Reconnaissance jet used to spy on terrorist tunnels restored at Maze prison

An old RAF reconnaissance plane is being rebuilt on the site of a former top security jail in Northern Ireland where it was once used top check for IRA escape tunnels.

Volunteers from the Ulster Aviation Society are reassembling the aircraft at the former Maze Prison at Long Kesh, near Lisburn, Co Antrim.

After nearly 50 years of flying, it was dismantled at an airfield in England and shipped back across the Irish Sea.

The Canberra PR9 was one of 23 manufactured by Shorts at Queen's Island, east Belfast, where they first took to the skies heaving with surveillance equipment.

Operational flights included reconnaissance missions in Iraq, central America, central Africa, Kosovo and, as recently as three years ago, Afghanistan.

Infra red cameras on the aircraft were also used by crews to locate any underground soil disturbance at the Maze where the IRA staged a mass breakout in September 1983, when 38 prisoners fled.

Other planned escapes were thwarted after the discovery of tunnels close to the perimeter walls.

Now a Second World War hangar at the same place is being used to provide cover for reconstructing the plane which has a 70ft long fuselage weighing almost two and a half tonnes.

The project is being headed up by Ray Burrows, a former air traffic controller and vice chairman of the society, which paid 10,000 for the plane.

The restoration is backed by Heritage Lottery funding.

Ernie Cromie, the society's chairman said: "It has taken months and months to get to this stage and I'd imagine it will take as long again to piece everything back together. It's a major logistical exercise and a long drawn-out process. It's been very difficult, especially getting the engine out."

The plane's wheels were removed and the wings, each weighing one and a half tonnes, separated from the fuselage at an old airfield at Kemble, Gloucestershire, before being transported by road and sea to the former 350-acre prison and former RAF base.

The Maze closed in 2000 and has been earmarked for massive regeneration which is likely to include a conflict resolution centre and possibly the HQ of the Royal Ulster Agriculture Society.