Imperial College London

In Brief: Imperial researchers fight to conserve a German bomber from WWII



Scientists race against time to save the last 'Flying Pencil' from being erased.

At midday on 26 August 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, a German bomber was intercepted by RAF aircraft, sustaining heavy damage. It crash-landed in the shallows off the Kentish coast by the Goodwin Sands, killing two of its four crew members. The wreck of the Dornier 17 plane, also known as the ‘Flying Pencil’, sank some 50 feet to the bottom and was covered in sand.

By 2010, the sands had shifted enough to uncover what is believed to be the last ‘Flying Pencil’ in existence. Now, Imperial researchers are in a race against time to defend the plane against the corrosive effects of seawater, so that it can be conserved and exhibited.

The Royal Air Force Museum is planning to lift the plane out of the sea later in 2012. They ultimately want to unveil it in a new gallery in tribute to those who lost their lives during the Battle of Britain

Dr Mary Ryan, from Imperial’s Department of Materials, is one of those trying to save the plane. She said: “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.”

She and her colleagues are developing a liquid solution to clean the Flying Pencil’s aluminium fuselage and remove corroded layers from it. The hope is that this solution, based on citric acid, will be powerful enough to clean the bomber and prevent further attacks of corrosion, but not so powerful that it damages any remaining paint and markings on the plane.

This article first appeared in Imperial Magazine, Issue 37. You can view and download a whole copy of the magazine, from


Colin Smith

Colin Smith
Communications and Public Affairs

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