Pick your heroes wisely

They say that you should never meet your heroes for fear that they may leave you disappointed. The S&G’s recommendation is simply to pick your heroes wisely. In writing the Haynes Manual on the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, the defining day of the whole experience came in Bristol with the opportunity to interview the man who first made this writer want to tell stories of any kind: Derek Robinson.

It’s nearly 50 years since Robinson turned the literary world on its head with Goshawk Squadron – the Booker Prize runner-up of 1971. Until its publication, the image of airmen in World War 1 had been based upon the myth of a ‘cavalry of the clouds’ (as Lloyd George’s spin doctors put it). They were daring, chivalrous knights of the air jousting high above the squalor of the trenches with their silk scarves a-flutter.

Robinson wrote of a war that was no less squalid than that on the ground from the perspective of an S.E.5 squadron commanded by Stanley Woolley; a foul-mouthed working class combat veteran. Woolley presides over a rabble of idealistic young public schoolboys who believe that they are taking part in a gallant contest with the enemy – a delusion that Woolley tries to beat out of them by any means necessary.

The inspiration for his story had come in 1968, when the Sunday Telegraph ran a feature marking the 50th anniversary of the Royal Air Force in which a First World War veteran was interviewed. ‘He said it was much more like meeting a guy down a back alley with a sock full of broken glass and cracking him over the head and running like hell,’ Robinson remembered.

‘He said it was just as bad to be shot at 15,000 feet as it was in the trenches so let’s forget all the chivalry stuff, there was no fair play, there was no duelling in the sky… I was reading this and thought: “Hey! Never thought of that!” So that was it, after that I was off and running and so I read everything that I could lay my hands on.’

There were two things that Derek Robinson knew about – writing good copy and the Royal Air Force. The former came from a career spent in the advertising trade, a fair bit of local journalism and generally being a pen for hire… whilst all the while dreaming of writing the perfect detective novel. When it came to writing about wartime airmen, however, the aspiring novelist was able to draw on a wealth of first-hand knowledge as a trained radar operator and fighter plotter.

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Robinson’s characters owe much to his encounters with WW2 veterans while on National Service

‘I did my national service in the RAF and I knew various pilots – this was at the time of Korea, and the reserves had been recalled from among the pilots of the Second World War,’ said Robinson.

‘I was at Exeter Airport and one of these reserve squadrons arrived in Spitfires and flew there all summer… and of course they were all crackers.

‘The railway line comes out of Exeter and it runs through alongside the River Ex estuary and then it goes down the coast to Cornwall. Because it’s marshland down there the railway line is built up on embankments and these guys in Spits used to hang around – we could watch them from the radar station, we could see it – so when the train was steaming out of Exeter and picking up speed they used to dive down and sweep level with the train driver. A lot of that sort of behaviour went into Goshawk Squadron and all the books.’

The full canon of Robinson’s stories of the air begins with a quartet of tales from the First World War that run chronologically from the Battle of the Somme in 1916 (War Story, 1987), to the battles of Arras and Passchendaele in 1917 (Hornet’s Sting, 1998), to the German Spring Offensive in 1918 (Goshawk Squadron, 1971). The final instalment tells of the deployment of Royal Air Force units to fight for the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in 1919 (A Splendid Little War, 2013).

Then we get to World War 2, in which the series begins with Piece of Cake (1983), the story of an RAF fighter squadron from September 1939 to September 1940. Intertwined with this is a later book, Damned Good Show (2002), which tells the story of the bomber crews in 1939-41 before the arrival of ‘Bomber’ Harris as their commander.

The survivors from Piece of Cake are then found in the vast expanse of the Sahara, fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps alongside the SAS during 1942 (A Good Clean Fight, 1993). The WW2 quartet ends with Flight Lieutenant Sweet, the central character from Damned Good Show seeing out his war, struggling in civilian life and jumping at the chance to fly a nuclear-armed V-Bomber at the height of the Cold War in Hullo Russia, Goodbye England (2008).

‘I don’t know of anyone who is competing with me: I don’t know anyone who writes this kind of stuff about First and Second World War flyers,’ Robinson said. He has a very good point as well but sells himself rather short because no novelist has ever come as close to explaining the truth of war in living memory.

