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March, 2003 Archive Story

Days of Thunder

Memories of a Line Chief, 5 Squadron Lightnings, 1967- 68

Long since retired, I am busy at the moment writing up my service memoirs for my grandchildren (it all started with a Family History Project when my eldest granddaughter was at Primary School. What grandchildren do to you!) On the 21st September last, I found myself with my grandson Daniel at Bruntingthorpe, having been invited by Richard Norris of that fine body of men, the Lightning Preservation Group, to show him a Lightning, in all its glory, rolling down the runway.

During the visit I became aware of, and joined, the Lightning Association, as the LPG does not have membership as such. My aim was to gather more information and exchange photographs of natural metal ‘ali’ Lightnings, the type that were about during my time. Thanks to Peter Millar, my membership arrived by Saturday 27th September (together with a letter suggesting I may like to write an article for the Review and only a member for a day!)

The following day I found myself driving from Norfolk to the Annual Rally at Binbrook listening to Alec Guinness on tape but wondering what I would find. I needn’t have been concerned. As I drove up the hill to Binbrook on a pleasant September day, it took me back to that winters day thirty years before when I arrived at the ‘Place on the Hill’. Past my old quarter in Windsmoor Road, never a road more aptly named, and on to the Sergeants Mess, a familiar sight.

Peter, doing the honours at the door, welcomed me and soon I knew I was amongst friends. The atmosphere was great. Rummaging amongst memorabilia, I was trying to find information and hoping against hope I would bump into someone who was at Binbrook during my time. No such luck, but everyone was so helpful, and the chat constructive, and the contacts made have proved themselves since, with Stewart Scott and Peter Green visiting my home to copy photographs. Now there are enthusiasts!

I walked up to the Hangar and took video and stills of the XR724, the Association's pride and joy; then a trip out to Waltham to Pears Farm, more video and stills of XR770 and XS416, returning via Chestnut Farmhouse to see Charles’ XR725 and his superb Lightning room, the video still running. Charles, not being slow to catch an interested member and not in the least concerned how new, suggested I wrote a piece for the Review. Although not agreeing, my conscience struck me after listening to Ian Black's presentation in the afternoon, thank you Ian, and again feeling the warmth and friendship amongst the other Lightning enthusiasts, not forgetting their wives, families and friends.

What started with a day out to gather information has got me, researching and then in front of my PC putting this together which I hope will encourage others to do the same. (Hear hear. Ed.).

Fighter Command Trials Unit (previously AFDS)
Who would have believed it, returning home from a tour in Australia as an examiner in December 1966, and here I was, posted (an Overriding Service Commitment Posting which lasted two weeks, so much for the needs of the Service as represented by Records Office of that time. I never did return from an Overseas Tour to a Unit of my choice) to Fighter Command at RAF Binbrook on to the FCTU which was testing the Lightning's flight characteristics and doing Project work.

I knew absolutely nothing about the aircraft other than my knowledge of the Avon engine from my days with Hunters on Ferry Unit at RAF Benson in the mid Fifties and reading the ‘Air Clues’ which covered some of the problems with early Marks. I well remember the Wg Cdr Spry version of Wg Cdr Walter Holden's ‘flight’ without canopy or flying equipment when, on testing the engines at the end of the runway at Lyneham, he found himself in full reheat and airborne. Managing to control what must have been a very difficult aircraft to fly in that configuration and after four attempts, he put it down safely with only slight damage to the tail end. The aircraft, XM135, is a Mk1 - the first Lightning to go into service. Its proud record before retirement following its last flight into the Imperial War Museum at Duxford on 24 November 1974 was 1,634 flights. I wonder whether they included Wg Cdr Holden's trip? Another incident was the famous RAF Coltishall accident when a Lightning taxied into the crew room. Spry had fun with that one.

When I arrived the trials periods were nearly over. The Matra Project I was supposed to join had been cancelled, if it ever existed. I never found out, and within a couple of weeks I found myself detached to 5 Squadron. That ‘detachment’ lasted nearly two years. I never did become a bona-fide member of the Squadron and yet, hopefully, together with Neil Bland and the ‘First Line Crew’, influenced some changes, certainly at 'First Line'.

