The old airfield at Binbrook sits high on the Lincolnshire Wolds, surrounded by an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The hills belie the perception that Lincolnshire is a flat and featureless land. The remaining hanagars of this once busy and exciting aerodrome can be seen for miles around. The skies above were suddenly quieter from June 1988 when the last two Lightnings took off. The pilots staged a memorable low level fly past over the aircraft flightline in front of the control tower before powering away into the summer sky..
During the Second World War, engineers found enough flatness to construct the main runway running south-west to north-east. This was extended even further to 7,500 feet to accommodate the Cold War jets of the early 1960s. Its geographical position did leave it vulnerable to the weather – notably wind, fog and snow. In the big freeze of 1947, it was cut off by snow for more than a week and the RAF arranged air drops of food, drink and `essential` cigarettes for its beleaguered base.
In the 1960s, Binbrook was a very exciting place for a youngster in the initial throes of passion about military aeroplanes. I pestered my parents to take me up there if only for an hour to watch the comings and goings of a cavalcade of British military ingenuity. One airfield but what a collection within! Operational squadrons and the Central Fighter Establishment, including the Air Fighting Development Unit, were based at Binbrook with Meteors, pointy-nosed Canberras, high-tailed delta winged Javelins, sleek Hunters and silver shiny supersonic Lightnings which trailed billowing parachutes when they landed.
Approaching Binbrook on a murky day, silent prayers were offered that something would be `happening`. A lone Javelin in the circuit slipped tantalisingly out of the low cloud and disappeared again. I was out of the car and running to Crash Gate 2 near the southern end of the runway. Any lover of the Lightning or indeed any Cold War jet has stood there before 1988, waiting for the distant whine and roar that told you something was starting up across the other side of the airfield. At the north-east end of the runway, Crash Gate 3 acquired its status as the Lightning lovers` legendary location, just up the dead-end track from the village of Thorganby.
After one fruitless trip (probably a Friday afternoon), my Dad wrote to the top man at Binbrook to ask when was usually the best time to visit to see some flying. Assuming that the address including the word `Rectory` indicated that he was not dealing with the Soviet Embassy, Group Captain Ian MacDougall, DFC replied on 8th January 1964 that we could come and tour the station accompanied by one of his chaps. I have still got the letter. I did not know it then but Ian MacDougall was a Pilot Officer in the Battle of Britain. He died in 1987 – the year before the Lightning was retired from RAF service.
No longer was I at the Crash Gate, peering in. I was in an RAF Land Rover being driven down Binbrook`s runway after a Canberra of 85 Squadron confirmed to the control tower that it had `vacated` after testing its compass. The Land Rover had `F/11` on both ends. In those days, RAF vehicles had the Command and the Group inscribed on them, indicating in this case 11 Group of Fighter Command. I was in the Control Tower as a couple of Hunters were `talked down` by the radar controllers. I saw a crew room and had my photograph taken next to the Spitfire gate guardian, dressed in my short-trousered suit and new `slip-on` shoes with aspirations to look like the ten year old epitome of cool, just two months after the Beatles first album was released.
I returned to Binbrook numerous times over the years as an airshow attendee or as a working journalist. If I was heading up to see my parents on the Yorkshire coast via the Humber Bridge, I would sometimes make a small detour to the Crash Gate, even after the Lightnings had gone and the airfield gradually returned to farmland. The control tower was demolished but the hangars and the two Quick Reaction Alert sheds at the end of the runway remained – final evocative symbols of a once busy airfield and a reminder of the many men who disappeared into the dark skies, never to return. Binbrook lost many bomber crews during the Second World War and many pilots afterwards, including those at the controls of Lightnings.
Binbrook had its share of ghost stories. One concerned a figure often seen at the end of the runway as dusk fell. He appeared to be signally furiously to something, almost raging against the dying of the light. The story was that he was one of the ground crew who suddenly realised that the bombs loaded onto a bomber that was about to take off had been `fused` already. As he tried to `flag down` the bomber on its take-off run, it exploded killing all the crew and him.
