Scientists race against time to save the last ‘Flying Pencil’

Scientists are in a race against time to help save the last remaining intact World War II German light bomber Dornier Do-17, known as The Flying Pencil (Fliegender Bleistift), which lies underwater in the English Channel off the Kentish coast in the UK.

The researchers, from Imperial College London, are donating their time and scientific expertise to help the Royal Air Force Museum rescue the submerged aircraft, which was discovered in the shallows off the Goodwin Sands in 2010. Shifting sands have uncovered the aircraft, which was previously protected by layers of sediment, exposing it to the corrosive effects of seawater and threatening to destroy the plane entirely.

The Imperial researchers are working with the Royal Air Force Museum to prevent the aircraft from corroding further after it has been lifted out of the Channel. This will enable the Museum to display the plane in a proposed gallery that they plan to build in tribute to those who have lost their lives during the Battle of Britain.

In the slideshow (below), Dr Ryan and her colleague Dr Amy Cruickshank show the research that they are carrying out in the lab to help save the aircraft from corrosion.


Dr Mary Ryan, from the Department of Materials at Imperial College London, who is working on the project, says:

“This is the last remaining intact Flying Pencil of its kind in the entire world, so the significance of this project to our history cannot be underestimated. We have been analysing fragments already brought to the surface and it is absolutely fascinating to see how this bomber, which crash landed more than 70 years ago, has been so well preserved by the layers of sand. We are relishing the challenge of finding a way to help save this historical treasure, so that it can be raised and put on display for future generations.”

One of the challenges for Imperial researchers is devising a method for cleaning and removing the corroded layers from the Flying Pencil’s aluminium fuselage. It contains large amounts of the corrosive agent chloride, which comes from the seawater.

The researchers are currently testing environmentally friendly solution based on citric acid, which is found in high concentrations in citrus fruit. They are using this to remove the surface layers of corrosion and sea deposits such as crustaceans from the small pieces of wreckage already raised to the surface. The aim is to develop a solution that is powerful enough to clean the bomber, but not so powerful that it damages any remaining paint and markings on the plane, which are of historical significance. Getting the balance right is important because any remaining chloride on the metal surface could lead to further attacks of corrosion when the plane is on display.

In addition, the team will help to work out the best environmental conditions for displaying the bomber in the museum. For example, too much humidity in the air could lead to condensation on the metal, which would activate further corrosion.

The fate of this Flying Pencil was sealed on midday 26 August 1940, during the height of the Battle of Britain. On that day the bomber, already manned by a crew of four and loaded with 2,000lb of bombs, was part of a large German formation en route to attack airfields in Essex. The plane was intercepted by RAF aircraft and sustained heavy damage, crashing into the shallows off Goodwin Sands.

The pilot, Sergeant Effmert, and another crew member, Corporal Ritzel, managed to escape from the aircraft, later becoming prisoners of war. However, two other crew members, Sergeant Reinhardt and Aircaftman Huhn, were killed. Their bodies were later recovered and laid to rest in military cemeteries.

Ian Thirsk, Head of Collections from the Royal Air Force Museum, adds:

“At the moment, we are attempting to trace the relatives of the crew members who survived this fateful mission, in order to help engage visitors to the museum about the human story behind this episode of the war. As the last surviving example of the Dornier Do 17, this aircraft is truly unique. We think this old bomber has one last scrap left in her – the battle against corrosion – and we are absolutely delighted that Imperial researchers have enlisted their expertise to help us win this fight. The recovery and conservation of this bomber will greatly enhance the RAF Museum’s ability to tell the wider story of the Battle of Britain, particularly the sacrifices made on both sides during the conflict.”

When the Imperial engineers have completed their research, a team from the Museum, working with specialist underwater archaeologists and recovery experts, will use a lifting cradle to support the weight of the fragile aircraft as it is brought to the surface, currently planned for spring 2012. The Dornier will then be transferred to the Museum’s Conservation Facility at Cosford, where it will be prepared for display. The plan is to exhibit the aircraft, just as it was found, in the planned new Battle of Britain Beacon wing at the Museum’s London site.

For further information please contact:
Colin Smith
Senior Research Media Officer
Imperial College London
Email: [email protected]
Tel: +44(0)20 7594 6712
Out of hours duty press officer: +44(0)7803 886 248

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