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For the plane love of it... the dedicated (war)bird fanciers of the Ulster Aviation Society


Fred Jennings in the radio room at Ulster Aviation Society’s hangar

Fred Jennings in the radio room at Ulster Aviation Society’s hangar

Fred Jennings in the radio room at Ulster Aviation Society’s hangar

The volunteers of the Ulster Aviation Society are a tight-knit bunch. As well as sharing a passion for planes and all the paraphernalia that goes with them, they clearly find enormous camaraderie in the long, slow work of aircraft restoration.

In a freezing World War II hangar at the former Maze Prison site they spend their days putting old planes back together with only the radio, a bit of banter and the odd slice of apple tart to keep them going.

They are mostly older men, from a wide range of different backgrounds, and although the bond between them is largely unspoken, it's vital to the whole enterprise. You get the sense that when the chips are down they will all rally round.

Recent times have been challenging for the society. The UAS is an entirely voluntary organisation, dependent on donations. But for over two years it has been the victim of an ongoing row between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Since the then First Minister Peter Robinson announced in August 2013 that the Maze site would not be developed as a peace and reconciliation centre Sinn Fein has twice blocked the UAS from holding its annual public open days, which generate much of the charity's income.

UAS chairman Ray Burrows is deeply frustrated, pointing out that the charity is totally non-political.

"The only thing connecting us with that prison is the tarmac road that runs past the front of it," he said.

Successive meetings with both parties have failed to resolve the issue, and while the UAS has submitted its application to hold open days this summer the outcome is by no means certain.

In the meantime the quiet generosity of one of the society's top volunteers, 91-year-old former RAF radio and radar expert Fred Jennings, has enabled the UAS to keep developing its impressive collection.

"We wanted to buy a replica Spitfire," said Ray. "One day Fred sat down in the crew room and wrote us a cheque for £20,000. We got the Spitfire and we managed to pay him back within 10 months. But Fred said that he had no need for the money, and asked if there was anything else we wanted to get."

That was how the UAS managed to acquire an F-4 Phantom jet fighter, the pride of the collection and Ray's own very special baby.

"I've always wanted one, I always said I'd love a Phantom," said the retired air traffic controller.

The two-seat dogfighter was shipped over in pieces from RAF Leuchars in Scotland, giving the men the pleasurably complicated task of putting the "magnificent beast" back together again.

"It's been on my own personal wishlist for 25 years. I've walked past so many of them in my time, and to actually have it here is incredible. There's not too many Freds about, I can tell you," added Ray.

Fred himself retains both his sharp military bearing and his equally sharp sense of humour. "It's the only job I've ever had where you pay them," he said wryly.

He has curated his own dedicated radio room at the society's headquarters, and he's also responsible for its impressive library, which contains 2,000-plus aviation books, the largest collection of its kind in Ireland.

"When I first came through that door the floor was up, the panels were hanging off the roof," said Fred. That's the striking thing about these men: their undimmed drive, passion and self-sufficiency.

Things might not happen fast, but they get done eventually, and they get done well.

A sign on the wall of the crew-room says it all. 'If a man says he will fix it, he will. There is no need to remind him every six months', it reads.

There are many works in progress in the society's museum, gradually being returned to their former glory.

Take the Grumman F4F Wildcat, the only WWII aircraft in the society's collection.

The carrier fighter plane spent almost 40 years immersed in water after an engine fire while taking off from Long Kesh airfield on Christmas Eve 1944 forced the pilot to ditch in nearby Portmore Lough.

In April 1984 the UAS recovered the Wildcat, by that time little more than a corroded hulk of metal, winching it out of the lough with a helicopter.

Since then the devoted volunteers have been painstakingly bringing the aircraft back to life. The eventual plan is to get the name of the pilot, Peter Lock, stencilled on the fuselage.

Lock, who was 19 years old at the time of the crash, still takes an active interest in the restoration of the old warbird. "If we did that, I reckon he'd go to Heaven a happy man," said Ray.

Belfast Telegraph