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March 2005, Archive Story


Big Bad Dog

Lighting relected in a mirror-glass building.

James Pengelly, April 2004

This story begins in July 2003. I read an e-mail from my brother to a gentleman by the name of Charles Ross. The e-mail was to thank Charles for volunteering to search for footage of my late father flying the Lightning in various displays. I’m sure some of you knew my father, Russ Pengelly. From what I’ve learned he was an exceptional pilot. The following is a brief summary of his flying career: -

- RAF College Cranwell Sept`63- August `66

- No 4 FTS, RAF Valley October`66- March `67 ( Gnats)

- No 6 Sqn of No 2 S of TT, RAF Valley April `67- June`67 (Gnats)

- No 234 Sqn, 229 OCU, RAF Chivenor July` 67- October`67 (Hunters)

- No's 1,2,3 Sqn 226 OCU RAF Coltishall November`67- April`68 (Lightnings)

- No 23 Sqn RAF Leuchars April`68- October`70 (Lightnings)

- OC TFF RAF Wattisham October `70- February`73 (Lightnings) 

- Queen`s Commendation for valuable services in the air June 1971 (Lightning aeros)

- Awarded the Air Force Cross, January ‘73(Lightning aeros)

- ETPS A&AEE Boscombe Down, February `73- December `73 (various aircraft)

- A Sqn A&AEE Boscombe Down , December`73- May`77 (Harrier, Sea Harrier)

- Queen`s Commendation for valuable services in the air (work on A Sqn)

- Retired RAF June 1977

- Experimental Test Pilot, Military Division British Aircraft Corporation, Warton June `77 (Tornado)

Tragically he was killed in 1979 whilst test flying a Tornado prototype. Clearly my father’s flying has had a huge impact on our upbringing. All our lives, both my brother and I have had a keen interest in aviation, although my brother currently seems to prefer throwing himself out of aircraft rather than staying inside. Having been in the Air Cadets and flown gliders and Chipmunks, my ambition was to fly fast jets for the RAF. I remember feeling more than a little disappointed when I failed my medical at Biggin Hill due to an allergy to cats. Ever since I’d wondered whether I’d have a chance to experience what it felt like to fly a fighter.

I started corresponding with Charles and he sent me copies of the Lightning Review. As I read them, I realised that I knew nothing of the Lightning. I had no idea that there was any interest in them apart from perhaps the odd one preserved in a museum. When I found out that there were a few in taxing condition, I had to see one for myself. Remember the earth shaking sound of a Lightning tearing down the runway and then launching into the sky? Well, although I’m sure I heard it a few times as a toddler, I certainly couldn’t remember it. For me, the first time I experienced it (minus the take-off) was at Bruntingthorpe airfield in October 2003. I was shocked at the power of the machine and I fell in love with it straight away. I sat in the cockpit of an F6 later that day and was amazed that anyone of normal size and number of limbs could possibly a) fit in the cockpit comfortably and b) operate so many dials/gauges/warning lights/switches/levers/toggles/etc on the ground, let alone bowling along at 500kts. The other thing that struck me was that everything about it was functional, basic and necessary. The rubber radar boot made me realise just how far technology has come.

Lightning F6 XR728 at Bruntingthorpe
Love at first sight.  Lightning F6 XR728 accelerates down the runway at Bruntingthorpe.

Lightning F6 XR728, reheat on one engine.
Even with only a single reheat XR728 was ear shattering.

Getting into the cockpit of XR278
Anyone got a shoe horn?

In the cockpit of XR728 at Bruntingthorpe.
When picture was taken I had no idea what this experience would lead to. The author in the cockpit at Bruntingthorpe.