Another story came from the Canberra era when, after some night flying, the ground crew were working on the aircraft and noticed that one of the airmen was still around and had not joined the others on the crew transport. A group of them saw this figure who looked sad and disorientated before wandering off into the darkness. They realised they had all seen a ghost.
On another night, the man on duty in the Station Armoury did his final checks ensuring he was the only person in the building. He locked all the doors and locked himself into the inner office and lay down on his bed to read a book. Not long afterwards, he heard all the light switches in the corridor outside being switched on and off. No footsteps – just switches. He stayed where he was, utterly convinced that he was the only human in the building and very reluctant to challenge this ghostly presence.
A few miles away, there was another bleak wartime airfield `perched` on the Lincolnshire Wolds. Kelstern was also home to Lancaster bombers and closed immediately after the war, leaving few traces of the airfield apart from some concrete hard standings and a small memorial to the lives lost on 625 Squadron. The road from Binbrook to the market town of Louth cuts across the old airfield. Local people tell of drivers being flagged down by a mysterious airman wanting to be taken to RAF Kelstern, only for him to vanish before their eyes.
One misty autumnal morning, it was said a driver passed a lone piper playing by the memorial. It looked so eerie that the driver did not dare stop. Local enquiries could find no trace of a piper who had turned out that morning. More common stories relate how people have heard the sound of Lancaster bombers on the airfield years after it was closed. If you stop your car at dusk at Kelstern or Binbrook or indeed any long deserted wartime airfield, get out and breathe in the atmosphere. You can sense the sadness and loss, and maybe it is not too great a leap for the mind to imagine the sounds of Merlin engines, dance bands playing `Moonlight Serenade` or glimpse the outline of a man in flying jacket and thick boots gazing into the far distance before fading away.
Old airfields like Binbrook and Little Rissington sitting on their respective hills evoke nostalgia and contemplation, especially at sunset. They are markers on particular journeys, retaining some aspect of permanence even through demolition and redevelopment.
When I was young, the Penshaw monument near Sunderland meant our car journey to my grandparents was nearly over. Staxton Wold radar station meant you were nearly home. The lighthouses of Bishop Rock off the Isles of Scilly, Flamborough Head and Corbiere Point in Jersey evoked the mysteries and the dangers of the sea, while the huge crane that sat on the north pier at Tynemouth seemed to defy everything that the North Sea could fling at it before it was replaced in 1969. Then there were the three strange round dishes that stood on top of the Lincolnshire Wolds at RAF Stenigot for years, gradually rusting away until they were pulled down and left in a field like helpless upside down tortoises.
One summer in the mid-1980s we had a `temp` secretary in the Radio Lincolnshire newsroom called Rosie who suddenly expressed an interest in visiting one of the RAF bases that regularly featured in the stories that were dictated to her over the phone by our news team out and about. I had a long standing invitation to have another look at Binbrook from the new Community Relations Officer so took her with me one afternoon.
It was very busy with the Lightnings of 5 and 11 Squadrons, and the Lightning Training Flight, on and off the flightline at Binbrook all afternoon. We watched as the fighters swung in to the line, were refuelled and checked over and lurched off again to the runway. Lightnings were notoriously `thirsty` aircraft and, if there were no air-to-air refuelling tankers available over the North Sea, they had to be back at Binbrook for more fuel often well within the hour.
The presence of a young woman on the flight line did have one immediate implication for the Lightning pilots during the quick turn-round on the ground at Binbrook. While their aircraft was being attended to, some of them would take the opportunity to unstrap, climb down the ladder and run over to the grass and relieve themselves. Rosie`s appearance had them instead scurrying back to the hangar to answer nature`s call. We looked at the flying boots nailed to the ceiling in the Officer`s Mess – a traditional reminder of the people who had safely ejected from a problem aircraft. Back in the crew room, Rosie fell into conversation with one of the pilots who was given the nickname `Spock` after an air refuelling incident with a Vulcan. Logical, (Group) Captain.
