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September, 2003 Archive Story

The Lightning Room or The Perils of Impulse Buying

The 'Lightning Room' at Chestnut Farm House started life after I had brought XR725 (my biggest impulse buy ever) from Rossington back to Binbrook. With quite a large house and no need for lots of bedrooms (we were Dinkies in those days - double income, no kids!), I was able to commandeer a room about 20' square overlooking what came to be known as the 'Lightning Patch', as opposed to the cabbage patch etc. This was an area of about half an acre next to the house on which there was a small plantation of assorted trees. Any sane person would have tried to get planning permission on it to sell as a building plot, but as Phil Wallis would say, "You're either dedicated to Lightning preservation or you're not". Along with his other stock phrase, "You knew the risks", Phil has often had good cause to regret using these on me, as they have come back to haunt him at times when work or family life have threatened to get in the way of aircraft restoration.

Talking of planning permission, I was astonished to find from the local planning office that, after searching through the books for two hours, they had been unable to find any regulation to stop me putting a 55' x 35' jet in my garden. In our area of natural beauty where I wouldn't be allowed to change a window or a roof tile without a six-month inquiry, I was allowed to transport in a Lightning without even asking the neighbours what they thought (the story of how we did it can wait for another day). However, I replanted several rows of the young trees in a horseshoe shape all around the site so that the airframe would eventually be totally screened from the road and neighbouring houses - not everyone is as enthusiastic about aeroplanes as we are!

Lighting Room Photo

The first thing that hits you as you go along the corridor towards the door is not what you might expect. As Furz Lloyd put it, "You smell the smell of a Lightning", a strange mixture of metal, leather and hydraulic fluids. Inside, the most obvious thing is a large table on top of which are a cut-away Red Top missile, a cut-away Aden cannon and a large number of cut-away engineering pieces used to demonstrate the internal workings of various parts of the aircraft to student mechanics. These are all courtesy of Mick Cameron. Some items came from a sergeant who had been told to get rid of them. He rang Mick, who he knew was interested in Lightnings, and asked if he could use them. "No", said Mick, "but I know a man who can!"

The table is enormous. It had to come into the room by removing the window and hoisting it up with a large fork lift. I originally bought it from a friend who dealt in old furniture and first saw it in a barn, covered in rubbish and with just a couple of feet of one end and two legs visible. "Charles", he said, "you've got a big house which would suit this. Make me an offer, so that I don't have to cut it down into two tables". Money changed hands, but I forgot about it. Several years later I got a phone call to remind me to pick up my table and went along with a friend to collect it. As we removed layers of straw, machinery, roof tiles and builder's debris from the surface, it just kept going further and further into the depths of the barn. The second set of legs appeared about seven feet in and I thought “Thank God”, but it kept going! Eventually, with a rapidly increasing sense of "What on Earth have I done?" we came to the third set of legs and the end, over thirteen feet from where we had started. It took a lot of restoring, but most people agree that it sets off the display admirably, although superbly illustrating the pitfalls of impulse buying, as if a Lightning in your garden weren’t enough (I’m only allowed out at weekends now, accompanied, and with no more than £20 to spend).

On the wall above it are a brand new pitot probe and 'The Boots', the actual boots used in the ejections from XR769 and XS931, and originally the single boot from the Mirage IIIC ejection (see the article on the ejection and the return of the Boot in the July 2003 issue of the Review). Still attached to the 'French Lieutenant's Boot' was the menu from the 5 Squadron Dining In Night on 5 October 1978, the night before the ejection. On the front is written 'Exchange Franco-Anglais: 5 Sqn, Binbrook - 1/10 Valois, Creil'. On the back, Lt Guesdon had written '6 Oct 78, Lieutenant Guesdon, Jean Michel, Armée de l'Air, s'est éjecté de son Mirage IIIC (the best fighter in the world) avec cette chaussure' and his signature appears below. The other Boots are those of Pete Coker and of Dick Coleman, an RAAF exchange pilot and the last pilot to eject from a Lightning. The transcript of the tape recording of the radio exchanges between Dick, Ian Black, Porky Page, Binbrook and the SAR helicopter during this ejection can be seen in the June 1994 issue of the Review.

Moving to the left, and still on the subject of ejections, you can see a jagged piece of metal containing the twin red ejection seat triangles from below the canopy of a Lightning. It is the only remaining fragment of XR760 BL from Bob Bees' ejection on 15 July 1988. Bob banged out in a copybook ejection 10 miles east of Whitby after a double reheat fire, the aircraft hitting the sea at a speed of 600 kts after diving from 10,000 ft. His were one of the pairs of boots which used to hang in the Mess and latterly in the Nickerson Arms (Blacksmith's Arms) at Rothwell after RAF Binbrook disbanded.

Next to it is the left hand windscreen from a T5 which was hit by a Red Top breaking up in front of it on a live missile firing. It is believed to be the same as that shown in the series of photographs in Bruce Halpenny's book 'English Electric/BAC Lightning' from the Osprey Air Combat series, page 145. If anybody knows who the pilots were or anything more about the incident, I would be very pleased to hear from them. I understand that some people have claimed to have seen the original film of the firing - does anyone have a copy of the recording or know where we could find one? People who wonder at how it did not shatter completely understand better if they try to pick it up - it's almost too heavy for one man to lift in spite of its relatively small size.