In October and November I did very little else but read about the Lightning on the Internet and in books. I was surprised to learn that there were two T5’s and an F6 in Cape Town, which were flying regularly. A company called Incredible Adventures called me after I visited their website and I almost fell over when I learnt how much it cost to fly one. Having picked myself off the floor I immediately filed the idea of flying a Lightning in the drawer labelled ‘It’ll never happen’ and tried to forget about it. At the same time, I ordered ‘Last of the Lightnings’ by Ian Black and ‘English Electric Lightning – Birth of the Legend’ by Stewart Scott. The former is a wonderful, highly pictorial, pilot’s viewpoint of the Lightning experience, whilst latter is simply the most comprehensive work ever written on the subject, with endless detail on practically any topic you can think of. In ‘Last of the Lightnings’ I read a chapter on Mike Beachy Head’s Lightnings at Thunder City in South Africa. I learned about the T5s ZU-BBD (XS452) and ZU-BEX (XS451), as well as about the F6. By coincidence I was going on holiday to Cape Town for New Year. I might have been able to forget the idea completely if it hadn’t been for the ever energetic Greg at Incredible Adventures. Every time he called me, a little seed of hope was planted in my mind. I decided that maybe I’d do it one day but for the time being I’d just dream. Finally I realised that if I didn’t fly a Lightning just once then I’d always regret it. I promptly sold my car and got on the phone to Greg – the date of the flight was set to be Sunday January 4th 2004. Simple as that.

Destiny seemed to be pushing me along in the right direction and this continued whilst reading ‘Last of the Lightnings’. I talked to my mother about the T5s in Cape Town and it wasn’t until a week or two after I booked my flight that she called me to tell me that my father had flown XS452 on several occasions during his Lightning conversion course at RAF Coltishall in March 1968! I thought about the odds of it: of the three hundred and thirty nine Lightnings built, three were still flying – a one hundred to one chance. I knew then that no matter how much it had cost me, it was meant to be and I finally stopped feeling guilty about spending a small fortune on what I knew was going to be only a forty minute joyride. I e-mailed Greg and asked him to ask Thunder City if I could fly XS452 in particular and he told me that although it was undergoing major servicing they believed she’d be airworthy by January. I can’t begin to describe how I felt when I knew I was going to fly her.

In preparation for my flight I went to stay with Bob Ruskell for a weekend. Bob flew Lightnings with my father at Wattisham and it was wonderful to hear his stories from their time there. He also lent me his copy of Lightning F3 Pilots Notes, which I used to read through avidly to familiarise myself with the Lightning cockpit. Apart from these distractions the months of November and December seemed to take forever to pass and I was very pleased when I finally found myself in South Africa at the end of December.

Saturday January 3rd – Having spent the last few days getting to know Cape Town and visiting various attractions, I was beginning to get pretty excited about the Lightning flight that I’d spent the last three months looking forward to. I called Thunder City in the afternoon to confirm that everything was ready for the next day and was surprised to hear that not only was no pilot available but XS452 still wasn’t serviceable. As it transpired both the civil and military engine test run facilities had both become unavailable and therefore they hadn’t been able to engine run her after the new engine had been installed. At this point I was pretty disappointed and suggested that he might want to pick his game up a little. He promised that they’d do everything possible to get her in the air for me and told me to arrive at 09:30 on Monday morning for my flight.

Sunday 4th January – A perfect day – bright sunshine, no wind, just beautiful.

Monday 5th January - I looked out of the bedroom window at about 6am and was surprised to see nothing but cloud. For a second I thought I was back in England it was so bleak. We arrived at Thunder City at the prescribed time, I suited up and while we waited for Mike Beach Head to arrive we were given a tour of the hangar. In one half of the hangar they have a few museum pieces including a Wasp helicopter, a Buccaneer and a Mirage F1. The other half contains all the serviceable aircraft, comprising two T7 Hunters, two single seat Hunters, three Buccaneers, two Lightning T5s, a Lightning F6, a Strikemaster and a handful of helicopters. Additionally, the skeletal form of Lightning F6 XP693 crouched in the corner. Currently she is being rebuilt to flight status and I was fascinated to see the miles of wiring and hydraulic piping that is normally hidden from view by panels. I was amazed because my father had flown at least XS452 (Lightning OCU), XP693 (British Aerospace’s chase Lightning for the Tornado programme) and I am fairly sure he would’ve flown the red white and blue Buccaneer from the Air Fighting Development Squadron when he went through Empire Test Pilots School.

