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THE WOODEN WONDER

May 3, 2017

 

The wooden wonder and the man who brought it back from the abyss

There was something very special about the evening. The sun was sinking towards a blue horizon and the light took on that golden hue that makes colours bright and vibrant. There was an expectant air in the small crowd that had gathered.

 

 

 

A red London bus passed by, and a nearby a P-51 Mustang was glowing silver in that sunlight. Into this scene, a Rolls-Royce Merlin coughed into life and brought the thrill of its deep bass note across the grass of the airfield. Soon, the second engine joined it, and both propellers were now turning on the pristine Mosquito fighter bomber.

The bus drove onto the airfield, and first it, and then the Mosquito, passed a familiar drab green control tower, typical of UK military airfields in 1944. A group of people stood on the top level of the control tower watching the progress of the green and grey Mosquito as it made its way purposefully towards the end of the grass runway between the rows of trees and their lengthening shadows.

The thunder of the engines grew much louder, the note rising and falling as the pilot checked his engines. Then, with a puff of golden dust behind it, the Mosquito started to gather speed. The tail lifted almost immediately, and the Mosquito hurtled forwards and launched into the air.

The letters EG-Y on its sides identify it as an aircraft of 487 Squadron RNZAF, based in Hertfordshire, that was set off to bomb the walls of Amiens Prison on 18 February, 1944. But this is not Hertfordshire in World War 2 – it’s Virginia Beach, USA, on 25 February, 2017, and the aircraft climbing away is carrying no bombs to France or anywhere else.

The venue is the Military Aviation Museum located in the Virginia countryside, a few miles outside Virginia Beach. The Mosquito is probably its most celebrated possession, but it is only a small part of the large collection of aircraft and other artefacts that have been assembled there in a relatively short time. How did that come about, you might ask?

As with so many great things, it all started as … well … a bit of a misunderstanding – in this case, a misunderstanding about a dinner party.

The dinner party was the Aerostar Convention dinner dance held at the Hilton Warplane Heritage Museum in Ontario, Canada, 22 years ago. A certain Aerostar owner, with his wife and another couple, had decided to attend for the first time. He was informed that ‘40s clothing was the dress for the evening.

“What a great idea,” they thought, “let’s really do this properly.” They decided that appearing at the Warplane Heritage Museum in US Army Air Force uniforms of about 1944 vintage would be appropriate. “Simple,” they thought, “pop along to a costume shop and you’re done.” Only it wasn’t so. German uniforms were available in abundance, but US ones ... ironically not so easy. There were of course specialist outfitters who could help, but the rental prices approached a King’s ransom, so our protagonist ran an advertisement in a local newspaper asking whether anyone had any Army Air Corps (AAC) uniforms for sale, little realising the consequences.

It wasn’t long before he was sold a complete uniform, which had belonged to a specific airman, Robert Dunn Jr, a B-17 pilot who had flown a B-17 named ‘Lassie Come Home’ until it was badly hit on 13 May, 1944, and the crew bailed out. The story became more and more fascinating as more details emerged about Mr Dunn’s experiences. Not long after that, another call, and an offer of an officer’s cap, that of Walter Powell, a P-51 pilot in the Pacific theatre. Unlike Dunn, Powell had not survived and the only part of his uniform returned to his sister had been the hat. She was hoping it would be looked after, rather than simply thrown in the rubbish when she herself died.

Taking on this costume party suddenly acquired a new edge, as the Aerostar owner reflected on the young men of just 50 years before who had gone off to war, suffered, fought and died in their numbers and who, with their sacrifices, were already forgotten by a much-transformed society. Their aircraft, so precious while the war raged, had been discarded like the men were. The aircraft were hacked to pieces, crushed, driven over, and ditched into the sea by the thousands in an orgy of destruction that staggered observers even then. There was just the occasional survivor preserved here and there, dotted around in museums and junkyards. Relics.

Well, our happy quartet duly arrived at the dinner, impeccably turned out in authentic period dress, to find themselves standing out from the crowd. Apparently the idea had been dropped as it hadn’t been expected that anyone would go to any effort. Yet, as he stood there, posing with a B-25 Mitchell, the bug had bitten deep into the psyche of the Aerostar pilot. Right then, he decided that he wanted to fly a genuine World War 2 fighter to experience just something of what Powell had experienced.

Now, most of us have dreams. For most of us, however, dreams remain mind games that few observers even suspect when passing us in the street. Mostly we write them off as impossible and leave it at that.

I, for example, am a history buff, and have long hankered after flying a Hawker Hurricane like a genuine Battle of Britain pilot. I choose the much-maligned Hurricane over the Spitfire, simply because the former has been so badly treated in the milieu of historic education. I am no closer to flying a Hurricane than I was ten years ago, and I probably never will.

