There’s a way to go yet, but the Fleet Air Arm Museum’s meticulous restoration will end up with a complete Fairey Barracuda. We visited the Yeovilton workshop for a detailed examination of this absorbing project
To call the Fleet Air Arm Museum’s restoration of a Fairey Barracuda torpedobomber- reconnaissance aircraft a long-term project would be something of an understatement — the Yeovilton museum’s Barracuda project goes back to 1971. The recovery of remains of an aircraft from a peat bog near Derry/ Londonderry that year started a decades-long process to resurrect a type that has not existed in complete form since the mid-1950s. This process continued with the very recent discovery of a Barracuda wreck in the Solent by engineers working for National Grid.
The aircraft brought out of Northern Ireland was DP872, an early machine from the first contract issued to Boulton Paul, part of the production group for the Barracuda which also included parent company Fairey and other manufacturers such as Blackburn. Since then, DP872 has formed the core of the restoration effort, a very significant one given how this was the most numerous British type developed for the Fleet Air Arm. Surprisingly, more Barracudas were built than Swordfish, despite only being in full-scale production from 1942-45. The Barracuda took part in devastatingly effective attacks on the Tirpitz and German supply convoys in Norwegian waters in the latter part of the Second World War, as well as enjoying some success against Japanese forces in the East Indies, despite a lack of power and endurance in tropical climates. The type served in the front line until the early 1950s, but despite that usefulness and longevity, none were retained for preservation.
Dave Morris, curator of aircraft at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, says, “Although not loved by everyone, the more we examine and work on the project, it makes us realise that the Barracuda was in many ways ahead of its time as a drawing board concept in 1939. What it lacked was a proper development period, and not being pressed into action whilst trying to shake down the inevitable glitches and modifications required of a brand-new type into service. The Barracuda often gets sidelined, but is very significant to naval aviation history, and an important gap to fill in the Fleet Air Arm Museum’s Fairey aircraft collection.”
For most of the time since the remains of DP872 were recovered from Blackhead Moss near Enagh Lough in Northern Ireland, they were waiting in storage for conditions to be right for the museum to begin the rebuild in earnest. This came about in 2011, when the project was announced along with the public presentation of all the material gathered, a by-then impressive collection of hundreds of items ranging from small components to the large sections of airframe that had belonged to DP872.
The FAAM had been far from idle in the intervening 40 years. It had undertaken numerous recoveries of remains from other Barracuda crash sites, including LS931 of 815 Squadron, recovered from Jura in 2000, MkIIs DR306 and PM870, MkIII MD953, and an unknown aircraft that crashed near Thorney Island. More material was found in scrapyards and other museums, such as two effectively brand-new mainwheels and tyres on the Isle of Man only recently, and a neverfitted windscreen assembly.
In addition to these recovery expeditions, the museum undertook a certain amount of restoration on a smaller scale, with the reconstruction of the nose section forward of the firewall. Little remained of this apart from the engine, with none of the cowling surviving in a usable condition, so most of this section was fabricated from scratch. This provided useful, visible proof of the project in the museum to keep it in the public’s mind, and gave some flavour of what at least part of the Barracuda looked like. However, knowledge and techniques have advanced since then, and more material acquired, so the intention is to re-do all the work that was completed on the nose.
The project has also assembled a considerable number of factory drawings over the years which have proven highly useful in restoring battered parts or fabricating new ones, though there are many more the team has yet to track down. A further complication is that the drawings do not always entirely match the reality of the aircraft.
”The project has committed to using parts from DP872 wherever physically possible”
Progress has been steady but slow. This is in no small part down to the painstaking and uncompromising way in which the work is approached by the small team — currently one full-time restoration engineer and one volunteer, with assistance from another engineer when available, under the guidance of the museum’s curator. This will be no merely cosmetic reconstruction. When completed, DP872 will be an astonishingly accurate and complete example of the Barracuda, down to the smallest elements, many of which will not be visible. Its internal systems will be complete, and, wherever possible, functioning, although the engine will not be made to run and, in line with the museum’s collection policy, the aircraft will not fly.
As if the FAAM had not set itself enough of a challenge, the project has committed to using parts from DP872 wherever physically possible, even if it means more restoration work than using an available part from another Barracuda. Fabrication from new will be a last resort. But how much of the finished aircraft will be original? “It’s still too early to say,” says Will Gibbs, the project’s restoration engineer and veteran of several FAAM rebuilds. “But based on what we’ve got of the cockpit section so far, I would say that roughly two-thirds is DP872. And of complete [original] Barracuda parts, it’s got to be threequarters, and the rest is new, which is quite good. The aim is that we use as much of DP872 as possible, and then to keep authenticity we use as much other Barracuda [material] as we can, and only then ‘go new’.”