It seemed that my conversation with the manager on Saturday had had some effect because when I looked out of the hangar door I saw a pickup truck from a specialist drilling company parked on the apron. They had drilled two holes into the concrete and fitted two large engine test chocks into them. XS452 was sat outside gleaming in her gloss black paintwork with a few panels off and ventral tank removed. The plan was to engine test her later on in the morning and then prep her for flight that afternoon.

During the course of the morning I met Thunder City’s chief engineer, Barry Pover, who knew my father from Chivenor and Warton. If I remember correctly, the registration plate on his car is ‘LGHTNG’, so you get an idea of his interests. Barry had taken the job at Thunder City as something to keep him busy after he retired. Given that the Lightnings arrived in a total of eighty shipping containers, I think ‘busy’ is a little understated. To give you an idea of the level of engineering he maintains; they have flown fifteen hundred incident free sorties since they began operating.

I went outside to watch XS452 (ZU-BBD) being ground run. It’s not hard to see why ZU-BBD’s nickname is Big Bad Dog; she’s a beast. After a quick bit of manoeuvring with the tractor she was firmly set against the chocks and the ground crew set about preparing her to start. When all was ready the engine start sign was given from the cockpit and the Lightning emitted a loud hissing noise, which I presume has something to do with AVPIN being injected into the engine. The bottom engine started without trouble and the engineer in the cockpit began a series of tests at various RPMs. Not all the spectators had ear defenders and I could see them backing off into the hangar further and further as the noise got progressively louder. A baby in a pram did not look at all impressed with the situation and the family quickly retreated back to the safety of the hangar. I was standing about ten metres away, perpendicular to the cockpit and the sound was tremendous. The Lightning was straining against the chocks in cold power but when they did the max reheat test her nose gear compressed and she looked about ready to bolt. The plant life behind the engines was obliterated. Being that close to a Lightning at full power was incredible but I was as close as I wanted to get. I couldn’t believe my eyes when one of the ground crew crawled under the engine bay and the other climbed onto an elevator to peer into various access holes whilst the engine was busily re-landscaping half the airport. Barry came out to supervise the testing and when the diamond shaped shockwaves appeared at max reheat the ground crew got the thumbs up. They repeated the process for the other engine and everyone seemed pretty happy with the results. The photographer I bought along told me that at one point he’d grabbed hold of the wing of a Hunter to try to steady himself but it didn’t help because the whole aircraft was shuddering!

Lightning XS452, Sotuh Africa.
XS452 (ZU-BBD) being prepared for ground running

The view to Table Mountain showed rain clouds arriving from the east and the flying schedule for the day started to look a bit hopeful. My girlfriend’s family and the photographer left and I had instructions to call if the weather started to change. Mike, myself and a chap over from Edinburgh to fly a Hunter (his name has escaped me) sat around the briefing room attempting to consume the unending torrent of tea being made by the kindly tea lady. I’m sure that those of you that have met Mike will agree that he is a priceless character. He has more flying stories than you can shake a stick at and I was in fits of laughter for most of the afternoon. When 3pm rolled by and the weather hadn’t cleared, we retired to the bar. The bar at Thunder City must be one of the world’s finest; it is on the first floor of the offices in the hangar and has a glass wall overlooking the aircraft in the hangar. After a few beers and many more stories, with perfect timing the clouds cleared and left a beautiful clear sky. Apparently the aviation authorities have a rather unsporting attitude to drink flying, so there really wasn’t any option but to refill our glasses and enjoy the view. Luckily my lift arrived before things got out of hand and I drove back to the house for dinner.