5 Squadron
Replacing the interim Mk 6, the first F6 entered service with 5 Squadron at RAF Binbrook in December ‘66 and early ‘67. The aircraft were XS894, XS898, XS903 and the series XS922 - XS926. In mid-January ‘67 I arrived on the Squadron to work in No 1 Hangar doing routine engine removals and changes under the wing of a fellow Chief Technician. He was Pete Ellis, a Lightning Specialist Fitter (P1 Fitters I think they had been called for a time) who had been at Warton with the Lightning Project team and knew the aircraft inside out. He had a real feel for the aircraft and knew all the wrinkles and shared his knowledge with me, which at that time was unusual. Lightning fitters were specialists who normally kept the information to themselves, a kind of trade union approach, but not Pete, who had a flair for putting information out concisely and clearly. I wonder where he is now?

Engines were being removed constantly because the aircraft fuel tanks leaked like sieves. The hangar floor was littered with cut-down 50 gallon drums catching fuel from wherever it seeped. Not such a thing as a Safety or Integrity Program then, just service the brutes and let's get them in the air. Not a very exciting or interesting life, just a slog. Fires on the top of ventral tanks were not uncommon!

Ground runs were carried out across the runway on a running pan which had an unserviceable de-tuner, which in consequence was not in use. I felt for those people who lived in Thoresway, Rothwell and even Caistor, as the roar of a ground run to me sounded worse than a take off when the aircraft was moving. At night, the runs were even more impressive, with the exhaust lighting up the area with an eerie glow and the two sheets of flame being centred with a blue cone. Impressive for a rookie. On my first turn on the throttles I was petrified. I had ground run Swifts in the mid-fifties with the first rudiments of re-heat, but this was something else!

The troops on the Squadron believed that Squadron's motto Frangas Non Flectas (Thou mayest break but shall not bend me) was not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In the SNCO Crew room at that time, a cartoon of a tired looking Lightning sagging at the undercarriage with a Jockey with a Bone Dome on sitting astride had the caption ‘You lot doth break and bend at will’. Morale on the Squadron was at rock bottom.

Flying times were very low and the last Tactical Evaluation exercise had been a dismal failure and was ordered to be retaken. A new Squadron Commander, Wing Commander J H A 'Winnie'  Winship, had just been appointed. Later, I developed an excellent relationship with Winship, which for a ‘Line Chief’ was a privilege. Winship had been the RAF Liaison Officer on the ill fated TSR2 Project, so knew plenty about low morale. He always had a high regard for the engineers and when articles about the Squadron appeared in the local press he always made the point forcibly how the Squadron depended upon its engineers as much as its aircrew. I have the cuttings to prove it! My respect for him grew with each day.

My opportunity arose when I took over the 'First Line' while another Chief Tech was on leave. They didn't have a likely replacement and my next door neighbour in Married Quarters, Cpl Neil Bland, later a Warrant who worked on First Line on Tornados at Cottesmore, suggested maybe I would give it a go. I spoke to the Engineering Warrant Officer, explaining I was under used in the Hangar without any specialist knowledge or experience and would like a change for a week or two. He probably thought I was an idiot and readily agreed on the principle that a volunteer is worth ten pressed men.

Winship some time later and without my knowledge refused to accept my posting back into Technical Training Command as an Examiner and only told me when he had been successful. His words were ‘Well you wouldn’t have wanted to go, would you Chalky, and anyway you weren’t going so it didn’t matter’. What a way to say you are needed. Nearly two years later, and still not officially posted onto the Squadron, I was notoriously known, possibly due to my loud aggressive approach to problems, as '5’s First Line Chief' , a title I was proud of and hoped I earned and other things I probably wouldn’t have been proud of if truth be known.

This was my first real taste of First Line Operational Man Management bringing together a group of Airmen who were just completely demoralised and mistreated. They in return gave me a great deal of pleasure in watching their achievements. I can still remember some of their names thirty years on, in no special order, just my memory at work, and apologies to those who I have temporarily overlooked they were ...... Merv Lobb (Armourer); Cpl Grant (Engines), a Command footballer; LAC Paddy Lucas, a little Irish Airframe Mech; SAC Taff Jones; ‘Wilf Copping’; Don Agnew, an electrician from Doncaster. I have a photograph of us all outside the new Line Hut, which has a special place in my Lightning memorabilia. If you’re out there fellas, please get in touch, and of course Neil Bland, the best ‘oppo’ anyone could have wished for.

Diary 1967 - 1968
The following is a diary of events that took place and highlights, together with some comments, what to the best of my recollection took place during my time with the Squadron. ( Where an old man's memory has failed, please forgive me!)

January 1967
Join the Squadron on detachment from FCTU.

February 1967
The Defence White Paper announced the merger of Fighter and Bomber Commands into one Command - Strike Command - in April 1968 and I become ‘First Line Chief’

We operated from the office adjacent to the central fire doors in 1 Hangar, hardly any space and the pilots coming and going signing the aircraft RAF Form 700 on a counter that stretched the length of the office. It was about a hundred yards from the flight line and on wet days the office smelt of sweat, kerosene and Avpin fumes, not a pleasant mixture. The aircrew operations room was more like a palace compared to that used by the ‘bods’.

The first thing I had to get used to was the scream of the Avpin starters and the smell of its exhaust. I had been in Technical Training Command for eight years and it was a bit of a shock. In those days all you had was an asbestos glove to put over the starter exhaust should there be an Avpin fire, which was not un-common. The flames were invisible during the day, but you could see them at night, a blue light hovering around the starter exhaust. The starters shed blades occasionally and the first rule was never be in line with the port wing when on starter crew - that was the most likely trajectory of broken blades.

It was difficult to get the ‘troops’ to wear ear defenders as they were so uncomfortable and the ‘oil’ leaked from the detachable ear pieces. The ear plugs that were supposedly fitted for each individual were no better and easily misplaced. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of engineers of those days are now suffering problems with deafness. Lightnings were not the quietest of ships.

The flight line was the same as on any other airfield built in the late 1930’s, re-covered with concrete over the old tarmac and painted with yellow lines to show the aircraft parking areas and defining the areas for ground equipment. It was simple but effective, that’s if the jockey obeyed the marshallers' signals.

As the Lightning was built as a Quick Reaction Alert aircraft, the replenishment points and connections - with the exception of those on the spine - were located for easy access on the ground. This was supposed to reduce the amount of ground equipment required. The facts are that the ground equipment areas were occupied with a mass of equipment. Houchin power sets, Lox trolleys, air bottles, access ladders, chocks, a converted gun trolley carrying brake chutes, AVPIN bottles, fire bottles, intake and pitot covers, as well as the odd cut down 50 gallon drum to catch fuel leakages. You name it, if it was needed for a Lightning turn round it was there somewhere on the pan.

With the Lightning taxiing out from these flight lines, it was thank goodness for the power sets, as it was behind these that the ground crew dived when the blast of the exhaust hit as the pilot turned onto the taxi way.

There was also frequently on the pan the wheel change kit. The wheels were very hot and the First Line ‘troops’ had their work cut out to cope with a double wheel change, refuel, chute replacement, cassette change, read the fatigue meter, AVPIN replenishment and the other odds and sods on a Quick Turn Round.... and yet they did it time and time again in some of the foulest weathers for which Binbrook was infamous. We regularly did Quick Turn Rounds (QTR’s) with the pilot still strapped in while the replenishments and checks were carried out, including the wheel changes. Williams and Benetton, eat your hearts out.

It required tight discipline from the ground crew to ensure that there were no accidents, especially at night. The pan lights shining down from the top of the hangar were reasonable for 1967, but not up to those on a modern Premier League Soccer ground, and in driving rain the shadows cast could be misleading. Heaven help you if you walked into a trailing edge.

Airframe fatigue was always a problem. It is this that controls the aircraft life in the end, not the hours flown. The Fatigue Index (FI) was 100 in those days, although I believe it was raised to 130 later. Pilots were always concerned that we would report high fatigue consumption following a sortie. The high speed, low level air combat and fighter versus fighter sorties that the pilots enjoyed consumed airframe life, but we couldn’t do a ‘back street car sales job’ and turn the clock back! Heavy landings were also a problem in my early days, but later were hardly ever reported. The pilots were getting more adept I think, or thought better of making a report.

QRA, from which we were excused during my first few months while the Squadron recovered from its TACEVAL failure, was done from the Flight Line at first, then from the Runway Ready hard standings and only in 1968 from the QRA Sheds which the Association hopes to buy. With a frame set up behind the trailing edge and in front of the power set carrying the power cables into the port side undercarriage, well, it looked quite ‘Heath Robinsonish’ for a fighter set to repel the Red invasion. Many’s the time early on when the cables did not release, the aircraft started to pull the set and the marshaller was gesticulating wildly. At night I wondered how the jockeys saw the tiny wands. Eventually we overcame the problems and the set ups worked fine.

