COLLECTING: Ghosts in an aircraft graveyard

In 1959, an 11-year-old stumbled across a crashed Wellington bomber on a foggy moor. Now Ken Ward's aviation artefacts have taken over his life - and his shed.
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The Independent Culture
YOU DON'T have to be rich or American to be an aviation junkie, but if you are it helps. A complete plane such as a Spitfire costs pounds 450,000 - the record price was pounds 34m - and one billionaire from the US comes "shopping" in Britain three times a year and spends millions. Even modern jets with little nostalgic value can set a collector back pounds 50,000 (plus VAT). Aviation hardware that was once virtually given away by the MOD can now fetch 10 times the price at auctions organised by Sotheby's and Christies.

Professional dealers and the super-rich have pushed prices well beyond the pockets of most, but there is a more modest face of aviation collecting. Thousands of enthusiasts around the country spend their weekends at "aero jumbles", aeronautical car boot sales, where bric-a-brac can cost as little as a fiver. Most specialise in a narrow field: flying clothing or RAF medals at the orthodox end of the spectrum; cameras, gun sights, bomb sights, or old Air Force logbooks and paperwork at the more esoteric end.

Ken Ward, an unemployed ex-council worker from Bilsdale in North Yorkshire, doesn't much care what he collects. Whether it's a fragment of cockpit canopy or a complete jet aircraft, he'll move mountains with a mechanical digger to get it. He has been gathering aviation artefacts since 1959, when as an 11-year-old he was taken by a schoolfriend to the crash site of a bomber that had come down on moorland above Bilsdale during the Second World War.

"It was foggy," he recalls, "and we couldn't see very far. We were walking backwards and forwards through the heather, not knowing where we were. We heard the sound of squeaking metal. As we moved towards the sound, the tailplane of a Wellington - 20ft high and complete with tail turret - loomed out of the fog. It was lying like a giant Airfix kit, its rudder swinging in the wind and squeaking like a rusty gate."

The shattered hulk captured Ken's curiosity and imagination: he took a piece of the aircraft home and began a hobby, some might say an obsession, that has spanned nearly 40 years and shows no signs of waning. When he's not out excavating crash sites, he's delving into the pages of magazines such as Wrecks and Relics, or arcane books like Aircraft Museums and Collections of the World, which lists the addresses and numbers of all collectors who are halfway serious and don't mind the publicity.

Ken Ward's own collection now numbers thousands of aviation artefacts and contains examples of every conceivable piece of equipment from wartime aircraft: aero engines, gun turrets, machine guns, inert ammunition, gyro- compasses, radios, propellers, parts of airframes, pieces of crumpled fuselage, parachutes and dinghies. He stores them in a sprawling makeshift shed alongside his farmhouse home, which serves as a museum and has seen many extensions to its size over the years.

Most of the exhibits are remnants of war machines, like the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine from the Spitfire of a Battle of Britain "ace" who collided with a trainee pilot over Cleveland in 1940, or the jagged piece of fuselage bearing the nickname "Over Exposed" from the B-29 Superfortress which accompanied the aircraft that destroyed Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. It crashed in the Derbyshire Peak District in 1948. Other items, like the savagely twisted frames of a pair of sunglasses and some loose change - recovered from the wreck of a Spitfire which crashed near Skegness in January 1943 - are more personal and more poignant.

"These were war machines hitting the ground at 400-500 miles per hour," Ken explains. "Quite often, people were still in them. RAF recovery teams would try to retrieve any human remains, but sometimes personal effects were buried when the hole was filled in. Such discoveries bring you closer to the event - and you know that the last person to touch or hold that article was the owner." When you come across things like that, says Ken, wrecks become more than mere machines: "You realise they were flown by men who gave their lives for their country. Such effects ought to be preserved, because of what they represent."

Much of what Ken Ward has collected has been excavated from hundreds of crash sites of Allied and German aircraft as far apart as Skegness and the Scottish Highlands. "When we do a dig," he says, "it's the unknown that attracts. It's like digging into a time-warp. You're uncovering something that happened 50 years ago and was frozen in time in an instant."