Certainly in the case of airmen, only the terminally ill First World War pilot Victor Yeates, in his book Winged Victory (1934), really compares in terms of the rawness and the willingness to address uncomfortable truths. Unlike many veterans who have written about their wartime experiences, Yeates wrote without a care for how posterity might view him or his comrades. Even after a century it is a truly shocking read.

In recent times, novels that have been set in either of the World Wars have merely used elements of the conflict as a backdrop to melodrama. If you read Birdsong after reading Goshawk Squadron, then Sebastian Faulks’ efforts are revealed as a genteel middle-class soap opera that pays only lip service to military history.

‘I’m pretty good at what one critic described as “putting people in the cockpit”,’ said Robinson.

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Goshawk Squadron puts the reader here, sat between two machine guns at 15,000 feet

‘So you feel you know what it’s like up there and it’s complicated, it’s difficult, it’s dangerous and yet it’s hugely exciting and you can do things up there that nobody could dream of. I research that very, very closely but I don’t put a lot of process and procedure in the books because people get fed up with it pretty quickly – but it informs the story. Secondly, the jokes are not bad!’

In fact, the rich vein of humour that runs through all of the books is often riotous. In Robinson’s version of events, the pity of war is something that we the readers experience through the author’s voice or characters like the outspoken intelligence officer ‘Skull’ Skelton who appears in every one of his World War 2 books – usually before getting the ‘chop’ and being sent to some backwater or other as penance.

The airmen seldom, if ever, take time for a wistful glance or mournful sigh – they’re too busy living and dying. Gravitas, pity and sorrow are what we bestow upon wars long after the event, like a hushed BBC commentary on Remembrance Sunday.

‘It’s a point I try to make that, for these young men, being given the most amazing machinery of their times and the means to shoot things down and blow things up – it was bloody good fun!’ Robinson chuckled. Over the years some veterans have complained that he has not done their legacy any favours – but on balance many more have found the ebullience of his fighting men to be right on the money.

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Derek Robinson at home with a selection of his handiwork. A thrilling interviewee for a writer.

‘I was talking to a D-Day veteran once, and he was complaining that we make such a fuss about that landing when there were others before it that never get a mention,’ Robinson recalled.

‘He said: “I remember when we were going into Sicily, and we were in the landing craft, and the Lieutenant stood up in front of us and he said that it was going to be rough stuff that we were going into and it may well be that half of the men in that boat would not be coming back.” And this chap said that he looked around at the bloke next to him and he thought: you poor bastard!’

In recent years, Robinson has produced two non-fiction books that tackle big issues in popular military history. First came Invasion, 1940 which looks at whether or not Britain was in fact under imminent threat of German occupation during the Battle of Britain. In Why 1914?, Robinson’s gimlet eye for history was turned upon the circumstances and misadventures that fuelled Europe’s descent into the First World War.

These books, together with his authoritative works on Rugby Union, books about his beloved Bristol, a series of spy stories and even an American novel, all delight the Robinson faithful. But it is the stories of airmen that have come to define his oeuvre – all of which stem from the writing of Goshawk Squadron.

‘We were on our uppers but I guess it’s part of being young and having lots of energy – I had a lot of energy in those days.  And a fair bit of anger at the world in general,’ Robinson said.

‘I wrote it – according to my wife, who remembers it far more vividly than I do, I’m sure –not so much in a fit of rage but in a fit of defiance. I had already wasted four years writing stuff which nobody wanted to publish. So I said to myself – and I think I said to her too – “well, I don’t give a shit. I’ll write it for me and if somebody else wants to publish it then that’s good luck!” …that’s what I should have done in the first place!’

Although now in his eighties, Robinson remains a cheerfully restless author. The shelves of high street bookshops are groaning under the weight of newer and lesser war novels, while the maestro’s most recent works are mostly self-published and sold directly to his followers. Such is the case with his latest novel, Holy $moke, which came out last year and follows a mismatched group of intelligence men into Rome and the chaos that reigned after Mussolini’s fall.