Exercises in the wet, cold, Binbrook weather were dreaded. The troops wore their normal overalls, plus wet weather gear of all shapes and sizes. Looking up at the pilot in his nice warm cockpit was no consolation, especially at night. During exercises, when maybe eight or more aircraft were on the pan at the stand by with all the frames attached, the ‘Line’ looked like it meant business.

A Dutch squadron visited with F-104s. These aircraft 'pranged' at an alarming rate, but the low level aerobatics that the Dutch gave was really spectacular. What their fatigue consumption was I never asked. One manoeuvre took place in which the aircraft was inverted within seconds of becoming airborne. Hairy!

March 1967
We had a full complement of 12 F Mk 6's on the Squadron. However, there were problems with getting certain aircraft to raise their noses off the ground. The ‘Shed’ technicians worked on the problem for months until Roland Beaumont visited in June. They increased the nose oleo pressure so that the aircraft didn't have a nose down attitude on take-off and it seemed to cure the problem.

The first of the arrestor hooks were fitted. The arrestor gear on the runway wasn't installed for some months after we had the gear on the aircraft. This was another example of 'Works and Bricks' (MOD Building Contractors) at their best.

April 1967
Over wing tank trials took place in preparation for our overseas deployments. It took some time to get used to seeing the ‘ships’ with them fitted, but after initially disliking them I thought they added character.

May 1967
AFCENT Air Defence Conference at RAF Wittering. We took 'Alpha' XS903 (over wings fitted ) with F/O Jenkins. I operated the aircraft on my own, as by now I was qualified to first line in all trades. It was the best looking of all the aircraft types at the Conference and attracted most interest. Alpha was Wg Cdr Winship's aircraft, one of the last production batch of Mark 6's. It was first flown 17.8.66. at Samlesbury and arrived at 5 Squadron on 16.3.67. As the show aircraft, it was highly polished, although all the aircraft were polished. It wasn't until later when I had left that they became camouflaged. Winship instituted the routine that whenever any particular aircraft was being cleaned, the pilot whose name appeared on the side of the aircraft attended and did his whack. The smell of ‘Wadpol’ hung about them for days.

Alpha also went to the Paris Air Show in 1967 (photo above). It was displayed with over wing tanks, Red Top missiles and surrounded by all manner of armament variations right next to an extremely large Russian transport aircraft. I thought they might try to nick it! The aircraft was supposed to represent an overseas export variant, and although it had a large number 91 painted in black in front of the Squadron Red Flash, the maple leaf and the Squadron designation Alpha were still on the fin. I thought the aircraft looked more classy in polished ‘ali’ (natural metal), but more warlike in camouflage.

Other fin markings in my day, some of which were changed later, were,

XR718 S ‘sugar’
XR753 U ‘utah’, a Mk3A on FCTU
XR755 A ‘alpha’, returned to BAC for full MK 6 conversion in April 67 replaced by XS903
XR758 D 'delta', finished its life as a Battle Damage Repair aircraft at Laarbruch and replaced by XS901
XR759 E 'echo'
XR760 F 'fox-trot'
XR761 J ‘juliet’, replaced by XS902
XR762 K 'kilo', replaced by XS898
XR763 H ‘hotel’, replaced by XS922
XR764 L 'lima', replaced by XS925
XR765 M 'mike'
XS894 F ‘foxtrot’, delivered 3 Jan 1967, the first 5 Squadron full Mk 6

9
XS898 K 'kilo'
XS899 G ‘golf’
XS900 M ‘mike’, crashed at Lossiemouth 24 Jan 1968
XS901 D ‘delta’
XS902 J ‘juliet’
XS903 A ‘alpha’
XS922 H ‘hotel’
XS923 C ‘charlie’, later changed to ‘alpha’
XS924 E ‘echo’, crashed at Beelsby 29th April 1968
XS925 L ‘lima’
XS926 B ‘bravo’

XS451 T5 T 'tango', naturally. Now at the Lightning Flying Club at Plymouth. Let's hope one day it will fly again!

Some of these were Interim Mk 6’s, exchanged for full Mk 6’s during early 1967. XS898, XS903 and XS923 appeared at the last Lightning Show in August 1987 some twenty years on. Not bad eh? Of course there were others but these identifications are the only ones that stick or I have photos of.

