New home for famous RAF Gate Guardian
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our fortnightly blog featuring news, reviews and nostalgia from the fascinating world of aviation. It seems that our previous edition, where we looked at the final Leuchars Airshow appearance of the handsome Tornado F.3, struck something of a chord with a great many of our readers and we are extremely grateful to everyone who kindly sent in e-mails saying how much they enjoyed the feature. Clearly, quite a number of our readers attended the same Airshow and were equally moved by the show finale sight of three Tornado fighters slowly backtracking down the runway, symbolically disappearing from sight and into the RAF history books. Many described how they also experienced the same eerie atmosphere at the end of the show, which was without doubt one of the most sombre Airshows I have ever attended.
With the RAF Tornado F.3 now just a distant aviation memory and the service withdrawal date of the strike and reconnaissance version now looming large, the Tornado is clearly an aircraft which is viewed with some affection by UK enthusiasts and it will be a sad day when these distinctive aircraft will have flown their final mission in Royal Air Force colours, bringing an end to more than thirty years of service. We can only hope that this undoubted affection will see the Ministry of Defence allow the aircraft one final hurrah in front of their adoring fans and arrange a special event to mark the end of Tonka Time – if they do, Aerodrome will certainly hope to be there to document the spectacle.
In this latest edition of Aerodrome, we will be bringing you something of a round-up of interesting aviation stories from around the country, including a feature looking at a famous RAF gate guardian and how it has recently relinquished its duties and found a new home just a few miles from its home station. We also have a selection of pictures from one of the final outdoor aviation events of 2017 and a look at two unusual aircraft movements at Manchester Airport over the past couple of weeks. This is also the last call for anyone who wishes to have their pictures considered for our 2017 Reader's Pictures edition of Aerodrome, which we intend to start work on in the next few days, with a publish date of Friday 1st December 2017. We will include full details on where to send your pictures later in the blog, but for now it’s off to the Isle of Anglesey and news of an unusual aircraft movement.
Short relocation for local aviation icon
A most distinctive Anglesey landmark, Hawker Hunter T.8C WV396
As the busiest of the remaining Royal Air Force stations, RAF Valley is home to No.4 Flying Training School and provides advanced fast jet pilot training to students hoping to progress to Operational Conversion Units and ultimately front-line RAF squadrons. Situated on the west coast of the Isle of Anglesey, just south of Holyhead, Valley can usually be relied upon to have plenty of flying activity from its home based Hawk T.2 training jets of No.IV(R) Squadron and the Griffin and Augusta139 helicopters of No.202(R) Squadrons, which makes this a regular destination for aviation enthusiasts from all over the UK. With its rural location and proximity to the low flying zones of Snowdonia, there is always the possibility that other military aircraft may overfly, or even land at Valley on any given day, which is certainly why this airfield has been such a popular destination with enthusiasts over the years.
I have been fortunate enough to have visited RAF Valley many times over the past few years and have to describe it as one of my favourite areas of the UK. Anglesey is a beautiful place, even if the weather can be a little challenging at times - I have been there when it has been glorious, even when the forecast had promised something very different. Similarly, I have also been forced to endure it when I had to lean into the wind to avoid getting blown over and could hardly see 10 feet in front of my nose. The good has certainly outweighed the bad over the years however and the prospect of seeing plenty of flying action is the thing that will always keep me going back to RAF Valley.
This attractive Hunter was a popular sight for locals, base personnel and enthusiasts alike
For anyone finding themselves driving along Minffordd Road, past the main entrance to RAF Valley, you cannot fail to have seen one of the most iconic landmarks on the Island – the base gate guardian Hawker Hunter T.8C WV396. Resplendent in its red and white 4 FTS colour scheme, this beautiful aircraft has been on duty at RAF Valley since it arrived in 1997, checking the credentials of visitors and casting a watchful eye over the student pilots as they taxy past before embarking on their latest training sortie. Mounted on a metal plinth, the aircraft was dramatically positioned in a flying, nose-up attitude and was a focal point for enthusiasts making their latest visit to the base and a much-loved landmark for RAF Valley personnel and Anglesey locals alike. Over recent years, the future of this famous aircraft has been in some doubt, as the RAF indicated that it was due to be replaced and they invited tenders from interested parties who may like to give the aircraft a new home. For many enthusiasts and Anglesey locals, the thought of Valley’s beautiful Hunter leaving the island for good was too distressing to contemplate, but despite the procurement process being less than straight-forward, we are pleased to inform Aerodrome readers that WV396 has found a new home just a few miles from RAF Valley and is already receiving some long overdue TLC.
