It began over a pint… I’d been presenting to students of museum conservation, as had my pal, Dave Morris, of the Fleet Air Arm Museum, and it was thirsty work. For his part he’d led a volunteer team that spent four years carefully removing paint applied in the eighties from a Corsair to reveal its original, wartime scheme – the only example in existence. The Bluebird Project, meanwhile, was gradually rebuilding Donald Campbell’s Bluebird K7 from the wreckage of herself, a controversial proposal at the outset but respect had been hard-won and now even Dave, the consummate museum professional, had to admit that it seemed to be working and now he had a new idea for the volunteer boat builders.

 

“Do you think you could build a plane?” he asked, late one evening.

 

Picture the scene… at the bar, beer in hand, a forest of dead glasses and could we build a plane? Of course... In fact, building a plane seemed ridiculously simple at that moment. What was this plane, anyway? And so the Barracuda Project was born.

Now here’s something we need to settle from the off. The FAAM is big and sensible and politically correct and everything you would expect of a large public organisation that is essentially MoD whilst the Bluebird / Barracuda Project… well, we aren’t any of those things so our staggering potential to cause them embarrassment must be terrifying. We therefore would like to make it clear that if we say anything to cause controversy it’s us and not them so come and whinge at our door and not theirs. OK?

Right, back to the tale…

Sober plane-building felt way more daunting, however, and this had clearly occurred to our friends at the FAAM too because we were invited to inspect said plane in its post-prang condition before properly committing to mending it. Fair to say that most of it had been badly used but what they had was most encouraging.

 

 

…and they had crate upon crate of the stuff, which seemed a tremendous luxury after having exactly one Bluebird from which we had to build every shred back to working condition. Here we had a veritable mountain of spares that only had to look like a plane. What could be simpler?

But there remained a potential showstopper. When were we supposed to build our plane? We already used up every spare volunteer minute on the boat and there was no chance of doing any more… but in this matter, Bluebird herself came to the rescue. What happened is that back in the beginning we had to de-rivet everything, paint-strip then thoroughly clean each part then see what was to be done to repair it. Something for everyone and a clear learning curve for all to negotiate at whatever pace suited. But gradually all her parts were cleaned and mended and we got into such things as gas turbines and sponsons and once that happened what were we to do with new recruits?

We’ve always prided ourselves on taking people with no experience whatsoever and turning them into artisans of exceptional quality and suddenly the means to do this was slipping away.

The answer, we pondered, might be to rebuild a small piece of Barra’ to see what difficulties we faced and to have something around for newcomers to cut their teeth on. An elevator seemed like a good idea.

It wasn’t!

We know nothing about aeroplanes, you see, and now realise that had we chosen to build a wing or something big there’d have been sizeable lumps and lots of spares, but elevators, we would soon learn, are spindly little things that break into hundreds of bits when they smack a mountain then go largely unnoticed by whoever is given the job of sweeping up half a century later.

I would love to know what the guys at the other end really thought as they packed this heap of junk into a box and posted it north. I know what we thought when it arrived.

 

 

Where the hell do we begin with this lot?

Take it to pieces – that’s always a good start. Bite-sized chunks are more easily digested so our long-term Bluebird volunteer, ‘Aerospace Rob’ set-to with his wood chisel, butane torch and claw hammer and had it all pulled down in record time.

 

 

The first thing we discovered is that it’s big! It’s very big indeed. An elevator is an inch short of nine feet long and that’s only one side. We’d only ever worked on our tin boat and that’s only ten feet six wide at the widest point and we’d never built it that far anyway. It soon became apparent that our elevator was based on a long steel tube but our motley selection of parts gave up only short, broken sections so the first thing was to make one good tube of all the best bits.

To do this we checked the drawings and found that the only tube available to make perfect internal sleeves seemed to be of aerospace quality 316 stainless so that was very cheap and readily available at the local bargain metal outlet – not. We got some anyway and soon and got some sleeves made up.

 

 

It was surprisingly strong and straight as an arrow once we reached the required nine feet – the world’s one and only Fairey Barracuda elevator spar.

 

 

And there matters rested for a while as once again the Bluebird Project took all our time.

Then two things happened simultaneously. Firstly, the unit next door became available and, secondly, the lack of things for new recruits to do once again reached a critical condition – we decided to officially begin the Barra’ project in a space all of its own.

Great idea except that all we’d proved was that we could stick a long metal tube back together – big deal! We were never going to impress anyone with that so we extracted one of the root fairings (that’s what it’s called on the drawings) and considered how to mend it.

 

 

We soon realised it’s made of very pure aluminium, which doesn’t corrode especially and is relatively easy to push around with a hammer. There’s always a big ‘wow’ factor in mending something like this because it looks impressive whilst fixing it presents little difficulty. It didn’t take much to make it presentable.

 

 

And that’s where the easy stuff ended because the rest of it is made of horrible, springy Alclad, which is basically an alloy that likes to corrode with a thin skin of pure aluminium rolled either side to stop its reactive antics. The result is it’s interesting stuff to weld. Most of the elevator parts are made of 26swg Alclad that started age-hardening up a hill back in the forties. Most had some corrosion, and sometimes it’s between the pure ally layer and the underlying metal so you can’t see it, and pretty much every piece needed shrinking and welding somewhere or another.

We began on some of the simpler-looking parts, this fairing, for instance.

 

 

It’s not too difficult to soften a piece this size with a butane torch if you’re careful and soon it looked much better but it had some nasty splits and welding the stuff proved inordinately difficult. For a short while we wondered if it was even possible but we have all sorts of tricks and cheats and we worked it out in the end.