There is a Crown Copyright picture of Al Davey and Dusty Miller talking by the side of XS894 following a tyre burst during a landing by Al in May ‘67. It epitomises the feel in the Squadron at the time. The atmosphere was definitely improving and I imagine it was getting nearer to the spirit of a fighter squadron during WWII. With the ‘burst’ on the grass and right at the end of the runway, the old canvas arrestor barrier is up and Al has parked his ‘Bone Dome’ on the Firestreak. The scene looks so relaxed with the ground crew arriving to remove the offending wheel and take the ‘bird’ back to the flight line. A year later they had both been involved in crashes and Al had lost his life

June 67
It was about this time we moved into the new ‘Line Complex’. Designed from an idea produced by Neil Bland, Works and Bricks played a blinder once again and built it back to front, so that the chute store was facing in the wrong direction. The Avpin Store, a cage with 50 gallon drums with taps on them to fill smaller 5 gallon plastic cans which we refuelled the starter Avpin tank up on the spine, was still across the pan and the base is still clear to see. I remember one occasion when we had a major problem with being unable to get the starter motors to fire up. It was only after a considerable amount of time that it was discovered that a 50 gallon drum of water, labelled AVPIN, had been put up in the Avpin store. Whoever did it or for whatever reason no one was ever apprehended.

It seemed a shame when I returned in ‘97 that the line building is no more. All that is left is the foundations. I stole a bit of the floor as a memento, and if you're out there Neil, there is a bit for you!

It was about this time that the Squadron achieved its first TACEVAL 1 rating and the feeling throughout the Squadron was euphoric. From failing to a TACEVAL 1 seemed impossible, but it had happened. It certainly gave morale a boost for the moment.

No 74 Squadron at Leuchars was transferred to Singapore at this time and so the QRA stand-by increased. We were all impressed that five days after 74 arrived in Singapore they declared themselves operational. The Mk 6 was proving that the Lightning was indeed a serviceable aircraft.

July 67
The ‘Copper Handshake’ redundancy scheme for long serving ground tradesmen, mostly SNCO’s and Warrant Officers, didn’t do much for morale amongst the ground crew which had been improving. Would you get it ‘itis’ was prevalent. The RAF response was far greater than the Air Ministry had imagined. Fortunately for me, the ‘Line’ crew were mostly young whippersnappers and morale on the ‘Line’ was now on a high, especially following our TACEVAL success. Much of this was due to the ‘Shed’ providing us with more serviceable ‘ships’ each day and we were achieving our sorties quota.

25th August 1967
XS938, the last production F Mk6, was delivered to the RAF at Leuchars

September 67
American McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom of the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing came on detachment for liaison from Germany. The aircrew enjoyed themselves playing about in the air and we finished with a super all ranks party. I think this was a reward for the ‘engineers’ who had so improved the serviceability. Our ‘Ops Officers’ got great enjoyment about declaring to Command a high serviceability state and most Lightning squadrons seemed to compete to be the best.

7 - 28th October 1967
First Malta detachment, Adex 67. We put Day-Glo Maltese Crosses on the fins. Day and night sorties to Sigonella. Night exercises were brilliant in Malta. The weather was superb and I got some great photographs, one of which is a long time exposure of a night reheat take off. The twin sheets of flame taper away into the night sky. I am no Ian Black, but that is a favourite of mine.

We did our flying early in the day and visited places like the Blue Grotto, Mosta Cathedral and Rabat, had a few beers, and brought home the usual lace and tablecloths. I had transited Luqa during my time in the Canal Zone and now I got a chance to see the place. The RAF was a real travel club at that time. When the ‘fly past’ was made on the start of the return journey home, the Squadron flew in formation down Grand Harbour Valetta with a full reheat climb away, much to the annoyance of Dom Mintoff, as the Parliament was in the middle of a sitting. There was a formal complaint I believe.

By the end of 1967 there were 3 UK based Squadrons of F6s; 5 Squadron at Binbrook and part of the ‘Scottish Air Force’ No's 11 and 23 squadrons at Leuchars, all ready to repel the Russian Bear Fleet. Some of 23’s aircraft were refurbished interim Mk 6’s, so they were looked upon as the poor relations as I recall. This was the peak of the Lightning's Squadrons existence. Apart from 5, 11 and 23, 19 and 92 Squadrons were established in Germany with F2 and F2As, at Wattisham were 29 and 111 with F3s, 56 Squadron at Akrotiri also with F3s and out East was 74 with F6s.

