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16 October 2014
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Linen goes to war

Article by Brian Willis.

Grumman Wildcat.  Illustration by Brian Willis

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As a result of my your place and mine piece about Fermanagh farmers growing flax to help the war effort, I have been chatting to Ernie Cromie , Chairman of the Ulster Aviation Society.

He invited me down to their Heritage Centre at Langford Lodge to see how Irish Linen was used on wartime aircraft. So over a cup of coffee, and surrounded by ejector seats, wind tunnel models, maps, and all the paraphernalia of their delightful museum, Ernie explained the role of linen in WW2.

Apparently it was used on the control surfaces 1 of many famous machines . Hurricanes, Spitfires, Lancaster Bombers, Wellingtons, etc. the list is huge. For some planes such as the Lysander and Tiger Moth, practically the whole of the fuselage and wings were covered in the material.

Linen was used, not just because of its lightness, but also, being malleable, it could be stretched around the most intricate of shapes.

"So please could I see a control surface of a World War 2 aircraft in their static display?" "Yes of course, we'll show you our Grumman Wildcat" but before being taken to the aircraft I was told this intriguing story.

Illustration by Brian Willis

Grumman Wildcat

In 1944 a Fleet Air Arm Grumman Wildcat was flying over Portmore Lough, (also known as Lough Beg) which is east of Lough Neagh, when the engine caught fire. The pilot, 19 year old Sub. Lt. Peter Lock , skilfully ditched the aircraft into the Lough. He escaped unhurt.

Peter Lock talked to Cherrie McIlwaine about his adventures for a BBC Radio Ulster series 'Flight Through Time' in October 2003. To listen to the interview and find out more about aviation in Northern Ireland - click here .

Air Lift

For forty years that machine lay part submerged in the Lough, suffering not just from water and the elements but also souvenir hunters hacking their way into it and removing parts.

Then on 30th April 1984, a group of aviation enthusiasts, with the help of some local firms and a Lynx helicopter of 655 Squadron Army Air Corps, succeed in raising the aircraft once again. This was the culmination of a recovery operation which began in August of the previous year.

Start of Aviation Heritage Centre

That wreck became the start and centrepiece of the Heritage Centre.

Slowly Association volunteers are restoring the machine. The pilot, Peter Lock, spends his retirement partly in Canada and part in London. He has visited the group on several occasions to see progress on "his" aircraft.

Roy Burrows holding the Grumman aileron
Roy Burrows holding the aileron
of the Grumman Wildcat

The Aileron

Ernie and I made our way over to the hanger to see the machine. One of the other volunteer members, Roy Burrows , showed me the skeleton of the aileron that was once covered with linen, of course long since disappeared after being underwater for so long. He explained the curves involved and how, rather than attempt to bend metal to fit these contours, manufacturers preferred fabric

As we were leaving, Roy told me that in the not too distant future they too would once again be stretching material over that framework. What material will they be using? Pure Irish Linen of course.

Some additional information since this article was first written.

The Flax Facts

Once again my friend at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum Library has come up with some more fascinating details about Flax.

During WW2 linen was used in "every operational aircraft made for the RAF" and the production of flax increased five fold from the outbreak of war. In 1944 there were 105,000 acres under cultivation with 60,000 workers involved in the industry.

Flax/linen was also used in the manufacture of parachute webbing and during 1943 about 35,000 yards were supplied EACH WEEK to the RAF.


Needless to say I just couldn't drive away without exploring the rest of the exhibits.

I can thoroughly recommend a visit to this "Ulster Aviation Heritage Centre" which is at Langford Lodge. (Signposted from Nutts Corner roundabout).

Because it is run completely by volunteers, it is only open one day a week - Saturdays from 1pm to 6pm most of the year. Admission is free. I'll just say that again. Admission is free, and there's a great display of memorabilia of interest to the aviation enthusiast, ranging from early bombsight computers to a huge (the real thing) Buccaneer jet fighter. Among the other aircraft in the collection is a Short's SD-330 where, to quote the publicity blurb, you can sit on the flight deck and "make silly aircraft noises"

Full Circle

Two boys stand beneath the Buccaneer aircraft

And these two youngsters admiring the Buccaneer at the museum are Timothy and Philip, grandsons of John Pattison the man featured in the article (A752041) who grew flax during the war in Fermanagh. The man who started me on this trail of Irish linen in WW2.

To read Timothy's report on his visit to the museum click here

Return to the Fermanagh Flax Hole

1 The waggly bits such as rudders, ailerons and elevators

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