The Royal Air Force Museum, like every major aircraft collection, has its own dedicated restoration and conservation facilities. And like most other museums, their workshops (within the Michael Beetham Conservation Center at RAF Cosford) are usually closed to the public. However, once a year, they do have a week-long open house where visitors are welcome to view progress with the many ongoing projects at the RAF Museum. The most recent open house took place this past November, and we are very privileged to be able to share an article by Michael Clegg describing the event in words and images. Michael Clegg is the editor of a terrific blog, Airfix Aerodrome, where this article first appeared. The blog is sponsored by the famous British plastic model kit manufacturer Airfix, and their parent company Hornby Hobbies Ltd., both of which will be very familiar to many of our readers. So without further ado, here is Michael’s article…
Aviation Conservation at RAF Cosford
In this 84th edition of our blog, we go behind the scenes at RAF Museum Cosford in order to pay a fascinating visit to the Michael Beetham Conservation Centre during their latest public open week and report on the aviation delights within this hangar which is usually restricted from public access. We will see how work is progressing on two significant Bomber Command projects, relish a tantalising glimpse of an extremely rare Great War aviation classic and enjoy a final look at a former Red Arrows jet which has already left for a new home.
Before we get started, could I please just thank everyone who kindly sent in messages over the past few days, to say how much they enjoyed the previous edition of Aerodrome and our latest Readers Pictures feature. Some readers were a little disappointed that their images had not made it into this latest selection and as a result, we have decided to have two Readers Pictures editions for next year’s RAF Centenary commemorations and will also feature particularly interesting images throughout the year, as part of our usual blog format. Importantly, please do keep sending us your images, as our growing readership love to see them and our audience is now a global band of aviation brothers and sisters. Right then, it’s time we set a course for RAF Cosford and some very rare aeroplane action.
Historic Aviation TLC in Shropshire
Original tail section from rare Handley Page Hampden P1344
With the RAF Centenary preparations in full swing at the Royal Air Force Museum’s Hendon site, a number of recent aviation rearrangements has seen Cosford benefit from the addition of some extremely high profile new exhibits, transforming this already impressive museum into something of a must visit destination for aviation enthusiasts. I have to say that these new arrivals have certainly encouraged me to visit Cosford more times in the past year than I had over the previous seven and a recent aviation viewing opportunity had me travelling down the M6 yet again. The Michael Beetham Conservation Centre is based in a large hangar at the top end of the museum and is usually restricted from public access – it also happens to be home to some of the most interesting historic aircraft in the country. For these reasons, news that the centre was allowing public access for just six days in November had enthusiasts flocking to secure one of the limited places available, hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare aircraft and fascinating work taking place in this usually inaccessible building. Fortunately, Aerodrome managed to secure one of the tickets and we can bring you this report from the slightly less than three hours we were allowed to spend in the hangar.
A conservation headache. View looking towards the cockpit of Vickers Wellington MF628
The Michael Beetham Conservation Centre performs an essential service in the preservation and renovation of some of the country’s best loved historic aircraft. As well as dealing with the regular maintenance of the impressive exhibits at the RAF Museum Cosford, the engineering staff at the centre also engage in longer term projects, including full restorations of extremely rare aircraft. They also perform similar tasks for exhibits from the Hendon site, as well as being expert in the dismantling, transportation and assembly of historic aircraft, some of which can be as large as a WWII bomber. Significantly though, the centre provides a haven for some rapidly disappearing engineering and technical skills, expertise which was once commonplace on RAF airfields all over the world, but are now not needed with today’s computer driven, throw-away approach. With skilled professionals and experienced former RAF engineers and technicians either employed or volunteering at the centre, a vibrant apprenticeship scheme is helping to ensure that a new breed of experts are being trained in the skills of a bygone era. This helps to maintain an enduring link to the men and women who worked on Britain’s military and civilian aircraft over the past 100 years and ensures our beloved museum exhibits will continue to receive first class maintenance support. These young engineers will also carry their skills forward, hopefully training future generations of apprentices and preserving the valuable knowledge passed on to them.
Preserving aviation history
For most people attending the latest Conservation Centre Open Week, the opportunity to inspect the latest developments in the restoration of two of the Centre’s highest profile projects would have been the main purpose of their visit, which usually dictated that both the Hampden and Wellington had sizeable crowds around them most of the time. For this reason, we will begin our review with something a little smaller and a little faster as far as former aircraft of the RAF are concerned.