1968
This year saw the 50th Anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force but all the troops on the ground saw was reductions in men and materials. It was as though the ‘Powers that be’ wanted the forces to be demoralised. By the end of 1968 the RAF theoretically had 1,738 aircraft (1,015 were non-operational types) and RAF manning was given as 112,433 all ranks. The Lightning was the main front line interceptor.

By 1974 the RAF aircraft strength was only a little more than 1,405 aircraft (750 were non-operational types), manning was now 99,200 and the Lightning still continued as the main front line interceptor.

15th Jan - 9 Feb RAF Leuchars
On 24.1.68 XS900 crashed after loss of power during take off from Lossiemouth while we were on detachment standing in for 23 Squadron at Leuchars which was overseas on a jolly. Flt Lt 'Dusty' Miller ejected OK. The loss of power was attributed to a loose article (FOD) jamming the controls. It is amazing that very few aircraft were lost in this manner and highlights the high standards of tool control and hygiene that the engineers maintained.

The detachment at Leuchars gave us the chance to play golf at St Andrews at a time when the cost of a round was not prohibitive. Americans and Japanese visitors were not as common as today, and you just went to the starter's hut to book a time. Long gone those days! Just a memory, like a flying Lightnings.

Feb 68
RAF Wattisham for the Royal Fly-past. Lightnings from all the squadrons were involved, together with a couple of ‘Meatboxes’ in target Day-Glo and the odd Canberra. They had got airborne from some other unit and joined the Lightnings over Wattisham.

5 Squadron was situated on an old dispersal right next to the runway for two days prior to the Fly Past. On the day, the cacophony of sound as the aircraft all roared down the runway makes me put my hands to my ears even now. There must have been ten aircraft at any one time in various modes of the ‘take off’ run, done in pairs. This truly was a Day of Thunder. At 5’s dispersal, the ground shook as the aircraft went past, and as it was located about the rotation point this shaking was increased progressively as each pair roared by. My slides show well over 15 rows so there must have been more than thirty Lightnings involved. I have the feeling it was fifty, but that seems a bit high. JPTs for the aircraft anywhere beyond row two were horrendous and the smoke clouds could be see quite easily. Slides I have convey the feeling quite well!

March 68
Second Malta detachment. This time we didn’t do a Grand Harbour beat up, but the ground crew beat the aircrew at soccer and the beer flowed just as on any detachment.

1 4.68
Disbandment of Fighter Command (Cries of Shame). Strike Command was never a name for fighters.

29.4.68
XS924 crashed killing Flying Officer 'Al' Davey while formatting on a Victor tanker during the 50th Anniversary display and the inauguration of Strike Command (merging of Fighter and Bomber Commands) by a Fly Past at RAF Scampton. The Enquiry gave the possible cause as wake turbulence from the tanker. As we stood on the ‘Line’ at Binbrook we saw the aircraft spin off and stall before falling into open farm land at Beelsby. ‘Al’ had just returned from his honeymoon to fly this sortie and is buried in Binbrook village church-yard.

We had a collection within the Squadron and the 'Wilkinson Sword' was bought in his honour. I wonder where the Sword rests now, anyone out there know? 5 Squadron Coningsby, I hope! (I have since been in touch with 5 Squadron and they advised me that the Sword is used throughout the RAF now. Personally, I would have liked it to remain with the Squadron amongst its trophies as a reminder of where Al was amongst his friends when he was so tragically lost )

The crashes at Lossiemouth and Beelsby were the only two losses during my time on 5 Squadron and I remember the joy when we knew that Dusty had ejected safely and the horrible feeling when Al was lost. Aircrew and ‘First Line’ were certainly close during this period.

We had occasional disagreements. Once, I recall an Airframe Mechanic, ‘Paddy’ Lucas, refusing to clear a sortie because the pilot did not stow his seat pins correctly. He climbed down the ladder and ran back to the Line Office. The pilot closed the aircraft down and came looking for me with a demand for Paddy's hide. Paddy had beaten him to it, and when I confronted the pilot with the facts he had to explain to the CO why the sortie had been aborted. No action was taken about ‘Paddy’, but the pilot suffered for his breaking of the safety rules.

The average loss per year in the Lightning force was about 4 from 1963 onwards, with 1969 being a good year with only one. Fatalities were extremely low; out of the 34 losses up to the end of 1969 only 6 produced fatalities. 1970 and 1971 were bad years, when in these two years alone there were 17 losses and 5 fatalities. In 1972-1974 the rate returned to about 3 and then 1975-1988 as low as one, which was no doubt due to the integrity program that was fully implemented.

