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Emergency operations bunker in Highland capital houses relics from the Cold War including helicopter whose passengers once included then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

By Val Sweeney

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Dr Iain Maoileoin.
Dr Iain Maoileoin.

People passing by could be forgiven for thinking they are back in the Cold War era with the latest arrivals at the Emergency Operations Bunker in Inverness.

The site’s owner, Dr Iain Maoileoin, has acquired an armoured personnel carrier and a helicopter – which has flown the then Prime Minister among its passengers in 1981.

He bought the former council property and military installation in Mackintosh Road in 2019 and his long-term plan is to create a guided tour museum there.

He said: “The place is steeped in history and has been in constant use since it was built, as one of three bunkers in 1940.”

The Ptarmigan FV439 vehicle.
The Ptarmigan FV439 vehicle.

The armoured personnel carrier is a Ptarmigan FV439 and is a specially modified version of a more general FV43X series. Dr Maoileoin said: “There were only some 24 of the FV439s made – 14 for the UK and 10 for use in Germany – but about 3000 of the general FX43X model were manufactured over the lifespan of the vehicle.”

He said the generic Ptarmigan could carry up to 10 infantry around the battlefield and it was about 5m long, 2.9m wide, 3m tall and weighed in at just under 18 tonnes. It has a maximum road speed of 52km per hour, can climb a 35 degree gradient and cross a 2m trench.

“The FV439 here was used as a specialised radio relay system – in battle it acted as a conduit between the front-line and headquarters, it is full of radio kit and has a 20m mast used to hoist the antenna,” he said.

“There was a driver, a commander and two personnel to operate the FX439. The electrics were powered from two 3kw generators mounted on the roof of the unit. The radios provided super high frequency (SHF) relay capability on the Ptarmigan/Triffid kit.”

Vintage vehicles.
Vintage vehicles.

It is also nuclear, biological and chemically hardened so that the occupants would be safe after a biological attack and from fallout.

He said it came from Army storage and had only covered some 31 miles since it was made, adding: “That is less than one mile a year.”

The helicopter is a UK Westland Lynx AH1 helicopter which was used by Army Air Corps (AAC) (British Army), it was built in 1979 and is powered by two Rolls-Royce GEM jet engines – this model held the world air-speed record in 1986 of almost 250mph (400km/h).

The Westland Lynx 1979 helicopter, painted to look like a Huey.
The Westland Lynx 1979 helicopter, painted to look like a Huey.

Dr Maoileoin said: “Once constructed and tested it was apparently collected from Fleetlands in February 1980 by 662 Squadron AAC. That squadron had just finished being trained in flying the Lynx.

“It was to be flown to Munster in Germany on February 29 but it is reported that it had hydraulic problems at Ostend and didn’t reach Munster for a couple of days.”

However he said that flew to Aldergrove the following month and on May 28, Tony Merrick flew Margaret Thatcher around Belfast in it on one of her tours of Northern Ireland.

He added: “Some components of XZ218 have the serial number of a helicopter that suffered a tail-rotor failure and crashed while returning to base in Northern Ireland. I have not yet found out how this marriage of bits occurred.

“My Lynx is in American air-force colours and the UK colours have been overpainted.

“It is believed that the helicopter was repainted and used in the backdrop of a film – still to be researched – it was not Fast and Furious, I know that much.

“Because of the paint job, and the markings, people passing by think it is Huey – also known as a Bell UH-1H.”

The bunker entrance.
The bunker entrance.

In the past, the bunker was used by the RAF as a filter room for processing raw data from the Chain Home and Chain Home Low radar stations that were around the coast of Scotland, northern England, part of Ireland and also the Isle of Man.

It was later used by members of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) as one of two bunkers they used and, when the ROC was disbanded, the local authority took over the three bunkers – two were later destroyed.

Dr Maoileoin said one now has houses on top of it, the other is now covered near the Raigmore Interchange roundabout, and by the 1980s the threat of nuclear attack caused the UK government to require each area to have a secure site from which to operate in the case of a nuclear attack.

Gas masks in a recreation of the operation room.
Gas masks in a recreation of the operation room.

The planned renovation work will focus on the radar and on the nuclear side of the building’s history and so far there is a creation of a 1939/40 radar system and filter room.

He said: “So far we have had around 700 people through the building in small-group guided tours. Part of these tours were done under doors-open days and some under the Highland Archaeology Festival.”

One of the more unusual tours was aimed at getting people out of the house on Christmas Day.

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