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3. Preliminary Research

06/01/2012

Bristol Scout at Imbros, 1916. FDHB is holding the wingtip

We had a copy of Cross and Cockade magazine from 1974 which included an article by David Lance based on transcripts of his interviews with Granddad for the Imperial War Museum, as well as tapes of the interviews themselves, and that gave us a great start, identifying his favourite aircraft, and including a fantastic picture of  it on the front cover. In the picture, Granddad is holding the wingtip while the engine is run up, and Sub Lt Kincaid is in the cockpit, head down, no doubt adjusting the compass or fastening his seat belt.

(Incidentally, Kincaid was a colourful character, flying on the Western Front later in the war, and commanding a flight of Sopwith Camels based on a special train against the Bolsheviks in 1919, finally dying in an attempt on the World Speed Record in the Supermarine S5 floatplane built to contend for the Schneider Trophy in March 1928.)

We also discovered that Dad had a copy of Granddad’s logbook (the original is in the Imperial War Museum), together with his Royal Aero Club pilot’s licence.

But if the project was going to get off the ground, we had to have a complete set of plans for the Bristol Scout C.

So I did some Googling, and it quickly became apparent that there were no original Scouts in existence; although it was very popular with pilots, and they were frequently retained as personal machines long after their military sell-by date had expired, only one had survived the war and become civilian registered, and that had expired on a madcap trip to the Baltics or some such.

There were a couple of replicas flying in the States, but with modern steel tube fuselages and radial engines, and another non-flying replica built by RAF apprentices in the 1960s – again with no attempt at anything other than external resemblance.

The one honourable exception was that of Leo Opdyke, a New York college lecturer, who had always been fascinated by early aviation, and who decided to build and fly his own WWI machine, Having looked at and rejected the Bristol Fighter, he decided to go for the simpler, and rarer, Bristol Scout, and discovered that a pretty complete set of plans had been given to the USA in 1917 together with a single example for evaluation as a licence-built primary trainer. In the end, the indigenous Thomas Morse Scout was used instead, but the plans remained – and just as well, since the originals produced by the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company in Bristol (later to become the Bristol Aircraft Company, later still absorbed into BAC) had long since been consigned to the dustbin…

Leo spent 15 years on the project with the assistance of Cole Palen’s famous museum at Old Rhinebeck and Ellic Somer, and building it in his basement. He also edited the World War One Aero magazine, a publication that he expanded from informal newsletter into one of  the primary information sources for those interested in aviation from its beginnings to the end of WWI.

The project was finished, complete with Rotary engine, in 1975, and Leo took it to Old Rhinebeck for its first flight. It was a huge success; air-to-air photos show Leo grinning like a mad thing from the cockpit, as you might expect. On making a successful landing, he decided to make a second flight, and that was tempting providence too far. According to Leo, the firewall (not original, but insisted on as a ‘safety measure’ by the FAA) caused the magneto to overheat and the engine died. Old Rhinebeck is famously surrounded by masses of trees, and that was where the Scout ended up.

Subsequently the airframe was sold to Sir George White, great grandson of the founder of the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, and it was repaired to display standard and now lives at the museum at Yeovilton, Somerset, suspended without fabric covering so that the Leo’s workmanship can be clearly seen. It’s located right over the supersonic Concorde – both products of the Bristol factory, and astonishingly only 60 years apart.

We contacted the museum in January 2007 and the curator, David Morris, was delighted to give us access to the museum and provide a cherry picker to allow us to photograph the Scout up close and personal.

Bristol Scout at Yeovilton

Through him we were able to contact both Sir George White and Leo Opdyke, and they provided us with a wealth of information.

Looking back on it, I’m amazed at the thin thread of led us from one bit of information to the next. It seems so fragile, needing only a single break in the chain or a delay in searching for the whole lot to be lost forever.

I rang Leo, and he sold me all his remaining drawings. They arrived in a parcel, still smelling of damp from the of Leo’s chest of drawers, where they had been since 1975. They included some prints of original Bristol drawings, and a good many done by Ellic Somer using information from the originals.

Ellic Somer was an aeronautical professional, and clearly a very skilled draughtsman. He was a long-time WWI enthusiast and had provided Leo with a great deal of guidance along the way. The drawings are superbly detailed, with masses of calculations and everything dimensioned to within an inch of its life – or, more precisely, a thousandth of an inch! Perhaps the best part were Ellic’s pencil comments on the drawings giving informal advice to Leo on how to make things, the dimensions he wasn’t sure about, and advice on life in general. They are full of humour and very entertaining. He must have been a great guy.

They were useful, but incomplete and we still needed more – but we weren’t finished yet. And for that, you’ll have to wait until the next installment!

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