THE STATE OF RESTORATION: AN INSIDE STORY
THE STATE OF RESTORATION: AN INSIDE STORY
WORDS BY ROSS SHARP
I happen to live in Massachusetts, but my work with The People’s Mosquito sees me make regular trips back ‘across the Pond’ to further our efforts to bring a de Havilland Mosquito back to life. In the last ten years or so, I have noted big changes in the aircraft preservation/restoration scene on both sides of the Atlantic. The British Aircraft Preservation Council’s famous ‘Stopping the Rot’ series of symposiums spread advanced aircraft preservation techniques throughout the movement and along with the Historic Aircraft Association has dramatically boosted the number of aircraft both in preservation, and in active flight status. The EAA on the other side of the Pond also does excellent work. New engineering materials (when approved by the CAA and/or the FAA), and other developments are seeing wrecked and neglected airframes brought back to life, some of which would have been thought ‘unrestorable’ a couple of decades ago.
What this means is that engineers can now make a living in this highly specialised field, and are often encouraged to found niche restoration companies, many of which are focused on just one aircraft type. Hawker Restorations specialise in the Hawker Hurricane, and Avspecs of New Zealand have become known for work on the de Havilland Mosquito, although both companies will undertake work on other types as and when they can.
I am constantly astonished at the types of aircraft that I see at UK airshows. In my youth, if someone told me that I would see a Bristol Blenheim fly, or a Hawker Demon or Nimrod, I would have laughed. It is not just the rarity factor, it can also be the sheer quantity of aircraft involved. A formation of four classic Hawker biplanes from the 1930s is now quite achievable, and I have photographic proof of 17 Spitfires/Seafires in the air at the same time! The restoration of a Mk.I Spitfire to flight status is now almost commonplace.
I’d like to focus, if I may, on some organisations and individual cases on both sides of the Atlantic to illustrate the changing restoration scene.
Starting in the USA, the single, most significant development this year has been the first flight of ‘Doc’, the Wichita-based Boeing B-29 Superfortress, ‘469972’. First dragged out of the USN China Lake bombing range more than 16 years ago, where it had been a target, this has been a mammoth restoration effort in every sense of the word. Tony Mazzolini, who had led the rescue mission, soon realised that the work involved was so complex that a whole new organisation would be needed. Consequently, a 501c3 corporation called ‘Doc’s Friends’, led by the former CEO of Spirit Aerosystems, Jeff Turner, was formed. ‘Doc’s’ initial flight was relatively short, but after a few minor tweaks, the B-29 took off again around 10am on Saturday, October 1st from McConnell AFB on its second flight, which was worry-free and lasted 52 minutes. The world’s population of flying B-29s just doubled, with the Commemorative Air Force’s ‘FiFi’ now being joined by ‘Doc’!
The Collings Foundation have established an enviable reputation in the field of transport restoration and ‘living history’. Their Stow, Massachusetts headquarters and museum is not far away from where I live, and houses a fine selection of their many aircraft, AFVs and cars and plays host to a series of events each year, culminating in the ‘Battle for the Airfield’, an excellent re-enactment of a WWII battle. However, the Foundation are perhaps even better known for their ‘Wings of Freedom’ national tour around the USA with a mix of bomber and fighter aircraft undertaking a great educational and commemorative role.
I recently caught up with them at Worcester Regional Airport, Massachusetts, when the Tour landed with their B-24, B-25 and B-17 accompanied by ‘Toulouse Nuts’, a very rare TP-51D (this is not a two-seat conversion, it is a genuine trainer with full rear cockpit). As is typical with Collings, ‘Toulouse Nuts’ was the subject of a ‘ground up’ restoration over many tens of thousands of hours, and this was reflected in the fact that it took the Grand Champion Award at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2016. The next major project for the Foundation is a P-38 Lightning, recently acquired from the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. This aircraft, “44-53186”, was originally built as an F-5G-6-LO, photo reconnaissance machine, which eventually had a ‘fighter nose’ grafted on in 1982, appearing as a P-38L-5-LO. This aircraft had been previously owned by Doug Arnold, and it flew for a time in the UK However, following its acquisition by Evergreen, and its re-export to the USA, it was exhibited at their museum until bought by the Collings Foundation. The Foundation has thus filled a ‘gap’ in their fighter line, and I expect them to produce another superbly-restored aircraft in due course.
