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23 Feb 1914. Monday. First Flight!

22/02/2014

Today’s the day!

After all this work, the brand new prototype was transported to the military airfield at Larkhill for its first flight. It’s a 50 mile road trip to Larkhill, which is on the Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge, so it seems likely that the aircraft was shipped on the Friday to allow time over the weekend to get it reassembled and all the flying surfaces carefully aligned. Actually, in the last couple of days, I’ve been contacted by Andrew Appleton of the Bristol Aero Collection, who says that the diary entries for Larkhill seem to indicate that this date, which is given in most reference books, may not be quite correct, since it appears to indicate that the weather wasn’t flyable on the Monday, and the first record of Busteed flying the new machine was on Wednesday 25th, and I must admit that this would have given more time for the assembly, alignment, inspection and last-minute work to be completed, but  for the oment we’ve agreed to stic with the official date.

Larkhill was the first army aerodrome, taken over in 1910 from an enthusiast, Horatio Barber, who’d first come there the year before. The British & Colonial built some pretty substantial hangars there, and they still exist today. Presumably the Scout would have been housed there over the weekend, and rolled out on the Monday, when this photograph was taken. Test pilot Harry Busteed is in the cockpit, and Frank Barnwell is holding up the tail, demonstrating how lightly balanced the whole thing was on its wheels.

23 Feb 1914. The Bristol Baby (or Scout) prototype's first flight outside the B&CA sheds at Larkhill. Test pilot Harry Busteed is in the cockpit, and designer Frank Barnwell is holding up the tail.

23 Feb 1914. The Bristol Baby (or Scout) prototype’s first flight outside the B&CA sheds at Larkhill. Test pilot Harry Busteed is in the cockpit, and designer Frank Barnwell is holding up the tail.

This must have been the most exciting, nerve-wracking moment of Frank’s life. He was aged 34, and had been employed as Chief Draughtsman for the last two and a half years in the largest aircraft company in Britain. This was the first landplane he had designed; the Scottish ones were designed by older brother Harold, and the Burney X2 and X3 aircraft were hydroplanes and the design was so tied up with other considerations that his qualities as an aircraft designer had never been put to the test, and their lack of success would not be seen as reflecting particularly well on his career prospects. Unlike many designers, Frank wasn’t a pilot, and although there’s no evidence of Harry Busteed’s involvement in the detailed design, the two were colleagues who’d worked closely together for the last couple of years, and it would be surprising if Harry hadn’t offered advice at the early stages about layout, sizes and so on.

Frank was a calm, phlegmatic sort but it must have occurred to him that this could be a major turning point in his career, and there must surely have been some butterflies in his stomach as he posed for this photograph.

We’ve seen that the project was funded on a shoestring, using off-the-shelf materials and manufacturing methods available in the works. Even the engine was second-hand; an 80hp Gnôme recovered from an earlier seaplane, no. 120, which had overheated on first take-off, resulting in a crash into the Solent. One wonders what Harry Busteed, who had been in the cockpit – and subsequently in the Solent – on that occasion, must have thought as he sat behind the same engine this time! The cause of the overheating was that it was too tightly cowled, and perhaps this was the reason for the very open cowling of the Scout prototype.

Prototype with Frank Busteed

I don’t have precise details of the flying programme, but today was eminently successful, and Frank must have been absolutely delighted and relieved at the success of his Baby biplane. I hope they all went to the pub that evening to get warm and to wet the Baby’s head!

Harry quickly established that it was capable of a top speed of 97mph, well in excess of Geoffrey de Havilland’s SE2 and the Sopwith Tabloid. It also had a rate of climb of 800 feet per minute; about standard for modern aircraft of similar power, but very good indeed for 1914. They must have looked at the prospects for that season’s air racing with considerable anticipation.

Looking at it with 20/20 hindsight, with its trendy narrow-track undercarriage, tiny wings and tail surfaces, lack of vertical fin and exposed seating position, one is drawn to the conclusion that Harry Busteed must have been a really excellent pilot to manage what must have been a bit of a handful – particularly on the ground. The small wings would have necessitated a fast takeoff and landing, and those wheels must have made it very prone to tipping sideways, tipping on its nose, or groundlooping.

At any rate, they clearly identified the need to correct some of these problems right from the start, and we’ll see in the next diary entry how they went about this.

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  1. 98. Today’s the day | Bristol Scout

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