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‘A phoenix rising from the ashes’ - the restoration of an aircraft ‘forever linked’ to Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 12:52 15 February 2019 | UPDATED: 13:54 15 February 2019

The group have to rebuild the aircraft's wooden frame. Photo: The People's Mosquito

The group have to rebuild the aircraft's wooden frame. Photo: The People's Mosquito

Archant

It was a tragic night near a Norfolk airfield that will never be forgotten.

The medal presentation where Pilot Officer Dickie Colbourne was given the George Medal for his actions battling to save his friend from the wreckage. Photo: The People's MosquitoThe medal presentation where Pilot Officer Dickie Colbourne was given the George Medal for his actions battling to save his friend from the wreckage. Photo: The People's Mosquito

It was a tragic night near a Norfolk airfield that will never be forgotten.

In a display of immense courage, Pilot Officer Richard ‘Dickie’ Colbourne climbed into a burning aircraft, after crash landing into a copse of trees near RAF Coltishall, and tried to save his navigator, trapped inside.

Flight Sergeant William Kirby was dragged to safety but died of his wounds.

Now, 70 years on, the story is being brought back to life.

Work on the project may take until 2024. Photo: The People's MosquitoWork on the project may take until 2024. Photo: The People's Mosquito

The same RL249 de Havilland Mosquito is to be restored and take flight once more.

READ MORE: Group restoring de Havilland Mosquito RL249 mark 70th anniversary of RAF Coltishall crash

A member of the group restoring the plane has described it as “a phoenix rising from the ashes”.

The People’s Mosquito, a group of aviation heritage experts, hope to restore the plane to full flying condition within the next five years - making it the first UK built Mosquito to fly in more than 70 years, and the first aircraft of its kind to fly in the UK since 1996.

Pilot Officer Dickie Colbourne was subsequently awarded the George Medal for his actions battling to save his friend from the wreckage. Photo: The People's MosquitoPilot Officer Dickie Colbourne was subsequently awarded the George Medal for his actions battling to save his friend from the wreckage. Photo: The People's Mosquito

Spokesman Stewart Charman, who grew up in Diss, said: “The Mosquito deserves to have its place in history along with the Spitfire and the Lancaster.

“The people who helped to build her, design her, and fly her and take her into war, many of them lost their lives.

“The plane will be forever linked to Norfolk and RAF Coltishall.”

He added: “Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, she will take to the air again.”

The People's Mosquito were given The People's Mosquito were given "the aircraft's engineering DNA" by Airbus. Photo: The People's Mosquito

The crash was on Valentines Day, 1949.

At 9.35pm the plane took off from RAF Coltishall, bound for Holbeach.

But the plane, a wartime icon alongside the Lancaster and the Spitfire, never reached its destination.

The aircraft’s engines failed and it crash-landed just a few miles from the base.

The RAF Coltishall sign.The RAF Coltishall sign.

This resulted in a mechanical fix for all Mosquitos.

The group now restoring the plane began when now managing director John Lilley, a former Imperial War Museum volunteer, finished restoring a display Mosquito at the museum’s Duxford headquarters.

Mr Charman, 46, said: “During the Cold War, the perimeter of RAF Coltishall was reduced and the remains of the Mosquito were acquired by a local landowner.

“They were bought by the group for around £5,000 in 2012.”

The wreckage was salvaged from the crash site. Photo: The People's MosquitoThe wreckage was salvaged from the crash site. Photo: The People's Mosquito

But the restoration of the plane is far from straightforward, as - due to stringent UK air safety regulations, very little of the original aircraft can be used.

“What we’ve got is a pile of wreckage”, Mr Charman said.

And from that pile of wreckage the group plan to reconstruct the plane, with the RL249’s original cannon shrouds the sole pieces of material salvaged from the crash and aboard the new aircraft.

Mr Charman, who volunteers as communications director of The People’s Mosquito, and works for the Royal Bank of Scotland, in Edinburgh, added: “We’re on a five year timeline with the build.

The plane's log from December 1948. Photo: The People's MosquitoThe plane's log from December 1948. Photo: The People's Mosquito

“We’re partnered with an aircraft restoration company based in Sussex, which is where the work is being carried out, but we expect some testing will take place in Cambridge.”

The ambitious project also involves completely rebuilding the frame of the aircraft - and constructing new moulds, which were previously only owned by aircraft restorers in New Zealand.

Mr Charman said: “They weren’t very happy about losing their USP. But financially, and historically, there are a lot of benefits to rebuilding in Britain.”

The group, who are a registered charity and rely on donations, are also able to apply for Heritage Lottery Funding.

The plane is being rebuilt by the group. Photo: The People's MosquitoThe plane is being rebuilt by the group. Photo: The People's Mosquito

“We wouldn’t be able to do that in New Zealand,” he added.

“We hope to have the project completed by 2022 to 2023, but realistically it may be early 2024.

“It helped that Airbus gave us 22,500 drawings of the original aircraft, that they found in an old building in Broughton. It gave us the aircraft’s engineering DNA.”

And the project is supported by descendants of the men involved in the plane’s final, fatal flight, including Trevor Kirby, who was just one year old when his father William was killed in the crash.

The group, The People's Mosquito, are working to restore the remains of the de Havilland Mosquito to flying condition. Photo: The People's MosquitoThe group, The People's Mosquito, are working to restore the remains of the de Havilland Mosquito to flying condition. Photo: The People's Mosquito

The death of his comrade and friend saw Pilot Officer Dickie Colbourne awarded a medal for his bravery, as he battled to save him from the crash.

Mr Kirby said: “Although I never knew my father, I know from my grandparents that he was especially proud of his RAF service and loved flying.

“I’m delighted The People’s Mosquito is seeking to return my father’s aircraft to the air and I believe my father would be too. I wish the project every success and will be watching progress with great interest.”

The People’s Mosquito are hoping to make contact with the family of Dickie Colbourne, and have appealed for anyone who knows them to contact info@peoplesmosquito.org.uk.

Similar planes to the RL249 have been rebuilt by enthusiasts in New Zealand. Photo: The People's MosquitoSimilar planes to the RL249 have been rebuilt by enthusiasts in New Zealand. Photo: The People's Mosquito

For more information, visit: www.peoplesmosquito.org.uk/

The RL249’s fatal flight

The last entry in the plane's log. Photo: The People's MosquitoThe last entry in the plane's log. Photo: The People's Mosquito

9.35pm - Pilot Officer Richard ‘Dickie’ Colbourne and Flight Sergeant William Kirby take off from RAF Coltishall airfield.

Shortly after taking off, both engines failed, and the pilot managed to crash-land the Mosquito in a small copse of trees about four miles from

the airfield.

Drawings of the RL249 Mosquito. Photo: The People's MosquitoDrawings of the RL249 Mosquito. Photo: The People's Mosquito

The aircraft suffered severe damage and - laden with fuel - immediately caught fire.

Pilot Colbourne, who had got clear of the wreckage, realised his navigator must still be trapped inside.

Despite knowing it was loaded with live ammunition, he climbed back into the burning wreck and found William trapped in the nose.

The crash was witnessed by George Cubitt, who was driving home.

"What we've got is a pile of wreckage," said Stewart Charman. Photo: The People's Mosquito

He said: “The plane was a mass of flames. The pilot, who was bleeding from the head, was dragging his navigator to safety.”

Flight Sergeant Kirby died of his wounds, and Pilot Colbourne was awarded the George Medal for his efforts.

Drawings of the RL249 Mosquito. Photo: The People's MosquitoDrawings of the RL249 Mosquito. Photo: The People's Mosquito

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