With the 2016 airshow season all but a fading memory and the dark nights drawing in at a pace, ‘nightshoot season’ is in full swing all around the country. November 12th saw the turn of the Lightning Preservation Group as they took centre stage with three home-grown interceptors, during their annual Twilight Run – this year featuring for the first time a ‘Double QRA Scramble’. Jamie Ewan was on hand for AeroResource and reports on one of the most anticipated nocturnal events of the season.
To say the story of the Lightning Preservation Group (LPG) is one that is untold is an understatement. Tracing their roots back to RAF Binbrook’s Crash Gate 2 as Lightning operations entered their final months, the story of how a band of Lightning fanatics became custodians of two of the hottest jets to come from the golden era of the jet age is the stuff of legend, not only in the UK but around the world preservation scenes. Now, more than 25 years after their first interceptor arrived the LPG, like various other groups dedicated to preserving their individual strands of history, hold a number of events throughout the year to help raise funds and publicity. Dubbed the Twilight Run, this event is not only the last chance to see the jets strutting their stuff before they undergo their winter maintenance schedule, it is the only chance to see them doing it in the dying light of day – an opportunity unavailable anywhere else in the world!
In recent years, the event has seen one of their two Lightning F.6s (XR728/JS and XS904/BQ) towed out onto Bruntingthorpe’s huge 10,000ft runway for a fast taxi before returning for a ‘static burn’ in front of the crowd as darkness takes over. This then being followed by a nightshoot with the other F.6 alongside the static F.3 variant (XR713/C) in front of their immaculate Q-Sheds which themselves housed Lightnings sitting on Southern Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) at RAF Wattisham during the height of the Cold War. This year however was to see the first ‘Double Twilight Scramble’ from these Q-sheds.
With tickets matching last year’s price of £25 (with both on the gate and advanced ticket prices being the same) many making their way to the Leicestershire airfield cannot help but have wondered if the event would go ahead, with rain pelting most of the country pretty relentlessly from the early hours of the 12th. Thankfully however, those passing through the gates into the airfield early on were greeted by a break in the clouds with the rain having all but disappeared. As you can imagine, like most things in aviation, Mother Nature is one thing that can’t be ignored and while the jets were only undertaking high-speed runs, the weather has to be taken into account to ensure it is carried out safely. The runs themselves are in reality a pre-planned rejected take-off with wind strength, direction and headwind component mixed with any kind of surface moisture all determining the exact point of ‘rejection’.
Whilst the dedicated team of engineers went through their rigorous checks – some 40 or so in total including removing the aircraft’s covers and blanks, general external inspections, oil, fuel and AVPIN replenishments – on both F.6s, XR713 and the rest of Bruntingthorpe’s collection of Cold War warriors took centre stage. The cylindrical elegance of the worlds first production commercial jetliner, the Comet, in view of another of de Havilland’s famous designs in the mighty twin boomed Sea Vixen while a Mystère IV sat close by. Within view of the Comet sat its progeny in the form of a Nimrod MR.2 – which is outdone by the still futuristic lines of the Victor, while its predecessor, the legendary Shackleton could be spied sitting quietly in the distance undergoing restoration. A medley of types in various states – including the recognisable hulk of a F-86 Sabre – could be seen housed on the ‘pan’, including the worlds only Tornado GR1P sitting close by alongside Canberra WT333 – both wearing the still rather stunning red, white and blue ‘Raspberry Ripple’ scheme. Just down from them sat the iconic shape of three Buccaneers whilst towering over them all was the unmistakable shape of the Super Guppy, the once behemoth of the skies. Sat outside the ex-Wattisham Q-sheds, XR713 is more than likely to have actually sat in those very sheds while on alert with 111 Squadron at the base in the sixties.
Following a brief with the nights plans and timings by LPG member Chris Norris from atop the ladder of XR713, it was also announced that the event was to be dedicated to the memory of two men – LPG founder member Peter Talbot and honorary member Andrew Brodie (more on that later).
