Gary Parsons basks in nostalgia...
It is a fine early autumn afternoon, the sun still strong although lower in the sky, ironic after such a poor summer. The air is still and the heat reflects off the expanse of concrete, now heavy with weeds forcing their way through the joints. White lines can still be seen, although faded now, where the Lightnings of 5 and 11 Squadrons stood some ten years before, prior to each daily round of sorties. The hangars stand proud as they did in those halcyon days, but time has not been kind, the paintwork now shabby, windows smashed and guarded with wire mesh, reinforcement bars exposed on some of the walls. Nature has quickly taken a grip, the grass is long and wild after many summers of neglect, only the wide tarmac strip of the taxiway looks ready to accept the wheels of a passing aircraft. The control tower has disappeared, the victim of a fire some years ago, only a few floor tiles mark its position amongst the growing weeds. Away to the west, model aircraft buzz about on the main runway 20/02, mixing with the insects that are basking in the late summer air. The peace and solitude here high in the Lincolnshire Wolds always seems serene, today more intense as the lack of breeze intensifies any sound, giving a surreal atmosphere to this once cathedral of jet noise. Binbrook is one of those magical places, an intangible aura exists that sets the place apart from a lot of contemporary airfields; maybe it is the desolate location perched on a hill top, maybe the history of Lightnings, Canberras and Lancasters, maybe it is just me
This is something of a pilgrimage for me, as Binbrook is the place that rekindled my enthusiasm for aeroplanes and airfields. As a child I was keen, living in the shadow of Marham's Victors and Canberras, cycling to the fence to see the B-52s on deployment in the mid-seventies. But, along came a career and marriage, and a move to the east coast of Lincolnshire in '84, during which I lost my way regarding aviation. But, after a couple of years of watching Lightnings tumble and dog-fight in clear summer skies I ventured to find where they lived, to see more of this ageing fighter that as a kid had always made me tremble inside and out, as I knew they were on borrowed time. Thus, many a long hour was spent towards the end in '87 and '88 as first 5 Squadron passed their standard to the 'Electric flick-knife' at Coningsby, then 11 Squadron did so to Leeming. The sight of dead hulks lining the disused runway was evidence that it was all over in June 1988 as the last two Lightnings left on a dull summer morning, the airfield itself slated for closure.
A brief period as a relief landing ground for Scampton followed, but this was short lived as the latter closed its doors as well in 1995. The runway approach lights were removed, the tower demolished and the large white crosses painted at each end of the runway, signifying the story had finally ended as far as the Ministry of Defence was concerned. Savills estate agents took on the task of disposing of the airfield and hangars, a process that is soon to be complete. Whether the taxiways and runways will remain is uncertain, but the only proposed road scheme in the immediate area is a southern bypass for Lincoln, so the moratorium on road building may just negate the benefits of ripping them up for hardcore. The technical site soon became a small industrial site after the RAF moved out, but many of the barrack blocks remained empty, as they do today.
A drive around the technical area brings many contrasts; the station headquarters building is well kept, now housing a small office complex, but across the road the guardroom looks dishevelled, rough wooden doors keeping out the vandals that invariably descent upon such abandoned places. Crude fences block internal roads, separating the hangars from the new industries, while grain lorries track along the taxiways to and from the crash gate on the south-west corner. H-block barrack rooms stand between the trees, empty but undamaged, the windows amazingly intact after ten long years. Empty wardrobes with doors ajar give the impression of a hasty exit, as if she was a ship slowly sinking; likewise, the crew rooms in the hangar annexes are still adorned with squadron stickers and emblems, memories of past exchanges seeping through the battered window frames. What the morale was like, towards the end, is probably best left uncovered; best to imagine the pilots proud to gracefully retire both the aircraft and airfield, looking to the future of the Tornado F3
But, I am amazed to see, the 5 Squadron badge on Hangar one shines as brightly as it ever did, fresh paint signifying the past is not being forgotten. For in this hangar sits XR724, an F6 that decided she didn't want to leave, who sometimes stretches her legs and breathes again the Lincolnshire air. Such a day is today, the 20th of September, just a month or two past the tenth anniversary of her sisters leaving. Alone, she is a vibrant reminder of the recent past, the sound of her two Rolls-Royce Avons filling the still air, echoing around the Wolds for a time lost to history. Resplendent in 5 Squadron markings, she sits on the taxiway gleaming in the warm sunshine, evidence of tender loving care having been applied by the members of the Lightning Association. A small crowd gathers as the starter is engaged, compressed air hisses violently making everyone jump, after which the engines can be heard spooling up; suddenly the pilot waves in a concerned manner, as number two is reluctant to spin, but in a second all is well and the thumbs up signify she is ready to roll. Hesitantly at first, she soon gets into her stride and Binbrook is once more alive to the motion of a Lightning, but all too soon she is brought to a halt. The brakes are applied and the engines pushed forward to full dry thrust, the air reverberating to the thunder, the immense power of the two Rolls Royce Avons enveloping the senses until suddenly the throttle is cut back and she sits up at the nose, regaining her normal posture. Peace returns, the heat from the now quiet engines mixing with the summer warmth generated by the tarmac. Everyone smiles, the crew relieved knowing the type's reputation for engine fires
Unfortunately, the future of XR724 at Binbrook is uncertain as the airfield and hangars have recently been disposed of by the Ministry of Defence. Whether the association will be able to remain at the airfield is uncertain, but to see the Lightning leave will be sad, as here is her natural home. While the runway remains, there is hope that flying of some sort may happen in the future, and that XR724 can stretch her legs down the mile long strip. The association will strive to ensure her existence, wherever she may live.
XR724 was constructed as an F3 at Samlesbury, and first flown on 10 February 1965. Converted to an F6 almost immediately afterwards, she commenced service with 11 Squadron on 16 June 1967. Most of her life was spent at Binbrook, and she was one of the last to fly with British Aerospace on testing duties. Further information can be found at the Lightning Association web site.
POSTSCRIPT, 18 November 1998 (text edited from the Grimsby Evening Telegraph):
The Ministry of Defence has
just sold four of Binbrook's hangars, including the one which houses
XR724, but she has been given a reprieve as the new owners of the
hangar are letting her stay there in the short term. Members of the
Lightning Association and shareholders of the plane feared it would
be left homeless when the hangars were sold, and moving the plane
would mean taking it apart along a joint or stripping it down to make
it light enough to be transported. It feared that trying to move the
jet to another airfield, perhaps outside Lincolnshire, could damage
it. ''Thanks to the new owner's generosity we can keep it there for
the moment and after that keep it outside,'' said Charles Ross, chairman
of the Lightning Association. Engineers will be taking out the engines,
so the jet can be stored outside in the future. The Association and
shareholders are meeting to decide what to do next, but Mr Ross said
they could try to move the jet to another airfield or put up a building
at Binbrook to house it, although there would be many strings attached
to this. ''A third option is to keep it in the open at Binbrook, as
that is the spiritual home of the Lightning and some might say there
ought to be one there,'' he said. Storing the plane outside, however,
would mean it would not be in working order, but the association may
want to keep its jet in flying condition in case the CAA relaxes its
rules on the operation of ex-military supersonic aircraft in the future.
A MOD spokeswoman said the decision to sell RAF Binbrook had been made because it was now surplus to requirements and needs on the defence estate had changed.