On a wing and a prayer ... final part of giant jet jigsaw arrives

UAS volunteer Harry Munn, from Lisburn, removes a fuselage panel from the aircraft, one of many parts which were removed in the lengthy operation to separate the four-ton wing from the fuselage, in February
UAS volunteer Harry Munn, from Lisburn, removes a fuselage panel from the aircraft, one of many parts which were removed in the lengthy operation to separate the four-ton wing from the fuselage, in February

The last pieces of a ‘retired’ Cold War jet bomber have now arrived safely in the Province, allowing engineers to finish rebuilding the vast craft.

The wings of the Phantom bomber represent the final parts of the giant aeronautical jigsaw project, which has seen the old warplane dismantled and shipped from its base in Scotland to the site of the former Maze prison.

A mobile crane suspends the Phantom wing, ready for a low-loader trailer to be reversed into position, Saturday November 14. The operation to prepare the wing for safe loading took 10 people a full day of steady work.

A mobile crane suspends the Phantom wing, ready for a low-loader trailer to be reversed into position, Saturday November 14. The operation to prepare the wing for safe loading took 10 people a full day of steady work.

The fuselage had already arrived in June, and the wings arrived at the site on Monday, via the port of Larne.

It will now take at least six months to reattach them, and it will be perhaps as much as a year until the whole reassembled plane – complete with armaments – is ready to be displayed to the public.

Stephen Riley, honorary secretary of the Ulster Aviation Society (UAS), which is running the project, said that moving the 38ft (12.5m) wings has actually proved much harder than moving the narrower main body of the aircraft itself.

“You could tip it on its edge, but it’d be very high, so couldn’t go under bridges or powerlines,” he said.

The wing on its way! It's a mile from Leuchars, heading west on Sunday November 22 for Cairnryan on the other side of Scotland to board the ferry for Larne.

The wing on its way! It's a mile from Leuchars, heading west on Sunday November 22 for Cairnryan on the other side of Scotland to board the ferry for Larne.

“If it’s flat, it would sweep people off the footpaths!

“We had to build a special frame for it, so it could be carried neither flat, nor sticking way up.”

The job of simply getting the wings off was hard enough by itself.

“The Phantom, when they were built, were never designed to be taken apart in that fashion.

“If they had wanted to go from one place to another, they would just fly it there – they didn’t pay much mind to preservation by organisations like ours!

“We had no guidance at all on the taking apart of the Phantom... When it was built, it was built as one integral part. It’s not popping two bolts out and saying ‘let’s go’.”

Among the other items they have also obtained are eight air-to-air missiles – filled with concrete to render them safe – and a Vulcan cannon.

The latter is a vast gun, several feet long, which sat underneath the main body of the aircraft and could fire at a rate of 6,000 shells per minute (or 100 per second).

“When each shell hits, it explodes - it’s not just a bullet,” said Mr Riley, a 70-year-old Canadian and former journalist who has lived in the Province for decades, and is now based in Templepatrick.

He said the craft is not the most attractive aircraft around, and branded it an “absolute brute” – noting that, ultimately, its purpose was not to look impressive but to kill people.

The craft had belonged to the Fleet Air Arm (part of the Royal Navy) and then the RAF.

He is also now hopeful that the UAS team will be able to paint the craft in its original Fleet Air Arm colours of navy blue with a greyish-blue underside – plus some special flashes of paintwork which would have been put in place to commemorate a previous Royal Jubilee.

It is either that, or its previous RAF colours, and Mr Riley said: “They’re boring. Boring on top, on the bottom, front, side and back. Totally boring. It’s two shades of grey. Who cares?”

Since 1989, the US-built craft has been sitting at RAF Leuchars in Scotland, until being bought by the UAS for £31,000.

In its Cold War heyday it could have flown at up to 1,500mph, using its Rolly-Royce engines (which had been fitted at Aldergrove), but the RAF has kept possession of these.