Acquisition of Westland Whirlwind HAR1 XA870

Rare ‘AIRFIX’ whirlwind comes to YHPG.

Around mid October I was contacted by preservation stalwart David Burk and advised that the Mk1 Whirlwind at Flambards village theme park,Helston maybe under threat due to development within its building and the difficulties existing in moving it from its location. ‘A job right up your street’ we were told (may have been a veiled challenge but we were never too hot picking up on subtleties). Contact details were obtained and the rest left up to us.

During the next couple of days contact was made with David Edwards of Flambards and it became evident that he felt it very important that the preservation of the aircraft continued if at all possible, this I was able to assure him was also in the forefront of our intended actions. A mutually agreeable date of 28th October was set for me to recce both site and airframe.

Prior to attending site research was undertaken by Alan Beattie our archive coordinator and group ‘scribe’ who came up with the information that this aircraft was indeed a rare one. XA870 built as a HAS 1 and going into service in 1954 it spent a number of years with 848 sqdn in the Far East before serving aboard HMS Protector.
It is in Protector’s black and orange colour scheme that it is (and will remain) painted. It was in this colour scheme that it was featured as an Airfix kit in the 60’s and early 70’s, the picture on the pack depicting ‘870 landing aboard the ship. As one of only three remaining Mk 1’s in the U.K it became imperative that we do all possible to allow its preservation to continue if at all possible, in other words doing what it says on our packet ‘PRESERVING’.

Armed with this information and detail the 400 mile sojourn from Yorkshire to Cornwall was undertaken, arriving at Flambards around mid day on the 28th. David Edwards who I discovered had flown Whirlwinds during his days as a Navy pilot gave permission for me to survey both building and helicopter ‘with care’ as the park at this stage was still thronging with visitors it being the school half term in that area. The difficulties so easily talked about over the phone quickly became apparent and over the next 2 to 3 hours the thought of quietly slipping away crossed my mind more than once. However that word ‘PRESERVATION’ kept me to my task and the many measurements and angles were noted in order to give us the best chance of making the best of a difficult job.

The basic problem was a fuselage cross section of 9ft 6ins high by 6ft 3ins wide and a maximum door opening of 6ft 5ins square! In order to obtain final exit from the airframes home over the last 27 years there was also a dogleg manoeuvre thrown in for good measure. It was obvious that a surgical approach was going to be necessary to reduce the height but that the width may just clear the opening with the undercarriage removed. A decision in principle was made on site and David was advised that subject to my YHPG colleague’s approval we would attempt to extricate XA870 once more into daylight.

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XA870 in original position at Flambards.Showing sectioned nose panels.

On my return to Yorkshire my YHPG colleagues quickly made the decision that ‘if it was as simple as I said ‘(I had worked slightly on the keep ‘em in the dark principle, sorry lads !) then we would undertake the task. I faxed the affirmative reply to David before anyone at YHPG could have a change of mind. All was now set to reduce ‘870 to less than component level over the three days 6th – 8th November when Flambards had closed for the season.

The team comprising Steve Hague, Alan Beattie, Brian Dixon and myself travelled to Cornwall on Tuesday 5th November in order to have an early start the following day. We arrived on site around 08.30 on Wednesday and were met by Paul Morris who took us through the H & S site briefing as quickly (though thoroughly) as possible so as not to waste time and gave us the offer of technical and physical help were we to be in need of it.

The first day was relatively simple in removing the tail boom, nose doors, cockpit assembly, readying the gearbox for lifting and starting the de-riveting of the ‘witches hat ‘moulding which runs horizontally along the fuselage just above cabin door level. It was at this level we had decided to section the fuselage in order to hide the cut on reassembly. Leaving site at around 16.30 we had made a very good start and were more or less on target with two days to go and wings and limbs still complete on all the crew.

Day two dawned and I arrived on site again at around 08.30 to be greeted by the team with a few bleary eyes (Cornish air and beer to blame here I suspect). De-riveting along the centre line by Alan and Brian continued whilst Steve and I readied the Pratt & Whitney Wasp power plant for

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Gearbox/Rotorhead being removed

removal. Early afternoon saw the gearbox and engine at a point where we could lift these clear of the airframe. Having first placed acrow props at the side of the aircraft to support a wooden roof truss running a few feet above the fuselage the gearbox and rotor head assembly was lifted clear using a chain operated lifting block to give us maximum control over the load. The fuselage was then moved forward, the gearbox lowered onto a trolley and removed from the area. The next move was to push the fuselage back under the lifting equipment which was used to first lower the engine forward on its bearers and then lift it clear and remove it on the trolley. By now it was getting around to the 16.30 eviction time again and a final site meeting was held prior to the sad but necessary operation of dissecting the cabin the next day.

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Surgical approach needed to effect removal from building

Day three dawned and yes you’ve guessed after two days of clement weather just when we had loading work to undertake the heavens opened, undeterred we soldiered on with our task. With precautions taken to ensure the very sensitive fire alarm system didn’t result in many red vehicles with flashing blue lights appearing on site and every care taken against sparks causing damage most of the morning saw us making the cut along the fuselage from nose to tail as accurately and neatly as possible.

This allowed the fuselage to be opened up like a clamshell using what had become the most useful tool on site, the lifting block. Typically it was here that our target finish time of 15.30 had started to slip somewhat and we are indebted to Paul and some of Flambards workers who stayed around long after they needed to ensure we could finish our task. The front undercarriage proved somewhat stubborn and took no little persuasion from Steve to remove it. Alan and Brian were using as much persuasion to remove the main oleos. Once these were clear the fuselage looking to all intents and purposes like a 1:1 Airfix kit was now resting on two 6in x 6in timbers placed longitudinally under the fuselage. Running on 4in rollers it was eased gently towards the door entrance with the hope that all our measurements had been something like accurate. Inch by inch we eased ‘870 towards daylight with the odd slip of roller position, almost as if it was reluctant to leave its long term home of 27 years.

Eventually moving through door openings with the barest of margins to spare and slid sideways around the dogleg we were finally outside ‘we had done it’. The final move was for the top of the fuselage to follow on the ubiqtous trolley and time to have a group photo taken with all who were still on site and had given us so much valuable assistance over those last couple of hours.

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Tight fit through exit door.

As it was finish time for Paul and his men farewells were exchanged and we were left to complete loading our trailor ready for the trip home. With gearbox, engine, and assorted bits and pieces loaded we set off. A steady 50mph was maintained most of the way back to Doncaster arriving at Aeroventure at around 04.00 Saturday morning. Having left the trailor to be unloaded later we headed our weary but very satisfied ways home to nurse a variety of bruises, scratches, aches and pains over the weekend.

The fuselage was collected in early December by Bill Fern and myself with onsite assistance from YHPG member Dave Knowlson who was taking a weekend break in the area and Andrew Nunn who lives locally in Cornwall, reassembly at Aeroventure will hopefully begin immediately to restore this important airframe to its former immaculate display condition. Anyone wishing to supply some elbow grease to those ends, contact the group and you will be made most welcome. We also wish to hear from ‘870’s former crews both air and ground to fill in some detail of her past service history.

Mike Fitch