The delivery of XP693 and XR773 from Warton to Exeter went much as usual in Lightning terms; that's to say it was frequently fraught, tense, prone to change, exciting and, in the end, straightforward. The atmosphere at Warton had been building up gradually over the last few weeks of working life, with a mixture of sadness to them go coupled with an enthusiasm to send them off well. This was greatly increased in the week prior to delivery when Peter Orme, the Deputy Chief Test Pilot, elegantly arranged a sortie with all three remaining airworthy aircraft: you will have seen some of the results in some splendid air-to-air shots by Ian Black.
Just as our preparations were getting in hand, a 'wobbly' appeared in the shape of Air Marshal John Allison who - with skills I can only dream about - had arranged with British Aerospace and the aircraft owners, the Ministry of Defence, that he would fly the last 'military' Lightning sortie by a military pilot. The timing of it all - acceptance of our bid, clearing the money and contract, getting John briefed and flown and delivering the aircraft before Christmas - was very tight. Warton had their own pressures - the need to get the aircraft delivered by Christmas for internal and contractual reasons, space and manpower. The resulting plan was simple - John would arrive at Warton on Tuesday 22 December and spend the rest of the day getting a refresher brief from me on the aircraft, and then fly it early the following day. The aircraft would then be delivered that afternoon.
In the event, the weather on Wednesday morning was poor - a typical winter anticyclone, with slack winds and very poor visibility under a solid sheet of cloud. John was all briefed and geared up to go, but we had to wait for the weather to get somewhat better. As usual in such circumstances - the watched pot, etc - the morning dragged interminably on with the visibility unchanging: the buffet lunch arrived and was eaten in desultory fashion with little banter. In the end, we resorted to skulduggery. I took John off to look at some EFA (European Fighter Aircraft) equipment, thus demonstrating that we didn't give a damn what the weather did. This ploy was highly successful - within 15 minutes the visibility had increased a bit and we now had a suitable diversion airfield. We sprinted over to the aircraft and off he went.
While he was flying, I was in the air traffic control tower, monitoring his sortie and doing my own review of the weather for the delivery flight. That didn't fill me with confidence: all over the country the same weather prevailed and all the forecasts expected it to deteriorate back into fog as soon as the sun began to set. I therefore said we had to be on the ground at Exeter before sunset - so would we still have time to finish John Allison's sortie, turn the aircraft round and get down to Exeter in time? The Hangar said they could do it and I knew it wouldn't take long to get the jets started! Go for it, I said, we'll be airborne by 1515 at the latest to be on the ground at Exeter by 1545 at a push. We'll use Lyneham (near Swindon) as diversion in the event of any problem with the aircraft that would prevent us landing at Exeter.
I kept my eyes on the weather round the Cotswolds and south-west. The first twitch came when Lyneham announced their visibility was dropping and was already below the limits set for diversion. Hmm, scrub Lyneham, look for somewhere else: Bristol/Filton - nope, fog. St Mawgan - nope, closed for Christmas. Chivenor - the same. Bournemouth - seems reasonable, runway shortish but adequate, and they're next to the sea, so hopefully it won't cool so quickly as the sun goes down and thus the fog might be slower forming. "Book it", I said.
F.6 XP693 in close formation with an F.3 of 5 Squadron over the Lincolnshire countryside.
I turned my attention back to Exeter - seems OK still, the visibility's holding up better than most other places down there, but I wonder if it will still be OK by the time we're ready to go? Look out of the window and notice that Warton visibility is beginning to reduce slowly, same problem, we may not be able to return to Warton if Exeter clamps when we're airborne. John Allison on his way now, need to be airborne on the delivery in fifty minutes; DECISION TIME!