The situation in the UK offers an even more diverse pattern of restorations. One of the most exciting is that involving an example of the Royal Air Force’s former WWII standard heavy bomber, the Avro Lancaster.
By the end of WWII, the Avro Lancaster had evolved, and the B. Mk.VII began to flow from the production lines at the Longbridge plant of the sub-contractor Austin Motors in mid-1945. Just as the RAF’s ‘Tiger Force’ was being assembled to go out to the Pacific, the atomic weapons were dropped on Japan – and the war was over. NX611 was built, therefore, just in time to go straight into store at RAF Llandow in Wales, and there she stayed until 1952, when she was purchased by the French Aéronavale, refurbished as a maritime reconnaissance aircraft and used by the French to patrol the Atlantic and the Mediterranean from bases in Brittany and Morocco. Later issued to Escadrille de Servitude 9S in Nouméa, North Caledonia, she was used to range across the wide expanses of the Pacific, on air/sea rescue flights. It was from here that she actually saw action for the only time, bombing land targets during the French war in what was then Indo-China.
About to be scrapped, she was donated by the French authorities to the UK’s Historic Aircraft Preservation Society, and recovered to the UK. However, the high running costs forced the Society to dispose of NX611, and she was eventually sold to Lord Lilford to be displayed on the ‘gate’ at RAF Scampton as a memorial to all the Lancaster aircrew. Meanwhile two very determined brothers, Fred and Harold Panton, who had lost their elder brother Pilot Officer Christopher Panton, a flight engineer, in a Halifax during the RAF’s disastrous Nuremberg raid of 30/31 March 1944, were trying to buy an RAF bomber as a memorial (no less than 108 four-engine bombers were shot down on the Nuremberg raid, in bright moonlight, on a night when heavy contrails formed at an abnormally low altitude making the bomber stream easy to find). At first they tried to buy a Halifax, but were overridden by their father. Finally they managed to come to an arrangement with Lord Lilford. NX611 would stay on the gate at Scampton for 10 years, and then be sold to the brothers.
Photo via author
It has taken since 1983 and thousands upon thousands of man hours for NX611 to reach this stage. She is now the centerpiece of The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, located on the wartime Lancaster base of East Kirkby, Lincolnshire, which the Panton’s purchased specifically to house NX611. Fully capable of a ‘fast taxy’ with the tail off the ground, she offers ‘rides’ to a select few enthusiasts during the season, and is the star of the annual air show held at the museum there, as well as appearing in various film and TV productions.
The Panton family had a vision, to restore ‘Just Jane’ to flight status, not just to honour the memory of their brother, but also the other 55,000 Bomber Command aircrew who lost their lives in WWII; you only had a one in four chance of reaching the end of your first tour of 30 operations. Along with a colleague of mine, I had the great good fortune to visit the LAHC and meet with Fred and his nephew Andrew. They showed us the magnificent flight-worthy Merlin engines and other spares which they were assembling ready to make the final push towards flight status for NX611. I was incredibly impressed by their drive and deep passion to see the project through.
Sadly, Fred has since passed away. He kept working right up until the end. The cause of aircraft preservation has lost a true champion, ever ready to encourage others, and to offer help and assistance. Fred Panton was a true gentleman, and was one of the kindest people I have ever known. I think everyone who met him, liked him – it was impossible not to. My hope is that the LAHC will swiftly continue with their work – estimated to take approximately 18 months – so that we can all see ‘Just Jane’ back where she belongs – in the air.
Oh, and as an aside, when she flies – and I am certain she will – all three flying Lancasters will be different Marks. The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s example is a B. Mk.X, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s PA474 is a B. Mk.I, and ‘Just Jane’ is a B. Mk.VII. Let it be soon!
Photo via author
We have been fortunate in the past few years to see a stream of Spitfires and Hurricanes fully-restored and flying once more in various countries. However, one of the next Hurricanes to fly will be a highly significant one. V7497, a Mk.I, was shot down during the Battle of Britain over Kent; eventually, the remains were recovered and a decision made to restore this piece of history. Originally issued to No 501 (County of Gloucester) Squadron, it was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin III – the first Mk III engine having flown in July, 1938 – and it is this fact which will make the restoration very special. Eye Tech Engineering have undertaken the complex task of rebuilding this Merlin to flight status, and because it comes from so early in the Merlin’s production run, certain modifications have had to be made in order to increase the time between major servicing. The world Hurricane specialists, Hawker Restorations, and their associated company, AJD Engineering are slowly bringing this gem back to life.
