The Avro Ashton fleet was clearly «built for purpose», the aircraft performing every single test or trial with minimum fuss and excellent reliability. At least one complete Ashton deserved to have been displayed along with the many other research aircraft that grace the RAF Museum at Cosford today.
Five Ashtons were withdrawn from use between 1959 and mid-1962, beginning with the prototype WB490, which was allocated for cabin pressure test duties at Woodford on September 9, 1959. This short-lived secondary duty came to end on December 21, 1959, when the aircraft was sold to the specialist aircraft scrap company R.J. Coley & Son based at Park Works, King Street, Dunkinfield, Cheshire.
Prior to the planned withdrawal from use of WB490, was the premature demise of WB492 following its wheel well fire at Pershore in August 1955. After being SOC, the aircraft was broken up on the far side of the airfield, the most substantial section being the front fuselage which was sliced aft of the pressure cabin. Exact dates of the movements of the remains of WB492 are unknown, but it is clear that the forward fuselage was delivered by road to Farnborough for pressure testing work, while the rest of the aircraft remained at Pershore. It is quite possible that the remains of WB492 lingered on at Pershore into the early 1960s, while the forward fuselage was still extant at Farnborough in early 1971. How long the fuselage survived before being scrapped is unknown.
The year 1962 saw the end of four of the Ashtons’ flying careers, WB491, WB493, WB494 and WE670 all being grounded. Struck off charge in June 1962, WB493 was broken up at Filton on June 2, 1963, and sold to R.J. Coley on September 20, 1963.
A similar fate befell WB494 which was broken up at Hatfield in 1963 and again sold to R.J. Coley on February 12, 1963. WE670 was withdrawn from use on July 20, 1962 at Hucknall and clearly languished for several months before being sold the scrap merchant H.H. Bushell & Co of Birmingham on March 1, 1963.
The final aircraft, WB491, was SOC at Farnborough on February 13, 1962. The aircraft was dismantled at Farnborough in April 1962; the rear fuselage was allocated to the Blind Landing Experimental Unit at RAE Bedford in October while the forward/ centre section (dissected in a similar fashion to WB492) was later allocated to Surrey Police. It is quite possible that the fuselage was also used for pressure testing along with WB492 which has led to confusion about the current airframe’s true identity.
The fuselage was transported to Dunsfold where the police used it for dog training into the late 1970s until it was rescued by the Sussex & Surrey Aircraft Preservation Group. By 1980 the fuselage of WB491 was on the move again, this time to the Wales Aircraft Museum based at Rhoose. During its stay, the aircraft acquired a BOAC-style colour scheme with the upper fuselage being painted white and a blue strip angled towards the nose. The museum was on the slide by the mid-1990s and before it was finally wound up in 1996, the Ashton was recovered by British Aerospace who transported WB491 back to its spiritual home at Woodford in July 1995.
If British Aerospace, now BAE Systems, could have predicted the future they may have held on to this important artefact following the demise of Woodford as I write. Luckily the outstanding Avro Heritage Centre is set to survive while Woodford Aerodrome is swept aside for housing and the centre would obviously have appreciated such a rare part of Avro’s history in its collection. However, in early 2003, BAE Systems donated WB491 to another outstanding centre of aviation, the Newark Air Museum at Winthorpe near Newark.
WB491 is today literally a shell of its former self, but plans are in place to perform external work on the fuselage to represent the period when the aircraft was operated from Hucknall. Internally there is nothing left to restore, even the cockpit floor has been removed. Regardless WB491 still gives those who remember, or have a good imagination, on how impressive an aircraft this once was.