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The Story of XR724

The Purchase, Recovery to Flying Condition and Final Flight of XR724


English Electric Lightning F.6 XR724 was the first to be retired of the five Lightnings allocated by the MoD to British Aerospace at Warton as chase aircraft in the Tornado Foxhunter radar development trials. Her Fatigue Index (FI) was coming perilously close to zero, and so she was flown to RAF Shawbury for storage while she still had some FI left on the airframe.  Once below zero she would not have been able to fly again under any circumstances. 

Some of you probably know the story of the two Lightnings allocated to Leuchars and Lossiemouth for Battle Damage Repair (BDR) practice when they were reaching the end of their operational lives.  The first was flown to Leuchars and the pilot went back for the second.  However, as it was the last flight he decided to do some interesting aeros on the way, but had to put into Leuchars to refuel.  Whether this had been planned or whether he'd used more fuel than he intended, I don't know.  Anyway, on landing, the engineers checked the G-meter readings and informed the pilot that he'd pulled so many G during the flight that the aircraft was grounded.  Even the short remaining flight to Lossiemouth was forbidden.

When XR724 came up for purchase on an MoD tender, the aeroplane had no engines or seat, but had been perfectly preserved in a temperature and humidity controlled hangar at RAF Shawbury.  We did not know about the tender, since MoD Disposals, as it was at that time, did not circulate all interested people with every tender.  In consequence, one of our members who did know about it put in a bid, which was successful.  I don't think he really expected his bid to be successful, but it was. As those of you who do these things know, you then have 28 days to get your purchase off MoD land or they charge you enormous penalties.

However, this fortunately coincided with one of the Lightning Association Rally Open Days at Binbrook, where most of the LA movers and shakers were present, and we took an immediate decision to repurchase it from our member by means of a share scheme. The second important decision of the day was to try if at all possible to recover it from Shawbury to Binbrook in an operational state, ie. without cutting it, but more of that later.

OK, so the situation is that we have bought a Lightning at RAF Shawbury, but we have problems. Number one is that the clock is already running on the 28 days to get her out. Number two is that every other Lightning in operational condition in the UK came with a piloted flight into the airfield of the purchaser's choice as part of the deal. Not ours. Number three is that our Lightning has no engines or ejection seat. Nobody else had these problems.

The decision at Binbrook on the day of purchase was that we would try to fly her out. The engineering work would be done by members of the Lightning Association and Barry Pover's Lightning Flying Club, with Barry in charge on the ground at Shawbury reporting to me as overall Project Manager. Barry was going to loan us two zero-timed Avon's from his assets and Mick Cameron, who was a senior armourer at Wattisham, was going to rebuild an ejection seat from a bare pan. My job was to ensure that it all happened and that all the people who would eventually have to be involved, from directors of British Aerospace to the runway sweepers at Binbrook, all did their bit, on time, and all as complete volunteers. It had to cost us virtually nothing, because we had virtually nothing.

At that time, Barry was trying to rebuild XS451 to flying condition and having problems convincing the CAA that he was competent to do so, as the aircraft he had worked on as a CAA certified engineer (Beech King Air etc) were not Mach 2 jets. His Lightning was being recovered from instructional airframe status, whereas ours had been flown into Shawbury from Warton and had simply had the engines and seat removed, remaining since in a climate-controlled hangar. Barry was prepared to put in the time, as if we managed to fly '724 out under his engineering control, it could do nothing but good for his efforts to persuade the CAA to let him fly '451. (Sadly, '451 eventually flew in South Africa as ZU-BEX and was lost with its pilot, Dave Stock, one of the best, while attempting to recover to Bredasdorp AFB during the Overberg Air show after Dave lost control of the flying surfaces due to fire).

My first task was to secure an extension to the 28 days, as it was going to be impossible to do anything in that time. Apart from installing the engines and seat, we would have to do all the ground functionals, undercarriage retraction on jacks etc. etc. and at this stage we didn't even know if we would be allowed on the base at all, never mind work on the aeroplane. My first letter to the MoD guy in charge of the disposals was not good news. 28 days was 28 days and we had to be out. This would have meant cutting off the wings and fin, ending any chance of flying or even taxiing again.

