It’s always an exciting moment when you find out that a new project is coming to the hangar. Whether for static or airworthy rebuild, the prospect of taking an aircraft which has spent its recent life languishing in a field or hidden in a storage facility and restoring it to its former glory is always a tantalising one. The same was true for the ‘Vanguard Hunter’, the latest overhaul carried out by North Weald Heritage Aviation for owners Vanguard Self Storage.
Hawker Hunter F.1 WT555 arrived by low loader to our facility at North Weald in late July 2021 after we had been awarded the contract to restore her to static condition and finish the aircraft in her original markings. As the lorries rounded the pan to our hangar – appropriately once occupied by No 111 Squadron’s Hunters – it became clear that the jet was in need of a serious overhaul. Vanguard had displayed the aircraft on the roof of its building in Greenford, west London for many years – one of several ex-military items the company rotated through display, including a Westland Scout AH.1 helicopter and a Bofors anti-aircraft gun. A novel way of drawing the attention of passing commuters on the A40!
Manufactured in early 1953, WT555 was the first production standard example of the Hawker Hunter F.1. Finished in gleaming all-over silver, she made her maiden flight on 16 May 1953, getting airborne from Dunsfold with Frank Murphy at the controls.
It became clear during early trials that the three prototype Hunters could not sustain meaningful development of the aircraft alone, and the first 20 production examples were accordingly designated as development airframes. These 20 aircraft underwent numerous modifications throughout their service lives, including blown flaps, different designs of airbrakes, investigations into the use of area rule in the fuselage, and various engine types. WT555 was no exception and there are various vents and panels that would not be found on a standard example of the F.1.
Three days after its first flight, WT555 was presented to HRH Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, who accepted the aircraft on behalf of the RAF and whose crest was placed below the cockpit on the port side. To mark the occasion, Neville Duke (Hawker’s Chief Test Pilot) flew ‘555 alongside Hunters WB195 and WB202 over Dunsfold. ‘555 went on to enjoy an extensive flying life at the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down. On completion of its handling and performance trials, it was retired from flying and eventually passed to No 5 Maintenance Unit at RAF Kemble in June 1957, then to No 7 Radio School at RAF Locking in November 1957, where it was utilised as a ground instructional airframe. No 2 School of Technical Training at RAF Cosford received the aircraft in 1967, and it eventually passed to the RAF Museum. By now she had lost the gleaming silver and was instead finished in green and grey top surfaces with silver lower surfaces, and it was in these colours that she was, quite remarkably, put up for disposal by the museum in 1989.
It was at this point that Mac McCullagh, the owner of Vanguard Engineering, saw an opportunity to make his company stand out from its competitors and purchased the Hunter at auction for use as a publicity tool to advertise his burgeoning company. As such, at the International Construction Equipment Exhibition in early 1990, Vanguard proudly displayed the newly acquired Hunter alongside examples of its heavy plant equipment.
In subsequent years, WT555 spent time on and off the roof of Vanguard’s facility before being moved into storage, awaiting her chance to be restored to former glory – that decision falling to Will McCullagh, son of Mac, who commissioned the work with project management support from Paul Bradford.
Over summer 2021, our team carefully paint-stripped the airframe before mating her mainplanes to her fuselage, allowing WT555 to stand on her own three wheels again for the first time in years, poignantly in the same hangar from which 111 Squadron operated its Hunters decades ago. As she stood there, we began to cast our eyes over her skins, and the scars accrued over a long life. There was damage to her starboard intake, elevators, flaps, upper wing skins, ailerons, and the tertiary structure which supported the wing to body fillet panels that helped form the Hunter’s classic profile.
We would have to deal with all of this before we could contemplate repainting her. Compounding our engineering head-scratching was the need to jack the aircraft and retract the undercarriage to allow us to properly apply her serial number to the lower surface of the wings, a process which had surely not been carried out in at least 40 years, if not longer!
