‘Hawker Hurricanes are an important part of British history’

Peter Johnson of Hawker Restorations

Peter Johnson of Hawker Restorations - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

When you think of British wartime planes, you tend to think of spitfires. A well-beloved icon in the aviation world, these single-seater planes helped the nation win the Battle of Britain during the Second World War. 

But there’s another plane that’s equally as deserving of love and recognition – and the only place they’re restored is right here in Suffolk.

Head nine miles west of Ipswich, and there you will find Elmsett Airfield. Home of Hawker Restorations, it has been lovingly restoring the famous Hawker Hurricanes back their former glory for just under four decades.

The company’s roots can be traced back to 1987, where it began life as AJD Engineering.  

An old photograph of the workers at Hawker Restorations

An old photograph of the workers at Hawker Restorations - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

By 1993 however, the company decided to concentrate on restoring Hawker Hurricane fighters and changed its name to Hawker Restorations to reflect its new direction.  

“One of the first clients was avid warbird collector Sir Tim Wallis,” explains general manager and chief engineer Peter Johnson. 

Based in New Zealand, Tim managed to acquire the remains of Hawker Hurricane P3717 and wanted to restore it and add it to his collection. After enquiring with a number of restoration companies, Tim placed the project with Hawker Restorations Limited who took on the laborious task of restoring not just one – but three – Hawker Hurricanes.  

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Tim funded the materials and tools, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

And in 2014 Hawker Restorations was sold to company directors David and Andrew Wenman before relocating from its former farm airstrip to a purpose-built hangar at Elmsett Airfield. 

Inside the hangar at Hawker Restorations

Inside the hangar at Hawker Restorations - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

“The new location is just perfect. We can now build, test, and fly our aircraft all from one location. We have also expanded into offering our clients scheduled maintenance,” adds Peter. 

Peter, who has been working in the aircraft industry most of his adult life, first began working for Hawkers in 2007, carrying out specialist fabric covering. And in 2018, he took up the role of chief engineer, before becoming general manager three years later. Today, he is responsible for the day-to-day running of the business. 

Things have certainly been going from strength-to-strength for Hawkers – but what is it about Hurricanes that makes them so worthy of restoring and looking after?  

A Hawker plane, restored to its former glory

A Hawker plane, restored to its former glory - Credit: Hawker Restorations

“People think of Spitfires as winning the Battle of Britain, but there were more Hurricanes involved in the conflict, and they were actually produced in greater numbers in the early days of the war,” says Peter. 

“The Hurricane really did provide the mainstay for the Battle of Britain, in terms of attacking the bombers. The Spitfire, while less in numbers, took on the fighters. And as the years went on, people had an affinity for the Spitfire, and the poor old Hurricane got left behind until we began to solve the technical difficulties that enabled us to restore them.” 

Peter Johnson at Hakwer Restorations' hangar at Elmsett Airfield

Peter Johnson at Hakwer Restorations' hangar at Elmsett Airfield - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Currently, there are 14 airworthy Hawker Hurricanes in flight around the world – 11 of which Hawker Restorations have had a part in.  

Undoubtedly, it’s Hawker Restorations that have played a vital role in bringing this aircraft back into the public mind – and the sky is the limit as they have worked on a number of exciting projects in recent years, as Peter recalls.  

“We took a Hurricane, which is a single-seat aircraft, and converted it into a two-seat aircraft, complete with duplicated flying controls in the second cockpit. It was a complex programme, and structurally very demanding. We designed, manufactured and assembled the two-seat modification within one year. Since its completion, it’s been available to members of the public, so they can experience what it is like to fly in a Hurricane without being a pilot.” 

One of Hawker's many planes

One of Hawker's many planes - Credit: Hawker Restorations

And over the next three years, Hawker will soon embark upon its biggest project to date.  

“It’s a very special project. We plan to rebuild and restore an early Hurricane shot down by a German fighter in August 1940 – at the height of the Battle of Britain - and we’ve managed to track down the very pilot who flew it during its last flight. He’s now 102 years old, the last surviving Battle of Britain pilot, and lives in Dublin. If all goes to plan, we hope to get his aircraft back flying again within three years.” he explains. 

With aircraft restorations taking anywhere between one and three years, how exactly do they do it, and where do they find the planes?  

Hawker Restorations, who are now based at Elmsett Airfield, are world leaders in Hurricane restorati

Hawker Restorations, who are now based at Elmsett Airfield, are world leaders in Hurricane restoration. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

“30 to 40 years ago, you’d find planes in locations where they crashed or even scrapyards – but nowadays they’re recovered from digs. There’s actually a great movement in the archaeology of crashed planes, and there’s lots of people who are experts in researching RAF records and locating crash sites. They can pinpoint exactly what happened, who was flying it, even the time of day it crashed. This is the source of our base aircraft.” 

Peter says the restoration process depends largely on the condition of the plane when it’s first brought into the hanger.  

However, before any aircraft can be restored, the team must establish its manufacturer’s identity. This usually means finding the original manufacturer’s data plate – much like a vehicle identification number on a car. 

“Most of the crashed aircraft we start with are very badly damaged – the days of finding something pretty good in a scrapyard are long gone. 

Hawker Restorations prides itself on sourcing authentic parts from the era

Hawker Restorations prides itself on sourcing authentic parts from the era - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

“The primary structure is vitally important, and for safety reasons, always gets replaced with new materials. In the interest of authenticity, we try to get as many of the components from the era, if not the actual aircraft, as possible. Instrumentation, switches, placards, and materials are all authentic as they would’ve been produced in the 1940s. We don’t use modern alternatives, except for radios and other avionics because the old wartime ones aren’t compatible with today’s broadcasting requirements.” 

Fabric workers, metalworkers, and painters all come together to bring these magnificent aircrafts back to their former glory.  

“Restoring a vintage fighter is a quite different discipline to working on airliners, where everything is highly regulated and well-supported technically. Everything we fit to an aircraft, we make.” 

Once a plane is completed and test flown, it is then handed over to the client who commissioned its restoration. “We’re not just confined to the UK – we've got clients in America, New Zealand, France, Belgium, and Germany,” adds Peter. 

The team at Hawker Restorations

The team at Hawker Restorations. Left to right: David Hicklin, Darren Hodgkinson, Sarah Broomfield, Mark Schofield, Graham Self, and Peter Johnson - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

“They’re such a fine airplane. They’ve always been in the shadow of the Spitfire because they’re not as sleek or fast, but nonetheless they are a very important and iconic part of Britain’s history. We certainly aim to get as many Hurricanes restored as we can – and thanks to us, we have managed to get the number of planes back out there into double figures. 

“There is still a great interest in the war with people of my generation, even though we didn’t see it first-hand, we have fathers and mothers who did. So, to see these planes and hear them fly again is precious to a lot of people. You only have to look and see how popular air shows are.”