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The Wellington Deep Clean Part 1

Part of the Re-Engineering Brooklands Project

It begins...

During the summer of '16, the process of emptying the Bellman hangar got underway. For its part, “R for Robert” required a deep clean, in preparation for its ultimate new home in the refurbished hangar. The three cleaning-team members set about gathering together our arsenal of cleaning equipment and materials for the job: mini vacuum cleaners, distilled water, brushes and dust masks.

We thought at the time disposable plastic overalls were a good idea – very much not the case! The weather in late summer regularly topped 30 degrees and we sweltered in these overalls!

After 30 years in the Bellman hangar, “R for Robert” had collected a significant amount of dust and dirt on its geodetic frame. Our first task was to begin the cleaning of the inside of the fuselage as a number of years had passed since this had taken place.

Entry to the airframe was tight - up a small ladder into the belly of the fuselage, behind the cockpit - and hard hats were a great necessity, given the crew being follicly challenged (two out of three) and tall (just the one)! Another problem in moving about the fuselage was the reduced degree of flooring – typically 20cm in width.

One of our ongoing tasks is cleaning the grime which has adhered itself to the protective coating applied to the geodetic frame-sections of some 30+ years ago. This is tackled by the use of mild, salt-free detergent, and only using distilled water to dilute the cleaner and to rinse. One of best cleaning tools is an old toothbrush (Phil’s).

As late summer progressed, all efforts turned to clearing the Bellman hangar of every single exhibit and item, so our cleaning was temporarily suspended for this period whilst we joined the small army of staff and volunteers in completely emptying the grade II listed structure.

At the end of September, we saw the Wellington moved into its splendid temporary home: the Wellington Pavilion.

Visitors will note that the outer wings have been detached and placed alongside the fuselage whilst in this temporary space. Detaching the wings was a big task falling to our Concorde maintenance team (ex-Britsh Airways).

Photo credit: Adrian Balch.

The Pavilion

With “R for Robert” now settled into its new imposing setting, the cleaning crew set to work on cleaning the exterior of the fuselage, including:

  • The front and rear turrets; both inside and out
  • The fuselage skin
  • The external and internal surfaces of the geodetic frame
  • The Perspex all around the airframe was cleaned with great care, as much of it is original
  • The cockpit
  • The wireless operator’s station
  • The navigator’s station

Given the hot-house conditions in the Bellman hangar during August/September, picture the change when over Christmas and January we found all of our cleaning liquids frozen solid with the bitterly cold weather! However, the "Wellington dust-busters" are not disheartened, and we are soldiering on, albeit at a slower pace during the frozen weeks of winter.

Outstanding work

Before the Wellington moves to its fine new home in the refurbished Bellman hangar (replete with a new mezzanine viewing gallery), we will complete the cleaning of the remainder of the airframe:

  • Bomb-bay doors – work in progress
  • Bomb-aimers station – work in progress
  • Tail-fin – a difficult to get-at area, requiring some scaffolding
  • Outer (currently detached) wings – also requiring some scaffolding, with an initial vacuum cleaning, followed by washing with our solutions.
  • Similarly the inner wings and engines

Please come in to the Pavilion and say hi to us and the stewards !

RAF Cosford

The three members of the cleaning team, given our special involvement with this exercise, arranged a visit to the Michael Beetham Conservation Centre at RAF Cosford to see how they undertake restoration of aircraft at their comprehensive site. Darren Priday, the Manager at the centre, made us most welcome, despite our barrage of questions concerning the cleaning and conservation of "R for Robert".

Cosford's Wellington, having moved up from RAF Museum Hendon, is six and a half years into a long-term restoration project, with the engines, wings and fuselage currently all separated. Both wings have been expertly covered in Irish linen, with one immaculately painted. We discussed in some detail the various options as to conserving and presenting the Wellington's geodetic framework. Options ranged from using a two-pack preservation coating, to simply removing as much dust and grime as possible and leaving the frame as-is.

Treatment of the metal corrosion was another topic for pondering. Given our Wellington's home of some forty-five years at the bottom of Loch Ness, some corrosion is inevitably present. Cosford gave additional information to us about the benefits of utilising extremely weak citric acid to stop the metal deteriorating further, and then the use of museum-grade wax coverings for preservation of the cleaned metalwork.

We also benefited from speaking with Mike, their expert on linen coverings and paintwork, in planning our next steps in renovating the painted skin of the Brooklands plane.

With our very useful discussions over, we were given a tour of some of the hangars by Roy, the Cosford volunteer coordinator. The exhibits are highly impressive, with the Lincoln and the Cold War hangar our favorites.

With springtime upon us, the work on the Wellington is set to intensify, as the date for its return to the magnificently refurbished Bellman hangar draws nearer.

By Phil Dimes and Jaye Roxburgh (AKA The Wellington Dust-Busters)

Read more about our progress in The Wellington Deep Clean part 2

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Photo credit: Adrian Balch