At this point I wavered: the "wimp" bit of my brain reminded me I was handling the future of two irreplaceable and priceless aircraft, threatening to fly them off the ground as the ground was about to disappear in fog over the whole of the country. The more rational part of my brain pointed out that this was no different to everyday winter operations at Leuchars or Wattisham, so look at the facts: Exeter was OK, the temperature and dew point were still well split, so the probability of fog on arrival was still low. Bournemouth was a good diversion for the same reasons. I can check the progress of the weather during the flight and always dart back to Warton if needed - we had the fuel available. Finally, by making sure we retained sufficient fuel on arrival at Exeter, we could in fact divert back to somewhere further north than Warton, where the fog was less prevalent.
OK, go for it. Whizz over to welcome John Allison back and get changed into immersion suit and winter woollies, do all the booking, brief up with my No.2, Derek Reeh, Tornado Project Pilot, and whizz back to the aircraft to find them ready to go. Fire them up, thumb from Derek, and let’s get this show on the road.
I led us out in ‘693, naturally, using rather more R/T chatter than normal, partly because Tony Hulls of the Bruntingthorpe Group was recording it all for posterity and partly because it was rather a special occasion - the final end of Lightning flying at Warton, from the P.1 onwards over 38 years. Lots of watchers all over the site. After all my concern over the weather, it was special and very appropriate. The weak afternoon sun suffused the lingering mist with a gentle yellow light that shone off the aircraft and softened the background.
Unusually for Warton, we used the easterly runway because of the light south-easterly wind. Line up, more chat for the R/T, give Derek the wind-up signal, see his thumb waving in readiness, and off we go. Into burner, and God's Own Aircraft leaps off the line in her own inimitable style, the intake roaring under my feet and the Avon's hurling us down the runway. 150, 160, 170, off the ground, gear up, flaps up, roll right simultaneously, a boot of rudder to help her round at this speed. Turn back overhead the Ribble and wait for Derek to call airborne and in contact - he does, and we're turning back in to run down the runway from east to west. Keep the speed low, around 300 knots, to give Derek some flexibility and to allow for the coming acceleration.
Halfway down the runway, call the reheat, crackling thunder rattling the windows of Warton village - (sorry guys, its in a good cause) - past the tower, "Pull-up, GO!". Stop in a 60 degree climb, pause, then "Rolling, GO!", and Derek and I roll gently through the thin cloud cover. "Say goodbye to ‘693, Warton". If the guys on the ground enjoyed it only 10% as much as I did, they had a very special experience.
We level off just above 20,000 ft and set off down the country just subsonic - I want to get to Exeter ASAP so that I can judge for myself how the weather is behaving. The weather up here is fine and we can see the fog patches littered about amongst the thinner mist below. I spy Chivenor as we go past, weather excellent, and file it away for use in an emergency - it may be closed, but we can worry about that after I've landed!
We descend down to the west of Exeter and the Lightning radio lives up to its awesome reputation - I can no longer receive anything other than what sounds like Donald Duck breathing helium. After some futile twiddling of knobs, I wave Derek to the lead and slot in behind him. We arrive overhead Exeter and the weather is as reported. We're a bit heavy for landing, so Derek orbits over the edge of Dartmoor to burn off some fuel, all the while keeping a 'weather' eye on the visibility.
When we're ready, Derek leads us in for a gentle run and break at the airfield, and we then shoot a few circuits and low overshoots for the dual purpose of familiarising ourselves with the approach and to let the locals know we're here. In deference to the same locals, we don't use reheat to minimise noise. Derek lands first while I complete one more overshoot, and then I follow: 175, 170, 165, 160, 155, wheels on, nose down, stream the chute, let the nose come back up and let the wing drag help slow us down.
Derek's waiting at the far end of the runway to let me taxi in first. The crowds are out here too: apologies to the local businesses for the loss of productive work time. I put all this wonderful machinery to sleep and climb out. Our euphoria was infectious: a charming young lady reporter from local TV asked me why I liked the Lightning so much: I replied that it was rather like a wife - very expensive and frequently frustrating, but capable of rewarding with extraordinary pleasure and satisfaction. She went off to think about it. The delivery 'experience' was one of the latter; and it's only the beginning................
11 & 56 (Lightning) Squadrons, RAF
Empire Test Pilots School, Boscombe Down
Eurofighter Project Pilot, BAe