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The Westland Lysander Mark III had sat out in a farmer’s field in rural Saskatchewan for decades. It was one of the many pieces of the great Allied sword that had now—literally—become a plowshare. The farmer used it as a kind of parts department for the farm, cutting tubing from its fuselage to fashion implements and stripping wing fabric to repair a chicken coop. The leftover gas in its tanks went into the tractor. Not bad for the $50 he had spent on a war-surplus item in the late 1940s. This was the fate of Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Lysander No. 2363 before it was retrieved by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.

In 1935 the British Air Ministry had sought designs to replace the aging Hawker Hector biplane for use as a two seat army cooperation aircraft. The new aircraft was to be built by Westland and was intended to serve in several roles, including reconnaissance, communication, artillery spotting, ground attack and rescue. In total, 1,660 of the new type were built. Cooperation units were manned by Royal Air Force crews to act for the British army where needed, in addition to providing tactical liaison for the RAF. In keeping with British army tradition for cooperation aircraft, the new design was named after a hero from antiquity: Lysander, the Spartan admiral who defeated an Athenian fleet in 405 BC. To aircrews it would be known as the “Lizzie.”

During the design process, Westland sought the input of units that would fly the aircraft, in an effort to create a plane that matched their needs. Good visibility for the crew, excellent slow-speed handling and the ability to land and take off from small, rough fields were important. Those requirements produced an early attempt at what is now referred to as STOL (short takeoff and landing). At times as little as 165 yards was all the rugged Lizzie needed to get off the ground. When landing, pilots could make do with even less, using differential braking to turn the aircraft as it slowed.

The final design was a somewhat strange-looking aircraft. Large fabric-covered wings were attached at the top of the cockpit and braced with strong struts. The cockpit itself sat high off the ground and was topped with glass to allow the pilot good visibility during tight turns. The wings bent slightly in a seagull slope and were thickest at midsection, tapering toward the ends. This allowed for excellent slow-speed handling and a sharp rate of turn. To facilitate very slow flight, Westland installed leading-edge slats that opened automatically with the trailing-edge flaps— cutting-edge technology for the 1930s.

The engine housing was covered with sheet aluminum, while the rest of the aircraft was fabric covered to save weight. The landing gear was fixed and housed within large 1930s-style wheel spats. The spats themselves each housed landing lights and a Browning .303-inch machine gun, in addition to the sturdy undercarriage-mounted sub-wings, which could carry small bombs, supply containers, life rafts or holders for other stores. The large-diameter treadless tires under the spats rolled easily on rough grass strips, where the Lysander usually operated.

Seven Lysander squadrons became operational in the first year of World War II. The slow-flying and lightly armed Lizzies were badly mauled by roaming German fighters at a time when the British were throwing whatever they could into the Battle of France; 118 were lost by July 1940. The Lysander sported a rear-facing .303-inch machine gun, but it turned out to be wholly inadequate for fending off the Luftwaffe.

With the fall of France, the Lysander’s role was reassessed, and the aircraft was given a new lease on operational life. One of the most critical roles it played was in locating and rescuing downed pilots, especially during the Battle of Britain. By 1942, the Lysander had come into its own with the formation of Special Duties Squadrons Nos. 138, 161 and 357, units formed to aid and maintain contact with various resistance groups throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. During the almost 400 sorties flown by Lizzies before the end of 1944, radios, ammunition, explosives and provisions were dropped to Allied contacts. Lysanders delivered nearly 300 agents to France and brought some 500 operatives and downed airmen back to England. Many times Lysander crews would fly into hostile territory carrying one agent for dropoff, and end up coming back with four others. The Mark III version was configured specially for this clandestine role. A ladder was attached to the rear cockpit, while the rear gun was removed to make it easier for passengers to get in and out.

The Lysander flew in other theaters of the war as well, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, and was operated by many Allied nations, including France, Portugal, South Africa and the United States. But it was mostly Canadians who flew the Lizzie, mainly as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Program (BCATP). Training centers set up across Canada beginning in 1940 were used to instruct pilots, navigators, gunners and ground crews for Allied air forces. More than 130,000 aircrew members trained in Canada during the war from nations including the United States, Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Norway. The Lysander was used by the BCATP primarily as a target tug and for navigational training. In Canada the plane was manufactured under license from Westland by the National Steel Car Company at Malton, Ontario (the present-day site of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport). More than 200 of the aircraft were assembled there before the facility was renamed Victory Aircraft and retooled for the production of Avro Lancaster bombers in 1944.

The restoration of RCAF Lysander No. 2363 initially began in 1982, when the Friends of Canadian Warplane Heritage in Niagara Falls, recovered the aircraft from Saskatchewan and began working on it at Niagara Falls International Airport. In 1996 the aircraft was transferred to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum (CWHM) in Hamilton, Ontario, where a new restoration crew took over.

