ITV’s “Strike Force”

This article was originally published in March 2015 however due to the interest many people had in it I got in contact with one of the lead actors of the program, Tim Bentinck, and asked him if he would provide some more behind the scenes information. He kindly agreed and so I have reuploaded it including Tim’s contribution which you can find below.


In the early 1990s, Yorkshire Television began negotiations with the RAF to produce a TV movie which would serve as a pilot (no pun intended) for a future series. At the time the series Soldier, Soldier was doing wonders for the British Army’s recruitment and PR image as well as being a high ratings winner for ITV. Both the RAF and ITV hoped to repeat this success with Strike Force.

The story revolved around the formation of an elite team of Tornado F.3 aircrews within the fictional No.555 Squadron. At the same time a secondary story concerned an incident involving the loss of a Tornado over Bosnia to a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile and the subsequent covering up by the pilot involved. The show was also meant to deal with attitudes towards women flying fast-jets and the stresses of military service on the crews and their families.

Strike Force aired in 1995 but sadly was not a great success. Interest proved far below what was hoped and consequently the series was never picked up. To date the film is not available on DVD and has disappeared in to ITV’s archives but a few clips have surfaced on the internet in recent years.


The following is an extract from Tim Bentinck’s autobiography – Being David Archer–and other unusual ways of making a living – which is due to be released later this year. It is used in this article with direct permission from him and I would like to thank him for this kind contribution.

I was very nearly a pilot. When I was at school, I imagined my future either doing what my Pa did, advertising, or flying planes. I flew light aircraft with the CCF and got Flight magazine monthly. My favourite reading was about Spitfires and Hurricanes and I seriously considered joining the RAF for a while. The appeal of flying never left though, and when I landed this part, it was as though it had been written by my guardian angel.

Wing Commander Jonathan Raikes was “awesome in the air,” as one of my pilots put it. Bliss. I so nearly blew it though. Having got the job, two weeks before filming I was meeting Judy in a pub in London for my birthday when some bastard smashed a pint beer glass full in my face. I was millimetres away from  being blinded in one eye and my face was cut to bits. I had to go up to Manchester to show the producers the damage. I remember standing in a hotel car park as the two execs peered at my lacerations.

“No, I don’t think we’ll have to re-cast.” Phew, but it meant I spent hours in make-up every morning and was the palest fast jet pilot you’ve ever seen.

The ‘Strike Force’ would be an elite group of Tornado pilots trained to instantly answer the call to scramble anywhere in Europe, based in Cyprus. This pilot episode (yes, we did that joke to death) was about the selection for the team. I was the boss. If the pilot episode was successful it would go to series – like Soldier Soldier in the air, so we were all very keen to make it work. We filmed it on location at RAF Leeming in Yorkshire, and we pilots met up on a train at King’s Cross. We’d clearly all had the same idea – look butch. Leather jackets, shades, stubble and mono-syllabic grunts failed to cover the fact that we were all like excited schoolchildren, let loose with millions of pounds worth of toys.

We were “555 Squadron” and, amazingly, as we wandered around the base in uniform, the real RAF would fire off salutes and call us ‘sir’. One day we were lounging in the mess room and one of our number, a delicate soul, came in flapping and saying,

“Oh my God I’ve just been saluted!”

We, butch as hell and Ray-banned to the nines, said,

“Yes, and what did you do?”

“I went Aaaaaaaaahhahaahahhaaaa!!!”

“Nooooooo!”

We very nearly all died. We were filming in a stationary Tornado just off the main runway with me fully togged up in the pilot’s seat, when the Queen’s flight took off in formation for a fly-past over Buckingham Palace. The leading plane got a sudden complete engine failure, and in order to miss him, the plane behind pulled up and to the left, heading straight for us. Someone was filming it on a camcorder and when we looked back at the footage, its wing can’t have missed us by more than a foot. “Not ideal,” as they say in the forces.

I was invited to follow the real Wing Commander around on his duties, to get the style of the man and see how it was really done. We went into the ‘hard’ bomb-proof shelter for a briefing and instead of introducing me as “the actor prat who’s pretending to be me,” he said, “this is Wing Commander Raikes, O.C. 555 Squadron”. I left the briefing walking on air. He offered to take me up for a flight but the insurance wouldn’t cover it. I’d practiced for hours at home on a Tornado computer game, but when it came to the simple matter of shooting down a Russian MIG with cannon on the training sim – a computer in an office – I was dead meat within seconds. However I did get to actually land the full size simulator – real cockpit, full G-kit and helmet, talking to the ops room, they talked me down – and I didn’t crash it, which made it easier to play the part.

