Can it really be twenty years? Tim Senior looks back at the retirement of the English Electric Lightning and the extremely wet 'Last Last Lightning show'. Pictures by Andrew Bates, Alistair Maclean, Dave Eade, Gary Parsons and Phil Charlton
The aviation world has seen the passing of some truly classic military aircraft over the last few years. This year will also see the end of another classic type in RAF service; the last remaining SEPECAT Jaguars have just a few months left before they too are consigned to history. The recently announced plans to turn RAF Coltishall into a holding centre for asylum seekers will, if it goes ahead, no doubt seal the fate of another once proud airfield. So perhaps with this in mind, now is perhaps the time to reflect on a type that the older generation can still remember in its last remaining months of service and its spiritual home.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the end of that truly iconic British jet fighter, the BAC/English Electric Lightning. At the beginning of 1987, Binbrook was still home to both 5 and 11 Squadrons, who were still fully operational and performing air defence tasks, both as part of the United Kingdom Air Defence Region (UKADR) and NATO. This task was also shared with the Phantom fleet based at Leuchars and Wattisham, with 228 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU)/64 Squadron in the last couple of months of operating just down the road at Coningsby. There 29 Squadron had commenced its conversion to the Tornado F3, and with aircrew conversion in full swing with 229 OCU/65 Squadron the increase in aircraft traffic in the skies around Lincolnshire resulted in 228 OCU moving up to Leuchars to utilise the clearer airspace around Scotland.
Meanwhile the Lightning Training Flight (LTF) was running its last course at the start of 1987, training several pilots to master the aircraft - this was duly completed when Flt Lt Ian Black became the last pilot to qualify on the type. With the training programme almost complete, the LTF began retiring some of its last remaining airframes, with several F3s being dispatched to Leuchars and Wattisham respectively for battle damage repair training in early March. Another F3 would end its days rather more spectacularly - one of the pilots from 5 Squadron had been given the task of displaying the Lightning in its final full year of service, but unfortunately during a practice display on 19 March things didn’t go quite to plan, the end result being one F3 deposited back on the ground in a smoking hole near the fire dump. Thankfully the pilot, Flt Lt Barry Lennon, fared somewhat better than the poor old Lightning, having suffered only minor bruising to his heels. The LTF flew its final sortie on 16 April, when it performed an eight-ship flypast with two F3s, the unit's single F6 and five T5s, which then split into two four-ship formations for a traditional airfield ‘beat-up’. After this event the remaining T5 airframes were split between both 5 and 11 Squadrons and the Aircraft Servicing Flight, for short-term store.
Almost all the remaining F3s were retired and gradually underwent spares recovery, with the exception of two airframes, these last two airworthy F3s being passed on to 5 Squadron to perform the display duties throughout the year. A new display pilot, Flt Lt Jon Fynes, was chosen to complete the task, and having worked up a routine went on to perform some memorable flying displays throughout the rest of the season. Meanwhile, the two remaining Squadrons were kept busy with operational flying and training commitments, both units taking part in regular air defence exercises. 5 Squadron undertook a one-way squadron exchange with the General Dynamics F-16s of 350 Squadron from the Belgian Air Force, based at Beauvechain, in May. Both units also undertook the last ever Armament Practice Camp deployments by Lightnings to RAF Akrotiri, where they undertook aerial gunnery practice firing at the banner towed behind Canberras from 100 Squadron.
With 5 Squadron due to disband first the unit managed to squeeze two trips to the sunnier climate in Cyprus - the first trip took place during February, while 11 followed, deploying for a whole month during mid May, followed by 5 Squadron which deployed again towards the end of June. Unfortunately during its last detachment the unit lost one of its F6s when it suffered an engine failure and crashed on final approach to Akrotiri, the pilot thankfully ejecting safely. 11 Squadron undertook a mini-squadron exchange with the French Air Force with several Mirage F1s from EC30, based at Reims, deploying to Binbrook, while several Lightnings went in the opposite direction.
One of the most welcome announcements of the year was the news that RAF Binbrook would host one last open day to mark the retirement of the Lightning, and, as it turned out, its last ever airshow, towards the end of August. The airfield had already emerged intact from plans to turn it into a prison several years before. However, the writing was indeed on the wall - the MoD announced that the airfield would close after the end of Lightning operations, and that it would become a Relief Landing Ground (RLG) for the Central Flying School, based up the road at RAF Scampton. One of the items that the remaining squadrons planned to perform at the airshow was a classic nine-ship formation flypast - preparations got underway, the aircrews gradually building up the formation in size over the two weeks before the show. The aircrews performed the last full practice on the Wednesday prior to the day, and they were quietly hoping they could look forward to some fine late summer weather to perform this.
