SOME thirty, years ago, use after the war, five brand new Short Stirlings, complete with twenty engines and a mountain of spares, changed hands for £2,000. Today there are no flying Stirlings left in the world, and the same can be said of many other aircraft types which helped to shape world destiny but have since vanished completely, leaving shameful gaps in aviation history.
Not all such historical aircraft have been allowed to disappear, and there are such institutions as the RAF Museum at Hendon, that of the Fleet Air Arm at Yeovilton and the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop which do much to preserve military aircraft of the past, though relatively few in flying condition.
There are also private collections such as Shuttleworth and Strathallan, and various individual collectors dedicated to the preservation of fine aeroplanes and, more important, keeping them flying.
A number of these individuals keep their aircraft at Duxford Airfield in Cambridgeshire, the former RAF Station which dates from just before the first World War. Duxford, maintained as a licensed aerodrome by Cambridgeshire County Council, is the home of the aircraft section of the Imperial War Museum. It is also the centre of operations of a truly amazing group of people called the Duxford Aviation Society who co-operate with both the IWR and the private aircraft owners in a unique liaison which illustrates that officialdom and enthusiasm can live not only side by side, but in harmonious integration.
The secret lies in a common objective shared by all who are involved with activities at Duxford, the preservation of aviation heritage.
When Duxford’s years as an RAF Station were over, the airfield was abandoned, neglected and even vandalised. Some of the destruction was well planned, for one of the original hangars was blown up for a sequence in the film Battle of Britain. The remaining hangars are now the subject of a preservation order, for when the Imperial War Museum discovered that there were plans to develop the site, they stepped in to save it
When exhibits at Lambeth became too bulky and numerous for the space available, many of them such as tanks, guns, vehicles, etc. were sent to Duxford for storage in the hangars. At the same time, the late Ormonde Haydon-Baillie began using it to house some of his collection of fine aircraft, and this was the beginning of the co-operative, for want of a better word, which is Duxford today.
The IWR installed their own aircraft there, and employed permanent staff to restore and maintain them, whilst its various workshops around the airfield private owners carried out their own restoration work, helped by skilled volunteers eager to give their time for no more reward than to see neglected metal becoming flying machines again.
In 1975, those enthusiasts formed themselves into the Duxford Aviation Society which was enrolled as a Corporate Friend of the Imperial War Museum. The society’s members range from skilled engineers to humble helpers, from pilots to those who make the refreshments. All are totally dedicated to their own collection of aircraft, and have a volunteer pool from which private restorers are able to draw on a variety of precision skills. Skilled volunteers of the DAS also work on the museum’s own aircraft.
The private owners are provided with storage and workshop space free of charge by the Imperial War Museum, in return for which the aircraft are kept at Duxford on loan to the museum, and are flown during the various displays which are held during the year.
The museum itself is concerned only with military aircraft, of any nationality and from any period, but the accent is on authenticity and restorers go to great lengths to ensure that all components, not just those which are visible, are original. Aircraft markings, of course, follow exactly the patterns which were originally used.
Apart from supplying manpower for all manner of restoration work, the DAS also has its own collection of fine aircraft, and these are really the only civil machines on view at Duxford. There is no official museum of civil airliners, and the DAS has filled this role so well that among its largely donated collection are a Trident Two, Britannia, Comet, VC1O, Dragon Rapide and even the first pre-production Concorde, donated by the Government in 1977.
The museum’s own collection is enormous, and for every completed aircraft, whether airworthy or merely static, there are many more in the throes of restoration. Indeed, the workshops at Duxford are just as fascinating as the display hangars, although space there is not entirely abundant, and when aircraft outgrow their workshops they have to be removed to a hangar for completion of the work.
There are plans to increase the space by the construction of a huge superhangar next year, and there is currently an appeal for funds to make this possible. One of the main objects is to ensure that the larger aircraft are not left to the corrosive influences of the weather, and this applies to the DAS aircraft as well as those of the museum, which include Victor, Vulcan, Hastings and B17 Superfortress, the latter on loan from its owners and operators, B17 Ltd.