 

 

From there we gave it a quick fettle and concluded that these parts would mend to an acceptable standard though in the pic below it’s still a good way off being finished. It’s all slapped over with cloth and glue and similar archaic technology in the end anyway, like something from a Biggles book, so that ought to hide a multitude of sins.

 

 

Then we took a look at these things.

 

 

They’re little roots for the ribs that make up the elevator structure and they attach to the nine foot steel pipe with circular attachment flanges. We had what seemed dozens of the damn things and no two the same so far as we could tell. We spent weeks trying to reconcile them to the drawings without success – then the FAAM sent us the correct drawings whereupon we immediately binned those for the prototype Barra’ and suddenly things became clearer, but herein lay a problem in that these comprised only the front piece of a long, latticework triangle and the latticey bits were long gone. Fat lot of good that was – being sent half the job and, worse still, the museum didn’t have any surviving latticey bits.

Now here’s the snag. We will not, under any circumstances, work with non-native material, everything absolutely must be genuine Barra’ because we know there’s enough material to do it and I couldn’t help thinking, in the beginning at least, that the museum saw this as a wholly unnecessary complication. After all, where was the harm in making new parts from new material if the old parts simply no longer exist? And our reply to that was, where’s the fun in that?

So…

 

 

Job-one – send for some scrap of indeterminate origin. Definitely Barra’ from a definite Barra’ crash site but that’s as much as can be divined. That makes it fair game for recycling, so, clean it up then give it a mild battering to get it flat-ish.

 

 

Anneal until soft then cut it into suitable strips…

 

 

Glue together where necessary.

 

 

Then form into long sections of ‘rib boom’, as they’re called.

 

 

Now getting those right was tricky – you can see a squished original piece behind it. But it gave us the parts to start mending complete ribs and they were lots of fun to build.

 

 

The root parts were easy, we recovered those from the smashed lengths of tube, but the fittings and widgets for the other end were either made from scratch from other bits of scrap Barra’ or mined out of the wreckage having been attached to something else. The fitting on the back of the rib above actually came off a piece of rudder but it’s common to the elevators so we nicked it as we had spares. The criss-crossy bits between the booms are hand-formed tubes bashed around 8mm steel wire that’s then withdrawn and the ends crimped to give a diagonal bracing widget of the required length. They took ages to get right too.

Having done a few ribs we then began to sort out small sub-assemblies.

 This is a box for a hinge or a trim-tab gearbox or perhaps somewhere for the pilot to keep his sandwiches. There really is too much detail to take in if you try to work from the drawings.

 

 

These were relatively easy to repair. The individual parts are so small that, once the material was softened up, we were able to use a conventional shrinker around the edges then push any stretched metal into the shrunken areas until the desired shape returned. Then you simply add a smart-looking rib and you have a quality product.

 

 

The root fairing was set up and stuck back together too once we had all the bits that went with it. It was assembled onto a spare piece of tube and finally welded back together because we’d split it up a bit to mend it. That horrible, 26swg fairing can be seen too. It’s finally behaving but only because it’s pinned down!

 

 

Notice also the extra rib inside the fairing with its row of lightening holes. That came out of the squashed fairing (in an equally squashed state) totally enrobed in clay and as good as the day it was made. All we had to do was make it the right shape again and we’re pretty good at that.

The other end was a walk in the park. We had a boxful of parts from the outboard ends as they seem to get away with crashing with barely a scratch so all we had to do was clean one up and stick it back together with a newly manufactured rib to line things up.

 

 

One of its skins did have appreciable corrosion damage, though.

 

 

But that’s an easy one. Just chop out the rot and put a new piece in.

 

 

The new piece came straight out of the middle of a spare that had its corner torn off so it was a perfect tissue match. There’s a small additional area that can be seen awaiting treatment in the pic below so the process is simply repeated until all the rot is all in the scrap bin and a good part remains.

 

 

With both ends of our elevator sorted all we had to do was fill in the middle, which involved making loads more of those rib boom sections and dozens of criss-crossy tube thingamabobs and boxes for hinges and widgets with names like, servo gearbox actuator strut bracing shim control rod… There is no question that the Fairey Barracuda is made of far too many parts. One or two pieces we simply didn’t have a complete example of, or a drawing, and in this instance we had to scale and build from scratch. There’s this, ‘thing with a hole in it’, for example, seen here fabricated from bits of knackered fuselage and about to be folded along that black line through the centre.

 

 

No idea what it’s called but it you can see where it goes in the finished job. All we could do was build the rest of the elevator then make it fit the space it was to occupy.

 

 

The hole in the ‘thing with a hole in it’ is actually for spanner access so you can draw the pintle holding that little flappy tab-thing we’ve popped in there for the sake of the photo. The opposite hole in the root fairing is for the same purpose. We have a fair few of those flappy-tabs because they’re just an alloy tube with a bronze bush in each end and an aerofoil-shaped piece of tin riveted over wooden formers that doesn’t mind being crashed very much, but the skin is especially thin and intolerant of being neglected on a hillside. At the time we didn’t have enough original material to re-skin them so we left them for later. It’s a five-minute job once we get more spare Barra’.

Not a bad piece of work, we thought, and by the time it’s slapped with a layer of cloth and paint and glue it’ll look the bees-knees. But the best part is that there’s not a single shred of new material in there. Every last piece once flew with a Barra’. Admittedly, not all of it came from the back of the plane, but it all came from somewhere on the plane and that remains the ongoing challenge.

Yes – we’re crackers!