Biggles factor propels wartime aircraft back into the skies

Danger in the air: Airline incidents and crash of historic warplane highlight pressures on maintaining safety in the air

How can it be that the number of Second World War aircraft capable of flying has increased dramatically in the past decade? The answer lies with the enthusiasts who devote their time to restoring them.

In spite of occasional crashes, such as the loss of Britain's only flying Mosquito fighter-bomber on Sunday, a powerful lobby believes that historic aircraft belong in the air. The difference, they say, is between stuffed animals in a museum, and living animals in a zoo.

"There are several thousand of these aeroplanes worldwide, most of them in the US," said Stephen Grey, head of the Fighter Collection based at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, Cambridgeshire. "Ten years ago there were three or four Spitfires flying in the world: now there are 25. There were about 40 Mustangs - now there are 100. Fifteen years ago there was one Lancaster: now there are two, and others are under restoration."

The loving care lavished on historic aircraft is not limited to Allied planes. A decade ago, of the 22,000 German Me-109 fighters built, none were flying. Now, Mr Grey said, three or four are flying and a similar number are being restored.

The privately sponsored Fighter Collection, with 18 flying aircraft and 13 undergoing restoration, is only one of many in Europe. The RAF's Battle Of Britain Memorial Flight, whose aircraft take part in official fly-pasts, has one Hurricane and another being restored, a Lanc- aster, and five Spitfires. The Navy retains its own Historic Flight, with a Sea Fury, a Firefly and two Swordfish.

More effort is now put into restoring the aircraft than would have been expended on them in wartime, when they were built. Engine and propeller parts can be taken from aircraft too damaged to restore. Other parts - wooden and aluminium spars, structural parts and rivets - are made from scratch.

When an old aeroplane crashes, it is usually through "human error". The aircraft, designed for war, were usually pushed to the limit in their development; large numbers were expected to be shot down, and safety was not a priority.

"They're big gyroscopes, essentially, with an enormous propeller on the front," said Mr Grey. "If something goes wrong it's a question of knowing what to do." He refused to speculate on the cause of Sunday's accident. But in previous cases, he said, pilots had been distracted, or had made simple errors.

The determination to keep historic aircraft flying stems from the belief that there is more to history than the mere artefact.

"It's not a glorification of war," said Mr Grey. "The jet has obviously been an amazing technological change. Piston-engine technology has reached its end. That's a reason for maintaining it. Historically it's pretty important to see these things in their prime element, which is in the air. How would a child know what a Spitfire is, if he just saw it in a museum?"

Restored to flight

Piston-engined military aircraft flying, worldwide

Mid-1980s Now

Spitfire 3-4 25

Lancaster 1 2

Mosquito 0 2-3

Beaufighter 0 1

Mustang 40 100

B-17 Flying

Fortress N/A 10

Me-109 0 3-4

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
News
news
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
football
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Supply Teacher - Loughborough

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Are you a Teacher looking fo...

Primary General Cover Teachers

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leicester: Are you a Newly Qualified Teacher lo...

Part Time Primary Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Part Time Primary TeacherOur...

Science Technician

£7 - £8 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: The Job:School Science Technici...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week