We’ve received lots of very positive support for our little Barra’ project, which is nice. We tend to view the poor old thing with mild pity. An unloved, unwanted and uncared-for lump that didn’t fly very well but always tried its best.

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 Finding that other people share our view is a breath of fresh air when we really thought no one would care a hoot. After all, no one cared enough to keep one to begin with and you have to wonder where and when the last one was destroyed. Did whoever it was know they were crushing, burning or cutting up the very last example in the world? I doubt it and now we’re acutely aware that, since it’s gone, the heaps of scrap in our workshop are as valuable as a fertilized Dodo egg.

So you know how you hear tales of the old diamond cutter spending days studying a stone to learn of its grain and flaws before applying hammer and blade? Well it’s a bit like that when making up missing bits for our aeroplane. Take the leading edge of our tailplane for example.

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 This is the middle bit from atop the fin. (You’ve probably already worked this out, being aeroplany types). It’s lying on its back with its diagonal spar attachments in the air being quite dead and on top is the freshly removed inboard section of the leading edge. It’s formers, or ribs, or whatever they’re called are still clinging to the middle piece of the front spar being mildly crumpled but well within the realms of what will mend – more of that later.

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The rest of it is still attached to this chunk and about to be pulled off by the indomitable ‘Aerospace Rob’.

It was made in two pieces to begin with but because the tailplane snapped off at the diagonal strut it ended up in three. The inboard section came to us in two bits and the outboard section arrived in one rather battered but intact lump.

Here’s the big piece of the inboard section after we’d spent an afternoon unravelling it.

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See where the red primer stuff remains… those areas were trapped to such an extent that our dedicated scrubbers couldn’t get in – that’s some serious crumple! It all had to be annealed and slowly teased out. Its missing end didn’t fare much better. 

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But we did get away with a handful of decent formers. Some were well protected from both the weather and the crash and this one even had ‘350 port’ scribbled on it in pencil. Mean anything, anyone? 

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Thus armed with a kit of parts – sort of – we started fastening it, in haphazard fashion, to our front spar to see what we did and didn’t have. 

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 We had pretty much all of it but every square inch was battered – just how we like it.

It’s queer stuff too, this aeroplane metal. Hit it hard enough and fast enough and it smashes like a china teacup, the fragments crack and splinter and scatter like confetti in a gale leaving jagged holes in your aeroplane. Brittle-fracture, it’s called, and the splits jump from rivet hole to rivet hole as the high-speed drama unfolds. It’s a pain in the backside to fix too because, basically, mending holes in a thin sheet of curved tinware is a pain in the backside!

And so – first things first – we decided to mend some holes and for this we slapped in a few grafts from the scrapheap. This is a typical example.

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Notice the three spare rivet holes sloping off at an angle to the right – see ’em? They wander off in that direction because they happen to be in the middle of a clean piece of material that we cut from somewhere else to make our raggedy hole go away so we’ll lose them later.

Now see if you can find them again.

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Yeah, yeah, OK – so it still looks like a rough day at sea but we’ll get to that. Point is, the hole has gone.

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 See – a little more leading edge. But don’t be deceived because there’s still not a single millimetre, or an inch, of it the right shape, so next we had to start mending what goes inside to make it the right shape to get enough strength to start hitting it with things.

As a sheet of tinware with a soft bend through the middle it was pretty wibbly-wobbly. The secret of getting the shape you require is to have some sort of mechanical advantage over the metal you want to move but with no strength to it you may as well hang a bed sheet over the washing line and try to bash some shape into that.

We made some of these…

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It’s a simple MDF tool made to the drawing with an aluminium angle fastened down each side so we can pin it in place. The original formers are so thin and bendy that you’d kill one with a single hammer blow but MDF can take all kinds of abuse and if it can’t you send for a thicker piece. What you then do is fasten one of these into the structure where normally there’d be a paper-thin former then use the advantage to bash the skin until it behaves.

Sometimes we didn’t have a complete former (they’re called ribs – I know that and even wrote it on the tooling as it was derived from the drawing but in my head they’re ‘formers’ so get used to it) so we built new ones from bits of the burned out tail.

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 The rules state that we can use only Barra’ material so we recycled more scrap to serve our purpose. What else would become of this chunk of tin? It’s of no use as a museum piece so it may as well be reincarnated into another life.

