Giants of the skies: Restoring the Hawker Hurricane
PUBLISHED: 12:08 13 March 2017 | UPDATED: 12:08 13 March 2017
sarah lucy brown
A clutch of outbuildings on a farm at Milden is home to an extraordinary cottage industry. David Long meets the Hawker Restorations team. Photos: Sarah Lucy Brown
Stalin reportedly didn’t think much of the Hawker Hurricanes his Red Army aviation corps was sent as part of the Allied war effort. And Hitler obviously wasn’t a big fan of them either, having more reasons than most to rue the day they first took to the air.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about them is how little applause they garner these days – at least compared to the Spitfire – and the role a tiny company in Suffolk is playing in restoring these famous planes and their reputation.
In the years since the Battle of Britain the Supermarine Spitfire seems to have just about cornered the market in airborne glamour. It’s been forgotten that Hurricanes, not Spitfires, brought down the most enemy aircraft during their ‘finest hour’ over the skies of south-east England.
In fact, in a head-count after the smoke of battle had cleared, the Hurricane was discovered to have eclipsed not just the Spit’, but also the ground-based ack-ack crews. Indeed Hurricanes accounted for around 60% of all enemy aircraft brought down during the Battle of Britain, more than all the other defence forces put together. Not that the story stops there, for during the course of the war the redoubtable Hurricane was the only aircraft to see action on every single front.
When Malta came under siege it was the Hurricane that was sent there first to relieve the island, several having the bullet-ridden fabric of their fuselages patched up with pages torn from the local newspaper. Others flew to fight the Japanese in Burma and Rommel’s tanks in the Western Desert.
Many more, as noted, were sent to the USSR to shore up ‘Uncle Joe’. And, of course, when it came to the all-important D-Day landings, scores were equipped with underwing rockets to support the British, American and Empire troops as they clambered ashore onto the heavily defended beaches of Northern France.
At the start of the war there were fewer than 500 flying, although in total around 14,000 were to take to the air before peace was declared. Yet today only around 20 survive in airworthy condition, the most famous being the pair which accompanies the Spitfire and Avro Lancaster bomber of the Royal Air Force’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight on their visits to airshows up and down the country and, increasingly, flypasts marking significant wartime anniversaries.
Recently, however, thanks to a group of enthusiasts beavering away on a farm Milden near Lavenham, several more Hurricanes have a second lease of life. Joining the precious few still flying, almost a dozen have already undergone a full wings-to-wheels restoration and will now give an even greater number of us the chance to enjoy watching one of these true giants of the skies taking to the air.
The enthusiasts in question, with many years of experience between them of restoring and fettling some of the world’s finest and rarest historic warbirds – are working under the watchful eye of Tony Ditheridge, who makes the journey from his farmhouse to the office by air – choosing a 1930s Luftwaffe biplane, a Russian-built Sukhoi Su-29 aerobatic display machine, or presumably just about anything else he finds lying around the office and which needs a quick blast to get the cobwebs out of its wings.
That said the office might be better described as an absolute treasure-house for anyone interested in historic flying machines and equally valuable old racing cars. In recent years it has seen some real rarities through the doors too. Not just the Hurricanes, but several Spitfires (including an unusual two-seater, one of less than a handful still flying), the world’s only surviving Soviet Yak-1 fighter and perhaps most memorably an authentic recreation of the giant 1919 Vickers Vimy in which two Australian brothers serving with the RAF flew from London to Australia.
A few years ago the brothers’ feat was repeated just to show how it was done, an enduring tribute to the original design and of course a real vote of confidence in the quality of the work carried out by Tony Ditheridge and his team.
Before starting on this project the company, Hawker Restorations, already had an impressive track record embracing a 1909 Bleriot, a few Avro 504s, the aforementioned Yak-1, and several Sopwith Pups and Camels. Even so, Tony admits the Hurricane project is daunting.
“Their unique construction, made up of hundreds of thousands of parts means they are the most complex aircraft of the war to restore. In this regard they are far, far worse than the Spitfires we have worked on here, plus one can’t exactly ring up British Steel and order in the parts. In fact – and how’s this for ironic? – we actually had to source some materials for the rebuilds from the Krupps company in Germany.”
This complex but effective 1930s technology was the brainchild of Sir Sydney Camm, without doubt the most skilled aircraft designer of his generation and whose work encompassed everything from the spindly Cygnet of the 1920s to the stunningly innovative Harrier jump-jets still flying today. For many years he was based at the Brooklands race track near Weybridge in Surrey, and it was from there that the first Hurricane made its maiden flight.
More than a little surprisingly K-5083, the number given to the original, somewhat ungainly Merlin-powered Hurricane prototype, was not even government-sponsored, but the result of a privately funded project of Sir Tommy Sopwith’s. Beating the Spitfire into the air by four months, Camm’s aim was simply to build the best, the fastest and the most stable gun-platform possible. He did it too, regardless of cost or of ease of manufacture, and with the intention of creating a durable airframe capable of withstanding massive punishment.
As a result, says Ditheridge, a full rebuild today can take well over 40,000 man-hours to complete. That’s about three times longer than it takes to complete a Spitfire, something which perhaps helps to explain why there are so many more of these today than Hurricanes. It also explains the final bill. Consider this. Even at just £25 an hour you’re talking £1 million for labour alone.
Then there are the parts to complete the job, which will cost at least half a million. The first planes arrived at the company in unrecogniseable shape, two from Canada – where more than 1,400 Hurricanes were built during the war – the other from Russia, a survivor of the consignment sent to an ungrateful Stalin. Little more than a jumble of twisted tubes, bent metal and stray wires, they offered a huge challenge to the team of Suffolk specialists and required a multitude of craft and engineering skills to get them airborne again.
The end result speaks for itself, however, although Tony is keen to underline the importance of such a project in demonstrating the value of traditional British engineering skills of a sort which are in danger of disappearing.
“Obviously we have to comply with the most stringent Civil Aviation Authority requirements in order to get a Permit to Fly. That’s no small task, but even so originality in every respect is the benchmark here and we take every care to ensure that these aircraft are restored to the minutest detail. That’s true not just for the engine, wings and fuselage but for every single component: guns and gunsights, original radio equipment, even the fuselage finished in traditional handstitched Irish linen just as it would have been in the 1940s.”
Hurricanes could never beat the Spitfire when it came to outright speed. Yet in many ways they were more impressive, a better weapons platform, able to outmanoeuvre any rival.
The Hurricane was also easier to fly, more forgiving than the Spitfire, and easier both on landing and taking off, thanks to its distinctive wide-tracked undercarriage. Not for nothing were trainee pilots in the 1940s usually given a few laps in one of these before they took to the air for the first time in a Spitfire. If you’ve got the money and want a Hurricane of your own, Hawker Restorations will also help you learn how to fly it.