I was recently contacted by Trevor Danks, a volunteer during the restoration of Vulcan XH558, until 2015, the world’s last flying Vulcan bomber. Trevor very kindly sent me his memories along with a selection of his photos, taken whilst working as a volunteer during the aircraft’s restoration.
My sincere thanks go to Trevor for sharing his memories and photos with me.
Memories of a Vulcan XH558 Restoration Volunteer.
I joined the 558 Club at the RIAT 2000 at RAF Cottesmore. At that time I was unable to play any active part due to work commitments. However by 2005 I was semi retired and when the request came out for volunteers to help out with the restoration of XH558, I replied immediately.
I had been an Airframe Mechanic during my National Service in the RAF between 1955 and 1957. I had been fortunate to be posted to 232 OCU Valiant Squadron at RAF Gaydon and became a member of a ground crew on a Valiant. So the prospect of being in close proximity to the Vulcan was an exciting prospect.
Following the first call for volunteers an e-mail was sent out asking if anyone knew someone who could do a drawing of the hangar at Bruntingthorpe, at minimum cost. I replied by e-mail to say that I would do it on my CAD system at no cost as part of my volunteer work. So on a cold April morning in 2005, I met Colin Marshall at Bruntingthorpe to discuss what was required. The first task was to take measurements of the hangar. I was also supplied with a drawing of the Vulcan which had to be shown in position in the hangar. Another volunteer, Derek Bates, helped with the measuring of the hangar. The original drawing was to be part of a document for the Heritage Lottery Fund. However as time passed the drawing was amended a few times and the later version is shown below, which shows the visitors walkway.
Hangar Layout (Bruntingthorpe).
The Hangar layout at Bruntingthorpe (Trevor Danks)
I became a member of the Wednesday Crew (See photo) together with a number of other volunteers. On that day there were a basic six of us who, from the start, did a variety of jobs. In the beginning we helped to set up the hangar to meet the requirements of Marshall Aerospace, the hangar becoming part of their engineering facilities located at Cambridge. Apart from the tidying up, dismantling or erecting shelving and racking, we participated in the setting up of the technical library, under the supervision of Frank Edmondson, this held all the Air Publications (AP’s).
Our main task lay with the 600 tons of spares held in the Deep Store, better known as “The Shed”. Over the days of the restoration we sorted, counted, placed in boxes and put the spares in the racking. This information was input to the computer. After which we then had to find and retrieve spares as and when required by the engineers. All this was carried out under the supervision of Simon Chipman. We were a happy bunch beavering away in The Shed, sometimes very hot and sometimes very cold depending on the time of the year. During tea and lunchtime breaks in the Airfield Diner we would reminisce about our days in the RAF or times past when the Vulcan was flying at displays.
In August 2006 it had reached a critical point where more finance was need to be able to complete the restoration. A fund raising operation had been carried out but the trust was still £500,000 short so the paid employees had been put on notice to end their employment. Everyone was convinced that it looked as this was to be the end of the project. After the aircraft had been rolled out to loud cheers a louder cheer went up as Sir Michael Knight, Chairman of VTTS Trust, announced a donation of £500,000 had been received from a mystery donor. The donor turned out to be Jack Hayward, owner at the time of Wolves football club.
When the Vulcan finally got to the stage of emerging from the hangar for such as engine runs we joined together with all the other volunteers who came on other days of the week. This usually required us to do a ‘FOD Plod’ which entailed us doing a walk of where the Vulcan was to pass, picking up any debris lying about. The first time the Vulcan was taken out for an engine test run, it was taken to a dispersal pad on the edge of the airfield. Having run the engines individually the time came to run them together up to 75% full power. I and a colleague were stationed on the perimeter track to prevent anyone coming along it. As the power increased we noticed a shed on the side of the perimeter track beginning to move. We quickly flagged the ground crew to shut down before the shed disappeared into the trees. The aircraft was then repositioned to continue the engine run.
The most enjoyable FOD Plod was on 18th October 2007 when we were all out on the runway at 7.30am as dawn broke. The expectancy on that day was electric; our little crew had been appointed as the emergency team in the team bus with the task of dashing to an emergency entrance on the edge of the airfield. This was to let in emergency vehicles in the event of a mishap. Fortunately the day blossomed into a beautiful day both weather-wise and the rebirth of a much loved aircraft. When the crew of XH558 let off the brakes and that famous engine “Howl” was heard, one minute it was rushing down the runway and the next 100 feet up as it went past us in the viewing area. We cheered like mad and hugged each other with not a dry eye in the house.
Sqd. Ldr Dave Thomas – VOC Display Pilot: AEO Barry Masefield – VOC AEO & Radio Op.: Sqd Ldr Al McDicken – Marshalls’ Test Pilot
This was not the end but the beginning, as much had to done to get it to the stage of giving a display at the Waddington Air Show in 2008. There were other engine runs and flights, with XH558 getting her certificate to display just two days before the first day of the Air Show. All the time the Vulcan remained at Bruntingthorpe I continued to visit there on a Wednesday. When it moved to RAF Lyneham and the office to Hinckley, I changed my visits to Hinckley and became part of the education team. From this I developed my Power Point presentation to give talks about the restoration time. However I retain the happy memories of our days at Bruntingthorpe and count myself very lucky to have been part of what can only be described as a great adventure. I was at Waddington for that first display and also managed to attend the day she flew with the two Lancaster bombers.
