Museum vandals destroy 50 years of flying history
A VINTAGE aircraft that took two years to restore has been destroyed in an
arson attack by vandals. The Vickers Valetta, one of only three in the world,
was set alight on its stand outside the North East Aircraft Museum in
Dave Charles, the museum chairman, said yesterday that he had wept as he
watched firemen damping down the ruined aircraft. "I had to walk away because I
started to cry. I realise it is just a big piece of metal, but it represents
this country's heritage and a lot of work by a dedicated group of volunteers,
all of whom are heartbroken about what has happened."
Mr Charles, 34, added: "There are only two other Valettas in the world now. It
was so rare that it would be impossible to put a price on it. I have been
involved with the museum for 16 years and each year I travel up to 7,000 miles
on business connected with it. But after this I have to wonder about the
long-term future of what we are trying to achieve."
The Valetta was based on the wartime Wellington bomber, designed by Barnes
Wallis, inventor of the bouncing bomb. It incorporated the Wellington's
fuselage and engines and the first one of its type entered service with the RAF
50 years ago as a replacement for the Dakota. Used as a transport plane, it
could carry 16 VIPs, 36 parachutists or light vehicles such as Land Rovers. It
was known affectionately as the Flying Pig because of its tubby appearance.
The vandalised Valetta first flew on January 9, 1950, and saw service with the
RAF between 1951 and 1968, when it made way for the Hercules, variants of which
are still in use today. It spent much of its life as VIP transport and,
coincidentally, a lot of its flying was from the British air base in the
Maltese capital, Valletta, after which the aircraft was named in honour of the
wartime siege of the island. It also spent time in Germany and Gibraltar.
The plane, fitted with two Bristol Siddeley Hercules engines, is 65ft long and
has a wingspan of 89ft. Scores were built during the 1950s, but most were sold
for scrap when they were decommissioned. The two other survivors are in the
Royal Aircraft Museum at Wolverhampton and the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation
The wrecked aircraft was bought in 1969 by the Sunderland Flying Club, which
kept it for ten years before handing it over to the museum. It was the largest
aircraft in the collection until the museum obtained a Vulcan bomber in 1983.
Enthusiasts who had restored the plane in time for last year's Sunderland
Airshow were devastated at its destruction. Craig Blundred, the museum
publicity officer, said: "We are disgusted that something like this should
happen. The aircraft can never be replaced. Our members and enthusiasts around
the country will be sickened that heritage like this has been destroyed. This
year was going to be the Valetta's fiftieth anniversary and we were planning a
special celebration for it.
"It had to stay outside because there was no room to keep it inside the museum.
In a sense it was vulnerable, but there is little that can be done to stop such
determined and stupid vandalism."
A spokesman for Northumbria Police said: "The plane has been a target of vandal
attacks in the past but this time it was completely burnt out. Our officers are
investigating. This was a senseless crime that destroyed an irreplaceable part
of our nation's heritage."
A spokesman for the RAF said: "It is disgraceful that someone should choose to
destroy an historic aircraft in this way. We hope the police are successful in
bringing those responsible to justice."
Mr Charles said: "In one moment of mindless vandalism they have wiped out two
years of strenuous effort and 50 years of history. It sickens me to think about
it. The plane is impossible to replace and was far too badly damaged to save.
We are all feeling a great sense of sadness and loss at the moment."
It is the second time in five months that the museum, next to the Nissan car
plant, has been attacked by arsonists. In September the old Sunderland airport
control tower was also destroyed by fire.
Photo courtesy of Tony Oliver