In 1978 a Liberator staged through Duxford on its way from India to the USA, and it was when this was given considerable publicity that the idea came to have regular flying days. There are now about four or five each year, but the airfield is always open during the summer months as a static exhibition.
If we say that among the private aircraft owners who are connected with Duxford. both restoring and flying, are people such as Robs Lamplough. Patrick Lindsay, Graham Warner, Mike Russell and Lindsay Walton, you will see that there is a strong connection between motoring and aviation in terms of personalities as well as engineering. Many have been involved with racing and rallying, Warner, for instance, still running the Chequered Flag garages in Chiswick which helped various drivers achieve fame.
Lamplough keeps a beautiful Beechcraft Staggerwing at Duxford, finished in the RAF colours of the Traveller used as wartime transport in the UK by Prince Bernhardt of the Netherlands. He also has a Messerschmitt 109, currently with a Merlin engine but at some stage to be fitted with the Daimler Benz unit. Sadly, it was damaged just before its first show at Biggin Hill, when practising a tail-chase with Ray Hanna’s Spitfire, but the damage to undercarriage. propeller and one wing will soon be put right.
Lindsay has a superb collectionn of aircraft, all of them at Duxford, including a genuine Mk1 Spitfire, whilst Warner has an immaculate Chipmunk in his line-up, and a fine Fieseler Storch with Jacobs radial engine soon to be replaced by the original in-line Argus.
But Warner’s prize possessions are two Blenheims, actually Canadian built Bolinbrookes, and a still crated Lysander.
The Blenheims were discovered in Canada some years ago by Ormonde Haydon-Baillie who brought them back for restoration at Duxford. Alas, he never saw the completion of the work, for he was tragically killed in Germany flying a Mustang. Soon after that, Warner was introduced to Duxford by Lamplough, who drove for him at the time, and the latent aviator in him (he flew Harvards and Vampires in the RAF) came back to life.
He acquired the two neglected Blenheims, damaged further by the customs at Tilbury in their search for possible contraband, reformed the group of DAS enthusiasts who began work on the aircraft for Haydon-Baillie and is now looking forward to next year when the completed aircraft will be test flown. The second is to be kept as a static exhibit and a spare parts store.
Aircraft restoration is not as easy as that of vintage cars. Every stage of the work must be approved by the CAA, and accurate records must be kept of every job carried out. Warner’s helpers are meticulous in this respect, and it is an immense pleasure to watch them at work.
It’s also quite an eye-opener to see fine examples of vintage aviation engineering which belie the theory that many of today’s racing car “innovations” are at all new. Colin Chapman, for instance, built into his racing cars many features which first came to his knowledge during his days with de Havilland, whilst Mike Costin had the same background.
To see racks of Bristol Mercury parts, ready for use in the Blenheim, displaying polished, hemispherical combustion chambers, and four sodium-filled valves per cylinder, would amaze motoring enthusiasts who know little of how much the sport owes to the aircraft engineers of the past. The Mercury, incidentally, is really a supercharged version of the Jupiter engine which dates from the first World War. Aerodynamic streamlining was learned from aircraft practice, the use of lightweight materials and even monocoque construction. Early aircraft builders were by no means hit-or-miss merchants; they attended to every detail, and even the wires of the Tiger Moth were streamlined by being made oval in cross section.
One of the most important aircraft in Duxford’s history is the Lysander, for many of them operated from there, taking agents behind enemy lines. This, too, uses a Mercury engine, which makes it an ideal restoration subject to tackle alongside the Blenheim, and that is what Warner proposes to begin shortly.
It would take volumes to deal with Duxford’s exhibits. We can but scratch the surface, emphasising that it is a place well worth marking down for a visit when it reopens to the public after the winter. Those who are interested in the activities of the Duxford Aviation Society, would like to donate to the hangar appeal fund, or would like details of next year’s activities, should write to the Keeper of Duxford Airfield, Duxford. Cambs. CB2 4QR. — G.P.