Since those days I have managed to visit Robin Hood Airport on a couple of occasions. The last time I managed to get the signatures of Taff Stone and Andrew Edmondson added to all the other signatures in my copy of Vulcan 607.
‘The Wednesday Crew’ – John, Trevor, Peter, Dave, Bob and Vic.
Volunteers with ‘Brunty Bear’ (XH558 Mascot) On head centre front row.
Roll Out Day – XH558 Outside for first time August 2006.
I was recently contacted by Mike Herring and Trevor Danks, regarding the story of 2nd Lt. John Crago who was based at RAF Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire during World War 2.
It was sad tale of how this young man died in a tragic accident not long after arriving in the UK from the United States.
Mike and Trevor have allowed me to reproduce the entire text with photos to share with you, my sincere thanks go to them both. Here is John Crago’s story.
This is the story of 2nd Lt. John Walter Crago who tragically lost his life in an aircraft crash on 31st December 1943 whilst operating from Kings Cliffe airfield.
Firstly, however, let us look at his origins.
His grandparents were Harry and Bessie Crago who were born and lived in Cornwall on the SW tip of England. Harry was born in Liskeard in November 1858 and Bessie in Duloe in May 1862.
The surname “Crago” is quite common in that area. Cornwall had been a major source of tin and lead for many years and there were extensive mine works around the county.
After leaving school Harry worked in the mines from about the age of 12.
In 1878 Harry and Bessie, still unmarried, moved to the coal mining village of Wingate, near Durham, in the North East of England, where Harry worked as a coal miner.
In the early part of 1879 Harry and Bessie married at Wingate and by 1881 they were living at 13, Emily Street, Wheatley Hill, Wingate and had a one year old son with them – William.
As an aside the village of Wingate is well known to some people in Kings Cliffe. It was the home of the writer’s wife’s parents until their recent death and brothers and sisters still live there.
The coincidence increases as it is also the place where friends, Rodger Barker, living in Kings Cliffe, and Jim Vinales, managed to crash a Vulcan bomber in 1971, that had lost two engines. The crew fortunately survived. (see chapter one of “Vulcan 607” Corgi books).
In 1882 Harry and Bessie emigrated to the USA, by now having two children , and it is no co-incidence that they settled in Pennsylvania which was a significant coal mining area, Harry working there as a miner.
Their third child, Walter P Crago, was born at Houtzvale, P.A. on 16th August 1893. He is the father of the subject of this story.
In the US Census of 1910 16 year old Walter is shown as having no occupation, although his father and elder brother are working as miners.
In the 1920 US Census, Walter is married to Margaret K Crago and they have a one year old son, John Walter, born 5th April 1917 who is the subject of our story. His father’s marriage to Margaret does not seem to have lasted as by 1930 Walter has married Lorena C Crago (nee’ Curtis).
John Walter Crago is brought up in Philipsburg, PA, a small town of about 3000 people (twice as big as Kings Cliffe) which is situated about 200 miles due west of New York.
A view of modern Philipsburg main street.
Our next glimpse of John W is in his High school Year book in 1934 when he was 17 years old.
Johnnie did one year in high school and was clearly keen on his sport as well as the local girls!
Six year later in the US Census of 1940 John’s father, Walter, is by then the part owner and bar tender of a restaurant/tap room in Philipsburg and John W is working for him.
In Europe WW2 is in full flow and clearly the US is preparing for its possible involvement as John is signed on in the draft on 16th October 1940.
He is described on his draft form as 5’-8 ½” (1.74m) tall, weighing 135 pounds (61kg) with hazel eyes, light completion and brown hair.
John’s Draft paper.
John trained to be an Army Air force pilot and joined the 55th fighter squadron, part of the 20th fighter group.
They arrived at Clyde in Scotland in August 1943, then travelled to their new base at Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire, England. The 20th fighter group consisted of three squadrons of about 14 planes each – 55th, 77th and 79th.
The group was the first to fly the new P-38 Lightning escort, fighter ground attack air craft in combat in Europe.
There was insufficient room at Kings Cliffe for all of three squadrons and therefore 55 Fighter Squadron , of which John Crago was a member, were based at RAF Wittering, just two miles North of Kings Cliffe.
The P-38 Lightning had a somewhat chequered history in its’ early days. It had several recognised problems, but because of the needs in Europe for a powerful, high flying escort aircraft, the early ones were shipped out without those problems being resolved. They suffered from many engine failures, and instability in certain circumstances.
Of significance to our story is part of the Wikipedia article on the development of the P-38 which reads –
“Another issue of the P-38 arose from its unique design feature of outwardly rotating, counter rotating propellers. Losing one of the two engines in any two engine non centre line thrust aircraft on take-off creates sudden drag, yawing the nose towards the dead engine and rolling the wing tip down on the side of the dead engine. Normal training in flying twin engine aircraft when losing one engine on take-off is to push the remaining engine to full throttle to maintain airspeed. If the pilot did this on a P-38, regardless of which engine had failed, the resulting engine torque produces an uncontrollable yawing roll and the aircraft would flip over and hit the ground.”