One cannot help but feel that a return to the screen is long overdue. It’s 30 years this year since Piece of Cake was broadcast as a six-hour miniseries by ITV but it remains utterly fresh and vital, thanks in no small part to the source material. Sir Peter Jackson has built an entire air force of 1914-18 machinery – not to mention a hangar full of Lancasters – and has yet to find a suitable vehicle for any of them. He need hardly look further than Bristol for inspiration.

All of Robinson’s books can be ordered directly from the man himself by visiting www.derekrobinson.info and this is to be heartily recommended. As for the S&G, our time of chuntering about old aeroplanes and good books, with accompanying tea and doughnuts, will long be remembered. Because sometimes meeting your heroes is very well worth it.

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Vintage Aviator takes a pause

The Vintage Aviator Limited, which produces toolroom copies of First World War aeroplanes that are 100% authentic down to the type of engine and bracing wire, has halted production while an internal investigation takes place. It is understood that the investigation relates to sales of aeroplanes made by TVAL since mid-2016.

The company was begun by movie director Sir Peter Jackson more than a decade ago after he fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition of buying an airworthy Sopwith Camel replica – ostensibly for use in his remake of the movie King Kong. Although the Camel was never used in the film, which instead uses scale model and CGI US Army Air Force biplanes, it set Jackson off on a new course.

By joining forces with Gene de Marco, a leading display pilot and restorer of WW1 types from his time at Old Rhinebeck aerodrome in New York State, TVAL has acted as an airborne ‘Jurassic Park’ that has brought types not seen in the skies for almost a century, including the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 and F.E.2, the Sopwith Snipe and Albatros D.V.

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This TVAL-built Albatros D.Va has starred in WW1 centennial activities in the UK, France and Belgium

Sir Peter has ploughed back a good deal of the money made from his films, particularly his J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, into restarting production of extinct aeroplanes – both in full-scale and with his 1/32 model kits, sold under the Wingnut Wings label. He also has two museums dedicated to WW1. Employing more than 50 craftsmen and women to build the exhaustively-researched replicas for both static and aerial use, the order to cease work has made big news in the community around Wellington in New Zealand.

Neither the production of Wingnut Wings kits, nor the current airshow season is thought to be affected by this hiatus in aircraft production.

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A completed S.E.5a ‘Hisso’ from Wingnut Wings

Several TVAL types have been based in the UK in recent years, based at the WW1 aerodromes of Bicester Heritage and Stowe Maries, and many of the team have been involved in bringing to life the number of World War 2 de Havilland Mosquitos that have appeared in the skies over the past couple of years.

Like many thousands of enthusiasts around the world, the S&G hopes that the investigation reaches a satisfactory conclusion for all parties and that TVAL is soon back to doing what it does best: bringing long-forgotten aeroplanes back from extinction and flying them as they were meant to be flown.

Eduard’s Royal Class

Model makers appear to be enjoying the S&G’s manual for the S.E.5 fighter, which has been given the thumbs-up from Military Modelling magazine – thank you, chaps. In the appendices you will find what was hoped to be the definitive list of scale models of the type but, rather annoyingly, a brand new model kit has since appeared. The good news, however, is that Eduard’s new 1/48 S.E.5a looks like a gem.

The headlines have all been stolen in recent years by Wingnut Wings and its staggering output of 1/32 scale kits of World War 1 aeroplanes. In part it is because of the phenomenal level of detail in such a (comparatively) large scale, and also the quality of the fit and finish. There’s also the star quality of knowing that these models were produced by Lord of the Rings movie mogul Sir Peter Jackson as part of his lifelong crusade to see Great War aviation remain in the spotlight.

While the success of Wingnut Wings has been staggering, the smaller scales have been left in the shade as a result, including the seldom-less-than-brilliant offerings from Czech firm Eduard. That has changed with the release of its long-awaited S.E.5a, however.

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Eduard’s S.E.5a broke cover earlier this year (pic IPMS Deutschland)

For British modellers, the downside of Wingnut Wings kits primarily revolve around the steep price that must be paid to own one, thanks to Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise. There is also the size of the things to be considered, however. A 1/48 scale kit bridges the gap between the hyper-detailed world of Wingnut Wings and the tiddly 1/72 ‘gentleman’s scale’ modelling that most of us attempted in our youth at one time or other.

