'Black Mike'

It is safe to say, that due to its record setting achievements and its unique colour scheme, XV582 ‘Black Mike’ could be one of the most famous aircraft that the Royal Air Force have ever flown. There is also much support for the claim that it is the second most famous Phantom in the world. All of which makes it surprising to learn that the aircraft was virtually abandoned by the RAF when they vacated the base at Leuchars, Scotland in 2015 and left it behind. It was only due to a heroic effort by the British Phantom Aviation Group that XV582 escaped the scrapman’s axe.

This iconic aircraft made its first flight from McDonnell Douglas’ facility at Lambert Field in St Louis, USA on 11th January 1969 and was one of the twenty FG.1/F-4K that never served with the Royal Navy, instead entering service with the RAF. It was delivered in May of that year and in contrast to most other UK Phantoms, spent the whole of its service life at the same airfield and in a career spanning over twenty years, was only used by three squadrons.

XV582 spent most of its time between 1969 and 1989 in the hands of 43 Sqn, sporting the tail code F, mainly performing Northern QRA duties from RAF Leuchars. The classic grey/green camouflage paint scheme eventually gave way to standard air defence grey during the late 1970’s and by 1988 the aircraft had been recoded AF and was approaching the milestone of 5000 total flight hours. Coincidentally, around this time, the CO of 43 Sqn, Wing Commander John Brady, was considering proposals to mark the end of 43 Sqn Phantom operations (as it was scheduled to soon disband and re-form on the Tornado F.3) as well as to generate some positive PR for the unit and the RAF. Various plans were rejected, including an attempt to fly to the North Pole, before it was realised that no air speed record existed between the two furthest points in the mainland United Kingdom- John O’ Groats in northern Scotland and Land’s End at the southern extremity of Cornwall. An attempt at setting a world record time between the two locations was swiftly approved and XV582, which would pass the 5000 hour landmark during the flight, was chosen as the aircraft to partake.

The flight took place on 24th February 1988, with Wing Commander John Brady in the front seat and Flight Lieutenant Michael Pugh as navigator and the aircraft set a time of 46 minutes and 44 seconds for the course, at an average speed of over 772mph. This included short supersonic legs over the Irish Sea and Bristol Channel, as UK airspace regulations forbids supersonic speeds over land or near areas at risk of sonic boom, but it established a record, ratified by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, that still stands today.

Above- Wg Cdr John Brady and Flt Lt Michael Pugh-Davis pose for a publicity shot on the eve of the speed run and XV582 en route to John O’Groats on the morning of the run.

43 Sqn duly disbanded in July 1989 and all its aircraft were transferred to 111 Sqn, also based at Leuchars, where XV582 was recoded as M and initially retained its standard air defence grey colour scheme, although not for long. 111 had their own plans in development, to celebrate both the Phantom in service and to acknowledge the history of the Squadron’s display team ‘The Black Arrows’ who had, through the 1950s and early 1960s, operated a fleet of Hawker Hunters finished in a special all-black paint scheme. As a tribute to this team and its achievements, it was decided that one of 111’s aircraft would be refinished in a similar all over gloss black and the record setting XV582 would eventually be the one selected.

Making its public debut at the Battle Of Britain Airshow at Leuchars in September 1989, the aircraft swiftly became known as ‘Black Mike’ and although the original intention was for a one-off static appearance in the special colour, the popularity and enormous interest the aircraft had caused prompted a re-think. With only around 50 flying hours left on the airframe and with 111 Sqn due to follow 43 Sqn’s example and re-equip with the Tornado F.3, XV582 was passed on to 228OCU (also at Leuchars) who would operate it as a display aircraft for what was left of its flying life, during the next year’s airshow season. In the hands of Flt Lt Gordon Moulds, a flight instructor with 228OCU, the aircraft made a string of successful appearances throughout the summer of 1990, before taking its final flight on 22nd September and retiring to a quieter life as a static airframe outside the 111 Sqn offices at RAF Leuchars.

As the years passed ‘Black Mike’ would return to the safety of a hardened aircraft shelter at Leuchars, to be used as a ground instructional airframe as well as being wheeled out for its regular static appearance at the annual airshow. However, as part of the 2010 Strategic Defence Review, it was announced that the RAF presence in Scotland was to be consolidated at the base at Lossiemouth and that Leuchars was to be handed over to the Army in 2015. This left the 2013 airshow as the final public event at the base and XV582’s last appearance on its home soil.

As the movement of RAF assets from Leuchars gathered pace in the run up to 2015, the UK MOD put a number of unwanted items up for public disposal. This included three Phantoms- XT864, XV586 and XV582 ‘Black Mike’. With the former two finding homes at the Ulster Aviation Society and RNAS Yeovilton respectively, by late 2014 ‘Black Mike’ was still without a new owner and was in danger of falling into the hands of the scrapman. It was at this point that the British Phantom Aviation Group decided to act. Launching the ‘Save Black Mike’ campaign the group drew attention to the aircraft’s plight and attempted to fundraise the amount required to purchase it but was unfortunately unsuccessful. However, after the intervention of a private individual, who obtained it on the group’s behalf, the aircraft was secured and the BPAG could begin planning for its future.

