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Jet Art Aviation

In deepest, darkest Yorkshire a small team is turning unloved aircraft hulks into
the aviation equivalent of artwork. Steve Bridgewater visits Jet Art Aviation
and speaks to its founder, Chris Wilson.

t happened by accident really, Jet Arts

Chris Wilson told me with a broad grin
as we sheltered from the autumnal wind
and rain in his warm office. Outside, the
rhythmic sound of mallet on metal continued
as other members of the team worked on a
myriad of ex-military jets, slowly turning them
from wrecks to valuable relics.
When I left the RAF I thought Id make a
living by making aviation themed furniture,
Chris revealed. My wife, Mel and I thought
things like coffee tables made out of engine
rings or polished propellers would be popular
but the more research we did, the more we
realised that people wanted to buy the part
in its raw state instead. I guess youd say the
as flown look was more popular than the
restored look!
Chris formed Jet Art Aviation and started
selling small items such as engine blades and
instruments. That, in turn, led him to begin
refurbishing and selling ejector seats and as
the components got bigger, it was perhaps
inevitable that Chris would have aspirations to
start working on airframes themselves.
The first step was taken when a Sea Harrier

Destination Wales. The Harrier T.2 was moved to the Caernarfon Air World museum in September,
marking a happy conclusion to the restoration and subsequent eBay scandal. Jet Art Aviation

nose section was acquired and when the art

of cockpit refurbishment was nailed, it was
a natural progression to work on an entire
The first airframe we had was a Falklands
veteran Sea Harrier [XZ459] Chris recalled.
It was pretty heavily stripped of spares when it
arrived with us but we put it back together.
It was Mels fault really, he laughed, she

The source of controversy. Harrier T.2 XW269 was withdrawn from eBay after being deemed to
be in breach of the websites rules on selling weapons of war. The scandal resulted in unheard of
publicity for Jet Art Aviation and a new owner for the aircraft. Jet Art Aviation

66 JetS January/February 2013

shouldve talked me out of it, but she actually

encouraged me to buy the Shar [Sea Harrier].
We made a bid for the airframe and were
successful, but then we discovered that it
wouldnt even fit down the drive at home, so
we spoke to the farmer who owned the fields
next to our house and he agreed to let us put a
jet fighter on his land!

A seven-year-old
had inadvertently
purchased the jet!
I called in a load of ex-RAF lads who helped
us rebuild the jet at weekends in return
for beer and a BBQ at the end of the day.
Effectively we took a pile of parts and turned
them back into a complete airframe and it
was a really satisfying feeling.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the local press heard
about the couple who had a Jump Jet and
turned up in their droves. It sort of grew from
there, Chris admits. One airframe led to
two, then another and weve now completed
eight Harriers! We ended up moving to a
new complex near Selby which enabled us to
restore the airframes and store the million or
so spares that weve amassed.
In those days Sea Harriers and spares were
far easier to come across than Harriers, which


Aided by volunteers, the small Jet Art team

have worked wonders on countless airframes,
nose sections and component parts. Richard Freail
Sea Harrier XZ455 crashed into the Adriatic Sea while operating from HMS Hermes in 1996. The
jet was salvaged from the seabed and the nose is now with Jet Art Aviation for eventual restoration.
Steve Bridgewater

Lockheed F-104G Starfighter 32+57 had spent more than two decades on outside display when it
arrived at Jet Art Aviation for restoration. The team worked wonders to return it to such stunning
condition. Jet Art Aviation

phenomenal amount of interest but the auction

site eventually decided to withdraw it from sale,
claiming it was a weapon of war and was in
contravention of its sales policy.
Of course the engineless and weapon-less jet
was far from capable of being used as a weapon
but this turn of fate actually worked in favour
for Jet Art, who made headlines in national
newspapers around the world. I suddenly
found myself being interviewed on the sofa
on breakfast TV! Chris laughed. We had
more than a million hits on our website in the
days following the scandal you just cant buy
publicity like that!

I suddenly found
myself being
interviewed on the
sofa on breakfast TV!
Chris received unprecedented interest in the
Harrier in the following months and in May
2011 it was sold to the XW269 Preservation
Society, who began to search for a new
home for their jet. In October of this year
the Harrier was moved to the Caernarfon Air
World museum in North Wales, where it is
now on public display.