Moving further round we come to another Aden cannon, in original condition this time, and, hanging from the ceiling, a five-foot model Lightning made from stainless steel and skinned in the heat resistant material used to line the engine side of the Lightning fuel tanks. It is suspended by three thin wires in a banking climb, and I can assure you that placing these wires through the ceiling and anchoring them across the roof joists was a delicate job involving a great deal of running up and down ladders and a inhaling lot of dust and cobwebs. This model was found in a Scout hut near Preston and was originally thought to have been a wind tunnel model from Warton. However, it is now thought to have probably been an apprentice's piece from Warton. If anyone knows more about its history we would be delighted to find out.

The sideboard on which the cannon sits with a variety of different 30 mm cannon shells also carries a complete set of fifteen coasters showing Lightnings, plus a variety of anniversary stamped envelopes, all flown in Lightnings and many signed by the pilots, in a special display book. Out of sight are an enormous number of slides and magazines, all of which have articles on the Lightning from across the years.

Lighting Room Photo

Below the Lightning is the 'Gothic Horror', an intricately carved thing I bought on impulse (again!) in an antique shop. I didn't know what its original function was, but it is now an excellent display platform for the collection of Lightning instruments which were intended to go into XR725, but eventually ended up in the simulator. Every instrument tells a different story. One of my clients had a dog which suffered a major CVA (cerebrovascular accident) but which we dragged back from the edge after a long fight. Knowing of my involvement with Lightnings, he invited me to come over to his house, saying that he had some bits and pieces which I might find useful.
When I arrived, there on his desk were the two large central instruments, the ones which are 'as rare as rocking-horse droppings'. He asked me if they were of any use to me, and when I'd picked myself off the floor and said that I didn't have them for my restoration he said "OK, they're yours." I held up my hands and said that I didn't know if I could afford them, but he just said that I'd saved the life of his dog and that was worth more to him than any instrument. They were free or not at all.

Next is an ejection seat belonging to Mick Cameron, which is the actual seat from the final flight of XR724. Mick has left it there, partly to be on show and partly because it is being kept warm, dry and well ventilated. The seat is in absolutely beautiful condition and a credit to Mick's skill. However, as an operational seat, it will continue to need regular servicing in order to keep it in fully operational condition.

Then we have a variety of books, models, articles and periodicals here as well as photographs and letters. A table lamp made from the main flight refuelling valve from XR725 lights the area and Brian Stiff's 'Ten Ton Club' certificate is framed on the top. There is also the original framed cartoon by John Denton showing how not to try to join the Lightning Association and a framed photograph of the XR724 Recovery Team.

Apart from this, there are a number of paintings and prints hung around the room, the main problem being to fit things in without seeming to be too cluttered. These include the unique Lightning Service History, painted by Mary Denton and described in a previous issue. My personal favourite portrayal of the aircraft is the picture hanging over the mantelpiece, John Rayson's '....And Then The Thunder', in which XS903 BA, successor to XR725 as flagship of 11 Squadron, is seen on a night exercise banking high over a tiny farm cottage in the middle of a desolate snow-covered winter landscape. In the whole picture, the only two signs of life are the glittering navigation lights on the aircraft and a single lit window in the cottage. To sit at night in that room, lights off, with the fire glowing in the grate and candlelight flickering over the painting, you can almost hear the rolling thunder of Lightning engines passing overhead, accelerating out over the North Sea to an intercept or a tanker RV.

From the north window I can look down on XR725 past the old (liberated) road sign to RAF Binbrook! The room is the meeting place for the Executive and its ambience is as much as any Lightning enthusiast could ever want. The important thing right now is to preserve everything we can before it is thrown out or disappears. One day, the things I have collected will hopefully form the nucleus of a dedicated Lightning Museum. The most appropriate place would be on the airfield, but unless we can acquire fully secure premises it would be ridiculous to entrust what we have to anything less. Nevertheless, the things we have are safe for the future and can be seen at any time by any member if he or she would like to e-mail me.

As with all displays, the artefacts change. For example, we used to have a demonstration cut-away Ferranti A1 23 radar, very generously donated by Marconi at South Gyle, Edinburgh. The plaque describing the radar contained two photographs, one of the radar itself and the other of a Lightning. That Lightning was XR766, flying in military markings as 'M' of 23 Sqn. Strangely enough, XR766 was first flown on 11 Jan 1966 and crashed in the sea off Leuchars on 7 Sept 1967 after only 215 hrs, Sqn Ldr R Blackburn ejecting successfully. Stewart Scott told me at the time that he has never seen a photograph of this aircraft in 23 Sqn markings before, so it was a unique addition to a unique exhibit. However, one day I was contacted by Marconi, who had decided rather late in the day that their Ferranti history was worthy of preservation and asking for their radar back. I reluctantly agreed, although I said that they should send enough men to carry it themselves. When we took it up the stairs originally, it was so heavy and we were in such a restricted space that I tied a rope round the radar with the other end round my neck. I didn’t want it to fall under any circumstances, and since if it fell, it would take me down as well and probably break my neck in the process, I used this method (which I now know to be completely insane) to persuade the lads not to let the thing go whatever the pain.

There is much, much more, such as mugs (one of my favourites is an extremely sexy girl in suspenders saying “Get ‘em down safely with Air Traffic Control, RAF Binbrook”), zaps, patches, pens, ties, Christmas cards etc, and if anyone has any Lightning memorabilia, artefacts, pictures, photographs, etc, which could add anything to the history of the Lightning, I would be delighted to hear from them.

Charles Ross

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