Sad times. An RAF Search & Rescue Sea King makes its final journey past WV396
When news began to circulate that the Royal Air Force intended to replace their Hunter gate guardian at Valley around five years ago, the local Anglesey Transport Museum were quick off the mark in registering their interest in acquiring her. Knowing how much the aircraft meant to the local community and countless numbers of visitors to the area, the owners of the museum were desperate to secure the Hunter for their collection and maintain its connection with the island. The museum has an impressive collection of vehicles ranging from classic cars and motorcycles, to tractors and military vehicles, many of which have ether worked, been driven on, or were bought from businesses on Anglesey. They are all beautifully maintained by a small but talented team of mechanics and engineers at the museum and despite the fact that this classic British jet trainer would be a change from the machines they usually work on, it was a challenge they were very much looking forward to meeting.
Hunter WV396 overlooking the airfield at Valley during her 20 years serving as gate guardian
During a recent visit, we were lucky enough to speak to Chris Davies from the museum, who kindly took some time away from working on the Hunter to tell us a little more about the project. Chris had previously worked at RAF Valley as a mechanic and still has plenty of contacts at the base – knowing Hunter WV396 extremely well, when he heard the aircraft was coming up for disposal, he immediately informed the base that the Transport Museum would be very keen to take the aircraft and preserve it for the enjoyment of visitors to their Newborough site for many years to come. This proposal was extremely well received by the officials at Valley, who were only too aware how popular this aircraft was and were also keen to see it remain on the island, but Chris described how this was several years ago and the constantly changing personnel at the base made things much less straightforward than they had hoped. As the years passed, there have been times when it looked as if the future of Valley’s Hunter was extremely uncertain and may have even involved the aircraft being used as spares for other Hunter projects or even being scrapped. Thankfully, that did not prove to be the case and in July this year, Chris and his team set about removing the Hunter from its display plinth and taking it to its new home at his Anglesey Transport Museum.
On solid ground
Let the work commence – fantastic works picture taken by Alan Kelly of MY Scaffolding Services
As you may well imagine, removing a classic Hawker Hunter from its position as a long-term gate guardian outside an active RAF base is not without its challenges and the entire project would have to be planned with military precision. Clearly, the RAF would have to ensure that a great many checks, procedures and authorisations were in place before any attempt to move the aircraft could be made, both as this is an active airfield and for the safety of everyone involved with the project. Thanks to the meticulous plans already submitted and the ability of the museum team to react at extremely short notice, they finally received the opportunity they had been hoping for. When the call came through from officials at the airfield to come and collect the aircraft (as quickly as possible), the Transport Museum team were ready to act, but only because they had the invaluable support of several specialist local companies who were only too happy to help with this unique project. At the beginning of July, the race was on and the museum team headed to RAF Valley, initially to secure the site and then to erect scaffolding around the Hunter. Once this was in place, work could begin on dismantling the aircraft which had been left out in the Anglesey elements for twenty years – it was hoped that the wings could to be removed from the trainer, allowing the fuselage to be placed complete on the back of a low-loader truck, with the wings following on a separate vehicle.
Hunter WV396 back on her undercarriage for the first time in 20 years
I am sure that Chris made this challenging project sound much simpler than it actually was, but he described how the Hunter was successfully removed from its plinth and transported the short distance to the Anglesey Transport Museum and its new home at the beginning of August, ensuring that this aircraft with such strong ties to the island remains where she belongs. Having unloaded WV396 at the front of the museum, the team had some significant engineering hurdles to overcome. The Hunter had been displayed on a plinth for the past twenty years and had therefore not been on its undercarriage during this time. Indeed, the museum team did not actually know if the aircraft had undercarriage, or if it would be serviceable enough to be deployed and support the aircraft if it did – potentially a significant hurdle as the plinth was not included in the purchase. Thankfully, with a little engineering know-how and some good old-fashioned brute strength, they managed to get the undercarriage down, which proved to be in remarkably good condition considering its exposure to the elements and lack of use over the past twenty years.