This man though, had an intensely practical approach, and the business acumen to fund his new passion. His name is Gerald (Jerry) Yagen, and it wasn’t long after that night at the dance in 1994 before he acquired the wreck of a P-40E Kittyhawk. He hadn’t got far with the restoration before he was offered – and acquired – a Chance Vought Corsair, also in need of some – read “a lot” – restoration. The South African connection started when he bought an ex-SAAF Harvard to train on. The bite had been deep! The Military Aviation Museum (MAM), where he started in Virginia Beach in the USA, has become one of the best places in the world to see live aircraft from the two World Wars.

But the still, dead, dusty relics of the War beloved of national museums weren’t for him. Yes, these have their place and they preserve, often down to the piston rings in the cylinders, original artefacts that would otherwise have been lost. You can walk into these places and see these old aircraft with their patina of use and sad tinge of decay and corrosion, as they stand on plinths to save their cracked and hardened tyres that can no longer support them. If you have a great imagination, you can perhaps see, in your mind’s eye, the young men climbing into these machines and setting off on their missions. You can, but you have to walk in with the interest strong in your heart. Also, what you imagine about those vanished people is not likely to be the truth, because imagination is personal and informed by what you have seen, heard and smelt. These museum pieces of 100 years ago, or 70 years ago, or 20 years ago even, are outside your experience, unless you are very old and blessed with an awesome memory.

As they stand there, much knowledge about them is lost. What were they like to operate, what were the problems, what was the technique for, say, overhauling the brakes? What if the engine was reluctant to start? What does it actually sound like? In many ways, it is like celebrity worship – one sees pictures, some have fantasises about those images that caught their imagination – but to meet the real living breathing human being is the ultimate. It may disappoint; it may be marvellous, but it is authentic knowledge.

As we move into our brave new world of instant gratification, instant communication and counterfeit experience by electronic means, we start to lose our institutional memory, our heritage. For many, that is acceptable. They have bought the new hedonism and are willing to become happy idiots living in cyber worlds. Yet, for many, that cyber world is tasteless, sterile, boring. Just look at the interest in warbirds today and the achievers who love them. They are not content to sit around just consuming, but want to understand history, the machines that gave our culture victory, understand the people of the past ... something like that, anyway. It is difficult to articulate, but for some people it is very strong. Often, these are the very people who achieve the most for the advancement of mankind.

But I digress.

Not long ago, a group of people waiting in the shadows of a hangar in South Africa’s East London watched a sight that belonged in the history books: An elegant silver biplane with pointed wing tips and sweet sounding twin engines lined up on the runway and gently became airborne. It was a De Havilland Dragon Rapide airliner, resurrected after a long restoration funded by Queenstown aviation enthusiast Mark Sahd, and carried out by a team of dedicated people such as Dave Hart and others of his ilk. Watchers were transported back in time and could almost see Whitney Straight’s De Havilland landing at East London after he flew himself out from the UK to win South Africa’s first grand prix in his customised Maserati in 1934. I was not there, and I have no idea how many of those people made the connection, but I do know that almost all of them were moved. Mark had help from Jerry, who was happy to share many details about his own example of the Dragon Rapide, one of the first aircraft in his collection.

It got him going on the genius of De Havilland, and started him thinking about what, to many, is the ultimate De Havilland design – the amazing private venture DH98 Mosquito, the holy grail of allied warbirds. My attachment to this aircraft is elemental. My father, an orphan without even a complete high school education, saved from obscurity by World War 2’s need for pilots, felt that the Mosquito, which he mastered and flew on operations with the SAAF’s 60 Squadron in 1944-5, defined him. It was by far the favourite of all the aircraft he flew in a career which spanned 45 years and around 30,000 flying hours. Most of my enthusiasm for flying and for warbirds was engendered by his enthusiasm, so the Mosquito is necessarily central for me too.

The main problem with the Mosquito as a warbird is, ironically, largely a result of the very material that made it wonderful for the British in WW2 – the airframe is built from wood. This eased the strain on strategic materials when the UK was desperately short of them, and allowed the Air Ministry to bring into the production effort a range of furniture manufacturers who otherwise would have been peripheral to the war effort. Mosquitoes did not require even a fraction of the metal that even a single seat fighter like a Spitfire required.

Almost no-one in World War 2 had much interest in the longevity of the aircraft they were so industriously turning out. Most of their products, as they well knew, would be lucky to survive a few months and into three figures in flying hours. That people then not even born would be trying to operate them 70 and more years later, probably never crossed their minds.