Ready to be packed and sent to its new owner. The Starfighter has been sold to a collector in
Taiwan. Steve Bridgewater

were then still in squadron service with the

RAF. We had to take damaged airframes if we
wanted Harriers, but the demand was there,
so we took an airframe that had lost its nose
leg in a ground accident [ZE691] and another
[ZD580] that had been damaged in a mid-air
collision with an F-16.
In years gone by these wrecked airframes
would have been scrapped, but today collectors
see the historical value in these damaged

eBay Scandal

Jet Arts work was held in high regard, but

only by the small number of collectors and

enthusiasts who knew about the restorations

they were undertaking, however, that was about
to change.
In February 2011 Jet Art had recently
completed Harrier T.4 XW269 to remarkably
high standard and Chris decided to sell it for
69,999 on the eBay internet auction website.
He soon received a surprise when a bidder
selected the Buy it Now button and purchased
the Harrier outright. All was not what it
appeared though and Chris received a phone
call from the bidders father. It transpires that a
seven-year-old had inadvertently purchased the
jet and it went back on sale!
Needless to say, the jet received a

Following their proven track record with

Harriers, the Jet Art team of five restorers
then decided to turn their attention towards
something very different. In July 2011 Lockheed
F-104G Starfighter 32+57 arrived at the Selby
facility for restoration and the former Luftwaffe
missile with a man in it was soon returned
to its former glory after 24 years on outside
display at various museums. It eventually sold
to an owner in Taiwan and when Jets visited the
Jet Art hangars in November, the jet was being
packed ready for shipping to its new custodian.
Buying the F-104 was probably heart
over head, Chris laughed. We didnt know
anything about Starfighters; we didnt have the
spares to hand; we had to think outside the
box to get around the lack of manuals, but it
fitted our brief of fast and flashy so we took it
on. Im glad we did.
January/February 2013 JETS 67

The Tornados cockpit has also been restored.
Steve Bridgewater

The restoration of ZE256 has been a personal crusade for Jet Art Aviations Chris Wilson, who was adamant
that a Tornado F.3 should be preserved in private hands preferably in XI Sqn markings! Jet Art Aviation

Tornado Times

Now Chris was keen to try his hand at a much

larger airframe than he had previously tackled.
I worked on Tornados F.3s in the RAF and felt
strongly that the type should be preserved,
he told Jets as we poured another coffee. His
office walls are adorned with memories of his
RAF career, including a helmet adorned with
the distinctive red arrow motif.
I graduated from my RAF mechanics course
as the top trainee and as a reward, my first
posting was to the Red Arrows. I stayed with
the team for two amazing years and then sat
the Fitters course and passed with a Certificate
of Merit before joining XI Sqn at RAF Leeming.
During my time on XI Sqn I slaved away on
many a nightshift fixing and maintaining the
Tornado F.3s and I felt strongly that one should
be preserved in a private museum.

Saving for Posterity

He began searching for an airframe worthy of

preservation and eventually found ZE256 in
storage at RAF Leuchars in Scotland.
She had been a Hangar Queen at Leuchars,
Chris recalled, and was used for ejection seat
installation and weapons load training with 111
Sqn. We made a successful bid for her in 2010
and towed her home, but getting her across
the Forth Road Bridge generated some funny
looks from fellow motorists!
Although the F.3 retired from RAF service in
2010, the airframes were flown to RAF Leeming
and stripped of useful spare parts to keep the
Tornado GR.4 fleet flying. The so-called Return
to Produce (RTP) programme sees up to 1,200
parts being removed from the F.3 before the
hulk of the airframe is melted down and the
various metals recovered. As such, aside from
ZE887 that is on display at the RAF Museum at
Hendon, ZE256 is likely to be the only example
to be preserved.

de-commissioning ceremony of 29 Sqn. She is a

rare Twin Stick variant with full flying controls
fitted in both the front and rear cockpit.
Jet Art is now offering the jet for sale as an
externally complete staticdisplayaircraft, with
the cockpit fitted out with two Martin Baker
Mk 10A ejection seats.

Buying the F-104

was probably heart
over head
Although its painted in XI Sqn markings [my
squadron! Chris exclaims] this particular
F.3 never served with that squadron. It has,
however, served with just about every other F.3
squadron during its time in the RAF, including 5
Sqn, 29 Sqn, 56(R) Sqn and finally 111 Sqn. We
elected to paint it as ZE343 from XI Sqn but
have retained the ZE256 markings on one side,
Chris explained as we ventured outside to see
the jet.
When the team acquired the airframe it had
no nosecone, canopy or undercarriage doors.
The engine bay doors were missing, as were
many of the inspection panels and a lot of the
cockpit was missing, as were the bang seats.
These parts had been robbed during ZE256s

Chris and his team have now discovered two

Martin Baker MKC5 ejection seats in the UK,
lending support to rumours that the missing
Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow may have come to
the UK. Steve Bridgewater

time at Leuchars, but ironically, it was her lack

of serviceability that prevented her being sent
to Leeming for RTP and her eventual survival.
Over the last 16 months Jet Art has sourced
the missing pieces and rebuilt the jet to
complete condition. The only things missing
are the Turbo-Union RB199 engines. Refitting
the tall fin proved an exercise in logistics, Chris
explained. Normally we use a telehandler [a
type of agricultural vehicle] for lifting aircraft
parts, but we needed to rent a crane to fit
the tail to the F.3, which weighs half a tonne.
Getting parts was really difficult and we had to
acquire a hybrid F.2/F.3 for spares. It had been
used for battle damage repair but it ultimately
provided us with 700 screws and fasteners and
various bits missing from ZE256.
The F.3 is now being offered for sale by
Chris he has already seen a lot of interest in
the machine. Museums often dont have the
money to buy aeroplane exhibits, but many
realise the importance of the F.3 as the last
Cold War interceptor, reported Chris. If a
private owner wanted to buy the aeroplane and
place it on loan to a museum, we already have a
long list of possible homes.
Having cut their teeth on the F.3, the team is