To date the Eduard S.E.5a kit has only been available with the British-built Wolseley Viper engine. Now, however, it has been treated to a deluxe ‘Royal Class’ release, with sufficient parts to make two different aeroplanes, and for both the Viper and the Hispano-Suiza engine around which the type was originally designed.

All of this presents the modeller with a myriad of choices to make on colours, pilots, squadrons and setup for each model. Fortunately, Eduard has also included a Royal Flying Corps-themed hip flask with the plastic content, upon which the lucky owner can take the occasional pull while making their mind up.

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Sumptuous detail in miniature form: Eduard’s S.E.5 can be made ‘undressed’ (pic IPMS Deutschland)

The basic Viper-engined kit appeared about a week after the S&G’s book was published and sells at £21.99. This new Royal Class edition will be very limited and retails at a healthy £65.00 but includes so much in the way of photo-etched metal parts, resin upgrade parts and, of course, the commemorative flask, that it looks like good value and can be found for around the £50 mark with a bit of smart shopping.

All in all it looks like a great deal. Here at the S&G we have dabbled with Eduard kits and they do make even ham-fisted amateurs look like fairly decent modellers. This one will doubtless be much the same – so why not give it a go?

The S.E.5 and the Camel

With the S.E.5 book on the shelves, a few requests have come in for stories about the machine and the men who flew it. Here’s one that went out on History of War, in case of interest.

It could be said that posterity has been cruel to the airmen of World War I. As a society, we have an apparently bottomless well of sympathy and interest when it comes to the men in the trenches. Yet the men who fought and died in the bitter campaign three miles above them are often portrayed as comical figures in fluttering silk scarves like Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart.

Perhaps that is why, if ever we have cause to think of their war, the recurring images are those of the anthropomorphic Sopwith Camel and the Red Baron’s scarlet Fokker Triplane. Yet it is the prosaically-named S.E.5, which entered service almost exactly 100 years ago today, which was arguably the greatest fighting aircraft of 1914-18.

Designed around the remarkable Hispano-Suiza V8 engine, a product of pre-war motor racing genius Louis Béchereau, the S.E.5 was a conventional biplane intended to combine manoeuvrability with greater structural strength than earlier aircraft. The V8 engine carried it faster and higher than most other front-line machines while its solid construction made for a stable gun platform.

The Royal Aircraft Factory’s designers Henry Folland and John Kenworthy, together with chief test pilot Frank Goodden, worked to the premise that the war would not be won by flying rings around the enemy but instead by shooting him down. The days of gallant lone hunters jousting in the sky – and the romantic vision of the ‘cavalry of the clouds’ – were coming to an end by the time that the S.E.5 debuted above the Battle of Arras in late April 1917.

Formations of aeroplanes, as many as 50 on each side, would instead jockey for position before unleashing a blitz attack, regrouping and then attacking again. This was not a method of fighting that the swashbuckling pilots who started the war easily adapted to: most notably Britain’s celebrated hero Albert Ball, who was initially an outspoken critic of the S.E.5.

Ball helped modify the original design to its definitive S.E.5a specification, with a raft of improvements that gave the pilots better visibility, greater firepower and even a degree of warmth in the icy world of an open cockpit at 15-20,000 feet. Despite his early misgivings, Ball eventually came to rely upon the S.E.5’s rugged construction but he remained a lone hunter at heart, which ultimately led to his death in combat on 7 May 1917.

Yet despite Ball’s loss the S.E.5 went on to see more of its pilots reach the status of ‘ace’ – namely shooting down more than five enemy machines – than any other Allied aircraft in the war. The most successful S.E.5 pilot was diminutive South African pilot ‘Proccy’ Beauchamp Proctor, credited with 54 victories made exclusively on the type.

In total, 215 pilots ‘made ace’ on the S.E.5 on the Western Front and in the Middle East, while the type also served with distinction in defending Londoners from the terror of large scale bombing raids. Among these men were the classically-educated Arthur Rhys Davids, the working class heroes Jimmy McCudden and ‘Mick’ Mannock, as well as India’s only ‘ace’ of the war, Indra Lal Roy.

“The S.E.5 is a very modern aeroplane in many respects,” says Rob Millinship, who has flown the last original airworthy example of the breed for 25 years as part of The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in Bedfordshire. “It’s 100 years old but nothing about it would surprise or disconcert a pilot used to modern high-performance designs.”

