Blue skies at the Shuttleworth Collection

When the sun is out, there’s barely a whisp of cloud in the sky and the breeze wouldn’t trouble a house of cards there’s really only one place to be: Old Warden for a flying display.

While the rest of the nation was shedding a tear of joy or two over Prince Harry’s nuptials, a decent sized crowd went to Bedfordshire. They came to savour not only the regular field of aeroplanes from the Shuttleworth Collection’s unique array of vintage and veteran stock, but also the official return to flying duties of its unique Spitfire Mk.Vc after 12 years under restoration.

Given that it was an evening show, the S&G wasn’t able to linger and enjoy the undoubted stars of the show, the WW1 and Edwardian machinery, take to the air on such a still and clear night. Nevertheless, there is never a day when one feels short-changed by seeing even a portion of the schedule at Old Warden, so here are the highlights.

First of all: what was to be found on the ground:

 

And here’s what was seen during the air displays:

 

As the long days of summer hopefully stick with us until the new academic year and beyond, it’s always worth keeping an eye on what’s going on at Old Warden, particularly with a brood to entertain.

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

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.

A little Christmas present

‘Tis the season to be jolly, so with plenty of jostling at the bar and festive ribaldry, we wish you the most splendid of Christmases from the Scarf & Goggles Social Club.

The story of Eddie Rickenbacker’s rise from the mean streets of Columbus, Ohio to the pantheon of pioneering airmen and motor racers will be continued in the days ahead. For now, however, please sit back and relax, enjoy a stoup of something nourishing and the goodwill of all men.

In case nobody buys you a nice DVD or you cannot find a single thing worth watching on the box, feel free to enjoy the little offering below. It features the last original S.E.5a fighter still airworthy, strutting its stuff above Old Warden at one of the Shuttleworth Collection’s celebrated air days. Like its sisters in London’s Science Museum and the RAF Museum, it is one of Major Savage’s sky-writing machines, so as you enjoy it in action, feel free to imagine that it is writing:

Merry Christmas from the S&G

The lone Parnall Elf

The birth of civil aviation after World War 1 was greatly assisted by the number of ex-military machines flooding the market and available for next-to-nothing. Types from the humble Avro 504k trainer to genuine fighter machines like the S.E.5a and Sopwith Pup were snapped up and flown privately, while larger reconnaissance and bomber types were put to work delivering mail and passengers.

Not until the late 1920s was a new generation of aircraft needed to replace these increasingly careworn machines on the grounds of maintenance cost if not outright safety or performance. The de Havilland company was at the forefront of light aircraft design with its Moth series, but rivals sprang up aplenty, among which was the Parnall Elf, designed by Harold Bolas and built by George Parnall & Co in their factory at Yate near Bristol in 1929.

The sole surviving Parnall Elf at its Old Warden home

Like the Moth, the Elf was a two-seat light biplane. Although relatively conventional in construction, with a wooden airframe and a combination of plywood and fabric covering, Bolas placed great emphasis on making the Elf user-friendly with inbuilt sturdiness, ease of operation and cost-effective maintenance.

Its wings therefore featured struts in the form of warren girders to avoid the requirement for wire bracing, which needed a seasoned rigger to maintain, and they could be folded for storage. They were also set well forward on the fuselage as a feature to assist crew escape in an emergency – still an extremely common occurrence.

The first example, later registered G-AAFH, was powered by a 105 hp Cirrus Hermes I four cylinder in line engine. It made its public debut alongside a number of new aircraft at the Seventh International Aero Exhibition at Olympia in London in 1929. The purchase price of the aircraft was between £875 and £890, depending upon whether the owner opted to upgrade to a uprated 120 hp Hermes II engine.

Doing what it does best – the Elf has little razzmatazz but lots of style

Orders were few and far between, however. Unfortunately the prototype received a less than glowing report when tested at Martlesham Heath, and although an Elf came fifth overall in a field of 88 in the 1930 King’s Cup air race, de Havilland was making headlines the world over with its Moth series, setting new world records in the hands of both men and women pilots.

The Elf was not a record breaker, nor was it ever intended or cleared to perform aerobatics. It was quite simply a touring aeroplane, intended to allow private pilots unruffled progress from A to B. With no great feats to add to its sales pitch, only two more Elfs were built, registered G-AAIN and G-AAIO, both fitted with the uprated 120 hp Hermes II.

Both the prototype and G-AAIO were destroyed in separate flying accidents during 1934, caused by the Elf’s reliance on a fuel pump rather than the simplicity of a gravity-fed system. This left G-AAIN as the sole survivor when it was bought by Lord Apsley at Badminton, who flew it until World War 2 and then put it into storage, emerging briefly in 1946 before being mothballed until the Shuttleworth Collection team restored it in 1980.

Today the Elf stands as a reminder of that gentler age and that while air shows thrive on high adrenaline there is always a place for a gentleman’s carriage of the skies.