John Crago with his P- 38J Lightning – 1943
John W Crago in 1943 at Kings Cliffe
The first mission for 55 squadron was on 28th December 1943 consisting of a sweep across the Dutch coast without encountering enemy aircraft. The mission summary report for that day reads –
Altitude over English coast mid-channel R/T jammed and remained so until mid-channel return trip. Landfall in, Wooderhoodf, at 1402. Altitude 20,000 feet. Light to moderate flak accurate for altitude over Flushing. Left turn and proceeded from Walchern to Noordwal 18 to 20,000 feet.
Landfall out 1416 Noordwal. Weather clear all the way.
The second mission on the 30th December was more serious, escorting B-17 and B-24 bombers on an attack on a chemical plant near Ludwigshafen. The mission report for that day reads –
Landfall Ostend 24,000 feet at 1212. Climbed to 25,000 feet Brussels circled area 15 minutes. Proceeded to R/v with bombers. St. Menechoulde 25,000 feet at 1312. Reims 2 Me 109’s seen diving through bomber formation. Squadron left Bombers Compegiegne 1346. Encountered light flak Boulogne. Landfall out 1407, 24,000 feet. Clouds 6/10 over channel. 10/10 just inland. R/t ok.
The third mission was scheduled for 31st December and involved escorting bombers on an attack on a ball bearing factory at Bordeaux. John Crago was one of the 14 pilots of 55 squadron scheduled to be on this trip. He was temporarily based at RAF Wittering whilst suitable accommodation was built at Kings Cliffe and was flying from Wittering to Kings Cliffe to be briefed on the mission with the other pilots of 55, 77 and 79 Squadron who made up 20 Group. On arriving at Kings Cliffe he reported problems with his landing gear and did a low level fly past the control tower so that they could observe any obvious problem. As he approached the tower smoke was seen coming from his left hand engine.
He would have been flying slowly, close to stall speed, so that the tower had more time to observe any problem. Bearing in mind the reported problem with the P-38 flying on one engine the plane probably became uncontrollable. He clearly achieved some height as his eventual crash site was about two miles away at the village of Woodnewton. He did not survive the crash.
John Crago is buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery; plot A/5/22.
Plaque to commemorate Lt. Crago. (Photo courtesy Trevor Dank)
His was one of the bodies of American servicemen whose next of kin decided not to repatriate. One could conjecture that he was left to rest in the land where many generations of his forefathers had lived.
‘Kings Cliffe Old Blokes Club’ at the grave of John Crago.
Mike Herring Kings Cliffe Heritage
Vulcan 607 by Rowland White, Corgi Books. US Census 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940. UK Census 1861, 1871,and 1881 Ancestry.com Ancestry.co.uk The American Air Museum – Duxford www.iwm.org.uk/duxford 2nd Air Division Memorial Library – Norwich www.2ndair.org.uk
Report from Woodnewton Heritage Group
New Year’s Eve this year marks the 75th anniversary of a tragic accident in Woodnewton which resulted in the death of an American pilot and brought the realities of the Second World War closer to the inhabitants of our village.
JOHN WALTER CRAGO
John Walter Crago held the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army Air Force. He died instantly in an accident on 31st December 1943 when his aircraft crash landed in Woodnewton, in the field known as Stepping End just beyond Conegar Farm.
Lieutenant Crago was born on 5th April 1917 in Phillipsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Walter P Crago and Margaret K Jones. He had enlisted in March 1942 and was a member of the 55th Fighter Squadron of the 20th Fighter Group. This Group was under the command of the 67th Fighter Wing of the Vlll Fighter Command of the USAAF. When he died he was 26 years old.
The circumstances leading to the accident on 31st December are recorded here in general terms only as told by former and existing residents of Woodnewton and supported by information from the Internet. It is not meant to be definitive.
The USAAF was assigned RAF Kings Cliffe in early 1943 and it was re-designated as Station 367. It was the most northerly and westerly of all US Army Air Force fighter stations. At that time RAF Kings Cliffe was a very primitive base, lacking accommodation and other basic facilities, so the Americans undertook an extensive building programme at the base during 1943. The 20th Fighter Group arrived on 26th August 1943 from its training base in California having crossed the USA by railway and then the Atlantic aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth on a five-day unescorted trip. The Group comprised three Fighter Squadrons; two of those Squadrons were based at Station 367 whilst the third, the 55th Fighter Squadron (Lieutenant Crago’s), was based at RAF Wittering whilst additional accommodation was being built at Kings Cliffe. The Group did not come back together at Station 367 until April 1944. Up to December 1943 the Group flew Republic P-47 Thunderbolt planes. With the arrival of their new Lockheed P-38 Lightening planes in late December 1943 the 20th Fighter Group entered fully into operational combat and was engaged in providing escort and fighter support to heavy and medium bombers to targets on the continent.
In the early morning of 31st December 1943 Lieutenant Crago was to fly from RAF Wittering to Station 367 to be briefed on his first combat mission – to provide escort protection on a bombing mission to attack an aircraft assembly factory at Bordeaux and an airfield at La Rochelle. This was to be just the 3rd mission by the fully-operational Group flying P-38’s. The planes of the 55th Squadron took off from RAF Wittering three abreast but unfortunately the right wing-tip of Lieutenant Crago’s plane struck the top of a search light tower on take-off. Lieutenant Crago must have lost some control of the aircraft but not it would appear the total control of the plane. He flew it from Wittering and was trying to get to Station 367. Unfortunately, he only got as far as Woodnewton.
