Restoration Man

08th December 2017

For Goodwood flying instructor Sam Worthington-Leese, building the world’s only airworthy Hawker Typhoon isn’t just a labour of love, it’s a chance to honour his grandfather’s World War II valour

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War has little respect for weekends. Rather than being allowed to lie in on the morning of Sunday 21 May 1944, the pilots of 184 Squadron of the Royal Air Force were ordered out of their beds at RAF Westhampnett near Chichester in West Sussex and told to fly some 200 miles to the Dutch coast near Antwerp. Their mission was straightforward – to perform a “fighter sweep”. In layman’s terms, this meant popping below the clouds and looking for easy prey, such as railway engines, tanks, lorries, barges, enemy troops – and then destroying them.

The squadron had the perfect tool for the job: the mighty Hawker Typhoon. Equipped with four 20mm cannons, up to eight rockets and two bombs, the fighter-bomber packed a fearsome punch. It even struck fear into the heart of Rommel, who would later that year blame the Typhoon for his inability to move his armour during the Battle of Normandy.

Piloting one of the Typhoons that morning was a 24-year-old officer called Roy Worthington. A veteran of the campaign in North Africa, during which he had broken his back after parachuting from a Hurricane, Roy was a highly experienced pilot who had risen through the ranks before being commissioned the previous November. Proud he may have been of his commission, but Roy would have been prouder still of Margaret, his WAAF sweetheart, whom he had married just a few weeks before. Now there was another reason not to be shot down.


Unfortunately, we only have a few details of precisely what happened that morning. What we do know is that the cloud was heavy, because according to the squadron’s records, one section decided to turn back. The other section, however, pressed on to Holland, and was duly rewarded. In the somewhat jocular vernacular used in such reports, it “collected a railway train and a few barges beside the odd water tower”. It is not clear whether Roy took part in such “collecting”, but what we do know is that he did not make it back to Westhampnett. “Pilot Officer Worthington peeled off on the Dutch coast,” the records state, before adding with a hint of disapproval – “for no apparent reason, and was posted missing”.

So what had happened? In fact, Roy had been hit by flak as he was flying over the coast, and with his Typhoon damaged, he was in no position to make it back over the treacherous North Sea. Instead, he took advantage of the fact that he was flying over one of the flattest stretches of land in the whole of Europe and force-landed his Typhoon in a field in the Walcheren Islands. As was his duty, Roy did his best to evade capture. He stayed that night with a Dutch family, but the following day he was caught and he would see out the war in the notorious Stalag Luft III, from where the famous Great Escape had taken place just two months previously.

In a way, Roy was lucky. Of the 1,200 men who flew the Typhoon, an eerily satanic 666 were killed. In all likelihood, being hit by flak saved his life. After the war, Roy became a schoolteacher, and he and Margaret had children and grandchildren. He died in September 1990 at the age of 71.


Some seven decades after that fateful flight, one of Roy’s grandchildren decided on a whim one day to research what had happened to his grandfather’s Typhoon. It was 2013, and thanks to cuts in the defence budget, Sam Worthington-Leese had just lost his job as a trainee pilot in the RAF and had plenty of time on his hands.

“I managed to find the serial number of his plane,” Sam recalls, “and eventually found myself at some random internet forum where a Dutch chap revealed that he had visited the site where my grandfather had landed, and had even recovered a whole load of parts which a farmer had been keeping in his barn for many years.”

Before the story goes any further, it is essential to provide a full description of Sam. Tall, blond, slim and good looking, he looks every bit the central casting model of a World War II fighter pilot. It also helps that he is, in fact, a pilot, so when he wears a flight suit and is accompanied by his spaniel, Eric, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’d travelled back in time. What completes the picture is that Sam works as an instructor at the very airfield from which his grandfather flew his Typhoon that Sunday morning in 1944, although it has since been renamed Goodwood Aerodrome.

Roy had been hit by flak, and, with his Typhoon damaged, was in no position to make it back over the North Sea

Visiting his office, which is festooned with pieces of old aircraft, along with pictures of Spitfires and Lancasters, it’s easy to think that Sam is a man born after his time, and that he’s trying too hard to emulate his grandfather. As it happens, Sam is unapologetic. “I’ve always seen myself as a Battle of Britain pilot who was born too late,” he admits. “And I’ve always been fascinated by the military side of flying, especially with the Second World War. In fact, my primary reason for joining the RAF was to fly with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.”

Although austerity may have scuppered that particular dream, Sam’s research has now given rise to the possibility of living an even more spectacular one – to fly a restored Typhoon built to some extent from the parts of his grandfather’s plane.

 For it was via that obscure internet forum that Sam met Dave Robinson, who had long collected old pieces of Typhoon with a view to making a replica of a cockpit. “Every single Typhoon was scrapped after the war,” says Sam, “and Dave has always been keen to educate people about this aircraft.”

In 2010, Dave’s plan was given an unexpected boost when an extraordinary discovery was made on a skip at the old Hawker aircraft factory in Kingston-upon-Thames. Contained in seven large drawers were some 11,500 technical drawings, of which 2,500 were of the Typhoon. These showed an enormous amount of detail of how the plane was built, and Dave realised that if he bought them, it would be possible to build not just a cockpit, but a whole actual plane – and what was more, a plane that could actually fly.


It was from that moment that the scheme to produce the only airworthy Typhoon in the world was born. When Sam joined the project – along with Jonathan Edwards, a professional draughtsman and aerodynamics engineer – what had been a hobby now became a serious enterprise. A charity was established, with a goal to raise £6 million and to have the Typhoon in the air by 2024 – the 80th anniversary of both D-Day and Roy Worthington’s flight.

There is no doubt that the project is enormously ambitious. “People say we’re mad and that it’s going to be difficult,” says Sam. “And we just agree. Of course we’re mad. We always say if we want an easy life, just rebuild a Spitfire, which these days are almost coming off a production line.”

There will doubtless be plenty of obstacles, not least because the Dutch collector had already sold many of Sam’s grandfather’s Typhoon’s parts to the legendary American collector Kermit Weeks. But thanks to the drawings and the parts that the team already has salvaged from numerous Typhoon remnants, there is no reason why the plane cannot be built if the money is raised.


Warbird enthusiasts are salivating at the thought of a Typhoon taking to the skies. “The whole thing is fantastic,” says the leading World War II historian and TV presenter James Holland. “Nothing would give me more pleasure, and it’s the one aircraft, more than any other in the world, that I want to see flying again. It was just an awesome aircraft. It wasn’t only a key component of the Allied victory, it also looked terrific – mean and ferocious, like a beast.”

Of course, the most excited person of all is Sam. When he sits in that Typhoon in 2024, flicking the very same cockpit light switch that his grandfather would have touched, he will no doubt feel a shiver down his spine. But Sam is insistent that the project is not just some boys making a very special toy.“We’re not just building this plane for the hell of it,” he says. “This is intended to be a living memorial to all those who died flying the Typhoon.”

Words by Guy Walters, Photography by David Goldman

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Winter 2017 issue

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