Skip to content

“And like no other sculpture in the history of art, the dead engine and dead airframe come to life at the touch of a human hand, and join their life with the pilot's own.”

307. Making History

1264 has been in the trailer at Bicester since the Shuttleworth show a couple of weeks ago waiting for the Bicester Flywheel event. One of the things we wanted to achieve in this time was to get a flight test for the Light Aircraft Association’s magazine ‘Light Aviation’. Their regular flight test pilot is Clive Davidson, second generation RAF pilot who splits his time between display flying and instructing on Tiger Moths.

This week was more or less the only opportunity to do this, fitting in between Clive delivering a huge Russian Yak 11 fighter to Finland, and disappearing off to the Czech Republic for more display flying in WWI replica machines.

Thankfully the weather came good on Wednesday, and we had a simply superb time. Theo and I had set off early in order to get 1264 rigged, and were ready by around 1300 when Clive, together with Neil Wilson (photographer), Chris (Tiger Moth owner) and Annabelle Burroughes (display pilot and instructor on Tiger Moth and Bucker Jungmann).

I made a short flight to confirm everything was in order, and we strapped Clive in and off he went. As you would expect, his flying was absolutely crisp and he clearly enjoyed himself with a low fly-by and some vertically-banked turns.

Clive’s flyby. Note the anxious faces turned up to look at him, and the Piper Cub waiting to be camera ship.

He does seem to be enjoying himself.

When he landed, he said that he couldn’t stop laughing on the takeoff, because the performance was so amazing, and on his return he couldn’t put into words how wonderful the flight was.

But there was no time to stop. Steve Slater fired up the Piper Cub, and they went off for the air-to-air photoshoot.

All of this went absolutely fine, and it was a real pleasure to be able to share 1264’s amazing flying qualities with an expert pilot.

But what made the day of historic importance, was that for the first time in – well, we don’t know how long – a rotary-engined WWI machine was flown by a woman. Annabelle Burroughes owns and flies a Bucker Jungmann, and instructs in a Tiger Moth. She also received an award from the Royal Aero Club for her heroic recovery of a four-seat TB10 aircraft which started a fire in the engine compartment on take off. She had two passengers on board, and she managed to land the aircraft safely in a field, by which time her feet were starting to get very warm, safely evacuate her passengers, and then put the fire out with the extinguisher.

So when it was suggested she might like to have a flight in 1264, she jumped at the chance, and, as you’d expect from such an experienced pilot, she managed it flawlessly. 

 

 

One happy lady!

We had to de-rig 1264 and get her back in the trailer, but Theo and I were very, very grateful for the help that all of the team gave to clean 1264 and put her to bed.

It was a long day, but very rewarding!

306 Show Time!

The last couple of months have been a continuous stress raiser; starting with the completion of the engine repairs, then getting 1264 inspected and check flown in conjunction with the static displays at Downton Hall and Yeovilton, the approval of the modification for the aluminium pistons, the check flight at the last minute at Yeovilton, and the practice display to keep my display authorisation current.

There hasn’t been a moment when we haven’t been very concerned about the status of 1264 in time for the start of the flying programme.

Nonetheless, we managed to get all the boxes ticked, and on Thursday Phil at the Shuttleworth removed one cylinder from the engine in order to check for any wear on the pistons. There were no problems, and he popped it back together in time for the weekend.

We arrived at the Shuttleworth on Saturday, together with Stephen Saunders bearing a large boxload of DVDs, so we rolled 1264 out and set up our stand in front, and spent a great day nattering to people, many of whom took advantage of the great price of the DVDs to get a sneak preview of what may well end up on British TV.

So now we were all ready to go for the Fly Navy airshow on the Sunday, and all we needed was the weather. Even at 0800, there was a queue of cars stretching over the horizon waiting to get in, and not obviously put off by the absence of the poor old Sea Vixen which had suffered a hydraulic failure the week before an had to perform a wheels-up landing.

