Every Wednesday morning Mike Pugh motors down the M25 and heads for Junction 22. The route, that he’s been following weekly since 2011, takes him to the de Havilland Aircraft Museum in London Colney where he and 13 other skilful enthusiasts are in the process of restoring a Dragon Rapide aircraft to make it flightworthy again.
The current volunteer group, led by expert Terry Pankhurst, a former aeronautic engineer, are just a few of the men who have been working on the 1930s short-haul biplane for the past 20 + years. And Mike just loves being part of it.
“It’s a privilege and great fun. We take on different jobs. My area is electrics, I need to get the system set up for contemporary radio communication too. Others are concentrating on the cockpit, the wings or putting the undercarriage together. The Rapide is a lightweight wooden structure, originally covered with Irish linen, then ‘doped’ with adhesive to strengthen and seal. Now we use the cheaper and less flammable Cellulose Acetate, which is shrunk and fixed to the timber with an iron.”
There is no logbook but the team are aware of some history.
“A wing spar with a bullet hole was taken out in the early stages. The aircraft had been flying from Baghdad low over the marshes en route to Basra in 1946 when the Arabs opened fire as they usually did with any craft came within rifle range!”
When the Rapide renovation is eventually finished, estimated to be another five years, it will go to another company for inspection and adding final elements before it can take off. There are two reconditioned engines stored in sealed cases ready and waiting for the day!
The process is slow – making it good to fly again is very different from preparing for a static museum display.
“Everything we do has to be validated and signed for … every nut, and bolt has to be designed for aeronautics and extra strong, usually made of steel or aluminium alloys. Some parts are sent to Luton Airport to be x-rayed by the same department who check over the Easy Jet planes.”
Each stage is overseen by the Civil Aviation Authority which is currently part of the ESA (European Space Agency) and is subject to the same inspection criteria as modern day jumbo jets.
“We’re not sure what will happen after Brexit.”
Materials are sourced worldwide, ordered as and when needed. Spruce comes from Canada, Plywood from Finland.
“The seats are made from Magnesium! There are usually 8 and we need another 3 still so are constantly scouring the internet for these and other parts although we have to beware of scams.”
The Rapide Renovation team have varied but relevant backgrounds
Mike, a Physicist by training, worked as a Rehabilitation Engineer developing electric wheelchairs for 20 years. He was introduced to the project by a friend who worked at de Havilland.
“It made complete sense to get involved. I had retired and was ready to do something on a regular basis and golf didn’t appeal. We already had a family connection with de Havilland, my Dad worked there in the War years. I keep expecting to spot him in one of the many old photographs mounted on the hangar walls!”
“We have an excellent dedicated team here and are lucky to get encouragement and technical or design advice from de Havilland Support at Duxford.” adds Terry, “We have most things covered but desperately need the services of a skilled sheet metal worker who specialises in double curvatures rather than flat plate work.”
It’s a long and costly mission. The restoration teamput in a small sum a week each but the restoration project is largely paid for by the museum and donations are always welcome!
The Museum is currently closed to the public for the winter season and re-opens in February
If you have expertise in bending of sheet metal work and can help, contact email@example.com