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Those magnificent men (and women) in their flying machines

The Ulster Aviation Society is marking its 50th anniversary, with a new book and is also experiencing turbulence which has more to do with Stormont than the Met Office

Plane crazy: Stephen Riley, co-author of Eyes Turned Skyward, with fellow author Stephen Hegarty (left) at the Ulster Aviation Society at the Maze in Co Antrim
Plane crazy: Stephen Riley, co-author of Eyes Turned Skyward, with fellow author Stephen Hegarty (left) at the Ulster Aviation Society at the Maze in Co Antrim
Early Ulster aviators Harry Ferguson
Early Ulster aviator Harry Ferguson in a monoplane
Early Ulster aviator Lilian Bland, who designed, built and flew The Mayfly
The Mayfly
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Fasten your seatbelts. For a compelling new book celebrating the 50th anniversary of an aviation society in Northern Ireland is bracing its readers for a bumpy ride, with revelations about the organisation's turbulent travails with politicians in the now-suspended Stormont Executive.

And the authors of Eyes Turned Skyward say the fall-out between the DUP and Sinn Fein and the absence of a functioning government have restricted the ability of the Ulster Aviation Society (UAS) to exploit the tourism potential of the rich treasures in its headquarters on the site of the old Maze prison.

And the bottom line seems to be that the society's base, and the 35 vintage aircraft in it, which has been rated as the number one attraction in the Lisburn area on TripAdvisor, must fly below the radar, because the UAS is banned from advertising its wares.

And so word of mouth has become the only weapon in the society's limited PR armoury, but there's only so much that lip service can do to spread the gospel according to the UAS, which is a registered charity.

The enforced radio - and TV - silence has stopped the UAS letting people know about what they could see if they were able to come to its headquarters, and several profitable open days have had to be cancelled.

Even so, against all the odds, the UAS has been a recent winner of the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service.

And the 240-page book, by Stephen Hegarty and Stephen Riley, charts the smoother times for the UAS as well as the stormy ones.

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The writers recall how the thriving society, which now has 600 members, didn't take off quite so spectacularly, with just 10 aviation addicts in its ranks half-a-century ago.

The journey started at Aldergrove airport (now Belfast International), which was a dramatically different place in the 1960s.

It may seem like a flight of fancy now, but back then Northern Ireland parents wanting to give their children a glimpse of the high life would take them for a day out to Aldergrove airport, not to board planes to exotic destinations, but rather to let them watch the aircraft taking off and landing. It really was a step into the unknown for most people.

And in the days before package holidays and cheap British and European flights - and then the Troubles - the viewing gallery at Aldergrove, which was opened as a civil airport by the Queen in 1963, was a must-see destination for anyone wanting to witness first-hand what the new-fangled revolution in the skies was all about, or to welcome visiting pop stars like The Beatles.

What was also intriguing at Aldergrove was watching another band of watchers, the gaggles of plane-spotters who would take note of every aircraft on its way in and out of the fledgling airport.

The men and women with the binoculars may have been dismissed as nerds and geeks, but they eventually formed themselves into the Ulster Aviation Society - never imagining how the organisation would take flight to where it is today.

The history of the UAS has been captured in painstaking detail by Hegarty and Riley, who say that their new book is a story of trials and triumphs.

And the authors make the point right from the start that Northern Ireland has a history of aviation highs out of all proportion to the size of the population here.

Harry Ferguson, Lilian Bland and Joseph Cordner were all Ulster pioneers in the aviation world, and flying veterans from the two World Wars returned to the province with their tales of derring-do.

In the early days of the UAS, the first formal meetings took place in Hall's Hotel in Antrim, which was wrecked in a bomb attack in the early-1970s, and another spin-off of the Troubles was the fact that Aldergrove became less welcoming to plane-spotters and day-trippers.

Stephen Riley, a retired TV producer and journalist, has been involved with the society for eight years. He has been intrigued by aircraft and the history of aviation since his childhood days in northern Canada.

Riley says: "I was a bit of an artist as a kid and I used to draw airplanes and build model aircraft too. Where I was raised, we saw airplanes all over the place - bush planes and survey planes and planes carrying prospectors here, there and everywhere."

Riley, who's the public relations officer for the UAS, has never flown a plane. His feet are firmly rooted on the ground.

He says: "Flying is one thing, airplanes are another. Some people might say they like going to see motor racing, while others might prefer tinkering around with the engines. Me? I just like hanging around airplanes.

"I enjoy being close up to them. I like the design of aircraft, seeing why they do what they do and how they do what they do. I regard engineering as art in many ways."

Stephen didn't have the life of Riley as he set about researching the history of the UAS, especially tracking down early pictures.