The CWHM is a superb facility dedicated to celebrating Canadian aviation, with a particular emphasis on World War II. The museum itself is not new, but the building that houses it is. Many of the original hangars were destroyed by fire in 1993. What replaced them is a beautiful curving structure that was opened with much fanfare by Prince Charles. Part museum, part hangar and part restoration workshop, the CWHM allows visitors to view the collection up close as well as watch some of its artifacts fly. The aircraft in the museum are varied and represent many aspects of Canadian aviation from World War I to the 1980s. The collection includes a number of rare aircraft such as the Fleet Fort trainer, de Havilland Vampire, Fairey Firefly and Avro Anson as well as more familiar types such as the North American B-25 Mitchell and Consolidated PBY Canso. The prize exhibit is undoubtedly Avro Lancaster VR-A, one of only two remaining airworthy examples in the world.

The museum attracts the interest of American visitors because of its close proximity to the U.S. border (only about 40 minutes’ drive) and due to its unique collection. Twenty-two of the 37 planes in the collection are maintained in flying condition and take to the air throughout the year, resulting in a wonderful opportunity for visitors to see some historic warplanes in their natural element.

Canadians were impressed with the quality of the work that had already been done by the American restoration team. Many aspects of that work were accomplished within strict guidelines set by the Canadian Ministry of Transport (CMT) regarding aircraft maintenance, repair and restoration. Rick Rickards and Deryck Hickox had put together a precise restoration tracking system at the project’s outset. Every part of the aircraft was thoroughly inspected, cleaned and tested to ensure compliance with CMT standards. All materials and parts, whether original or new, had to be documented and aircraft certified. The team tried to use as much of the original airframe and components as possible, and chief engineer Duane Freeman made sure that all work completed was in compliance with CMT guidelines. Team member Glenn Gale said, “In the restoration business we joke that when the amount of paper documentation equals the weight of the airplane, it’s done.”

By 1997, the 20-member Canadian restoration crew had made enough progress so that it was ready to raise and reinstall the starboard wing. Flaws were then detected in the wing ribs, however, which meant the wing had to be removed and reskinned. As disheartening as that setback was, it allowed the team, led by John Sykes, to refine processes and install new maintenance access ports that never existed on the original wing. During the war, repairs had been made by cutting the wing fabric and then applying a patch over the hole—an unacceptable option for a newly restored museum aircraft. With that experience under their belts, the members of the restoration crew were able to speed up the same process on the port wing.

Aircraft construction during the 1940s involved both large-scale manufacturing and small shop elements such as wood framing, stitching and metalworking, far different from modern airplane-building methods. Restoring aircraft often requires using a number of archaic skills as well as up-to-date methods and materials.

The fabric covering the Lizzie’s wings provides a good illustration of that problem. During wartime, Irish linen was used, but today the wings are skinned with Seconite, a kind of Dacronlike canvas material that will not mold or rot. The fabric is glued onto the leading edge, then pulled back and glued onto the trailing edge. It is then stitched to the wooden ribs, and each stitch secured with a “saint” knot so that if the stitching is broken, the whole line will not unravel like a sweater. The amount of thread needed for each rib amounts to 21⁄2 times the wing length. The tension on the fabric must be just right to avoid warping the wing or altering its aerodynamic shape.

Other elements had to be redone entirely to bring the aircraft up to date. John Wilder, with the help of Don Pendergast, Peter Waterman and Doug Livens, worked to modernize the electrical system. This involved procuring new batteries, analyzing the electrical generator, selecting and installing the voltage regulator and ensuring that the new connections to the various engine, instrument and lighting systems worked. In addition, new low-voltage lighting was installed for interior illumination.

At times the restoration process had to rely upon outside assistance from sources around the globe. Various parts such as rudder pedals were obtained from the Smithsonian Institution, and timely restoration advice concerning the wings came from England’s Shuttleworth Museum.

The engine came from a most unlikely source. Finney Lee, who works on engine maintenance, recalled that the plane’s “brand new” 60-year-old Bristol Mercury engine was found, stored in grease, at Trenton, Ontario. The engine had only six hours’ running time on it, the result of testing. Stored as a replacement during the war, it was never actually mounted on an airframe. The team sent the engine to JRS Engines in Minnesota for testing and cleaning, and a new DC-3 carburetor was installed before it was installed in the Lizzie.

Painter Clint Bramhall meticulously outfitted the Lysander Mark III in the unique striped scheme used by wartime target tugs, as restoration of the aircraft neared its final stages.

The key remaining element to finish at this writing is the wheel assembly. Cracks were discovered in the original magnesium alloy wheels. The casting was poor and contained flaws—during the war, aircraft parts were frequently made quickly, with an eye to fast production, not longevity. New aluminum wheels cast in New York in the early 1990s were found not to be up to standard, so they had to be refashioned or recast. The old air brakes were exchanged for modern hydraulic ones, and the original tires used for landing on grass fields were replaced with new treaded ones.

The dream of getting Lysander No. 2363 airborne once again is nearing fruition. Restoration work continues, but the museum’s Lizzie has already undergone taxiing tests as this issue of Aviation History goes to press.


Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here