I have saved the best for last, I think; however, I must declare an interest, in that I am Director of Engineering & Airframe Compliance for this one! The People’s Mosquito (a Registered Charity, No 1165903) is in the process of restoring an NF.36 nightfighter, RL249. If I might quote from The People’s Mosquito website:
“RL249 was serving with No. 23 Sqn, stationed at RAF Coltishall, when it crash-landed due to engine failure after take-off on 14th February 1949. The aircraft was partly destroyed by fire, and the remains were subsequently – some years later – buried. But the aircraft finished its flying career in a dramatic action which resulted in its pilot being awarded the George Medal.
Photo via author
On the night of February 14th 1949, P/O I. R. (Dickie) Colbourne and his navigator Sgt. W.B. Kirby took off from RAF Coltishall, Norfolk, in Mosquito NF36 night fighter RL249 en route for Holbeach Gunnery Range to carry out a night air-to-ground firing exercise. Both engines failed shortly after take-off, and Colbourne managed to crash-land the Mosquito in a plantation of trees about four miles from the airfield. The aircraft suffered severe damage, immediately catching fire. Severely dazed, Colbourne called out to his navigator. A reply appeared to come from outside.
Colbourne’s legs were trapped, but as the fire intensified, he finally got clear of the aircraft and smothered the flames on his clothing. On failing to find Kirby, Colbourne realised that he must be trapped in the wreckage. Despite his injuries, and knowing the aircraft was loaded with high explosive ammunition, he climbed back into the burning wreckage and found the navigator trapped in the aircraft’s shattered nose.
At this point the aircraft exploded. Although severely burned, Colbourne freed his comrade, dragging him clear and stripping him of his burning clothing. Despite his own severe injuries, he refused to be assisted into a vehicle for transfer to hospital until he was satisfied that Sgt. Kirby was receiving medical attention. Throughout the difficult journey to hospital, he remained conscious and offered encouragement to his navigator. Both men were placed on the “dangerously injured” list, and Kirby died 20 hours later. Colbourne remained in hospital for many months.
For his gallant action that night, Colbourne received the George Medal.”
The remains of RL249 will form the basis for a total restoration, focused on the existing moulds and specialist companies in New Zealand who have already been involved in several other Mosquito restorations. One major change will be that the airframe will be restored as an FB.VI fighter-bomber (carrying the distinctive civil identity, G-FBVI) and not an NF.36, and this will allow other Marks of Mosquito – in many different colour schemes – to be ‘produced’ from time to time. Taking its cue from the Royal Air Force’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, TPM will ring the changes, and see that individuals, actions and battles are commemorated, truly living up to the motto, ‘To Fly – To Educate – To Remember’. Also, The People’s Mosquito will ensure that public access to the completed aircraft is kept at a high level, and that it will be seen by as wide a section of the public as can be arranged.
Photo via author
At this moment, TPM is undertaking a public fund-raising campaign, in order to support the work already being undertaken in New Zealand (and also – later – in the UK), to back up its online sales and the appearance of the TPM stand at major UK airshows. The charity is also actively seeking participation and sponsorship by British companies to enable the timely completion of this iconic British aircraft. The recent establishment of The People’s Mosquito Club – please see our website – allows aviation enthusiasts to view exclusive articles about Mosquitoes, participate in forums and support the project as a whole.
Since the tragic loss of Mosquito T.III RR299, along with its crew, at Barton in 21st July 1996, the British public have been deprived of the sight and sound of one of the most elegant and admired warplanes of WWII. The hunger to see a Mosquito in flight once again gave rise to a unique online conversation between a group of individuals. It is probably the first time that an internet-driven campaign such as this has morphed into an actual restoration project. John Lilley, the Chairman and Managing Director of The People’s Mosquito, and the rest of the Board, feel that this genuine effort to involve the public in the revitalization of an iconic warplane “from day one” is without precedent, and is well-deserving of enthusiastic support.
There we have it, a brief snapshot of some of the major restoration projects on both signs of the pond. I hope to update you on some of these as we move forward.
Ross Sharp is the director of engineering and airframe compliance for The People’s Mosquito. A former Deputy Airshow Coordinator for the Royal Air Force, he is now an airhsow consultant in the United States. The title image is by Ryan Kelly.