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XW986 leaves for Warton - picture by DamienPiracy in the Cotswolds!

Geoff Stockle and Damien Burke reflect on the move of another great British aeroplane to South Africa

There's a NIP in the air

Sold to Ian Pringle of South Africa last year, Kemble-based Buccaneer XW986 (now ZU-NIP - for Nina and Ian Pringle) continues to make test flights in preparation for her ferry flight to Thunder City at Cape Town International Airport. Her restoration to airworthiness had been started by Delta Jets but with her sale has been finished off by a Thunder City team led by Barry Pover.

After two failed attempts earlier in the month, she took to the air for the first time in nearly a decade on 29 March, spending over an hour in the air. She was back in the air the next day for a further sortie, flying through at several airfields in the South-west, almost as if to say goodbye.

With test flights scheduled to move to BAE System's airfield at Warton, a ferry from Kemble to Warton was planned for 13 April. Unfortunately the undercarriage refused to retract after take off, and pilot Keith Hartley had to burn off fuel in the local area (surprising the locals at Brize Norton) before returning to Kemble. A nose wheel steering problem was rectified and another attempt to move to Warton was successfully made on 20 April.

XW986

Click

Buccaneer S2B XW986 was one of a batch of three aircraft (XW987 and XW988 being the other two) purchased specifically for use as weapons and systems development aircraft for the Royal Aircraft Establishment. All were delivered in May 1974 in a highly unusual yellow, dark green and white scheme designed for high visibility and kinetheodolite work whilst testing ordnance. '986 was perhaps the most elusive of the trio and spent most of its life at West Freugh in Scotland and never appeared publicly unlike 987 and 988 which have both been seen at various IATs and Yeovilton. '986 and '987 were later repainted in the MoD fleet house colours of 'raspberry ripple' and the aircraft did spend some time at Farnborough following this. She was retired prior to the amalgamation of MoD flying assets at Boscombe Down, and along with so many unique, interesting aircraft was retired in 1991. Her last flight in service was on 27 April 1993 from West Freugh to Boscombe.

Delta Jets acquired the aircraft and it was ferried by road from West Freugh to Wellesbourne Mountford airfield for restoration. Sitting for some time without its tailplane, XW986 moved again to Kemble by 1997 finally being restored to her former glory. Delta Jets had the intention of returning it at first to taxying condition then on to airworthiness.

However as with all things with too much "oomph" (Sea Vixen excepted) getting it into the air with CAA approval turned out to be a bigger
and longer job than expected. XW986 became a slightly reclusive member of the Delta fleet and was rarely seen by the public bar the occasional
fast taxi run at the odd open day. XW986 became a bit of a hangar queen and was unable to perform at last year's Kemble Air Day due to hydraulic problems. With its two sister ships (XW987 and XW988) already in South Africa with the Mike Beachyhead collection, the right price was offered by the Pringles and it was decided that '986 should be flown there to join them.

Getting the Pic by Damienbeast ship-shape

All systems seemed to be working satisfactorily as previous tests and taxy runs had shown, however getting a twenty-ton piece of metal actually into the air is a whole different game, especially as this Buccaneer hadn't flown since 1993. Saturday 16 March was originally chosen as 'B-day', with the intention of an airtest and then a flight to Warton for further testing before the long haul south to Cape Town. This date slipped by with the weekend 23-24 March next pencilled in. Saturday's weather was poor and so it was on the Sunday that '986 finally performed a high speed taxi test, but radio problems prevented it from leaving the ground.

Elsewhere at Kemble

There is plenty to see at Kemble. The based static Buccaneer XX894/R-020, owned by Gary Spoors and Dave Price, is parked next to Meteor F8 WH364, a former Kemble gate guard now permanently on static display duties and looking in very good condition.

Interesting visitors always crop up at Kemble, including Seagull Formation's Jet Provost T3 XN637/03 painted up to represent a Tactical Weapons Unit T4 from the late '80s, accompanied by the civilian schemed T5 G-JPTV.

A very interesting visitor for many was SA128 Bulldog HKG-6 still in its Hong Kong Defence Force colours, a sister ship HKG-5 also resides in the UK in private hands. Of all the 'Delta Force' Hunters, only the all-black T7B WV318 emerged out of the hangar during the Bucc test flights. Resident since 1 March with Delta Jets has been the Scandinavian Historic Flight's F58 SE-DXA/G (ex J-4089), which hasn't been home since August 2000!

Basking in the sunshine was Delta Jet's Gnat T1, now fully returned to its former glory as it was in 1975 with 4 FTS at Valley as XR538/01. There is talk of a second Gnat being acquired and that being painted in a similar CFS scheme.

And so to Friday 29 March - the weather was perfect, and with a sizeable group of onlookers joining the welcoming Delta team, hopes were high. Again the plan was the same - engine run ups, high speed taxies from either end of the runway and an hour's air test before landing. The aircraft would then leave for Warton, probably the next weekend. Weekends were chosen due to the pilot (the renowned test and display pilot Keith Hartley) having a busy test schedule with Eurofighter at Warton during the week.

During the late morning the aircraft was positioned on the apron for engine run-ups prior to the taxi runs, but a problem occurred whereby cooling air was not available for the air conditioning unit feeding the cockpit and battery bay. This problem was solved over lunch by robbing some parts off the other Buccaneer at Kemble (ex-RAF XX894 painted up as a Royal Navy 809 Squadron example).

Taking to the high seas - um, skies, sorry

By early afternoon Keith and David Roome (Delta's chief pilot -taking a back seat ride) started '986 for more ground runs before promptly shutting down again. A second attempt was made later and the aircraft actually performed as advertised for two high power (if not speed) runs up and down Kemble's concrete. More fiddling and poking took place as the afternoon went on with a growing sense of gloom that she wasn't going to fly that day, compounded by the fact that the wall to wall sunshine was gradually moving ever westwards, making photography less than ideal. One more start up and everything seemed to be pointing to the positive and positions were taken for the event. Finally at 15:45 XW986 emerged over the hump in the runway and was airborne! Not the energetic RAF Buccaneer display take-off we miss so much (where the undercarriage was raised and the aircraft then lowered) but a stately climb out with gear down and a gentle turn to the north. Keith Hartley took '986 from 5,000 ft to 23,000 in the Malvern area before passing over Kemble to Lyneham for a radar approach and circuit.

Touchdown - pic by DamienReturn was made at 16:55, and after holding to the west for some traffic to clear, the Bucc did what it does best with two low fast runs from either end of runway 09/27. Touchdown was made at 17:00 and then a turn off the runway back into Delta's hardstanding and shutdown. Well worth seeing after so many years! The Buccaneer then had a bomb bay fuel tank fitted (unlike RAF S2Bs, this aircraft and sister XW988 did not have the bulged bomb bay tank fitted) to assist in its transit to South Africa, and one was sourced from sister Kemble-based XX894.

A notable and much appreciated (for the purists among us) CAA ruling was in evidence at Kemble in that privately owned ex-military aircraft in military markings do not have to carry civilian registrations (although obviously the Buccaneer had its South African registration ZU-NIP applied for CAA air test approval and the ferry flight).

ClickFrom being the most elusive of the three 'tester Buccs' XW986 has now become probably the most photographed and it's so refreshing to see that the aircraft wasn't repainted and her dignity remained intact. With the move to South Africa however, there are rumours it may be repainted in an orange scheme. Buccing hell!

Kemble Air Services and Delta Jets were very generous in providing access to the airfield for enthusiasts to watch what could well be their last chance to see a Buccaneer airborne in UK skies (unless the OFMC's one at Scampton succeeds in gaining CAA approval).

 

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