The plane approached the village from the north-east, flying very low over Back Lane (Orchard Lane) and St Mary’s Church but crash landed in the field known as Stepping End just beyond Conegar Farm. Eyewitnesses said that the pilot discharged his guns to warn people on the ground that he had lost control of the plane and was about to crash. Wreckage from the plane was still visible in Stepping End in the 1950’s and a “drop tank” (for additional fuel) could also be seen in the hedge between King’s Ground and Checkers. A brief reconnoitre in November 2018 however found no recognisable evidence of the plane in the hedgerows around the fields.
Stepping End is the first open field – no hedges or fencing – on the right-hand side of the track from Woodnewton to Southwick. From Mill Lane, cross the bridge over the Willowbrook, and continue until the land begins to rise at the start of the hill. King’s Ground and Checkers are the next two fields on the right along the same track.
It is understood that 2nd Lieutenant Crago, whilst no doubt a qualified and proficient pilot, had had only 7 hours flying experience in the Group’s new P-38 Lightning at the time of the accident.
A memorial plaque to Lieutenant Crago was put up in St Mary’s Church to commemorate his death. The wording on this memorial faded over time however, and the plaque was replaced in 2001, although the wording on the two plaques is the same.
2nd Lieutenant John Crago is buried and commemorated at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial (Plot A Row 5 Grave 22). His photograph can be seen at “www/20thfightergroup.com/kiakita”.
My sincere thanks go to Mike and Trevor for sending the text and pictures and for allowing me to share the sad story of Lt. John Walter Crago.
After Part 4, in this, the final part of Trail 62, we round off our look at RAF Leuchars. We have seen how to grew from a balloon training ground in the pre-war years to a training station for early flyers. Then on to maritime patrol, the Cold War and QRA status. Now as the years pass, defence cuts rear their heads once gain, Leuchars is once more under threat from politics.
The 1970s would see a return to training here at Leuchars with both the RAF and the Royal Navy embarking on new ventures with the Phantom – McDonnell Douglas’s all round, all-weather, multi-role aircraft. With new models, come new training units, and with the arrival of 111 Sqn the famous ‘Treble One’, in November 1975, also came a training support unit – the Post Operational Conversion Unit (later known as the Phantom Training Flight). The primary role of this unit was to train Fleet Air Arm aircrews for carrier borne models of the Phantom.
A No. 111 Squadron McDonnell Douglas F-4K Phantom FG.1, an aircraft closely associated with RAF Leuchars. (License: GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)
By the early 1970s, the shortcomings of the Lightning were now more than apparent, a lack of range and loitering ability becoming more obvious as the Phantom’s capabilities outshone it. A slower, but far more advanced Phantom, was proving to be more than just a suitable replacement for the now ageing ‘rocket of the skies’.
Whilst the Phantom was phased in and the Lightning phased out, pilots of the Lightnings continued to be wary of its tendency for engine fires, a problem that had been present for some time. One such incident saw Lightning XS918 catch fire before the pilot (Flying Officer Doidge) manged to eject over the North Sea, West of The Bell Rock, 9 miles East of RAF Leuchars. Unfortunately controversy surrounded several aspects of the pilots kit, after he ejected he became detached from his survival kit, an inquiry highlighting ‘modifications’ to his clothing that may or may not have led to his tragic loss of life. In what appears to have been common practice amongst many airmen, changes were officially made to the kits supplied to aircrew in light of the accident.
The transition between Phantom and Lightning was a smooth if not rapid one. At Leuchars, the final farewell was made at the annual open day in September 1975, when six of 23 Squadron’s Lightnings and and four Phantoms of 43 Sqn formed a flypast. The Lightnings passing over the airfield in dramatic style saying a last farewell to the station where it has performed its duties so well for many years. With their disbandment in October, the baton and well and truly been passed over to a new breed of aircraft.
Between 1972 and 1978, Leuchars saw further sporadic returns of the Royal Navy, with 892 Squadron from HMS Ark Royal utilising the ground space for its operations. By 1978 though, 892 Sqn was disbanded, and their ship – the Ark Royal – decommissioned, bringing an end to this relationship between the navy and Leuchars. However, the FG.1 Phantoms used by 892 were absorbed into 111 Sqn, replacing the FGR.2s they had been operating before.
The end of 892 Sqn was marred by a tragic accident When rehearsing for the final solo display, the aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG 1 ‘XT868’ flown by Cdr. C. C. N. Davies and his navigator/observer Lt J. Gavin, suffered multiple engine failures whilst flying low, downwind along the runway axis. The aircraft entered a tight right hand turn through 180º to fly dead stick back along the runway. The Phantom’s right wing then struck the ground, and with the aircraft now perpendicular to the runway, the pilot ejected followed almost immediately by the observer. In their exits, the pilot was severely injured whilst the observer was sadly killed.
The decision to scrap the angled-decked carriers of the Navy would in turn have an eventual knock on effect at Leuchars. With both naval Buccaneers and Phantoms transferring to the RAF, no new training would take place – the Navy now looking toward the introduction the Harrier. The Phantom Training Flight would for now, remain at Leuchars though its role ‘downgraded’ to performing refresher training, ensuring that a round the clock, carrier based status was maintained in the UK.
