Meet the Scarborough businessman who plans to turn three ex-RAF Sea King helicopters into a cafe and glamping pods
An entrepreneur who has purchased three former RAF Sea King helicopters is hoping a landowner will come forward to help him bring them back to life.
Ben Stonehouse, from Scarborough, is storing the ex-search and rescue aircraft at his local rugby club while he fits them out and restores lost parts which were harvested after the fleet was retired by the Ministry of Defence in 2015.
His three unusual acquisitions include the helicopter flown by Prince William on his first mission when he was attached to the RAF as a pilot during his military service, and the chopper was also based at RAF Leconfield, near Beverley, during its operational life, flying local sorties.
Mr Stonehouse, who runs an events consultancy, has spent his spare time sourcing and attaching blades and wheels to the shells he took delivery of with the help of a group of hobbyist volunteers and advice from ex-RAF mechanics who worked on Sea Kings.
Yet their future use is uncertain after the North York Moors National Park Authority refused his planning application to convert them into glamping pods and a community cafe kiosk and erect them on a piece of vacant land beside the Hole of Horcum visitor car park
He has also expressed interest in several empty sites in Scarborough, and is now hoping a benefactor may come forward with an arrangement which will allow the iconic aircraft to be enjoyed by the public they once served.
"I bought my first Sea King directly from the MOD in 2018, but I didn't realise how expensive it was going to be to get parts for it. I eventually had an offer and sold it - it went off to Slovakia, but I felt like I'd made the biggest mistake of my life. I sat on the money and once I had a better income, I bought another for a higher price, but with more parts left on it.
"It still had no wheels, blades or gauges, and there were holes in the side as it had been used for training by RAF engineers patching up bullet holes. It would have gone to scrap if I hadn't saved it."
The second and third Sea Kings in his 'fleet' were purchased from a company which specialises in stripping them down to sell parts to countries which still fly the model.
"With the first one, I originally considered turning it into an office, but I thought it needed to be back in the public domain, with its lights working and blades back on. I used to go and watch them landing at Scarborough Hospital, and I have fond memories of them.
"There is already one being used as a glamping pod in Scotland, and it's a quirky thing to do with the other two. I may go into partnership with a campsite, but I will run the cafe myself on a not-for-profit basis to benefit local charities and causes, including the Yorkshire Ambulance Service."
Work so far with his team of volunteers has included insulating the helicopter destined to be a cafe, lowering its floors and installing bench seating and a kitchen.
He still has hopes he may be able to buy the land at the Hole of Horcum and win planning consent despite the setbacks he has faced so far.
"My idea was to have six regular glamping pods, the two Sea King pods and then the cafe kiosk. I also offered to provide a public toilet block for walkers. The planning committee refused it, and said the light from the pods would disturb the dark skies. They also claimed they'd be an eyesore and a distraction for drivers. We weren't able to have any pre-application meetings to get advice as it was during lockdown, so I'm going to meet with a consultant and explore how we can appeal and mitigate their concerns with things like sensor lights. It's disappointing but the plan isn't dead in the water.
"For the cafe, I was always looking at Scarborough as well, and I've reached out to the council but they haven't been forthcoming. I've found about eight empty sites and offered to take one on. It's a real shame as there will be so many community groups that will benefit, and it will provide local employment too.
"I'm hoping someone with some suitable land may come forward and approach me and we can come to an arrangement. They aren't an eyesore - they're part of our heritage."
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