‘Skinhead on wings’ comes home to Maze

The latest addition to the collection of the Ulster Aviation Society is this Phantom FG1 fighter, seen here on 'gate guard' display at RAF Leuchars, Scotland
The latest addition to the collection of the Ulster Aviation Society is this Phantom FG1 fighter, seen here on 'gate guard' display at RAF Leuchars, Scotland

Ulster aircraft enthusiasts have just bought themselves a veritable aviation hero of the Cold War – one of the legendary US-built Phantom jets.

Their plane used to fly through the skies at 1,500mph, potentially dealing death and destruction during decades of tension with the Soviet Union.

But soon Ulster schoolboys may be able to climb up into the cockpit and only imagine some of the tense life-and-death manoeuvres taken by elite fighter pilots from the very same seat.

“It is a brute, a skinhead on wings,” said Ulster Aviation Society (UAS) spokesman Stephen Riley.

“There are some people that call it beautiful, but when they say that they mean it is the type of beauty that only a mother could love. Its nose dips down, the wing tips go up and the tail stabilisers go down.”

This particular Phantom (XT864) flew for 21 years on operations with both the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and the RAF, but it was retired in 1989 to serve “gate guardian” duty at RAF Leuchars in Scotland.

“In a way, it’s coming home to the people who cared for it,” said Ray Burrows, UAS chairman. “That’s because every Phantom of the RAF and the Royal Navy came to RAF Aldergrove at one time or another for repairs, repainting or upgrading.”

The UAS made a winning bid of £31,000 for the aircraft.

“There is nothing out there that looks like it and it had a legendary attachment to the Cold War,” Stephen added.

There was a long rivalry between the US-built Phantom and the Russian-built MIG-21 in the service of East vs West during the Cold War in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The two aircraft clashed on opposite sides for three years in Vietnam and also for a time in the Middle East, where the Israelis flew Phantoms supplied by the US and the Egyptians countered with MIG-21s supplied by Moscow.

“The Phantom probably had it over the MIG-21 in the end,” Stephen added.

As an air-to-air fighter, it could hit speeds up to 1,500 miles an hour and in a strike or long-range role it could carry massive amounts of fuel or ordnance.

The Phantom’s versatility and power as a combat aircraft were unmatched for its time, but now almost all of the fighters are gone.

A team of volunteers from the UAS will dismantle the aircraft in the coming weeks for shipment from Scotland to the society’s hangar at the Maze.

“There was a time when the Phantom could roar through that trip in half an hour,” Ray added.

The UAS has around 30 military and commercial aircraft. Visits can be arranged at the website www.ulsteraviationsociety.org or by phoning 07974 502 319.