Restoring the past

March 14, 2001

The restoration ground crew in the rear section of the much loved and long-stationed AWM Lancaster bomber 'G for George' - (L-R) Back: John Kemister and George Bailey; Middle: Alayne Alvis and Andrew Pearce; and Front: Lee Davies and Jamie Britton.
Since 1978, the Australian War Memorial has received federal funding for a restoration annex colocated in the nation's capital. However, the unit that specialises in the restoration of its display machinery - specifically aircraft, tanks, vehicles and artillery pieces - only began professional operations in 1996.

The six-member team has located, through an extensive national and international network, thousands of the various parts that have gone to restore the vintage aircraft which grace ANZAC and Bradbury Halls at the War Memorial.

Parts have been obtained from junkyards, war and aerospace museums, and even salvaged from more than 50-year-old crashed aircraft. When the conservators are unable to find the genuine article, they call in their machine specialist, Bill Lang to create missing aircraft parts.

The unit has also relied on the Air Force for information and parts - this process becoming a two-way street in 2001. Air Force contacted the specialists to determine a method of access with regard to the underwater retrieval of remains from a Beaufort in Papua New Guinea.

Senior conservators with the unit for six years, John Kemister and Andrew Pearce are currently restoring the well-loved Lancaster bomber 'G for George', whose ample body has taken pride of place at the AWM for 50 years.

'The Lancaster will be restored to its 1944 appearance,' said Project Manager George Bailey, who bears an interesting familial connection to the aircraft. Mr Bailey's second cousin piloted that replaced 'G for George' in 460 Squadron. The Lancaster also bears the signature of his great-aunt.

'The aircraft has been repainted three times since taking residence in Australia; it's been left in the weather and parts have been stolen, most of which have since been recovered. We have rubbed through the layers to identify the colour and pattern of the original camouflage.'

One can imagine the time-consuming nature of this particular conservation and restoration process, which is dependent on the derelict state of the machinery on reaching the specialists.

Mr Bailey explained, 'Once upon a time, everything was restored and no consideration was given to what we call inherent history - like bullet holes and original paintwork. It's at the stage now where these examples are hard to find; we think we have the only German Messerschmitt 109 and Spitfire in the world, in its wartime paint.

'We also have three or four veterans who come in here on a volunteer basis. While they don't have experience in conservation, they lend an invaluable hand.'

Veterans also value their ability to provide information regarding the machinery with which they've had hands-on experience. 'Many old technologies are no longer taught, and quite often we have to pick their brains to find the original process,' Mr Bailey said. 'Most come to understand why we don't make everything bright and shiny, and appreciate those reasons.'

The conservators are also in the process of restoring a Department of Aircraft Production Beaufort that currently resembles boxes of scrap metal. The Beaufort will be completed for display late 2002, with 'G for George' due back at the Memorial late 2003.

The meticulous nature of the job goes to the passion these men and women have for their body of work. Second to the personal satisfaction of witnessing a piece on display, is the feedback received from those who knew it in its former glory.

The unit accepts public donations for its running costs - so those who've delighted in the Memorial's aircraft and the like, can send donations for 'G for George' care of the Australian War Memorial.

Story and photograph by Amber McKinnon