Hawker Siddeley Gnat T.1 XR977
Cosford’s famous Red Arrows Gnat has now made the journey down to Hendon to become the centrepiece of a new exhibition
As far as iconic aircraft of the Royal Air Force are concerned, the distinctive jets of the Red Arrows are arguably without equal, serving as airborne international ambassadors and much loved Airshow performers since 1965. Although most readers will be extremely familiar with the British Aerospace Hawk T.1s operated by the team since the 1980 display season, those of us who are a little longer in the tooth can remember the first aircraft the team used, the diminutive Folland (Hawker Siddeley) Gnat. Possessing exceptional manoeuvrability, the Gnat entered RAF service as a subsonic training jet in the late 1950s, although it was originally conceived as a cost effective, lightweight fighter. Perhaps the most striking feature of the aircraft is its small size – if you are ever fortunate enough to get close to a Gnat, you will probably be able to see over its fuselage and left wondering how they managed to squeeze two airmen into such a diminutive little jet.
This particular Gnat (XR977) made its first flight on 1st January 1964, before being delivered to No.4 FTS at RAF Valley the following month. After several eventful years providing RAF student pilots with an effective training platform, the aircraft joined the Red Arrows in April 1976 as ‘Red 3’, instantly becoming one of the highest profile aircraft in the Royal Air Force. The aircraft was still a member of the team when they performed their final public display using Gnats at RAF Valley in September 1979, before the Red Arrows re-equipped with their new Hawk jets the following year. Her final flight was to RAF Cosford in October the same year, when she was assigned to No.2 School of Technical Training for ground instructional use, before being transferred to the Aerospace Museum for public display, still wearing her iconic Red Arrows livery.
The Gnat has been undergoing a period of maintenance at Cosford in preparation for an exciting new future as a centrepiece attraction of next year’s RAF Centenary commemorations. Taking pride of place in a new ‘Innovation’ display, sponsored by Rolls-Royce, the aircraft is intended to be mounted on an impressive plinth high above visitors at the Hendon site, with these famous flying colours destined to thrill thousands of future visitors. Marking the development of the jet engine and how Rolls-Royce have helped to power the RAF over the past 100 years, this new exhibition is scheduled to be a major attraction in the centenary year of the RAF. We were fortunate to catch the Gnat during our visit to Cosford, as it has now been transported by road to its new home at Hendon.
Westland Lysander Mk.III R9125
It is fascinating to see these historic aeroplanes in various states of renovation
One aircraft I was particularly hoping to see during my visit was Westland Lysander Mk.III R9125, an example of one of the Allies most distinctive reconnaissance and Army co-operation aircraft of WWII. One of several aircraft to make the recent trip from Hendon to Cosford, the Lysander had many enthusiasts scratching their heads, as she was the only one of the aircraft not to eventually go back on public display, despite being a popular exhibit whilst down at Hendon. It is now clear that the museum has taken the opportunity to conduct an in-depth inspection of the ‘Lizzie’, preparing her for future public display and ensuring she can be enjoyed by enthusiasts for many years to come.
In her current condition, the aircraft can be seen with her wings and undercarriage removed, large areas of interior fuselage exposed as well as open access to the engine. This is truly fascinating and helps to give visitors a better understanding of how talented the people are who originally built the aircraft, as well as the ones now charged with maintaining these magnificent machines. This particular Lysander was delivered to No.225 (Army co-operation) Squadron at the height of the Battle of Britain and was tasked with flying reconnaissance patrols along the south coast of England, searching for any signs of the expected German invasion. During its time with the Squadron, the aircraft flew 36 such sorties, in the hands of several different crews, but was later sent back to Westlands following the discovery of fatigue cracks on the engine mounting struts.
There was a lot of waiting around to get pictures of the Lysander without a crowd of admiring enthusiasts surrounding it
Hopefully R9125 will be back on public display very soon
Perhaps the most inspiring missions flown by RAF Lysanders were those engaged in clandestine ‘Special Operations’ in support of agent deployment and recovery, along with flying supply missions to resistance fighters in France. It is known that this aircraft was on charge with No.161 (Special Duties) Squadron from the Autumn of 1944 and whilst it is likely she was involved in such flights, there is no definitive evidence to support this. She is, however, the only surviving Special Duties variant of the Lysander, having been equipped with a 150-gallon long-range fuel tank, extra oil tank, rear bench seat and fuselage mounted ladder, which allowed quick access to the rear cockpit area. After the war, this aircraft avoided the fate of so many former wartime aircraft and despite being passed around various RAF establishments, remained in relatively good condition. She arrived at the RAF Museum at Hendon for display in 1971, where she remained until making her recent northern trip. Hopefully, it will not be too long before we see her on display once more.