Ahead of the closure, I interviewed the last station commander at Binbrook, Group Captain John Spencer. He was a Lightning man through and through, having joined the RAF in 1958 just before the interceptor entered service. He had flown them for years and led a squadron before finally commanding the last ever RAF Lightning base. He had a personalised aircraft with `JS` on the fin. Lighting a cigarette in his office in the Station Headquarters, he mused that in certain circumstances, the now obsolete Lightning could still out-manoeuvre modern American jets like the F15 and, at high altitude, go faster than the Tornado F3 which was replacing it.
However its avionics and hopeless endurance rendered it out of date. It was born of an age when it was required to climb high and fast to shoot down Soviet nuclear bombers heading to the United Kingdom to attack cities and V-bomber bases. John Spencer conceded there would be regret at the end of the Lightning but it would be more from the heart than the head. At the `Last ,Last Lightning show` – the final air display at Binbrook in August 1987 – John Spencer flew `JS` in the middle of a Diamond Nine formation led by the boss of 11 Squadron. He left the RAF as an Air Commodore and died in 2014.
Eleven Lightnings were launched at the show, two as spares for the Diamond Nine. The weather was awful with driving rain but the Lightning reminded everyone that it was an `all weather` fighter. The formation did a stream take-off from the northerly end of the runway, banking sharply right at the other end and turning almost a full circle to fly straight towards the crowd back over the runway while the stream was still taking off. It was a manoeuvre, by all eleven no less, that would be banned today.
Kicking in full reheat, each pilot pulled back on the stick to push the Lightning into a steep climb over the hangars. The condensation shockwaves shimmied around the wings as each one thundered away into the `clag` – an aviation term for grey, drizzly low cloud that started life as meaning `Cloud Low Aircraft Grounded`.
The Diamond Nine returned for a few fly-pasts and a solo Lightning gave a spirited `flat display`, keeping the aircraft below the cloud base. The following spring, the Lightnings left Binbrook for good. Some went to museums but too many ended up near that south west Crash Gate awaiting the scrap man`s cutting equipment. The domestic site became a new large village, given the name Brookenby and the buildings behind the hangars formed a new industrial estate.
Revisiting Binbrook airfield on a damp, foggy November morning in 2015, I took in both ends of the old runway. It was silent except for a far away tractor in a field across the valley. The taxi-way had been narrowed by the creep of vegetation and indeed much had been dug up or had just disappeared. A memorial to a young lad who died young and who `loved Lightnings` had been established near the north-east end of the old runway and surrounded by a wooden fence. There was now no trace of this tribute to a life cut short.
The area around the hangars is now an industrial estate. You can drive along the old flight-line and see the fading flash of 5 Squadron on a hangar wall. There is a shell of a Sea Harrier and the remains of a Lightning. The old guardroom where I had an altercation with a pompous Warrant Officer who insisted I parked the other way round as I checked in seemed to be falling into ruin. The fog that wreathed around the Wolds that morning enveloped Binbrook and emphatically exaggerated the sad sensations of times past and lingering ghosts of men and machines.
After the Lightnings had gone, World War Two bombers briefly returned to Binbrook in July 1989 and took it back in time. The film `Memphis Belle`, starring Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz and Harry Connick Junior, was partly shot on the airfield and five real B17 Flying Fortress were rounded up from the USA, France and the UK and flown in. The movie, about the 25th and final mission of a B17 and its American crew in 1943, was co-produced by David Puttnam who stayed in a Lincoln hotel and was amenable to interviews with Radio Lincolnshire. During filming at Binbrook, one of the B17s crashed on takeoff but the ten people on board all escaped without serious injury.
When the Lightning came into service at Coltishall in Norfolk in 1960, it became the `poster plane` for RAF recruiting. I collected the glossy brochures with names like `Flying and You` and `Aircrew – a flying career in the Royal Air Force`. They featured Lightnings from squadrons like 74 `The Tigers` and 56 `The Firebirds` with fresh-faced young pilots clutching their helmets and gazing away from the camera to the skies. One advertisement read `What are they like to fly today?` and ran a report by a journalist as he joined what was then called `The Ten Ton Club` which presented you with a special tie if you had flown at more than 1000 miles an hour.