Pilots flying the Sopwith Camel accounted for more enemy aircraft destroyed than their counterparts in the S.E.5 but their successes came at an almost insatiable cost to their own lives. Unlike the S.E.5 with its long, stable V8 engine, the rotary-engined Camel was designed to be unstable in flight – perfect for dogfighting at close quarters but dreadful for inexperienced or wounded pilots trying to land safely.

Losses among Camel pilots stood at 831 dead (with 424 being killed in action and 407 killed in flying accidents), with 324 more pilots wounded or made prisoners of war. Among the S.E.5 squadrons, 286 pilots were killed of whom 207 were lost in action and 79 in accidents, with 170 more wounded or POW.

This means that while the Camels scored 3,318 victories in air combat to the S.E.5’s 2,704 the cost was infinitely greater. In statistical terms, one Camel pilot was lost for every four victories scored compared to one S.E.5 pilot for every six victories scored.

“Young guys with very little experience were getting thrown into these machines and it was sink or swim,” says Gene De Marco, head of The Vintage Aviator Limited in New Zealand, which has built three Hispano-Suiza powered reproduction S.E.5s under the watchful eye of proprietor and Lord of the Rings movie mogul, Sir Peter Jackson.

“If you’re a pilot with maybe ten hours of experience in total before reaching the front line, it would be very easy to kill yourself in the Camel… in the S.E.5 there were so many luxuries and so many potential problems had been engineered out of it that it was a very modern, very pleasant aeroplane to fly.”

The original story can be found here: History of War

The view from Stow Maries

Word has come in from the outposts of S&G territory – in this case, Essex – of some wonderful goings-on. In this instance it is the restoration of a First World War Airfield to full working order at Stow Maries.

This little patch of farmland, located between the seaside town of Malden and the county town of Chelmsford, is home to some buildings that were erected a century ago for a very particular purpose. These fields were once a hive of activity during the defence of London in the First World War, after marauding Zeppelins became a regular menace during 1915 and the massed daylight bombing raids of Gotha aircraft swept Britain into a state of hysteria.

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The attacking Gotha bombers photographed over London

In September 1916, the hastily-built airfield at Stow Maries received the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2s of ‘B’ Flight of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron. The favoured route for German raiders was to make landfall on the Essex coast and then cruise down towards Epping Forest in the knowledge that within minutes their bombs would fall near something valuable.

The first commanding officer at the aerodrome was Lieutenant Claude Ridley, who was only 19 years of age. On the evening of 23/24 May 1917 Ridley, promoted to Captain, and Lieutenant G. Keddie made the first recorded operational flight from the aerodrome in response to a large Zeppelin raid targeting London.

Air defence was in its infancy and for every Zeppelin brought down in a sea of falling flame there were hundreds of hours spent by pilots tootling around in the dark. Often they had to light flares on the end of their wings to see the runway on final approach. It was dark and dangerous work but ultimately something of a footnote in the history of the conflict.

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Alone in the great big sky: the solitary life of Home Defence flying re-created

Not that this precluded the growth of Stow Maries, which soon saw ‘A’ Flight of 37 Squadron arrive alongside the rest of the unit. It was a busy time for London and, during the early hours of 17 June 1917, 2nd Lieutenant L. P. Watkins was credited with the downing of Zeppelin L48 at Theberton in Suffolk – the last Zeppelin brought down on British soil before the arrival of the fixed-wing Gotha bombers.

It was these massed daylight raids that caused pandemonium in the capital, and 37 Squadron was in the thick of the action on 7 July 1917 when 22 Gotha bombers made one of the heaviest raids on London. The combination of unreliable engines, numerous landing accidents and increasingly effective Home Defence – not only from the aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service but also the anti-aircraft batteries ringing London – took a heavy toll on the daylight raiders. Soon they were compelled to fly at night and in smaller groups.

At its peak, Stow Maries was home to 219 staff and 16 aircraft – centred around all three flights of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. It’s original B.E.2 aircraft were replaced first with the B.E.12 and, much later, with the Sopwith Camel.

