Old But Safe

There were about 100 historic aircraft on the British Register in 1979, and the number was growing.

These machines demanded uncommon knowledge or skill when preserving them for display in working order. They flew, in most cases, with a Military and Vintage Permit to Fly. This carried little or no burden of airworthiness, so that in-flight safety depended more on the man and machine than was the case with aircraft operating with Certificates of Airworthiness. A Permit to Fly nominated certain persons or organisations responsible for maintaining airworthiness, whereas a C or A did not.

Historic aircraft were labours of love, costing large sums to maintain and operate. In many cases they could be kept only because of gate-money received at air displays.

These aircraft were part of our aeronautical heritage. There was a responsibility to preserve them in flying condition, so that future generations could see and hear them where they belong – in the air. There were also sound economic reasons for keeping them flying – in that way they could continue to pay for themselves.

There were valid reasons for refusing to alter their profiles, mechanisms and materials – although the latter was increasingly hard to avoid. Nevertheless, it should be possible in 100 year’s time for a pilot to know more or less exactly what a Bleriot IX or a Spitfire was like to fly (and to savour the differences in power and weight between the different marks). There would be little value in preserving a Mosquito replica built out of metal, when more than a little of the uniqueness of the original lay in its lightweight balsa-sandwich construction.

Aircraft worth preserving had characters and qualities which could bring out flaws in the characters of pilots who flew them. There was always a little devil that climbed on to the shoulder at an air display, tempting a pilot on an ego-trip. If the pilot was weak he succumbed, excusing himself (if he survived) on the grounds of necessary “showmanship”: the crowd had paid to be entertained, so give it the money’s-worth it expected. The fallacy was that instead of the pilot concentrating on showing off the aircraft to advantage, he used the aircraft as a platform to show himself off, which is not what the crowd had paid to see.

The most exciting aircraft were the older exotic ones, although an historic aircraft need not have been old. Flying qualities, especially on take-off and landing could demand considerable skill. The best skill was borne of experience and technical knowledge. But the line between skill and incompetence could be so terribly fine that it may be have only been seen after an accident.

Sadly too, many pilots climbed into valuable, attractive and demanding aeroplanes as a type-hunting exercise, without knowing much about them, and without flying objectively. Even two well-known pilots, who should have known better, forgot the standard of batteries in their old types of fighters. They threw the aircraft all over the sky and spilled acid inside both fuselages, causing unnecessary work and cost for the owners.

Over the years there had been too many accidents at air displays. The result was that the authorities and the organisers tended to clamp down with tighter restrictions. Ignoring military accidents during displays over the previous ten seasons in Britain there had been about 30 notifiable accidents to aircraft on the British Register, of which nearly a half were fatal. Just under a third involved mishandling at low speed, just over a third were caused by flying too low, and all but two involved poor judgement.

Insufficient experience, seduction by the limelight, poor timing, lack of a properly shaped and practised routine, unawareness of local hazards, negligent attention to local traffic, aerobatics too low, mishandling of aeroplanes with a maximum speed only about twice stalling speed resulted in stall/spin from low altitudes – all had taken their toll.

There was a school of thought which held that fighters, for example, should be flown “properly” or not at all – whatever that meant. It seemed that a choice was being posed: either fly as if one was in combat (imposing maximum structural load on airframe and engine, shortening lives of both), or stay on the ground. Perhaps the owner could not afford to have his aeroplane on the ground – but he certainly would not be able to afford wearing it out too soon. I did not believe that choice was realistic, even though the public wanted excitement and thrills.

Not many years previously, two of the greatest – and possibly oldest – practising-Spitfire pilots put on the most elegantly satisfying “lazy displays”, without a sign of overcooking anything.

Many pilots thought that flying ultra-low was daring and clever. At an air display it was juvenile and stupid. Most people in the crowd could not see over the heads of those in front, so some of the money they paid to see the aircraft was wasted by such thoughtless airframe driver. In fact low shows could harm reputations. The owner of a collection west of London was alleged to have refused to have two particular pilots again. One flew close to the crowd with his wingtip level with the knees of a fuelling attendant. Another, in a bomber, made children cry and women scream. On another occasion a large bomber was alleged to have turned so low at the end of one display run in the English West Midlands that his wingtip (or tip vortex) kicked up dust.

