A short article to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the first flight of an Airspeed Ambassador and the 65th birthday of the world’s sole remaining example.
By Keith Bradshaw. All photos by the author and Steve Jeal unless noted.
The One and Only … Ambassador LZO
Photo credit Airspeed.
Prototype G-AGUA at Christchurch.
Seventy years ago, on the 10th July 1947, with the mighty Bristol Centaurus engines at full power, two Airspeed test pilots gently lifted the prototype Ambassador, twin engine airliner, off the grass runway at their Christchurch factory for its maiden flight. This would be the first of twenty-three maiden flights and it would never have crossed their minds that seventy years on there would be just one remaining Ambassador in the world. G-ALZO at the British Airliner Collection at Duxford. This is the story of that aeroplane and how it ended up in the care of the Duxford Aviation Society.
Apart from the three prototypes only another twenty airframes were produced, all for an order by British European Airways. BEA had ordered the type to replace its Vikings and DC3s on their domestic and European network. In honour of the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth 2nd, BEA renamed the fleet “Elizabethans” and each aircraft was named after a famous person from that era. The fleet was universally known as “Lizzies”.
On 25th November 1952 a brand-new Ambassador, constructor number 5226 and registration G-ALZO left Christchurch bound for the BEA base at London Heathrow Airport. BEA named their new “Lizzie” Christopher Marlow, an Elizabethan poet and playwright. Born the same year as Shakespeare it is said his work had a great influence over his more well-known contemporary and who knows they may well have had a pint or two of mead together!
G-ALZO open to the public at Duxford showing off its large cargo door.
“LZO” was the sixteenth of its twenty-plane order to be delivered to the airline. However less than a year after joining the fleet “LZO” was coming into land at Blackbushe airport on a crew training night flight, sadly a rather heavy landing collapsed the undercarriage and the aircraft slid for over 700yds before stopping. No one was hurt but the Ambassador was severely damaged. The propellers were bent, the engines dropped on their mountings and the fuselage broken and flattened just forward of the wing. The wreak was returned to the BEA engineering base on the back of several lorries and the Airspeed company were consulted about possible repairs to return it to flight. The opinion was it would be uneconomic for Airspeed to repair the damaged plane, so BEA engineering decided to have a go themselves. To establish a datum line for all the rigging measurements a piece of string was hung from the nose to the tail and this remained in place during the complete rebuild. After almost a year under repair “LZO” returned to her rightful place in the air.
BEA repair team pose in front of LZO following her rebuild.
She continued to fly with BEA until 1958 when along with the rest of the Elizabethan fleet was replaced in service by the new Turbo-Prop Viscount. “LZO” and several her brethren were flown to Cambridge for storage with Marshall’s awaiting sale. It wasn’t until 1960 that a delegation from the Royal Jordanian Air Force came to look her and a couple of others over as possible aircraft for their royal flight to be used as VIP transport by King Hussain. They decided to buy three aeroplanes “LZO” included, but part of the deal was one of the aircraft would have to have a freight door fitted. As all the Ambassadors had been built with a standard passenger door the BEA design department quickly came up with a modification to fit an up and over cargo door. The ARB (now the CAA) approved the mod and BEA contracted Marshall’s to carry out the work. With the work now done the three aeroplanes departed to Jordan where one of them was quickly donated to the King of Morocco. “LZO”, now registered RJAF 108, and “LZY” served the Jordanians well until 1963 when they were traded in with Handley Page for two new Herald aircraft. Handley Page refurbished the planes and “LZO” moved on to her next and final owner, Dan Air, in February 1963.
“LZO” enjoying the Duxford sun.
With the cargo door fitted “LZO” became a very useful member of Dan Air’s growing Ambassador fleet as it could be used for both passenger and cargo flights. It was often used for ferrying replacement Comet and BAC 1-11 engines around Europe for Dan Air to rescue stranded aeroplanes. It is also thought “LZO” was the aircraft used by Dan Air to carry out the first ever UK shipment of a live Dolphin by air, when the animal was flown down from Newcastle to Heathrow for the now closed Windsor Safari Park. As the Dan Air, and indeed the world’s, Ambassador fleet dwindled in size “LZO” carried on plying the Dan Air route map. Until on 28th September 1971 it operated the last ever Ambassador scheduled passenger flight when it flew a leg from Jersey to Gatwick. This was not quite the end as it then flew a couple of farewell charter flights for Dan Air staff and guests before operating the last ever commercial Ambassador flight when it flew an unserviceable BAC 1-11 engine back from Zagreb on 3rd October 1971. The final Ambassador flight anywhere in the world was when “LZO” was ferried from Gatwick to the Dan Air engineering base at Lasham in Hampshire where those magnificent Centaurus engines were shut down for the last time.
Photo credit Adrian Pingstone
A contemporary of “LZO”, one of the prototypes, G-ALFR whilst in service with Dan Air seen at Bristol in 1965.