Work can now begin on preserving the aircraft and making her ready to receive visitors
With the aircraft now finally back in one piece and safely on its undercarriage, the team were forced to face an unforeseen and potentially disastrous threat to their prized new possession, in the form of Storm Brian and Hurricane Ophelia. Both of these natural phenomena threatened to carry the Hunter back to RAF Valley and deposit her in a less than dignified manner back at the airfield and required the museum team to take some drastic measures to prevent this from happening. Fortunately, their experience ensured that both storms were safely negotiated without too much drama, although there must have been a couple of sleepless nights whilst the winds were blowing in a certain part of Anglesey.
Before we look at the exciting future for Hawker Hunter WV396, let’s take a look at her history. Built by Hawker Aircraft Ltd as a Hunter F.4 for the Royal Air Force, WV396 made her first flight on 24th August 1955 and was delivered to No.5 Maintenance Unit at RAF Kemble the following month. Her first posting was to RAF No.20(F) Squadron at Oldenburg in West Germany where she would spend the next 18 months flying front-line operations as aircraft ‘F’ with the unit, in what turned out to be the only time WV396 would see front-line service. Returning back to the UK during the summer of 1957, she underwent a period of maintenance before heading for RAF Chivenor in Devon and a six-year stint training pilots with No.229 Operational Conversion Unit.
With the ejection seats removed, renovation works can begin on these and the cockpit area
Following her time with the Royal Air Force, the immediate future of WV396 lay with the Senior Service and flying operations with the Fleet Air Arm. Returning to Hawkers at Dunsfold, she was converted to T.8 standard and eventually delivered to No.759 NAS at RNAS Brawdy (the start of her Welsh connections) in early 1965 to begin her naval flying career. Over an eventful next 30 years, Hunter WV396 would go on the train navy pilots at RNAS Yeovilton, suffer engine failure and two bird-strikes, spend lengthy periods of inactivity and storage before ending her flying days with FRADU, the Fleet Requirements and Air Direction Unit, again at RNAS Yeovilton. Flown to RAF Shawbury for storage in May 1995, it seemed as if the aircraft was destined to be sold to a new private owner, but uncertainty regarding her ownership eventually prevented this from happening.
Port and starboard side views of the museum’s new aviation acquisition
Having spent much of its flying career with the Royal Navy, it was time to even things up somewhat and following a short period of storage at Shawbury, Hawker Hunter WV396 was destined for further Royal Air Force service and selected for gate guardian duties at RAF Valley. She was moved to the paint shop at Shawbury and given a smart new RAF No.4 FTS colour scheme, which represented a Hunter T.7, the version of the aircraft which served at RAF Valley from 1967, until the service introduction of the Hawk T.1 ten years later. Interestingly, the 4FTS Hunters were used to provide training for students who had longer legs and struggled to fit in the diminutive Gnat trainer (which were also based at Valley) and for the many overseas student pilots trained from 1967 onwards. Transported by road to RAF Valley, WV396 arrived on Anglesey on 26th November 1996, where plans were already in place to plinth mount her at the entrance to the base, as a striking and symbolic tribute to the years of flying training support carried out at this busy station. Taking up her position in early 1997, Hunter WV396 has served to greet visitors to RAF Valley for over 20 years and has become one of the most famous and instantly recognisable landmarks on Anglesey.