It didn’t go to series. The problem with pilot episodes like these is they try to cram too much in. The RAF wanted it to be a recruiting film, and kept changing the lines to make it accurate but dull, and the writer wanted to fit everyone’s back story into an hour, so there were about four storylines going on at the same time. The result was laudable but messy, the flying shots were great and it would have got better – good actors and great potential. We heard that the caterers had been booked for Cyprus, but that was it, it was broadcast but never picked up.

Incredibly, ITV would almost repeat history when it tried to make a drama about life aboard a Royal Navy destroyer in 2004 called Making Waves which suffered a similar fate.

 

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Update on the restoration of Meteor NF.14 WS788

Graham Buckle provides an update of the project to restore Meteor NF.14 WS788. If you missed the interview back in April where Graham gives more of an introduction to the project you can view it here.

All photos courtesy of Graham Buckle. For more images of the aircraft as the project has unfolded you can visit the project’s Facebook page.


It’s been a busy year for us on the Meteor team. Since our last update we have been on one spares recovery mission, and done a massive amount of work to return 788 to her former glory. The team now numbers 4, with the addition of Andy Abbott. We have also become a little more ambitious regarding how far we are going to restore the jet, and have discovered that as we work through her and learn her systems the project to bring her back to life is less daunting than it originally seemed…

Firstly, the bigger jobs. Earlier this year we refitted the nose cone. This returned the jet back to her unmistakable profile! Then, after recruiting extra hands, we spent a day refitting the wings to the jet, and while we were at it we persuaded the belly tank off finally.

armstrong-whitworth-gloster-meteor-nf-14-ws788-yorkshire-night-fighter

So we now had a jet that was the correct shape. But she was still a dead, empty shell, missing many parts vital to us if we are ever going to return her to life. And it’s not like you can just pop to Halfords to get NF.14 bits off the shelf…

Word came to us via the editor of Flypast Magazine, Chris Gilson, that a Meteor F.8 was still extant on the army firing range at Sennybridge, Powys. I will be honest, we were sceptical that such an old aircraft would still be there, and in anything like usable condition. There was also the small matter of would we be allowed access to a live firing range…? I set Rich on with the task of making contact with Sennybridge, firstly to ascertain if the aircraft was still there, and secondly to see if it was worthwhile us paying it a visit.

The army could not have been more helpful, the range commander even going to the trouble of sending a man out to photograph the aircraft so we could see if there was anything on the jet worth having prior to making the long trek to South Wales from Yorkshire. And indeed there was! Despite it having been on a Welsh hillside since 1966, and shot at repeatedly by squaddies, there was a trove of parts on that jet. So on a wet, windy day, there we were on a Welsh hillside questioning our sanity in horizontal rain retrieving parts from the remains of Meteor F.8 VZ568! I should say at this point, some of you will be wondering why we were interested in F.8 parts when our jet is an NF.14? Well the 2 jets share the same centre section, rear fuselage, tail, and many systems and cockpit parts. Only the outer wings and nose are really different in terms of the airframe.

After a day’s pillaging we came away with a Transit van full of invaluable parts. We still owe a massive thank you to the staff at Sennybridge for all their help! Sadly the jet’s fuel tank was beyond saving; we would really have loved to retrieve that but someone had blasted a great hole in the top of it which could only be seen once you climbed up on the wing of the jet. We did gather the elevator layshaft, upper airbrake assemblies, much of the aileron control system, and myriad smaller parts though. Even the last gauge left in 568’s cockpit, the flap indicator, was salvaged. It is now restored, working, and fitted in 788’s cockpit replacing the U/S scruffy item that was fitted.

