February. Bruntingthorpe. Lightnings. Yes, it is that time of the year again at which the Lightning Preservation Group opens their season with a dedicated photoshoot of their world-renowned English Electric Lightnings. Jamie Ewan was there and took time to chat with the Group’s Secretary, Scott McPhee. 

With the Lightning Preservation Group (LPG) being one of the stalwart acts during the ‘offseason’ it was a delight to yet again be heading up the road to Bruntingthorpe – door to door, it is just seven miles for me. Heading up the hill (not that there are many around here!) I had the same old query in my head – what is it about LPG events that have the pull to get me there every time? Is it the sheer magic the LPG perform to have two fire-breathing Lightnings? Is it a chance to see something only they can make happen, and delve into an often forgotten period of aviation history? Or maybe it is the chance to live those ‘boys own’ dreams of yesteryear with the mighty Bear-hunter’? In all honesty, for me, it is all of the above and some more, which leads me to the question… what is it that gets the dedicated team of engineers, volunteers all, to give up their time to make that magic happen?

Take Scott for example, not only does he give up his time ‘protecting the protectors’, he does so after travelling down from his home 300 miles away in Scotland! So what makes him travel all that way, what is the draw to the often-temperamental microclimate of Bruntingthorpe for him?

When it comes to Lightnings, distance is no barrier! [For me] Bruntingthorpe is about the aircraft, the people, Derek Bradshaw’s wife’s Cornish Pasties, watching our Lightnings tear down the runway, XS904 getting two good reheats but the list goes on. A lot of the work I do is behind the scenes but there is nothing like actually being at the airfield.” adding “We get to meet incredible people who have worked on Lightnings in the past, and hear many stories of their time and experience with the aircraft.” An example of which happened just a few weeks ago as Scott recalls, “A very special moment for me recently was reuniting XR713 with one of her old pilot who had not seen her for over 30 years. We got him back in the cockpit, it was a very emotional day and a very strong reminder of the effect the Lightning has on people. It’s nice to know people get enjoyment from what we and the other crews do at Bruntingthorpe. It is a unique place!

Unique – that one word that sums up both Bruntingthorpe and the LPG. As Scott says, “Where else in the world can you stand close to living aircraft!” and how right he is! Where else in the world can you see two Lightnings beat the air into submission with the roar of their Rolls-Royce Avons or cast eyes on a jet that is more than likely to have actually sat in the very Q-Sheds that the LPG call home? Scott continues, “The Lightning Preservation Group’s aim is to preserve the English Electric Lightning aircraft for future generations. We are very lucky [at Bruntingthorpe] as we were able to keep the two ‘live’ aircraft we purchased running and have done for 30 years, something that is no easy task.” Unbelievably, the LPG have now kept their jets going longer than the period for which they served in the RAF – quite incredulous given the group’s original intentions to display a static example, and even more so when you consider that back in 1966 the Lightning was given an operational lifespan of just a decade!

Comprised of Lightning fanatics, ex-Lightning Force members and dedicated aviation enthusiasts, the group work tirelessly to preserve and keep the memories of the Cold War alive. Scott noted, “Our jets undergo never-ending maintenance and work. It takes amongst other things, expertise, organisation, spare parts and money to do this.” Due to the very structured engineering plan that has been in place since delivery, the LPG’s jets here are much as they were on delivery. Scott adds, “I was involved in vintage aircraft restoration back in the early 90s but I always got frustrated seeing aircraft behind barriers, standing static in museums. You were not allowed near them or even to touch them – this for me was not how these engineering works of art should be preserved. They should be running.” 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.

Like the Spitfire or Phantom, the Lightning holds a special place in the hearts and minds of those who knew and admired them just as strongly today as they did when they were defenders of the realm. The number of Lightnings that escaped the scrap man’s axe and are now housed in museums and private hands, as well as the number of people supporting the LPG events, are evidence of this. Scott continues, “The Lightning has always been my favourite jet aircraft, for props it has to be the Spitfire. I fell in love with aviation and in particular vintage aviation after seeing my first Spitfire when I was very young at the old RAF Turnhouse in Edinburgh.” Going on, “The first Lightning I got really close up to was XN776 up at East Fortune, living up in Scotland I didn’t have many near to me and I always remember being totally in awe standing next to this huge, powerful aircraft. It looked mean and fast – my Lightning obsession was born. Then I visited Bruntingthorpe and was totally blown away… an F6 English Electric Lightning in full reheat!

As you imagine it is not a cheap job especially when you take the Lightning’s drinking habit into account – high performance, but with an even higher fuel consumption!

While chatting to the LPG a couple of years ago for a magazine article, we got onto the subject of spares. ‘As with a number of preservation projects, spares are a constant issue, the majority of which quite rightly ended up at Thunder City in Cape Town to support its flyers. The LPG engineering team, therefore, undertake the building and overhauling of many components that would have been ‘off the shelf’ when the aircraft was in service, developing new skills as a result. Some of the required components are ‘common’ so can be obtained externally. For example, the team is currently overhauling a starter that requires a number of small seals that cost more than £40 each and come with a minimum order number of ten.’ (JETS Jan/Feb 2015 pg.14>15). An expensive business!

With that in mind,” Scott adds, “we rely somewhat on what we make from our online shop which now has the fantastic new Corgi model of XR728 we have just launched on there – get some great extra goodies and support the LPG when you purchase from our online shop.” As well as the shop, events like the annual Twilight run and February photoshoot also help raise much-needed funds – both being ‘musts’ on the enthusiast calendar.

