Bruntingthorpe Cold War Jets Day

Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome has become synonymous with the golden age of British aviation and is home to a collection that makes any enthusiast feel like they’ve time travelled to a bygone era. The airfield opens its gates to the public twice a year for the Cold War Jets Day event; a whole day filled with the thundering sound of old-school jet engines. Bruntingthorpe has been on my to-do list for a number of years now and I thought it was about time to make the 250 mile round-trip to check out what all the fuss is about.

Based just outside of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, the Aerodrome is the former site of RAF Bruntingthorpe and was originally constructed as a heavy bomber base during the Second World War. After the War the airfield was taken over by Powerjets Ltd.; Frank Whittle’s highly experimental jet aircraft testing company, and was later used as the base for Avro Vulcan XH558’s overhaul and return to flight in 2008.

Today, Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome is home to one of the greatest (if not the best) collections of Cold War-era aircraft anywhere in the world and the talented team of volunteers pride themselves on the large number of airframes that are kept in a ground running capacity.

After just over two and a half hours of driving, I pulled up and entered an exceptionally nostalgic world of jet-powered aviation.

WARNING! You May Lose Your Hearing…

The day’s running didn’t start until around 1130am so this gave plenty of time to have a look around the ‘museum’ section of the airfield. Between the ex-RAF Tristars and VC-10s are a number of aircraft that have been collected by the site over recent years.

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The aircraft are all looking a little worse for wear but I guess that’s what you’d expect from a collection that’s housed outside in all that Mother Nature has to offer. Reminiscent of the Gatwick Aviation Museum, Bruntingthorpe offers aircraft a place to retire and live out the rest of their lives being adored by those that have fond memories of the British aviation industry. The aircraft – with their peeling and cracked paintwork – make excellent subjects for close-up photography and I have to admit I was completely in my element and spent the best part of two hours crouching in all sorts of weird positions to get the shots I wanted.

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It was soon time to grab my place on the relatively short (and restrictive) crowd line and the first aircraft of the day to fire up it’s engines was the last-serving ex-RAF Nimrod MR2. The aircraft was officially handed over on April 29th 2010 and has been kept in ground-running condition ever since. I vaguely remember seeing the Nimrod at airshows but I’d never seen it as up-close as this! With the rain continuing to saturate the runway, XV226 pirouetted in front of the crowd before blasting straight down the runway.

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Bruntingthorpe is home to four Blackburn Buccaneers that are looked after by The Buccaneer Aviation Group and two of these were in serviceable condition for running. XW554 was first to take to the damp runway.

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As the crew began to pour on the coals, I put my ear defenders on and got goosebumps as the glorious Buccaneer roared ferociously down the tarmac. I’ve only ever seen these aircraft in museums before, so to see something like this right in front of me really was quite incredible.

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The fantastic thing, as I’ve already mentioned, is that this was just the first of two Buccaneers to run. The second came much later in the afternoon and unlike the first one, looked completely beaten up; just how an aircraft should look when it’s retired from active service. The runway had dried up by the time XX900 (owned by David Walton) took to the stage but even without the spray, the Buccaneer is a truly incredible aircraft and created one of the most spine-tingling moments of the day!

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After a flurry of Jet Provosts, the peculiar looking ex-RAE (Royal Aircraft Establishment) Canberra WT333 – affectionately known as ‘Trebble Three’. WT333 didn’t enter service with the RAF and instead served purely as a flying testbed with the likes of the RAE at Farnborough and Boscombe Down.

The Canberra fired up in a plume of thick black smoke and with engines running, the bulbous airframe stumbled down the runway and greeted the crowd with a slow head-on turn before returning to her starting position. With the throttle on, WT333 started rolling down the tarmac at speed and lifted its nose into the air; you could almost feel how much she wanted to get off the ground!

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I quickly realised that my 70-300mm lens was going to be a bit of a tight fit for some of the aircraft even at the 70mm end and I paid the price with the Victor – it was just too big to get in the frame.

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Designed and built by the Handley Page Aircraft Company, the Victor was the last of the three V-Bombers to enter service with the Royal Air Force in 1958 and the last to be retired in 1993 (albeit in a different role by that point).