Staying on Anglesey for the enjoyment of many
Aviation enthusiasts are sure to visit the museum for a look at this famous Anglesey landmark
The recent news that Hawker Hunter WV396 had been secured by the Anglesey Transport Museum and would be staying on the island was a significant development for local people and the wider aviation community. Fears that she may have been lost to the island had finally been allayed and she was now in the hands of a committed group of people with a proven track record in restoring and preserving iconic vehicles and machinery. Significantly, the aircraft was almost immediately on public display at the museum, enjoying a prominent position at the entrance, just as she had done for the past 20 years at RAF Valley. Speaking to the museum’s Chris Davies whilst he was working on the removed ejection seats in his workshop, he told me that they have ambitious plans for their new Hunter and have already started the significant task of renovating the aircraft. Central to these plans is the desire to preserve this magnificent aircraft for current and future generations to admire and enjoy and whilst there is much work to do, the messages of support and good will they have received over the past few weeks has only served to underline the popularity of their new aircraft. Future plans include regular maintenance to ensure the aircraft remains in excellent condition, a complete airframe repaint and restoration of the cockpit, to a point where it is hoped visitors will be able to sit in the aircraft and enjoy a Hunter experience.
Retaining her rightful place on the Island of Anglesey, Hawker Hunter T.8C WV396
I am sure Aerodrome readers will join me in congratulating the Anglesey Transport Museum for going to such lengths to save this famous aircraft and to wish them well with their ambitious plans for the future. Clearly readers now have the opportunity to go and check the progress of this project for themselves by visiting this excellent museum, whilst sampling the delights of Anglesey. For full details on museum opening times (March to October) and the many special events taking place at the site, please visit their website or Facebook page, where you can also see a fascinating time-lapse video of the Hunter dismantling project at RAF Valley. You may also like to combine your visit with a look at the new RAF Valley gate guardian, which will be a suitably presented Hawk T.1 Trainer, hopefully due to be unveiled at some point during 2018.
I would like to thank Chris Davies and the friendly staff at the Anglesey Transport Museum for their hospitality and for taking the time to discuss the Hunter project with me. I am very much looking forward to my next visit to Anglesey and seeing how Chris is getting on with those ejection seats.
Unusual Manchester movements
As one of the busiest airports in the UK, Manchester is a regular destination for aviation photographers and enthusiasts from around the country, who are keen to get their latest taste of civilian aircraft action. Over recent years, there has been much development work taking place on and around the airfield, which is now far bigger than when I used to make my regular visits as a boy. In those days, news that a Boeing 747 might be landing at Manchester would see enthusiasts travelling (usually by bus) from the surrounding area to catch a glimpse of the beast, which was made all the more memorable if the Jumbo was parked at one of the piers which allowed spectator access to the roof.
RAF E-3D Sentry AEW.1 of No.8 Squadron was an unusual visitor to Manchester recently
Regular visitors to the airfield will tell you that a little prior preparation is essential in order to get the best from your day and to ensure you stay on the right side of the authorities regarding parking arrangements. There is the excellent viewing park which is open daily and has long opening hours and can even boast its very own Concorde (G-BOAC), however the fussy photographers amongst us usually prefer to have the sun at our backs whilst shooting, meaning this location is only suitable from late afternoon onwards. There are plenty of viewing spots to be found on the south-side of the airfield, but these certainly require some prior parking planning and a pair of decent walking boots.
These days, Manchester attracts some of the world’s largest and most advanced civilian aircraft and handles over 22 million passengers each year, with over 60 airlines offering direct flights from the airfield. With flights to over 200 destinations worldwide, and with Manchester capable of handling almost any aircraft currently flying, a day spotting at the airfield is usually extremely enjoyable and quite active, accepting the fact that you will have to deal with the notoriously fickle Manchester weather whilst you are there. Although you are virtually guaranteed a busy day of civilian aviation activity whichever day you decide to make your visit, there is always the possibility that unusual visitors may make an appearance at Manchester, which may turn out to be not quite as civil as the usual fare on offer.
