The Port of Larne took delivery of a highly unusual cargo this week – as a legendary jet fighter made its way “back home”.
The arrival of the F4 Phantom, a supersonic relic of the Cold War era, marked the final leg of a journey which began at an old RAF base in Leuchars, Scotland.
Aircraft enthusiasts from the Ulster Aviation Society (UAS) purchased the US-built war machine at a cost of £31,000, with the intention of adding it to their 30-strong collection housed in the old Maze prison site near Lisburn.
For months, teams of determined volunteers have been busy dismantling the jet, in preparation for its long journey.
And at around 9.30am on Monday (June 15), the 63-feet long, 10-tonne fuselage arrived by ferry in Larne, where it was hoisted onto a 16-wheeler lorry and transported to its final destination.
The huge wing section, about four tonnes in weight, will follow at a later date. Once mated again with its fuselage, the Phantom will be one of the largest and most impressive aircraft in the Society’s collection.
“We’ve had seven working parties rotating through Scotland since the dismantling began over the winter,” said UAS chairman Ray Burrows.
“It’s been a difficult job, because none of the team had faced that kind of challenge before. There were hundreds of bolts of different kinds and lynch-pins to remove,” he added.
The aircraft had been outside for 25 years, with the weather fusing or corroding many of the connectors.
“It was like pealing an onion,” Mr Burrows said. “We’d get one panel off and find another bunch of bolts under it, and another bunch under the next panel.
“It was lot of hard work before we finally arrived at the ten bolts which held the one-piece wing to the fuselage.”
Still, he admitted, the aircraft was in “fabulous shape — 99.9 percent of it in great condition”.
In a sense, the Phantom is coming home to the people who cared for it, said Mr Burrows.
“That’s because every Phantom of the RAF and the Royal Navy came to RAF Aldergrove at one time or another for repairs, re-painting or upgrading by 23 Maintenance Unit in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It kept a lot of people here gain-fully employed.”
More than 5,000 Phantoms were produced by the McDonnell-Douglas company in America from 1960 to 1979; it became a symbol of western air power in services throughout the world.
“Our particular Phantom (XT864) flew for 21 years on operations with both the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Air Force, but it was retired in 1989 to serve gate guard duty,” said Mr Burrows.
Potential visitors to the UAS can arrange a group tour: www.ulsteraviationsociety.org. By telephone, the contact numbers are 07974 502319 or 02890 480747.