The writer had joined Flt Lt Malcolm Moore in a T-Bird (a two seat Lightning trainer) in a sortie from Wattisham in Suffolk. `Beneath us Wattisham falls away. The enormous power of the two Rolls Royce Avon jet engines hurl us above the clouds. ….I scan the sky and realise the intensity of its colour at such a height. Overhead, the deepest azure through the canopy; in the mid-distance, Air Force blue`. Ok, I`m convinced. Become an `aerocrat` as they called it. Get my letter off to Adastral House in London WC1 which dealt with RAF recruitment. Many youngsters were inspired by a Lightning pilot of the time called Bob Lightfoot who did very low flypasts at airshows.
Those brochures enthused about the new aircraft heading for RAF service. There was the HS801 which morphed into the Nimrod, the Andover, the VC10, Dominie, Belfast, Basset, Hercules, the Phantom and the Kestrel jump-jet, later called the Harrier. The V-bombers would be joined by TSR2. RAF officers were pictured off-duty in Cyprus, Singapore (which had three RAF airfields), Gibraltar, Brunei, Sarawak, Germany and Labuan. How things have changed over my lifetime.
Uncertainty about the future of RAF Binbrook had bubbled along for a few years after it was confirmed that the Tornado F3 would replace the Lightning (and Phantoms) as the RAF`s air defence interceptor. The new Tornados were going to Coningsby, also in Lincolnshire, Leeming in North Yorkshire and Leuchars in Fife. Bases were closing all the time as the RAF got smaller – and there were fears that Binbrook would become superfluous.
In the early 1990s, British astronaut Michael Foale flew on three Space Shuttle missions. Radio Lincolnshire sort of adopted him as we could precede every story about him with the phrase `Lincolnshire-born`. His father Colin, who retired as an RAF Air Commodore, was a fighter pilot serving at Binbrook when Michael was born in 1957. There is now a road named after the astronaut in Louth – Michael Foale Lane.
Allan Smethurst wrote a song about the noise that Lightnings made and called it `Sound Barrier`. Smethurst was known as The Singing Postman and had one big hit in 1966 with a song called `Hev Yew gotta loight, Boy?`. He was a real postman who wrote songs about living in East Anglia. The studio that he used for recording was under the flightpath in and out of RAF Wattisham where two squadrons of Lightnings were based at the time. Every time one went over, he had to stop the recording and start again which prompted the song.
I remember a photograph of him next to an old red and blue road sign pointing to RAF Wattisham. After his big `Loight` hit, things fell apart. He had a mild heart attack, developed arthritis which affected his guitar playing and four years later was unemployed and broke. He spent the last 20 years of his life in a Salvation Army hostel in Grimsby, a few miles north east of Binbrook.
Sometime in 1985, the Secretary of State for Defence Michael Heseltine was invited to a Conservative constituency event in Louth. I discussed the visit with the BBC Radio Lincolnshire reporter for East Lindsey which included Louth and Binbrook and worked out some questions that were relevant to the district and to Lincolnshire. One of these was obviously the future of Binbrook and the implications for jobs and the local economy if it closed. The BBC representative duly asked the Defence Secretary and was met with a quizzical `What`s a Binbrook?`.
`Er, it is still one of your frontline air defence bases, Secretary of State!`. The Defence Secretary had not been briefed very well at all. `I don`t know about that. Can`t talk about that`.
I met Michael Heseltine a couple of times over the years at Radio Oxford. He was MP for Henley-on-Thames and lived in a village north of Oxford. He would occasionally drop into the Radio Oxford studios on his way to London to do an interview `down the line` with the Today programme and indeed with us – his local station.
One morning when I was the early newsreader, he came in for a Today interview. I got him a coffee and the papers and left him in Reception, saying I would come and get him at the appointed time and hook him up to London. When I returned to Reception, he said: `Oh by the way, I have signed for your post`. Thanks very much.
The following morning, the postman rang the bell and I went to the door to collect the mail and indeed sign for something again. I asked the postman who he had got to sign for it the day before. `I dunno – there was some blond geezer that let me in`. That, my friend, was the Secretary of State for the Environment of Her Majesty`s Government of the United Kingdom. `Whatever. Sign `ere`.
(more on Lightnings Chapter 15 Postcards of Scarborough)