Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

It's the air museum grounded by a Stormont dogfight, but as our writer found out on a personal tour, this show really could take off

Caught in the middle of a political row over the Maze's future, the Ulster Aviation Society should be allowed to get on with its vital charitable and historical work, says Malachi O'Doherty.

The Maze is the most inappropriately named space in the world. It is not a maze; it is a flat barren, stony wasteland that you couldn't get lost in. There is one old prison perimeter wall and watchtowers painted grey and then there is an awful lot of nothing, on this side of the wall anyway.

Then there are two large metal barns or hangars.

Calling them hangars conjures up ideas of aircraft, resting the night and ready for take-off.

Go into one of them and the only sound is of screeching crows that have got in but can't get out. But there is a fighter jet with a bomb bay below adapted to take nuclear weapons. There is a Puma and a Wessex helicopter. There is a collection of assorted aircraft that are part of our history. Some have taken passengers across the Irish Sea, some have rescued the stranded, and some have carried fighters into Afghanistan or photographed the terrain from an awesome height.

And you wonder, what are they going to do with all this?

The Ulster Aviation Society has been collecting and repairing old aircraft and bits of aircraft.

They have ejector seats and radar. They have old radios and helmets and little models even. They have bits of planes being assembled in corners by men who love doing that sort of thing.

They also have a letter from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board asking for details of their coming events for the next year.

For they have been taking this stuff out to shows and festivals, letting people get themselves photographed in the cockpit of a replica Spitfire. And they have had an annual festival at this hangar, though not this year. So they don't know what to tell the Tourist Board. They are in danger of being shut down altogether.

Because of a deadlock at the heart of the Executive at Stormont over how the Maze site is to be used, there has been no permission granted to the Ulster Aviation Society to exhibit at all there this year, nor is there any evident prospect of exhibiting next year.

Which means that they don't make enough money to sustain themselves.

And set against the Scottish referendum, the threat of Jihad and the belligerence of Vladimir Putin, this isn't the most critical problem facing us right now, but it should be one of the easiest to resolve.

All it takes is for the office of the First and deputy First Minister to answer its mail.

The Ulster Aviation Society is a charity. It doesn't feed the hungry or shelter the homeless but it raises money by voluntary subscription to keep a part of our history tangible and accessible. The work put into restoring aircraft is beyond what could be paid for.

People rebuild aircraft because they want to. They create a potentially huge tourist attraction or of voluntary endeavour.

Well, do we need this stuff? I don't.

I have never thought that I really wanted to step into an RAF transport helicopter, though now that I have done so, I am amazed at how cramped the space was, how it still smells of sweat.

This place should be open every day to tourists for what is there is as fascinating as anything in the Titanic Belfast building and as relevant to our past. It records the products of the local aircraft industry, our lives in the air, at peace and at war.

This is not about nostalgia or the indulgence of fantasies about British grandeur; it is a record that is as legitimate and as relevant as efforts to preserve relics of our railways and canals. It is an educational resource.

That one piece of our history ends up in a glass case in the Ulster Museum and enjoys funding and approval and that another is saved and preserved by volunteers and hobbyists is pure chance.

But when tourists are queueing up to see other relics as slight as a rope bridge or rock formations or remnants of a sunken ship, then why wouldn't they come in hordes to see this stuff? In fact they do.

But only when the society takes its work outside to other events. It is effectively barred from displaying at its own base.

It is hard to resist the thought that the society has been denied permission to exhibit here simply because it is an easy target.

The Agricultural Show continues. If the First Ministers scuppered that there would be hell to pay.

But who cares about a crowd of geeky men playing with aircraft?

Isn't it all a bit suspect anyway? Aren't they celebrating war, indulging fantasies of taking these relics of past battles back into the sky. I bet they go 'vroom vroom' themselves when they are polishing the sides of planes, and just look at how well polished they are.

And is this the most interesting thing that can be said about our military heritage, that the machines were well made, that they hummed like musical instruments?

It is not hard to suspect that one of the reasons these guys have been picked on is that it is so easy to take them for jingoistic old warmongers.

But they aren't; not the ones I spoke to. They are people who are fascinated by flying machines and their place in the history of Northern Ireland.

They probably got Airfix kits for Christmas and had them complete by Christmas night. I don't think I ever finished one, though I can still close my eyes and smell the plastic and the glue.

There is no harm in what they do.

This is not a celebration of British imperialism. It is a museum.

They have a model of a Doodlebug. They have an Irish medical helicopter. They have just heard of a guy who has got a Messerschmitt engine. They do not take sides, but simply marvel.

And there is the heart of what is most cruel about the way they have been treated; they have been positioned into having to make themselves heard in the middle of a political quarrel between the First Ministers, the DUP and Sinn Fein.

They wonder if they should seek political allies. Should they count the number of Catholics and Protestants in their society to assert how cross community they are?

For people who want to be left alone to play with planes, that is downright embarrassing.

But those who should really hang their heads in shame are the ones who don't even know what is in that hangar at the Maze but can determine that the rest of us shouldn't see it either.

How party politics has left charity on wing and a prayer...

The problems which have left the Ulster Aviation Society unable to show off its fascinating array of aircraft – which include a replica of a Spitfire part funded by Belfast Telegraph readers – came to a head in August when it emerged that, almost 10 months after it applied to hold a two-day airshow at the site of the former Maze Prison, the organisation was forced to cancel the event after it claimed repeated attempts to get an answer to its application from Stormont were ignored.

The impasse centres on a disagreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP after the latter halted plans to build a peace centre as part of the development of the site just outside Lisburn last year. First Minister Peter Robinson approved the two-day August event, but it was blocked by deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Sinn Fein also made it clear there would be no approval for similar events until the DUP agreed to reopen access to the site of the prison.

The ban, however, did not apply to the Royal Ulster Agricultural Show, which shifted from the King's Hall at Balmoral two years ago, or to the Truckfest Ireland event which took place a short time after the cancelled UAS airshows were due to have been held last month.

The UAS was due to have taken part in the European Heritage Open Days, which are being held tomorrow and Sunday, and which allow members of the public to access a wide array of culturally significant buildings and sites free of charge.

However, it emerged earlier this month that the UAS would once again be unable to allow visitors into its site for the event due to the ongoing squabble between the parties.

Ray Burrows from the charity told the Belfast Telegraph last week: "It is with much regret that we have to inform you that, as yet, we have not received permission from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to open our facilities for the upcoming European Heritage Open Days (EHOD)."

He added: "I would estimate we have lost 50% of our income this year because of the ongoing row, but really it is the public ultimately losing out."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph