Shackleton Preservation Trust Feature

Saturday 26th March 2016

Now that Avro Vulcan XH558 has touched down for a final time, there might soon be a feeling that there is a rather large hole to be filled in the eyes of enthusiasts and public alike. But it's not the end for tremendous British four-engined Avro machines, and whilst there are encouraging noises coming from Lancaster NX611 at East Kirkby, to say nothing of PA474's return after her enforced hiatus for most of last summer, another Avro aircraft is soon anticipated to grace the UK skies with its signature growl again after 25 years' silence.

Tom Jones put questions to Richard Woods, of the Shackleton Preservation Trust, about their project to get Avro Shackleton WR963 back where she belongs. Photography as credited.

Let it not be underestimated the enormity of the task that the Shackleton Preservation Trust has set themselves upon. When I first heard of the Shackleton at Coventry being restored to flight back in 2012, I, like many others, was cautiously optimistic. It's no reflection on the Trust, but as an enthusiast, for every success story there have been non-starters, vaguely defined and failed business plans, and projects that have been drastically underestimated.

Such a relief it is, then, to see the Trust not only go from little steps into long strides, but to be utterly transparent about their operation, and keep you and I informed every step of the way.

Could you give us a brief history of the Shackleton Preservation Trust and how the organisation came about?

The Shackleton Preservation Trust was set up initially by David Liddell-Grainger, owner of Ayton Castle, with the intention of purchasing and preserving two Avro Shackleton aircraft when they were retired from RAF service and sold at auction. He was successful and the Trust acquired WR963 and WL790, flying in to Coventry Airport on the 9th and 10th July 1991. The Trust gained charitable status in 1993 and WL790 flew again in 1994, unfortunately heading out to the USA where she remains now. The Trust then became dormant for a while, before being revived in 1998 when work resumed on WR963 under the leadership of Sqn Ldr (ret.) John Cubberley.

How is the Trust organised, and how are those in the Trust qualified to restore and operate WR963?

The trust is a registered charity (no 1020951), and its organisation is covered by the original Trust Deed filed with the Charity Commission in 1993. Trustees and membership of the Trust itself are drawn from the "Friends" supporters group and the restoration team. The original members of the Trust were largely ex-Shackleton air and ground crew, but the new team covers people from all backgrounds. Work is still overseen by ex-Shackleton personnel, but aviation experience is not essential to be part of our team so long as you are willing to learn. This trend will continue, we don't want to discourage anyone from becoming part of the Shackleton's return to flight. In terms of operation - on the ground there are no qualifications required to run up the engines, but those who do so are either ex- Shackleton crew, or members of our team that have been trained by them. We're lucky in that we hold all the Shackleton training course notes, and the AP's; so everything is done strictly by the book. When the aircraft flies, that will be another matter - but we have several pilots who are closely linked to our project and have significant amounts of experience on either the Shackleton or other large heavy piston aircraft.

At what point was it realised that WR963 could be returned to flight?

It was hoped that there would have been no gap between the aircraft retiring from RAF service and flying in preservation, but the Design Authority at the time wouldn't support any private operation of Shackleton aircraft. Thankfully the design was sold and a feasibility study was carried out in 2004 which indicated that the aircraft's condition was still such that a return to flight was a real possibility.

When did restoration to flight status start?

Restoration to flight began slowly at the end of 2012, beginning with registering the aircraft and several enquiries to the CAA regarding the way forward. Things have started taking bigger strides of late but gaining momentum with a project this size is difficult. We were lucky in that from the outset the vast majority of the work was done to an airworthy standard and logged. The major overhaul of the aircraft (its 'Major' service and subsequent return to flight) will involve a lot of component replacement and a substantial tear down of the aircraft - something that won't happen until all the contributory factors such as funding and hangar leasing are sorted.

What are the biggest hurdles in this kind of project, and indeed, how close is the Trust to overcoming them?

