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RAF Wattisham

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RAF Wattisham 29 (F) Squadron


John (aka Gary) Cooper

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I was based at RAF Wattisham from August 1967 until July 1969 after obtaining an ‘exchange posting’ with another Aircraft Engine Fitter whilst I was stationed at RAF Stradishall. I worked on 29 (F) Squadron 1st line servicing with occasional stints in the hangar (or ‘shed’ as we called it). 29 Squadron operated English Electric Lightning Mk 3 Interceptor aircraft, arguably the fastest thing around on three wheels! There was also a T-bird Mk 5 of the 13 aircraft we had.


We ran a two shift system 0730hrs-1630hrs and 1630hrs-whenever hrs, the latter depended on the weather, operational requirements and the number of flying hours required in any one particular month. In addition we provided a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) which rotated with other Lightning stations and Squadrons to ward off any incursions from Russian Long Range bombers and surveillance aircraft. 


Our duty on QRA was for at least one member of each trade, Engines, Airframe, Instruments, Radar, Radio, Armourer and Photographic trades including an NCO and two pilots to man a QRA hangar adjacent to the main runway for instant scramble. A third aircraft and pilot was also always on standby. We lived for 168 hours of one week in the accommodation block of that hangar, relieved only for meal breaks. The Wattisham QRA hangar is now situated at Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire.


The main incursion Russian bomber was the Tupolev (Myasishchev ‘Bear’) which had a range of some 6000 miles, once RADAR had picked up one of these monsters the klaxon alert was sounded from RAF Bawdsey, RAF Neatishead, Fylingdales and other RADAR stations. The front and rear hangar doors had ‘panic red buttons’ situated in the corridor from the accomodation block to the hangar, the first through the corridor hit the buttons. The pilots were strapped in, if it was an immediate alert the two Rolls Royce Avon engines would be started through the AVPIN (Iso-propyl nitrate) starters and the one or both aircraft would be scrambled onto the runway and airborne in just a few short minutes. These aircraft had priority over all other aircraft.


To see these kites off is a sight you can never forget imagine the scene a 12 Ton aircraft releases its brakes, selects reheat on both engines 16000lb X 2 with fire coming out of both tubes, within seconds she is sat on her rear end and up and away, the noise is deafening. Even more awesome were the times when you weren’t expecting one coming home, the pilot would bring her down to a very low level starting at Great Bricett open up the ‘taps’ then hit reheat at the same time as pointing the nose skywards over #3 hangar.


The flight duration for an F3 was normally 40-50 minutes but could be extended on ‘tanking’ or ‘probing’ and up to two hours could be the usual time for a return to the airfield. We saw one kite return without the probe nozzle, she must have lost it whilst probing the basket on a Victor tanker over the North Sea. 


The Lightning F3’s were numbered

XP765 Alpha

XP705 Bravo

XR718 Charlie

XP694 Delta

XP764 Echo

XP757 Foxtrot

XP763 Golf

XP707 Hotel

XP736 Juliet

XP756 Kilo

XP735 Lima

XP701 Mike

XV328 Zulu this was the T5, T-Bird as we called it.


At this time 1967-69 the childrens  programme  The Magic Roundabout was seen on BBCTV each weekday afternoon, all the aircraft callsigns were named after the characters in this series. I can’t recall all the names now but B=Brian the Snail,  D=Dylan the Rabbit, E= Ermintrude the cow, F=Florence, M=MacHenry, Z=Zebedee, even the crewroom door had the Magic Roundabout emblazoned upon it, the tea bar and all the wall panels had an image of each of the characters painted upon it too, as an amateur artist at the time I was commissioned to do these paintings. If the Squadron History book is still available I drew a couple of cartoons in this book , one I know was an intersection cricket match (probably with 111 Squadron), the other I cannot recall.


During my time on the Squadron we did not lose one aircraft (we had a couple of close shaves though!) these stories can be read on my ‘Airmans Daily Diary’ extracted from my own personal diaries of the time. I do recall a Lightning of 111 Squadron XP738 doing a ‘wheels up’ landing in April 1969…..and a T5 on  loan to 29 Squadron from RAF Coltishall the port oleo collapsed on landing on March 25th 1968 gouging a furrow for 50 yards or more in the grass!


One incident that happened to me, I had refueled XP705 and seen Pilot F/O Abbot off, he abandoned his sortie by 20 minutes as he was short of fuel, it transpired that upon investigation the ventral fuel tank was empty. I was summoned to see The Engineering Officer F/O Davies together with the line chiefy to explain my reasons why I hadn’t refueled the aircraft fully! A charge sheet 252 was being prepared by the discip NCO Sgt McKay. Not accepting the blame for this I checked back into the Form 700 (Aircraft Flying Logbook and a legal document) only to find the ventral tank had been changed the night before by the shed boys, the gauge had stuck in the full position on this changeover. There was no other way of checking a Lightnings fuel tanks other than by instruments, there was no dipsticks or dropsticks, so I was exonerated of all charges, that is how the RAF worked always ready to apportion the blame first!


