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2. Stretching our wings


In the 1960s, our flying had been limited to models – most of which ended up as shreds of balsa wood, not even fit for firewood. There were the odd honourable exceptions.

I remember Rick’s tiny biplane which he fitted with floats, and we launched from a dinghy in the middle of a Scottish loch on one of those unearthly still mornings where time seems to stand still and the very earth holds its breath.

The whine of the little motor stirred the curiosity of one of the seal population, who popped his head up to see what had disturbed his peace, and the little model droned on.

It was a free flight model – that is, it had no form of in-flight control – and we had set the rudder to make sure it turned in a circle. This it did. The circle was perhaps 200 yards in diameter, and the air was so still, and the balance between the engine’s thrust and the drag of the airframe so perfect, that when it completed the first circle we had to duck as it passed through the exact point in space where it had taken off. Eventually the fuel tank ran dry, the loch was returned to its natural stillness, and the little model glided down for a perfect water landing. We went back to our holiday cottage for breakfast.

The Mitchell B10 we built and flew

But by the time of Granddad’s death in 1983, we had moved on, via an RAF scholarship for Rick, and gliding for me, to the then-new sport of hang gliding, and so on to microlights.

In 1983 we had built our first microlight from plans, an unconventional design called a Mitchell B10, consisting of a wing with vertical surfaces at the end, and a tricycle frame slung underneath with an engine and propeller at the back. There was no fuselage and no tail. It had made its first flight the year before, and the heady rush of having our own handiwork take us to the skies ensured that nothing would ever be the same again. I remember Granddad saying to me, shortly before his death ‘Don’t spend too much on that little plane of yours.’ Hmmm. Sorry Granddad.

Anyway, back to Granddad’s workshop, and the discovery of the three parts of his 1915 Bristol Scout.

The original parts of Granddad’s Scout; the stick, rudder bar and magneto mounted on a piece of propeller.

The control stick is about 650mm long and is pivoted on the floor of the aircraft. It’s been the standard primary control for aircraft since about 1908, and this one is very heavy. That’s because, astonishingly, it’s made of brass tube, with a machined aluminium insert at the bottom.

The rudder bar is about 600mm long, made of plywood, and slightly curved. There’s a piece of steel tube sticking out of one side in the middle. In the aircraft, the steel tube goes vertically downwards through a couple of bushes on the aircraft centre line, and the plywood goes across the aircraft near the floor. You rest your feet on it and use it to steer the aircraft in the air.

The magneto is the piece of equipment which produces the spark for the engine, and by modern standards is big and bulky – it would look perfectly at home in Dr. Frankenstein’s workshop. Granddad had had it mounted on an old piece of wooden propeller, with copper wires leading upwards to a narrow gap so that you can see the spark it generates.

I picked it up and held it in my hand. There’s a cog at one end for a chain from the engine to make it turn, and of course I had to turn it to see if it still worked. Reader, it did. The thick copper wires ran underneath the mounting, just where my hand was, and the resulting hefty 20,000 volts running through my hand made me drop it. Thankfully it was pretty solid, and it survived unscathed.

Looking closely at the magneto uncovers another story of Granddad’s. He’d told us that the English (presumably Lucas) magnetos supplied as standard during WWI were not as reliable as the German Bosch ones, and he’d managed to acquire a Bosch magneto through French contacts. He then made sure it was fitted in every aircraft he flew. So the question was – who made this magneto? We checked, and lo and behold, it’s a Bosch.

Many years later, I spoke to Leo Opdyke, who’d built a Bristol Scout reproduction and crashed it on its second flight, and he said if he’d had that Bosch magneto, his machine would have been flying today…

These three pieces became favourite family memorabilia; treasured and brought out to show our flying friends. But we had young families and livings to earn, and the idea of doing anything else with them had to remain on the back burner until the children had flown the nest, and there was at least a faint glimmer of light at the end of the life’s tunnel which would allow us to think about taking the project further. In fact it was a long-time flying friend, Theo Willford, who first put the thought into words. He’d always wanted to build a WWI aircraft having grown up on the Biggles books, and this seemed an ideal opportunity.

But before that we had to do some research, and that’s what we’ll look at in the next installment.


From → Research

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