Hangar Talk

Comment on historic aviation by the chief executive of the UK’s Light Aircraft Association

A Duxford flightline in 2013 shows how the warbird scene evolves — the P-40B went to the USA, the P-51C was only a temporary visitor and the TF-51 is under repair, but the Buchón and P-40F are still here.

There is no getting away from the fact that before the Shoreham tragedy, UK air display audiences enjoyed a ‘golden era’ of airshows of wide variety and content, some of which are unlikely to be seen again on these shores, at least in the immediate future. The CAA’s revision of air display regulations under a more onerous CAP 403 document and increases in administrative and licensing charges to support a more comprehensive oversight operation has led to a significant reduction in the number of flying display permissions in the UK.

At the same time, restrictions on the operation of specific types such as ex-military jets have led to the sale of many aircraft overseas. This hasn’t been helped by the relative weakness of the pound on foreign exchanges, which has made the UK a happy hunting ground for buyers with dollars in their pockets. So, what can we expect to see this summer? Some excellent work has recently been carried out by Andrew Smith of the Historic Aircraft Association (HAA), in compiling a ‘warbird stocktake’ to review the state of the industry. Andrew started by identifying what might be termed a ‘warbird fleet’, defining it as, “a loose classification starting with high-performance pre-war biplanes, through WW2 types and up to the classic jets.”

Andrew’s research inevitably points to a reduction in numbers of some types. He points out that the long-term investment of a small number of individuals and organisations has been key to the import and restoration of a wide variety of aircraft in recent decades, but as long-familiar collections have scaled down, fresh input is needed to maintain UK aircraft numbers.

As might be expected, vintage jets have fared the worst, with the retirement, grounding, loss or export of the Vulcan, Sea Vixen, T-33, Sabre, various Vampires and Venoms, miscellaneous Meteors, all Canberras, numerous Hunters and the Sea Hawk. It leaves a current UK airworthy fleet on the civil register of one Vampire (for sale), two Gnats, a handful of Jet Provosts and Strikemasters, and one Hunter, maybe two. There are of course the two Meteors operated by Martin-Baker on ejection seat trials, which are only seldom displayed to the public, and the military-registered Hunters used on defence contracts by HHA.

It’s not all bad news, though. The HAA survey records that Spitfires and Hurricanes are flourishing in the UK, with two-seat Spitfires in particular demand thanks to the endorsement of their operation by the CAA under the SSAC (Safety Standards Acknowledgement and Consent) rules which enable remunerated passengercarrying on non-certificated types. A two-seat Buchón and even a Hurricane are in prospect.

Swelled by the two-seaters, as well as the type’s legendary wartime record which allows finished aircraft to attain high values that justify their costs of restoration and maintenance, there are now — according to Andrew — around 36 airworthy Spitfires/Seafires in the UK and nine Hurricanes. Conversely, one aircraft type heavily exported in recent years is the P-51 Mustang, now leaving just two UK-registered examples in airworthy condition (though at least two more will join them soon), along with two each of Buchóns, P-40s, P-36s/Hawk 75s and Gladiators.

”The long-term investment of a small number of individuals and organisations has been key to the import and restoration of a wide variety of aircraft, but fresh input is needed”

Numbers of all types ebb and flow, of course, and the airworthy/non-airworthy status of individual airframes is always subject to change, but after the Spitfire and Hurricane the third most numerous warbirds are the variations of Yak-3 and -11, of which there are five. There are five pre-war Hawker biplanes, three airworthy C-47s and three Furies/Sea Furies, as well as single examples of the Blenheim, Lancaster, Lysander, B-17, Catalina, Swordfish, Skyraider, Wildcat, Bearcat and Corsair. While not strictly a warbird, there are 31 examples of the T-6 Texan/Harvard/SNJ on the UK register, although not all are currently flying.

The HAA’s survey gives food for thought and some grounds for optimism. Andrew concludes, “the last six years have seen three airworthy Mosquito restorations, two in New Zealand and one in Canada. The CAA seems receptive to the prospect and given the huge public interest, a UK-based ‘Mossie’ is by no means out of the question”.

Bring it on, I say.