This approach is adding to the time it will take to complete DP872, but the dividend it will reap in terms of the originality of the finished aircraft will be worth the effort. Not only will the end product be largely genuine Barracuda, but the vast majority of the original fabric will have come from the aeroplane whose identity it will wear. Not bad for an aircraft recovered from wreckage.
The project was afforded a surprise boost recently due to the discovery and recovery of a substantially intact Barracuda wreck from Portsmouth Harbour, discovered thanks to a National Grid sea bed survey and a study conducted by Wessex Archaeology. The Barracuda was found last year, but details were only released in June 2019, shortly before National Grid and the FAAM raised the remains, undertook preliminary conservation work and studied the wreckage in earnest to assess how it might assist the ongoing restoration of DP872.
The exact identity of the Solent Barracuda has not yet been pinned down as, thanks to its proximity to the former naval air station at Lee-on-Solent, several Barracudas are known to have crashed in the vicinity. However, the restoration team believes it has narrowed the possibilities to just two, with one being highly likely: the Fairey-built LS473 of 817 Squadron, which ditched shortly after take-off on 6 January 1944. Dave Morris commented, “We are extremely grateful to National Grid for recognising the significance of the Barracuda wreck and facilitating its recovery back to the FAA Museum to aid the DP872 project.”
The new find has already provided a boost to the restoration of DP872. Will Gibbs says, “We’ve nearly completed one side of the fuselage tube structure, apart from one tube which we were waiting to be made, but having recovered the Solent wreck we’ve now got those tubes which we can use for both sides. For the port side we’ve got a complete one. DP872’s was badly damaged in the crash, so I was waiting for the wreck to come up just to see if there was a port tube, and luckily there is.
“We’re still recovering parts out of concretion, but we now have a full set of wing hinge bolts that we didn’t have before. Some of DP872’s stub wing tubes were badly corroded, but we’ve now got nearly a complete set of stub wing tubes and end fittings. We’ve got a header tank. It’s got a few dents in it, but it’s perfectly fine. To make a new one might cost £6,000-£7,000. We’ve got coolant tubes, oil pipes, all the rubber bits. There are little tags that hold wires onto the engine bearers — they were in such good condition we just undid all those. Loads of cockpit lights, Morse keys; all the Bakelite stuff, which is unobtainable now, or very difficult to get hold of. There’s even engine bits, where all you’ve got to do is knock the concretion off the bolts, put the spanner on, and they just come off like they were made yesterday. It’s fascinating.”
The FAAM’s restoration emphasises just what a complicated aircraft the Barracuda was — in some ways, indeed, overcomplicated. The airframe is constructed with a multitude of different materials and structure types, including tubular framework, pressed sections, castings and built-up riveted parts. The type had a lengthy development and suffered from ongoing changes to the requirement, while also being designed to be built in modular sections for completion before final assembly. The Barracuda was very much a semi-monocoque design, with the forward fuselage from the firewall to the rear of the pilot’s cockpit based around a built-up tubular spaceframe structure, rather like that of the Hawker Typhoon. Many of these heavyweight tubes, which in their pre-restoration state resembled scrap, are indistinguishable from new now the restorers have done their work.
It is remarkable the extent to which battered, corroded components can be rendered as-new. In fact, the condition of some of the components beneath a layer of dirt, concretion or surface corrosion defies belief. A rubber inner tube for the tailwheel is perfectly usable. The adjusting wheel for the rudder pedals spins smoothly after the parts were dismantled, carefully cleaned and zinc-plated.
“The peat bog saved quite a lot of the aluminium on DP872”, Gibbs explains. “We’ve also got parts that came out of the sea 20 years ago that we’re using, and they’re absolutely brilliant. With some of the steel tube, when I took the plug ends out it still had seawater inside after 20 years, but was in absolutely fabulous condition.”
The restoration is so authentic it is mirroring — in slow motion — the production of a Barracuda in the 1940s. The mass-produced torpedo bomber was constructed on standardised jigs, starting with the frame at the rear of the pilot’s cockpit, which incorporates the wing roots and the junction with the main spar, and building outwards from that, so the frame and spar almost become a jig in their own right. The FAAM started, and is proceeding, in exactly the same way with its own custom-made jig. The first stage has been to prepare and assemble the main cockpit section’s tubular structure, which is nearing completion after each individual tube underwent the necessary stripping down, de-corrosion, straightening and repair, finishing and re-assembly.
