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200. Gone Flying


I’m not sure when was the last time a rotary-engined WWI aircraft was built and flown by amateurs, but in the UK at least it’s a very rare occurrence. And on Thursday, in the culmination of a simply astonishing week, we achieved it.

We were all assembled at 0900 at Bicester. Adopting the Shuttleworth technique, we towed 1264 behind Theo’s car, using a thin rope tied to the undercarriage and looped around his towbar, while Rick walked with the tailskid on his shoulder.

It was 1100 before we were all ready to go, and I was deputed to have first go. I was reasonably confident that I knew what was required, but it was still a very, very nervous moment. 13 years of work was resting on the next few minutes, and I needed time just to get my head together.

Rick swung the prop and she fired first time. The le Rhône sung sweetly and I signalled for the chocks to be removed. Then I waited another moment or so to collect myself before opening the throttle. The flight lasted about 20 minutes, and I carried out my plan of climbing up to 2000ft to get the feel of things, practising a landing approach and checking out the stall before making a normal circuit and go around, followed by a landing.

What were my impressions?

The first things that hits you (almost literally) are the noise and the gale of wind. With no windscreen you are facing the full effect of that enormous propeller, and you had better have your goggles securely fixed. I was using earplugs, but even with them the noise – of wind in the wires and the engine chugging away up front – is all-enveloping.

But there’s no time to dwell on this. You need to master the controls straight away.

Most microlights require a reasonably consistent attention to the slip ball to keep them flying straight. 1264, with no fixed fin, requires a good deal more. She won’t fall out of the sky if you don’t, but it’s very uncomfortable flying at 45 degrees to the direction you’re pointing. I’m sure it will become second nature in time, but it hasn’t yet.

All modern aircraft are designed have a tendency to return to the trim speed. If you set the elevator trim so that it will fly hands off, the harder you pull back on the stick, the slower it will go, and the harder you push forward, the faster. Not so with 1264 – or indeed very many WWI aircraft. At 45 knots, you are pushing forward on the stick quite significantly. At around 55 knots with power on the force required is very small, and the faster you go, the more the stick is trying to pull forwards. This is less true in the glide, but as with the rudder, there’s no question of taking your hand off the control during flight.

I didn’t go into a fully developed stall, but getting close to it the left wing dropped around 5-10 degrees, and was a clear indication that you were flying too slow. All the controls remained fully effective so recovery was very straightforward.

Undoubtedly the most pleasant of the three controls – again, contrary to the experience on most WWI aircraft – was the ailerons, which are light and responsive, with some (but not much) adverse yaw. I’ve flown plenty of modern microlights with poorer roll control.

And the engine – our wonderful, flexible le Rhône – was least trouble of all. You don’t have to touch the fine control at all in flight, and you can more or less treat her like a modern one. With the throttle at half or above, the response is quick and effective, and she will cruise nicely at around 65kt with the throttle on half. Below that, she pops and bangs, but keeps running okay, and below a quarter will run more smoothly. But at anything below half throttle, she will take a while to respond, and for landing at least, it’s sensible to set the throttle at half and use the blip switch.

Of course, the thing that was exercising our attention in the build-up to this moment was the landing, and I have to say that was one of the easiest parts of the whole business. On this first occasion at least, it was a greaser of which even Dodge would have been proud.

It took me a while to come back down to earth and collect my thoughts, but the thing that struck me forcefully was just how good a pilot Grandad must have been. He didn’t have 1000 hours on aircraft of similar performance to rely on. He didn’t have the theory to explain the way the machine behaved. He had 30 hours on slow, lumbering machines; he’d never used the le Rhône engine with all its peculiarities, and he certainly wouldn’t have been used to the skittish behaviour of the elevator and rudder controls. But he stepped straight in and took to it without a single accident for months. Amazing. Respect, Grandad!

I had another 15 minute flight after that under glorious blue skies, which – because we remembered to turn the wingtip GoPro camera on, gave us some good video.

After that it was Rick’s turn. His two flights were flawless, and it was a shame that the overcast skies, and the lack of a spare hand to operate the camera on the ground, meant that the quality of the video wasn’t as good. But the quality of the flying was beyond reproach; he found less problem keeping her flying straight, and also noticed (which even Dodge hadn’t) that she’s tending to fly left wing low. We will need to tweak the rigging wires just a tiny bit to try and eliminate the stick force required in level flight.

On his final flight (we each managed three) his goggles got oiled up. Because I’d forgotten to bring my silk scarf with me he had nothing to clean them with, and tried to take them off in flight. That was a mistake because the wind and oil made his eyes – even behind his glasses – water copiously making it almost impossible to concentrate on flying the aircraft, and even to see where he was going. As a result his landing wasn’t the smoothest of the day, but we were delighted to find that 1264’s undercarriage stood it without a murmur.

And so, here’s a picture of the newest member of a very select band of pilots who have flown a rotary-engined aeroplane.

Rick Bremner, Rotary pilot. Just like his Grandad.

Rick Bremner, Rotary pilot. Just like his Grandad.


From → Flying

  1. Graham Whitehouse permalink

    Wonderful – well done.

  2. Andy Craddock permalink

    I am so pleased for you all it must have been an unforgettable day for you all, well done.
    I was at a LMA static show in the Motor Heritage Museum at Gaydon on Sunday with the model and four or five people came up and asked if I knew of the boys who had built the full size scout and if the model on show was the one in the photos on your web site.

    Once again well done.

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