Historic Machine

Notable in ZE256s service history is a stint

as the personal mount of the Boss of 56
Sqn and it also provided the backdrop to the
68 JetS January/February 2013

This hybrid Tornado F.2/F.3 was scavenged for parts for the restoration of ZE256. It gave up more
than 700 screws and fastenings, among other parts. Steve Bridgewater


The Avon engine, and reheat unit, from Swift

WK275 are in incredible condition, despite more
than forty years on exterior display. Steve Bridgewater
Supermarine Swift F.4 WK275 arrived at the Jet Art Aviation facility for its restoration to begin.
Jet Art Aviation

now getting ready to begin work on their next

project: a Tornado GR.1. We plan to restore
her into a Gulf War era desert camouflage
scheme with some interesting nose art, Chris
Wed also like to have a nose from each
Harrier variant. Weve got a crashed Sea
Harrier F.A/2 that were going to restore into
its Falklands-era FRS.1 markings and weve also
got a former US Marine Corps AV-8B to start
work on. It would be nice to take a Harrier
Through the Ages display to Cockpit-Fest in a
few years.
Chris also sees a demand for the aircraft
as movie props and likes to maintain an
educational role. We take cockpits to village
fetes, he explained and frequently have the
Cub Scouts here for educational evenings.

Swift Progress

Early in 2012 a very rare aeroplane arrived

at Jet Arts facility. Supermarine Swift F.4
WK275, the worlds only surviving complete
fighter variant of the swept wing fighter,
had sat outside Sheppards Surplus store in
Herefordshire since 1968 and had been one
of the biggest causes of concern in the aircraft
preservation world.
The airframe was acquired by a private owner
who entrusted its removal and subsequent
restoration to Jet Art Aviation. The owner is
giving us the time to do a proper job in stages.
If were being realistic, I expect it to be a fiveyear project.
The aeroplane is in good condition, as Jet
Art has discovered whilst dismantling the
airframe. When the aircraft was advertised for
sale (ironically on eBay) a series of Armchair
Expert enthusiasts proclaimed that the
airframe was rotten and beyond saving, but
now that 40 years worth of grime have been
removed, it is in remarkable condition. The
cockpit is a real time capsule and the engine,
afterburning jet pipe and airframe will make an
excellent project. It will be restored into its
original squadron scheme with a red nose.

on eBay at any one time. Were also launching

our own online shop, which will have hundreds
of thousands of parts and when time permits
we restore the aircraft, noses and ejection
Jet Art had a number of bang seats for
sale during our visit in November, but none
more interesting than a Martin Baker MKC5
recently discovered in the UK. This rare seat
was fitted to one of a handful of Avro Canada
CF-105 Arrows built before the project was
cancelled. This is an incredibly rare item; in fact
only one other example exists and that too
was discovered in the UK by the Jet Art team
before being restored and returned to Canada.
Rumours abound that a single CF-105 survived
scrapping Could that aircraft have come to
the UK? If not, why would two seats be found
on this side of the Atlantic? The conspiracy
theories abound


So who buys a restored jet fighter? We dont

have a typical customer, Chris told me. Some
go to museums, some to private collections and
we recently installed a Harrier in somebodys
house! If you choose the right airframe, these
fast jets can be a great investment, especially if
you get an airframe with good provenance. But
ultimately they really are pieces of artwork and
you dont need to be an aeroplane fanatic to
appreciate the lines of a jet fighter.
Weve supplied pieces of airframe to artists
who want to use them as canvasses, but so far

The Swifts cockpit is a true time capsule.

Steve Bridgewater

the complete airframes weve provided have

been in authentic markings.
We take a lot of pride in returning these
airframes to their former glory. Take XW269
[the eBay Harrier] for example. It was in
very poor condition when we acquired it; we
restored it and its now on show in a public
museum. Thats a job well done as far as were
There must be easier ways to make a living
restoring classic cars perhaps but wheres the
fun in that? l

Former Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE)

Tornado GR.1 ZA353 will be the next airframe to receive the Jet
Art treatment by Chris Wilson (illustrated) and his colleagues.
It will be finished in Gulf War era desert camouflage with
appropriate nose art. Steve Bridgewater

Bread & Butter

The bulk of Jet Arts day-to-day work is

providing spares to other restorers and they
now a massive parts holding. Thats our bread
and butter work, says Chris, with 1,000 items
January/February 2013 JETS 69