Bruntingthorpe Cold War Jets open day, 7 May
Excuse me while I indulge myself a while. You see, it was the Victor I came to watch again, the other jets being bit-players, even the mighty Lightning. When I was just knee-high to a grasshopper, I was brought up in the shadow of the mighty Victor, our house being some four miles out of the extended centre-line of runway 24 of RAF Marham. Every day would see the crescent-shaped wing in the sky, the early years K1s and later K2s climbing out, heavily laden, over Downham Market and curving back towards the North Sea. It was only some years later, after moving away, that I began to appreciate the elegance of Handley Page's mighty V-bomber; arguably prettier than the pugnacious Vulcan, it could fly faster and higher than its counterpart, but never quite captured the public's imagination as much as Avro's masterpiece. Maybe it was because of its primarily support tanker role later in its life, a reputation much valued in the South Atlantic in '82 and over Iraq in '91.
XM715, otherwise known as "Teasin' Tina", has been at Bruntingthorpe since her retirement at the end of 1993. Owned and operated by British Aviation Heritage, an operating company set up by C. J. Walton, owner of both the aircraft and airfield, Tina is kept in as near perfect running order as is possible. One of only a handful of Victors in existence, she is somewhat overshadowed by her cousin Vulcan XH558, currently being readied for potential flying status once more. But, as '558 was hangar-bound in deep maintenance, the day belonged to Tina as the star attraction. First flown in December 1962, she is just a few months younger than myself, and has served with 232 OCU, 55, 100 and 543 Squadrons as a B2, SR2 and latterly K2 variant.
It had been seven years since I had seen a Victor turn her wheels, on that final press call at Marham back in '93. Just watching the crew fire the generators, plug in the external intercom and signal engine start was a joy in itself, but seeing her pirouette on the runway with the agility of a Viggen was something else. Her run was brief, a quick blast from the engines soon being cut as a rather erratic course down Bruntingthorpe's vast runway told all was not well. It transpired one engine was not performing to scratch, and the power imbalance proved difficult to correct 'off the line', so no quarter-mile records were set that day. But, the cobwebs had been dusted off for another day, and as XH558 has proved, there's always hope for the future. Let's hope that Victor Meldrew will make us all say one day "I don't believe it!"
The supporting cast was ably headed by one of the Lightning Preservation Group's F6s, XS904 which performed two dragster-style runs during the day. Its second run, in the capable hands of ex-Binbrook pilot Brian Carroll, was a scorcher, lifting the nose triumphantly before disappearing over the hump in the runway at just short of rotate speed. Afterburners aglow, the tremendous vibrations reverberating through the body reminded one of just what we lost twelve years ago when 11 Squadron gave up its fighters for the Tornado F3.
In between the runs, which were spread out throughout the day, ample time was available to inspect the stalls and other static bits and pieces dotted around. A relaxed atmosphere prevailed, people taking the opportunity to inspect the array of cockpits and paraphernalia. XH558 was available for inspection in the main hangar, an extra charge entitling one to the 'Vulcan experience', with videos and information on both the Vulcan's history and the plans to get '558 airborne once more.
Towards the end of the day it was the turn of Comet XS235 and Buccaneer XX900 to do their bit on the runway, the Comet pushing up an impressive dust cloud as it charged away. Unfortunately, the only cloud the Bucc managed to produce was one of thick black smoke as an oil line in the port engine severed, causing its run to be abandoned. Fire crews to the ready, their services were fortunately not required and the damage not thought to be too serious. Let's hope that she is back in action as soon as possible.
Other runs in the day came from a Jet Provost, Hunter J-4091 and the Iskra. An interesting if somewhat drawn out day, my only grumble was the lack of a running-order programme, although I guess it would always be subject to considerable change on the day! The weather was pleasant if not sunny for much of the time, but in some ways it is a shame that these fine old aircraft are confined to the security fences of Bruntingthorpe, for they deserve a bigger stage. Spectators were confined to a hundred-yard strip at the start of the runway, but unable to get further to experience the speed of a Lightning at the half-way point. Due to airfield usage and agricultural purposes Bruntingthorpe will never be able to host a large show at which to experience these jets against modern-day counterparts, which is a shame. Once XH558 spreads her wings she will probably have to operate elsewhere, leaving her cold war counterparts out in the cold.