May 1968
Detachment to Bahrain; the non-stop flight to Bahrain was 4,000 miles in a little over 8.5 hours. The pilots were Wg Cdr Winship, Flt Lt John Leeming (later to die in a mid air collision between two Harriers over Eye, Nr Peterborough), Sqdn Ldr McDermid and F/O Al Winkles.

This was not really a holiday. The thing that stands out clearly in my mind was the ‘large hangar’ which we were not in and the aerial farm in the mud flat. I still got good photo opportunities, though, of the local area. A couple of us slept under the wings of the aircraft on the dispersal on the night before the ‘ships’ were due to return, and I was awoken by an RAF Police dog licking my face. Not a pleasant sight or smell, the dog and handler I mean!

I have a photo of Chief Tech ‘Wally’ Bloomfield and Squadron Ldr Beebie, the Squadron SEO, with Beebie on the steps with lovely white legs (get your knees brown) and his golf umbrella covering the cockpit as a sun shade. Wally appears to be telling him something is ‘duff’, not unusual for Lightnings at times. These took off on time though. The story went that on the return leg John Leeming, flying in the pair with Winship, over-used the oxygen early in the leg. He wasn’t allowed to divert to Akrotiri and the effect was that on landing back at Binbrook he was in a terrible state, his urine was supposedly black. Who saw that to confirm I do not know!

29.8.68
Presentation of the Dacre Trophy to the Squadron by Mrs E F Dacre. The inscription on the Trophy reads: 'To the Regular Squadron in Fighter Command which is declared to be the most proficient in Weapons Training'. Two Maltese stone plaques were given to Mrs Dacre by the Squadron. She was to return the following year to award it for a second time and the Wilkinson Sword was paraded for the first time at this presentation. The pride in achieving this award was not reflected in the dismal weather and the flying programme which had been well rehearsed had to be cancelled. Even in the wet, the line up of the ‘ali’ ships was superb. The Squadron won the trophy again in 1969 after I had left and were awarded the Huddleston Trophy as the top NATO interceptor Squadron in May 1970. What a turn round from having to rerun a TACEVAL in 1967.

Extra QRA duty in the last week of September as two aircraft from 23 Squadron flew to Canada for the Canadian National Show at Toronto. It was a trip we would have liked to make. A couple of years later they did.

Sept 68
5 Squadron had the privilege instead of demonstrating Flight Refuelling at the Farnborough Air Show. It made me think about ‘Al's’ death, but showed the Victor and Lightning off to good effect. I’d hate to think what the Lightning Force would have done without the Victor. It was great to see them both together at Bruntingthorpe, each having its spell of glory roaring down the runway.

1 Dec 1968

I finished my ‘Detachment’ to 5 Squadron on promotion and posting as VC 10 Flight Manager, Base Squadron, RAF Brize Norton, but then that is another story. I can honestly say that I enjoyed the experience and learnt many lessons of man management during that posting, the most important of which is that if you have low morale then unless the problem is dealt with straight away the flying will suffer. Thanks to a good CO and a superb crowd of ‘troops’, the results proved great for them, for the reputation of 5 Squadron and for the Lightning.

PostScript
Down the hill and home to Norfolk my thoughts wandered to a super day and Charles’ request for an article - his words not mine. I had gathered some information, took stills and video, met a lot of enthusiastic individuals and saw the true Lightning Spirit of 1997. Is it the aura that surrounds the Lightning that inspires people, those who served on them or just watched over the crash gate? I know the same enthusiasm was at the Association Meeting. Now I am bitten with the bug, writing to OC 5 at Coningsby and the Editor of the Grimsby Evening Telegraph amongst others to get my facts right or at least as near as I can. If I am wrong please forgive an old man’s wanderings. So there you are Charles and Peter, your article, now the cost ...

First a request. Should there be anyone out there who has pictures of 5 Squadron (ali) ships who wishes to exchange for copies of my photos and slides I would be only to willing to trade. Secondly, please pass a big thank you to all of you who spend so much of your time doing your best to preserve the Lightning and the spirit that goes with it. Wherever you are may your ‘Days of Thunder’ return with your Lightnings not aborted at Take Off, but, in Full Reheat, to fly into the history books and videos, seen and heard in the air again where they deserve to be. Good luck to you all.

Ken White

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