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February 2004, Archive Story

OPERATION CORRUGATE - QUEST FOR A Q-SHED

I would think the vast majority of Lightning addicts would agree with the opinion that two MK6's on live QRA was the ultimate spectacle from the enthusiast's viewpoint. I would also assume that for many pilots and ground crew that duty on ‘Q’ was a special experience which represented the culmination of many years of training, perfecting a quick and efficient launch for a live interception. The Q-Shed was always a special place to visit when 'live', and one could instantly sense the adrenaline atmosphere which permeated every corner of the building.

On the other hand, the realist in me would also suggest that the hours of waiting must have been exceptionally boring and which, pilots informed me, could not be interspersed with too many mugs of tea due to the unknown flight time coupled with a lack of Portaloo, although I seem to recall that emergency receptacles were carried. My all too rare visits to the Binbrook Q-Shed certainly left a deep impression. The unusually confined hangar gave the aircraft a special presence and the self-contained 'at readiness' state gave the whole building a unique atmosphere.

From the formation of the Lightning Preservation Group (LPG) in the summer of 1987, the ultimate objective was to preserve the shell of a Lightning in pristine condition and that this should preferably be an F.3 - the ultimate hot rod. From the earliest days of our Group, the subject of a Q-Shed was brought up in conversation from time to time (usually by me). Other members would politely discuss this 'ultimate museum', but we would quickly dismiss the idea as totally unrealistic.

The demise of frontline Lightning operations at Binbrook by the end of April 1988 resulted in the two hour journey from north Bedfordshire to Lincolnshire becoming just a happy memory. One of the sights from Crash Gate 2 that I had taken for granted, the green corrugate-clad building, which if you were very fortunate would produce a launch, would also pass as part of that memory. After the closure of Binbrook I took the opportunity to visit the Q-Shed in 1989 at the first Lightning Association Rally. Although the Lightning had flown the nest, the shed still permeated that special air of expectancy. I wondered what the fate of the building might be, although light aircraft were hangared there at that time and I believe this to be the case today. During the Spring of 1991, one of our members, Mick Cameron, from RAF Wattisham, informed me that 56 Squadron would be celebrating their 75th anniversary on 8 June.

Mick very kindly arranged for the Group to visit Wattisham on Friday, 7 June for the arrival of XP693 from Warton. After a very enjoyable weekend, I travelled back to Wattisham the following Monday to photograph the departure of '693, and took up a suitable vantage point in the lay-by in the lane opposite the main hangars which is a well known spot to countless enthusiasts. From my diary I note that '693 was due to depart at 14.45 hours but, surprise, surprise, actual departure time was 16.45 hours. During the two-hour wait my eyes settled on a certain building some distance from the control tower and main hangars. The current Phantom force of both 56 and 74 Squadrons were, of course, housed in their Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS), and I understand that the 'Q' duty reaction time had been extended from 10 minutes to 15 minutes to allow for the greater taxying distance from a HAS in comparison to that certain building, the QRA Shed, which was positioned adjacent to the runway. My thoughts on that June Monday went back to my visits to Binbrook's Q-Shed, but what was the Wattisham building being used for?

My next visit to Wattisham was just over a year later. XP693 was to make the last ever visit of a Lightning to this airfield for a photoday/families day on Saturday, 4 July. Departure to Warton would again be on the following Monday, 6 July. The weather on that July morning was totally out of character for the time of year, being a warm summer's day with a near clear blue sky. Peter Gordon-Johnson was the pilot and the departure was memorable. XP693 was first to take off, followed by a 56 Squadron Phantom and a Tornado F.3. The three ship overflew the airfield twice before departing for some air to air photography. Again, whilst this event in itself was totally absorbing, I could not help but wonder to what use the QRA Shed had been put.

During the early part of 1993 I added a postscript to one of our many members' circulars to Mick along the lines of 'What is happening to Wattisham's Q-Shed with the impending closure of the airfield?' Mick telephoned a couple of days later with the answer. 'After the RAF's departure, the Army Air Corps will be moving to the airfield'. He added that it looked unlikely that the Army would have a use for the building. Very interesting.

As spring turned to summer and the Army moved into Wattisham, our initial approach was made to Captain (now Major) J Ward, Quartermaster, 3 Regiment, Army Air Corps. Captain Ward was very sympathetic when I explained that the LPG wished to acquire the Q-Shed. He explained that it was planned to demolish the building and replace it with a Search and Rescue Hangar. The first complication however was that whilst the Army was responsible for the airfield the demolition and construction of the new building was still to be the responsibility of the RAF.

Captain Ward suggested that I might wish to visit Wattisham in order to have a detailed look at the building. I decided to take a week's holiday the first week of September. Fortunately Bury St Edmonds is a pleasant place to visit and Anne, my wife, spent the afternoon browsing whilst I visited Wattisham. The changeover period from RAF to Army use meant that far fewer personnel were on site and the whole airfield on that day had an unusually relaxed atmosphere. That silver machine, XM192, still looked 'the business' on the gate, and I spent some time taking photos and, I must admit, of the then resident Phantom.

I spent about two hours at the Q-Shed and you can easily forget what a large building it is. They always look quite diminutive from outside the airfield. I must admit that even I thought that our enquiry was quite a long shot, but determination must be the order of the day. The building appeared to be in remarkably good condition, the main doors appeared to have been replaced fairly recently. As we all know, airfields are strange places when out of use and thoughts of past Q-Shed 'glories' and activities crossed my mind. Its current role was fairly low key with the local Pathfinder Scouts storing their equipment in the building.