Getting to the bottom of the life-expired spar boom myth has been the hardest task so far. Funding is the next big hurdle we're looking at, as aviation heritage in anything other than a static capacity is very poorly funded overall. You can get national funding for working historic ships, trains, even trolleybuses… but aircraft? Not so much. In terms of overcoming them, the spar myth was resolved on purchase of the design material and obtaining a lot of the aircraft's former service documentation which allowed us to trace any maintenance done and component changes right back to its conversion to an AEW2. Funding is something that is slowly being overcome through donations, a recent Kickstarter project, and an ongoing Heritage Lottery Funding application. We have also started getting industry support in certain areas including sponsorship for materials and consumables.

Since the Trust has started restoring the Shackleton to flight, have there been any memorable moments for the right or, perhaps, the wrong reasons?

There have been a couple! Getting WR963 taxying to do brake tests last September was a highlight, as it completely changed people's perception of the aircraft. The vast majority of our run ups are static and I think to some extent the public get used to us being in one particular spot. Watching her move under her own power made people realise that WR963 is still an aircraft and still very much operational; and it was a nice boost for the team. The recent night run was also memorable for the sight and sound of a Shackleton growling away with blue flames spitting out the end of glowing exhaust pipes. Our highlight of 2015 was of course the VTTS Club Members Day on September 13th! Not only was this to be a special day for the loyal members of the VTTS Club with a poignant display by XH558, but we were asked to perform our first public taxy run too! In front of a huge crowd, we were scheduled to show everyone that we were ready to accept the baton as the "Next Big Thing" in UK Aviation.... The preparation itself took a number of weeks, including a marathon engineering day the weekend before when both mainwheels had a complete brake sac change carried out, as we had noticed leaks some time beforehand. With the aircraft ready, and almost the entire crew available on our big day, we had an excellent day which was made a very special one when Jon Corley eased 963 away from her airside parking area and slowly trundled past the crowds stood silent in awe or fascination for a sight they had probably never seen before! After turning around once past the crowdline, Jon was only too happy to illustrate exactly what sort of spectacle 963 can be, by pulling up right alongside the crowds, and opening the throttles to give the distinctive "Griffon Growl" for what seemed an age, before taxying back to our parking area. As the Griffons fell silent, the onboard crew could not stop smiling, knowing that 963 had performed really well, and our pilot Jon Corley relished in his time spent becoming even more familiar with our Shackleton. Wrong reasons? Only minor trivial ones - such as one of our volunteers finding himself trapped in the middle of a seven foot roundel after concentrating on the repainting task so hard he'd not noticed he'd forgotten to leave a way out! There's also the well publicised priming fire in the exhaust that you can find on YouTube. Spectacular; but not overly dangerous if handled correctly.

How difficult is it to find spare parts for the Shackleton, and how many components are able to be made from scratch?

There are quite a lot of Shackleton spares out there, and fortunately not a lot of people using them! The trick is in hunting them down. We've found caches of parts in the USA, Cyprus and South Africa covering engines, propellers, gun turrets, translation units, spinners... an impressive amount of kit still exists.

We also have our own holdings which are fairly significant. The Trust was fortunate enough to acquire a spares package not long after the Shackletons were purchased, and while a good proportion of this was used for WL790 there is still a small mountain of parts left - even things such as a brand new tail fin and rudder in its packing crate. There is the odd part that is difficult to find, but if the drawing exists in our archive and there's a company holding the correct approvals out there that can make it; then we can go down that route. However, several times we've found it more suitable to approach a museum with a static Shackleton and ask to swap a suitable unserviceable part for a serviceable one from their aircraft. There are a few parts that are becoming unobtainable - one particularly annoying loss was when the original propeller blade moulds were cut up for scrap. Shackleton props are easy to find, but hard to find in good useable condition with traceable lives.

You aim to fly her as a tribute to Coastal Command. Is there a particular squadron or period of her (or any Shackleton's) history that you are keen to commemorate?

No. We chose to honour Coastal Command as that is whom the Shackleton was originally intended for operating by and they are woefully under-represented in preservation terms - on the ground and in the air. We also keep a nod to the later use by 8 Sqn, but they have their own magnificent AEW2's superbly represented by WR960 in the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.

