Nearly 6,000 Beau fighters were built, and the pages of this magazine are testament to the aircraft’s exceptional contribution to world aviation heritage. So it is a great pity that today there are only nine substantially complete airframes. At Duxford in Cambridgeshire one is under restoration to flying condition, but we will have to be patient for the day when it takes to the skies.
The last time a Beaufighter flew was in I960 — take a look at Tugging at Sleeves. The RAF Museum was still a pipedream in those days and bringing an old airframe all the way back from Singapore to the UK would have been considered prohibitively expensive, with nowhere to show it off. But a couple of years after that, a ‘Beau was firmly on the shopping list’ for what would become the incredible museum at Hendon.
At Ta Kali airfield on Malta, the remains of TT.10 RD867 were recovered in 1964. Built as a TF.X it was converted to a target-tug before it entered RAF service and ended its days with the Malta Communications Squadron. It was struck off charge on December 11, 1958, and started to decay on the airfield dump. When the hulk was brought back to the UK, it was not a pretty sight. Things did not bode well for bringing a Beaufighter back from the ‘dead’.
There was another, far earlier, machine that could be drawn upon. The forward fuselage and centre section of a Mk.I had been used as an engine test-bed at 1 School of Technical Training at Halton, Buckinghamshire. Resting on its undercarriage, with its rear fuselage attached to a shed where controls and instrumentation had been installed, the whole thing represented a surreal prospect. Although the RAF Museum took this on, it was later handed over to Skysport Engineering and forms the basis of a long-term restoration project.
The Lisbon-based Instituto Superior Tecnico (technical institute) managed to acquire a pair of former Portuguese naval air arm TF.Xs when they were retired in 1950. They were used in a similar manner to the ‘shed’ at Halton. Students would learn how to take a Hercules radial off the airframe, determine what ‘snag’ the instructors had built into it, effect a repair, reinstall the engine and get it running.
In July 1965 the institute presented one of these airframes, BF-13, to the RAF Museum and it was moved to Bicester. As it was in much better condition than the former Maltese TT.10, Hendon now had a great chance of achieving not one, but two Beaufighter restorations. The Malta target-tug eventually went to Canada in exchange for a Bolingbroke, while BF-13 returned to its 1945 status as RD253.
The other Lisbon example, BF-10, was moved to Alverca airfield and presented to the Museo do Ar, Portugal’s equivalent of the Hendon museum. The ‘Beau’ was low on the curator’s priorities, but high on the South African Air Force Museum’s ‘wish list’. A deal was struck and the Beaufighter was freighted to Swartkop, near Pretoria, and Supermarine Spitfire IX ML255 travelled in the opposite direction.
By 2000, the SAAF Museum was looking to generate cash for the restoration of a Spitfire to flying condition and BF-10 was offered for sale. At the Museum of Flight at East Fortune, manager Adam Smith reacted with great speed, secured funding from the National Museums of Scotland to the tune of £90,000 and then in double-quick time raised the balance of £100,000 by donations from commerce and the public. On December 12, 2000, TF.X RD220 arrived at East Fortune, the first time the airfield had hosted a Beaufighter since 1946.
Australia has provided the remainder of the surviving ‘Beaus’, including composite airframes that are now at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Dayton, Ohio, and the RAAF Museum at Point Cook, Victoria. The RAAF Museum’s example is not yet on display, but two Australian-built Mk.21s are on show in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria. (See the feature Whispering Death for RAAF ‘Beaus’ in action.)
The Australian National Aviation Museum at Moorabbin managed to get its Mk.21 to ground-running status in the 1980s and 1990s, but it has not been ‘in steam’ for some time now. At Narellan, the Camden Museum of Aviation has a complete Mk.21 and the cockpit of another.
The whole Camden example, A8-186, was built by the Department of Aircraft Production during 1945 and was delivered initially to 5 Air Depot at Wagga Wagga, NSW. It operated with 22 Squadron at Moratai, Indonesia, during the closing stages of the Pacific campaign. It was put into store at Wagga Wagga and in 1947 became an instructional airframe.
Offered for disposal in 1949, A8-186 was saved from scrapping when it was purchased by W Strong the following year and it was kept at Boree Creek, NSW. Purchased by the museum in 1965, the restoration presented many problems. Outer wings were tracked down in South Australia, engine cowls in Victoria and other items found in scrap yards all over NSW
SLOWLY BUT SURELY
Of the Australian survivors, the machine that draws all the attention is a long way from home and slowly but surely moving towards airworthiness inside The Fighter Collection’s hangar at Duxford in Cambridgeshire. This is the largest and most complex restoration ever taken on by the TFC team and it will be several years before it moves under its own power.
This machine is a mixture of British and Australian-built elements. Much of the airframe comes from the centre sections and other parts of two Mk.XIs built at Weston-super-Mare in 1943 and shipped on to the RAAF. Both of these machines (A19-144, RAF serial JM135 and A19-148, previously JL946) were involved in landing accidents at an airstrip at Drysdale, Western Australia, within 18 days of one another, while serving with 31 Squadron.
A report on the incident that befell A19-144 states that the tailwheel collapsed during landing on January 3, 1944, and the pilot retracted the main gear to avoid other aircraft. This all ties in the project’s centre section, which is certainly British-built, and damage to the front spar web indicates that the starboard undercarriage either collapsed or was selected up on landing. On January 22, a similar accident occurred to A19-148.
Both machines were struck off charge (on February 1 and March 28 respectively) and stripped of useful components where they lay. Their hulks were discovered and removed from Drysdale in the early 1980s. A decade later they formed the basis of the TFC project.
Although the DAP-built aircraft were essentially facsimiles of British production, various modifications and adaptations were employed. This has provided the restoration crew with more than few conundrums. One of the outer wings is British, the other is Australian. Differences on the ‘Oz’ versions include: the aileron shrouds being in metal instead of wood and metal; the gun bay doors are metal not wood; pressed nose ribs take the place of the fabricated British type and a it has a different layout to the landing lamp sub-assembly.
Those who make regular visits to Duxford can view progress on this incredible restoration at close quarters. Wisely, nobody at TFC will lay any odds on when A19-144 will fly. Bearing in mind the tale on page 3, when this beauty flies will they let it fly down the Champs-Elysees ?