At this point, I learnt two valuable lessons in aviation. Number one - never give up, and number two - if you can get the person with executive authority on your side, you can achieve virtually anything. So, I wrote to the base commander, explained who I was and what I was trying to do. I told him the situation with MoD. I got a letter back saying that as long as he commanded the base we would have as much time as we needed to recover '724 for flight and we would have as much access to the airfield and its facilities as we required. It was a great day and a fantastic example of what enlightened RAF officers can do to maintain public support for the Service in these difficult times.

So, recovery for flight began. Despite RAF help on the ground, the Permit to Fly depended on the CAA and their time even in those days was costed at £150 per man-hour spent considering any project. We didn't have that sort of money, so Barry Pover agreed to cover that if I gave him exclusive control of contact with CAA on our project, as he didn't want the Head of Applications at CAA to be phoned up by a variety of different people all asking the same questions. This seemed reasonable, so I agreed to that as long as I was kept in the information loop at all times.

It took many months of intensive effort, but eventually the good news was that the engines and seat were installed and that British Aerospace signed off the airframe and Rolls-Royce signed off the engines as serviceable. The bad news was that the CAA would not issue the Permit to Fly, although I had been told by Barry that they would. In consequence, I had arranged with the Vulcan boys for XH558 to be up for an air test on the same morning as '724 was supposed to depart Shawbury. Of course, formation flying had to be authorised with the appropriate people, but if two aircraft happened to occupy the same area of sky at the same time by pure coincidence...... It would have been fantastic to have seen the Vulcan and Lightning overfly Binbrook, Scampton and Waddington in succession on the same morning, but it never happened. The CAA had never agreed anything, and the rest of that story is included in past issues of the Lightning Review. If you want to know what happened, read them. It's all in the public domain.

So, back to square one, but remember my valuable lessons in aviation. I then wrote to Sir Graham Day, then Chairman of British Aerospace, and again explained who I was, what we had done and what had happened to date. I asked if there was any mechanism within the Company by which '724 could be recovered to Binbrook. I will never forget the two-line letter which I received by return. It read: 'Dear Mr Ross, I have instructed my military aviation division to put themselves at your disposal to recover your Lightning to RAF Binbrook.' Like Winston Churchill at the beginning of WWII, the right man with the necessary vision had been in the right place at the right time. The next day I was contacted by senior management at BAe who simply said that Sir Graham had told them to recover our aircraft and what would I like them to do. Another great day and another great decision by a great man.

In the event, on 23 July 1992, XR724 took off from RAF Shawbury and was flown back to Binbrook by Peter Gordon-Johnson, Deputy Chief Test pilot of BAe and the same pilot who had flown '724 into Shawbury on its previous 'final flight'. At our request, RAF Scampton temporarily reinstalled the RHAG (which had been removed) in case of chute failure and provided a mobile Air Traffic unit and fire and ambulance cover, yet another decision by an enlightened RAF base commander which gained the Service enormous public support and approval.

There's still a great deal of what happened which is confidential and cannot be told, but on a grey day on the Windy Hill, '724 broke cloud to the north and flew down the Binbrook runway at approximately 1340 hrs and, after doing flypasts at Scampton, Waddington, Wattisham and Coningsby, touched down at the spiritual home of the Lightning in front of an enormous crowd and shut down its engines after back-tracking down the runway to taxy back to the ASF pan past the old Bomb Dump and into the 5 Sqn line, where it was received by Phil Wallis, Mick Cameron and Geoff Commins.

We had taken a dead shell and returned it to life and to the air, proving that it was possible for a group of professional engineers to come together from their various occupations and prepare an aircraft of this complexity for flight, to the complete satisfaction of the Design Authority and the engine manufacturer. A specially commissioned signed print and a limited edition of photographs were flown in the aircraft on the day and these are still available to members.

OK, so '724 has flown in and we are in the same position as other groups who got theirs direct, even though it was only after achievements which, I think it is fair to say, many could only have dreamed of. Wrong! We were for a short time, but the ejection seat had to go back and, more importantly, Barry decided he wanted his engines back. That was all fair enough as far as it went, but Barry also decided that he wanted our jet pipes on loan, which he said were now 'matched' to his engines and would make the task of getting his own aeroplane flying much easier. I don't know whether or not that was a fairy story - perhaps some of the engineers out there can tell me - but as he had given us so much help I drew up a proper loan agreement which was signed and witnessed and gave permission for him to take the jet pipes as well.

