As RAF Museum Cosford’s Michael Beetham Conservation Centre opens its doors for its open week, we speak to its Manager, Darren Priday, about three World War Two RAF aircraft projects: the restoration of the Vickers Wellington, the rebuild of the recovered wreckage of a Handley Page Hampden and the recently arrived Westland Lysander
The Vickers Wellington
Out of 11,461 aircraft built, the RAF Museum’s Vickers Wellington is one of only two complete examples anywhere in the world.
The twin engine RAF bomber, designed by Vickers Armstrong, was heavily used for the first years of World War Two as part of Bomber Command’s night bombing campaign, until four-engined “heavies” like the Avro Lancaster, replaced them. Yet Wellingtons were in service in various roles – from Coastal Command to airborne radar – until the end of the war and it remains a favourite with aviation fans. Little wonder then that the museum’s award winning Michael Beetham Conservation Centre in Cosford is taking its time conserving it.
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The iconic aircraft has been undergoing work since 2010 to treat small amounts of corrosion and wear to its famous ‘geodetic’ airframe, wings and fuselage, and, admits Conservation Centre manager Darren Priday, the original estimation to get her restored in “five to seven years”, was a little optimistic and she’s been there for “a little bit longer” than they anticipated.
The time is partly down to the work going into the RAF Museum’s centenary programme, which has seen various aircraft come into the centre for assessment as two display halls are redeveloped at the RAF Museum in London for the 2018 anniversary, but says Priday the conservation of historic aircraft is a slow and sometime meticulous business with no small amount of detective work involved.
“There’s no set plan like Boeings and Air Buses that fly around the world and are on a servicing programme of every six years or so,” he explains. “It’s nothing like that with the museum aircraft; it’s what we would say “on condition”. We look after them on public display, and keep them as original for as long as is possible.”
Most of the work on the condition of the Wellington fuselage has now been completed by volunteers who have been consolidating the metal air frame. The rear turret is currently off the aircraft and sitting next to the back end and the forward one is still unfitted.
“At some point in her career the forward turret was taken off and then another one was put back on,” says Priday, “so it’s something that we need to look into and speak to the Museum about exactly what they want to do with that area.”
These alterations around the turret also point to one of the reasons why the Wellington survived as a historic aircraft; it was built towards the end of the war in 1944 and in the post war period it was used as a trainer. “It was a T10, the T being for ‘trainer’,” says Priday, “we like to keep it nice and simple in the aircraft trade.”
At the very end of its flying life, in the post war years, the aircraft even had a short movie career that included an appearance in the 1955 British war film The Dambusters.
Anyone lucky enough to visit the Conservation Centre now can see the Wellington’s beautiful geodetic structure – a kind of basket weave framework developed by aeronautical engineer and bouncing bomb inventor, Barnes Wallis, for the aircraft industry.
“I suppose the easiest way to think about it is like an airship construction brought into the fixed wing world,” says Priday of the innovative design whose only real limitation was its fabric covering. “You can only take so much flight load and so much air speed on a fabric material. But people who see it often say ‘do you have to put the fabric on?’ because the airframe really is a work of art.
“We always have conservation in mind from the outset,” he adds, “but things like the fabric, if it’s torn and ripped and if the museum want it replaced that’s when we get into doing the restoration side.”
As a result the two outer wings have now been fabric-covered back in the wartime Irish linen and both have been doped and treated. Remnants of the original removed fabric are boxed up and stored in the reserve collection, housed at the former RAF Stafford, which is now an Army base.
“We typically don’t throw anything away,” says Priday, “we find a new home for it somewhere and that normally means our friends up at the reserve collection.”
The intriguing reserve collection provides invaluable support to the conservation process; a recent arrival, the Gloucester Gladiator, was missing some of its original cockpit panel components, which were duly found in the collection in Stafford.
But inside the Wellington aircraft, which has had its floor temporarily removed “for a bit of TLC”, Priday says the aircraft is also 99% intact and original from its flying days, which means stepping inside the fuselage is a very affecting experience.
“When you do go inside, I don’t know, it’s weird to explain,” says Priday, “but you stand there and think, young men in their early twenties were flying these machines in war and it is very moving, very emotional.”
The Handley Page Hampden
Unlike the Wellington, the Handley Page Hampden, P1344, was recovered from a crash site in the Arctic Circle. As a result it is more of a major restoration and rebuild project.
Shot down over Russia in September 1942 with the loss of three crew killed and two captured, it was one of 32 aircraft sent on a hazardous flight (some of it over enemy held territory) to establish a new base in the Kola Peninsular to protect the Arctic convoys. Nine were lost on the flight over, including P1344, which was downed by a Messerschmidt 110 fighter and it remained lost in the trees, snow and ice for 49 years.
After the Berlin Wall came down in the late 1980s aviation enthusiasts from around the world began investigating crash sites in the Old Soviet Union and the remains of the Hampden was found and bought, initially by a Canadian, and then acquired in 1992 by the RAF Museum who have been lovingly restoring and rebuilding it since.
“There was very, very little of the forward fuselage brought back,” admits Priday, “so one of the technicians in the centre offered to build a new one for me to the original drawings. And two years down the line I’ve got a beautiful looking Handley Page Hampden nose section. The rear section attaches to that, and it is mainly original – there have been some structural repairs because again we’re talking about a crashed out plane.”
The new section also includes some original components and it is hoped the work, including perspex glass sections, will be completed sometime in 2018. Once finished it will be one of only two examples and one nose section in existence from a total of 1,430 Hampdens built.
