With more than 30 years' engineering experience, Chris Knapp, conservation manager at the UK's Imperial War Museum in Duxford, has worked on modern civilian and military aircraft. Working Week talks to him about his career

The work of a conservator at the world-renowned Imperial War Museum at Duxford in the UK provides Chris Knapp with a variety of challenges, but that comes as nothing new to someone who has worked in aerospace engineering since the early 1970s.

Where did you train as an engineer?

I completed my training at Filton, in the UK, with what was then the British Aircraft Corporation before joining the Royal Navy as a naval air mechanic. During my four years in the navy I worked both ashore and afloat on a variety of aircraft, including Westland Wessex Mk1 and Sea Kings.

When I came out of the service I returned to British Aerospace as an aircraft fitter before progressing to an inspection role. By the mid-1980s, I was able to use my experience to work as a self-employed contractor.

So how did you make the switch from engineering to conservation?

The great advantage of aerospace engineering is the transferability of the skills you acquire. I joined the Imperial War Museum as a conservation officer in 1990 - a case of being in the right place at the right time. The museum funded my three-year industrial conservation studies, organised in conjunction with the Science Museum, and three years ago I was awarded a masters degree in museum studies.

What was it that attracted you to the work of the Imperial War Museum?

Anyone with an interest in aviation and aircraft would be attracted to the work carried out here at the Imperial War Museum, or any of the national aviation museums for that matter.

The catalyst behind the switch was a difference of opinion with my foreman while working as a contractor. I picked up the phone, called up the museum and they told me that they had a vacancy due to a retirement.

What is the difference between conservation and restoration?

At the Imperial War Museum we do both depending on the individual project. For example we recently completed a deal to exchange a Spitfire MkV with a Consolidated B-24. When the Spitfire arrived the fuselage was intact, but the wing sections were packed in tea chests, so that represented a full restoration. Because our aircraft are static exhibits, we always try to conserve our aircraft using original materials where possible.

So what does your current role involve?

As wide a variety of projects as you could imagine, but I'm also involved in the shipping and conservation of new projects.

For example I oversaw the dismantling and shipment of aB-24 Liberator from Lackland AFB in Texas to the UK. My work has taken to me to the USA on countless occasions, particularly when the Imperial War Museum was developing the American Air Museum.

In one single shipment we received a Lockheed SR-71, a Republic Aviation F-105 and a Boeing F-15, which took 18 months to arrange. It's a fantastic environment in which to work. One minute I'll be working on a First World War RE8 aircraft, followed by a Boeing B-52.

I have a network of friends spanning the globe, and the hours are fairly regular with occasional evenings spent providing engineering lectures on conservation issues or researching new projects. Most recently I've been heavily involved in developing our new AirSpace Exhibition, which opens in June and will eventually feature 30 aircraft.

Source: Flight International