Unfortunately, and unknown to me at the time, he also asked to borrow, and was given by one of our engineering team, the Form 700, which he said would be good evidence of his competence to place before the CAA. Why a photocopy would not have sufficed I don't know, but, as I said, it happened without my knowledge. The jet pipes had been fitted brand new just before '724 left Warton to fly into Shawbury and were without doubt the lowest-houred, documented jet pipes in existence. Once safely back at Exeter, however, Barry then told us that unless we paid his CAA costs for the flight that never happened, we would not get the jet pipes and Form 700 back, and since that was financially impossible we never did. Those jet pipes went out to South Africa and Barry probably still has the Form 700 to this day. As said about Pover before, all this is fully documented in past issues of the Lightning Review and is all in the public domain.

So, once again we had a dead jet, but only temporarily. Cutting a long and fraught story short, I found and purchased a complete ejection seat with my own money and this was duly installed. I also managed to successfully tender for three air-lifed and documented engines in an MoD disposal sale, and when we got them back to Binbrook, two were installed in '724 and one is still here at Binbrook in its box untouched. We also eventually managed to source the necessary jet pipes, and these were also installed to finally bring '724 back to life. It wasn't easy and it wasn't cheap, but we did it.

For many years after that, the aeroplane was run regularly and the annual Lightning Rally was held and was the high spot of the year for many members. Unfortunately, since then we have had many problems, not least of which has been the fact that the part of Binbrook where we are has been sold on several times and on each occasion we have had to negotiate the sometimes difficult task of establishing relationships with new owners.  We hope to rebuild our engineering team, having lost many of them to a variety of causes, and it would be fantastic if one day XR724 could be put under cover.  However, it must be said that any activities concerning the aircraft depend now and for the foreseeable future on the goodwill of those now controlling Binbrook Airfield.

Hangarage at Binbrook 

Many people have understandably asked why, with so much hangarage available, XR724 is currently outside. That's a good question.  The following is the story as best I can remember it. 

At the time XR724 flew in to Binbrook on her final flight, Richard Lake was running his Global Aviation restoration of the ex-RAF Jet Provosts in the 5 Sqn hangar and very kindly gave us a corner. In return, we (well, Phil Wallis) helped him with some airframe repairs to flying condition standard. That continued for some time, and this enabled us to initially run '724 regularly with Barry's engines and, when they were removed, to install the engines and jet pipes we bought.

However, the writing was on the wall as far as MoD ownership of Binbrook was concerned. It had originally been purchased in 1940 under the Crichel-Down Agreement. Although an absolutely fair price was paid for the land, the Agreement stated that if MoD ever wanted to dispose of the airfield, the original farming families (there were 3 or 4 of them) who had owned any part of the airfield had to be given first refusal to repurchase their land. However, the Agreement also said that the land had to be returned in its original condition. Now, this was clearly impossible, as apart from the hangars, runway and peri-track, the site is crossed by hundreds of cable runs, drains, culverts etc. and the cost would be astronomical. So, these affairs end with each side trying to negotiate the best deal possible for themselves, and that is what happened at Binbrook.

At first, things went well. We introduced ourselves to the farming company taking over the hangars and were allowed to stay inside without rent. Once again, something had gone right for us and we were extremely grateful to some very enlightened guys. I'm not sure whether or not we moved at one time from the 5 Sqn hangar to the ASF hangar - I think we did - but we were still under cover.

However, at that time there was a local authority purge on businesses not paying rates, and inspectors investigated the Technical Site where a number of small operations such as car repairs, paint shop, wood products etc. had sprung up. Unfortunately, they also managed to see into our hangar although it was shut and padlocked, but you could just see '724 through the crack between the doors. At that time there was no other machinery stored there, just us, and it's possible that no rates were being paid by the owner as he wasn't using it. It was quite a shock a few days later to receive a business rates demand for the area of the hangar which the authority estimated we occupied, £4,800 for six months, payable every six months. As we didn't have £4,800, I was told that they would come after me for it.