Tuesday 6th January – The weather didn’t look good and a couple of phone calls to Thunder City during the day confirmed that I’d be doing the same amount of flying as the penguins that we were visiting at Boulders Beach.

Wednesday 7th January – Given that I was leaving Cape Town for Durban at 15:00, time was getting a bit tight. Fortunately when I opened the shutters early in the morning, the inclement weather of the past couple of days had finally cleared and I knew that my time had finally come. After a rather meagre breakfast (I have never been air/sea/motion/travel/rollercoaster sick but I figured there’s always a first time) I headed back to Thunder City. Between Cape Town and the international airport is an area known as the ‘Cape Flats’. This area houses thousands upon thousands of some of the poorest people in South Africa, all of whom live in unimaginable conditions. Whilst driving through this area the odds of not getting car jacked, shot, robbed or otherwise attacked are somewhat similar to winning the National Lottery. It isn’t hard to understand why the crime rate is astronomical when you try to put yourself in those peoples’ shoes. Every day they see shiny new BMWs whizzing past their front doors and car jacking is a simple and effective way of making some money to keep them alive.

The reason I mention this is that having flown into Cape Town international, I knew that the approach was right over the Cape Flats. The, albeit remote, prospect of jumping out on approach, surviving the ejection but then being murdered in the ganglands, scared the daylights out of me. However, that came a distant second to my vertigo fear of reaching the top of the Lightning’s boarding ladder and then making a rapid, unscheduled descent onto the concrete below. Oddly, the prospect of strapping a large fuel tank to myself, setting it on fire and then hurtling around the sky at supersonic velocity didn’t worry me in the slightest.

Upon arrival we were lucky enough to watch Mike return from a sortie in a jet black [sic] Hunter T7 with a client by the name of Guy. We enjoyed a cup of tea and then Mike left to take Guy up in XS452 for a few circuits in order to check her out after the engine run. Initially she seemed reluctant to fly and stood on the concrete stoically ignoring any attempts to start her engines. A bit of running around and tinkering by the ground crew was sufficient to bring her to life and it wasn’t long before I saw her climbing into the circuit in reheat. A couple of words that come close to describing the sight are ‘magnificent’ and ‘majestic’. I felt very privileged to see her fly.

Lightning X452 does a low level fly pass.
XS452 (ZU-BBD) helping Mike perform a detailed runway inspection.

Lightning XS452 in a turn.
A few moments later; vapour forms over her wings as she turns hard.

After three passes overhead, including one with the gear down, Mike brought her in to land and taxied back to the hangar. Mike then took me aside and told me that one of the fuel pump warning lights had come on and that for safety’s sake he’d have to put XS452 unserviceable. I was disappointed but I didn’t mind too much because they had made a huge effort to get her ready for me and if she didn’t want to play ball then neither hell nor high water was going to get her to change her mind. It wasn’t as if flying XS451 was going to be a chore, it is just that it wasn’t going to be quite as special as flying the same aircraft that my father had flown.

With XS452 grounded, the crew prepped XS451 for flight (she just needed filling with LOX), whilst Mike strapped me into a training ejector seat and then took me through the emergency drill for leaving the aircraft in a hurry.

Author getting ejector seat drill.
Emergency ejector seat drill.

Lightning XS451 in a hanger.
XS451 being replenished with LOX

We then followed our steed as she was towed out from the hangar. I kissed my girlfriend goodbye and climbed the ladder, taking special care not to look down and scare myself. I sat down in the surprisingly comfortable seat and was impressed by how roomy the T5 was in comparison with the F6. Mike, if you ever read this then please don’t take offence because I’m sure it would happen with anyone, but it has to be said that there wasn’t quite as much room left after you got in as well. The ground crew helped me strap in and I soon realised that extracting myself from the aircraft was going to be a good game should need arise. Getting out of an ejector seat in a spacious briefing room is one thing, attempting to unstrap yourself from one whilst confined in a space no larger than a baked bean can is quite another. I donned my bone dome and then clipped on my oxygen mask. It was not without some disappointment that I discovered I was now completely unable to breath. After some frantic hand signaling the crewman took pity on me and connected me to the aircraft’s oxygen system. I was then attached to the intercom and kept myself amused for several seconds by listening to my Darth Vader-like breathing noises. I believe that the intercom had some sort of fault because I struggled to hear Mike over it but he could hear me fine.

