Ulster Aviation Society on cloud nine as it receives award from the Queen
The Ulster Aviation Society is one of 23 groups from across Northern Ireland to receive an award from the Queen for its voluntary work.
The cross-community charity, which promotes our rich aviation history, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Operating from two aircraft hangars at the former Maze site near Lisburn, it has been in existence since 1968 and boasts 60 to 70 core volunteers and a wider membership of 500.
The organisation, which relies on donations and community events to generate funds, provides guided tours, many of them with schools, of its curated aircraft collection.
It also features at aircraft and aviation displays at public events throughout Northern Ireland, and plans to extend this to the Republic.
Chairman Ray Burrows, who has been a society member since 1971, said receiving the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service - which this year has been awarded to a total of 250 groups across the UK - couldn't have come at a more special time.
Ray (69) said to have the Queen's recognition after many years of hard work by a dedicated team of volunteers was amazing.
"It is absolutely one of the most proudest moments of my life," he said.
"I can't actually express in words what our members do. From the state of the aircraft when it first arrives to how they look almost new, years later. It's fantastic."
The Dundonald man is joined at the helm by retired civil servant Alan Chowney (62), the society's vice-chairman, who said he was delighted the group had been awarded such a prestigious honour.
"We're really chuffed that we've received this award. It's a touching tribute to the volunteers who are no longer with us, and their legacy that continues through to the work we do here today," he said.
Currently, the society owns more than 30 aircraft models.
These range from an Irish Air Corps helicopter gifted by the Republic's government to autogyros - a type of glider-helicopter hybrid - to a Second World War Spitfire.
A Phantom Cold War-era jet, acquired from RAF Leuchars in Scotland, had brought a spike in membership numbers as well as global interest.
"It's our 'jewel in the crown'", explained Alan, who said that the craft had proved a huge hit with visitors.
"We had 140 groups in total visit us last year, and between 60 to 70 of them were school groups, both primary and secondary as well as others such as special needs groups.
"Each aircraft we have has some kind of association to Northern Ireland. We have a replica of the aircraft made by (Co Down inventor) Harry Ferguson which took flight over Malligan in May 2016 and was filmed by the BBC for a documentary.
"It has a modern engine, modern avionics. Ironically it's the 'oldest' aircraft here, but it's the only one that flies!"
The group's oldest member is 93-year-old Fred Jennings, from Lisburn, who as an RAF man was seconded to the Dutch Air Squadron during the Second World War. He has been a member for nearly a decade and is extremely pleased the society has received such a top award.
"The society's great. It keeps my brain ticking over," he said.
The prestigious award itself, a distinctive crystal dome which will be accompanied by a certificate signed by Her Majesty, will be presented at a later date by the Lord Lieutenant of County Down on behalf of the Queen. The distinction is equivalent to an MBE.
In total, 23 Northern Ireland recipients were announced today. The others include the Cancer Fund for Children, Glentoran Football Club and the Co Down Traction Engine Club.
Co Antrim: Carrickfergus Gasworks Preservation Society; Carrickfergus Junior Gateway; Community Circus Lisburn; LCC Community Trust; Lisburn Downtown Centre; The Resurgam Community Development Trust; Ulster Aviation Society
Co Down: Cancer Fund for Children; Co Down Traction Engine Club
Co Fermanagh: ARC Healthy Living Centre Ltd
Co Londonderry/City of Derry:
Assistance Dogs Northern Ireland; Vineyard Compassion;
Britannia Concert Band
Caw/Nelson Drive Action Group; Foyle Child Contact Centre; The Churches Trust Ltd
Co Tyrone: Clogher Valley Agricultural Society; Team Aspie
Belfast: Diamond Project Residents Group; East Belfast Community Counselling Centre
Glentoran Football Club; Inspire Independent Advocacy Services; Wise Men of the East Network