Keeping Ireland’s Aviation History Alive
The Ulster Aviation Collection
By Wesley Bourke
Photos by Ken Mooney and courtesy of Ulster Aviation Society
Published: Winter 2017 edition
Keeping in line with our Royal Air Force theme we decided to pay a visit to the largest collection of aircraft on the island of Ireland – the Ulster Aviation Collection. Housed within an ex-Second World War hangar at Maze Long Kesh, outside Lisburn, Co. Antrim, this collection of 36 aircraft, aviation artefacts, complemented with several historical collections, tells the story of aviation in Ireland. Resident historian, Ernie Cromie, was there to greet us and take us around.
I have to admit I am an aviation buff, so this visit was a treat for me. I’ve been to the Irish Air Corps Museum and to several aviation museums abroad, I was not expecting to find such a collection on our own doorstep. Ernie explained that the collection was started back in 1984, by the Ulster Aviation Society who were then based at Castlereagh College in East Belfast. The Society is made up of volunteers who research, restore, educate and fund raise to keep aviation history alive.
Aviation in Ireland dates right back to the early days of flight when inventor Harry Ferguson took to the air in 1909. Since that time both military and civilian aviation has made a huge impact on the island. From a military point of view, Ireland’s geographical position placed it in a significant strategic location during the First and Second World Wars, and the Cold War. This strategic position has ensured a unique aviation history. During the First World War both British and United States aircraft operated from all around Ireland. Again, during the Second World War and the Cold War Royal Air Force, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and United States aircraft operated in and out of Northern Ireland, while the Irish Air Corps patrolled the airspace of southern Ireland. Internationally Northern Ireland is well known in the aviation world. The aviation giant Shorts Bombardier needs no introduction. Their aircraft designs have put Belfast and Northern Ireland on the world’s aviation map. Northern Ireland is further known as the birthplace of the ejection seat pioneer, James (later, Sir James) Martin. Martin-Barker Ltd has a test facility at the former RAF Langford Lodge near Crumlin in Co. Antrim. It is used for testing, and houses a 6,200 feet (1,900 m) high-speed rocket sled track.
There is no escaping the aircraft collection. You are simply gobsmacked from the minute you enter the hangar. On entering you are met by a Blackburn Buccaneer. Beside it is a replica of the Second World War ‘Down’ Spitfire. Two aircraft from two different eras. The replica of the Rolls Royce Merlin piston driven Spitfire stands elegantly by the side of its larger Cold War jet cousin. The Buccaneer was a British carrier-borne attack aircraft designed in the 1950’s for the Royal Navy. With a crew of 2 (Pilot and Observer) it stands at 63 ft 5 in (19.33 m) in length and has a wingspan of 44 ft (13.41m). Powered by 2 × Rolls-Royce Spey Mk 101 turbofans, it could reach a top speed of 667 mph (580 kn, 1,074 km/h) at 200 ft (60 m). The engines on display alongside the Buccaneer are huge compared to that of Rolls Royce Merlin engine of the Spitfire. I asked Ernie why is the aircraft lifted off the ground. ‘When we received the Buccaneer at Langford Lodge our former site, it was flown in in excellent condition. Which means everything still works. We have her off the ground so we can raise and lower the undercarriage, the air brake and fold and unfold the wings, which keeps the hydraulics in working order. To get her flying again would cost huge funding. Our aim is to get her to a condition whereby she can taxi out onto the ramp’.
Each aircraft has a story to tell. The English Electric Canberra B.2 for example became the first jet to make a nonstop unrefuelled transatlantic crossing. The flight covered almost 1,800 miles in 4h 37 min. Originally conceived as a high-altitude unarmed bomber, the Canberra first flew on 13 May 1949, and entered service with the RAF two years later as the PR.3. In Jan 1960, the Canberra PR.9 entered service with No. 58 Squadron at RAF Wyton and the first operational sortie was flown three months later. The Canberra could reach a ceiling of some 60,000 ft. The PR.9 was the photo-reconnaissance version with fuselage stretched to 68 ft (27.72 m), and a wingspan increased by 4 ft (1.22 m). The PR.9 has a hinged nose to allow fitment of an ejection seat for the navigator. A total of 23 of this variant were built by Short Brothers & Harland. During 1962, PR.9s were used to photograph Russian shipping movements during the Cuban crisis. Throughout the Cold War the PR.9 flew missions when and where surveillance was called for with in more recent years the aircraft being deployed for operations over Rwanda, Kosovo the 2003 Gulf conflict and Afghanistan in 2006. XH131 was the third aircraft from the PR.9 production line at Belfast and is the oldest surviving example of the type. The aircraft was purchased with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund, and transported to Northern Ireland to join the collection during December 2010. ‘The last pilot to fly XH131 in Afghanistan in 2006, was Flight Lieutenant Leckey from Northern Ireland’.