A place for the aircraft was found as part of the Cold War Jets Collection at Bruntingthorpe, Leicestershire and working whenever access was granted and volunteers were available, the British Phantom Aviation Group began disassembly of the aircraft during the autumn of 2016. During a major engineering effort, that lasted around eleven months and was undertaken with very little original servicing equipment, the BPAG achieved the complex tasks of removing- among other components- the tail assembly, ailerons, outer wing and a seemingly endless array of minor brackets and sub systems that crossed the wing/fuselage boundary. A major part of the operation was extracting the engines, which was only made possible by the fabrication of a custom designed removal kit, assembled in the engineering shop of a theme park in South Wales. Despite the myriad challenges, the disassembly reached its final phase in summer 2017 and with the aircraft ready for the crucial task of separating the fuselage from the main wing spar, the plan for the future was suddenly changed.

Above- BPAG volunteers busy with the disassembly process at RAF Leuchars during 2016.

2018 was the 100th Anniversary of the Royal Air Force and the annual RAF Cosford Airshow had been designated to be one of the official celebrations of the centenary. One of the plans of the airshow committee was a retrospective static display of historic aircraft types and XV582 ‘Black Mike’ was offered the chance to represent the F-4 Phantom in the line up. But this offer also came with a generous bonus. The aircraft could be housed in a hangar at RAF Cosford, with working facilities included, from the time the aircraft arrived until the airshow day in June 2018. It was an opportunity that was just too good to turn down. So, instead of heading to Leicestershire, on 25th October 2017, a convoy of vehicles left Leuchars carrying ‘Black Mike’ the 350 miles to the West Midlands, the first time that the aircraft had left the base since 1990. Due to a combination of being the first of the guest aircraft to reach Cosford and its history and achievements in service ‘Black Mike’ aroused considerable interest on its arrival. Coverage on national television and in print media was only the start of a long PR campaign around the aircraft that boosted its profile considerably over the coming months.

Firstly though, the BPAG engineering team had to reverse the work they had just completed in order to reassemble the aircraft ready for display. With the experience gained at Leuchars and the facilities and support of RAF Cosford, the majority of this process was complete by the end of Jan 2018. Further refinements included a canopy refit, the addition of the original reheat cans and nozzles and temporary replacement of many missing cockpit components from private stocks. The BPAG and XV582 also celebrated both the 30th Anniversary of the John ‘O’ Groats- Lands End speed run and the 60th Anniversary of the F-4 Phantom during the early part of the year and XV582 was also the major attraction at two enthusiast photoshoots during the spring. The focus of efforts, however, was the 2018 airshow which took place in early June under gorgeous summer sunshine. With the event sold out well in advance, 60,000 visitors enjoyed five hours of flying and a unique ground display featuring over 100 aircraft, including many rarities from the RAF Museum collection. XV582 was the undoubted star of the static, standing at pride of place in the QRA line up, flanked by examples of other air defence aircraft down the ages including the Gloster Meteor, Hawker Hunter, English Electric Lightning and the Panavia Tornado.

The reaction to ‘Black Mike’ from both attendees of the show and the enthusiasts elsewhere was overwhelmingly positive, with comments ranging from “fantastic effort” and “stunning” to “best looking aircraft on the field” and “the star of the show”. Three years of effort by the British Phantom Aviation Group had brought a unique piece of the UK’s aviation heritage back to the public, at a landmark event in an anniversary year, despite all the problems and complications posed by working under difficult geographic circumstances, to a meagre budget and with very little of the kind of support available to groundcrews during the aircraft’s time in service. Dozens of volunteers had contributed their time, knowledge and skills, sometimes at great personal expense, out of sheer love for the aircraft and with a willingness to see the project succeed. The attention the aircraft received during its time at Cosford, and the great fondness for the F-4 Phantom type generally shown by the aviation community, proved that the decision to rescue XV582, despite all the obstacles, was a vital and worthwhile contribution to preserving an important part of the history of the RAF, as well as being a tribute to the brave men and women who stood in defence of the UK during some very dark times.

Above- XV582 ‘Black Mike’ on show to the public at the 2018 RAF Cosford Airshow

*Postscript- XV582 ‘Black Mike’ stayed in storage at RAF Cosford for another four months and was reunited with Wg Cdr John Brady and Ft Lt Mike Pugh-Davies at a private event in August 2018. The aircraft went into the care of its owner later that year and is now on display at the South Wales Aircraft Museum.

Check out our XV582 In Service and XV582 Restoration galleries for more pics.