The aircraft was heading for the secure hangar of Air Livery to receive a smart new coat of paint
My latest visit to Manchester yielded a couple of unusual aircraft movements, which helped to make an enjoyable few hours even more memorable. Slipping in between an Easy Jet Airbus A319 taking off and one of Virgin’s beautiful Boeing 747s, Boeing E-3D Sentry AEW.1 ZH102 of RAF No.8 Squadron arrived from Waddington in desperate need of a new lick of paint and heading for the Air Livery facility at the airfield. Not the first time this aircraft has visited Manchester, ZH102 was due to enter the highly secure painting facility at Manchester for yet another refinishing, before re-joining the rest of the Squadron at Waddington on completion of the work. Air Livery have a proud reputation in working with military as well as civilian clients, with the secure facility at Manchester ensuring military contracts can be carried out in the highly sensitive manner required by such work. Although lucky to catch the Sentry on her arrival, it is unlikely that I will see her depart wearing her smart new colour scheme and with next year marking the centenary of the Royal Air Force and No.8 Squadron’s 103rd anniversary, I wonder whether ZH102 will emerge with some commemorative artwork in honour of either occasion – we will soon see.
High overhead during my visit to Manchester, Antonov An-124 of Antonov Airlines
Although not landing at Manchester during my visit, one eagle eyed enthusiast amongst our ranks spotted this Antonov An-124 Ruslan passing over the airfield, presumably on her way to deliver its latest load of cargo. For many years the world’s heaviest aircraft and still one of the most capable cargo carrying aircraft in the world, the An-124 offers a specialist service for the world’s oversized air cargo market and makes for an impressive sight wherever it appears. Operated by Antonov Airlines, UP-82009 is one of three An-124-100 aircraft they have in their fleet, which have been kept busy over the years carrying the air freight that other aircraft simply could not accommodate. It would have been great to capture this impressive aircraft landing at Manchester (which would have been a first for me), but spotting it even at this great distance was still something of an aviation treat – I wonder what delights my next visit might bring?
Twilight Lightning run at Bruntingthorpe
Recently released artwork which will accompany the new 1/48th scale Lightning release from Corgi, depicting Lightning F.6 XR728 ‘JS’ which starred at the recent LPG twilight Lightning run
Our friends at the Lightning Preservation Group have recently given their magnificent aircraft one final outing for 2017, with a double twilight run on Saturday 4th November. The event allowed enthusiasts the opportunity to see English Electric Lightning F.6 XR728 ‘JS’ and its stablemate XS904 ‘BQ’ blasting down the runway in full afterburner one final time in 2017, before the aircraft are safely stored away to negotiate the coming winter. With the run taking place in the fading light of an autumn evening, the experience is made all the more memorable as the afterburner flame from the Lightning’s two Rolls Royce Avon engines is all the more visible and gives the gathered Lightning aficionados exactly what they came here to see – a unique helping of Cold War jet power action.
Starboard side view of Lightning F.3 XR713 showing the new RAF No.56 Squadron markings. Image kindly supplied by Derek Rusling
The event also saw the appearance of the group’s third Lightning XR713, wearing her spectacular dual colour scheme with was only recently unveiled at their Bruntingthorpe site. The port side scheme depicts Lightning F.Mk.3 XR713 ‘C’ as she entered service with No.111 squadron in 1965, whilst the starboard side is painted to represent Lightning XR718 ‘C’ which served with RAF No.56 Squadron at Wattisham. Wearing the distinctive red and white checkerboard fin and rising phoenix of the unit on the nose, this beautiful new addition to the group will surely become a popular photographic subject in the years to come and help to bring much needed revenue to the worthy aviation cause of the Lightning Preservation Group.
The port side retains the aircraft’s original RAF No.111 Squadron markings. Again, thanks to Derek Rusling for allowing us to use his atmospheric pictures
As I was unable to attend this event, I am extremely grateful to regular Aerodrome contributor Derek Rusling for taking these pictures and allowing us to use them to illustrate this feature. I will certainly be hoping to catch up with the Lightnings of the LPG during 2018.
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, which featured a famous Hunter, Lightnings, an E-3D Sentry and even an elusive Antonov An-124 - we hope you found it an interesting read. As mentioned at the beginning of our blog, this really is your FINAL CHANCE to send in pictures for our Reader's Pictures edition of Aerodrome, which is scheduled to be the next edition of our blog. Always popular with our readers, this is your opportunity to have your pictures featured for all to admire and have your name within Aerodrome on both the Airfix and Corgi websites. Please send your pictures to our usual email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org e-mail addresses, along with any ideas you may have for future editions of Aerodrome.
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