It was also at this time that another film crew arrived – this time from the BBC – who used Ark Royal and her on-board flying units, including 892 Sqn, for their documentary ‘Sailor‘. The iconic insight into carrier operations was perhaps made even more famous by its theme tune of a similar name sung by Rod Stewart.
The 1970s saw continuous and increased intrusions into the the northern airspace around the UK, and as a result QRA scrambles became more common place at Leuchars than any other UK station. A massed show of force on Lenin’s centenary provided a massive ‘target’ for the QRA aircraft, with no less than 60 ‘Bears’ and ‘Badgers’ filling the skies on one day alone over the North Sea. A major headache for the QRA crews, it did however provide an excellent photo opportunity even allowing for a Marham Victor to shadow a Soviet Tu-95 ‘Bear’ much to the annoyance of the AOC No.1 Group when he got to hear about it.
With continued use, the runway needed a further resurfacing, and after the Phantoms of 43 Sqn had departed to Kinloss for a ‘Bolthole’ (where Station based aircraft deploy to temporary locations) deployment to carry out QRA operations from there, and those of 111 had left for Coningsby, Leuchars was left to the developers, and for an estimated eight months the airfield was effectively out of front line action.
Now with restricted runway use, the Whirlwind and Wessex helicopters and later Sea Kings, of 22 Sqn, would be the main users of Leuchars; their Air Sea Rescue operations combining with the Scottish Mountain Rescue teams, saving not only downed aircrew but stranded climbers as well . They would also be joined by the University Air Squadrons from nearby St. Andrew’s, Aberdeen and Dundee (later amalgamated to form the East of Scotland Universities Air Squadron) who would use Leuchars for training with their Scottish Aviation Beagle Bulldogs.
Once completed, a second phase of work was then undertaken, new hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) were to be built. Common place on bases in Germany, these were designed to withstand conventional attacks, providing protection for individual aircraft whilst dispersed around the airfield. In an announcement made by Sir Michael Beetham the Chief of the Air Staff, Leuchars and five other airfields were to receive these ‘new’ shelters. It would take several years though before those at Leuchars were ready with its QRA aircraft safely tucked inside.
As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, the Phantom had now reached the end of its life and the new Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) the ‘Tornado’ would soon be appearing. The two Leuchars based squadrons, 43 and 111 were both stood down, the Phantoms removed and the Tornadoes brought in. 43 Sqn, who had been based at Leuchars since 1969 being the first to receive the new aircraft, a transition that saw all the Phantoms gone from the Scottish base within a year.
The introduction of the Tornado was not without its own political and military wrangling. Doubts cast upon the ability of the multi-role aircraft to perform as well as those aircraft it was designed to replace were raised by the military. History had shown some dramatic failures on this score whilst others, such as the Mosquito, had shown it more than possible with great success. Politicians however, seemed more drawn between upsetting the Americans who were trying to sell the F-15, and the multi national consortium Panavia Aircraft GmbH, who collectively built the Tornado. The decision would be a fine balance.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet incursions around the UK’s airspace would drop, the need for interceptors had now seemingly reduced, and so a review of the RAF’s front line operations was once again on the cards. The withdrawal of both the Phantom and shortly after the Buccaneer, left the Tornado as Britain’s only front line defence aircraft.
With the Gulf War in the 1991, the Tornadoes of Leuchars would play a major part and all eyes would be on them, scrutinising their every move. The gradual phasing out of Buccaneers and Jaguars leaving a lot on the shoulders of Tornado crews.
In 1995 two 43 Sqn Tornadoes from Leuchars were involved in a mid air collision over the North Sea. One of the aircraft ZE210 collided with the second, ZE733, during a joining up manoeuvre at 12,000ft whilst using night vision goggles. The pilot of ZE733 lost control and the two crew (Flt. Lt. McCarry and Flt. Lt. Booth) safely ejected, being rescued by an Air Sea Rescue helicopter from RAF Boulmer. The second aircraft, ZE210, suffered damage to the hood and electrics, which knocked out the navigational aids. On landing, it took a considerable time to extract the crew due to the damage sustained to the hood. The aircraft was not repaired instead being used for spares before finally being dumped at St. Athan. *8
The 2000s saw further upgrades to aircraft and new squadrons arrive. An Operation Conversion Unit for Tornadoes No. 56 (Reserve) Squadron, arrived in 2003. It was designed to upgrade pilots to the new variant Tornado. Absorbed into the long standing 43 Sqn, it remained on site and active until 2009 when it too was disbanded.
Further cut backs to finances meant the final departure of the Jaguars from bases in England. For Leuchars it would see the reforming of the University Air Squadrons into the ESUAS. A single training unit operating in conjunction with the three Scottish Universities .
After 2010 the Tornadoes were replaced by the Typhoons of 1 and 6 Sqns. 1 Sqn was reformed here on 15th September 2012, and joined 6 Sqn who had been reformed here on 6th September 2010, this offered an almost seamless transition from Tornadoes to Typhoons. These modern fighters now formed Britain’s front line of defence against potential aggressors taking over the QRA status for the north. But in 2014, orders came through to move the RAF out of Leuchars transferring the aircraft, personnel and role to Lossiemouth in Moray. On 31st March 2015 at 12:00 hrs, ownership of Leuchars officially passed over to the Army, Leuchars’ named was changed to Leuchars Station, and its history as an operational airfield had finally come to an end.