Prepairing for the flight.
Taking my seat under the glorious South African blue sky.

Before leaving, the ground crew removed the safety pins from the ejection seats. Although I don’t know the details, I’m fairly sure that the Martin Baker in the Lightning doesn’t have zero/zero ejection capability. Knowing that the only way out if something went wrong on the ground was a wrestling match with the seat, a quick hop over the side and then two broken legs wasn’t comforting. Needless to say, I kept my hands well away from the yellow and black handles.

Pilot aboard.
Mike Beachy Head - owner and pilot of the world's last flying Lightnings.

Mike went through the engine start check list and then completely failed to start engine number one. The only sign of life was the, by now routine loud hissing noise, followed by silence. He then repeated the process and had more luck with engine number two. With a little help from its companion, engine one successfully lit and we were ready to go. I gave the spectators a thumbs up and we taxied out. If you imagine trundling along sat atop a giant tricycle, you will get some idea of the sensation.

XS451 doesn’t wear Thunder City’s livery of gloss black. Instead she is resplendent in what most probably consider the classic Lightning colour: bare metal silver. Although it has to be said that jet black [sic] is a very fetching colour for fighter planes, it has the effect of making photographs of them look flat. My photographer was therefore pleased with the turn of events!

Lightning XS451
XS451 (ZU-BEX) about to start her engines.

Lightning XS451 taxies out.
XS451 turns her tail to the crowd and demonstrates that she's not much more than a pair of very large jet engines.

I wondered what the occupants of the various airliners were thinking as we passed by. Thunder City has a good relationship with the local air traffic controllers and consequently we taxied onto the runway without waiting. This is fortunate for everyone involved because keeping one of English Electric’s finest waiting on a taxiway is just going to result in a large pool of molten Lightning. We lined up on the runway, Mike ran through the final checks, pushed the throttles forward into full dry power and finally released the brakes. She accelerated briskly but it seemed like a long time before the nose came up and the airflow started to have some affect. She rose off the ground gingerly, seemingly a little unsure of her flying until the acceleration took her to a speed where more confidence lay. Mike cycled the gear and selected reheat.

I’ve always wondered what it would feel like when reheat comes on. I can’t say that I wasn’t impressed by the acceleration but it wasn’t as brutal as I’d imagined. It seemed to me to be a firm shove rather than a kick from behind. I looked to the right and saw the Thunder City hangar a couple of hundred feet to the right and gave them a quick wave. At the same moment Mike grabbed a handful of stick and the Lightning rotated. I let out a brief grunt of surprise/discomfort and then forced myself to keep breathing as I was pressed down into my seat, unable to do anything apart from watch the ground disappear out of site and feel the oxygen mask trying to flatten my nose into my face. I was taken completely by surprise; I had no idea that you could pull 4g just after take off. I managed to look to over my right shoulder as we established a 70 degree climb out, and could barely believe my eyes when I saw the runway shrinking so rapidly. A few seconds later we rolled out straight and level at FL90 (9000ft). We came out of burner, throttled back to fast idle on both engines and sat above the clouds, cruising at somewhere in the region of 400kts. I started to catch up with everything; scan the dials, the airspace and listen to what was being said over the R/T. I quickly clipped my mask onto the tight setting to guard against any more unexpected ‘g’ moments.

Lightning XS451 gets airborne.
Taking to the sky.

Lightning XS451 with reheat.
Reheats in.

Lightning XS451 rotates.
Rotating into the climb. The camera is struggling to keep up with her rate of climb, as was my brain.

