Up close and personal with the Barracuda restoration

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I’m indebted to the wonderful team running the Fairey Barracuda restoration at the Fleet Air Arm Museum for allowing me to spend Yeovilton Air Day with them. Thanks to William Gibbs, Lee Howard, Tony Jupp, and Dave Morris, the museum’s curator whose almost childlike enthusiasm for the project is infectious. I was fortunate enough to be able to help arrange the acquisition of a piece of equipment for the restoration (of which more in a later blogpost), which led to the very kind invitation from Dave – naturally, I grabbed the opportunity.

Barracuda Mk.II DP872 (the 18th aircraft built by Boulton-Paul and not, as I erroneously stated in my recent book on the Barracuda, the 16th – happy to correct the error) is undergoing a transformation from the wreckage recovered from a Northern Irish a bog in the early 1970s (with the assistance of material from several other airframes from crash sites and even some items found in a scrapyard) to a complete and fully restored aeroplane. The Barracuda is a vital part of Fleet Air Arm history, and that not one single aircraft remains of the 2,500+ built represents a huge gap in naval aviation heritage. There are other extinct FAA types, but even rarities such as the Blackburn Ripon and Baffin have clung on where the Barracuda didn’t. All that is set to change. If you aren’t following the progress of the restoration on Facebook, I would urge you to do so – seeing the aircraft come together from the inside out is remarkable, and allows the observation of details that won’t be visible when the aircraft is completed. This extends to pencil doodles on structural components that had been covered up since the aircraft was constructed in Wolverhampton in 1943. At times it has a little of the excavation of Pompeii about it – little human details that would have been lost in time.

The main section restored so far, from Frame 11 to the forward bulkhead

The restoration is progressing via a not-dissimilar process to the original construction. A jig was constructed in which to mount the central fuselage frame (which includes ‘outriggers’ to support the inner stub wing and the hinge point for wing folding) which represented the starting point, then and now. The forward fuselage section is being rebuilt from this, and now consists of the frame, the forward bulkhead and the tubular steel structure connecting them and encapsulating the pilot’s cockpit. The original components in their weathered, aged or damaged condition are being steadily reconditioned – straightened, stripped, cleaned, treated – and replaced. Naturally, this takes somewhat longer than simply building from new. Only where a part is too far gone to be useable is it replaced – by an identical one, or something as close to it as it is humanly possible to source or fabricate. A couple of the tubes in the central frame have been replaced, for example, but the original connecting plugs retained. Even replacement isn’t straightforward – some of those structural tubes are, Will told me, non-standard sizes (then or now) and with some highly unusual features. For example, the long, diagonally mounted tubes that extend from the level of the top of the frame at the rear of the pilot’s cockpit to the lower corners of the forward bulkhead, were built to a diameter that matches no known standard, and vary in internal thickness from front to rear.

Nevertheless, the extent to which original fabric, much of it damaged or compromised in one form or another, can be brought back to almost as-new condition is truly astonishing. William Gibbs, the lead volunteer on the project, showed me items such as the starboard undercarriage unit, the great ‘L’-shaped leg unique to the Barracuda, that had been reconstructed almost entirely with original material – the exceptions chiefly being the fastenings. This has now been attached, and the retraction demonstrated. As pointed out by volunteer Lee Howard, this was effectively the first Barracuda undercarriage retraction test since 1953. One of the oleo legs has also been restored, and again is overwhelmingly original. Here, the pitting on the steel upper leg, light but visible, is apparent beneath the protective treatment that has been applied to it, but on some items, even these tell-tale signs aren’t present. The forward bulkhead includes sheet aluminium that to the casual observer might be brand new. Dave Morris confided that this was an area of concern, in that the quality of the work is so good that people might think the team are simply building a replica and passing it off as original. As far as this is concerned, the very open and transparent way in which the restoration is being carried out provides a constant indication of how diligently the project is being conducted.

The restored starboard undercarriage torsion box – just about all original except for the fastenings

Remarkable original 1940s pencil doodles on part of the built-up fuselage frame no.11

A large-scale model donated to the project helps demonstrate what the finished machine will look like, in front of part of the store of components amassed by the project

Astonishing attention to detail on the Barracuda bulkhead – engine controls operated by bicycle chain and Bowden cable

The Barracuda Project needs help to ensure that this important aircraft returns from extinction. One of the most important things the project needs is BA and BSF aircraft nuts and bolts. The project wants to hear from anyone who might have worked in the aviation industry, or has/had a family member who did, and who might have some of these lurking in a cocoa tin in the shed or garage. You can contact the team via their Facebook page

Donations to support the project can be made via Justgiving

My book on the Fairey Barracuda came out in November from MMP books – you can buy it here

2 responses to “Up close and personal with the Barracuda restoration

    • My understanding is that they are focussing on replicating the original in every way possible, so if the component cannot be repaired, the replacements are made in as close to the original methods as possible. There may be cases where 3-D printing could be beneficial but I don’t think the project has reached the point of considering it, as far as I’m aware at any rate

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