Designated an emergency landing ground, (Master Diversion Airfield or MDA) between 2015 and 2016 no fewer than fifteen aircraft used Leuchars for ’emergency’ landings. These included: Tucanoes (Linton-on-Ouse), Tornadoes GR4 (Lossiemouth); Hawks (Leeming); Typhoons (Coningsby) and F15s from Lakenheath in Suffolk.
A minor respite in 2020 saw the QRA Typhoons return briefly as work was carried out on Lossiemouth’s runway. Within a short period of time though, this was completed and the aircraft departed once more leaving Leuchars quiet again.
This move signified the last full use of Leuchars by the Royal Air Force, responsibility of this long standing Scottish airfield being handed over to the the British Army who now based the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Royal Engineers here. Various other non-flying units do serve here including The Military police units and 612 (R) Squadron, a medical unit of the RAF.
Whilst the defence cuts of 2010 indicated the closure of Leuchars, in October 2020, it was confirmed by the Ministry of Defence that they were looking into increasing both civilian and military usage of the airfield at Leuchars. Whilst there remains no intention to retain, or base aircraft here, the installation of fuel facilities does give hope that aviation will return in some form in the future. The indications are that by opening Leuchars to civilian traffic, it could bring revenue in to the hard pressed MOD*7.
Leuchars played a major part in two World conflicts being used primarily by the RAF throughout its life. The Royal Navy (Fleet Air Arm) have also been based here, as have the Army who are now the current main residents of the base. Other users include: the Dutch, the Norwegians, the Canadians, Australians and New Zealand Air Forces as well as civil aviation organisations and University Air Squadrons.
More recently, with it being located closer to international airspace which is regularly penetrated by Soviet aircraft, the RAF’s Northern QRA aircraft were based here for many years before moving away to Lossiemouth in Moray, someway further north. Leuchars’ history is therefore long and very varied, covering a wide range of users in a multitude of roles.
RAF Leuchars has a history going back over 100 years. It was never upgraded to ‘A’ class status, and has only ever had two runways. Originally built from concrete and wood chip, the surface was upgraded to accommodate the jets of modern warfare, and the infrastructure has been added to as the airfield grew.
It has been home to a considerable number of front line squadrons along with an extensive collection of support flights, training flights and non-flying units. The number of people that have passed through its doors probably uncountable. It performed during the first World War, trained air crew in the inter-war years, and carried out vital work during the Second. Post war, it formed the front line of defence against potential Soviet aggression before returning to training through the University Air Squadrons across Scotland. Now home to the British Army, it is at least for the time being open for business, but as a flying military site, it is all but closed.
Its location has been in many ways its saviour. Operating maritime patrols and clandestine operations into occupied and neutral Europe. The Fleet Air Arm were formed from its units, and the Air Forces of several nations have been based here. It has a history that is so diverse and dynamic that very few other airfields in Britain can match it. As with other airfields across the country, its future hangs in the balance, I hope that this long living and prestigious site remains alive and well to honour all those who over the last 100 years have served from its runways.
Leuchars as an operational military site is not accessible to the general public and views across it are limited. It is thought that two rare First World War Double Royal Flying Corps General Service Aircraft Sheds are among the few original buildings that survive on the site. The accommodation areas have now been sold off to private buyers, but the airfield is intact as it is used as an emergency landing ground and by the ESUAS. With care, opportunities are there to see this historic and fascinating piece of Britain’s aviation history.
The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.
Sources and further reading
*1 Fatal Air Accidents website 12th November 1918 – November 1919
As Leuchars emerged from the Second World War in Part 3, it entered a new phase in its long and distinguished life. No longer operating maritime patrols, it was now entering the Cold War, and under a new Command, that of Fighter Command, it would take on a new role with a new breed of aircraft.
Throughout the war Leuchars had been a maritime operations base, with submarine hunts, convoy patrols and anti-shipping flights taking the role of its front line squadrons. But with the last of the long range patrol aircraft being posted out, Leuchars’ role would now change, and a new breed of aircraft would be seen along its runways.
The Cold War brought a new dimension to warfare, nuclear weapons and the arms race were the flavour of the day. With both sides fearing preemptive attacks, fighters and bombers capable of carrying these potent weapons were in great need. Whilst bomber airfields across the length and breadth of Britain were modified to accommodate newer and bigger aircraft, Leuchars physically changed very little. However, being transferred to the control of RAF Fighter Command, Leuchars would be propelled to the forefront of RAF operations, with both day and night fighters soon shattering the quiet of this post war airfield.
This new focus would mean that the 1950s would see Leuchars aircraft participating in a number of high profile exercises ‘Coronet‘, ‘Premraf‘, ‘Kingpin‘, ‘Formulate‘ and ‘Fabulous‘ which often required the deployment of detachments to airfields around the United Kingdom. These exercises, varied in their structure, would often include Leuchars aircraft acting as the enemy trying to attack shipping or other targets at altitudes from very low level up to 50,000 feet. Air-to-air gunnery was also involved as war air-to-ground rocketry.
With this transfer came further changes. The first jet to arrive was the Meteor in the form of the F4. with 222 Sqn in May 1950. After staying for seven years upgrading to the F.8 and then returning back to the F.4, the unit was finally disbanded in 1957 only to re-emerge as a Bloodhound operator at RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire.