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As XM715 blasted down the runway, the rumble of the four Conway engines reverberated throughout your body and sadly, before you knew it, the chute was deployed and the aircraft was slowing down in the distant heat haze. A truly awesome sight; I can only imagine what it must have looked like in the sky.

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It was soon time for the moment that I had been waiting for literally all day, the English Electric Lightning.

The Lightning Preservation Group owns both Lightnings at Bruntingthorpe and they’re both stored in the relatively new QRA shed, just off the old taxiway. Both are in ground running condition but only XR728 was serviceable; I didn’t care to be honest, I’d never seen a Lightning moving under it’s own power before so I was just desperate to see one!

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I’d been pretty brave with shutter speeds for most of the day, lingering somewhere between 1/80 sec and 1/160th sec and so far it’d been great. The shutter speed was dialled in at 1/100th sec; what a mistake to make! I completely underestimated the speed of the Lightning and quickly lost track of it through the viewfinder as it shot past. As a result, I didn’t capture a single sharp shot of it on full reheat but hand on heart, I can honestly say I’m not that bothered – I was completely astounded by the raw power of those engines. The thrust was like nothing I’d ever experienced and it was easily my highlight of the day.

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The freshly painted L-29 Delfin made a brief appearance on the tarmac before the VC-10 brought an end to the day’s proceedings. It was quite strange to see the VC-10 just rolling along the runway, it seems like only yesterday that these graceful aircraft were still in the skies above RAF Brize Norton. Regardless of the relatively short time that’s passed since their retirement, it was really good to see ZD241 taking a stroll again.

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Organised Chaos

That’s what springs to mind anyway when I think about everything other than the aircraft.

The programme of aircraft runnings for the day is changeable and with such complex aircraft I completely understand that. What I didn’t quite understand was the 30-45 minute gaps between one aircraft completing its run and the next one starting (it’s worth noting that there wasn’t an awful lot of explanation over the tanoy either). It would be a much more fluid event if the aircraft could be run up continuously, one after the other and I don’t see why this couldn’t happen if the main taxiway at the top of the airfield was closed off for the afternoon. Maybe someone could shed some light on this?

The lengthy gaps were filled with demonstrations from various large scale models and while these were quite captivating the first time round, they quickly lost my interest when they went up for a second and third time. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy them because I did, especially the Hunter and VC-10 (complete with refuelling probes) but they would have been much better off if they were scattered throughout the day a little more.

Unfortunately a couple of the R/C pilots annoyed photographers at the far end of the crowd line when they placed the Vulcan and Victor far too close to the runway, meaning that uncluttered panning shots of aircraft were almost impossible towards the latter part of the day. We tried to get them moved a little but no one seemed interested in helping. With it being a fee-paying event, I thought this aspect could have been handled a little better.

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For all the people that were there (and there were quite a lot), there was a single food outlet selling the usual burgers, hot dogs and chips that we’ve come to expect from events like this. The prices were incredibly reasonable but because it was the sole outlet, the queues were phenomenally long for most of the day (upwards of forty minutes at times). The catering was even more frustrating towards the end of the day when they’d sold out of everything apart from sausages and chips but you didn’t find this out until you’d got to the front of the queue after a half hour wait!

There were also only two sets of toilets and again, these had incredibly long queues for most of the day. The event opened at 9am and by 11am the majority of the men’s toilets had seen better days with a lot of people opting to queue up again but this time for the disabled portaloos.

Quality Vs Practicality

There’s no doubt that Bruntingthorpe’s selection of Cold War-era aircraft are the cream of the crop for any aviation enthusiast but for me, the event was sadly let down by other departments.

A little more organisation and planning on the ‘showground’ front could go an awful long way at an event such as this. This show was relatively miserable in terms of the weather, I dread to think what the facilities would have been like had it been a scorching hot day.

Like I said, on the aircraft front Bruntingthorpe have absolutely nailed it with top quality aviation nostalgia that is second to none but as an event, the day was lacking in a lot of places. The good news is that I think lessons can be learnt from the day and the issues can be resolved pretty easily.

If you’ve not been to one of Bruntingthorpe’s Cold War Jet open days before then you’d be a fool not to go, bite the bullet and make the trip to see these incredible aircraft. Just make sure that you take some ear defenders and be prepared to wait around for a good percentage of the day.

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