We knew where we had to end up – with ‘555 looking exactly as she had 69 years previously. Between the aforementioned engineering challenges and accurately researching the paint finish, we understood that getting there would be no easy task. We opted to tackle the metalwork issues first and one of our engineers, Ash, was set to work. Across the course of a few weeks, Ash carefully beat skins back into shape and re-manufactured sections of structure and skin to splice into the airframe. Two of these repairs proved to be particularly challenging. The first was the heavily damaged structure for the wing to body panels, which were bent, broken or, in some cases, missing entirely.
This presented us with a dilemma. Pretty much the entirety of WT555’s airframe is original and untouched. Whilst removing the various damaged sections and fitting our own in-house manufactured replacements would protect the original design, it would also mean that one by one, pieces of her history would be taken away. Conscious of wanting to mitigate this as far as possible to protect the airframe’s provenance, and because there was no requirement to carry out the repairs to an airworthy standard, we decided to add rather than subtract. Ash made up small sections of strengthening plate that would allow us to retain the original structure whilst providing the strength and shape required to refit the fillet panels over the top.
The intake repair was even more frustrating. Initially the hope was that the very deep impact damage could be beaten out and the shape re-formed. However, the structure below was also compromised, which meant the damaged skin would require removal, and the frames would need to be carefully bent back to shape before a new skin would be refitted over the top. This skin was a particularly challenging shape to re-manufacture, and within the time constraints of the job, it became clear that this approach wouldn’t be as efficient as first hoped.
Instead, Ash had to try and re-shape the original skin to remove the damage and fit it back onto the intake. This sounds like a simple procedure; it isn’t. As the thin sheet aluminium is slowly beaten back into shape, the stresses incurred from the impact damage are released and the shape can contort. The metal can stretch or shrink too, meaning overall length and width can easily differ greatly from what you are trying to achieve. These issues were all faced down and slowly but surely the skin was formed to match its original shape closely enough that it could be re-fitted.
In tandem with the engineering aspect of the project, we began to research the paint finish and markings. We were fortunate that plenty of images of WT555’s in-service life were available, depicting it both in flight and on the ground, which made it easier to ascertain precisely which markings were required. Despite this, we were unable to source images of the port side of the nose section as it was when the aircraft was presented to Prince Philip, making it almost impossible to accurately recreate the positioning and size of the crest worn during its royal presentation. We decided that in the interests of accuracy, we would represent the aircraft exactly as it would have looked on the day that it rolled off the production line. Ensuring we used the correct shade of silver paint was crucial to achieving that. It may seem like a trivial detail, but paint has changed since the 1950s and ‘silver’ isn’t just ‘silver’!
Modern silver paint tends to have a fleck added to the mix, which provides a sparkle effect that the original simply didn’t have. The original silver would have been far flatter and duller with a finish not unlike the silver dope used on Ceconite fabric-covered aircraft today. Added to this is the fact that the original paint had a tendency to weather very badly, which means that shades can be incredibly open to interpretation depending upon when reference images were taken. The obvious answer would be to simply look in the aircraft manuals for the original paint code and use that to have the correct shade mixed up. Again, things are never as simple as you hope. The paint code or ‘DTD’ number listed in the manuals for aircraft of this era is a reference to the chemical mix formula as opposed to the shade, and with basic descriptions of ‘Silver’ or ‘Aluminium’, there was very little to go on.
Enter our chief engineer, Fran Renouf, who, after considerable time spent trawling eBay, managed to locate an original wrapped and boxed Hunter access panel which was finished in the all-important original silver from the same era. This was duly used by our paint provider to mix the correct shade of silver; but that wasn’t quite the end of the story. Aware of how finish and primer can affect the final colour of a paint, we asked that test pots of the colour be produced in matte, satin and gloss finish, which would allow us to make up test swatches to ensure we had the best possible match. Six swatches were made up – three on dark primer, three on light primer. After numerous discussions with Vanguard, everyone involved was happy that the best possible paint finish would be achieved.