Our initial approach to the Army was at the end of July and it was the second week of September before an official reply to our enquiry was received from Strike Command. Oh dear (or words to that effect). We were informed that the demolition and construction programme was too far advanced to amend the plans. Whilst I totally understood the RAF's position, it was one that I could not accept if the building was to be saved.

A couple of days passed and the telephone wires were red hot talking to LPG members about the best way forward. My mind was trying to come to grips with the fact that here was a scrap building which was going to be flattened and was of no further use to the RAF but which we would not be able to save. It did not make sense. We would not get another chance. Leuchars' was too far, Binbrook's was not available, so it was Wattisham's or bust.

A certain Lightning F Mk.6 resides at Bruntingthorpe Airfield, tail coded 'JS', the personal aircraft of John Spencer, then a Wing Commander. Whilst the aircraft had held up well since its arrival in June 1988, signs of deterioration were beginning to show in its reliability, especially engine starting. A roof over its head would remedy the situation. Now an Air Commodore, John Spencer was unable to 'pull strings' but could ensure that when the tender was awarded for the demolition of the Q-Shed and construction of the Search and Rescue Hangar, that we would be able to contact the successful tendered bid and negotiate terms and prices direct. At the end of November, we were informed that Trafalgar House Construction would be handling the demolition and construction. We presented our objective of saving the building to the company and they immediately listened with great interest. We were then informed that our proposal would be discussed at their next board meeting and that an answer to our request and a quotation would be forthcoming by the middle of December.

Deep joy. Not only were Trafalgar House prepared to donate the building to the LPG as they understood its historic importance, but also the dismantling of the building would be undertaken by their sub-contractors, Gale Construction, at no charge to the Group. Pure elation, cloud nine etc, etc. The Group would, however, have to cover a percentage of the loading costs and the total carriage costs from Wattisham to Bruntingthorpe which, when all is said and done, was the very least we could expect and we felt and still feel very privileged to have received such generous treatment. It restores your faith in the human race.

Question: How many trailers do you think we'll need to move the building?
Answer: One bloody big 'un, about 110 x 70ft.

These were the type of questions I was asking Trafalgar House and Gale Construction and, seriously, they estimated about 5 trailers should do the job. In the event, we needed one more to take the main beams from which the main doors hang, each measuring some 55ft and requiring an 'extender trailer'. You live and learn.

At one stage it was thought that the beams were one (110ft) and police escorts were being mentioned which resulted in an immediate panic attack and my solution was, 'You've got acetylene torches so put them to good use'. Luckily we did not need to. We were lucky to have Neville Martin on hand who knows his way round the aviation world. Nev knew just the right company who could handle the transport and his help was invaluable as always. An 'on site' meeting at Wattisham on the 17th December set down a timetable for dismantling and removal from site of the building.

The Walton family, who own Bruntingthorpe Airfield and latterly, of course, the Vulcan and a Victor tanker, have a common love and objective towards aircraft preservation. In the longer term, a museum is planned and hopefully the QRA Shed will be an important part of this venture. The family have supported the LPG from day one and during the early part of the summer I informed David Walton of our objective to acquire the building. Agreement was forthcoming that we should pursue our objective wholeheartedly. The Walton's as a family possess a variety of skills which the LPG all too frequently have reason to ask as a favour. John Walton, knowing a great deal more than my very limited knowledge of buildings, did not hesitate to join Jim Featherby and I on our recce of the 17th December. A car journey certainly passes very quickly when such a prize awaits the travellers.

After signing in at the gate and obtaining our passes, we were directed to Trafalgar House's offices and greeted by the company's Peter Booth and Peter Long. The sub-contractor, Brian Gale of Gale Construction was also present, as his company would be carrying out the actual dismantling. Work would start almost immediately with the removal of some of the cladding during week commencing 20 December. A small team from the LPG would visit Wattisham during the Christmas break to identify and mark the main steelwork so that the task of reconstruction would hopefully be made easier. The first two of the six trailers required were delivered to Wattisham prior to Christmas, which would allow loading to take place without double handling.

The schedule drawn up allowed just two weeks of January for completion of the job. The weather was less than kind, and Wattisham was hit with snow in early January which inevitably delayed progress. An improvement in conditions resulted in our trailers removing the building between 13 and 28 January.

And so to the next problem. How do you arrange to unload six trailer loads of steel? Fortunately, the Walton's own some heavy metal in the form of a wide variety of 'plant'. Again we had to beg a favour and borrow a very heavy duty tractor with a substantial fork attachment. Progress was sometimes painfully slow, as much of the steelwork was of the heavy duty variety. We found that the thought of the building spurred us on, and again we were indebted to the Walton's for lending us the tractor. The building is now in kit form at Bruntingthorpe and fundraising is next on the agenda to raise the necessary funds for planning permission and reconstruction.

Again this will be quite a challenge but the thought of two F.6's in a Q-Shed will drive us on and will be there for all to savour and enjoy. It will be a very fitting memorial to a very fine aircraft.

Richard Norris

At the time this story appears on the website (February 2004) this is an active project and Richard and the LPG are still raising funds for it. If you want to find out more or help in any way, there is a link to their website on our Links page.
Charles Ross

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