armstrong-whitworth-gloster-meteor-nf-14-ws788-yorkshire-night-fighter-2Once the jet was back in one piece, we could start working through her systematically to see what we had and what we still required. For a jet retired in 1966, she is in many ways surprisingly complete. Let me take you through the jet as she stands… The front cockpit is all there, even our gunsight which was feared lost has been rediscovered, restored, and is now ready to reunite with the aircraft. The rear cockpit presents somewhat of a challenge. We are restoring the jet to NF(T).14 spec, as this is what she spent most of her service life as. Unfortunately details on the rear cockpit fit of the nav trainer NF’s is sketchy to say the least. But we are working on that! Working back down the fuselage, the main fuel tank is missing, and here in the fuel tank bay we encounter the first major problem. All the aircraft’s wiring loom is routed through this bay, and to save time when she has been dismantled to move by road the RAF ‘Crash and Smash’ teams have simply chopped through the wiring. So we have all the loom at the front of the bay, and again at the back of the bay into the rear fuselage, to rejoin. This will be a long, painstaking job. Any damaged wiring found during this process will of course be replaced.

The same applies to the loom where it leaves the fuselage at the wing roots. In addition, all the hydraulic jointing pipes in this section will need replacing too, as they are all missing.

Back to the fuselage, the main electrical distribution board on the back wall of the radio bay is surprisingly intact. Even the jet’s 3 main 60A fuses are still present!

In the radio bay itself, all the racking for the radio gear is present. All the wiring is too, and the plugs are all still wrapped in the protective coverings applied to them by some diligent Liney after the jet flew into Kemble for long term storage in 1966. These have done their job brilliantly; thank you, diligent Liney!

The controls are a different matter. For some reason the aileron control rods in the wing leading edges have been removed, however between a stash of new rod and the fixtures and fittings obtained off the Sennybridge Meteor, we have nearly all the components we need to replace these.

Elevator control rods have also disappeared for some reason, as had 788’s layshaft. Back to the radio bay the elevators are controlled by rods. In the radio bay the layshaft converts the rod input to cables, which then run to the tail then up to the elevators. We now have the rods, the layshaft, and just need the cables and we are there.

The rudder controls are cable all the way from the pedals to the tail. Again, ‘Crash and Smash’ elected to cut these, so the rudder system will need a lot of attention to get it functional again.

armstrong-whitworth-gloster-meteor-nf-14-ws788-yorkshire-night-fighter-3So electrically we know what work there is to do, as indeed we do hydraulically. We are on top of things as regards returning the controls to working order too. Work this year has mainly focused on the airframe itself. The biggest enemy of an aircraft living outdoors is of course corrosion. Ours has had her fair share but we are working through correcting this. We have so far only found one panel which is too badly corroded to be saved, a fillet panel in the port undercarriage bay. One of the main undercarriage doors was in a sad way too, but we have replaced this with a brand new unissued item which we were very kindly donated. Much of the corrosion under the centre section has been dealt with too, the majority of this by Ali. I have been working through the myriad access hatches and panels on the jet, removing screws and fastenings which have not been undone for 50 years or so. As I am sure you can imagine, they frequently aren’t all that keen to undo, so the drill is often the weapon of choice.

One curve ball the jet has thrown at us which has only come to light over the last couple of weeks is the fact that 788’s outer wings aren’t actually hers! They are in fact off an NF.12, the only big difference being that the 14 has a second set of flaps between the engine nacelle and the aileron which the 12 does not. Where these wings came from, and why, is currently a mystery, but I hope to find a serial number pencilled inside one of the access panels which will hopefully shed some light on the mystery. The wings are very much a hotch-potch; while the centre section is 788’s, the outer wings and one leading edge section are NF.12, another leading edge section is NF.11, and one wingtip light is off NF.14 WS809! So we have a Meteor NF(Mongrel).14…

One thing I was never good at when I was at school was doing my homework. But homework is a thing I enjoy on the jet! We all like to take a bit of the aircraft home to work on when we have an idle few minutes; so far I have restored the elevator layshaft, instrument panel, gunsight, cockpit access step, downward ident light, Gee rack and loads of other small bits at home. Rich has the GGS tray at home he is working on, but the most important job he is working on away from the jet is manufacturing the new wooden intake rings. These are coming on wonderfully; he brought one a few weeks ago to test fit, and the difference they make to the jet is amazing.

So, 788 is in a lot better position than she was this time last year. If the 3 substantial parts donations we have been offered come to pass, this time next year could see 788 sporting fully functional flight control, electrical and hydraulic systems, a fuel tank, a shiny new 1ANS paint scheme… and a pair of engines.

Watch this space…