On the dispersal area 29 Squadron had the space to the left of the ‘pan’ nearest to the control tower (ATC) followed by the two F1 (or was it F1A?) Lightnings of TFF (Target Facilities Flight) these were the aircraft that had a cats rear anatomy emblazoned on the fin! To the right of the pan was stationed 111 Squadron with their Black and Yellow Lightning flash across the nose of the fuselage.  Immediately behind each of the squadrons ‘lines’ were situated the three hangars for rectification and scheduled servicing to continue, each of the 1st and 2nd line servicing teams would support each other. On TACEVAL (Tactical Evaluation) exercises all personnel would be called out from either their quarters or homes in support of the Squadron.


Fog was an important factor in determining flying activity, November and December were deemed to be the worse months from the Squadron Commanders point of view, but from an erks point of view was regarded as ‘ace of the base’ as often we would ‘wrap up’ the kites in the hangar at 1900hrs and knock off work! Someone once said that it must have been a German that decided that Wattisham would make an ideal aerodrome before the outbreak of WWII as nothing would fly in the fog!


Since being at Wattisham I have heard that the station has been accredited with the title of Watto and What-a-shame, perhaps this is from the Army Air Corps being based there currently.


Operational Turn Round (OTR), the meaning of this is similar to say todays Formula 1 racing teams pit stops, OK a racing car can be refuelled in about 8-10 seconds which will see all 4 wheels changed and the driver shoots off again. A Lightning is slightly different, after a sortie, the aircraft was marshalled in, a team of technicians would remove two missiles (in a live emergency, such as aerial combat the missiles would have been fired) and then replaced with new live missiles, these were mounted on wheeled trolleys and removed/replaced with a winch by a team of armourers either side of the fuselage. The fuel bowser would come to the rear of the aircraft and the Zwicky nozzle hose would be fitted to the port side ‘plug in’ of the aircraft, this was the longest part of the operation.


Although the AVPIN tank should have been topped up by the Engine bod in fact, the photographer or instrument basher would do this, by first placing the AVPIN bottle on the lowest part of the leading edge, he would then climb the aircraft ladder and nip on to the wing, unlock the AVPIN spine tank, remove the cap and add about a gallon or so of AVPIN. The pilot was still strapped into the seat of his cockpit but ejection seat safety pins would have been inserted into his seat for safety reasons.


The engine bod didn’t have to check the engine oil on OTR’s but I always did, the airframe fitter would have to replace the tail parachute (used as a brake on landing), this could be a nightmare of a job on occasions as it was an extremely tight fit. Often one chap would be lying on his back, rain, snow or sun and with feet raised force the ‘chute into its stowage whist the release cable was being attached by another rigger.


Once refuelled, rearmed, bowsers and chocks removed, the top ejection seat pin with a large circular disc was shown to the pilot and placed in its stowage, the pilot removed his own ‘between the legs’ pin himself, a thumbs up signal was given to the pilot that the OTR was complete, the ladder was removed and the engines fired into life and off on another sortie. All of this took between 4 and 7 minutes, everyone knew his role and the sequence of events that followed an OTR, there was never any practicing needed it was done automatically, somehow you got a buzz out of doing this as a team.  My diary records Wednesday March 27th 1968 doing an OTR in 4.5 minutes, that was within the Command record by 5 seconds.


This item is extracted from my diary on

27th April 1968 Wattisham: Still on the theme of Flypast etc and cessation of Fighter Command, 29 Squadron put 4 a/c up with some 111 Squadron kites in 2 x diamond formation. One of our jockeys (29) who shall remain nameless, got out of formation and very nearly collided with the other three kites, for those of us watching it was a very close call and that could well have been an embarrassing end/start to Fighter/Strike Command! This was not a good day for the squadron as one of the guys had all of his skin burned off the back of his hand on an Operational Turn Round starter fire, a 111 Squadron pilot on his first practice OTR in our 29 Squadron (Zulu) T-Bird hit the starter twice in error and the Avpin exhaust caught fire, someone else picked up the asbestos glove and put out the fire. I recall getting a face full of this gas on a  QRA scramble without it catching fire thankfully, it knocked me back and senseless for a few minutes.