The Shackleton shares its bloodline with the Lincoln and, going further back, the iconic Lancaster. How much commonality is there between a Shackleton and a Lancaster?

Believe it or not, you can go even further back. There's parts of the horizontal stabiliser that in the drawings refer to "Manchester, 33ft tailplane". There's various parts around the aircraft that are common with the Lancaster family, quite a lot. Just off the top of my head - the cockpit windows have several common glazing panels, the wing spar booms are the same section (with the BBMF Lancaster using Shack material machined to fit), trim controls, rudder pedals, the wheels - far more than people think. In the earlier Shackleton MR1/T4 there was even more commonality between parts - it being heavily influenced by and derived from the Lincoln.

As such, do you have support from the BBMF and the Lincolnshire Heritage Aviation Centre at East Kirkby? Is that support mutual?

We do have tentative links with both BBMF and LAHC, but its early days for us all. We're just moving focus from preservation to operation, whereas these guys have been at it for a good few decades. They're a little unsure of us and rightly so - we need to find our feet. They have been supportive of what we're doing with WR963 and do offer encouragement, and likewise we'll help where we can. We have been able to help out with a few bits, with some of our surplus Shackleton main wheels being sold to BBMF last year; and we still hold the spar boom drawings and die drawings should they need to be used again by any Lancaster/York/Shackleton group. With the Canadian Lancaster restorations in progress it's not beyond the realms of possibility that the next set of spar booms manufactured will be a group buy!

What sort of support, if any, have you had from other organisations such as museums, the Civil Aviation Authority, BAE Systems and (in the past) British Aerospace?

Other museums have been fantastic; we've had massive support from Gatwick Aviation Museum and Newark Air Museum in particular both in terms of parts and documentation, and of course the long standing and constant support of all at Air Atlantique. We really wouldn't be where we are now without them! BAE Systems, and British Aerospace will not support any operation of the Shackleton. They took this position in May 1991 and wrote to the CAA to garner support for this stance resulting in no Shackleton flying in the UK for nearly 25 years.

The hurt they did through those accusations about the fatigue life has taken a long time to undo, and still echoes on in places. The one good thing they did - unwittingly - was sell the design rights and manufacturers drawing archive to the SPT in 1993. This allowed the laborious task of going through all the drawings to take place so we could find out if the accusations made about the fatigue life calculations were fact or fiction. BAE maintain they held nothing back (and if they did, it's a breach of the contract of sale) and in nearly 16 tons of paperwork we found nothing to support the claims made to the CAA by BAE in 1991. The CAA have recently reviewed the Shackleton's history and what we want to do; and offer us superb support when we have requested it. Eagle-eyed people will notice the Shackleton recently appeared on the list of eligible types for a Permit to Fly on the CAA website. Small steps, but important ones.

What support do you have from Coventry Airport?

Coventry Airport are very supportive of our efforts, and they have our thanks. In terms of fire cover for our run ups, tower services when taxiing, and many other little things - we couldn't ask for more. When operations were looking unsteady a few years ago with the potential closure they were working very hard to find us alternative parking on the Airport so WR963 could remain at Coventry. Thankfully it never had to happen, but it was appreciated by us.

With the well documented closure and asset sale of Classic Air Force, our position on site was rather uncertain towards the end of 2015, but following several meetings between the Airport Management Team and our own Trust Chairman, we were relieved to find that the Airport have been very supportive of our continued existence on site, as we are seen as an important attraction. We now come under their management on site, which has meant some changes for all of us, but all in a positive way forwards for us! Our hangar usage changed in that if we require space for essential works (i.e. our current Hangar Appeal to get the required NDT Inspections carried out) we must now book the space as other hangar based aircraft do, and we need to ensure they can make space for us as we take up half the hangar floor!

She used to be owned by Air Atlantique. Do they have any involvement with the restoration?