At the Shuttleworth Trust displays north of London, flying by its own pilots was closely supervised and carefully controlled. There, anyone in the crowd could usually guarantee to see the upper surfaces of any Shuttleworth aircraft without risk. The reasons, of course, were that discipline was strict, pilots were professional, objective and select; and flying was run by people who knew what they were doing. Competition among pilots to fly aircraft in the collection was intense – and those who flew were there only by invitation.

One of the difficulties of displaying historic aircraft was that suitable pilots were hard to come by. Some of the very best were PPL holders. It was not true that an ATPL or CPL, which enabled holders to fly for hire or reward, necessarily made the best display pilot. Nor did an instructor’s rating.

The general standard of flying in the UK did not appear to be high enough consistently to produce pilots with the right skills and aptitudes. For example, a study carried out over a number of days at Old Warden showed that a small but significant number of pilots, drawn from a sample with a wide spread of experience, did not achieve an acceptable standard on landing. (RAE TM FS 264, Landing Performance of Pilots in Single-Engine Light Aircraft). What occurred at Old Warden occurred elsewhere too.

Another weakness, which showed itself when checking nosegear-trained pilots for the Tiger Club, was lack of speed and co-ordination of the feet. The Tiger Moth, which liked to fly sideways and was far from responsive, showed up the deficiency within seconds.

These deficiencies could be corrected, but may needed special emphasis and training, particularly in the matter of handling unusual engines. Attitude of mind and approach count for most. Pilots were no use if they did not have a sympathy with and feel for machinery. That implied more than a little technical understanding. The problem was where to find such people. Older pilots were hard to come by. The same was the case with engineers. There were very few engineers left who remembered enough of real value about many of the historic aircraft on the Register.

For the most part Britain was relying on about 20 engineers and maybe three times as many pilots to prepare and display historic aircraft properly. Even so, there was an awful lack of experience, and we were on a relearning curve in many cases. The Lysander rebuilt by Personal Plane Services was an example. Everyone had to find out all over again how to keep that particular Mercury XX running properly after it had been throttled back, because the plugs oiled up so fast. Modern refurbishing and the matching of a newer to an older technology had something to do with it.

Most of the engineers who could help accurately were well into their sixties. A Register of Engineers was desperately needed and indeed, steps had already been taken to set one up. Engineers with the right knowledge were thin on the ground and were ageing fast. A survey turned up 15 with the necessary detailed knowledge of old aircraft, with another five actively involved and keen to learn. Such people were vital to the movement. Owners needed to know to whom they could turn in trouble, often at short notice. We needed to gather material and records, preferably taped, so that an engineer could describe, step by step, how to strip a particular carburettor, or head, in a way that avoided the hidden pitfalls. That was the kind of information that technical publications often failed to supply.

The Historic Aircraft Association (HAA) was launched on 1st April 1979, to provide a framework within which historic aircraft could be operated with maximum safety and to professional standards, and to register pilots displaying such aircraft. The aim was to have a source available to owners, and often persons and organisations responsible for maintaining airworthiness, on whether so-and-so is as suitable as he claimed to be; and to promote safety at displays. The information gathered, when application was made, enabled the Registration Committee to access what groups and types of aircraft a pilot was competent to display – for flypast, aerobatics and formation. The Register was also useful to display organisers, because a registered pilot could show a certificate of registration which listed his capabilities.

The HAA accepted pilots at their own evaluation, but asked for proposers and seconders to establish credibility. Information was gathered as well as flight-test reports on flying qualities, so that education could be furthered. No pilot was registered until he signed the Association Code of Conduct. If the code was broken a pilot may be struck off. Flying rules were based for the most part on those of The Shuttleworth Collection, The Strathallan Collection and The Tiger Club. Guidelines published by the Civil Aviation Authority in CAP 403 Safety Arrangements at Flying Displays, Air Races and Rallies; were formally adopted by council.

The council was experienced in all areas affecting the flight safely and display of historic aircraft, and believed that self-regulation of display flying was best. Too many display accidents and incidents of all kinds had attracted unwanted comment and attention at the time.

In many ways, time and expertise were running out. No one had instant recall, especially when older, although several people applying for registration as display pilots had tried to convince the Grading Committee that they had. There was a time already in sight when there may not be enough pilots to display certain aircraft safely, or knowledgeable engineers to prepare and sign them up. That time was less than 10 to 15 years away.