The A1 Lightning: Britain’s Most Famous Derelict Fighter Plane

Image by Simon Thomas,

(Image courtesy of Simon Thomas)

Famous landmarks like the Angel of the North are well known to drivers on the A1 road.  But few would expect a derelict Cold War fighter plane to have found a place amongst such icons of modern art.  Once the main defender of British airspace against the Soviet Union during the 1960s and ’70s, the decaying hulk is more like a monument to the ravages of time and vandalism than past aviation.

Images via Google Earth

The aircraft, an English Electric Lightning F.2A, has been rusting in a yard in Nottinghamshire, UK, for the past 27 years.  It was bought by A1 Commercial Vehicles in 1983 in a bid to attract customers to its premises at Balderton.  But the yard has since changed hands several times and seen dereliction on several occasions over the years.

Image by Gary Parsons

(Image courtesy of Gary Parsons, Air-Scene UK)

Yet the Lightning – one of only two remaining examples of the F.2A variant in the UK – lingers on.  Today, it has become so familiar to drivers on the A1 that it has acquired a landmark status all of its own.  Some even call it art, albeit in a very Graham Greene (The Destructors) sort of way.

Image by Gary Parsons

(Image courtesy of Gary Parsons, Air-Scene UK)

The Lightning has been heavily vandalised over the years, with anything salvageable removed.  The fuselage is badly holed and covered in graffiti, leading one contributor on Key Publishing to joke that the vandals had at least chosen colours – silver and red – that matched the aircraft’s livery while in military service.  Another contributor remarked that it helped remind people that aircraft are utility objects – advanced today, obsolete tomorrow.

Service in Germany

Image by Gary Parsons

(Image courtesy of Gary Parsons, Air-Scene UK)

The sorry state of the Lightning, serial number XN728, is a far cry from its glory days during the Cold War, when the aircraft served with 92 Squadron at RAF Gutersloh in Germany – on the front line between Western Europe and Warsaw Pact countries.  The image above shows XN728 during better days.

Decoy Duties and the A1 Yard at Balderton

Image by David Cowling

After retirement from service in 1977, the Lightning was used as a decoy aircraft at RAF Coningsby in a bid to confuse passing spy satellites.  XN728 was finally transported to Balderton in 1983, where it remained in reasonable condition until the yard was vacated in the early 1990s.  The image above shows the Lightning in 1992, weathered after 15 years outdoors, but otherwise intact.  Since then, it has been slowly destroyed.

End of an EraOr is it?

Image by TZ Aviation,

(Image courtesy of TZ Aviation)

This dramatic image ironically shows the Lightning in its classic takeoff pose.  But XN728’s flying days are more than 30 years in the past.  Today the nose points skywards due to the removal of the radome, which shifted the plane’s centre of gravity.  The wings are covered in graffiti, while souvenir hunters have stripped the airframe of valuable parts.  Under normal circumstances this might signal the end, but this Lightning has clung to life against the odds for decades.  XN728 is a rare piece of aviation history,  and deserves a better fate…

Update – After almost 30 years of neglect, the A1 Lightning was finally scrapped on September 9, 2011 (read more)

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