Another example is the Westland Wessex, the British version of the Sikorsky S-58 ‘Choctaw’, developed under license by Westland Aircraft (later Westland Helicopters). An American-built Sikorsky HSS-1 was shipped to Westland in 1956, to act as a pattern aircraft. The example on display in the collection, XR517, first flew in January 1964, and was stationed with No. 18 Squadron and coded G. In 1968, it was transferred to No. 72 Squadron and from 1971 until 1992, was based at RAF Aldergrove initially carrying the code AN. For 32 years, from 1969, Wessex helicopters of No. 72 Squadron assisted the civil power and supported the security forces during the ‘Troubles’. In addition, it had a search and rescue function. It could carry 16 fully-armed troops or lift a 4-ton underslung load. After its service in Northern Ireland it returned to England with No. 60 Squadron at RAF Benson. It was acquired by the Society in 2004, from Dick Everett of Shoreham and trucked from there to its original home at Langford Lodge.
There are certain aircraft in the collection that you can’t help but go ‘WOW’. Aircraft such as the Spitfire are simply aviation legends. Stephen Riley tells us more on the ‘Down’ Spitfire in our Quartermaster’s store. Others such as the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II are simply the last aircraft you would expect to see in Ireland. The Society’s Phantom is currently being repainted. But even under all the protective sheeting you can make out the slick design of this Cold War jet. The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm employed the Phantom for air defence, close air support, low-level strike and tactical reconnaissance. Ernie explained that the British version of the Phantom were assembled in the United States, but fitted with British avionics and 2 x Rolls-Royce Spey Mk.203 engines. These engines could produce 12,140 lbf (54.0 kN) (dry thrust) and 20,515 lbf (91.26 kN) (with afterburner). A formidable defence against any incoming Soviet aircraft. Entering service in 1969, the aircraft was a very familiar sight over Western Germany and in the latter years patrolling the South Atlantic from the Falklands. ‘The reason why we got one for the collection was that virtually all the Phantoms for British service were flown across the Atlantic into the RAF maintenance unit at RAF Aldergrove in Antrim. The unit prepared the Phantoms for military service’. Three Phantom variants were built for the United Kingdom: The F-4K variant was designed as an air defence interceptor to be operated by the Fleet Air Arm from the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers; the F-4M version was produced for the RAF to serve in the tactical strike and reconnaissance roles. In the mid-1980’s, the third Phantom variant was obtained when a quantity of second-hand F-4J aircraft were purchased to augment the United Kingdom’s air defences following the Falklands War with Argentina. The first batch of Phantoms produced for the United Kingdom received serials in the XT range. The Phantom in the collection is XT864 and it had spent its latter years guarding a gate at Leuchars in Scotland.
There are certain aircraft in the collection that you can’t help but go ‘WOW’. Aircraft such as the Spitfire are simply aviation legends.
Another aircraft that has to get special mention is that of the famous Irish designer, Henry George ‘Harry’ Ferguson. Born in 1884, at Growell, near Hillsborough, in Co. Down, Harry became gripped by the exploits of the Wright Brothers and the new flying machines of the early 20th century. With the help of his brother Harry designed and built the Ferguson monoplane. The Irish aircraft took off from Hillsborough on 31 December 1909. He became the first Irishman to fly and the first Irishman to build and fly his own aeroplane. In the collection is a flying replica of the Ferguson Flyer 1911. You may have seen it in flight on Dick Strawbridge’s BBC programme earlier this year. For the programme members of the Ulster Aviation Society built this flying replica. Dwarfed by a Shorts SD-330, it is baffling how this vintage design could possibly fly. Ernie could see the question in my face. ‘Yes, it flew. The Society’s own William McMinn, took it into the air last May at Magilligan Point, near Limavady for BBC. He said it was a bit hairy,’ Ernie laughed.
One hangar is dedicated to the several aircraft under restoration. All the work is done by the volunteers. The aircraft come to the Society in varying conditions. Some aircraft such as the Fairchild 24W-41A Argus needed a lot of work. This was a four-seater light transport/communications aircraft used by the RAF and the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). It last flew in 1967, after having a bad crash in Cork. ‘We were given her five years ago and have done extensive work on her. We have a big job to get an engine as this model used a rare Scarab engine. We’ve covered her in linen, whereas she originally was covered in cotton’. During the Second World War Argus aircraft were based at what is now Belfast City airport with the ATA.