A rare and graceful sight: the Elf in action

Gladiator Survivors #2 – The Shuttleworth Collection

It’s rather a startling thought that one particular aircraft has been entertaining the nation for more than half a century as a relic of the last peacetime days of the 1930s. And yet there she is, the Shuttleworth Collection’s celebrated Gloster Gladiator, L8032, describing graceful arcs and sweeping climbs above Old Warden just as she has since 1960…

L8032 on a trip to Duxford's Flying Legends air display

L8032 basks in the sun on a trip to Duxford’s Flying Legends air display

L8032 was the last Gladiator I airframe built from the initial order made in 1935. All the components were built in 1937 but not actually assembled until 1938. Like her sister aircraft from this final batch, now on display at the RAF Museum, the completed L8032 immediately went into storage as the more modern Hawker Hurricane monoplane and soon-to-arrive Supermarine Spitfire took precedence in Fighter Command’s attention.

In the autumn of 1943 L8032 was brought out of storage and sent to 61 Operational Training Unit in readiness for a new job with a film unit called Independent Producers, which was to use the aircraft to shoot scenes for a film of the book Signed With Their Honour. This was to be a ‘factional’ retelling of the story of 80 Squadron and its Gladiators which fought to the last man and the last aircraft in the retreat from Greece and Crete in 1941.

At home at the Shuttleworth Collection’s airfield, Old Warden

Remarkably, all three complete surviving Gladiators – including The Fighter Collection’s N5903 – had an active role to play in the movie and were assigned to 61 OTU while the film was made. Two Gladiators were lost in a mid-air collision during filming but the survivors completed their tour of duty as stars of the silver screen before being mothballed once again.

L8032 would emerge once more in 1946 when she was put on display in Hyde Park. On 16 March 1948, L8032 was struck off the RAF’s charge list and bought back by the Gloster aircraft company along with N5903. Clearly the ailing Gloster company had no real idea what to do with these old machines and in 1950 both the Gladiators were delivered to Air Service Training for use as instructional airframes at Hamble and Ansty.

You can get up close at any time when the Shuttleworth Collection opens to the public

When RAF Ansty closed the two old aircraft were bought by Viv Bellamy for a nominal sum and L8032 was restored to flying condition using the engine from N5903 and the civilian registration G-AMRK. In 1956, Gloster decided that it wanted its aircraft back again and bought them from Bellamy, refitting L8032 was in full military specification and painting her in 72 Squadron markings, albeit with the fictitious serial K8032.

When Gloster Aircraft finally closed for business at the end of 1960,  L8032 was presented to the Shuttleworth Collection for safe keeping – and has remained there ever since. After many years of service she was completely overhauled in 1990 and repainted in a camouflage scheme of 247 Squadron, the only Gladiator unit to take part in the Battle of Britain. She wore these colours until 1996, when another new skin saw her returned to pre-war silver in hue – albeit in Norwegian markings for another film appearance.

Ready for another season in 2013: one of the longest-serving display aircraft in the UK

Finally in 2007 L8032 re-appeared in the colourful blue and yellow flashes of K7985, a 73 Squadron Gladiator that was flown with memorable vigour by the future WW2 ace ‘Cobber’ Kain at the 1937 Hendon Air Pageant. It is these colours which she carries to this day, and which are about to be replicated by a new model kit by Airfix.

The Scarf & Goggles proudly salutes this fine old girl and all who care for her. Here’s to another 50 years in the air over Bedfordshire…

 

Major Savage’s Sky-Writing Aeroplane

One of the very few genuine S.E.5a fighters left in the world is this one, which has been dangling from the rafters of the Science Museum in London since 1939. But a fighter with no guns and a civilian livery always has a tale to tell…

A unique survivor: the Science Museum’s SE5a

In the days immediately before World War 1 an accidental discovery was made: if low viscosity oil inadvertently found its way into a hot exhaust it would vapourize, creating a vast and dense cloud of white smoke without any real detriment to the aircraft. In these early days of flight, any such discovery was investigated for its possible usefulness in war – in this case smoke signals to ground troops or a defensive ‘fog’ to confuse attackers.

An aspiring aviation engineer at the time was one John Clifford* Savage, born in 1891 and apprenticed to Claude Grahame-White in 1909. Savage had a flair for the theatrical and broke off his engineering career in order to become manager and agent to B.C. Hucks, the first Englishman to loop the loop.

It was not until the early days of hard-won peace that the idea of making smoke trails was revived. During the war, Savage had been a lieutenant in the wartime Royal Naval Flying Service, rising to become a major in the new Royal Air Force, but with the onset of peace he was wondering what to do with his future.

He tried his hand at being a journalist, writing for Flight magazine under the nom-de-plume of Oiseau Bleu but that lacked a certain je ne sais quoi

By 1921  ‘Mad Jack’ Savage had revisited the idea of producing smoke and experimented with making first shapes and then letters in the air… and the art of  skywriting was born.The entrepreneurial airman went in search of an aircraft fit for the job, and settled on the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a.

G-EBIB is a reminder of Savage’s entrepreneurial skill

This was not the most agile fighter of the war but unlike the Sopwith Camel it had a Wolseley Viper V8 engine that was easy to fix and which had a capacious pair of exhaust pipes. In addition they were in plentiful supply – more than 2500 of them had been sitting around since the end of the war and were available to buy at what amounted to pocket money prices.

