Introducing P-47D Thunderbolt 'Nellie'
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P-47 Thunderbolt returns to UK airshow scene

P-47 Thunderbolt returns to UK airshow scene

With the recent import of Republic P-47D Thunderbolt (G-THUN) from the USA, the UK historic aircraft and airshow scene once again boasts an airworthy ‘Jug’.

The Thunderbolt’s return plugs an important gap in the airworthy representation of a type with great significance to the UK and Europe. Thunderbolts played a key role in the European Theatre of Operations, ranging across Europe and the Mediterranean with the US 8th, 9th and 15th Air Forces and latterly spearheading the Allied advance into Germany.

The Thunderbolt was a popular airshow act when operated by The Fighter Collection in the markings of 78th Fighter Group machine No Guts – No Glory! Manufactured in 1945 with serial number 45-49192, the aircraft arrived too late to see active service and was subsequently allocated to Air Training Command. Having been removed from active service and placed into storage at Tinker AFB, OK the P-47 was later restored at Hensley Field, TX and was one of a cache of 25 Thunderbolts sold to the Peruvian Air Force in 1953, with whom it served as a fighter and trainer. After withdrawal from service the P-47 was stored alongside several other Thunderbolts at Piura Air Base until 1969 when Ed Jurist recovered it among a batch of six Thunderbolts and a large amount of spares, returning it to the USA in the same year.

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The aircraft was flying by mid-1971 and passed through several owners until suffering a crash on take-off in February 1980. Thereafter, Jon Ward aquired the wreck and a host of spares as a project and a restoration began, changing hands twice until ending up with The Fighter Collection in 1984. The partially completed restoration project moved to Fighter Rebuilders at Chino, CA and concluded in August 1985 with the Jug’s return to flight. The P-47 was shipped to the UK and arrived at Duxford in early 1986, with the fighter becoming very active on the European airshow circuit until it was sold to Claire Aviation Inc in 2006, returning once more to the USA.

In early 2018 Fighter Aviation Engineering Ltd purchased the P-47D, which was re-registered as G-THUN, shipped to the UK and unpacked from its shipping container at Sywell on 14 April. Reassembly commenced and just 12 days later [on 26 April] the Thunderbolt re-emerged from the Air Leasing hangar resplendent in a new paint scheme representing F4-J Nellie of the 492nd Fighter Squadron, 48th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force. After successful engine runs and taxi tests, G-THUN took to UK skies again on 4 May.

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The 48th was moved to the UK in March 1944 and issued P-47 Thunderbolts, with an intensive period of training honing the pilots’ fighter-bomber skills on their new mounts. Thrust into action in April, the units took part in the air campaign preceding Operation Overlord with a mixture of fighter sweeps, escort and ground attack missions. On 6 June itself, the 48th struck bridges and German gun emplacements in Normandy in support of the landings. In mid-June the unit moved into France to support the Allied advance, offering close air support during Operation Cobra, the breakout in Saint-Lô and the drive across France.

The group remained at the spearhead of Allied activity on the western front, supporting Operation Market Garden in September 1944. Three months hence the 48th flew relentlessly in support of troops during the Battle of the Bulge, after which the unit received its third citation (this time issued by the Belgian government) for their co-operation with Allied armies, before finally finishing the war in Germany itself. The 9th Air Force has often been under-represented in the present day UK historic scene, and Nellie’s arrival in 48th Fighter Group markings is a welcome addition.

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G-THUN returned to its former base at Duxford – an airfield with close ties to P-47s and this particular airframe – on 5 May. Its first event was a visit to RAF Lakenheath, home of the present day 48th Fighter Wing, for a symbolic meeting of old and new.  There the P-47 was positioned on the ground and flanked by F-15C Eagle and F-15E Strike Eagles; the visit was arranged to allow the 48th’s airmen to see their unit’s heritage first-hand.  A photoshoot was staged to raise funds for the Air Force Assistance Fund, which provides support to aircrew and their families when in need.  The P-47 and F-15s acted as a backdrop for some more informal photographs of the airmen and their families. The event, and the coming together of elements of civilian and military aviation, reaffirmed the bond between the UK and the USAF that has endured since the Second World War and the ‘Friendly Invasion’ of US forces in East Anglia.

The Thunderbolt will be active on the airshow circuit this summer and is currently scheduled to display at the Midlands Air Festival at Ragley Hall, Duxford’s Air Festival, the RAF Cosford RAF100 airshow (static) and Duxford’s Flying Legends in July. The P-47 is available for air displays via Ultimate Warbird Flights. Nellie is sure to be a firm favourite wherever she goes!

The VAE would like to thank the Centre of Aviation Photography (COAP) and RAF Lakenheath.