Wood is a great material for aircraft, but it does not tolerate extremes of climate well, and hasty wartime production methods and traditional adhesives do not translate into structures that remain safe to fly forever.

The SAAF’s Mosquitoes, 10 of which were flown back to South Africa after the war ended, did not see out the decade, and were unceremoniously scrapped after one disintegrated on climb out from AFB Waterkloof on 26 June, 1947, killing the much-loved commander of 7 Wing, Colonel Laurie Wilmot, DSO, DFC and a hapless fitter, Air Cpl C Nortjie. The reason given at the time was that the Highveld weather had caused glue failure in the airframes, although there is some reason to doubt this.

Mosquitoes in museums also suffered decay of glues and wood and, by the 1990s, only one Mosquito remained airworthy in the UK. Sadly, this crashed during an air show, apparently due to mishandling, taking two lives with it … and then there were none.

The other airworthy Mosquito in the UK had passed to Kermit Weeks in Florida, USA, and although reputedly capable of restoration, has not flown in many years.

Jerry bought the Canadian-built version: the MkVI, the fighter bomber version of the Mosquito, but fitted with Packard-built Merlins and dubbed a Mk XXVI. Unlike the unarmed PRU version operated by the SAAF, the fighter bomber sported a formidable battery of four 20 mm Hispano cannons mounted in the belly, and a further four browning .303 machine guns in the nose. The fighter bomber version is famous for numerous low level exploits over Europe in World War 2, not least the raid on Amiens Prison where the prison wall was breached to allow resistance members to escape. It had also featured in the post war feature film 633 Squadron.

This actual aircraft was completed too late to participate in World War 2 and it was still nearly new when acquired from the war assets board for US$150 by a Canadian farmer. He had it transported to his farm near Milo, Alberta in 1948, probably with great dreams for it. Like most of us, he did not get around to realising those dreams. He robbed the Mosquito of some parts and it ended up on its belly. It would probably have been destroyed, but a 15-year-old, named Clint, with enthusiasm for old aircraft managed to get it from the farmer in about 1971.

Neither he nor his family had the wherewithal to start a restoration, though, and by 1978 it had been standing in the open for 30 years. It was well and truly derelict. Ed Zalesky of the Canadian Museum of Flight and Transportation acquired it that year and set about saving it. Sadly, moving it revealed just how far gone it was, and the fuselage broke in two when it was loaded onto Ed’s trailer. Still, the aircraft was mostly complete and it was stored under cover, awaiting eventual restoration. This had not started by 2004 when Jerry managed to acquire it.

Obviously, the wooden portions of the aircraft were going to have to be replaced with new parts. Jerry mused that, if it was possible to decentralise Mosquito production to people who had not built aircraft previously, how hard would it be to build an entirely new airframe now? He runs the leading aircraft mechanic training organisation in the USA (The Aviation Institute of Maintenance), so had no illusions about the enormity of the project, especially in finding skilled airframe quality woodworkers in the 21st Century. Fortunately, Jerry had been through it all before, with the restoration, including a new fuselage, of his DH Dragon Rapide, which had started as a basket case in Minnesota. He entrusted the Mosquito to the same organisation: Warbird restorers Avspecs in New Zealand.

The enormity of the undertaking is clear when you realise that the project took eight years from inception to completion. Jerry doesn’t comment on the cost, but it was obviously very substantial. There were no short cuts. Modern adhesives and techniques were used – even a modern fabric was applied over the wood. All this was done with the aim of creating an authentic but durable airframe which would enable a modern pilot to fly a 70-year-old artefact with the verve with which the originals were flown.

To the eye, the aircraft is true to the original, down to the smallest detail and, as you sit in the pilot’s seat, having wriggled through the ordeal of the side entry door, characteristic of the fighter bomber version, you see very much what those young men saw in World War 2.

For those privileged to fly the aircraft, the experience is the same, shorn only of the gut-wrenching fear that must have assailed many of them as they contemplated the light of what, as they well knew, could be their last day. The quality of the restoration is indeed so high that the Mosquito, resplendent in the markings of a Mosquito that participated in the raid on Amiens Prison, won Warbird – World War 2 – Grand Champion at Air Venture, Oshkosh in 2015. The effect she has had on Mosquito pilots and crew of World War 2 is truly terrific, so much more of a tribute than the cold comfort of a name etched on a monument.

This then, is not some millionaire with a new toy as some might dismiss it. It is not, in truth, a ‘toy’ at all. It is a living tribute to that generation that faced the Axis and gave all of us the world we take for granted – an achievement which brings to new generations the true knowledge, the zeitgeist if you will, of their heritage, and gives life again to those who lost theirs in the great sacrifice the winning of World War 2 was on the altar of the Western ideal of freedom.

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