As can be imagined, with action happening both at the jets and on the runway there is essentially a need for two ‘viewing’ areas depending on which aspect you want to witness – the human element or the sheer power. Set up straight across from the sheds was an area for those wanting to catch the former, with a second area arranged alongside the runway for those wishing to see the latter. Fenced off in similar fashion to that of the twice-yearly Cold War Jets days, you are certainly close to the action – a huge plus for anyone wanting to feel the sheer power of these incredibly radical looking jets.
With the ‘Q-jets’ ready and ‘cocked’, the last twinges of day slowly disappeared into night and with a 10,000ft runway at their disposal, the scene was soon set. Before long, the air was alive with the alert bell ringing and the yells of the crews. Within seconds came the rattle of the Q-Shed doors being hurriedly opened before the shriek of an AVPIN starter pierced the air as the first jet came alive – John Ward doing the honours as ‘Q1’ in XR728/JS. Bare essential checks carried out, a quick flash of the landing lights and the jet was soon on its way along the taxiway to the runway before plugging both afterburners in and plunging into the darkness – no less than two minutes after the call to ‘Scramble’!
Following the lead jet into darkness a minute or so later was XS904/BQ with Dennis Brooks in the ‘office’ as ‘Q2’. The scenario being played out was ‘Q1’ had scrambled out after an unidentified blip on the radar scope which split into six intruders as the jet launched with ‘Q2’ following into the fray to provide immediate support. Sadly, as with older aircraft, occasionally a technical problem rears its head and this event was one of these times – ‘Bravo Qubec’ developing an issue that prevented the number two afterburner from lighting up the night sky.
As both jets disappeared over the hump in Bruntingthorpe’s runway, those opting to catch the action at the sheds were given ample time to head over and catch sight of the static burn – a superb bit of planning from all involved and something hugely appreciated those attending. Backtracking down the runway, returning from the hunt if you like, XR728 had been chosen to perform the evenings static burn and John Ward was soon marshalled and chocked into place while Dennis Brooks taxied and shut down XS904 – job done for now. Pointed back up the runway, XR728 was soon ripping the air apart as each afterburner was lit individually – the jets nose dipping under the power, almost as if salute to those being remembered. Joining XS904, XR728 – better known as Binbrook’s Flagship – joined its stablemate and shut down, the quiet only lasting for a matter of seconds before the crowd broke out into a rapturous applause. Something truly well deserved to all involved as, after all, where else can you see two live English Electric Lightning F.6s moving under their own power?
With both aircraft now cooling down and back in the hands of the ground crew it was again the turn of XR713 to take center stage for the nightshoot. Arriving at the airfield last year from the now closed RAF Leuchars, XR713 is just one of five complete F.3s still in existence – after the majority of the variant was lost in the seventies during a mass culling. Joined later by the two F.6s, the final photo opportunity of all three jets together, in and around the Q-sheds signaled 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. But in this case for anyone with a passion for aviation the Lightning Preservation Group’s Twilight run is just that – a must! Where else can you stand less that 100ft away from two English Electric Lightnings as they beat the bitterly cold twilight air into submission with the roar of their four Avons, your chest thumping as both jets plug in the burners whilst making the ground shake under your feet!
As mentioned, the night was dedicated to two men whose stories are influential in the Lightning’s history. Peter Talbot was one of the very first men to take on the upkeep of a Lightning when he purchased F.6 XR724 which was found at the ex-RAF Binbrook, the spiritual home of the Lightning. Founder and Director of the Anglo American Lightning Organisation, Andrew Brodie was one of the influential figures in the ongoing restoration of T.5 XS422 to flight in the USA. With two jets doing something many said would be impossible after the type was withdrawn from use, the night was a superb and fine way to honour these two gentleman pivotal in the preservation of the Lightning – two men who ‘protected the protectors’.
The below video from Lightning Preservation Group member Scott McPhee gives a good view of the overall evening.