Northern Ireland

Maze Prison site's secret aircraft

Canberra PR 9 over shipyard
Image caption Every Canberra PR 9 was built in Belfast

They consider themselves Northern Ireland's best-kept secret.

An isolated pair of wartime aircraft hangars chock-full of historical aircraft - and all on the site of both a former military airfield, and the most controversial of establishments, the Maze Prison.

It is years now since anyone served a sentence there, and most of the prison buildings are gone.

But the Ulster Aviation Society, run by volunteers, is hoping the renaissance of the site will bring a flood of new visitors through its doors.

There are rows upon rows of aircraft, all of which once flew in Northern Ireland.

But the jewel in the crown is the Canberra PR9.

It was built as a twin-engined jet bomber at Shorts in Belfast in 1958, and had the workaday name of XH 131.

It flew with the RAF all around the world from 1958, for 48 years.

"There were only 23 Canberra Pr 9s ever manufactured, and all of them were built here in Belfast, at Shorts," Guy Warner explained.

A member of the society, he is also the author of several books on aviation history.

"Not only were they built by Shorts, but also for the next 30 years, whenever any modifications were needed, they came back to the company for that."

Image caption A navigator sat for hours at a time in this compartment of the aircraft

Early versions of the Canberra also made history from nearby Aldergrove airport.

In 1951 and 1952 it broke transatlantic speed records between Northern Ireland and Newfoundland, once flying there and back non-stop in the same day.

But XH131 flew on until 2006, undertaking photo reconnaissance in Afghanistan, and finally overflying Belfast for the last time, later the same year.

The society later bought it, and transported it to the Maze site from Gloucestershire, and restored it themselves.

Pride of place is the secret compartment in the aircraft nose, a claustrophobic space where a navigator sat for hours at a time, dimly aware that a few inches away outside his sealed booth, the pilot sat above his head.

The society's next project is no less a challenge.

Lying in several pieces in the hangar next door is a 1950s Fairey Gannet.

An anti-submarine aircraft with twin propellers spinning in opposite directions, they were regularly flown from RAF Eglinton.

Ray Burrows is the society's hangar manager, and proudly shows off the various sections which he expects to join together in the next two years.

"I remember seeing an aircraft similar to this at the Sydenham airshow in 1956," he said.

"The last one I saw flying was in 1971. It's a tremendous thrill to have this sitting in the hangar."

Since the Maze Prison closed, there has been much debate about the future of the site.

Image caption The society's next project is to restore a Fairey Gannet

Plans for a shared national stadium ultimately came to nothing.

But now the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society is to ballot its members over a move of the annual Balmoral Show to the site.

And that could mean many more people taking the chance to visit the planes in those elderly hangars.

"We consider we're Northern Ireland's best-kept secret at the moment," Mr Burrows said.

"Our hope is that both hangars will become a major tourist attraction."

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