Britain’s most star-crossed restoration project is back in the air—a Bristol Blenheim that over several decades suffered a streak of unspeakably bad luck but kept coming back for more and is today the world’s only airworthy example.
The Blenheim was originally designed as a corporate twin. For its time, the airplane was fast—a 250-mph top speed in an era when the Royal Air Force’s first-line biplane fighters were almost 30 mph slower—and the military quickly latched onto it as a light bomber. By the beginning of World War II, however, the Germans had picked up the pace, particularly with the Messerschmitt Bf-109, and the Blenheim was in over its head. The Brits still love the old bird, though, for it was the first RAF airplane to bomb the advancing Wehrmacht in Europe, first to sink a U-boat, and the first airplane to be fitted with radar and used as a night fighter (by far its most successful role) to make the first-ever radar night kill.
In the spring of 1987, a volunteer crew completed a painstaking 12-year restoration of a derelict Canadian-built Blenheim, called a Bolingbroke. One month after its first flight, the airplane was totaled in a crash during an airshow at Duxford, England, when the pilot botched a touch-and-go that he had already been forbidden to attempt.
So what did the demoralized volunteer restorers do? They picked up the pieces and tackled a second complete restoration. There weren’t many usable pieces left, so a second Bolingbroke hulk was acquired and the team put together another Blenheim Mk. IV, this time doing the job in just five years and flying the aircraft in 1993.
Ten years later, that airplane also crashed at Duxford, again the result of pilot error—ran out of gas on short final. Time for a third rebuild, this one by Duxford’s professional firm Aircraft Restoration. With a first flight last November 19, this re-reincarnation has the latest Blenheim as a rare Mk. IF night fighter, with an all-glass nose. The only original Mk. I greenhouse that could be found had been used in the late 1940s by a prescient Bristol engineer who turned it into an electric minicar. The car was found among his effects and donated to Aircraft Restoration, where it was used as a pattern to build a new nose.
From now on, let’s hope the world’s only airworthy Bristol Blenheim is flown by serious pros.