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 The donor in this case is part of the front spar (at least it seemed to serve that purpose) from the burned out fin.

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 The finished job isn’t the prettiest thing you ever saw but it ticks all the boxes and keeps our wibbly-wobbly leading edge in check with the help of several more similarly constructed parts. Soon it all began to behave properly and we could start pushing the shapes around.

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 We also popped in those original formers that were good to go. It’s about fifty-fifty of original to new-build but it’s all Barra’, as ever.

Just a word about the drawings… There’s a lad down at FAAM called Will to whom it falls to go dig out whatever we ask for. He’s well up for it but I once got a peek inside the archives down there and it was horrifying. In a small, windowless room you’ll find the entire inventory of drawings for every aircraft Fairey ever knocked together in boxes on microfiche but in no particular order. Sifting that lot is exactly the sort of delight Beelzebub will have saved for me when I die and go to Hell.

Yet we call up and ask for the drawings for No’s 6 – 7 & 8 leading edge ribs and they arrive in the post before the week is out. The man deserves a medal the size of a dustbin lid!

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 Another word – this time about our brief.

We have strict orders to build something that looks like a Barra’ and not to waste too much time on fine detail. Spare time in the Bluebird shop is rarer than fertilized Dodo eggs so it’s a case of turning out as much Barra’ as possible with the resources at hand so if you see the odd raggedy corner be assured that it goes very much against our innate lust for absolute perfection: but there’s no arguing, because the customer, as they say, is always right.

There’s another factor in play here too, and that’s the battered and beaten nature of these planes even from new. Archive photos show that we have, without any question, the smoothest, most perfect toothless slug ever made because every other one we’ve seen, including those on brand new aircraft, look like they’ve been used for a football match on the hangar deck.

Then I went for another tootle around the FAAM and was mortified at the crumply-dumply condition of other surviving Fairey product. They all look like they too were crashed and we glued them back together with the lights turned off in a former life. Now we realise that it’s impossible to tell mild crash damage from general wartime abuse and there was us endeavouring to work to within a millimetre only to discover that the thing was built to the nearest half a house-brick in the first place. Absolutely shocking, but, emboldened by this discovery, we soon bashed the rest of the leading edge until it looked fresh from a bombing raid.

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Oh – one final word – we tend to bash stuff near as makes no difference then leave it alone for ages while we do something else otherwise we get bored, but the job is ultimately saved by another of our terrible weaknesses. The moment the thing we left because it was near-as is picked up again we immediately see every tiny flaw and end up nit-picking at it until the end of time so if you see something go down that doesn’t look pretty, don’t worry, the anal widgetry dept. will inherit it one day and make it perfect.

Even without the anal widgetry dept. the leading edge easily ended up fairly close to the finished article.

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Notice now that it has lots of rivets attaching all sorts of stiffening thingamabobs to the inside – manna from heaven when trying to batter the dings out of it. Rob has also stuck the strip along the lower edge that attaches it to both the front spar and the skins that carry on aft to form the tailplane’s outer surfaces.

And then we had to fix another niggle – just like every other piece of aeroplane in isolation the front spar is as wibbly as damp pasta so, as we were raging it about somewhat whilst trial-fitting the leading edge and in imminent danger of cracking it once again, we thought it prudent to add some parts to stiffen it up. Now these really are called ribs…

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And the long bits are called ‘stringers’, told you we’d learn about aeroplanes in the end, and they’re an absolute bugger to mend.

They’re paper thin and bent all over the place but the processes are coming along nicely – as are those for the ribs, which are much easier. They push around with no difficulty at all so that only leaves the outer skins in an experimental, never-tried-mending-one sort of condition. If only we could mend those we could see our way to turning out a complete Barra’ tail and I’d avoid the crushing humiliation of pretending whilst full of beer to be able to mend an aeroplane. 

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Good news… we got away with it - mostly. Welding the stuff is something we learned on the elevator, perfected on the extrusions then had a jolly old time with on the skins. They’re still riddled with residual stress from being mashed into a mountain so they dance around when heated but once glued and cooled they seem to realise that we’re actually trying to help and go quietly back into aeroplane shaped pieces.

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We’ll do the other side next time and, in the meantime, if you want to see more of this or less of that in the diary let us know and we’ll do our best to oblige.

 

Bye for now…