The airshow itself attracted a healthy list of participants, many RAF and foreign types appearing for the static and flying display. RAF frontline types included a Buccaneer S2B from 208 Squadron together with a Hunter T7 from 237 OCU at Lossiemouth, and a pair of 111 Squadron Phantom FG1s from Leuchars; there were two Jaguars present, in the shape of a 6 Squadron GR1A from Coltishall and an ex-14 Squadron T2 reportedly being flown by a 226 OCU crew from Lossiemouth; 229 OCU were showing off the 'new kid on the block' in the shape of a Tornado F3; the RAF tanker force was well represented by a Victor K2 from 55 Squadron at Marham and a 101 Squadron VC10 K2 from Brize Norton; 233 OCU sent a Harrier T4 from Wittering while they were joined by a Canberra TT18 from 100 Squadron at Wyton; two Hawk T1As, one from No 1 Tactical Weapons Unit at Brawdy in 79 Squadron colours, together with a sister example from No 2 TWU at Chivenor in 151 Squadron markings; the training community sent a pair of Jet Provosts from 7 FTS at Church Fenton and a Jetstream T1 from 6 FTS at Finningley, and even a Chipmunk that had recently returned to service after a spell in storage at Shawbury. A small number of USAF and NATO types added to the mix, these included an A-10A from the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at Bentwaters, an F-15C from the Bitburg based 36th TFW, and an F-111E from the 20th TFW at Upper Heyford, with the Alconbury based 527th Aggressor Squadron sending one of its F-5E Tigers IIs. A pair of F-16s from Esk 723 of the Royal Danish Air Force and a Luftwaffe Tornado from the TTTE at Cottesmore almost completed the line up - however, the stars of the show, apart from the resident Lightnings of course, were the recently imported ex-Luftwaffe F-104G for the Bomber County aviation museum (which had arrived from Manching via Hull docks for temporary storage) and an earlier ‘Century Series’ fighter, namely a Flight Systems TF-100F Super Sabre, that had been based for trials at Binbrook during the summer months. But the true static stars must surely have been the resident Lightnings; with most of the remaining active aircraft parked on the 'live' ramps there were just three left for the static line-up. In addition to an ex-LTF F3 that had been retired, and a similar painted T5, British Aerospace had sent its own example, the last airworthy silver Lightning, XP693.
Early morning of Saturday 22 August, aviation enthusiasts woke with bated breath hoping for sunny skies - sadly the weather gods had other ideas... that morning sapped the spirits of many a hardened spotter, as the skies were grey and frankly, horrible! The locals turned up early, and after an amusing incident when someone forgot the keys to unlock the famed crash gate 3, some of the general public started to drive up the taxiway towards the parking areas. Right on the dot, the heavens opened… it must be said that the aviation enthusiast is generally a hardy breed, as the thought of missing a last glimpse of the Lightning drew a large crowd despite the dreadful weather. The quiet country roads around the hilltop that Binbrook sits on were simply swamped with cars, and the parking spaces soon filled up on the base. It rapidly became apparent that there simply was no room for the hordes of people trying to get in - with the heavy rainfall came another bigger problem, that of poor visibility, which looked set to curtail some, if not all, of the flying programme. The nine-ship of Lightnings was due to open the show, however a decision was made to send up the solo Lightning display aircraft, flown by Jon Fynes, flying a bad weather routine to assess the weather and the all-important cloudbase.
With the heavens still leaking and a cloudbase of around 4,000 ft, the crews walked to their aircraft. Amongst the aircrew was the last Station Commander of RAF Binbrook, Group Captain John Spencer, who flew his personalised Lightning F6 ‘JS’. Other Lightnings included the now well-known red-and-black finned 'boss-birds' from both 5 and 11 Squadrons. With eleven aircraft taxiing down to the end of runway 21, the show really got underway - once the aircraft commenced their take off run, they stayed low, making a climbing right turn into a 60º bank before returning towards the crowd. They then crossed over the remaining aircraft, which were still getting airborne, before kicking in the burners for a near vertical climb to 3,000 ft. The aircraft then departed in the direction of Mablethorpe to form into the nine-ship formation, before heading north towards Immingham, and then finally turning inbound for Binbrook. With a slight improvement in visibility the formation flew across the airfield, moisture streaming from the wingtips as they went. And then a surprise came in the form of the two airspares, who flew across the field at high speed creating a truly memorable image of a pair of Lightnings almost shrouded in moisture. After that the formation did the traditional run and break, before landing.
