RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 4)

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

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969

Hunter F.1s of 43 sqn RAF Leuchars, in a vertical climb. © IWM RAF-T 42a

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.

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969

Lightning F.6 of No 74 Squadron, RAF Leuchars. Armed with Red Top air-to-air missiles, and carrying over-wing long range fuel tanks.(© IWM RAF-T 6973)

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.

A museum with an international flavour

This museum forms Trail 26 of our tour around Britain’s aviation past. It is of particular interest to me, not just because of its aviation heritage, but because it’s not far from where I was brought up. Indeed, I was born in the City of Coventry, a mere three miles or so from here. After about 6 months we moved away to more leafy surroundings but the influence of Coventry was not left behind.

More importantly though, my father, my inspiration and the man who gave me my love of aviation, worked here at Baginton on the Argosy for Armstrong Whitworth, an aviation company long since gone. A dear friend of his, also worked here on some secret aircraft, so secret my father sadly never saw it.

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The main building; the Sir Frank Whittle Heritage Centre.

Of course, this area is steeped in aviation history. The Jet engine was developed around here, Sir Frank Whittle’s name is used in his honour for a number of pubs and industrial sites across the region. I used to live not far from Lutterworth, famed for ‘Bitteswell’ where many test flight were made for AW, modifications were carried out to Britain’s Vulcans, Buccaneers, Gnats and Hawks to name but a few all under the name of British Aerospace. Also not far from my home was Whetstone, which had the first purpose-built jet engine factory. Coventry itself was a main target for the Luftwaffe suffering great casualties and damage during the blitz and the Cathedral ruins now stand as a monument to those who lost their lives during those terrible times. The former Standard (Later British Leyland) Motor works here built over 1000 Mosquitos and a number of other aircraft parts were made in this area. Baginton itself produced heavy bombers such as the Whitley and the Lancaster, Dunlop has a factory here as does Rolls Royce. Coventry and the area around it is steeped in both wartime and aviation history.

So Baginton holds good links to my past, and it has been far too long since I was there. So, whilst in the area, I decided to take a detour and visit the Midland Air Museum, Coventry.

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The cargo hold of the Argosy

The museum is located to the northern side of Baginton (Coventry) Airport and has utilised this site since 1975. It originally had only five exhibits when it opened but has grown  into the enormous collection it is today, holding around 40 airframes and various exhibits including: helicopters, a range of aircraft engines, cockpits, galleries and a vast collection of models. The main building, the ‘Sir Frank Whittle Jet Heritage Centre‘ is not only the main building for the displays and  engines but holds a dedicated exhibition of Sir Frank Whittle’s remarkable work.

In here, are a vast number of photographs, letters and other documents relating to the creation and development of the Jet Engine. It takes you through, step by step, the process of development of the engine, Frank Whittle’s life and the organisations that built and developed this major invention.

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Sir Frank Whittle and the early jet engine

The exhibition is housed in a small hangar crammed with jet engines amongst a small collection of aircraft. A meteor F-4 (and Mk 8 cockpit), a DH Vampire F-1, Saab J-29 and Lockheed’s T-33 being the most prominent. Cockpits other than the Meteor include that of the Harrier and a Canberra from RAF Wyton and some of these the visitor is free to sit in and experience what it was like as a pilot. Upstairs in this building, are displays of Baginton’s links with the air industry and local events of the Second World War. Again, photographs and documents relate the lives of those who lived through the war in the surrounding area. An absolute wealth of information here finished of with a huge range of well made models,

Sadly, most of the airframes are outside, some succumbing to the weather and all that the elements can throw at them. However, this aside, the range and selection of airframes is tremendous. Most models here come from the post war era, remnants of the Cold War. A Meteor night fighter stands next to the modern Tornado, A Gloster Javelin, A.W. Sea Hawk, D.H. Sea Vixen, Fairy Gannet and Harrier represent the great naval traditions of British aviation. From the RAF we have the Canberra, Hunter, Gnat, Percival’s Prentice, D.H. Beaver and two stunning E.E. Lightnings; a Saudi T-55 and a Binbrook F6 retired in 1988.

Many of these aircraft saw development in the years following the Second World War. The Canberra, first flown in 1949, served right up until 2007 and achieved many awards for altitude and performance flights. Used by Air Forces across the world, variants saw action over the Suez Canal, in Vietnam and in the Indo-Pakistan conflict in the late 1960s. Built under licence in the United States with a redesigned cockpit, the B-57 was admired by many. Production of the Canberra and its variants total around 1,500 and filled a number of roles with a variety of Air forces.

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The Boulton Paul P.111A bulit in one piece and designed to explore the aerodynamic properties of the Delta wing.

Baginton is not just limited to RAF types either. The USAF is also represented through several models, there’s the North American F-86A Sabre and F-100D Super Sabre,  McDonnell Douglas F-101B Voodoo and of course the famous McDonnell Douglas F-4c Phantom.

Initially designed as a carrier based aircraft, the Phantom was adopted by numerous air forces across the world including the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. First flown in 1958, it was so successful that it would continue to serve into the early 21st century; with production totaling nearly 6,000 – it was a major contribution to aviation history. Like other models here, the Phantom fulfilled a variety of roles, being continually adapted to meet new demands and challenges. Truly a great aircraft.

No Cold War exhibition would be complete without opposing aircraft. A MIL Mi-24D Hind helicopter with its formidable nose mounted cannon and gas turbine engine stands alongside  Russia’s highly proven  warrior, the Mig 21.

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A McDonnell Douglas F-101B Voodoo

The Midland Air Museum has a good international flavour to it. Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter, dubbedWitwenmacheror ‘Widowmaker’ because of its unforgiving nature, stands in Royal Danish Air Force colours, the Mig 21, East German, the Gnat in Finnish Air force markings and the French represented with Dassault’s Mystere IV.

However, amongst all this hardware, there are two airframes that stand out for me here at Baginton, and not for their size alone, Avro’s B2 Vulcan ‘City of Coventry’ XL 360 which stands in 617 Squadrons colours, a squadron it served with before retirement, and Armstrong Whitworth’s Argosy 650, of which this is the oldest surviving example. To see both, not only remind me of my younger days, but provide a link to my father whose memories are fading as each day goes by.

One of the delights of the Midland Air Museum is that you can sit for free (donations accepted) in many of the cockpits where knowledgable guides will talk you through its history and features, something rarely found elsewhere.

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Avro Vulcan B2 XL360 ‘City of Coventry’

To finish off your walk round, there is a small but clean and pleasant cafe, a shop that is filled to the brim with model kits, books and other mementos of your day. The staff are friendly and helpful, always a blessing.

Whilst some of the airframes are looking a little jaded, there is an extensive collection  to be found here, and for those interested in all things aviation, especially the development of the Jet engine; from the early days of the Sapphire, through to the Olympus, the Avon and the RB199 turbo fans of the Tornado; the Midland Air Museum has them all.

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Sisters sit side-by-side

Coventry Cathedral is about 3 miles from here, and if time permits, is also worthy of a visit.

Details of the museum can be found through their website.