Luft Verkehrs Gesellschaft (LVG) C.VI (7198/18)
When this aircraft was flying, it was the oldest original Great War German aircraft in Europe
From a much earlier era of aviation and indeed qualifying as one of the most historic aircraft in Britain today, this magnificent LVG C.VI was spotted at the far end of the hangar, with the area being restricted from public access. These majestic machines were reconnaissance and artillery spotting aircraft for the Imperial German Air Service from the final year of WWI and were highly regarded by crews due to their high rate of climb, excellent speed and manoeuvrability. This particular example (7198/18) was acquired by the RAF at the end of WWI and after being used in a series of performance trials, was handed to the Imperial War Museum for storage. Rediscovered in 1936, the aircraft was made airworthy to take part in the 1937 Hendon Air Pageant, only to spend the next few years once again in long term storage at several RAF stations around the country.
In 1959, the LVG was delivered to the Shuttleworth Collection on loan from the RAF Museum and began another lengthy period of restoration. This took longer that was originally anticipated and the aircraft would not make its first post restoration flight until September 1972, however this was the start of a glorious period in the history of this stunning aeroplane, as it would be the star of many Old Warden shows to come, often engaging in mock dogfights with the Collection’s Bristol Fighter. For many years, this was the only genuine original aircraft flying in Europe which had previously seen service with the Luftstreitkrafte in WWI and a jewel in the crown of the UK Airshow scene.
The beautiful LVG was hidden away in a workshop at the back of the Conservation Centre
Unfortunately, all good aviation things must come to an end and the agreement which saw this genuine WWI aircraft gracing Britain’s skies for many years was terminated in 2003. The final scheduled display was cancelled for insurance reasons and the aircraft was transported by road to the Conservation Centre at Cosford, where it would again undergo a period of restoration. This will not see the aircraft returned to airworthy condition, primarily as initial investigations revealed components had been used from two or three different machines in the structure of the aircraft, which was also now deemed too valuable to fly. Having never been fortunate enough to see this aircraft fly, I glad to have the opportunity to see the LVG during my latest visit to Cosford and will be excited to chart the progress of this significant project in the years to come.
Wellington Wonder – Vickers Wellington Mk.X MF628
The massive Vickers Wellington was a popular exhibit during my visit
Arguably the most impressive restoration project currently being undertaken by the staff and volunteer force at the Michael Beetham Conservation Centre, involves another former RAF Hendon resident, in the form of Vickers Wellington Mk.X MF628. One of only two complete examples of this important British bomber found anywhere in the world, this aircraft was built by Vickers Armstrong at their Squires Gate, Blackpool factory, making its first flight in 1944. Delivered to No.18 Maintenance Unit at RAF Tinwald Downs for storage just 3 days before D-Day, this Wellington would not see operational wartime service, but would be used as a crew trainer and navigational instruction aircraft following conversion to T.MK.X standard. This involved the removal of the front turret, replacing it with a painted over fairing and specialist navigational training equipment.
Before taking its place on display in the new RAF Museum at Hendon (which opened in November 1972), Wellington MF628 was used as a camera ship during the filming of the classic ‘Dambusters’ movie. Following this, museum technicians re-installed the front Frazer-Nash turret, returning the aircraft at least visually to its original Mk.X configuration. After many years on display at Hendon, it was decided the Wellington should benefit from full long-term restoration, which required its disassembly and transportation by road to RAF Cosford. The massive fuselage of the aircraft arrived in Shropshire at the beginning of July 2010, with the wings, engines and propellers following on about ten days later. Corrosion found in the intricate geodetic construction of the wings and fuselage ensured this would be a complex and time-consuming project, but at this time, the corrosion issue has been resolved and one of the newly preserved wings has been re-covered in Irish linen, doped and painted in Bomber Command scheme. The engineers just have to repeat the process for the other wing, before starting on that massive fuselage – the Wellington could be in here for some time to come.