Back in the hangar and with the metalwork now complete, attention turned to retracting the landing gear. After jacking the aircraft, the engineering team debated the best means of achieving this. It was evident from the outset that the Hunter’s auxiliary hydraulic hand pump (which can be found in the fuselage) was in no condition to be utilised, and the condition of any pipework within the fuselage was probably dubious at best. If the pipes in the undercarriage bays (which led directly to the retraction jacks) were in a good enough condition, we could attach our own hand hydraulic pump to the side we wanted to pressurise, and carefully raise each undercarriage leg in turn.
Using this method, one by one and with copious amounts of lubricant applied to the pintles and various bearings and joints, each of the three undercarriage legs were slowly raised into their bays. As they reached the top of their movement, the satisfying ‘clunk’ of the up-locks signalled success. A further couple of retractions of the undercarriage were carried out to ensure that we wouldn’t fall foul of the gear being stuck in the up position; with no issues found, it was on to the paint preparation.
Our painters began the laborious process of readying the aircraft’s surface for the primer to be applied, and before long the aircraft was a dull grey. It was now time to prepare the grey primer for the application of the top coat. Endless days seemed to pass in the hangar with the continuous drone of Noel, Carlo and Josh’s air powered DA-sanders. The primer finish was smoothed to remove any deficiencies that could show through in the top coat, whilst providing a rough enough surface for the top coat paint to grip to. With this complete, attention turned to the final layers of paint – silver is definitely this aircraft’s colour! Over the next few days our painters did a sterling job of applying the top coat, and the aircraft was ready to receive her markings.
Nigel, our marking guru from Flightline Graphics, did a superb job of replicating WT555’s markings, and with these in hand our team set to work applying the stencils. Serial numbers, warnings, roundels and trestle marks began to appear across her skin, and the true elegance of this classic jet started to shine through. At this stage, the aircraft really came to life with all the little details that made it look ‘whole’ again. Certain areas provided challenges, particularly so the positioning of the underwing serial numbers. Fortunately, we were able to use images of the aircraft in flight to correctly align these stencils. A belly image of ‘555 climbing in the vertical provided us with just enough detail to identify where the markings sat in relation to panel lines in the wing surfaces and the stencils were applied accordingly.
With all the markings complete, we applied a clear coat gloss lacquer to the surface of the airframe, which would seal and protect the paint finish whilst allowing the aircraft to be easily cleaned once finally installed in her future home. There is an argument that this means the finish is not exactly as it was when the aircraft originally rolled out of Hawker’s hangars – but she does indeed wear the correct finish and colour beneath, and the lacquer allows her to be better preserved during the next phase of her life. This must be the priority.
And so, we were on the home stretch with only a handful of tasks to be completed before we could declare the aircraft finished. Any masking that had been applied for the spraying of markings was removed and the task of unfolding the undercarriage and returning her to her wheels was carried out without incident. Weather and timings had, we thought, put paid to any opportunity to see the finished article outside in its full glory, but as the final day before transport to the aircraft’s new home at Vanguard’s recently built self-storage facility in North-West London wore on, we saw a chance.
Thanks to the fine work of everyone involved in wrapping up the project, we found ourselves fractionally ahead of schedule, and this afforded us the opportunity to take advantage of the stunning sunset now falling over North Weald. After a quick chat to discuss a plan of action, the hangar became a flurry of activity. Final panels were refitted, trestles and stands cleared out of harm’s way, and a final clean carried out to ensure she was in tip top condition for her moment in the sun.
As we moved WT555 into a suitable position to capture some images, we were all struck by how well presented the aircraft now looked, resplendent in the scheme she wore nearly seven decades ago. As the light danced from her gleaming wings, I think we all reflected on the part we had played in WT555’s history. Many before us had done greater things than we had with this aircraft, but I certainly hope that our little part may just do justice to all those accomplishments and preserve their memory for future generations to enjoy.
After all, why else do we do this if not to ensure the continuation of those stories?
Hawker Hunter F.1 WT555 was raised into hanging position in Vanguard’s premises at 717 North Circular Road on 19 May 2022, 69 years to the day since the aircraft flew for Prince Philip at Dunsfold.
The self-storage facility will be open for visitors in October 2022. See Vanguard’s website for details.