“Hampdens were in Bomber Command from day one, and actually the first two VCs were both to Hampden air crew, so they have got their history,” says Priday.
“They really started to take losses during the daylight raids, so they converted them to a night-time bombing role, then they started getting replaced by the bigger aeroplanes, but they were still out there. I’ve seen log books into the ’43s and ‘44s, mainly on coastal command, carrying out gardening operations which was dropping mines and also meteorological flights – so they survived well into 1944.
“The K was also originally painted on by hand because you can see the brushstrokes… we’ll replicate those brushstrokes”
“We’ve just had the forward fuselage and the rear fuselage painted and there’s a long, thin tail boom to be worked on next so in the next 18 months or so maybe we’ll have a complete fuselage,” adds Priday who now has three out of the four sections of the aeroplane more or less intact. But the approach is careful and considered, and the research is sometimes painstaking. When applying the wartime paint scheme the team have looked into every aspect of the plane’s colour.
“She was PL144 designation K,” he says, “we know the K was in red, but we don’t know the tone of the red, the drawings are not saying it, so at the moment we’ve painted the K an initial colour and then there was a red on top, but until we know the right colour we’re not going to put anything on.
“The K was also originally painted on by hand because you can see the brushstrokes, so again we’ll replicate those brushstrokes, we won’t spray, like the rest of the aeroplane.”
The museum also has some parts of the wings – but not much. “They’ve obviously taken a huge impact – a lot of the force went through the wings,” says Priday, “So I’m not worrying about them just yet.”
Once the fuselage is complete Priday says he can consider how and if they want to manufacture a wing, but conserving a shot down aircraft is a delicate balance in terms of the extent of conservation and restoration.
“It was shot down by a German fighter and has spent nearly 50 years in the wilderness,” he says, “so the conservation of a crashed object like that, where you can see the crash-landing damage, the impact from the trees, it all has to be carefully considered as it can have a huge impact on storytelling.”
And like the Wellington, Priday and his team are also concentrating on the inside of the aeroplane, “we just don’t do external repairs, we build aeroplanes so we build the whole lot”, and although most of the forward fuselage has been re-manufactured, all the instrumentation inside is original World War Two. The pilot seats are from a crashed Hampden and other original parts have been sourced from Canada, where Hampdens were built under licence during the war.
“One thing with long-term projects is you’ve got time on your side, so if you think there is something out there that you need you can just wait and hopefully one day it might turn up.
“We haven’t added in the wiring looms yet, typically really what we need is the whole wing out of the old fuselage to start looking at start points, end points, work out how they would have routed, the thickness of the wires, how many wires there may have been in the loom for other systems. That side of it is really complicated to work out. It’s like having a huge big 3-D jigsaw puzzle with no box lid to look at!”
Another iconic WWII aeroplane to recently make the journey from Hendon is the Westland Lysander III, which is the only surviving Special Duties variant of an aircraft used to ferry Allied SOE agents in and out of enemy occupied Europe.
“I’m not sure how many SOE operations it went on in total, but it certainly was part of one of the squadrons painted in the SOE colours, which as a night-flying aeroplane would have been black.”
To conserve it the team have been taking off the panels, removing all the dust and grime from its years on display.
“Once you get the panels off and you have taken a couple of little components out, you can get in just that much better with the Hoovers and vacuums – just light dusting, not doing too much else really apart from giving her a little clean up. Underneath she’s absolutely beautiful.
“Very much like the other aeroplanes of that era, the metal is in very good condition, the wood can tend to dry a little bit, so we’re looking at injecting some sort of moisture back in, but again she’s got fabric covering which has split in places.”
Now the wings are off, the conservation team have also discovered possibly three different paint schemes.
“There’s certainly a yellow paint scheme, which is possibly from some sort of training role, so really what we need to look at before we start taking the fabric off is what is original to try and see if we date some of the paint on there and look back through the history to see if there is any indication.
“You can also get paints date-tested. If it’s original paint from the 1940s I need to take that to the museum and say, “right, this is what we’ve found, what do you want us to do? How do we go forward?” Like a lot of these projects, there’s quite a bit of detective work initially before you make the decision to start replacing things.
“And sometimes you start looking into these projects and all of a sudden, someone gets in touch and says, “Oh I’ve got this little piece of information about a Lysander, it probably means nothing to you,” and it can be like the final piece of the jigsaw that just opens up lots of avenues and lots of doors.
“So yes, it’s always nice to hear from people, stories, see photos, anything really, it’s surprising what it can do for some of these projects.”
Priday recently went down to Littlehampton to give a talk about the Hampden and there he met an ex-pilot from 144 Squadron who was 100 years old.
“I had a great conversation, “I’ll allow you ten minutes” he said, and two hours later in the evening we’re still chatting away having a great time talking about the Hampden and his operations. He flew 61 or 62 ops on Hampdens, he brought all the aeroplanes and crew back. Quite incredible.
“But at the time they showed me a photograph taken at his 100th birthday party, and they said “one other face in that picture might be of interest to you” and typically I looked at all the blokes thinking, which one is the oldest? And they said, “well actually, it’s that lady there.” She had flown 17 SEO operations during the war. And if she’d been on 17 operations I’m expecting she’d know a Lysander very well.
“I like to think what we’re doing is remembering the young men and women who flew in these planes and the men and women from the factories that built them as part of the war effort. We’re doing our part to protect their memories and let people see these objects that were once flown by some very brave people in the war.”
Find out more about The Michael Beetham Conservation Centre on the RAF Museum Cosford website.
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