Between 1958 and 1979, more than 5000 F-4 Phantoms rolled off the production line at the McDonnell Douglas facility at St Louis, USA. Many of the individual aircraft have achieved a certain level of recognition for themselves, for various reasons, but XT597 has greater claims to fame than most. As the first of the pre-production airframes and the workhorse of the development program of the UK Phantom fleet, it performed vital trials and testing work both in the USA and at home. It also holds the distinction of being the last of the UK Phantoms to fly, therefore bookending the long and distinguished career of the type in service. Truly a historic aircraft and a unique and significant part of British aviation heritage.
Although it was built under the production number 1611, XT597 was carrying its new British serial when it was first flown on 1st of November 1966. XT597 was only the third F-4K built (following on from the construction and testing of the two prototypes, XT595 and XT596) and was the first of two pre-production aircraft, thereby marking the beginning of its many achievements. In accordance with its intended role as a trials and test aircraft, XT597 was fitted out with a unique and extensive instrumentation suite, capable of measuring the stresses and loads on the aircraft as it flew catapult launches and arrested recoveries, during sea trials aboard the USS Coral Sea and USS John F Kennedy.
After crossing the Atlantic at the end of the initial testing programme in 1970, XT597 was delivered to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at Boscombe Down, to continue its role as a trials and development aircraft. This also included a period at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Bedford, being used to develop the steam catapult for the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers. During its role as a testbed aircraft at A&AEE, XT597 performed many different functions- it was used as a chase plane during the testing of other aircraft and weapon systems, was involved in developing high-speed, low-level reconnaissance equipment, served as a high-speed camera ship and tested the carriage and release of many variations of external stores. History shows that it was destined to spend its entire service life in trails and development work, never being assigned to an operational or training Squadron of either the FAA or RAF, making it unique in the UK Phantom inventory. A truly remarkable life for any aircraft but XT597 had one last card to play- as the gradual drawdown of the UK’s F-4 fleet reached its end in the early 1990s, it was the very last Spey powered Phantom to fly, on the 28th January 1994, thus bringing to an end a career that bookended the history of the UK’s association with the mighty Phantom.
Following retirement and no longer required by A&AEE, XT597 was loaned by the Ministry of Defence to the Boscombe Down Aviation Collection museum and was included in their display of types with associations with the airfield. The aircraft remained as part of the collection until 2012 when BDAC had to relocate to smaller premises, which meant that XT597 came up for disposal. The aircraft was purchased by UK brokers Everett Aero and was carefully dismantled and moved to their facility at the former RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk, where it was offered for further sale. However, despite attracting much interest, it remained unsold and languished outside for many years.
Above- XT597 during 2019, stored outdoors at Everett Aero, Suffolk
The British Phantom Aviation Group, meanwhile, had their hands full with XV582 but had been fully aware of this other significant aircraft, sitting in Suffolk awaiting a new future. A team from the BPAG had inspected XT597 during 2017 on behalf of a private buyer, to assess its condition and had reported back that the aircraft was worthy of preservation. When the ‘Black Mike’ project came to an end in November 2018 and the Group turned its attention to other potential projects, XT597 once again entered the frame. The 2017 visit had been on behalf of BPAG management member Mark Abbott, who had grown up around Phantoms and was looking to purchase an aircraft to restore. The unique status of XT597 had convinced him that it was worth saving and in September 2019 he became XT597’s proud new owner. The aircraft was duly dismantled by the team from Everett Aero and only a few weeks after being acquired, XT597 was soon on the move once more. Setting off at first light on 2nd October 2019 a convoy of specialist aircraft movers delivered the aircraft to a temporary new home at an airfield in the UK Midlands to await further transportation onwards to Cotswold Airport (formerly RAF Kemble), where the BPAG are creating purpose-built workshops and display facilities to accommodate their aircraft, which will eventually allow visitors to view the progress of the restoration projects and offer access to this most unusual example of the UK Phantom fleet.