The process is painstaking, fraught with difficulties and highly sensitive, but after a half-century wait, a labour of love to rebuild a “missing link” in the UK’s military aviation history is coming to fruition.
Laid out on the floor of a cavernous hangar at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset, the ghostly silhouette of a Fairey Barracuda torpedo and dive bomber fuselage is taking shape and over the next 10 years visitors will be able to watch as the plane is completely rebuilt.
Though 2,600 Barracudas were made for the Fleet Air Arm, more than any other aircraft ever ordered by the Royal Navy, no complete examples remain, having all either crashed or broken up, creating a gap that troubles historians, engineers and families of those that lost loved ones in the planes.
Barracuda Live: The Big Rebuild will centre on one plane – Fairey Barracuda DP872 – which crashed in 1944 before being hauled out of a bog in 1971, and is being put back together with help from parts taken from Barracudas found at five other wreck sites.
When it is complete, in about 10 years’ time, DP872 will feature about 70% original Barracuda parts with the other 30% made new to fill in gaps.
Dave Morris, the curator of aircraft at the museum, said it was like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle but with bits of battered metal.
“Where possible we will use an original component, straightened out, reworked and restored back into usable condition,” said Morris. “But we don’t have an entire Barracuda’s-worth so we will need to make some parts new. It will be the only Barracuda in existence when it is finished.”
Already set out on the hangar floor is the rear wheel, the frame of the cockpit and engine. The cockpit looks brand new but 90% of it is reclaimed parts from DP872 and the other wreck sites. The detail is extraordinary. For example, hand-drawn diagrams of angles scribbled on to the metalwork have been carefully preserved. A poppy has also been placed there as mark of respect to the crew that was lost.
Working out which bit goes where is a long process. “We’ve been left by and large with metal that met a violent end and became bent, twisted,” said Morris. “We do have some plans but not full sets. And factories were making modifications as they went along. It’s all a bit of a conundrum.”
The Baracudas had a reputation for being tricky to handle. In 1943 alone there were 19 accidents, 14 fatal. A test pilot in 1944 spelled out that “recovery from dives at low altitude can lead to serious trouble”.
In August 1944, DP872 left RNAS Maydown in Northern Ireland on a routine flight but crashed shortly after takeoff and sank into a peat bog, with the loss of its three crew, two 19-year-olds and a 20-year-old.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) recovered the wreckage in 1971 at the request of the families, who asked the Fleet Air Arm Museum to “do something significant” with it as a mark of respect for all Barracuda crews.
Since then the museum has been collecting additional parts of Barracudas with permission from the MoD. The gamechanger was when a well-preserved Barracuda was recovered in the Solent in 2019. The project has now received financial backing from the family of a rear gunner, Arthur Kimberley, who was lost at sea in one of the aircraft aged 20.
Diana Davies, the head of conservation at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, said: “The project will complete our Fairey aircraft collection and fill a significant gap, but it is about much more than resurrecting an extinct aircraft.
“Conservation is not about preserving beautiful things and putting them on display; it’s investigating objects and revealing details we didn’t know before. There’s always a lot of detective work.”
Barracuda Live: The Big Rebuild opens to visitors from Friday 22 September and the experience is included with a museum ticket.