Jock Alexander (CEO of the Navy Wings charity) and the head of the Fleet Air Arm, Rear Admiral Keith Blount, came to look round 1264 with their wives, and at 1100 I did a pilot talk which seemed to be well received.

During the pilot briefing the weather, which had looked distinctly marginal for the WWI machines, seemed to be improving, though there was rain approaching from the west, and it was possible it might show up early to spoil the show.

Over the winter, Dodge Bailey had worked with a university to provide some amazing data with which they’d managed to persuade the CAA to allow – for Shuttleworth displays only – aircraft like ours doing slower, non-aerobatic flights to come closer to the crowds.

The latest flying programme was also issued, but these things are so flexible, it was out date before the end of the briefing.

In the end, our slot time was amended a couple of times in order to accommodate the variable arrival time of the BBMF Hurricane and Spitfure who had been weathered in at Bournemouth.

Still, finally we were given the green light, and 1264 started as reliably as always, and she leapt into the air.

The display itself was thoroughly enjoyable – I even had to reduce throttle on the ends of turns to keep the speed within limits, and I managed to do a decent topside pass this time.

The landing was absolutely fine, but as I tried to taxi back past the crowds, something forced the tail right round 180 degrees, and it seemed easier to taxi back to the takeoff point so that Rob Millinship could get away promptly in the Sopwith Pup.

The other benefit was that I got the best seat in the show for the remainder of the show, right underneath the big hitters – Hawker Fury, Grumman Wildcat, Bearcat, and Catalina.

Magnificent! We were also right there when the Gloster Gladiator engine started misfiring, and was actually landed out in a nearby farmer’s field by pilot Paul Stone. Amazingly he got her down intact, and by Tuesday morning she’s been brought back to Old Warden by road.

The rain finally arrived as we were dismantling 1264 and putting her back in the trailer, and by the time that was done we were all absolutely exhausted.

You might wonder whether all of this stress was worth it for a five minute flight, but I can tell you for sure that it was!

Sue and I stayed overnight and on Monday morning we towed the trailer to Bicester, ready for the Flywheel Festival on 24/25 June.

If you haven’t got your ticket yet, don’t hesitate. A great flying display and some absolutely awesome cars. We’re doing a static display both days, so do come and see us!

305. Air Time!

After the drama of getting 1264’s permit to Fly renewed, there was one other regulatory requirement before I would be allowed to fly her in a display, and this was to conduct at least one practice display.

Theo towed 1264 to Old Warden on Thursday, and Chill and I joined him on Friday to get her rigged, with the idea that we might be able to fly her later in the day. In the event, the wind was too strong and in the wrong direction, so we decided to reconvene on Sunday for another go, leaving her all rigged up in No. 1 hangar with the other WWI machines.

In addition to the additional six hours’ travelling this entailed, Theo made an even greater sacrifice by missing the Monaco Grand Prix.

Sunday was perfect, and the three of us rolled her out to the end of runway 21, and waited for a gap in the normal traffic to fire her up. For some reason she was a little reluctant to go first time, and it was nearly midday before I got into the air. But the engine ran as beautifully as before, and this time I was able to check the rate of climb with a timed 1000ft climb. it worked out at 800 feet per minute, which is exactly double what we were getting before. Magnificent!

I spent some time re-familiarising myself with the feel of the controls and checking that the mixture was set to optimum. It was the first time we’d flown with a full pulsometer too, but disappointingly it slowly emptied into the engine. We think there may have been some air in the line, so we’ll give it another go when we get an opportunity.

I also checked out the maximum level speed, which on the original was supposed to be nearly 100mph (85kt) but couldn’t really get more than 75kt. It may be possible to dive the aircraft to a higher speed, and then level out, at which point the higher engine rpm will deliver additional power to retain the additional speed, but I wasn’t able to demonstrate it consistently.

Theo used a handheld radio to warn traffic of my intentions, and I descended and ran through my five minute display routine. All went well, and I felt my confidence returning, particularly when I did a reasonable landing and managed to taxi all the way back to the hangar.

I’d been in the air for 30 minutes, and the airframe was covered with oil.

