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Flying in the Vickers Vimy

Copyright© 2001, Kitplanes Magazine, all rights reserved
Photo by R. Cooke from www.vimy.org
text as submitted for publication

Through the three small, tall designer windows at my feet, the Seattle waterfront; ahead, Puget Sound; in the distance, rain showers; and in the front cockpit of a replica World War I Vickers Vimy, gently shivering, the realization that those who flew these planes in their day, without heat, without GPS or even VOR, without search and rescue helicopters, were truly men.

Vickers Vimy

This Vimy replica is the result of a confluence of interest, talent, ten man years of effort and about a million bucks. The project started on the England to Australia Vintage Air Rally in 1990 when San Francisco stock broker Peter McMillan met Aussie Lang Kidby, and they discovered that their general shared interest in old aircraft included a particular shared interest in the Vimy. Shortly thereafter, Kidby asked one of his friends if he knew where to get hold of plans for the Vimy. He reached into his bottom desk drawer and pulled out a set. The project was on.

The original Vimy was a heavy bomber, at least for that time. Its gross weight of just under 11,000 pounds compares to the ordnance load of a modern tactical jet. Advertised top speed of the original was 103 MPH, with a range of 900 miles. Wing span is an impressive 68 feet, and the height is nearly 16 feet, a respectable pole vaulting height. That maximum height is the upper wing, much higher than the height of the tail section.

Construction of the original is typical teens, employing a wood spar fuselage with wire diagonal braces, just like a Jenny. The reproduction uses a steel tube truss welded in Australia, but with disconnects behind the 68 foot span wings. Those wings are conventional wood spars and ribs, but are just enormous. Each aileron is seemingly the size of a Piper Cub wing. The original Vimy used two Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII 360 HP, V-12 piston engines with a two hundred hour TBO. The replica used Chevy V-8 engines, converted in Australia for the Vimy. In fact, three engines were converted, which was fortuitous when the replica Vimy chose to duplicate an engine failure of the original England to Australia flight.

Heading the construction effort was master craftsman John LaNoue, whose Falco wing spar was against one wall of the enormous hangar at Hamilton Air Force Base in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, where the Vimy was fledged. The hangar had features such as permanent waves in the concrete floor, perhaps from an earthquake; an extra hole in the hangar doors so that large airplanes could be serviced with their tails sticking outside; and piles of scat from a great horned owl nest high above.

Kidby came and talked to our EAA Chapter in San Jose, and extended an open invitation to come help. On several Saturdays, some of us would make the long drive up to Marin county, helping when we could, joining other, more local volunteers and some of the hired movie set constructors from the Scenic Artists Guild who did much of the work, a change from building movie sets.

Many of the ribs were made with a router, not the more conventional sticks and gussets. Spar caps were laminated by putting the assemblies in a wooden C channel along with a canvas fire hose, then inflating the fire hose to apply pressure. Fabric, Grade A cotton, was put on the old fashioned way, with lots of elbow grease.

One weekend was ribstitching weekend, and we were quickly taught this basic skill and, under close supervision, went to work. The lower left aileron has some of my knots, and my initials are on the aileron spar. It was amazing to watch the skilled and see how fast the task could be done. Led by Bev Kidby, the wings were ribstitched in five days. When we called to volunteer to come back and do more ribstitching, the task was already completed.

The ribstitching was covered with strips of cotton, but modern pinked taped had not been invented when the Vimy was built. Instead, plain strips of cotton, complete with frayed edges, lent an air of sloppy authenticity to the project. 17 months after project start, the Vimy flew.

The first flight of the Vimy was made despite some performance handicaps. The fuel system had hundreds of gallons of unusable fuel in the four fuselage tanks, and the propellers and engines were not well matched.

Nevertheless, the first major flight of this Vimy was England to Australia, as documented by National Geographic. The Vimy was painted dark green with the original registration, G-EAOU, which the original crew decided meant, “God ‘elp all of us.” Using the converted Chevy engines, the flight made it to Sumatra before one engine ate its internals, perhaps suffering from low octane indigestion from scooter gas. The spare engine was shipped from Australia, and the flight concluded as per plan.

