Cleaning Cold War aircraft

The team from Arco Services had to abseil from the hangar’s 30m-high roof to get access to the various aircraft, which include a Vulcan bomber and an English Electric Lightning.

In the coronavirus pandemic, cleanliness has been a watchword. And this applies equally to some of the aircraft on display at the Royal Air Force Museum in Cosford, Shropshire.

Earlier this summer, ahead of its reopening, the museum got in a team of specialists – as it does every year – to clean and inspect the eight aircraft suspended in its National Cold War Exhibition hangar.

One of the specialist cleaners at work on the Avro Vulcan B2, 32m in length and with an impressive 34m wingspan. A Hawker Hunter T7A can be seen hanging from above.
. A close-up of the English Electric Lightning F1/P1B, which in its heyday during the Cold War was capable of supersonic interceptions of enemy aircraft.

The team from Arco Services had to abseil from the hangar’s 30m-high roof to get access to the various aircraft, which include a Vulcan bomber and an English Electric Lightning, all now ‘flying’ with the aid of suspension cables.

The team wore GoPro cameras during their work, a large part of which involves positioning themselves well enough in order to clean as thoroughly as possible.

A panoramic view of the hangar at Cosford, which now houses its National Cold War Exhibition. The museum is split over two sites, the other being in London.

‘It’s amazing how much dust can gather over a year,’ said Alexander Picken, a Level 2 rope-access technician. ‘The ones suspended don’t gather too much, because they’re at funny angles and there’s only certain places where the dust can gather. But the Vulcan is massive, so there’s a lot of dust.’

Despite their size, the aircraft now have to be treated gently because of their age. As one of Picken’s colleagues, Simon Holding, explained: ‘We can’t use any chemicals, we’re not really wanting to use any water… because any sort of product on paint as old as this, you know, it could damage the paint, so it is literally a dry mop and some elbow grease.’

The Hawker Hunter T7A, a dual-control training version of the classic single-seat Hunter.
A team member configures his climbing equipment, with his colleague visible in the background cleaning a Gloster Javelin FAW1, the world’s first twin-jet delta-wing fighter.

And although the aircraft look impressive suspended in the air, it only makes the job of cleaning them harder. ‘The complication is access,’ Holding added. ‘If this was on the ground, it would be relatively mundane.’

Still, there cannot be anything too mundane about maintaining the world’s oldest Spitfire, also in the museum, as well as some rare German and Japanese planes from the Second World War.

Like others across the country, the museum has been closed several times during the pandemic. It is now welcoming visitors again, although they have to stay on terra firma.

Another view of the Hunter, showing the extreme angle at which it is positioned in the museum. In service, it could reach a maximum speed of 690mph.
A specialist team are hired by the museum on a regular basis to clean the aircraft, as well as to carry out safety checks on the cables that hold them in place.
Text: Calum Henderson
All images: Michelle Worthington/RAF Museum Cosford
RAF Museum Cosford
Shifnal, Shropshire TF11 8UP
Open 10am-5pm (last entry 4pm) daily
Contact +44 (0) 1902 376 200,
For more information about both the London and Cosford branches of the museum, visit