On Finals, courtesy of Richard Chillingford (Chill). Note the oil stains down the fuselage side.

We cleaned her down and rolled her back in the hangar and we can now say that the only thing that can put a spanner in the works will be the weather on Sunday, but even that is looking quite promising so far. I understand there will be a good line-up of WWI types there, so fingers crossed…

304. International Recognition

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) is the international body that regulates competition and records in all sorts of airsports, from drone racing to skydiving, from ballooning to aerobatics. If you take part in an international competition or claim a world record, it will be the FAI which has administered it, set the rules, and issued the certificates.

So it was a very great honour to have been awarded a Phoenix Group Diploma by the FAI for the building of 1264. The award was made for 2015, the year in which she first flew, but it was awarded in 2016.

The original presentation was at the FAI’s Annual ~general Meeting, but since that was held in October in Bali, we decided not to attend…

But there was another possibility of public recognition. The FAI doesn’t deal direct with every airsports organisation in the world – that would be impossible. Instead, it recognises one organisation from each country, and in the UK that is the Royal Aero Club (RAeC), which is one of the oldest airsports organisations in the world, dating from 1901 (at which time it was concerned, needless to say, exclusively with ballooning).

If you can’t make it tot he FAI’s annual do, you can at least have it presented at the RAeC’s annual do, which is held at the very posh RAF Club in Piccadilly.

In fact, having been a member of the RAeC committee for a number of years, i continue to edit the brochure for the awards presentation ceremony, so it was a slightly surreal feeling having to edit the citation for our own award!

This year the awards were presented by Sqn Ldr Andy Millikin, who is a third generation RAF pilot, and currently CO of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, thus getting to fly some other very historic machinery.

It was a very pleasurable event, and I chatted with Andy Millikin afterwards, suggesting that some sort of tie-up with the centenary of the RAF might be appropriate. He was quite taken with the idea, so we’ll see what comes of that.

Photo courtesy of Here and Now Photography

303. Engine Performance

I’ve been puzzling over the reasons for the quite remarkable increase in performance in the engine since the refurbishment.

Last year the best we ever got on the ground was 1050rpm. Normally you would expect an increase in the air as the load on the propeller is reduced, but that wasn’t the case; it was exactly the same however fast we were going.

This year the maximum speed on the ground is 1150rpm, increasing to 1200 in the air, which is clearly a big increase in power, and behaviour more like a normal aero engine.

In fact power is a function of the cube of the rpm, so an increase of 100rpm on the ground means we’re getting an astonishing 30% more power from the engine. It means that last year we were flying with the same power output that Grandad had from the 80hp Gnome, before he managed to switch to the le Rhone.

So what’s changed?

We’ve changed from pure castor oil to Castorene R40.

We’ve replaced all of the cylinder liners. A few had been scored by the flight with the oil turned off, but most were astonishingly clean, and obviously damage from the last flight is irrelevant to this discussion. They were all more or less on the outer limits of diameter, however. And three of them had been replaced at some point with ductile iron, instead of cast iron.

We’ve replaced the piston rings. The original ones (fitted by TVAL as part of their restoration) were leaking a little near the slit, and so one would suppose that we were losing a little compression, but in truth the compression always felt excellent whenever we had to depress the exhaust valves for priming. It was very hard to do on those cylinders that were on the compression stroke.

We’ve replaced the steel pistons with aluminium ones. I was concerned that because the thermal expansion of aluminium is double that of steel, we’d need increased clearances.

I knew that the cylinder bores were tapered inwards at the top – presumably so that it would end up as a parallel bore at operating temperature. Knowing the nominal bore and the taper, I could come up with a reasonable estimate of the design temperature of the cylinder head (and therefore, of the piston). I was amazed to find that it was only 80degC. On reflection, however, this would seem  to match our own experience; after a ground run, you can touch the heads for a short time without burning your skin.

When I did the math for the aluminium piston and compared its nominal diameter with the measured diameter of the old steel one, the additional clearance was about four times what was needed. Which was a relief, since as far as I know the only other airworthy le Rhone with aluminium pistons is in New Zealand.

