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4. Chance is a Fine Thing

07/01/2012

I’d found out that the Royal Aeronautical Society held copies of the designer’s original notebooks with details of the Bristol Scout, and managed to blag my way into the library for free on the strength of my membership of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

There’s a particular atmosphere in any library, and a serious research library such as the RAeS (at that time housed in London) gives off an almost tangible aura. Somebody else was looking through old photographs of the boiler from a steam-powered aircraft, I remember, and when my own box was opened, there was a faint musty smell composed of polished wood, dust, slightly damp paper, and perhaps a hint of the oil brought up from the workshop floor by craftsmen on their dirty overalls.

The librarian, Brian Riddle,  told me he’d had an email from a chap in Houston, Texas, asking about the Bristol Monoplane (the next model after the Scout), and while I was going through the notebooks, could I check out references to the Monoplane for him?

Of course, that was fine, and I settled down with the early books.

Frank Barnwell had joined the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company in 1911, and this was the first complete design he did for them. At this time the Chief Designer was Hungarian Henri Coanda, and there’s a rumour that the Scout design was produced without his knowledge. I don’t think there’s any evidence for that, but I found no trace of M. Coanda – no approvals, no comments, no references – in the books relating to the Scout. The notebooks are about 8in x 10in (200 x 250mm), with squared paper and linen covers with the B&CA Ltd identification on the front.

There is a mixture of calculations and sketches in them, with references to drawing numbers, presumably added once the finished drawings are complete.

The writing is beautifully neat and clear, and Frank’s signature and the date appears on each page, presumably to show when the page was completed for inclusion on a formal drawing. His work output is amazing – notebook no. 1 of 100 pages is used up between December 1913 and March 1914, and each one has a detailed, dimensioned sketch of the particular part, sometimes with calculations showing its weight, or a stress calculation – and all done with a slide rule, pencil and paper, of course!

The drawings are for the prototype which was the star of the Olympia exhibition in March 1914. It was intended as a fast sport plane to compete with the Sopwith Tabloid and the Avro Scout and featured a number of unusual or unique features; double flying wires for safety, four ailerons (not wing warping which was the more normal means of lateral control), and an adjustable seat. But what got everyone’s attention was the tiny wingspan – only 22ft.

It wasn’t wholly successful and a number of modifications (including a significant increase in wingspan) were incorporated in the next two machines, which were successfully raced in the season just prior to the outbreak of WWI.

One of these was lost when the pilot, Lord Carberry, failed to double check the fuel tank contents before taking off in France to fly back across the English Channel, and the machine was lost mid-Channel, (though Carberry was picked up uninjured).

But the other was considered a very desirable aircraft by the military, and orders were placed by both RNAS and RFC, though the design required yet further changes.

1264 was one of this batch of Scouts, and obviously it differed considerably from the prototype described in the sketches; nevertheless, the sketches have proved an invaluable resource.

But perhaps the most valuable part of the day proved to be the entirely coincidental contact with Derek Staha, based in Houston, Texas. I had taken notes of all the pages of the various notebooks that referenced the Monoplane, and emailed him shortly afterwards. Derek came back to thank me and asked, if I was interested in the Scout, did I want scans of original drawings?

Is the Pope Catholic?

Well, Derek emailed across a series of emails containing an astonishingly complete list of drawings, partly dating from 1915 (the date we were interested in), and partly from a later revision of 1916.

I was gobsmacked. Derek had acquired these drawings, either as originals or as microfiche copies, and scanned them at a high enough resolution to be entirely practical for manufacture – and given us the lot! Suddenly the project, which had looked on pretty shaky ground, looked as if it was going to be fully practicable.

But we weren’t finished with nice surprises. David Morris from the Yeovilton museum had given me the contact details for Sir George White, great grandson of the founder of the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, and when I contacted him, he agreed to meet. Sir George could not have been more welcoming or helpful, and he showed us one more vital piece of the jigsaw. This was the only remaining copy of a parts list for the Bristol Scout, written for that first batch of military Scouts – that became known as the Scout C.

It’s an astonishing document; printed on top quality glossy paper, with every last piece of locking wire and leather pad identified, with its specification, part number, supplier and material specification. It even has photographs of the individual parts, and the whole thing is bound in maroon linen paper, and has a price of 20/-.  This is not some document printed 50 years later for history buffs; it was printed in 1915 when the Scout was the very last word in British military technology.

Sir George very kindly photographed every page, and knowing how valuable a document it was, I’ve spent a very, very long time scanning it, performing optical character recognition and converting it into a spreadsheet which is the epicentre of the building process. Amazingly, I’ve only discovered one or two errors in the many thousands of parts listed.

Scout Parts list from 1915. Who would have bought this, apart from German spies?

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