Just a dot.
Just a few seconds later and she's a mere speck.

We set a course for the military airspace to the South East of Cape Town. Once established on this course Mike accelerated and started a ‘gentle climb’, which although not demanding in terms of ‘g’, saw the altimeter winding upwards faster than I could take seriously. We levelled out at FL370, Mike lit the reheats and the sliding ASI started to make its way to the right fairly sharply. As we passed through Mach 1 the altimeter span wildly even though she was straight and level. It settled back to normal a few seconds later and we were supersonic. If it hadn’t been for the instrumentation then I wouldn’t have been able to detect the transition to supersonic flight. At Mach 1.3 we pulled up into a climb at some absurd rate and soon we were past 40’000ft, 45’000ft and then 50’000ft. We pulled over the top quite gently and became inverted with just a tiny bit of positive ‘g’ keeping me comfortably against the seat. The view was spectacular; a dark blue sky, curved horizon and looking above me I could see the coast of South Africa and the ocean. I’ll never forget those few seconds; I felt ecstatic and was laughing with joy. I was told afterwards that we’d topped out at FL530.

As soon as the nose started pointing down the airspeed started to pick up rapidly. After a short while Mike started to pull back hard to put the Lightning at a high angle of attack, create drag and keep the speed from getting out of control. Each turn results in 3 to 4 ‘g’ and although my body kept asking me what the hell I thought I was putting it through, I loved it more than anything I’d ever done. We levelled out at FL250 and after a few seconds Mike executed a magnificent slow roll to the left, smooth as silk, constant ‘g’ loading and rate of roll. Again, we’re upside down, I’m grinning and laughing like a loon, you get the picture. When the first roll is over Mike puts the nose down a little and then slow rolls to the right. Guess what; I’m laughing and grinning like a fool again.

Following the rolls we lose several thousand feet, fly quite slowly and then Mike is back on the throttle and stick, she rotates hard and we’re back up to FL250 in a jiffy for a half Cuban eight. Mike draws my attention to the fuel gauge and my mind sets out on the fruitless task of trying to comprehend just how quickly the fuel has been depleted. I’m really struggling to keep track of our heading, height, speed, attitude and fuel levels; in fact I’m completely lost and disoriented. Luckily this is a two seater and I’m not at the controls, up until now that is. I ask Mike for control and am given instructions to maintain FL190 and a constant heading. At first my stick movements have us fluctuating plus and then minus the target altitude by a couple of hundred feet every few seconds. After a while I’ve got a feel for the incredible responsiveness and I’m managing straight and level. I’m able to put her into a gentle descent and do gentle turns onto the headings Mike wants. I aim her for the edge of the cloud formation, with Cape Town International in the distance, directly in front of the windscreen. After a minute or so we come to the end of the cloud and cruise over the edge so that the only thing below us is open ocean. We hit some turbulence at this point and my enthusiast control movements trying to counter the rocking motion aren’t helping, so Mike takes control and to my surprise just holds the stick central and lets the Lightning ride the turbulence herself. Simple and yet very effective. Being quite small and having burnt a few tons of fuel, we get rocked about quite decently and it isn’t until we get close to the airport that things settle down.

I’m now paying more and more attention to the fuel gauges. My mind wants desperately to believe that I was wrong when I remembered that we should be landing with 800kg per side. Time is clearly running out but I don’t want it to be over. Mike enters the circuit and lines up parallel with the runway on the downwind leg. I’m expecting the flaps and gear to be deployed so my heart misses several beats when I hear the engines wind up, the reheats boost us forward and then look down to see the ASI racing to the right yet again. We turn steeply into the base leg, which you can imagine didn’t take very long to complete. Another hard turn and we’re aligned with the runway’s centreline and down to what I judged to be between 50 and 100 ft above the concrete. By halfway down the runway we’re at approximately 500kts and rapidly approaching the sound barrier. Just after we pass the Thunder City hangar, Mike lifts the nose slightly, rolls her onto her left side and then pulls hard. As I’m watching the houses moving rapidly from the top to the bottom of my field of view, I notice that my colour vision has faded to grey and I’m struggling to see properly. I focus my remaining consciousness on clenching my stomach muscles and forcing myself to keep breathing to try to get some oxygen back into my brain.