Gibbs describes the next steps: “When all the steel tubes are in and complete, then we’ll start putting the cockpit floor in, and the sides. Once we’ve finished the cockpit section, we can pull it off the spar frame, then use the spar frame to rebuild the observer’s cockpit, and the rear fuselage. We’ll use the rear spar, like we’ve done with the front spar, to rebuild the rear fuselage — fix the rear spar onto a jig, and then use it as a jig.”
Although the focus has been on the cockpit section, much work has been progressing in areas other than the main structure. Most notably, the undercarriage has been taking shape. One main unit is almost complete, another is ready to reassemble, and the tailwheel is finished.
“Because we’ll sometimes get stuck on a part, or perhaps we’ve got to draw our own drawing, we’ll have other stuff that we’re doing, just to take up the time”, says Gibbs. “So, we’ve got the undercarriage. The starboard unit’s nearly finished; we’ve just got the fairings to do. We’ve got another torsion box on the go”, he says of the unique, triangular element of the undercarriage that has not unfairly drawn comparisons with the Forth Bridge. “We’ve just got three skins to finish off — de-corroding, priming, and there’s a few internal bits left to sort out, but it’s mainly done.”
The many elements of the torsion box, essentially a ‘kit of parts’, have all been restored and await assembly. As with many other aspects of the restoration, the results are better than would seem possible. The components look new, except for a few anodised pieces where some surface pitting is apparent on close inspection. “There’s a lot of work gone into them”, Gibbs says. “Some bits we’ve had to re-weld. You get corrosion setting in on the edges, so what we do is TIG-weld the edges. That floats the corrosion off, and then you dress it back [to the original shape]. Some panels I’ve had to go nearly all the way round the panel to get rid of the corrosion. Most of this is DP872’s port undercarriage. We’ve only had to nick a couple of parts from a different [aircraft’s] torsion box where DP872’s was badly pitted with corrosion, and I couldn’t get rid of it.”
”This time the project is in for the long haul, and will continue until completion”
Even with many original drawings available, the process has been far from straightforward. While in theory a mass-produced aircraft, the Barracuda was not entirely built according to a modern conception of volume production. Will Gibbs: “You’ve got a drawing if you’re lucky, and you might have a crashed part that you’re making new, but you can’t rely on the drawing. You have to use the part and the drawing to make the new part because back then, they were just banging the parts out. If a hole was slightly out on the jig, they would just make the next bit line up with it and drill the next hole. I found oval holes that they’d filed out so it would fit. It’s like reverseengineering, basically.”
Because it is never fully clear how long a particular part will take to restore, the museum does not intend to put a timescale on the restoration being finished. It will take as long as it needs to do the thorough job the team is determined to carry out. Despite several false starts in the project’s history, however, this time it is in for the long haul, and will continue until completion. Progress, though gradual, is visible. The project recently had its annual opening to the public — although the restoration can be viewed whenever the museum is open — during the International Air Day at Yeovilton, where visitors will have noticed that, over the past two years, much of the material in the forward cockpit section has gone from broken and rusting wreckage to immaculately restored structure. Those who follow the effort via its Facebook page will have seen that process in minute detail, with weekly updates being posted as the work has moved on.
What was a rough approximation of the forward spaceframe is now largely complete. It does not yet resemble an aeroplane especially strongly — that will begin to happen during the years to come. In the meantime, the nature of the restoration gives an opportunity to see many aspects of the Barracuda that will not be visible when it is eventually finished and displayed, not to mention a rare close-up look at the construction of a currently extinct Second World War type.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
One area where people can help or have input is via the Barracuda’s JustGiving fundraising button on the Fleet Air Arm Museum’s website, and also if anyone has any old, surplus, vintage aircraft general standard (AGS) nuts and bolts. The Barracuda is very hungry for BSF and BA thread-form aircraft-specific AGS nuts. If anyone has any languishing in a tin at the back of the garage waiting to come in useful one day, now is the day! You can contact the curator of aircraft on 01935 842609 or e-mail email@example.com.
Everyone can follow the project via the Fairey Barracuda Restoration page on Facebook: www.facebook.com/FaireyBarracudaRestoration