In the early days, it was a case of using a metal detector and shovel. "It is possible to shovel out surface fragments to a depth of 2-3ft," he says. "Anything deeper and you need a mechanical digger." The cost of hiring one can be prohibitive, especially to an unemployed council worker, but Ken has found that the curiosity and interest that drives him is widespread among the general public. "We've had quite a few operators who have come along with a digger on hire, and have got so involved in the project that they've ended up doing it for free."

Farmers and landowners are the same. One Cleveland farmer - who, as a child in 1944, had watched a German Junkers 88 dive into his father's field - loaned Ken his JCB for six weeks so he could recover the wreck. He was delighted when he was given a piece as a souvenir.

Sometimes there are disappointments, Ken admits, such as finding nothing more than a bucketful of bits. On other occasions, however, he might get up to five vanloads of artefacts, including engines. His most satisfying dig was the excavation of "Kiwi III", the Spitfire flown by Battle of Britain ace Alan Deere, a New Zealander, whose machine crashed near Kirkleavington in Cleveland on 28 December 1940. It had collided not with a German adversary but another Spitfire. Deere recounted his experience in his book Nine Lives.

Ken Ward spent 18 years trying to locate the site, and had searched five square miles of the area where the aircraft was thought to have come down. Then the pilot who had collided with Deere helped Ken pinpoint the site 47 years after the event. On the day before the dig was due to start, Ward enlisted the help of a contractor who was digging roadside ditches a mile away: when the purpose was explained, the digger and its operator were provided without charge. The Kirkleavington site yielded the Rolls- Royce Merlin engine that today holds pride of place in Ken Ward's collection.

Though imagination and curiosity have played their part, Ken's interest in aviation archaeology is also driven by the desire to preserve aspects of Britain's aviation heritage. With some justification, he will tell you that a number of items which were once produced in their thousands during wartime are now unique to his collection. Restorers of historic aircraft have been able to fashion new parts from templates derived from Ward's artefacts.

Preservation took on a larger dimension in the 1970s, when Ken dug into his savings to purchase a De Havilland Vampire T11 jet aircraft from the Ministry of Defence, to rescue it from the scrapyard. Since then he has acquired an English Electric Lightning F3A jetfighter, and the cockpits of a Gloster Meteor NF11 nightfighter, an English Electric Lightning F1A fighter, a Jet Provost Trainer and a Blackburn Buccaneer. They are crammed into a small enclosure alongside his house, and act as a magnet for low- flying jet fighter pilots - who often return for a second look. His cockpit of the Vickers Valiant V-Bomber (one of only four in existence) is on permanent loan to an aircraft preservation society in the Midlands.

Perhaps Ken's most ambitious project was the restoration of his English Electric Lightning F3A fighter. This aircraft once intercepted Concord from behind at twice the speed of sound during trials over the English Channel, and was once taken well above its official ceiling of 60,000ft to intercept two American U2 spy planes during a NATO exercise.

Ken Ward bought the engineless airframe from RAF Leuchars in 1991, with the intention of displaying it at the South Yorkshire Air Museum. The deal fell through. A year later, an alternative plan, to install it as a tourist attraction in the garden of Ken's "local", foundered when the North Yorkshire National Parks Committee refused planning permission. He then accepted hangar space at Teesside Airport to rebuild the airframe in return for the loan of the Lightning as a permanent exhibit.

The restoration has been carried out by Ken and his friend Wally Douglas, supported by a number of local sponsors and aided by a small group of volunteers and friends. Valuable specialist help has been provided by enthusiasts from RAF Leeming. It has been hard work, but Ken and his team are sure it has been worth it. Fully restored to static display standard, the plane is expected to go on permanent exhibition outside the terminal at Teesside Airport.

"The Lightning was the only single-seat, supersonic, all-British fighter ever built," Ken explains. "For over 25 years it was a world beater: nothing could touch it. There are only five of this mark (F3) in existence; the rest have been scrapped. This is the only one being restored and the others are in kit form. It's the only reassembled Mark 3 on the planet."

! Sotheby's next sale of historic aircraft and aeronautica is at Summers Place, Billingshurst, West Sussex on Saturday 25 November at 2pm.