Air Atlantique do have a significant involvement and it's a very generous one, and one that has been unfailing over the past 25 years. They have kindly provided space for our stores, house our design archive, and let us keep WR963 in their compound at Coventry Airport. They've also been kind enough to let us have hangar time and supply ground servicing equipment when we've needed it to do some of the heavier work. Without them, neither of the two Shackletons that came to Coventry in 1991 would have survived, and WR963's future wouldn't be as rosy as it looks at the moment. As a result we supported their activities (and those of their Trust - Classic Air Force) wherever we could up until the closure of Classic Air Force's operations.

Does the Shackleton Preservation Trust look at how other trusts operate, and learn from their successes, and indeed, mistakes? If so, which trusts?

We have links with other trusts, both aircraft related and in other modes of transport. Primarily we've looked at and spoken with members of the Vulcan To The Sky Trust, and they have been very friendly and approachable. They're also keen to see others follow their path and happy to share with us what they have found works and what doesn't. For all the negative PR XH558 gets about the amount of money she requires each year, she has blazed a trail for other large historic aircraft in civilian hands. They've set the bar high, and we have a lot of work to do to get anywhere near their efforts.

To put it bluntly, how much will it cost to get WR963 into the air, and how close are you to achieving that sum?

Initial estimates put it into seven figures if the spar boom had to be replaced. More recent detailed analysis of the work involved has brought the figure down to around £750,000. Bluntly put, we have a lot of work to do to get to that figure or bring it down through sponsorship and grants. How does the Trust raise its funds for the restoration? We touched on funding earlier through donations, Kickstarter and hopefully the HLF. We also sell Shackleton-related merchandise, sell places on the aircraft during ground run ups and taxy runs, and also we allow occasional commercial use of the archive material we hold. More recently we have also started to weed out surplus or unserviceable components and allow them to go through auction. Our current Hangar Appeal is a hugely important one, as it will allow us to complete the next stage in our goal. The NDT inspections are vital, but can only be carried out once the aircraft is jacked up in the "Rigging Position", a host of ancillaries removed, and a lot of access panels removed to allow the specialist NDT team to do their work. We had the funding for the NDT work itself from our successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015, but due to changes on site following the closure of Classic Air Force, we now need to pay for our hangar space over an estimated 14 week period that is required.

How important are nightshoots and the other events that the Trust hosts for the fundraising effort and, to take an example, roughly how much does a nightshoot contribute towards the preservation and restoration of WR963?

The nightshoots were done purely for the enthusiast and we worked very hard to make sure we just covered the expense of running the aircraft. The nightshoots don't really contribute much towards the restoration from the monies raised on the day. The photos and video that go around the world and made it into print are where our gain is, in that it inspires people to come and see us, and support us if they can. We can't stress enough the value of the aviation public getting behind a project.

The ground runs and taxy runs we carry out must cover our costs of course, but also contribute towards the overall restoration funding. As the cost of aviation fuel fluctuates differently from garage forecourt prices, we have to ensure we allow for this each time, and 963 is a very thirsty lady. Running her also keeps the systems alive overall, so despite the costs of holding the events, they must continue.

There also exists a "Friends of WR963". The cost of that is £15 per year. Where does that money go, and what do the Friends of WR963 receive for their membership?

All funding received goes into WR963, and it always will. Currently the benefits we offer to the Friends of WR963 have increased for 2016, as we think we can offer more for the money, but as it stands; a regular newsletter, access to a "Friends of WR963" facebook group, discounted entry onto WR963 during ground run ups, and also discounted places aboard taxy runs where circumstances allow. The 'Friends' are the core of the Trust, and it is from them that Trustees are selected. There's an AGM once a year and between the Friends and the Trust Deed is how we are held true to our aims.

How much will it cost to keep WR963 on the airshow circuit each year?

It's unknown yet quite how much it will cost. The requirements to insure her sufficiently will dictate a large part of it, but we're still costing how much per hour it will be when you factor in all the things such as approvals, maintenance, fuel, insurance, landing and parking fees into a year's flying.

Has the Trust sorted out a pilot and crew to fly the machine at airshows at this time? If so, who, and what is their history with the Shackleton and their qualifications to fly her?