How did the Vimy get from California to England? In a C-5A, of course, with the aft end of the fuselage disconnected. Measurements indicated that it would not fit, but the C-5A loadmaster eyeballed it and said it would fit. It did, with a quarter inch to spare.

After returning from Australia, the Vimy was repainted in silver to recreate the first flight from England to Cape Town. This trip had its share of adventures, such as barely getting the plane into a hangar in Italy before 70 MPH winds hit, winds which approximated the cruising speed of the Vimy. In Egypt, the airport authorities suggested, with the aid of the soldiers, that the Vimy should use airport chocks, not rocks, while parking overnight, and that the Vimy crew should ride the airport bus the two hundred yards from the Vimy to the terminal. The tab for these unasked for services, and avoiding the attention of the soldiers, was hundreds of dollars.

It was for this trip that the Chevy V-8s were replaced with BMW V-12s, more closely approximating the original Rolls Royce Eagle V-12 engines. The fuel system was also reworked, replumbing the fuel system, adding transfer pumps, and reducing the unusable fuel from hundreds of gallons to a more reasonable figure.

Next summer, the most famous of the Vimy trips will be recreated, the first non-stop crossing of the North Atlantic, recreating that 1919 flight. (By the way, Lindbergh was the 92nd person to fly across the Atlantic.)

Where does the name Vimy come from? A famous battle of World War I on Vimy Ridge in Belgium, a battle which various web sources describe as the first Allied victory of the war, a battle which helped Canada form a national identity, and a battle of nearly eleven thousand Canadian casualties, more than a third dead. That battle was on April 9, 1917, seven months before the Vimy airplane’s first flight. Few Vimys saw service before World War I ended in November, 1918.

* * * * * * * *

Boarding the very front seat of the Vimy is surely one of the least graceful exercises in all of general aviation. Start by scrambling up onto the trailing edge of the wing, some 30 inches up. Walk forward a few feet and then grab hold of some struts and hoist yourself on top of the fuselage, dodging a bracing wire between the wings. If you want to, you can place a knee on the horizontal strut that goes from the fuselage out to the engine. If you majored in jungle gym in elementary school, those lessons well learned will come roaring back. Finally, walk forward across the top of the fuselage, and take one giant step across the cockpit to the coaming just behind the bombardier’s seat. Step down and in, and that’s all there is to it.

Furnishings up front are sparse: three windows at your shins, a standard military four point shoulder harness, and leather flying helmet with a modern Bose (a sponsor) active noise canceling headset. There is neither heat nor windshield, only the realization that should anything go wrong, you’ll be the first to arrive at the scene of the accident.

Front seat accommodations are actually the best in the house. The pilot’s cockpit is narrow, and two broad shouldered men have to layer their inside shoulders, one behind the other’s. The tips of those 14 foot, four bladed wooden props are less than arm length’s distance, and a casual wave to a bystander could remove a forearm. Non-original shields are in place to keep arms and props separated. In addition to the threat to upper body integrity, the props provide a steady stream of water to the pilots’ outside ears in case of rain.

Way in the back is the coach class seating. This seating area is not only more narrow than the cockpit, it has no windshield, and is positioned to hear the engine exhaust most clearly. Moreover, with those big props so close to the airplane centerline, the rear seaters get blasted with prop wash. Few back seat riders clamor for more than token rides.

On the replica, a lockable, free swiveling tailwheel replaces the original skid. The four main wheels have brakes, another modern innovation. In the 15 knot crosswind, the turn from the ramp onto the taxiway is accomplished with a great surge of power from the outside engine. The inside engine, geared down 5:1 from the engine crankshaft, turns so slowly as to suggest that the engine has quit.