The remainder of the show seemed quite tame - the Red Arrows had cancelled due to the weather, and some aircraft that had planned to take part in the flying display also cancelled due to the weather. Amongst the RAF aircraft that did take part were a pair of Hawks from 4 FTS at Valley, a Puma HC1 from 240 OCU at Odiham, an 8 Squadron Shackleton AEW2 from Lossiemouth and a Nimrod MR2 from Kinloss, a Tornado GR1 from the TWCU at Honington and a 74 Squadron F-4J (UK) from Wattisham. International flyers included the USAF with an A-10A, an F-15C and an F-111E, and also appearing were a pair of French Air Force Mirage F1Cs from EC30. Several Warbirds had turned up for the airshow, notably Lindsay Walton’s F4U-7 Corsair and the Vintage Aircraft Team's Vampire and ex-Swiss Air Force Venom. Towards the end of the airshow the skies cleared for about an hour, enabling the public to dash around and photograph the static aircraft park, and at the same time grab a last look into those hangars, all of which had been opened to reveal a total of thirty-four airframes. If you added those to the three in static and seventeen on the active flight line, the gate guard and the eleven airframes on the dump and those serving out their days as decoys over the far side, that made a total of sixty-eight different Lightnings! Only the pair inside the QRA hangar, and one that was stuck down the road unserviceable at Coningsby, remained elusive or off-limits. This fantastic total made it all the more hard to believe that a year later there wasn’t a single aircraft left.
With the airshow over the very damp crowd departed, and over the next few weeks operations got back to normal, with 11 Squadron undertaking another squadron exchange at the beginning of September, this time with the F-16-equipped 323 Squadron of the Dutch Air Force from Leeuwarden. The retirement of the fleet now got underway, with the scrapping of the rather battered airfield decoys at the end of September. These were quickly replaced by more retired airframes that had been stripped of any usable spares. 5 Squadron held a families' day and aircrew reunion at the beginning of November, before finally winding down and converting to the Tornado F3 at Coningsby in December. About the same time several Lightnings started appearing with the over-wing ferry tanks, flying as part of the Tornado F3 radar trials programme run by British Aerospace. 11 Squadron was disbanded at the end of April 1988, performing a final nine-ship formation over Binbrook and Coningsby. The remaining aircrew undertook the task of delivering the last few airworthy airframes to museums and various RAF bases for battle damage training or display. The last of the grounded aircraft were either removed to museums or private collections, several airframes (including the gate guard) going to various weapons ranges. With the removal of its Spitfire from the gate in late November, the station was slowly cleared of its reusable items and the base living accommodation was sold off, becoming a 'village' named Brookenby.
During 1989 the airfield briefly came back to life, and earned itself a claim to fame when Sir David Puttnam directed the remake of ‘Memphis Belle’. A total of five B-17s, together with several other types, operated from the airfield during the long hot summer. The RAF returned for a week when a large number of Hercules from Lyneham used the base for a night exercise. In the early nineties the ATC tower was the victim of an arson attack, and was subsequently demolished. With the passing of time most of the airfield buildings have fallen into a poor state, although the hangars have fared slightly better, initially being used by Global Aviation for storing a large batch of Jet Provosts it purchased from the MoD. In 1992 the Lightning Association succeeded in bringing one Lightning back to Binbrook when BAE Systems flew one of its ex-Tornado radar trials airframes up from storage at Shawbury in July. The airframe, XR724, is still there and is occasionally ground run, although sadly it is no longer stored inside as the hangars are now used for storage purposes.
The end of the airfield came in the late 1990s when the Ministry of Defence finally offered it for sale via Defence Estates, the land being purchased back by several of the local farmers. As a result of this almost all the runways and taxiways have been broken up, the hardcore used in local road construction. Today, the aircraft servicing platform in front of the hangars is one of the largest remaining parts of a once proud, if a little windswept, piece of Lincolnshire.