A rare tip-jet driven helicopter, the Fairey Ultra Light first flown 65 years ago and later scrapped for spares recovery, has just completed a 10 year restoration programme at the hands of a volunteer team at The Helicopter Museum. The cabin of the two-seat helicopter had been rescued from a farm near Harlow in Essex by the museum founder Elfan Ap Rees in 1977, who spent several years tracing and acquiring missing parts, including the tail boom, engine and rotor blades, before eventually transferring ownership to the museum to enable a grant aid application to be pursued to remanufacture broken glazings and other components.
Moved into the museum workshop in 2010 for a team to complete the rebuild, the helicopter finally was completed on 9th July and placed on permanent display a week later. Following completion of the project, Mr Ap Rees said “Grateful thanks go especially to volunteers Mike Lait, Roger Cowie, Geoff Warner, Tibor Erdetz and John Derrick who put in many man hours to see the project through, to the Midland Air Museum for facilitating access to an original Fairey Ultra Light rotor head for copying, to the Apprentice School at Vector Aerospace, Fleetlands who remanufactured a replacement tail unit, and to the Science Museum PRISM Fund for a grant to cover the manufacture of new glazings and sundry smaller items to complete restoration”.
Historical Notes: First flown as serial XJ928 (second prototype) 20th March 1956 but grounded 21 June 1956 for substantial modifications including new hydraulic cyclic pitch controls and a new rotorhead to replace the original overhead hanging cyclic stick and tilting head. Purchased by Fairey and civil registered G-AOUJ, the aircraft was reflown on 1 September 1957 and flown to the SBAC Farnborough Air Show the following day for daily demonstration flights. After 12 months spent carrying out training and familiarisation flying, based at White Waltham airfield, Berkshire the helicopter re-appeared at the SBAC Show in September 1958 in Royal Navy colours, flying daily from the bed of a moving truck with just 8cm clear on each side and climbing vertically at 3,000ft per minute to demonstrate its tip-jet performance.
A month later, in early October, G-AOUJ carried out a demonstration at Aldershot for the Royal Army Medical Corps, with a modified nose section incorporating a hinged port section with an extension to facilitate the carrying of a single casualty on a field stretcher. The pilot was Peter Twiss, who joined Ron Gellatly and John Morton to demonstrate the Ultra Light’s virtues. Later in October the helicopter, accompanied by John Morton, was shipped to Canada for cold weather trials and demonstrations to Canadian officials at the Ottowa Proving Grounds and Camp Borden, before being relocated in late November to Halifax, Nova Scotia and HMCS Shearwater for demonstrations to the Royal Canadian Navy.
The last flight there took place on 9th December but the Navy decided the aircraft was too small for practical operations and the Canadian Army also felt the limited endurance made it of little use in such a large country. These views echoed the concerns of the British military and, although G-AOUJ was shipped back to the UK, it was not flown again and was abandoned after completing a grand total of just 75 flight hours. Whilst the British Army and Royal Navy upscaled instead to the Scout and Wasp helicopters (ironically produced at the Fairey Aviation Hayes factory following its takeover by Westland in 1960), G-AOUJ was cannibalised to provide parts for an Ultra Light test rig at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Thurleigh, Bedford and the stripped cabin, section sold for scrap. It was rescued at the last minute by enthusiast Peter Swettenham, who took it to the farm in Essex where it was later re-discovered and acquired by Elfan Ap Rees a decade or so later for eventual resurrection.