“We’re going to RAF Coningsby for 3 days’ filming with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight?” Was I dreaming?” No I wasn’t, and what a life enhancing experience it was.
Just approaching that famous RAF base with all its wartime associations was amazing. Our route took us past the Royal Air Force College Cranwell too. We were greeted at Coningsby by Jim Robinson, Media and Communications Officer for “The Flight” as they are known. Jim had kindly arranged for us to film “Air Side” as it is known in aviation circles – an honour indeed.
On the Sunday we had a front row seat to a (very!) private air display…
“Look out – here she comes!” Was my first warning for the once-in-a-lifetime event I was about to witness. There, fast approaching RAF Coningsby very low indeed through the murk was none other than Avro Vulcan XJ 558 on one of its last ever flights. But what was that tucked up under her tail? Seven Spitfires and two Hurricanes in very tight formation, that’s what.
This unforgettable occasion was the annual private air display put on specially by The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight as a treat for one of their top fund-raising volunteer organisations Lincolnshire’s Lancaster Association (LLA) *, and was attended by many hundreds of their hard working volunteers, all in party mood. We had been advised that “558” as she is affectionately known might not make it to Coningsby due to the fuel tank issues that had plagued her final display programme in recent days – or were they softening us up I wonder? Either way it was a wonderful surprise which will live with me and everyone who witnessed it for ever. Thank you to everyone involved – not a dry eye in the house…
There were other memorable elements behind the scenes to this historical event too. Top of the list it was Sqn. Ldr. “Dunc” Mason’s final sortie as Office Commanding BBMF, having been with The Flight since 2009. He has now handed over the reins to Sqn. Ldr. “Milli” Millikin who has a distinguished operational career on Jaguars and Typhoons. He is a third generation aviator; his father, grandfather and brother all being RAF pilots – his Dad being the very last Service Vulcan display pilot.
In addition to the five BBMF aircraft in the formation there were two “Guest” Spitfires, including a Salisbury manufactured aircraft assembled and tested at Chattis Hill! Step forward SM845 – a Mk. XVIII Spitfire powered by the 2,000hp Rolls-Royce Griffon engine.
Next we were treated to “Milli” and “Hells” (Wing Commander Justin Helliwell – also on his emotional last sortie before a posting elsewhere) performing their Spitfire and Hurricane display. The wonderful symphony of TWO Merlin engines at the same time! We had already witnessed their rehearsal the day before and filmed their interviews in the Cathedral-like BBMF hangar afterwards. “Am I dreaming” time yet again on this fascinating Secret Spitfires Project.
Another exciting display was laid on by the Coningsby Typhoon and Spitfire aerobatic duo both carrying colour and squadron markings to commemorate Flt Lt James Nicolson VC DFC, the only Fighter Command pilot awarded a Victoria Cross during the Battle of Britain. The Typhoon was also painted with his 249 Squadron identification number. This award of the VC has especial significance for Salisbury AND Southampton since he was very seriously wounded defending Southampton prior to the Luftwaffe attacks in September 1940.
An excerpt from his Citation : “During an engagement with the enemy near Southampton on 16th August 1940, Flight Lieutenant Nicolson’s aircraft was hit by four cannon shells, two of which wounded him whilst another set fire to the gravity tank. When about to abandon his aircraft owing to flames in the cockpit he sighted an enemy fighter. This he attacked and shot down; although as a result of staying in his burning aircraft he sustained serious burns to his hands, face, neck and legs. Flight Lieutenant Nicolson has always displayed great enthusiasm for air fighting and this incident shows that he possesses courage and determination of a high order. By continuing to engage the enemy after he had been wounded and his aircraft set on fire, he displayed exceptional gallantry and disregard for the safety of his own life”
The Flight as ever put on a flawless display, and our appreciation also to RAF Coningsby Station Commander, Group Captain Jez Attridge. Magic memories guys.
* The 2016 BBMF Season. For a full breakdown of this season’s exciting programme from May 1 to September 25, log on to : http://www.raf.mod.uk/bbmf/displays/