"Let's not forget, the founder members were plane-spotters and they took many, many photographs of the aircraft. But did they turn the cameras on themselves? Not a chance. And we were writing a history of the society and the history of any organisation revolves around the people in it," he says.

"After a while, the members of the UAS decided that they should take minutes of their meetings. But many of them are indecipherable."

The two Stephens were able to elicit more information from lengthy interviews with two stalwarts of the UAS, Ray Burrows the current chairman, who's been in the society for 45 years, and his predecessor in the chair, Ernie Cromie.

"These guys know the history of the society backwards," says Riley, who says an important phase in the development of the UAS was the work the members undertook to recover old planes.

"They were amateur historians and they were out in all kinds of weather, trudging up in the Mournes and in the Bluestacks in Donegal, as well as in the Glens of Antrim, looking for a piece of an aircraft that had crashed there maybe 50 years back."

Down the years, regulations were introduced by the authorities to ensure that salvage teams had to be sensitive to a number of major factors.

Riley says: "These Spitfires, Hurricanes or Catalinas were warplanes and a lot of them had ordnance in them - guns, bombs and ammunition - when they crashed. So it was important to respect the safety aspects and to be aware that in some of the wreckage there might be human remains."

The biggest coup for the UAS was recovering a Second World War Grumman Wildcat JV482 fighter plane from Portmore Lough in Co Antrim in April 1984.

The sunken aircraft had been in the water for 40 years after an engine fire forced the pilot to ditch on Christmas Eve 1944.

But with more than a little help from a Lynx XZ665 helicopter, the dangerous operation to lift the Wildcat was completed and the plane was taken away for restoration, the only Second World War aircraft in the UAS collection.

An important breakthrough had come when the UAS found a temporary home, where members could store their bits and pieces of old airplanes and restore the bigger ones, in an old abattoir in Newtownards.

More acquisitions came in the imposing shape of a Shorts SD3-30 and a de Havilland DH100 Vampire fighter.

The next fillip for the UAS was a move to Langford Lodge, an old Second World War airfield in Co Antrim.

Riley says: "We got a good deal up there with a hangar and a couple of buildings. Langford Lodge did us a lot of good, because of the space where we could put our aircraft and learn more about restoring them.

"We were also able to put on displays."

Then, the opportunity to set up shop in the Maze, the site of the old RAF Long Kesh airfield, seemed like an answer to the prayers of the UAS.

In many ways it was like going home, with space to breathe in two roomy hangars that fitted the UAS bill perfectly.

But after First Minister Peter Robinson said, in August 2013, that the site of the old prison wouldn't be developed as a peace and reconciliation centre, Sinn Fein dug their heels in.

The Ulster Aviation Society was caught in the crossfire and its frustrations are still palpable - especially for an organisation that insists it is totally non- political.

"Every six months we have to renew our licence for the two buildings that we have on site," says Stephen Riley.

"We don't even have a lease for them. And the terms of the licence aren't realistic.

"We can't have casual visitors and we can't advertise, so how can we market an institution which has become the number one attraction on TripAdvisor?

"The reasons for the restrictions are complex, but basically we are still regarded as a storage site. We have been in there long enough now, however, to be recognised as a responsible entity in Northern Ireland.

"Yet we are situated in a politically sensitive site, the Maze/Long Kesh, and the development is severely restricted by the political impasse and a lack of political foresight and co-operation between the two major parties."

He adds: "Our immediate masters are the Maze/Long Kesh Development Corporation, but a lot of the major and minor decisions have to be approved by what used to be the Executive at Stormont. And, of course, it's a moot point as to what powers civil servants can exert."

Despite the clouds of uncertainty, Riley says dozens of volunteers land at UAS headquarters every week to do whatever they can to maintain the huge collection of planes.

Riley says: "On any given Saturday we will get 50 or 60 guys down there restoring aircraft, which is astonishing.

"And everyone with the society is a volunteer."

The proud boast of the UAS is that there's no organisation quite like it the length and breadth of Ireland.

And its chairman, Ray Burrows, says it comes with fascinating baggage - an unsurpassable educational resource with a 6,000-volume library and a glossy monthly magazine to bring its members up to date with the society's news.

At the Maze, the UAS has also amassed a significant assortment of mementoes and archives, which fill numerous rooms in the organisation's two hangers in the sprawling complex.

And the UAS is determined to share its historical findings with the public.

Every year, it hosts over 200 organised and pre-arranged guided tours of the site and, if visitors can't come to the Maze, the UAS takes up to six sample aircraft to community events across Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The only wish now for the UAS is that it won't always be such a hidden gem.

"There's so much about the aviation heritage of Northern Ireland that we want to share. It is frustrating," says Stephen Riley.

Eyes Turned Skyward by Stephen Hegarty and Stephen Riley is published by the Ulster Aviation Society, priced £12

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