The next squadron to arrive, 43 Sqn, arrived in November 1950, and also brought the Meteor F.8. On 22nd October 1952, one of these aircraft Meteor F8 VZ461 ‘W’ was lost on route from RAF Acklington to Leuchars as part of three-ship formation. The aircraft (number two in the formation) suffered problems when its artificial horizon failed. The pilot, Pilot Officer Maurice William Prior, notified the lead pilot who instructed him to make a starboard turn and rejoin the group above the clouds. Unfortunately the Meteor descended instead, and struck the sea near to Coquet Island off Amble, Northumberland. In the accident, which was put down to ‘instrument failure’, the pilot lost his life.*9
43 Sqn retained their Meteors until 1954, they then replaced them with the Hawker Hunter; flying marks including the: F.1, F.4, F.6 and F.G.A.9 in a front line role. After transferring to Nicosia in 1961 and eventual disbandment, the squadron was reformed here at Leuchars in in 1969 with the McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1. An upgrade to the FGR.2 in May 1988 eventually led to the Phantom being replaced by the Panavia Tornado F.3 in 1989. This made 43 Sqn one of the longest standing front line squadrons to reside at Leuchars in its entire history.
1951 would see another long standing resident unit at Leuchars. But the early months were noted for more short stay units. The ‘sister’ of the Meteor, the DH. Vampire, made a presence through 602, 612 and 603 Sqns between April and July that year, each reflecting Leuchars’ war time record and staying for short periods before moving on. For a while over the summer months, Leuchars would be home to no less than six front line squadrons, five of them with Meteors or Vampires with a sixth flying that old favourite the Spitfire.
Then in September 1951, 151 Sqn was reformed, an ex-wartime unit it had its roots firmly in 1918. Initially flying the Vampire NF.10, Meteor NF.11, and then in September 1955, the Venom NF.3, it left for a spell at Turnhouse before returning to Leuchars in 1957 with the Delta Winged Gloster Javelin FAW.5. In September 1961, the squadron disbanded again being reformed a year later at Watton. During the war it had operated as a night fighter unit, a role it continued here at Leuchars. Donned with the Saltire of St. Andrew, the flag of the patron Saint of Scotland, it would make a good companion for 43 Sqn with whom it had flown with during the Battle of Britain with Hurricanes.
In 1952, a 222 Sqn Meteor from Leuchars took off on a low level training sortie over the Scottish mountains. The aircraft, an F.8 ‘WA882’ piloted by Pilot Officer Brian Lightfoot, departed Leuchars at 9:58am in poor conditions. Snow covered the mountains and frequent snow showers were experienced over the area. At 10:20, a witness reported hearing a crash and seeing black smoke rising from the Scottish mountain Oxen Craig, in the Bennnachie hills, Aberdeenshire. The Meteor had struck the mountain killing the pilot. It took some two weeks to locate the wreckage, most of which was buried at the scene by RAF rescue teams, after which a small memorial was built to commemorate not only the life of P.O. Lightfoot, but also the crew of a Westland Wallace ‘K6028’ which had crashed at the same location in September 1939. The official cause of the pilot’s death was attributed to “poor definition of snow covered mountains in the prevailing conditions”. It was one more loss in the Scottish hills*11.
The 50s saw a more permanent move by some RAF squadrons. 264 Sqn who only stayed for six months in 1952 with Meteors led the way. In 1954 ‘C’ Flight of 275 Sqn arrived, this signified another change in role for Leuchars as it brought the first of the helicopters to the airfield – the Sycamore HR.14. This squadron, formed in 1941 continued to perform its role of Air Sea Rescue (a much needed but over looked service during the war), and the Flight stayed here until the entire squadron was disbanded in 1959. As an Air Sea Rescue unit it understandably had Flights based at a number of sites around the UK, and took on the Whirlwind HAR 2 and 4 prior to disbandment. Working in conjunction with the Mountain Rescue Teams, many civilians as well as aircrew owe them a great deal of gratitude.
1957 then saw Leuchars enter the film industry when a crew arrived to make a film using 43 Sqn as its main squadron. Headlined by Ray Milland (Wing Commander Rudge), Bernard Lee (Flight Sergeant Harris), Leslie Philips (Squadron Leader Blake) and John Le Mesurier as the Commandant, it was about a Commanding Officer of an RAF Training School (Cranwell) who must deal with a difficult cadet. The problem was not the cadet’s behaviour so much as the fact that he reminded the Commandant of himself when he was young. The film included shots of 43 Sqn in low level, gunnery and aerobatic manoeuvres which were filmed until the end of the year when the days were too short to carry on.
The squadron initially identified with the ‘starring role’ was 111 Sqn, who had only that year been recognised as the RAF’s official Fighter Command Aerobatics team, pipping their Leuchars stable mates, 43 Sqn, at the post. ‘Treble One’ took the name of ‘Black Arrows‘ and with their nine ship formation went on to be as famous as the Red Arrows are today. 43 Sqn’s ‘Fighting Cocks‘ were a four ship group and the disappointment of not achieving the status of their Leuchars partners, ended a decade of pageants, displays and European tours where they had been centre stage across many countries.
