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Wednesday, 17 July, 2002, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Keeping 'em flying
Andy Sephton pilots the 1923 De Havilland Humming Bird
The Humming Bird "has a high propensity to turn over"

You may think some of the oldest and rarest aircraft in the world would be wrapped in cotton wool in a museum, but the Shuttleworth Collection prescribes a more active retirement.
The smell of wood and treated linen may tell visitors to Old Warden aerodrome that the aircraft hangared here are not of the sort normally seen in the skies. But the equally heavy odours of oil and exhaust fumes attest to the fact these aren't earthbound museum exhibits either.

Andy Preslent
Andy Preslent: "I wouldn't work on them if they didn't fly."
Though some of the Shuttleworth Collection's aeroplanes date from the earliest days of flight, all are kept airworthy and fly every summer.

Engineer Andy Preslent brings his hammer down on the exhaust pipe of a 1936 Westland Lysander with enough force to fool the untrained eye that this is not the world's only surviving flying example.

Spares despair

The hulking, black two-seater is scheduled for a display flight - provided Mr Preslent can fit this part, made by his own hands.

Launch new window : Virtual Tour
The Shuttleworth Collection: Inside the hangar
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Does he feel any kinship with the wartime ground crews who prepared Lysanders for missions to ferry secret agents into occupied Europe?

Tiger Moths
The Shuttleworth Collection includes:
  • 1909 Bleriot XI
  • 1910 Deperdussin
  • 1916 Sopwith Pup
  • 1923 English Electric Wren
  • 1930 Southern Martlet
  • 1938 Gloster Gladiator
  • 1941Hawker Sea Hurricane
  • 1942 Supermarine Spitfire
  • "They could just nip to the stores to get a spare part. You don't exactly get these down at Halfords today," he says tapping the securely-fixed exhaust.

    Mr Preslent - one of Shuttleworth's four fulltime engineers and the resident expert at replacing aircraft fabric - has laboured over these aeroplanes for all 30 years of his working life.

    "I don't think I'd work on them if they didn't fly. It's frustrating if you can't get the parts or if things keep going wrong, but to see the things fly at the end of your labours is worth it."

    As the Lysander roars into the sky flanked by Spitfires, Mr Preslent's efforts are not wasted on Peter Robbins - an RAF veteran who "looked after the gubbins and kept the tyres pumped up" on Lysanders more than 60 years ago.

    'Beautiful to fly'

    "It's marvellous to see it fly! It really sets my old ticker thumping."

    Mr Robbins is no stranger to going up himself. "You'd be changing a tyre and get a tap on the shoulder and have to become the air gunner. They're beautiful to fly in. They can land on a postage stamp."

    Andy Sephton and the Lysander
    Andy Sephton: "The Lysander will bite you."
    Jumping down from the cockpit, Shuttleworth's chief pilot Andy Sephton is less complimentary about the Lysander: "You have to be very careful or it will bite you. Even the official flying notes say 'a foolhardy pilot will be tempted to take liberties'. I've never seen that written in any flying notes."

    Many of Shuttleworth's aircraft may look rudimentary - such as the world's oldest airworthy aeroplane a 1909 Bleriot XI, skeletally built from wood, linen and wire - but the pilots selected to fly them have to be amongst the UK's finest.

    'Unlearning' to fly

    "We have an air chief marshal, two group captains, two chief test pilots, a Gulf War veteran and that's just for starters. These aircraft are not difficult to fly, just totally different to modern planes."

    Irrespective of their former rank, new pilots have to serve an apprenticeship during which modern flying techniques are "unlearned" as they progress to piloting older and older aeroplanes.

    Bleriot XI
    The Bleriot looks simple, but takes skill to fly
    "If you went straight to the oldest planes from a modern one, you'd soon crash and die," says Mr Sephton. "None of these planes are bad or dangerous, but they have certain characteristics you must understand."

    Mr Sephton had earlier shown his understanding of a 1923 De Havilland Humming Bird's foibles, casually landing the aircraft before a hushed crowd when the plane's engine cut out.

    Tricky ride

    "It has a high propensity to turn over. It's crashed several times, breaking one pilot's legs and trapping another upside down in a potato field with fuel dribbling over him."

    Given that many of these craft are irreplaceable milestones in aviation history, is it not folly to fuel them up and launch them into the skies?

    Chris Morris
    Chris Morris: "In a museum they would deteriorate."
    "You could stick them in a hangar for posterity, but to see them in a museum is to see them as dead objects. Here we demonstrate the real sight and sound of the aircraft," says Mr Sephton.

    Shuttleworth's chief engineer, Chris Morris, has more interest in seeing the cantankerous Humming Bird remain in one piece than most people - he first worked on it as an apprentice in 1962.

    "It's bloody lovely to see it fly. If it was slung up in a museum it would soon deteriorate. We keep them in good condition inside as well as out so they will fly safely. In fact, more historic aircraft are lost to museum fires than to crashes."

    The Last Lysander

    The Last Lysander

    In Pictures : Old, but still flying

    Old, but still flying

    See also:

    14 Jul 02 | England
    05 Jun 01 | Europe
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