The Grumman F4F Wildcat — JV482 is a long-term project. Originally, she was stationed on HMS Searcher (D40) in 1943. In 1944, the aircraft carrier was in port and the aircraft were flown to Long Kesh. ‘The reason she’s still here is because on Christmas Eve 1944, JV482 was last flown by a 19-year-old pilot by the name of Peter Lock, who only died earlier this year and who was ordered to take her up for an air test. She got to about 800 feet and the engine went on fire. He managed to ditch her in Portmore Lough, near Lough Neagh. It never sank below the surface as it was in shallow waters’. When you see the original images of the aircraft as it was taken out of the water, it is unconceivable that it could be brought back to life at all. Ernie told us that souvenir hunters had picked at the fuselage and wings. The Society recovered the aircraft in 1984, the first aircraft in the collection. Bit by bit the volunteers have begun to rebuild this World War II naval fighter. ‘There is a lot of work still to be done, all the skinning is brand new’.
A very unique aircraft currently being restored is the Fairey Gannet, a British carrier-borne aircraft from the Cold War. With a crew of three, it was developed for the Fleet Air Arm for anti-submarine warfare and strike attack requirements. It had two distinct features: double folding wings and its double turboprop engine driving two contra-rotating propellers. The Armstrong Siddeley Double Mamba ASMD 1 turboprop engine drove contra-rotating propellers through a combining gearbox.
Phantom F-4 — XT864 (currently being repainted)
Blackburn Buccaneer S2B — XV361
Canberra PR.9 — XH131
BAC Jet Provost T3A — XM414
De Havilland Vampire T.11 — WZ549
Hawker Sea Hawk FB.5 — WN108
Second World War
Spitfire Mk2A Replica — P7823 ‘Down’
Grumman F4F Wildcat — JV482 (currently being restored)
Fairchild 24W-41A Argus — HB612 (currently being restored)
Shorts SD-330 — G-BDBS
Shorts Tucano — G-BTUC
Shorts Tucano Prototype — ZF167 (currently being restored)
Shorts Sherpa SB.4 — G-14.1 (currently being restored)
Light Transport Turboprop
Percival P.57 Sea Prince T.1 — WF122 (Needs restoration)
Air & Space 18A Gyroplane — EI-CNG
V-1 flying bomb Replica
Rotec Rally 2B Microlight — G-MBJV
Himax R-1700 — G-MZHM
Clutton-Tabenor Fred Series 2 — G-BNZR
Evans VP-2 — G-BEHX
Pitts Special S-1A — N80BA (Needs restoration)
Sea Hawker EI-BUO
Ferguson Flyer 1911 Flying Replica
Puma HC1 — XW222
Westland Wessex HC2 — XR517
Westland Scout — XV136
Alouette III (SA 316B Mark III) — 202
Robinson R-22 — G-RENT
Bedford QL Fuel Bowser — RAF 206180 (Reg. 53 GPP)
Amazon Thorneycroft Crane (currently being restored)
Ferguson Mk3 Tractor (on temporary loan only)
Fairey Gannet AS4 — XA460 (currently being restored)
Canberra B2 Nose — WF911 (currently being restored)
Devon C2 Nose — VP957 (currently being restored)
The Collection is complemented by several collections. One currently being put together is on Ireland during the First World War. Ernie showed us a map of Ireland detailing all the Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force bases and United States Naval Air Stations around the island. It seemed like they were everywhere: from Lough Foyle to Castlebar and from Tallaght to Waterford. Two images caught my eye. A Handley Page V/1500 and an image of Women’s Royal Air Force. Handley Page V/1500 were a World War I bomber. As it turns out several were built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast. The image of the ladies in uniform is captioned WRAF Dublin circa 1918/1919. An incredibly rare image.
The Aldergrove Room for example tells the story of the war over the Atlantic during World War II. People often forget that Derry was the largest naval base in the British Isles during the Second World War. At the time it was home to a broad range of Allied aircraft and ships including: the Canadians, Danish, Dutch, Polish and the United States. A picture of a Swordfish shows it was flown by pilots of the Royal Netherlands Navy who operated out of Maydown, in Co Derry. Other exhibit rooms tell the personal stories of famous Irish pilots from World War II such as Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, Flight Lieutenant Frank Rush. Born in Canada, his parents were from the Falls Road. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with bar while flying with the No. 502 ‘Ulster’ Squadron Coastal Command.
This article is only an insight into the vast stories that are housed in the hangars of the Ulster Aviation Society. If you become a member you will have access to their regularly journal which has endless articles on Irish aviation history. You can also keep an eye out for in your local bookstore for titles by the Societies members such as Guy Warner, Ernie Cromie and Joe Gleeson.
The Ulster Aviation Society turns 50 next year. Keep an eye out for celebration events. All visits from the public are organised by prior arrangement. We cater for group visits, school trips (children’s groups should be around 30 max.) and tour groups.
Ulster Aviation Society,
via Gate 3 – Maze Long Kesh,
94-b Halftown Road,
N. Ireland, UK BT27 5RF