Names of 29 Squadron Personnel 1967-69

  • items in contact with


Gary (John) Cooper* Engines

Rick Eichhorn* Engines

Al Lacey* Airframes

Al Tickner Instruments

Mick Morris Instruments

Ian Campbell Engines

Cliff Furnival

Jim Juett Engines

Graham ‘Winnie’ Churchill

Peter Hindley*

Don Ixer Airframes

George Crozier Engines

Graham Pitt Airframes

John Lake

Brian Colclough

Mick Stephenson

Roger Wilkinson Engines

Tony Milne

Flying Officer Pritchard Pilot

Dave Willey

John Bates

Sgt Derek Graystone 2nd i/c 1st line Servicing

Lou Newton

Eric Hedges*

Pete Mills TFF

Terry Bryant

Sgt. McKay Discip NCO

F/Sgt Doug Caston i/c 1st Line Servicing

Wing Commander Phipps CO 29 Squadron

F/Lt Johnson Pilot

Alan Withington Pilot

Dick Edmonson

Jock Main

Paul Cornish Airframes

F/Lt Tony Gross Pilot

Mac Macdonald

Bob Shuster Engines

Squadron Leader Carter

Squadron Leader Boyer Squadron Commander 29  Squadron

Keith Jackson

F/Lt Martin 111 Squadron Lightning Display Pilot

Paddy Morris

Al Slater

Mick Minns

Al Martin

Flying Officer Abbot Pilot

Flying Officer Davies Squadron Engineering Officer

John Bates

Sgt Hazell

Dusty Miller

Sgt Ken Kennell

Bryn Ward

Mick Ambrose

F/Lt Pete Bedwin Pilot

F/Lt Adcock

F/Lt Groombridge Pilot

Tex Hendry

Roy Jones

Chris Augier

Ch/Tech Timmis

Squadron Leader Robertson

Art Kelloway

Tug Wilson

Ted Garrett

Mick Hodgson

Charlie Greenhalgh

Bob Johnson

Dave Hollingsworth

Joe Parsons

Chalky White

Paddy McGuire

Squadron Leader Malpas Senior Education Officer

Brian Garnham






  • Copyright John Cooper







I served on 29 Sqdn RAF Wattisham 1968 to 1975 as a liney. I always made it a habit to call into the ops room every morning to see if there was any chance of a trip in the T5. This way I managed to get six flights in the eight years I was on the Sqdn. Well I had a friend on the same shift as me who thought he would try the same scam. Like me he was a member of the Gliding Club so had a keen interest in flying. On his first asking he was successful and was told to report to safety equipment for flying clothing fitting at 14-00 hrs and takeoff at 15-00hrs. We then spent the rest of the morning despatching and turning the aircraft round.

Come 14-40 Roger as that was his name waddles into the line hut fully decked out in Immersion suit with his pilot Flt Lt Alan Withington who signed the 700 and we proceeded to the aircraft "Z" for Zebedee. I strapped Roger in and watched them taxi away. About forty minutes later the squawk box announced the return of the T5 so I decided to watch this one as Roger was onboard. She came into the circuit low and fast and broke left into the pattern came round on to finals and touched down. Now its about here that you expect the brakechute to deploy, it didn’t happen so you next expect the aircraft to open the throttles and go around for a precautionary landing that did'nt happen either, the aircraft came to a stop at the end of the runway and shut down. the Line hut window opened and Wilky shouted AL you and Cliff go and tow him in straight to the hangar.

Well to cut a long story short the immediate Inquiry was Who fitted the Brake Chute? The 700 pointed the way it was the unfortunate Roger the passenger in the right hand seat of Zebedee. Usually the person sitting in the right hand seat gets the honour of deploying the brakechute on landing, yes he pulled the handle but nothing happened, Alan Withington a senior pilot on the squadron and I believe on his last flight in a Lighting before being posted onto a Chipmunk U.A.S Squadron decided to stay on the deck and use the wheel brakes only. Yes you must have guessed, a double wheel and brake change and Roger was in the frame. THE TECHNICALS> This was the days when two ripchord pins where fitted to the chute and attached to the doors of the chute container the left chute pin to the right door and the right chute pin to the left door. The unfortunate Roger had attached the pins all right but he had attached the left pin to the left door and the right pin to the right door, result? nothing happened. He wasn’t the first on the Lightning force to do it but he was the last, the pins where pulled on shutting the doors for all future flights. He was heavily involved in the brake and wheel change and as far as I know he wasn’t charged for it, one thing is sure he wasn’t allowed to forget it on the Line or at the Gliding Club for Alan Withington was also our outgoing C.F.I.

Al Lacey 29 Squadron 1968 to 1976 Airframes


Trying to trace an English Electric Lightning Pilot from 29 Squadron plus photos?

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