Working replica of century-old plane handed over

The aircraft, now in the possession of the UAS
The aircraft, now in the possession of the UAS

An historic replica of an early aeroplane designed and built by Ulster’s greatest engineering mind, Harry Ferguson, has been handed over to aviation enthusiasts by the BBC.

The replica of Ferguson’s monoplane was built for a recent three-part series titled the ‘Great Flying Challenge’ on BBC Northern Ireland and was handed over to the Ulster Aviation Society on Wednesday.

The replica was created thanks to the hard work of a team of dedicated aviation enthusiasts from the Ulster Aviation Society and the Ulster Gliding Club.

The series concluded last week with pilot William McMinn flying the aeroplane briefly but successfully from the Ulster Gliding Club’s airfield at Bellarena, near Limavady – the same location used by Ferguson just over a century ago.

Ferguson, best known for his inventive and pioneering work with agricultural tractors, was the first person to design, build and fly his own aircraft in Ireland.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to receive this aircraft,” said Ray Burrows, chairman of the Ulster Aviation Society.

“It’s a fantastic day for us—one we’ve been looking forward to for many months.”

Representatives of the Society, the various builders involved in the aircraft’s construction, and from BBC Northern Ireland itself were on hand for the brief handover ceremony at the Society’s hangar at Maze/Long Kesh.

For company, the little wood-and-wire Ferguson has about 30 other aircraft nearby in the society’s collection.

“We’ve been looking for a Ferguson replica for many years,” said Mr Burrows.

“But we never thought we’d have one that had actually flown; to actually see it in flight was mind-blowing.

“And now that it’s here, it gives us a starting point for aviation heritage in Ireland.”

Peter Johnston, Director BBC Northern Ireland, said: “We’re delighted to hand over this monoplane replica of Harry Ferguson’s famous aircraft to the Ulster Aviation Society.

“It seems particularly fitting that it should be on display a short distance down the road from where the original plane was constructed and flown.” BBC Northern Ireland commissioned the building of the aeroplane, closely following Harry Ferguson’s original plans, with special, modern margins for safety concerns.

It was given official government certification before it actually flew on May 10th.

BBC presenter Dick Strawbridge followed the building and flight process right from the beginning last year, tracked regularly by crews under the direction of producer Darryl Grimason.

Pilot McMinn paid special tribute to the commitment of Grimason and his team, as two productions went on simultaneously—the building of the aircraft and the work of the television crews on the spot, off and on for nearly a year.

“The BBC was ambitious—and lucky, too, that it all came together,” he said.

“People who have seen the programme have told me how much they enjoyed it.”

Society Chairman Burrows agreed: “I think it was supremely produced; it captured all the important parts of the aircraft’s progress.”

McMinn also singled out UAS volunteer Stephen Lowry for his ability and dedication during the final assembly phase, which lasted from January right up until days before the flight itself.

“Stephen had as much commitment as I did,” said McMinn. “We pushed each other all the way. I was lead engineer, but if I gave him a sketch for something, he went away and made it.

“We worked well as a team and had the same level of respect for the project.

“Both Stephen and I dug deep into our resources to finish it.

“It was all a blessing and it leaves me with fond memories.”

Recalling the Ferguson’s flight from the Ulster Gliding Centre, he noted that the weather at the time was a problem, causing one delay after another at the airfield.

“In the end, we couldn’t wait for perfect conditions,” he said.

“We had to work with what we had without putting ourselves in danger.

“It was a basic, straight flight; we were just going to bunny-hop it.”

As it was, just after take-off, the Ferguson’s nose lifted quickly above the horizon and the aircraft stalled, losing its lift capacity and falling straight ahead.

McMinn caught the stall immediately but by the time he had some control, it landed hard, slightly bending its main undercarriage and damaging its tail skid (the damage has since been repaired.)

The aeroplane was in flight for about ten seconds and reached a height of only 20 feet, said McMinn.

“But it flew!” he said.

“The little plane has done its job and now it’ll sit in the UAS hangar and be admired by people forever and a day.

“It’s the ideal place for it.

“It still looks tremendous.”

Thinking back on Harry Ferguson and the original monoplane, McMinn said he was a single-minded man, 100% committed from the start.

And the lesson for today’s generation, coming from Ferguson’s example all those years ago?

“Live the dream,” laughed McMinn.

“Live the dream!”