It is 30 years ago today since the prototype of the Eurofighter first took to Lancashire’s skies.
Known then as the Experimental Aircraft Programme, it is now the world’s most advanced swing role aircraft, and is still test flown from BAE System’s aerodrome in Warton where it is assembled and delivered to air forces across the globe.
Leon Skorczewski, who was cockpit and avionics systems chief engineer on the programme, has helped write a new book about the early days of the ground-breaking aircraft.
He recalls: “It felt like we were doing things which people had never done before and indeed we were. Forget about 35-hour working weeks, people were eating, drinking and sleeping this programme, it was intense pressure but every week you were seeing something move to the next stage.
“We were at the cutting edge of technology doing things which today we may take for granted but, at that time, we were doing them for the first time.”
Indeed, the EAP boasts six world firsts including being the first aircraft built to be unstable by design, the first co-bonded carbon fibre wings which were glued together rather than riveted, and the first aircraft with a colour display, full glass cockpit.
It also pioneered design techniques for robust, real time software-based systems for flight control, avionics and utility systems.
However, the programme which would deliver the EAP started in the early 1970s when the UK Ministry of Defence issued Air Staff Target 396, a programme to build a replacement for the Jaguar and Harrier aircraft.
Leon explains: “The UK Government had a desire to involve partner companies and this led to a series of study programmes, first with the Germans, then with the Germans and French and finally with the Germans and Italians.
“The last study, known as the Agile Combat Aircraft (ACA), proposed two pre-prototype aircraft and initially had the full support of the German and Italian governments and partner companies.
“By 1983, however, the political desire to widen this out saw the a study called the Future European Fighter Aircraft (FEFA) study set up, involving the UK, Italy, Germany, France and Spain, at which point the Italians and Germans withdrew their support from the ACA.
“But, British Aerospace and its supply chain together with the UK Government decided to continue with a single technology demonstrator together with many of the Italian and German suppliers – this became the Experimental Aircraft Programme.”
The construction of the aircraft largely took place at a development facility at Warton where the front, centre and rear fuselage were assembled.
However, the right-hand wing was manufactured at British Aerospace’s plant in nearby Samlesbury using manufacturing techniques were still exist on today’s Typhoon programme.
The left-hand wing was manufactured by the Italian partner, Alenia, with the foreplanes manufactured at British Aerospace’s sites in Preston and Samlesbury.
The Warton and Samlesbury sites today house key parts of the Typhoon manufacturing operation with the aircraft’s front fuselage built at Samlesbury, before being shipped to Warton where they are married up with other parts from the four-nation jet- Eurofighter consortium.
Eurofighter is the consortium which manufactures and develops Typhoon and includes Germany, Italy and Spain alongside the UK.
It was April 1986 when British Aerospace’s employees got their first look at the aircraft, but they would have to wait until August 8 when then-executive director of flight operations, Dave Eagles, took it to 30,000ft and reached speeds of Mach 1.1 on its maiden flight.
Just three weeks later, it appeared at the Farnborough Air Show and reached speeds of Mach 2.0, twice the speed of sound, and flew at 35 degree angles of attack, impressive for even a modern fighter.
By the time of the renowned Paris Air Show the following year the EAP took off for its landmark 100th flight.
It was May 1, 1991 that the EAP performed its 259th and final test sortie, retiring with more than 195 flying hours on the clock.
Initially the prototype plane remained at Warton before finding a home at Loughborough University, where it was used to show students the components of a combat aircraft.
Only one of the EAP was ever made with a length of 48ft and a wingspan of 38ft 7ins.
Today it is based in the RAF Museum at RAF Cosford, in Shropshire, where its ground-breaking achievements have formed the centrepiece of a major attraction since 2014.
In Lancashire, BAE Systems is again involved in a technology demonstrator programme, Taranis, which has been developed to test unmanned aircraft technologies which will inform decisions taken by the UK on the future of its flying fleet.
Looking back at his days on EAP, Leon believes there are many similarities in what the company is delivering today.
He explains: “They are very similar in as much as they are research programmes designed to test technology to get an aircraft in the air, but they are programmes from very different eras.
“I imagine that, exactly as we were doing during our days on E.A.P, the company is exploring new materials, new sensors and new ways of working for the first time.”
l ‘The Experimental Aircraft Programme - Britain’s Last Manned Aircraft Demonstrator’ is available at Waterstone’s Preston, Plackitt & Booth in Lytham St Annes and online at amazon.co.uk.