As the decade drew to a close, so July 1958 would see the arrival of yet more Meteors with 29 Sqn. These NF.12s were operated until replaced by the Javelin, Gloster’s delta wing fighter, before they departed to Nicosia in 1963. This time would also see the arrival of another Air Sea Rescue detachment, that of ‘C’ Flight from 228 Squadron also with the Sycamore helicopter. Throughout the war they had flown in Sunderland flying boats, including from the Scottish West coast base at Oban in 1941. The detachment had remained here until 1964 when it was renumbered as 202 Sqn.
The next forty years would see more front line jet squadrons, 25 Sqn with Javelins FAW.7s who retained these until their disbandment in 1962. They were followed by 23 Sqn who had disposed of their Javelins in preparation for the mighty Lightning, which they received a year after their arrival here in 1963. For eleven years they flew both the F.3 and the F.6, before they too were disbanded in preparation for yet more modern upgrades.
The arrival of the Lightning also heralded the arrival of the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) status, the Lightning proving to be a huge step forward in terms of aircraft speed and climb rate compared to its predecessors, was an ideal interceptor; only the appalling fuel consumption and limited armaments of early models prevented it from being the ultimate attack aircraft.
Although QRA’s origins are associated with the Lightning, the Hunters of 43 and 222 Squadrons had previously retained a two minute readiness with aircrew remaining in the cockpit at all times, a rota that kept aircraft at the ready 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Sitting in the cockpit for many hours, waiting for the chance to intercept a Soviet aircraft, must have been somewhat tedious on occasions – a draining but very necessary part of the job.
Two more units arrived in 1964, 74 (Tiger) Sqn and 202 Sqn. 74 Sqn had had the honour of being the first Lightning squadron in 1960, and for bringing the first Lightning to Leuchars, roaring into the Fife skies in August that year. They remained here for three years whilst another detachment from 202 brought the Whirlwind HAR.10 strengthening Leuchars’ role in Air Sea Rescue. For the next twelve years the helicopters of ‘C’ Flight would operate from here, with other detachments at similar sites including Boulmer and Coltishall.
74 Sqn soon took on the upgraded Avon powered Lightning F.3, this proved to be a godsend as the MK.Is were soon becoming worn out, regular faults being difficult to repair meant that flying hours were starting to fall. This upgrade was followed in September 1966 by the F.6. With this new aircraft they, and Leuchars, would participate in the sixth ‘Tiger Meet’, which saw a gathering of NATO ‘Tiger’ units from across the European and American nations. As Leuchars was hosting the gathering, it would mean a range of unusual aircraft types would appear here, if only for a short period of time. For four days in July 1966: F-100D Super Sabres, Super Mystére B2s, F-104G and CF-104 Starfighters along with F-4D Phantom IIs and a range of support aircraft, would all be present in these operations. This brought a multinational collection of pilots and crews from France, the US, Belgium and Germany to this Scottish airfield.
Unfortunately, the event was marred by the death of French pilot Capt. Joel Dancel, whose Armée de l’Air Super Mystère B.2 struck the ground shortly after take off killing him. As a mark of respect the final days solo displays, which he was practising for, went ahead with the flags of all nations at half mast.
Then followed the infamous Labour Government’s decision in 1965 to axe large parts of the defence budget, thus cancelling numerous projects such as TSR.2. This meant that Britain’s future strike capability was seriously weakened. The various separate commands were rapidly becoming no longer viable, and so now the nearly non-existent Bomber Command and Fighter Command were both amalgamated to form the new Strike Command. It was this Command that would take Leuchars on into the 1970s and beyond.
With more Lightnings arriving in April 1967 with the reforming of the fighter squadron 11 Sqn, a stay of some five years would see the Lightnings continue the role of policing Britain’s North Sea airspace. The RAF’s ongoing interest in Leuchars would also be kept alive and well by the the newly formed 43 Sqn, who joined 11 Sqn in 1967 with the Phantom FG.1. 43 Sqn would remain at Leuchars for over forty years, taking over where the Lightning left off, and eventually taking on the Tornado in 1989/90.
The end of the 1960s saw what was a first for not only 23 Squadron but perhaps even the RAF, when two Lightnings of the squadron left Leuchars to perform at an airshow in Toronto. The flight, made non-stop with the help of over-wing tanks and no less than six Victors for in-flight refuelling, was made by Sdn. Ldr. Ed Durham and Flg. Off. Geoff Brindle, supported by a VC10 carrying ground crew, supplies and spare pilots. The flight, which had lasted for some seven and a half hours, ended at Toronto in front of a massed crowd of well wishers and press, a real coup for the crews of Leuchars.
Leuchars personnel would also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the RAF in 1968, when it was granted the freedom of St. Andrews. A parade through the town was supported by all makes of aircraft stationed at Leuchars including no less than sixteen Lightnings. Whirlwinds and Chipmunks from both the Air Sea Rescue service and the University Air Squadron also took part, further cementing the strong bond that had existed between Leuchars and its neighbouring town.
The 1960s finally drew to a close, world war had so far been averted but Leuchars remained on the front line, monitoring and intercepting Soviet aircraft over the North Sea, at least for the time being.
In the fifth and final part of this trail, we see how Leuchars is affected by defence cuts. The QRA status is at risk as is the very future of this historic airfield.
The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.