In the Ulster Aviation Society’s crew room, there’s a sign on the wall. “If a man says he will fix it, he will,” it reads. “There is no need to remind him every six months.”
The sign tells you everything you need to know about this remarkable bunch of aviation enthusiasts: their wry humour, their passion, their deep affection for each other. In a freezing, crumbling second World War hangar in the grounds of the former Maze prison (Long Kesh before that), they spend their days contentedly putting old aircraft back together.
In the vast restoration space, a Chopin piano concerto, playing from a portable radio, drifts over the skeleton wings of ancient aircraft. The air smells agreeably of engine oil. Well wrapped up against the cold in boiler suits and caps, the volunteers – almost all of them retired men, from many different walks of life – are busy with screwdrivers, hammers and drills, each immersed in their project of choice. That’s how it works, according to the society’s chairman, Ray Burrows: everyone finds their own labour of love. “One guy, all he wants to do is polish aircraft. So he turns up on Saturday morning, gets out the Autoglym and he’s happy.”
Others, such as Harry Munn, are entranced by particular aircraft and their history. “I was a joiner by trade, and I do bits and pieces of everything here, but it was the Wildcat that really drew me,” he says. He’s talking about the Grumman F4F Wildcat, the only second World War aircraft in the society’s collection. The naval fighter craft spent almost 40 years immersed in water after an engine fire during take-off from Long Kesh airfield on Christmas Eve 1944 forced the pilot to ditch in nearby Portmore lough.
In April 1984 the society recovered the Wildcat, by that time little more than a corroded hulk of metal. They winched it out of the lough with a helicopter. Since then, the devoted volunteers have been painstakingly bringing the aircraft back to life. It is still a work in progress. The plan is to get the name of the pilot, Peter Lock, stencilled on the side of the fuselage. Lock, who was 19 at the time of the crash, still takes an interest in the restoration of the old war-bird. “If we did that, I reckon he’d go to heaven a happy man,” smiles Ray Burrows.
“To me, it’s fascinating to see how the aircraft was made, the technology that went into it. Parts of it are so flimsy, but together they’re so strong,” says Munn, who joined the organisation in 2008, after his wife died. “I started coming just one day a week, but now I’m here on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and I bring in an apple tart on Saturdays. I look forward to it every time. I like making things, preparing things. And the craic is terrific; the guys are great.”
Lot of patience
Some of the jobs are incredibly fiddly and require a lot of patience. “You could spend a whole morning trying to get a few screws out,” says Alan Moller, who is currently at work on a seriously decayed 1956 Fairey Gannet, an anti-submarine aircraft. “Some components have to be remade if they’re really badly damaged. A lot of what we do is carried out manually, because we don’t have a lot of specialist equipment. I’m like an apprentice here, still learning. I was a stockbroker originally. After my wife died, I decided to volunteer, and now I come three afternoons a week.” At his workbench, neatly lined with small drawers full of essential nuts, nails, washers and screws, Moller shows me the original compass from the Gannet. “Do not jar, handle like eggs,” says the faintly printed instruction on the instrument.
The latest acquisition by the society is an F-4 Phantom jet fighter. This is Burrows’s special baby. “I always said I’d love a Phantom,” says the retired air- traffic controller. “It’s been on my own personal wish list for 25 years, I’ve walked past so many of them in my time, and to actually have it here is incredible.” The two-seater dog-fighter was shipped over in pieces from RAF Leuchars in Scotland, giving the men the deliciously complicated task of putting the “magnificent beast” back together. Last week they aligned one wing with the five-ton fuselage, ready to be rejoined with the help of a large crane.
The society is a totally voluntary organisation, dependent on donations, and the Phantom cost £31,000. The deal wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t been for 91-year-old Fred Jennings, a former RAF expert in radio and radar, who is one of the society’s top volunteers.
“We wanted to buy a replica Spitfire,” says Ray Burrows. “One day Fred sat down in the crew room and wrote us a cheque for £20,000. We got the Spitfire and we managed to pay him back within 10 months. But Fred said that he had no need for the money, and asked if there was anything else we wanted to get, so we used it to buy the Phantom. There’s not too many Freds about, I can tell you.” Jennings, the society’s librarian, retains his sharp military bearing and his equally sharp sense of humour. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had where you pay them,” he says.
There are many imposing aircraft on display in the museum section of the hangar, a number of them associated with the Troubles era. A giant Wessex helicopter, the kind that used to land at the British army base on the top of Divis Tower in Belfast, was bought on Ebay for £9,500. An Alouette III was presented to the society by the Irish government. It was the helicopter used to search the wreckage after an IRA bomb blew up Lord Mountbatten’s boat in Co Sligo in 1979, and appears in news footage from the time. “We’re not like most aviation museums,” says Ray Burrows. “We like to pick things that have a Northern Ireland or all-Ireland connection.”
As an educational charity, the society is entirely nonpolitical, yet for more than two years it has been the victim of an ongoing row between the North’s two main political parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin. Since the then first minister, Peter Robinson, announced in August 2013 that the Maze site would not be developed as a peace and reconciliation centre, Sinn Féin has twice blocked the society from holding their annual public open days. Burrows says the open days are a vital source of fundraising, and that the society is being “held to ransom. We have nothing to do with politics.” The society has submitted its application to hold open days this summer, and Burrows says they are keeping their fingers crossed.
In the meantime, the slow, loving task of aircraft restoration continues, helped by the treat of an apple tart on Saturdays.