For the next fifteen years it remained parked out on the grass at Lasham until in 1986, now the world’s only surviving Ambassador, it was donated by Dan Air to the Duxford Aviation Society. It was dismantled at Lasham and shipped up to Duxford by road where it became apparent the fifteen years parked outside had not been kind to the airframe and a near on thirty-year restoration began.
On the grass at Lasham 1985.
Shortly after arrival at Duxford before the tent hangar was available.
Being readied for the tent hangar at Duxford.
Firstly, the wings and tailplane were refitted whilst the society considered the enormity of the task it had taken on. The Ambassador remained on display in its unrestored state for a few years whilst a restoration plan was formulated. To provide some protection from the elements a temporary tent hangar was erected and with the wings and tail again removed “LZO” moved under cover for the first time in nearly twenty years.
In the dry but not warm tent.
Work commenced by stripping off all the layers of paint to allow repairs or replacement of the damaged and corroded skin panels to be carried out. At the same time, the dismantling process continued with the engines being removed so they could be worked on elsewhere on the Duxford site. A few years later in January 1993 a strong gale hit Duxford and the tent was badly damaged, this put pressure on the IWM to provide some proper hangar space and in October of that year “LZO” was moved into hangar 5 which was to become its home for many years.
Inside Hangar 5 at Duxford. Warm and dry at last.
Shortly after settling into her nice warm and dry home a problem came to light which could have had serious consequences for the restoration. On refitting the port main undercarriage leg, it was found the casting was cracked in several places, if this could not be repaired the aircraft could not go back onto its wheels. Much research and head scratching went into finding a suitable repair scheme as no replacement legs were available. In the end salvation came in the form of Britannia Airways who took both legs to their Luton Airport engineering base and carried out a heat treatment process to stabilise the cracks. Once this was done steel reinforcement sleeves could be fitted and the legs were returned to DAS good as new.
The repaired and painted main leg.
Help came not only from Britannia, whose apprentices rebuilt the tail cone, but many other companies including local firm Fowlmere engineering who made various items from stands to dummy spark plugs. Other help was forthcoming from ex Dan Air staff groups such as Dan Air remembered and The Dan Air staff association, the knowledge and memory of their members was very useful, especially regarding the cockpit and cabin layouts.
Before and after pictures of the cabin looking towards the cockpit.
Work underway in Hangar 5.
In 2002, “LZO’s” 50th birthday, the restoration team had a moral boost when they were visited by Joe Tranquada, one of Airspeed’s flight test engineers, who entertained them with many Ambassador stories. One of which concerned a heavy, out of trim landing, at Christchurch which resulted in both engines falling off! He also told the story of how the tailplane worked loose during a test flight when two of the four bolts that hold it to the fuselage came undone. This was true test flying!!
50th Birthday party with Joe Tranquada.
After nineteen years of being dismantled to her bare bones, paint stripped, cleaned, repaired and restored, “LZO” left hangar 5 in 2012 and was towed onto the Duxford apron to have her wings, engines and tail refitted.
Cockpit under restoration.
This however was still nowhere near the end as despite looking good from the outside the inside was still a bare shell. With all the seats and most of the interior trim still missing the volunteer carpenter and upholsterer were kept very busy for several years to come. With no original seats in existence it was decided to fit period Pullman type seating. However only a few of these sets were available so the team made some more out of wood.
Rebuilt toilet, these are now finished to a very high standard including IZAL shiny toilet paper and Dan Air soap.
Cabin looking forward.
Cabin looking aft, the area at the rear has been kept clear for display boards. These boards tell the Ambassador story along with the history of “LZO”. Also additional boards tell the story of Dan Air and the events that led to the Munich air disaster, plus technical innovations that the Ambassador brought to the aviation industry. There is also a signed photograph of the aircraft following its final staff/VIP flight to Rheims.
Second wing being attached prior to move back into the line.
Back out on the ramp having the tail and fins refitted.
The toilet and galley were refitted with original and scratch built parts and after a lengthy refit the now pristine cockpit had the newly upholstered crew seats fitted to complete the flight deck. In June 2015, nearly thirty years since it arrived at Duxford “LZO” the worlds one and only Airspeed Ambassador was positioned back on the tarmac looking like it did at the peak of its career with Dan Air.
The three-piece ailerons are fitted back onto the restored wing. The flying controls were all manually operated. Once out on the ramp from Hangar Five it took a few more years for all the fiddly bits and pieces to be refitted to the airframe to complete the longest ever restoration in DAS history.
Radio operator’s position in the cockpit. All the racking and some of the units were made from scratch.
Sixty-five years on from its first flight, thanks to the Heritage lottery fund, the help of many companies and individuals and the dedication of all the DAS volunteers who worked on her, “LZO” now proudly stands in line with the rest of the British Airliner Collection a unique example of British aviation engineering.
Cockpit almost complete.
The finished article!!!!
She truly is “The One and Only”