Not as yet. There's no-one who is current on the Shackleton, so we would naturally be looking for people with plenty of hours on large piston-engined tail-draggers. If we had to choose a pilot right now, we would be asking Air Atlantique's Jon Corley without any hesitation. Jon has been at the controls whenever WR963 has taxied, and he's very experienced in flying historic piston-engined aircraft. Other crew would be selected after finding out what requirements the CAA set.

What sort of limitations are necessary for flying a large aircraft like the Shackleton, be they cost or logistical?

There will be limitations, but none are directly related to cost. The main limitation will be obtaining sufficient quantities of 100LL Avgas or Nitrogen, as the Shackleton is quite a heavy user of both.

Approximately how much will it cost an airshow to book a flying display from the Shackleton?

It's too early to say yet, as we mentioned above we're still trying to work out an hourly cost for operating. We anticipate the costs to be similar to booking the B-17.

How will you market yourselves to airshows across the UK (and perhaps even further), and convince them to book WR963 instead of cheaper display acts?

We intend to be a hands-on display aircraft. If we're on the ground, just like at Coventry we don't intend to do barriers. We want to be able to bring the aircraft to as wide and varied an audience as possible, and make them feel that they're part of things. You will be able to get as up close and personal with WR963 as ever. As for the display; the eerie noise on approach, the growl of the Griffons during a pass, and a zoom climb at the end - the Shackleton was always fairly well received by airshow crowds in the past, so with a bit of luck the attraction is still there after a 25 year absence? There's also the unique aspect that no other Shackleton will be flying. It's a sad state of affairs and similar to the Vulcan's flight, but there's little doubt in our minds that people do like to see something that is the last of its kind.

WR963 has 594 flying hours left. How will those be preserved, and how many years do you anticipate you can keep her flying?

The aircraft has 594 hours left on her current spar boom - it can be replaced as was done with the Lancaster. We also have the Fatigue Remediation scheme and drawings from HSA Bitteswell, which was used to zero the clock twice already during the Shackleton's life, once at Langar [Airfield, near Nottingham] in 1967 and again in 1976. If the funding can be found and sufficient spares are available (or can be overhauled) there's no reason WR963 couldn't fly on as long as her legendary forebears.

Remiss as I am to talk about the end before the beginning, but what plans does the Trust have for the Shackleton once her usable flight hours are up?

As mentioned above, if funding and logistics allow; a re-booming, to put usable life to 6,300 flying hours. If not then honourable retirement as the world's last flying Shackleton. She will remain at Coventry as long as we are permitted to keep her here.

How important are aviation forums and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to the Trust?

Beyond measure. We started using aviation forums as a way to bring the Shackleton to people, and try to engage with them in a manner as if they were one of the team, and we found it to be a rather successful way of doing things! When we get visitors that are also following us on the internet (or elsewhere) they know what's going on, what issues we currently face and often get drawn into helping out. More recently the use of Facebook and Twitter has allowed us to take it that one step further, though Twitter is more used for brief updates such as serviceability status prior to an event, funding updates or announcements.

Finally, the question everyone wants to know; when will WR963 be able to return to the skies?

We said five years from starting out at the end of 2012 - beginning of 2013; so late 2017 or early 2018 is what we planned. We've fallen behind in some areas, but made great strides in others. Overall I'd say we're on target, but only time will tell for sure.

Rich, Pete and all those involved with the Trust are clearly an enthusiastic bunch, and for a project of such an immense size, they have to be. It's great to see the restoration of WR963 gathering pace, including its taxi run back in September 2014. From the outside, it appears to be a case of little steps turning into big strides, and with XH558 finally put to rest, never has there been a more appropriate time to look to the future, and the exciting prospects it holds, to the flight of another four-engined Avro aircraft.

The Shackleton is set to be one the UK's most exciting prospects on the warbird scene in the coming years. It's almost poetic that the howl of the Vulcan, much-missed prior to its return to flight, is to be replaced by the long-awaited growl of the Shackleton in the near future.

UKAR wishes to extend its many thanks to Rich, Pete and the Trust for their time and transparency. We wish them all the best of luck, and look forward to seeing what the future brings. For more information, please do visit their website!