As you may understand, being Chairman of the Lightning Association has not been without its stresses. Once again, cutting a long story short, I found out that any business rates demand is made up of small parts from a number of departments. I then started going round all the departments in turn, pleading and cajoling, emphasising the local history importance of the aeroplane and calling in some good will as well, since quite a few people involved were my clients. Eventually I got it down to £250 for the previous six months, which we had to pay, but we didn't have the money to go on doing this indefinitely and we knew the inspections would continue, so XR724 had to come out into open storage.

At this point I attempted to buy one of the buildings on the Technical Site, again with my own money, as the Association, as always, had very little. The building was of corrugated iron construction on a framework and was tall enough and wide enough to accommodate a Lightning, although we would have had to have taken one end off and manufactured 'hangar' doors to enable her to get in and out. Unfortunately, however, the owners refused to sell the building although they were prepared to lease it to me for a minimum period of five years at a rent of £5,000 per annum, a commitment of £25,000. Of course, as soon as we occupied it, business rates would become applicable again and I would be completely liable. It just wasn't a viable plan.

The farming company then pulled out of Binbrook and new owners bought various parts and used them for different things. It's been difficult at times to know who owns what, as people are understandably cagey about commercial secrets, but the hangars, including the QRA sheds, were variously used for machinery storage, grain storage, sugar storage, furniture-making and, after refrigeration equipment had been installed, storage of the carcasses of foot and mouth infected cattle until sufficient incineration facilities could be arranged for their eventual disposal. Anyway, there was no room for us anywhere. However, I did manage to get permission to put her nose-first into the opening to the crash equipment bay, which meant that the canopy was under cover although the main fuselage was still in the open. Still, it was the best we could do.

Then in around 2005 the 5 Sqn hangar was bought by a company which initially thought it had purchased the Lightning as part of the deal and were a bit upset to be told this was not the case. We kept our heads down, but after some time were eventually sent a bill for around £4,000 for rental of the patch of concrete we occupied on the pan. Once again, this was going to come out of Alex's inheritance. At this point, however, and mainly through the sterling efforts of John Watson, we met the new owner and established good relations with him, and since then he has been extremely supportive and helpful. He was using the hangar for storage of heavy machinery, but we were allowed back inside at the back of the hangar. Unfortunately, we were soon completely hemmed in by machinery and not only couldn't get her outside to run (as the rear doors had been completely welded shut to avoid vandalism) but couldn't do any work on her. The engineers took the view that being inside was more important than running her, and that is how it remained for some time.

However, the owner asked if it would be possible to get her running again as he felt it would be something which his customers would find very interesting, so as we owed him a big favour we cut the rear doors open and eventually managed to free them from the accumulation of rubbish, rust and other things (a brick wall had been built across the doors on the outside) and '724 was pulled out into the open again. The space she had occupied was rapidly filled with equipment, and that area was no longer available to us. Since then she has been in open storage.

At the time of writing, parts of Binbrook are now in the process of changing hands again, and once again we shall have to establish good relations with a new owner, and so it goes on. Perhaps we shall get under cover again, perhaps not. Over the years I have had a number of projects which may have led to us getting our own building, but they either came to nothing or I couldn't afford it (and it would have been my money). I could have had a RHUB hangar from Bristol, but it would have cost £65,000 ex site and I would have had to pay transportation and erection costs. There was a possibility of an ex-MoD Kevlar hangar, but that fell through. For much of these negotiations, it has not been possible to go public about them, either then or now, but for those of you who think we have been sitting doing nothing about hangarage, that's not been the case.

Another problem is that due mainly to the efforts of a particular councillor who had a bee in his bonnet about the airfield, Binbrook has now been declared an area of outstanding natural beauty and permission for any building, if granted (and that's far from certain) would have a height restriction of 'not more than a double decker bus'. Now, that would just fit over the canopy and spine, but not the fin. Nevertheless, I have another plan, but I can't tell you about it yet. However, I will say that it's probably the most likely plan so far for '724 to eventually be under cover which we control. Watch this space.

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