But where is all this extra power coming from?

What about the new liners? Well, these are very accurately honed to the as-new diameter. They are also all of cast iron, which is picked for its ability to provide a ‘slippery’ surface because the intrinsic porosity retains oil. Could the ductile iron have been less good in this respect? When you think of the high friction forces in a rotary engine, with nine cylinders, each of 105mm diameter, 75mm long (that’s a contact area of nearly two and a half square feet), travelling at a maximum of around 20mph, any improvement in the coefficient of friction would have an important effect.

So what about the piston skirts? The original steel pistons were left with a slightly rough-turned finish, the idea being that the very slightly ribbed effect would help to retain oil. The aluminium ones have a more conventional finish, but with an increased clearance, even allowing for the extra expansion of the aluminium.

And while we’re thinking about friction losses, could the change in lubricant be having a beneficial effect as well?

One factor that seems to mitigate in favour of this argument is the fact that the engine is increasing in speed in the air; could it be that the friction losses on the cylinder walls were using up so much power that the poor old thing couldn’t speed up, even if the propeller loads reduced in the air?

I don’t know, and I’d love to investigate the information from the other airworthy le Rhones. Perhaps it’s just a spot of Shuttleworth magic.

But boy, are we chuffed with the result!

302. …and Older

Friday 12 May

Theo is an owl, not a lark, and I was surprised and delighted to see him at 0600 for a quick breakfast. The plan was to put the final signatures on the inspection form while towing 1264 across to the grass strip on the far side of the airfield and receiving a briefing from air traffic control, ready for takeoff prompt at 0830. I knew I had to be back on the deck by 0900 so that they could commence the day’s flying programme.

With that out of the way we would remove the damaged axle from the trailer ready to fit the new one when it arrived, and I could then take 1264 up to Old Warden and the Shuttleworth Collection.

Things wen reasonably smoothly, but towing 1264 is a slow business, and it was past 0830 before we got to the grass strip. I only had a moment or two to assess the wind, which was, as forecast, exactly across the strip from the south.  Nevertheless, the width was sufficient to get off in my view, and I took note of the runway lights along the edge of the tarmac which would instantly wreck 1264 if we came into contact.

This is the grass strip, on the north side of the main east-west runway. It’s about 500m long and 100m wide, with a drainage ditch at the eastern end, and various runway lights and signboards at the western end. there are runway edge lights at about 50m intervals.

By the time we were lined up at the eastern end of the strip near the hangars and the engine primed, it was 0845. Theo swung, and the le Rhone fired instantly. I did a very quick power check – 1150rpm – and waved the chocks away.

We were off in a flash, and climbing out. It was clear the performance was massively improved, but no sooner had I checked my altimeter and watch to start a timed climb than we were in cloud!

I throttled back and turned to stay within the airfield boundary. Handling was unaltered, and I checked the stall (entirely benign) and dived to maximum speed (95kt) to check all was in order. It was.

It would have been nice to have checked the maximum level speed, but I was very, very aware of the clock ticking away, and the need not to rush the landing, which would be the trickiest part of the whole flight. Nevertheless, I was able to note the engine speed, which was 1200rpm -at least 150rpm more than ever before.

With only 100m to land, it was essential that we didn’t roll onto the tarmac, which would undoubtedly result in a ground loop.

So I needed to get the wheels down as close as possible to the northern edge, and going as slowly as possible.

I decided not to use the eastern end of the strip to land on, since it would have meant coming in very low over the hangars and parked helicopters, and a very expensive insurance claim if anything went wrong, but could see a reasonably clear approach over a field at the western end.

My first trial was a little on the fast side, so I released the blip switch and with a single bounce was back in the air for another go, the clock meanwhile ticking ever nearer to 0900.

The next attempt was much better, and as I crossed the taxiway the speed bled back to about 45kt, and she touched about 10-20m in, and rolled to a stop almost immediately.

The time was 0851.

My GPS track log.