Savage snaffled up 33 of these unwanted old fighters and converted them to his bespoke skywriting specification at his Hendon premises. When selling his services in later years, Savage declared that, as a wartime fighter, the S.E.5a was ‘designed and built to be eight times stronger than is needed to endure the stresses of sky-writing’.

The rechristened ‘Savage Wolseley S.E.5a’ had extended exhaust pipes that linked together through a hole cut in the tail and, suitably lagged with asbestos, this modification acted as the nib in Savage’s aerial pen. The smoke-generating oil was stored in front of the cockpit where the machine gun previously sat and delivered by a new control on the instrument panel while the pilot’s headrest was removed in order to give him a better rearward view of his handiwork. Finally the old drab camouflage of dark olive upper surfaces and cream linen below was replaced by an all-over silver finish.

The Savage Wolsley SE5a sky-writer

Savage’s inventiveness caused a sensation when his skywriting S.E.5a made its very public debut at the 1922 Epsom Derby. A bumper crowd for one of the biggest racing weekends of the year was enthralled as the silver speck 10,000 feet above them spelt out DAILY MAIL in vast white letters which, the newspaper later claimed, was ‘the greatest single development in outdoor advertising’ and that ‘everyone within an area of a hundred square miles – and there were millions – gazed spellbound at this fascinating sight.’

It was certainly a smash. Among those in the VIP enclosure at Epsom was none other than the leading novelist of the day, Virginia Woolfe, who used the occasion as the opening segment in her next book, Mrs. Dalloway.

Flushed with this success, Savage shipped one of his aircraft to the USA. With another ex-RAF pilot, Cyril Turner, at the controls, Savage’s S.E.5a carefully wrote ‘HELLO USA’ in the sky above New York. The following day the silver speck reappeared, writing: ‘CALL VANDERBILT 7100’. The number put potential advertisers through to the hotel where Savage was staying – and the demand for his $1000 service was insatiable.

Savage’s business thrived on both sides of the Atlantic. His 33 fighter aircraft were equipped with air-to-ground radio in order for him to give personal instructions to the men at the controls while they laboured away. The biggest European success for Savage’s skywriters came in 1928 when he was employed by German pharmaceutical company Henkel to promote its Persil brand of detergents. The response was swift and impressive.

Persil was Savage's biggest European client

Persil was Savage’s biggest European client

The Persil script stood an heroic 1.5km tall at the ‘P’ and ‘l’ and 1km tall for the ‘ersi’. The six letters stretched fully 7km across the skyline and 45 million cubic feet of smoke had to be generated in order to make the letters. The pilots also had to fly their route in reverse to make sure that it could be read from below, requiring them to rehearse the complex aerobatic moves until they became second nature:

The map for a Persil skywriter

The map for a Persil skywriter

The campaign was such a success that in many European countries a cloudless sky was called a ‘Persil sky’ right up until the 1960s. Whenever there was a sunny afternoon from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, people still half expected a flashing silver dot to appear and make its magical graffiti above them.

Savage stayed in business until 1939, although the fleet of S.E.5a’s grew tired and old and Savage invented a night time alternative to using smoke when he created a searchlight advertising beam to display words and logos – doubtless a great inspiration to the creators of Batman! One by one the old fighters were pensioned off – usually going to a breaker’s yard, but not always.

In 1934 two of his aircraft, registered G-EBIA and G-EBIC went to new homes- their first stops on a journey which today sees them, resplendent in their wartime specification, as mainstays of the RAF Museum, Hendon and The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden – although more of them later.

By 1 June 1939 only one aircraft was left in Savage’s keeping, so he sat down with what might well have been his last sheet of headed paper and dispatched the following note to the Science Museum in South Kensington:

Dear sir,

I have one genuine War time S.E.5a aeroplane left out of a considerable number I used to own.

I really cannot remember whether the Museum has a specimen of this really rather historic type of aeroplane, and if it has not I will be only too pleased to present to the Museum the machine to which I have referred above.

Yours faithfully

J.C. Savage

Savage offers his last S.E.5a to posterity

Savage offers his last S.E.5a to posterity

This kind offer was of course accepted, and so G-EBIB has been preserved intact, not only as an example of this legendary fighter of World War 1 but also as an icon of the advertising industry. As for Major Savage, he had already added another invention to his CV – the crop spraying aeroplane, which found tremendous use in the USA and Australia in particular.

As war approached he redoubled his efforts in developing the searchlight technology which, although outlawed in Britain, had proved to be hugely lucrative in the Americas. Founding Savage and Parsons Ltd as a pure engineering firm, he developed an array of sound locators and searchlights, including the Leigh Light anti-submarine technology, which was to prove vital in World War 2.

Jack Savage died in September 1945 safe in the knowledge that his life’s work had been worthwhile and mourned by almost the entire global aviation fraternity. Of the six genuine S.E.5a aircraft still in existence, three are ex-Savage and while the silver example which hangs in the shadowy reaches of the Science Museum might not be the most enticing at first glance, it might well be worth a second look…

*corrected 17/10/15