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Aircraft conservation leaves the art of identification up in the air

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Rebuilding old aircraft, I suppose, is no more reprehensible than restoring old buildings, and is certainly an activity just as susceptible to compromise, dilution and the laws of entropy as they might be applied to the authenticity of historical objects. Because these are profoundly interesting matters in many fields, from time to time I like to purchase a copy of The Aeroplane (motto 'History in the Air'), to watch the eternal struggle between the fundamentalists, who insist on keeping their authentic vintage aircraft flying at air shows, and their opponents, who favour a high-value, low-risk replica approach.

Apologists for the former group claim that, in terms of spectator numbers, air shows are the second biggest outdoor sport in the world. Apologists for the latter group can point to the worrying frequency of accidents involving vintage aircraft and the sheer scarcity of replacement wrecks to be restored. Nor is this all. Beyond these rather obvious weaknesses lies the prospect of absolute extinction because of a growing 'technology gap' between what are now considered vintage aircraft and what the 'cottage industry' level of aircraft restorer can be expected to undertake. A Soviet MIG 15 jet fighter of Korean War vintage, for example, would represent the limit of technical feasibility, which is why there are V bomber static displays but no flying V bombers. Replacing the obsolete engines alone would present insuperable difficulties. Any former military aircraft classified as complex - which, in effect, means jet powered or post-Second World War - is unlikely to be airworthy and still flying in private hands for very much longer unless it has been extensively modified or fitted out with a new identity - a process that depends on the use of a 'works number'.

There is no equivalent to this gold standard proof of identification in the schedule of 'buildings at risk' simply because none is necessary. There are as many projects as there are architects - always were, and always will be - but when you are talking about aircraft, especially military aircraft, it is a poor machine indeed that cannot muster 100 examples manufactured, and many run to two or three thousand. And paradoxically these can be the rarest of all. So what does the aerial conservationist do? He or she gives up the search for a lost Messerschmitt in the Carpathian Mountains and heads for an air show in Texas, then to an air museum, and then to somewhere else where pilots and air groupies gather.

This time the object sought is a more manageable size.

No more fruitless negotiating with Russian peasants about rumoured crash sites 60 years before, this time the handover is in an air-conditioned bar in Rio de Janiero. The prize is the original manufacturer's works number, which is to be found on a small plate riveted somewhere appropriate. Having secured this prize - you can purchase either by the above method or by buying one at a high-maintenance car-boot sale - you 'own', so to speak, the identity of the aircraft in question, whether it physically exists or not. Once you have a works number, you can attach it to any aircraft of the same generic type and, more importantly, you can paint it in any authentic colour scheme that ensures you a fly-on part in the next big-budget Second World War movie. When it comes to Messerschmitts, an authentic works number opens the door to 5,000 aircraft, of which 4,999 were no doubt destroyed years ago. But with an identity plate the rest can even be cottage-industrialised back into life as a static display or a replica. Either way, all is not what it seems in the world of aerial husbandry. It is a bit like switching the tax disc on a car.

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