A treat for Phantom fans at UAS hangar

Hangar boss Ray Burrows (left) and painter Ian Hendry do some precise measuring during the final stages of restoration on the Society's Phantom.
Hangar boss Ray Burrows (left) and painter Ian Hendry do some precise measuring during the final stages of restoration on the Society's Phantom.

A legendary jet fighter of the Cold War will be the centre of a unique celebration by the Ulster Aviation Society to honour the hundreds of local specialists who repaired and maintained aircraft just like it.

Those workers are former employees of 23 Maintenance Unit (23 MU) at RAF Aldergrove who worked on about 150 Phantom aeroplanes in the period 1968 to 1978. The Ulster Aviation Society is inviting them as special guests to the unveiling of a restored Phantom on April 28.

The Phantom fuselage takes a final "flight", suspended above the trailer that will soon take it to the compound of the Ulster Aviation Society at the Maze/Long Kesh site, Lisburn.

The Phantom fuselage takes a final "flight", suspended above the trailer that will soon take it to the compound of the Ulster Aviation Society at the Maze/Long Kesh site, Lisburn.

“It’s an overdue way of saying ‘Thanks’,” said Society Chairman Ray Burrows. “They were gainfully employed, served our country and helped anchor our local economy during a difficult time. They knew how to fix Phantoms. We’ll soon see if they remember how to party!”

Volunteers of the Ulster Aviation Society have spent two years restoring the huge fighter to impressive display condition. However, nobody will see it until the April unveiling ceremony.

It’s an invitation-only event, but tour groups in the subsequent weeks and years will be welcome to see the iconic jet among the 30-plus aircraft in the Society’s hangar collection at the Maze/Long Kesh site, Lisburn.

The Phantom, numbered XT864, will be displayed in surroundings similar to how it originally appeared on the flight deck of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal. That huge warship was decommissioned in 2011 and all its Phantoms were turned over to the Royal Air Force. The Ark Royal itself was eventually scrapped.

Volunteers repair corrosion on the massive wing of the Phantom in 2016.  Once restored, it was mated again with the fuselage behind it.  Two years later, the final stages of paint work will have the famous fighter ready for its unveiling on April 28.

Volunteers repair corrosion on the massive wing of the Phantom in 2016. Once restored, it was mated again with the fuselage behind it. Two years later, the final stages of paint work will have the famous fighter ready for its unveiling on April 28.

The Society acquired the fighter in 2015 from the RAF station at Leuchars, Scotland, where—once retired—it had stood as a grim, grey “gate guardian” for 25 years.

“We’ve re-finished it in its original, colourful Navy markings,” said Mr. Burrows. “We hope that won’t upset our Royal Air Force friends, especially with this year being the 100th anniversary of the RAF.”

The April tribute event, free to those attending, will be the first in a series of opportunities which the Society will be seizing to mark its own 50th anniversary. The 1968 founding of the aviation heritage group coincides as well with the first flight of Phantom XT864: April, 1968.

Thousands of people, many of them from the Lisburn area, worked over many years at 23 Maintenance Unit following the Second World War. However, space limitations at the unveiling ceremony have forced the Society to restrict guest attendance to only those people who worked on the Phantom aircraft, Mr. Burrows explained.

He hoped it would spur pensioners to organise a much larger reunion at some point among all former employees of 23 MU—not just those who worked on the Phantom, but many other aircraft types.

“It’s a wee kick in the pants to those people, urging them to celebrate those thousands of their colleagues and the fine work they did for this country over many years,” he said.

Former 23 MU “Phantom fixers” are invited to book attendance at the Phantom unveiling by contacting Society officials Des Regan (desmondregan@btinternet.com; phone 07402 828772 or stephenrileyni@gmail.com; phone 07919 122899).