Theo and the RANS ground crew drove across, we hitched up the tow and we were clear of the runways with a minute or two to spare!

Chris Gotke arrived, having dropped his daughter off early to school so that he could watch the flight from the control tower (thank you, Carlotta!) and was stunned by 1264’s manoeuvrability and performance. Jock Alexander and Louise Evans had watched from the takeoff point, and Louise had video’d it.

 

I love this picture by Louise Evans of 1264 with the Yeovilton memorial church in the background.

 

There are some excellent pictures by Focus 82 Photography on his FaceBook page too.

We retired to the crew room for a cup of tea, and started to dismantle 1264 and take the wheels off the trailer axle ready to receive the new one when it arrived.

This it did, on schedule, and at last it seemed that the drama might be over and 1264 would go to the ball. Wrong.

When the axle was unwrapped, it became apparent that it was the wrong one. The hubs were the wrong sort, and the dimensions were wrong.

I rang the manufacturer, Peak Dynamics, and we went through the discrepancies. their salesman, Paul Prosser, checked and rechecked. The old axle had a serial number on the plate which I’d photographed and sent to him, and he’d manufactured it to the specifications against that serial. Where had the discrepancy occurred? There was no explanation then and we will probably never have one, but without a second’s hesitation Paul offered to make a new one and have it delivered by Wednesday.

As with everyone else I’ve dealt with in this extraordinary week, his willingness to put himself out in order to make things happen out was quite overwhelming.

But we would clearly need to make yet another adjustment to the plan, and so Theo suggested that we swap cars so that he could tow 1264 to Old Warden while I was away on business.

And as if things couldn’t get better, ‘Tug’ Wilson and Howard Read, the Royal Navy Historic Flight engineers who had already put themselves out so much for us, volunteered to fit the new new axle when it arrived, and let us keep the trailer in their hangar.

It only remained for us to go through the familiar routine of packing 1264 away in the her trailer again, and Theo and I could go home and relax.

Assuming the axle change goes okay, and Theo has no issues towing the trailer to Old Warden, we should just need fine weather on the 2-4 June so that I can re-familiarise myself with 2264 and practice the display.

What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday 13 May

With the adrenaline out of my system, the cold finally took charge, and I spent the entire afternoon asleep, recovering enough to write up the blog in the evening.

301. Growing Old…

My last blog entry saw me at RNAS Yeovilton, having had to abandon the plan to take 1264 to Shuttleworth in preparation for the Navy Days airshow on Sunday 4 June.

Sunday 7 May

So I drove home on Saturday night, and spent a delightful sunny Sunday with both daughters and all four grandchildren, including the latest, just a week old.

 

 

 

Monday 8 May

By Monday morning both Sue and I were starting a cold, presumably caught from one of the grandchildren – but at least we now had four to blame!

Prior to the air display, I needed a couple of things – 1264 had to be inspected and check flown so that she could be issued with her annual Permit to Fly – the equivalent of a car’s MoT. I also needed to have time to re-familiarise myself with her handling before doing a display.

Time was not on our side. Theo and I were committed to giving a lunchtime talk to the employees of the Mercedes F1 car factory on the Thursday, and a week after that I was fully committed with work and other commitments until the Friday before the airshow. And of course we’d need excellent weather conditions to be able to conduct the check flight, and my cold, if it got a grip, might make me unfit to fly.

The inspection for the Permit renewal should normally be done by someone other than the owner, but because of the difficulty of finding someone who knew enough about this type of aircraft and engine, and would be available on the rare occasions when 1264 was rigged ready for flight and not packed in the trailer, I’d sought, and been given, permission to do the inspection myself (I’ve been an inspector for the LAA for more years than I care to remember.)

But before I could finalise the inspection, I’d need the paperwork from the Shuttleworth Collection detailing all the work done on the engine, including the replacement of the original steel pistons with aluminium ones.

Yeovilton is a fully active military base, and getting permission to fly a 100 year old aircraft from there was never going to be straightforward, even with the active support of its previous commander, Cdre Jock Alexander (rtd), now CEO of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust.

