WARBIRDS: Recreating the world's only complete Short Stirling

Michael Claringbould examines the Stirling Aircraft Project, which aims to rebuild a complete example of the Short Stirling British heavy W.W.II bomber - none of which exists today.

The Short Stirling was the first four-engined British heavy bomber of W.W.II, entering service in 1941. The Stirling had a relatively brief operational career as a bomber, being relegated to second line duties from 1943, such as glider towing, supply drops, and special duties flights.  Despite its limitations, it was a popular aircraft with crews, and remarkably manoeuvrable for its size. Unlike the Lancaster and Halifax, however, no complete Stirling has survived, or (so far) been recreated.  The Stirling Aircraft Project aim to change that, and this is their story.

The Stirling Project was constituted in 1997 to further the education of the public in all aspects of the Short Stirling Bomber. The immediate aim is that of preserving components and documentary evidence of this historic aircraft.  The committee has also set itself the long term aim of constructing a forward section of fuselage and is confident of being able to re-create the necessary drawings. 

Now, after several setbacks, the Stirling Aircraft Project is once again back in action. We have recently established ourselves in a new workshop and are now working on the components of the flight deck to be completed as a sub-assembly ready for installation in a fuselage. Research and design work are continuing and it will not be long before enough information is available for work to start on the bomb bay sub-assembly. This is the first stage of the planned forward fuselage build.

The Stirling Aircraft Project evolved from two separate strands of research begun over thirty years ago. Giuseppe Lombardi had been interested in Stirlings since the age of twelve when he was fascinated to discover that there was a nearby Stirling repair factory in Cambridge. Puzzled by the fact that there seemed to be no books or information on such a huge aircraft, he strove to learn all he could from those that built, flew and repaired them. Years of research into Stirlings followed; he investigated crash sites, accumulated historical data from flying log books and acquired a massive collection of photographs. A number of Stirling crash sites were found and excavated, revealing components that could be used later, or at least to measure for a manufacturing drawing for a new one.

Where are the Stirlings?
Peter Howell became interested when he visited the Public Record Office to look up 149 Squadron and fill in some of the gaps in his father’s log book. Then he was commissioned to make a model of a Stirling in silver (which is how he earns a crust) and he set about looking for plans. The five-view colour illustration in the Profile Publication was adequate for his purpose but apart from a scale drawing in ‘Aircraft of the Fighting Powers; Volume VI’, nothing else was available. Feeling that this magnificent and historically important aeroplane deserved some publicity, he decided to draw plans for the benefit of model-makers and aviation historians.
Stirling Aircraft Project
CAPTION: The Stirling’s FN5 front turret on display at an RAF Wyton open day. Brian Harris (left) and Graham Hutchinson. [Stirling Project]

The Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon kindly allowed him to examine the maintenance manual, Air Publication 1660, which included overall dimensions, cutaway drawings and diagrams of the systems. Then an appeal in the aviation press was answered by an ex Short Brothers apprentice who had preserved a data sheet for the mainplane and a sketch of the fuselage sub-assembly for the mid-upper turret giving the frame stations. Correspondence with manufacturers resulted in drawings for the tail wheel assembly, main wheel hubs, gun turrets and propeller blades.

Thinking alike
Peter had been a member of the now defunct Stirling Aircraft Association. He was aware of a certain Giuseppe Lombardi who seemed to be doing similar research, so one evening, Peter felt inspired to telephone him. There was a stunned silence from the other end: Giuseppe was on the point of telephoning Peter! They immediately pooled their information. Further research uncovered more material. Giuseppe was given a general arrangement layout and then he came across a pile of original drawings whose owner had been cutting them up for notepaper for fifty years! Copies of the Type Records containing stressing figures with details of the structure and materials were found in Belfast and in a further stroke of luck, a book of Short Brothers standard parts was discovered. This contained drawings of many of the components and sub-assemblies in the cockpit area.

Half a century after the last Stirling left the production line, it was clear that nothing was left to keep company with the other great aircraft in the national museums. At the same time, sufficient material was available for Giuseppe and Peter to consider seriously whether it would be possible to re-design it from scratch. In 1997, the Stirling Project was founded under the chairmanship of Brian Harris D.F.C., a former 15 Squadron RAF navigator who had flown a tour on Stirlings and another on Mosquitos with 627 Squadron. At the same time, they were joined by Martin Smith. He had been planning to build a Lancaster cockpit section but as several other people had the same idea, he traded all his Lancaster parts for Stirling ones. Brian assembled an administrative team and successfully applied for charitable status.

Back to RAF Wyton
Parts from an FN5 Stirling gun turret had been acquired and restoration started in a stable near Cambridge that Giuseppe converted into a workshop. Meanwhile, Peter had rented a studio and the Stirling began to take shape on the drawing board. In 2000, they travelled to France to measure the recently discovered fuselage section from LK142. By 2001, the Stirling Project had out grown its workshop and was fortunate enough to be granted facilities in Hangar 1 at R.A.F. Wyton. This very hangar had been used for repair and modification of Stirlings and could accommodate three of these massive aeroplanes. Work continued on the turret and cockpit components.

