On July 23, 2017 the Lightning Preservation Group’s F3, XR713, was rolled out in a fresh new scheme representing two revered squadrons that once operated the type. Having been partly funded by the Centre of Aviation Photography (COAP), a photoshoot was arranged for a limited number of photographers to capture the first public outing in ‘her’ new dual scheme.
Bruntingthorpe is well known in the enthusiast community for its tremendous selection of Cold War jets that have been saved from the scrap heap following retirement from service. With many kept in running order, it is the largest collection of ground running ex military types in the United Kingdom. Although these are housed at the Leicestershire airfield, the plethora of types are maintained and operated by individual organisations and groups such as the Lightning Preservation Group (LPG).
Operating from a former RAF Wattisham Q-Shed, the LPG’s pair of ground running and fast taxi capable Lightning F6’s (XR728 & XS904) feature prominently at Bruntingthorpe, not only in the bi-annual taxi days that include the majority of the collection but also during specific photo events organised by the LPG themselves. With the two runners and numerous cockpit sections, it was announced in late-2014 that a third complete airframe would join them albeit not to be returned to a ground running state.
Lightning F3 XR713 first flew in October 1964 and was initially delivered to 111 Squadron – better known as the ‘Tremblers’ – just four months later. After serving for some 23 years, which also included stints with 5 Squadron and the Lightning Training Flight or LTF, XR713 was retired to RAF Leuchars where it was to become a ground instructional airframe. With the Scottish base home to the ‘Tremblers’, XR713 was eventually taken on by 111 for gate guard duties and restored into its former markings. After the announcement that Leuchars was to be transferred to the Army as part of the 2011 Strategic Defence and Security Review, many were concerned that XR713 would be lost to the scrappers. Thankfully, both the Lightning and another iconic airframe, McDonnell Douglas Phantom XV582 ‘Black Mike’, were saved and found homes at Bruntingthorpe, the latter due to arrive there later this year.
Of course, the transportation of such an aircraft is a difficult job, especially with the distances involved. This had long been identified as a particular issue with the Lightning given the complexity involved with removing the wings and tail structure. With many saved aircraft being ‘cut and shut’ as the quickest route to transportation to museums and such like, there was a desire to cause as little damage as possible to XR713. That said, the LPG managed to complete the painstaking task of breaking down the airframe without any cutting involved before transporting it the near 400 miles southwards for re-assembly during the latter part of 2015 leading to its debut event appearance at LPG’s Twilight Run in November of that year (Ed note – have a look at our review here – https://www.aeroresource.co.uk/events/lightning-preservation-group-twilight-run/).
Up until now, XR713 had retained the black and yellow markings of ‘Treble One’ that had been well looked after whilst it was on gate guard duties. However, in May 2017 the Centre of Aviation Photography announced that, following part funding by Steve Comber, the airframe would receive a repaint into a split scheme representing not only 111 Squadron but also that of another well-known RAF Wattisham Lightning unit stationed alongside the ‘Tremblers’, 56 Squadron better known as the ‘Firebirds’. As previously mentioned, XR713 never actually served with that unit therefore the 56 Squadron markings represent XR718 – the ‘real’ ‘718 still exists albeit is in private ownership and in a number of pieces.
Marking the roll out of the new scheme, COAP held an event with just over 50 attendees taking the chance to capture the airframe almost fresh out of the paint shop. Unlike other events held at Bruntingthorpe, this one was done firmly with photography in mind with the location for the majority of the afternoon being the southwest corner of the airfield that affords a clean and clutter free backdrop. With XR713 being towed to the location, it wasn’t long before the photographers were ‘let loose’ to capture the stunning new scheme – a red and white checkerboard tail stretching down to a red spine and arrowhead with Phoenix on the nose.
With well over an hour to grab multiple angles (and wait for the sun to break through the clearing storm clouds), there was plenty of time available. The use of a set of steps gave some great-elevated angles especially given its repositioning a number of times throughout to give something different. During this time, re-enactor Rob Petifer was on hand to add a ‘human touch’ to the proceedings complete with authentic Lightning pilot garb. Also present was ex-Lightning pilot John Ward, not only a regular pilot during the taxi events but a man who actually flew XR718 in the 56 Squadron markings on show – he having flown the type between 1965 and 1970, along with Dennis Brooks who is another ex-Lightning pilot and regular behind the controls of the LPG’s running pair.
As the afternoon went on, the light only improved with the dark clouds from the morning breaking to reveal some lovely blue skies. With different angles of the star attraction starting to run short, it was time to bring in its two LPG stablemates, the two F6s. Although not running engines during this event, it was still a rare chance to get photos with a clear backdrop and also of the trio all together.
After just under four hours shooting, it was time for them to be returned back to the Q-shed – a task taking around 20 minutes per aircraft given the distance involved! Despite the official event end time being passed, the LPG volunteers along with the re-enactor were more than accommodating in providing some additional time at the end to grab a few more images outside the Q-shed. There is a very strong chance that both XR713 and the true XR718 would have been housed in these very Q-Sheds on numerous occasions during their residence at RAF Wattisham, the shed’s having come from there.
Overall, it has to be said that the event was a brilliant way in which to unveil the new scheme. Although some may be critical of the low number of spaces available, having attended it is difficult to imagine a larger number being afforded such free reign during the event without detracting from the results. With a recent announcement that the traditional August bank holiday taxi run event would no longer take place due to the sheer volume of car storage on the site (something that we truly hope is a temporary situation – indeed at the time of publishing this article a smaller event with a limited number of aircraft had been announced), perhaps these smaller events utilising the far end of the runway may be a great way for some of the individual aircraft operators such as the Lightning Preservation Group and The Buccaneer Aviation Group to raise much needed money to continue their restoration work whilst offering enthusiasts something different from usual events. At the end of the day, XR713 looked fabulous in the new dual scheme markings and will continue to do so for a long time yet, giving plenty of opportunities to catch it!
To stay up to date with events held by The Lightning Preservation Group be sure to keep an eye on http://www.lightnings.org.uk. For more information on events ran by COAP, head over to their site – www.centreofaviationphotography.com.