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Both inside and out, Stow Maries is returning to former glories

Unlike other Home Defence stations which were further developed and would win fame in the later Battle of Britain in 1940 – Biggin Hill, Manston and Hornchurch in particular – Stow Maries reverted to peacetime farming soon after the Armistice of 1918. After 37 Squafton’s departure in March 1919, its buildings were abandoned and forgotten about until a group of enthusiasts happened upon them and discovered what amounted to the only preserved World War 1 airfield in existence.

In the space of four years between 2007 and 2011, six of these buildings were fully conserved and one partially conserved. The decades of neglect were brushed aside and the structures were restored with appropriate materials in accordance with their original construction and architectural detailing.

Now, after venturing down a rather rustic farm track, it is possible to walk into the world of 1917 where the volunteers have now restored the Ambulance Shed and Mortuary, the Blacksmith’s Shed, the Workshop and Dope Shop and the NCO Mess. The Squadron Offices have now been rebuilt and house the museum, while the Workshop and Dope Shop have been conserved to comply with modern workshop environment conditions, but behind the modern internal wall finish is the original fabric untouched.

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Fixtures, fittings and the occasional bit of hardware can now be seen by visitors

Work is indeed undertaken on aircraft at Stow Maries – aircraft of 1914-18 vintage. In the only modern construction to be found at the site you will find hangared an assortment of tool-room copies of WW1 aircraft built by Sir Peter Jackson’s brilliant operation in New Zealand, The Vintage Aviator Ltd.

Recently, Stow Maries hosted its first fly-in for these magnificent aircraft, from where these photos have been provided. Complete with a supporting cast of re-enactors buzzing around the partially-restored Pilots’ Ready Room (the S&G collectively remains a little unsure about the value of re-enactors), the sights and sounds of aviation were laid out for the assembled hordes.

The Bristol Scout, Albatros D.V, and Sopwith Snipe encapsulated the progress made in aircraft design in 1916-18, while the B.E.2 was utterly at home on the field from which 37 Squadron campaigned the type so vigorously against the bombers. It is an amazing sight to see the facilities and the machines in an environment all-but unchanged in a century, and long may the good folk who have brought Stow Maries back to life continue to offer the world such a unique insight into the war.

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There is still much work to be done, the roll-call of buildings requiring or undergoing conservation includes:

  • Office and Communications Room
  • Motor Transport Shed
  • Royal Engineers’ Workshop
  • Generator Hut
  • Reception/Headquarters Building

If there is the will, the energy and the funding available, a further 14 buildings may yet also be saved to complete the restoration, these being:

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  • Officers’ Mess
  • Officers’ Quarters (four buildings)
  • Men’s Accommodation Block
  • NCO Accommodation
  • WRAF Accommodation (three buildings)
  • Water Tower and Reservoir (two buildings)
  • Fuel Store
  • Ammunition Store

To find out more about the airfield, the aircraft, when and how to visit and for news on forthcoming events please visit the website of this remarkable undertaking.

More World War 1 aviation for the 2015 season

An exciting airshow season is ahead with much to savour for fans of World War 1 aviation. Last year the national home of airworthy vintage aircraft, the Shuttleworth Collection, was quite rightly focused on the return of its De Havilland DH.88 Comet Grosvenor House to the skies after more than two decades, marking the 80th anniversary of her win in the Macrobertson Air Race but in 2015 it looks like biplanes are in pole position.

This year the Collection’s unique selection of First World War aircraft at its Old Warden home will be bolstered with a reproduction Sopwith Camel, complete with a period Clerget 130hp rotary engine. Originally built in 2001 by Northern Aeroplane Workshops, the Shuttleworth Collection engineers have been beavering away getting it ready for display appearances later in 2015 wearing the markings of the Ruston Proctor-built D1851 when flown in 1918 by 70 Squadron, RAF.

'Ikanopit' is sure to be a hit - and a handful to fly!

‘Ikanopit’ is sure to be a hit – and a handful to fly!

Carrying the legend ‘Ikanopit’ (I can hop it!), the original D1851, in the hands of Lieutenant W. Gowan, survived a mid-air collision with its squadron mate D1796 flown by Lieutenant S. Rochford. Its reproduction will make an extremely welcome addition to the Shuttleworth shows this year, where it will doubtless fly alongside the collection’s original Sopwith Pup – although a three-ship formation with the reproduction Sopwith Triplane is still some time off as the damage from the latter’s landing accident last year is repaired.