The Wellington is one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by the Conservation Centre
It was interesting to see the complexity of the Wellington’s geodetic construction
Although looking quite magnificent, there is still much work to do on the Wellington
Such an imposing sight – the mighty Wellington bomber
Even though there is a plethora of aviation delights currently in the Conservation Centre, the imposing sight of this stripped down Wellington fuselage is without doubt the most striking feature of any visit. In this state, it is fascinating to see how this important early war RAF bomber was constructed using the geodetic method invented by Barnes Wallis and it certainly leaves you with a great deal of admiration for the young men who took these machines to war. It is also clear to see just how much work the renovation team still have ahead of them, but when they have finished, they will have been involved in one of the most ambitious and impressive projects undertaken in the UK. I am sure that many Aerodrome readers will be keen to admire their handiwork once the mighty Wellington returns to public display.
Cosford’s impressive ‘Flying Suitcase’ – Handley Page Hampden TB Mk.I P1344
Looking absolutely magnificent, Cosford’s extremely rare Handley Page Hampden
For many people attending the latest Conservation Centre open week, the chance to see the current progress on the long term restoration of Handley Page Hampden TB. Mk.I P1344 was the undoubted highlight of their visit. The most complete example of this unusual looking medium bomber/torpedo bomber in the world, the team at Cosford have worked wonders with this airframe, essentially undertaking a new build of the aircraft from original production drawings, using original parts wherever possible. As you can see from the pictures taken during our visit, the forward section of the Hampden is looking particularly impressive and certainly leaves everyone lucky enough to see it with the feeling that there is actually a chance we could see a complete example of this distinctive aircraft at some point in the future. It looks absolutely magnificent and was made all the more impressive by the fact that the museum staff had laid all the fuselage components in-line with each other, allowing an exciting representation of what the aircraft may look like once the restoration work is complete.
Tail section from the Hampden wreckage, showing the original paintwork and combat damage
The Hampden’s tail section has been beautifully restored in preparation for its triumphant future roll out
Another early war British medium bomber type, Hampden P1344 entered RAF service at the end of 1939 with No.14 Operational Training Unit, but soon found itself back with the manufacturers undergoing modification to torpedo bomber standard. Now designated a TB Mk.I, the aircraft joined RAF Coastal Command and No.144 Squadron based at Leuchars on the east Scottish coast operating against enemy shipping in the North Sea. In September 1942, P1344 and the rest of 144 Squadron were transferred to a new operating base on the Kola Peninsula, near Murmansk, charged with protecting the Arctic convoy route from enemy attack. Carrying an increased crew of five on the outward journey and suffering from icing on-route, P1344 could not make sufficient height to clear high ground on their flightpath, so an alternative route had to be flown. Unfortunately, this took the aircraft perilously close to a Luftwaffe airfield and through a combination of ground fire and the attentions of two attacking Messerschmitt fighters, the Hampden crashed in a wooded area of the remote Kola Peninsula.
The Hampden team have done a magnificent job with this extremely rare aircraft
The restored cockpit section is a credit to the professionalism of the Conservation Centre staff and volunteers
Tragically, three of the aircraft’s crew were killed during this incident, with the other two becoming German prisoners for the duration of the war. The aircraft itself lay undisturbed on the boggy ground for many years, until salvaged and purchased by a Warbird collector, later coming into the hands of the RAF Museum. The wreckage eventually arrived at Cosford in 2003, and after an extensive period of survey and catalogue work, the serious business of restoring this rare aircraft began in earnest. Interestingly, when looking at the original fuselage components, you can clearly see the bullet and shrapnel damage sustained by the aircraft during combat with the Luftwaffe on 4th September 1942. Once complete, this will be a magnificent tribute to the men of Bomber Command and the brave Hampden crews who fought so valiantly during the yearly years of WWII – it will also be one of only two complete examples in existence from a total production run of 1,430 aircraft produced. A massive undertaking, when this project eventually comes to fruition, it will be testament to the vision, hard work and determination of a relatively small number of people, but what they will have achieved will be nothing short of miraculous and a significant component in preserving Britain’s aviation heritage.
WarbirdsNews is really happy to have been able to share Michael Clegg’s article with our own readers, and wish to thank him greatly for allowing us to do so. For anyone interested in Airfix model kits and other aspects of model building, Michael Clegg suggests the following…
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