Having held their first ‘dedicated’ nightshoot back in 2013, the LPG have continually opened their season with the chance to shoot their three home-grown interceptors ‘under the lights’. Scott continues, “The date [of the shoot] is decided almost a year in advance and from there I create the posters and share it to both our website and social media sites.

Following a similar approach to their previous shoots, the event was set around a number of choreographed ‘setups’ with two reenactors using the LPG’s ex-Wattisham Q-sheds and gloriously marked F.3 [XR713] in its dual scheme acting as the backdrop. Keeping the memories of colourful spines, fin flashes and chequer boards alive, XR713 wears a ‘split scheme’ with the black and yellow of 111(F) Squadron on the port side while the starboard wears the red and white of 56(F) Squadron – both sides being used. As Scott says, “With ‘her’ very striking dual identity colour scheme she always creates a lot of interest!

Since arriving at Bruntingthorpe back in 2015, ‘713’s cockpit has undergone a near complete rebuild. Scott takes up the story, “’713’s cockpit was in a terrible condition when we acquired her, sandbags had been used for ballast and had burst, covering the cockpit in sand, while moisture had severely corroded the cockpit interior so everything had to be stripped out, cleaned and refitted. Once again very much a team effort but we are delighted to have gotten where we are now so quickly – under three years to be exact.” Sadly, a number of items were beyond help and needed to be replaced, “not an easy task with a Lightning!” Scott says, before going on to say, “[But] we were exceptionally lucky with a collection that was donated to us containing a lot of the items we were looking for. We also have some good friends in the Lightning world that we swap parts with and anything we cannot get we will re-make.” On that note, the team are in need of a standby E2B compass mount, which is proving very difficult to get a hold of from the usual sources. Scott again, “Her cockpit isn’t quite finished yet, so if anyone out there has one, can we please borrow it so we can make one?

Scott carries on “[On the day] the aircraft are prepared before the shoot as well, re-assembled if undergoing maintenance and given a general clean and tidy up.” adding “one of our members, Colin Collis, arranges the shots and we move the aircraft as required.” As well as that, the team, in the days leading up to the event, cleared out one of the Q-shed to make it look authentic as possible. Given the amount of equipment the LPG house alongside their ‘live’ jets, it wasn’t a surprise to find XS904 occupying her shed (on the left as you looked at them) with a myriad of boxes, spares including a number of engines and ground support equipment around her. Relinquished of photoshoot duties this year, Scott admitted a soft spot for ‘904, “I do have a particular affection for XS904, she is perfection to me and despite being a very temperamental lady, and she will always be ‘my girl’!

With scenes depicting both the aircraft and ‘crew’ – Jed Jaggard and Rob Petifer doing the honours – during various scenarios including walking to the jet, strapping in and for the first time posing in the cockpit, it was a refreshing to see so many people coming up with suggestions on their positioning to beat the lengthening shadows. Having donned their Lightning garb at many LPG events, both Jed and Rob are old hands at this game with many attending having previously ‘shot’ them meaning a far more relaxed atmosphere with numerous laughs thrown in. Likewise, when the lights were brought out, people advising if they were too harsh or in the wrong place for the shot being sought.

While some people are against re-enactors in images because “it just doesn’t look right”, “it looks too staged” or “you need more than two people to do that”, I personally think they add something a lot of the time, but it depends on how you depict it, capture it or ask them to do something different. After all, they are there for us. That said Jed, Rob and Collin were all reading from the same page in ensuring there was plenty of time for a number shots from a variety of angles – often repeating them for those that missed the shot. Kudos must go to the gathered photographers for the sheer politeness shown throughout the shoot, many sharing the angle they had found, no one hogging the same spot and helping those who needed it with settings.

Although billed as a ‘nightshoot’, the actual ‘nightshooting’ portion was curtailed to maybe half an hour by the immense sunset that descended over the airfield – ‘713 taking centre stage as the sun descended down behind the jet creating a stunning silhouette of this Cold War warrior’s radical lines.

With XR728 spending the duration in her shed, many couldn’t have failed to notice the small things added to give truly authentic images – a yellow scramble bar sat in front of the nose wheel as well as the synonymous yellow ‘AIRCRAFT ARMED’ sign. Yet another example of the LPG going the extra mile in transporting you back to the midst of the Cold War. Likewise has to be said for the novel way of ‘wetting down’ the pan for the traditional LPG reflections – a flatbed van, a water bowser and a hosepipe! Despite a shorter ‘nightshoot’ as such, the time given allowed a number of scenes to be played out – which despite the chill in the air the re-enactors managed to keep still long enough to allow the photographers to capture the moment.

The popularity of both the LPG and their aircraft is often proven by the sheer number of people supporting their events through the year and digging deep when it comes to helping with fundraising. When asked at the briefing how many of the attending photographers had been to one of the LPG’s events before it was encouraging to see people keeping their hands down as first timers – cementing the popularity of a dedicated nightshoot with one of the most iconic jets of all time.

Although they were not always in sight, there was a buzz of activity in the background as the team were busy hooking up and towing XR713 about, removing anything in the background ‘spoiling’ the shot, moving lights and generally helping wherever possible. As Scott puts it, “It’s very much a group effort!

This year sees the LPG celebrate their thirtieth year of operations, Scott continues again, “2018 is our 30th anniversary year so we will be celebrating that, but we can only do so much! Tell your friends about what we do and keep coming to the events at Bruntingthorpe, buy lots of Lightning goodies from www.lightnings.org.uk and show off the amazing photographs you chaps take! Can I please pass on thanks to you all on behalf of the Lightning Preservation Group at Bruntingthorpe and the other crews for your interest and support – you really do keep the aircraft alive!

The author would like to thank Scott Mcphee of the LPG for his assistance in this piece – a pleasure sir!