Two beautiful Sopwith scouts will star in 2015

Two beautiful Sopwith scouts will star in 2015

Also currently at Old Warden is a Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a, which is ultimately going to join the WW1 Aviation Heritage Trust (WAHT), based at Bicester Heritage in Oxfordshire. Last year the Bicester group took the WW1 scene by storm with a pair of Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2e aircraft and is following up with three new additions, of which the S.E.5a is the first arrival.

Pictured behind Shuttleworth's genuine ex-Savage S.E.5 a is WAHT's new replica

Pictured behind Shuttleworth’s genuine ex-Savage S.E.5 a is WAHT’s new replica

Still to arrive in the UK are WAHT’s other two new attractions: a reproduction Albatros D.Va and a muscular little Sopwith Snipe reproduction, both of which hail from Peter Jackson’s Vintage Aviator company in New Zealand. The Albatros,  was recently air tested by the legendary Kermit Weeks prior to disassembly and freighting halfway around the world. The flying schedule for the year includes a display at the Shuttleworth Collection and an appearance at the Goodwood Revival.

WAHT's Albatros gets an air test from Kermit Weeks

WAHT’s Albatros gets an air test from Kermit Weeks

WAHT has now opened a funding campaign to raise the £11,200 it needs to reassemble the newcomers when they arrive in Britain – details of which can be found at the trust’s website.

3 Lancasters at East Kirkby

A dozen Merlins roar as the three Lancasters are brought together

A dozen Merlins roar as the three Lancasters are brought together – East Kirkby, September 14 2014

Bringing three priceless aircraft together 70 years after their prime was always going to be a big ask. Originally scheduled for 2 September, the dramatic engine failure suffered by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Lancaster ‘VeRA’ put paid to many plans to witness the three big Avros in action together – and one could only sympathise with the Canadian team, the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the redoubtable Panton family as they dealt with the issue.

Days before the original reunion, VeRA was forced down in Durham (pic. borrowed from BBC)

Days before the original reunion, VeRA was forced down in Durham (pic. borrowed from BBC)

The irony was not lost that the Canadian Lancaster wears the colours of KB726, code VR-A, in which Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski earned a posthumous Victoria Cross for attempting to save the live of his rear gunner when they were shot down in flames in June 1944. It was from this airfield, in its wartime guise of RAF Middleton St. George, that Pilot Officer Mynarski and the rest of No. 419 ‘Moose’ Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force took off on the fateful mission.

Nevertheless, thanks to the BBMF and the Pantons, a replacement Merlin was fitted and plumbed in at a pace not seen in almost 70 years and the two flying Lancasters were reunited in the air in time for their remaining dates, including the Goodwood Revival. Meanwhile the Pantons worked feverishly to get a new date for the ‘3 Lancasters’ event – not least calling every ticket holder in person to let them know that their tickets would be valid for a rescheduled event on Sunday, 14 September.

Made it at last - the three Lancasters set hearts a-flutter

Made it at last – the three Lancasters set hearts a-flutter

Thousands of people made the return journey to the fabulous Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre at East Kirkby, to soak up the atmosphere beneath brooding clouds. Many were in their tenth decade, men with breasts brightened by medals and women who had lived and worked around the Lancasters as they flew out towards occupied Europe every night.  By 15:20 the crowd was five deep along the full length of the flight line and then, with the museum’s own ‘Just Jane’ ticking over on the field, her two sisters hove into view.

The fourth and final pass brought the Lancasters towards the crowd line

The fourth and final pass brought the Lancasters towards the crowd line

It was a truly magnificent occasion and an achievement that was well worth the wait. Not until Peter Jackson finally leaves Middle Earth behind him and begins recreating RAF Woodhall Spa for his long-awaited Dam-Busters remake will such a sight be seen again – and at least on this occasion there was no CGI involved!

Congratulations and deserved thanks to the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum and the Panton family for making this once-in-a-lifetime spectacular come true.

Final salute - the Lancs bid farewell after their unique reunion

Final salute – the Lancs bid farewell after their unique reunion