With a 15 knot, 30 degree crosswind, takeoff is a two man job. The co-pilot manages power while the pilot uses both hands on the control wheel. Why? The control forces are stiff and require unusual effort to move, and that’s while you’re still parked on the ground. Those control forces increase as you start flying. Two hands give you the muscle to work those four ailerons, each sixteen feet long and nearly as big as a Piper Cub wing. The gearing of the control wheel gives you mechanical advantage, but the down side is that full aileron deflection is 145 degrees of control wheel deflection. Worse, gusts can deflect the ailerons, snatching the wheel from the pilot’s grasp.

Once out on the runway and lined up, the noise comes up, the props blur, and the sound is reminiscent of a widebody jet’s fan engines. The ground bumps a few times, then recedes, are we are airborne in a design that set aviation records when one of my parents, now a great grand-parent, was a toddler and the other parent unborn.

The gusty air generates downdrafts and the seat seems to drop out from under me. This gives additional cool air and a threatening feeling, for I’ve not flown open cockpits in a long time. Interestingly enough, the Vimy pushes such a bow wave ahead that apparent wind in the front cockpit is much less than the airspeed. Even at cruise, 75 miles per hour, the wind feels like no more than 25.

As we turn downwind, with most of the structure behind me, there is an unreal feeling of flying, not on a magic carpet, but more of flying in a 55 gallon drum. There are no wings, no engine, just the cooling breeze and the sounds, those of engines and intercom and occasional ATC.

Ahead, a seagull, 12 o’clock, just above us, and we’re on a collision course. I’ve not tested the intercom to know that I can be heard, but I duck behind the scanty protection of the fuselage skin. “I see it,” says a voice in the intercom, but there is no obvious evasive action taken by this lumbering leviathan. A moment later, “it dived under us.”

As we climb up to 1500 feet, the air smoothes out and the bumps no longer tease me to leave my seat and to come play with them. Visibility is at least 40 miles under the clouds, and I start to take pictures. It’s still too bumpy to loosen the seat belt, so pictures are mostly to the side, capturing wings and an engine framing Seattle landmarks.

The Vimy circles the stadium at the University of Washington, where graduation ceremonies are in progress. Many of those bored by the proceedings will see this unlikely flying profile and wonder what it was. “My daughter graduated from there,” says LaNoue, and a brief discussion ensues between the pilots. The passengers, both coach and first class, are quiet, in awe of this way cool and cooling look into the distant past of early aviation.

Turning back towards Boeing field, the shivering starts, and the steady buffeting in the front cockpit seems more noticeable. With our piddlin’ approach speed, the tower keeps us well to the left of centerline, and has us do a 360 degree turn as a single engine Cessna 210 whistles down the glideslope, slowed to an approach speed well above our cruise speed. Rolling out of the 360, the power comes back some, but we are flying into a considerable headwind and power stays up at 4000 RPM.

We are landing long, but the power stays up and the four approach slope indicator lights are all white, indicating that we are way high. Passing through two hundred feet, the turbulence intensifies to the worst of the flight, and I resume my death grip on two diagonal steel tubes so as not to be lifted out of the seat. On the intercom, the pilots discuss going around, and the need for prompt application of power should that option be taken. It is obvious that one is wrestling with the flight controls, the other working the throttles.

“Power off” says a voice, and the Vimy settles with a few minor bumps, slows quickly, and briefly considers a premature turn upwind into the grass. “That was a two fisted landing” says the intercom, and I know why flights in the cockpit are offered only to a very select few, and only on calm days when the Vimy becomes a single pilot airplane for those few well versed in its ways.

Taxiing in, I ask for and receive permission to stand up and take pictures and am treated to the sight of all that ancient and modern machinery behind me that has opened this window into the past. The coach passengers give me a thumbs up, rewarded with a shutter click.

As the Vimy taxies into the Museum of Flight parking lot, a crowd watches. Afterwards, inside, a docent asks me about the flight. He is extraordinarily knowledgeable about Vickers aircraft, and tells me that most of the Vimys were re-engined with radial engines, the transport and ambulance versions, and how derivative models stayed in service until the mid-30s. His astonishing knowledge is an implicit challenge to learn more, to share knowledge, and to continue the aeronautical traditions so clearly embodied in this amazing replica Vimy.

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