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7. Getting to know you

12/01/2012

There now followed a period of familiarisation, and getting to understand every part of the machine, and how it changed throughout its life.

The Bristol Scout was one of the first machines ordered specifically by the military, and it quickly became clear that the bureaucracy of the two air arms – the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service – had got into the act right from the outset, specifying a strange array of differing requirements. The RNAS specified the 80hp Gnome engine because of its supposed extra reliability for over-water use. The RFC wanted the le Rhone, because it was more readily available. The RFC wheels had a wider hub; the RNAS joystick was made in brass(!) while the RFC one was in aluminium.

And then the factory introduced large numbers of changes in the design throughout its life. The first three civilian machines had had the oil tank behind the pilot, but it was found that on climb out the engine was being starved of oil, so it got moved in front. This had a very significant effect on the fore and aft trim of the aircraft, so the angle of the tailplane had to be adjusted. They should also have changed the shape of the tailplane’s cross-section as well, but didn’t get round to that until much later.

There were three or four different rudder sizes, two different tailplane sizes, two different aileron sizes, the internal bracing changed from wire and cable to threaded rod, the external bracing changed from cable to RAF wires, there were cutouts in the lower wings, in the upper wing, changes to the instrument fit and layout, changes in engine types, propeller spinners, fuel and oil tanks…  The list was enormous. Around 400 were produced in total, it seems unlikely that any two were exactly the same!

It got so confusing that designer Frank Barnwell tried to rationalise things by designating earlier examples as the model C, and later ones the model D. But the truth was that this wasn’t a one-off redesign, and there’s nothing that positively distinguishes a C from a D. It’s just that the Ds were made later.

And once they were issued to the squadrons, yet more alterations took place. Mostly these related to armament, since the Scout didn’t come with any from the factory, and this was the point at which those at the sharp end of the war were beginning to realise how essential it was to be able to defend yourself.

If you took a revolver or a rifle that didn’t involve any mountings. But this wasn’t enough, and pilots wanted a machine gun, for which a mounting was absolutely necessary. Mostly they were armed with the Lewis machine gun which was the only weapon light enough to be practical. But the methods of attaching them are many and various.

As we’ve seen the RNAS in the Eastern Mediterranean had mounted them on each side of the fuselage. There was good solid structure to attach them to, and they were accessible from the cockpit – not only to fire them, but to change the ammunition drums. But they fired through the propeller, and there was a good chance that you’d shoot your own propeller off! Granddad said that you only used them if you absolutely had to, and they put adhesive bandage around the propeller blades to try and stop the splinters coming off in your face!

In other theatres they were installed on the upper wing, which required a cutout in the top wing over the fuselage for access; you needed to rig up a remote trigger, and it was difficult to change ammunition drums.

Perhaps the most unusual solution was to mount the gun on the fuselage side like Granddad’s, but pointing outwards so as to miss the propeller. This was first invented by Capt. Lanoe Hawker, RFC, VC, and with it he managed to down three German planes in one flight – an achievement which won him only the third aerial VC.

Lanoe Hawker’s Bristol Scout in which he won the VC. Note the gun firing obliquely.

Later Granddad used his Scout for bombing, for which a primitive bomb rack was lashed together under the engine – yet another local variation.

So establishing exactly what state an individual aircraft was in at any particular time might be a mammoth task. Thankfully in our case, however, things were a good deal easier. We had the drawings and parts list relating to exactly the right batch. This was the first batch, so we could ignore all the later modifications. And we had a good photographic record to double check against.

One of the first things we did was to check the joystick we had against the photographs; as specified in the parts list, the main part of it was made in brass (for the RNAS) and not aluminium. The design of the bottom lever changed too, from machined aluminium to welded steel, and when we checked what we’d got against the photograph it was clear this was the earlier aluminium type. Result!

The parts list has proved the most spectacularly useful asset. Every last part is listed, cross referenced to the relevant drawing. Every split pin, piece of locking wire, every thread and leather patch is listed, together with what it’s made from and sometimes the amount of raw material required to make it.

We spent a very long time going through its 95 pages, and so far I think I’ve discovered ONE mistake (apart from spelling inconsistencies). It’s brilliant, and I wish I knew why they produced it and published it!

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From → Research, Technical

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