|Prince of Wales’s Gannet to fly in Wales|
|Tuesday, 10 April 2012 00:00|
At RAF St Athan, Fairey Gannet AEW.3 XL500/G-KAEW is now under restoration to fly by Hunter Flying Ltd (HFL), following the completion in early March of the company’s move to the south Wales airfield from its former engineering base at Exeter Airport in Devon. The rare airborne-early-warning aircraft, in which HRH The Prince of Wales had a 1½hr flight from Yeovilton on October 18, 1972, now shares a 1938 concrete E-type aircraft storage building with seven airworthy Hawker Hunters which HFL will maintain for their owners.
The company also has two Hunter rebuild projects, including T.8M XL603, and four Aero L-29s which are currently being prepared for use with a new civilian aerobatic team that will appear on the show circuit this season. In early March the L-29s, G-DELF, G-BZNT, G-BYCT and RA01611, were stripped down for inspection by Russian engineers, and preparation for painting had begun.
The move to St Athan is timely. February 23 saw the departure of the last RAF Vickers VC-10 tanker, ZA147, to be serviced at the base, marking the end of more than 70 years of RAF deep maintenance on the site. The move has enabled HFL to take on a handful of engineers from the soon-to-close Defence Support Group, including Ian McArthur and Howard Jupp, who are now working on the Gannet.
The return to flight of XL500 is eagerly anticipated, as no example of this idiosyncratic design has flown in the UK for more than 20 years. After being stripped for inspection and repair, very little corrosion has been found so far. Many unflown components, including an Armstrong Siddeley Double Mamba engine and gearbox set, are held in the store. Before it was acquired by the present owner in 2008, XL500 was with Kennet Aviation at North Weald in Essex. Built at Hayes in January 1961, it made its maiden flight at White Waltham early the following month. Upon retirement from the Royal Navy in November 1978 it went into storage at Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Culdrose, but was resurrected for use with Dowty Rotol on propeller acoustic trials work, making its final flight on February 28, 1985. It then spent time on display at RNAS Culdrose and the Historic Dockyard at Chatham in Kent. The Prince of Wales has graciously agreed to become Patron of the project.
John Sparks, HFL’s chief engineer, who is overseeing the Gannet and Hunter projects, learned his trade with the Fleet Air Arm, working on the Navy/Fleet Requirements and Air Direction Unit Hawker Hunters. He set up the company with his wife, Nadine, at Exeter in 1999.