Airborne again: Bringing Hawker Hurricanes back to life

How can a plane destroyed in 1940 return to soar above Britain? Jamie Merrill meets the man who brings Hawker Hurricanes back to life

Pilot Officer Kenneth McGlashan was too busy hunting the Messerschmitt fighters attacking the troop ships below him to notice two other Me 109s on his Hawker Hurricane's tail.

It was 30 May 1940 and Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of the British Army from the beaches of Dunkirk – was in full swing beneath him.

Detailed to protect the escaping soldiers from the Luftwaffe, the first McGlashan knew of his plight was when tracer rounds began to smash into the armour plate behind his head.

The next round from the lead German fighter, piloted by ace Franz Lüders, shattered McGlashan's cockpit canopy, pierced his shoulder and lodged itself in his fuselage. And, as a second attack shut down his engine and filled his cockpit with smoke, he struggled to wrestle his mortally wounded aircraft down to the beach.

The young pilot survived the crash and even managed to snap some illicit photographs of his stranded plane (pilots were forbidden from carrying cameras) before escaping back to England. His plane, however, was lost in the fog of war and, like the many relics of the Second World War that litter the landscape of northern France, was soon forgotten.

It was finally uncovered in 1988 by French battlefield enthusiasts. Then historic aircraft operator Rick Roberts obtained it and embarked upon its restoration. Now, after 70 years in the French sand, it is to take to the skies once more, to become one of the dozen or so still-flying examples of the Battle of Britain workhorse.

Roberts called on the skills of a small outfit called Hawker Restoration in the soft hills of west Suffolk, where McGlashan's warbird now stands.

Nestled between the village of Milden and the picturesque town of Lavenham, the company, owned and run by vigorous 64-year-old engineer Tony Ditheridge, is now close to bringing McGlashan's fighter back to life. Ditheridge and his team of seven craftsmen and engineers are the world's most-respected restorers of the Hurricane and, as he pulls open the heavy sliding doors to a hangar at the rear of his property, he reveals not just McGlashan's fighter, but two more examples of the legendary aeroplane.

It's a late summer's day and, as Ditheridge's team wheel the fighters out onto the asphalt, his barn isn't a modern Suffolk workshop any more, but a window back to those desperate months of summer 1940, when the Hurricane was key to this country's very survival during the Battle of Britain.

For, while the more glamorous Spitfire has long held the public's admiration and become central to the iconography of Britain's struggle against Nazi Germany, the Hurricane played just as a pivotal a role during the war.

More than 14,000 of the planes were produced during the war but in 1993, when Ditheridge, who started out in precision engineering and had a father in the RAF, tentatively entered the world of aircraft restoration, there were only three flying examples in the world.

"We chose the Hurricane precisely because it's so rare," Ditheridge tells me, as we tour a workshop littered with propellers, deactivated machine guns and engine parts. "There were a fair few Spitfire restorers around but nobody specialised in the Hurricane, which always struck me as odd, considering it possibly accounted for up to 60 per cent of the kills against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain."

Despite this, Ditheridge was hesitant at first. It took a New Zealand businessman to commission three aircraft in a job lot in 1993 before he could make the project – and investment in specialised machinery – financially viable.

"It's taken us 20 years and somewhere in the region of £5m to get to where we are now. The Hurricane was mass-produced during the war, but the tools and materials required to manufacture and restore them simply don't exist today, so in many ways we've had to start from scratch," he says. Yet in a few years' time, when the small firm is finished with McGlashan's and the two other airframes sitting in its barn, there will be 15 Hurricanes in the skies again, no fewer than 10 of which the company will have worked on. This is compared to the 60 or so flying examples of the Spitfire, with another 60 of those under restoration.

"The Hurricane is one of most difficult aircraft to restore," says Ditheridge. "During the war, thousands of relatively unskilled people worked on production lines, but the skill was in the manufacture of the components, which were very precise indeed."

It takes Hawker Restoration around two and a half years, £1.6m and nearly 26,000 man-hours to rebuild the millions of individual parts, instruments and engine components that make up the fighter. And by the time they are finished, the complete Hurricane can range from 25 to 75 per cent original parts, depending on the state in which the airframe reaches the company.

Once completed, a fighter like McGlashan's from the Battle of France or Battle of Britain can sell for £2m, with yearly running costs coming close to £100,000. Sholto Gilbertson, an aviation and motoring specialist at the auction house Bonhams, says: "A Hurricane or a Spitfire aircraft is the ultimate boys' toy for the superrich. So there's always a great deal of interest when we offer one for auction. Especially if it is a Battle of Britain aircraft, with that sense of excitement and romance."

But the return on your investment can be huge, explains Ditheridge: "We sold one of our first Hurricanes to Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and in the six years it took for us to restore it for him, it doubled in value.

"He told me that when he was a little boy he had 55 Airfix models in a glass case. He'd made them all as he grew up and decided that when he had money he wanted the real ones. He now owns them all. That's a boyhood passion, made possible by money."

If you want to join the Hurricane club you'll need to make your millions fast. Airframes are becoming increasingly hard to come by and Ditheridge estimates that his company can only restore half a dozen or so more aircraft before he's run out of components and his workforce reaches retirement.

He says: "The Hurricane was built around square wooden stiffeners, to which the skin of the aircraft is attached, and horizontal struts of round metal tubes. These tubes were produced, ironically enough, by a German firm for us, but that factory has now closed.

"Unless someone wants to invest tens of millions of pounds in new machinery there will probably never be more than 20 flying Hurricanes.

"We'll finish McGlashan's plane early next year and then there's probably six years' work left on the other planes we currently have."

Ditheridge has clearly done well out of his business (with other customers including Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings) but it is the aircraft that end up in aviation museums and historic collections, like the RAF's ceremonial Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, that excite him: "I love restoring these historic aircraft to their former glory. Their lines are so beautiful and they played a crucial role in our history."

Sadly McGlashan, who went on to fight with some acclaim in the Battle of Britain, before emigrating to Australia, never saw his aircraft again after leaving it on a French beach in the summer of 1940. He died several years ago.

But his story lives on in his aircraft's restoration and the bullet fragment that passed through his shoulder, into the fuselage and, now recovered, is kept safe in Ditheridge's toolbox.

And in just over seven months or so, McGlashan's warbird will fly again.

Hawker Hurricane: An unsung hero

*The Hawker Hurricane was designed by Sir Sydney Camm, who has been described as the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of aeronautical engineering. He went on to design the now-famous Harrier jump jet.

*It first flew in November 1935 and served with the RAF and other Allied air forces through the Battle of France, Battle of Britain, D-Day and in the Pacific Theatre.

*While the sleek lines of the Spitfire caught the public's imagination, with "Spitfire Funds" even raising cash to sponsor the manufacture of the aircraft, the dumpier Hurricane attracted little glamour, despite claiming more kills during the Battle of Britain. Even today, in a survey of the most popular Airfix models, it came seventh, after the Spitfire and numerous German aircraft.

*Historians have struggled to agree on precise figures, but at the time, Fighter Command claimed 2,741 German kills during the Battle of Britain: 55 per cent by Hurricanes, 42 per cent by Spitfires.

*The Hurricane proved deadly when pitted against the Luftwaffe's Me109, as it was more agile and, more-importantly, had a tighter turning circle than the German fighter.

*Pilots rated Camm's fighter – which was an evolutionary design from a First World War Hawker biplane – as more reliable, easier to control and more able to absorb damage in aerial combat than the Spitfire.

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