bit more on that later. It has to be said however that with the sun setting behind the trees it was somewhat in shadow – thank god for ISO and noise reduction.
Before long, the air was alive with the hushed yells of the crew closely followed by the piercing shriek of both jets AVPIN starters bringing the Lightning’s to life – John Ward as the ‘lead’ XR728 ‘JS’ and XS904 ‘BQ’ in the hands of Dennis Brooks. It does have to be mentioned that one downside to the ‘move’ was the lack of a PA system of the sort seen when scrambling from the sheds – this meant that many (including me!) were unaware of what was about to happen and caught unaware! I guess that is the nature of a scramble… modus operandi!
Bare essential checks carried out, a quick flash of the landing lights and the first jet was soon turning onto the runway for a rolling start before both ‘burners were lit and plunging into the darkness – less than two minutes after starting with the second jet just seconds behind. Similar to last year, ‘BQ’ saw one of the’ afterburners fail to light – instead popping a huge electric blue flash leaving the other to light up the sky. A spectacle and a half!
Backtracking down the runway as a pair, both jets were marshalled into place and chocked for their ‘static burns’. What came next was a ground shaking, chest-thumping battering of the senses as both jets ripped the air apart with each burner – the nose of the jet dipping under the sheer immense power almost as if in salute to Lutterworth – the so-called birthplace of the jet engine lying five miles up the road off their noses. And what a way to do it… just over 30,000lbs of combined thrust!
Job done, it was apt to see both Lightnings taxi by the crowd and back towards their sheds to cool down – disappearing over Brunty’s hump, the jet noise was soon replaced by a rapturous applause from the crowd. Something truly well deserved – where else can see two live English Electric Lightning F.6s moving under their own power at night? The effort undertaken by all involved is the reason why the story of the LPG and what they have achieved is known the world over.
While both runners cooled down and back in the hands of the ground crew it was again the turn of XR713 ‘C’ to take centre stage for the nightshoot – the airframe being just one of five complete F.3s around. Having donned period appropriate flying apparel, both Jed and Rob were on hand to add to the scenes made even better by the fact that the very jet they posed with is likely to have sat in the very sheds it now sat in while actually serving on QRA duties at RAF Wattisham in the sixties. Joined later by the two F.6s, the final photo opportunity of all three jets together in and around the Q-sheds signalled an end to the night.
The word ‘must’ is one of those that is thrown around a lot when it comes to reviewing an event – especially in the aviation world. In this case, for anyone with a passion for aviation, any event run by the Lightning Preservations Group’s is just that – a must! Where else can you stand less than 100ft away from two English Electric Lightnings as they beat the cold bitten twilight air into submission with the roar of their four Avons, your chest thumping as both jets plug in the ‘burner while the ground shakes under your feet! In the past three editions of the Twilight event, the LPG has managed to play out a different scenario each time, mixing it up and keeping the event fresh. By doing this it has not fallen into that realm of ‘the same old’… something shown by the sheer number of people making it a yearly pilgrimage… and those heading home with a smile on their face.