Before I black out we roll out of the turn, I recover my vision, we snap roll 180 degrees right, pull hard and then repeat the process but this time to the left, burning a lot of speed in the process. We’re now at about 1500ft, flying at a little over 200kts and on the downwind leg again. Glancing over at the accelerometer I notice that the maximum ‘g’ during the flight is 4.5; it felt like about 10 to me! As we turn onto the base leg, the gear comes down, flaps extend, and we’re ready for terra firma. A gentle turn to the left and the Lightning once again lines up with the runway but this time with the nose further up and Mike working hard on the stick to keep her level and on the centreline. I’m surprised at the rate we’re coming in at and I’m glad I’ve read that landing at 170kts is normal in the Lightning world because otherwise I might’ve started to worry at this point. Before I know it, Mike’s settled her gently on the runway, the nose gear is on the ground and the parachute is slowing us to a speed where three starts to seem like a reasonably safe number of wheels.

Lightning XS451 fly past.
Charging down the runway centreline. You get an idea of the altitude we were at when you remember that this was taking from the ground.

Lighnting XS451 starts to turn.
A beautiful shot of XS451 rolling into the turn.

Lightning XS451 in banked turn.
In a couple of seconds I'm struggling to remain conscious as XS451 turns the corner harder than my heart can pump blood to my head.

Lightings XS452 and XS451
Finishing our landing run, the parachute just recognisable against the similar coloured hangar in the background (note the nose of XS452 in the foreground.)

Lightning XS451 taxies in.
Taxiing home

Author dismounts from XS451 after his flight.
The author; pretty much overwhelmed by the experience, about to come back down to earth.

After the event photograph

Barry Pover (Chief Engineer), James Pengelly (yours truly), Mike Beachy Head (Chief Pilot), with XS451 presiding over the occasion.

After a couple of minutes taxiing I find myself parked back at Thunder City. Approximately 40 minutes have passed since we left. I am completely exhausted and feel like I’ve sweated about a gallon of water during the flight. The ground crew make the ejector seat safe, take my bone dome, and help me unstrap. I’m glad to feel the breeze in my hair and to be free from the harnesses. I’m overwhelmed by the whole experience; practically speechless. After a photograph with Mike and Barry I head for the hangar in search of a stiff cup of tea. At this point my hands wouldn’t stop shaking, which made drinking the tea quite entertaining; probably as a result of the jumbo dose of adrenaline I’ve just had. With what few words I can assemble into a recognisable sentence, I thank Mike and Barry for everything, and they present me with a certificate and a Lightning patch for my flight suit (should be interesting when I next go gliding).

Unfortunately I ran out of time at this point and had to dash for my flight to Durban. I spent the whole flight in a bit of a daze, sipping cold beer and reliving every moment of the Lightning experience. In case anyone is wondering, I’m fairly sure the climb rate of the 737 isn’t a patch on the Lightning.

Thanks to everyone that made it possible for me to realise my ambition; my late father, my mother, my brother Robin, Bob Ruskell (ex-Lightning pilot and friend of my father), Charles Ross (Lightning Association,, Greg Claxton (Incredible Adventures,, Barry Pover and the ground crew and staff at Thunder City ( A special thanks to Anthony Allen (Pixel Foundry,, who was my photographer. Lastly, I can’t thank Mike Beachy Head enough for the bringing the Lightning back to life.

If anyone wants to get in touch then feel free to e-mail to or call on +44 (0) 7970 170056.

Was it worth it? Yes. It was the best experience of my life, bar none. Dad, you were a very lucky man.

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