In an astonishing feat of persuasion, Brian requested the R.A.F. fly a Chinook up to Sheffield to recover the remains of LJ628 which had crash-landed on open moorland to the north-west of the city. Most of the wreck had been removed in 1944 but there were still large parts of undercarriage, flap and aileron remaining. It took the combined effort of twelve people to roll one of the huge undercarriages into the lifting net. There were three nets in all, the Chinook lifting them one by one and flying them to a point four miles away where there was access from the road. Giuseppe requested that this undercarriage go straight onto the lorry. Operating in a blizzard, the pilot skilfully lowered the first net with the undercarriage assembly onto the back of the waiting lorry. Two more loads followed and then the Chinook set off for home. The rest of the bits were lashed onto the lorry and taken to Wyton for storage. In early 2010, the Project suffered the first of its setbacks.

Wyton is the property of the Ministry of Defence, and we had to stop work when they decided to renovate the buildings attached to the hangar and then we were prevented from working for other operational reasons. Many of the buildings on the site were demolished and replaced by new ones. Whilst this was happening our chairman, Brian Harris, sadly died.

Overcoming obstacles
The project then found a new workshop and we are now working hard to catch up. The flight deck structure is making progress with original components being incorporated where possible and reproduction ones where necessary. The Stirling had two pilots so there are two of almost everything. Work is nearing completion on the control columns and we are hoping soon to fit these to the floor bearers, which we have had machined down to size from the nearest available material. Before long, we will be able to couple them up so that they work together. The seats and chassis are advanced and the rudder pedal assemblies are also underway.
Stirling Aircraft Project
CAPTION: The most recent photo of the completed flight deck components. The other pilot’s seat frame, which is also complete, was elsewhere when the pictures were taken.[Stirling Project]

In parallel, Project team members are at work on the complex task of creating a CAD  model of the forward fuselage section. Using modern technology is a great help. Very few original drawings exist, but the vast amount of information gathered over the last thirty years and a lot of detective work is slowly enabling us to create the drawings we need  for the airframe. Assembly jigs will need to be designed, and  fixtures and tooling will be manufactured, along with skilled personnel to carry out the work. Outside resources will also play a key role and some of the work will need to be done outside.

When complete, this will of course incorporate the flight deck structure, various crew instrument panels, throttle box and the FN5 front gun turret. As well as all this, much of the original internal equipment has been sourced such as switches, bomb aiming equipment, junction boxes and accessories.

Support the Stirling!
The project needs your help. We would appreciate hearing from anyone who has any original Stirling information, photographs or components. We rely on public donations so, needless to say, any contributions will be put to good use especially when we start work on the airframe components which will be a very expensive time for us. Anyone willing to help with machining and manufacturing resources will also be welcomed. 

The website is currently being revamped, but remains at the same web address: www.stirlingproject.co.uk Please make all cheques, Postal Orders and International Money Orders payable to ’The Stirling Project’ and send to : The Treasurer, Graham Hutchinson, 42 Sunningdale, Orton Waterville, Peterborough, PE2 5UB.

The RAAF Stirling VC.
Although the RAAF never operated the Stirling, numerous RAAF airmen served as crew in the type in RAF squadrons.  One of them was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage.
On 28 November 1942, Sergent Rawdon Hume ‘Ron’ Middleton, RAAF, was captain of Stirling Mk.I ‘H’ BF372 of 149 Squadron RAF detailed to bomb the Fiat works at Turin, Italy, from their base of Lakenheath in Suffolk, England. It was his twenty-ninth combat sortie, one short of the thirty required for completion of a ‘tour’ and mandatory rotation off combat operations.

Middleton and his crew arrived above Turin after a difficult flight over the Alps, due to the low combat ceiling of the Stirling. Middleton made three low-level passes over the target to identify it, and on the third of these passes his aircraft was hit by heavy and sustained anti-aircraft fire. He suffered numerous grievous wounds, including shrapnel wounds to the arms, legs and body, having his right eye torn from its socket and his jaw shattered.

He passed out briefly, but regained consciousness in time to recover control of his stricken bomber. Middleton was in great pain, was barely able to see, was losing blood from wounds all over his body, and could breathe only with difficulty. He must have known that his own chances of survival were slim, but he nonetheless determined to fly his crippled aircraft home, and return his crew to England.

After four hours of agony and having been further damaged by flak over France, Middleton reached the coast of England with five minutes of fuel reserves. At this point he turned the aircraft parallel to the coast and ordered his crew to bail out. Five of his crew did so and landed safely, but his front gunner and flight engineer remained with him. Eventually they too bailed out, but did not survive the night in the English Channel. Middleton stayed with the aircraft, which crashed into the Channel. His body was washed ashore on 1 February 1943.

The last line of his Victoria Cross Citation reads: “His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force”.  His was one of only two Victoria Crosses awarded to Stirling pilots.  Flight Sergeant Rawdon Hume Middleton VC was posthumously promoted to Pilot Officer, and is buried at Beck Row, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. His Victoria Cross and uniform are held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

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