Chris Wilson has two rules for buying vintage planes. They must be fast. And they must be flashy. It’s something of an irony then that the restoration business he began 10 years ago is neither. The work can be painstakingly slow, locating authentic spare parts even slower and the hangars of Jet Art Aviation, tucked away a few miles from Selby, often resemble the scrap yard next door. Still, it’s an improvement on their original site on top of a hill overlooking Bradford which was something of a wind tunnel.
Over the last decade the team have restored the last T2 Harrier in existence which had been decaying in a private collection, so much so that plants had taken root in the cockpit, and given a new lease of life to a Sea Harrier that had taken part in more than 50 sorties over the Falklands. However, their most ambitious project is their latest one – a full interior and exterior restoration of a Harrier GR3 Jump Jet, which Chris, who spent eight year years as an airframe fitter in the RAF, including a spell with the Red Arrows, had a very personal reason for wanting to get his hands on.
“It was the exact same plane I trained on. I recognised it instantly because it had the name of Captain LY Ching down the side of the cockpit. It had been stood outside a London Air Cadet Squadron for 10 years and while it had been properly sealed up, the Ministry of Defence realised that if it stayed there much longer it would really start to degrade, so they put it up for tender. There aren’t that many of these planes left and I knew we had the skills to really do it justice.”
With the bid successful, the first hurdle was how to get the plane to Yorkshire. Originally it had been craned into position over the back fence, but in the intervening years various buildings had sprung up, making that impossible. However, Chris was not about to be defeated and one snowy day last January he headed down the M1 in a tow truck.
“I don’t think I will ever forget that day. There were a couple of moments when I did wonder how we were ever going to get it out, but we did and that’s when the hard work really began. Most of our projects involve cosmetic work. We make planes look like they once did, but this project was different. We knew that the engine was in pretty good nick and because it had effectively been time-capsuled since the last time it had flown in 1990 the aim was always to see if we could get her running again.”
With many of the original nuts and bolts needing replacing, Chris had to invest heavily in spare parts, even buying another whole wing just to get his hands on vital control rods. “These aren’t the kind of parts you can just wander into B&Q to buy. Over the years we have built up a lot of contacts, but with something like this you just need to have patience and trust that if you search hard enough you will get everything you need.”
As well as overseeing the restoration, Chris has also pieced together a detailed history of the Harrier and the men who flew in it, including Captain Ching. “Captain isn’t an RAF rank and I always wondered who he was. It turns out he was in the United States Air Force and he flew the plane in the 1980s during the Cold War. Those little details are what people love, but best of all is you can now turn the engine on.
“When we started it the first time there was a big cloud of smoke, but it fired straight away. We knew it was going to be loud and we had warned the neighbours, but I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for just how loud it was. Even the fence shook. If I’m honest I think it’s probably the best day I’ve had at work in the last 10 years. We’d taken something which hadn’t worked for 25 years and brought it back to life.”
The plane is now up for sale but with Chris happy to bide his time until the right buyer comes along he won’t reveal the exact asking price. What he will say is that it won’t be moving from Selby unless someone comes up with a six-figure bid.
“Whoever the new owner is will be getting a complete plane, albeit without the weapons system. There is a huge amount of interest in the history of British aviation and we’ve sold planes to customers in Australia, Canada and Greece. For a lot of people it’s an investment and one which will give a better return than a bank.”
The seeds of Jet Art Aviation were sown when Chris left the RAF to settle down with his wife Mel. Bored with his job as a kitchen fitter, when various bits of aviation memorabilia he had amassed over the years started getting a lot of interest on eBay he began to wonder whether there might be a business in selling ejector seats and cockpits. There was, but Chris admits that it was Mel who persuaded him to buy his first entire plane. “I’m much more cautious, but I could see that she wasn’t going to be dissuaded. There was a bit of a heart in your mouth moment when suddenly you realise you own this great big piece of metal and the only way you are going to get your money back is if you can successfully restore it. But from there everything else followed.
“One thing we have learnt is that what people want is a plane which is rare, but also one which has a back story to it. We restored a Wessex helicopter a while back and I thought we would have no problem selling it, but it took a long time to shift. It was then I realised that it was the aviation equivalent to a Transit van and what collectors want are Ferraris. That’s what we’ve got with this Harrier. We have had some interest already, but what we don’t want is for this Harrier to end up in someone’s back garden, no matter how much they are willing to pay. It deserves to be seen by the public.”
Many private collectors lend their planes to museums, and Jet Art Aviation has also built up another sideline in movie props. “We’ve worked on the new Brad Pitt film Allied, as well as X-Men and Star Wars. All the stuff we have here is pretty good if you want to recreate a sci-fi crash scene. It wasn’t something we had really thought of doing until a few years ago, but that side of the business seems to be really taking off.” A few years ago Chris found himself in the headlines when eBay banned him from selling that T2 Harrier. Within a few days the lot, priced at £70,000, had attracted a bid of £140,000 but the auction site was not amused and pulled it, claiming it was a weapons delivery system and contravened its guidelines.
“That created a bit of a stir, but it was good for business. If I’m honest I can’t believe how much it has grown. The downside is that I’m more tied to the computer than I used to be, but when I do get to play out, I make sure that I make the most of it.”
The next league up for Jet Air Aviation would be to take on the restoration of an iconic model like a Spitfire, but Chris is keen that they don’t overstretch themselves. In the new year they will begin work on a Tornado, which is being kept just up the road at the former RAF base at Church Fenton.
“It’s funny we started out at just the right time when banks were still willing to lend new businesses like ours money. I doubt we’d get a penny now. I see us as custodians of these planes and as such, all we want to do is hand them on to the next person in a better state than when we got them.”
For more details about the Harrier go to jetartaviation.co.uk