And finally, there was the weather. Tuesday looked suitable, and there was a faint possibility that Thursday evening and Friday morning might suffice.

The replacement trailer axle was due to arrive on Friday morning, but by the time we’d fitted it and trailed 1264 to Old Warden, the weather was likely to have deteriorated for much of the the following week.

On Monday morning, Jock said that Yeovilton had said it was too difficult to arrange for me to fly, either when the airfield was open or after it was closed. And while the Shuttleworth was working hard on the engine paperwork, it wouldn’t be ready today. So Tuesday was out, and I needed in any case to spend the day editing a brochure for the Royal Aero Club. The only remaining possibility was Thursday evening or Friday morning.

Wednesday 10 May

On Wednesday I had a work appointment in Andover, but I had time to plead with Jock, who used the considerable power of his Scots personality to persuade Yeovilton to reconsider the possibilities, and they agreed that it might be possible, but only when the airfield was closed, due to the lack of radio in 1264.  In practice, this meant after 1900 on Thursday and before 0900 on Friday.

You need additional insurance to fly from a military airfield, but thankfully our existing policy included it!

Thursday 11 May

So on Thursday, Theo and I met up at the Mercedes factory in Brackley, were given a tour round the astonishing facility (800 employees making the cars, with another 400 up the road making the engines!) and gave a very well-received talk in their Silver Arrow room, surrounded by Lewis Hamilton’s overalls and one of the Championship-winning 2014 cars.

An email with the engine paperwork had arrived from the Shuttleworth at 0830, but it appeared that the use of the aluminium pistons hadn’t been cleared by the LAA’s Chief Engineer, Francis Donaldson, which meant a further delay, and 1264 needed to be fully prepared for flight; all the safety pins put in the rigging, a 100% dual inspection of all the rigging connections and petrol put in the tank, and Theo had a dinner engagement that evening, so flying on Thursday wouldn’t have been possible anyway.

There was more good news from the trailer axle manufacturers. Our axle was dispatched and would definitely arrive tomorrow, Friday, as promised – and would I mind paying the bill please?

Nevertheless, as soon as I decently could, I got on the road down to Yeovilton to try and get everything ready for a possible flight on the Friday morning between 0830 and 0900 as agreed with air traffic control.

As always, these things take longer than you think, and it was 2030 before we were all done. Partly this was due to Lt Cdr Chris Gotke, who wanted to know ALL about 1264, her systems and handling characteristics, and is very, very enthusiastic about her presence here at Yeovilton You may remember that Chris was awarded the Air Force Cross for his recovery of the two-seat Hawker Sea Fury following an in-flight failure at the airshow at Culdrose  in 2014.

But I can’t say enough good things about the guys at Yeovilton, and in particular ‘Tug’ Wilson, who stayed throughout the evening until the job was done, and Louise Evans, who kept us supplied with cups of tea until the job was done. We left 1264 as ready as she could be, with the checks all done, the commutator on the engine cleaned, the rocker gear all lubricated, and I set off for Theo’s house about an hour away.

On the way back at about 2100 I had a call on my mobile from Francis Donaldson, who, knowing the time pressure I was under, called from home with some questions about the aluminium cylinders. I couldn’t answer, but he suggested that since the information originated from TVAL in New Zealand, they’d still be in the office!

However, I had Jean Munn’s mobile number, and when I got to Theo’s at getting on for 2200 we spoke, and he said Francis had had the information a couple of years ago and he promised to go through his email archive to try and find it there. Within an hour, he’d found it and sent it to Francis, and I finally went to sleep reasonably sure that I’d be able to sign off the inspection prior to the check flight.

Theo didn’t get back home until 2300, but I’d left a message on his answerphone saying that we’d need to be up at 0600 to be ready.

A final check of the weather forecast predicted a southerly, 5-10 knots. The strength looked okay, but the direction was the worst possible; exactly across the only strip of grass available.

I went to sleep with a million things wizzing about in my head.