Kiwi P-40C Takes Wing
The C model of the evergreen Curtiss P-40 was a rare bird. Only 193 were built, a tiny percentage of the nearly 14,000 P-40s of all marks. Often derided as obsolete, the P-40 continued to be manufactured even while North American, Lockheed and Republic were churning out superior fighters, so the old Hawk obviously had some useful qualities. The P-40C, sometimes called “Tomahawk,” in fact had no such name; all USAAF P-40s were known generically as Warhawks. The Tomahawk (a British dubbing) was the slightly different export equivalent of the C, of which 930 were built. That was the airplane that equipped the short-lived but iconic Flying Tigers. Many also went to the Soviet Union, handed over to Russian pilots in Alaska.
The airplane you see here, restored over 25,000 man-hours in Auckland, New Zealand, by renowned warbird and vintage specialist Avspecs and taken for its first flight in April, was recovered as a wreck from northern Russia. Though it was actually a Tomahawk IIb, it has been restored and painted as the 194th P-40C, complete with a functioning fuselage drop tank—the mark’s prime identifying feature—but thankfully free of the cliché shark’s teeth. Though there are numerous airworthy late P-40s, Avspecs’ restoration is only the second P-40C that is flying, plus one P-40B; the other C is at the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Wash., and the B is in Duxford, England, part of The Fighter Collection.
Notwithstanding the Kiwi restoration, the P-40 is owned by San Antonio oil-and-gas tycoon Rod Lewis, and was delivered to Texas in mid-2011 after its final proving flight in New Zealand. Lewis has shunned the high visibility of such mega-warbirders as Paul Allen and Kermit Weeks by keeping his collection private, but he currently owns—and often flies in airshows—19 warbirds that range from Bearcat-based Reno racer Rare Bear (plus three stock Bearcats) to the famous recovered Greenland P-38 Glacier Girl. He also owns the world’s only flying A-20 Havoc, an original Tuskegee Airmen AT-6 trainer and one each of the de rigueur P-39/P-40/ P-47/P-51/Corsair/Spitfire/Sea Fury gaggle. Lewis owns and flies nearly a dozen hard-working general aviation aircraft, including a Cessna Citation Sovereign bizjet, four helicopters and two utility turboprops—all of which help him drill for enough oil and gas to support his warbirds.
Jetman Over the Grand Canyon
On May 7 Swiss “Jetman” Yves Rossy strapped on his homebuilt carbon wing, ascended in a helicopter 8,000 feet above the rim of the Grand Canyon and leaped into an eight-minute flight along the canyon’s red sandstone cliffs. Throttling with his four-engine, 120-pound wing, Rossy controlled his movements by shifting his head, shoulders and arms, all at speeds close to 200 mph. He made the flight over Hualapai tribal lands at Grand Canyon West to avoid excessive regulation. It was the first horizontal jetpack-powered flight above the Grand Canyon, and Rossy’s first flight in the United States.
F or the British, the fictional aviator called Biggles was a combination of Smilin’ Jack, Steve Canyon and Sky King. Biggles starred in nearly 100 “Boy’s Own” adventure novels written over 50 years by W.E. Johns, himself a World War I pilot, and the mythic Biggles flew everything from an F.B.5 Gun Bus to a Hawker Hunter.
In the late 1960s, Universal Pictures set out to make a big-budget World War I film, Biggles Sweeps the Skies (ignoring the fact that an American audience would expect a movie about a butler with a broom). The studio commissioned the building of four Royal Flying Corps and German replicas, including a B.E.2c biplane. A remarkably authentic-looking mock B.E. was designed, built and flown within just four months in England. Constructed using some de Havilland Tiger Moth components and a Gypsy engine converted to run upright, the airplane never made it into cinema history. The movie was canceled when the other aircraft weren’t finished in time to meet the shooting schedule in Algeria.
The B.E.2c replica ended up in the U.S., flying in airshows before being badly damaged in a takeoff-stall crash in Wisconsin in 1977, and the crumpled parts went into storage for 25 years. In 2005 the wreck was shipped back to England, into the hands of Matthew Boddington, the son of the replica’s creator. Boddington, a well-regarded vintage aircraft restorer, and his partner Steve Slater undertook the rebuild in the same Northamptonshire shop in which father Charles Boddington had built the original. On May 10, the mock B.E.2c flew again for the first time in 34 years.
Though not an exact copy, “Biggles’ biplane” is a remarkable evocation of one of the RFC’s earliest warplanes—a 1912 Geoffrey de Havilland design that originally was controlled by wing-warping; the 2c version was the first to have ailerons. It was both famed and derided for its stability— good for a reconnaissance platform but bad for taking on enemy fighters, as is obvious from its nickname, “Fokker Fodder.” More chillingly, the Germans called the B.E.2c kaltes Fleisch—cold meat.
Vulcan Returns Home
In the spring of 1993, the Royal Air Force’s last Avro Vulcan soared gracefully above RAF Finningley in South Yorkshire with the message “Farewell” displayed on its bomb bay doors. After 33 years of service, it was making a final salute to the airfield where it had stood on nuclear-armed high alert during the Cold War. In 1996 Finningley itself closed, and the chances were slim that the bomber and base would ever be reunited.
But on a hazy day this past March, XH558’s unmissable delta wing reappeared in the skies over its former base, now Doncaster Sheffield Airport, before it alighted on the runway and taxied into Hangar 3, its home from 1961 to 1968. Former RAF squadron leader Martin Withers, who flew Vulcans from Finningley in the 1970s and who captained the first Vulcan mission to the Falkland Islands in the 1982 conflict, had the honor of piloting the subsonic bomber back to its old duty station.
Owners Vulcan to the Sky Trust hope that locating the only remaining airworthy example of the delta-wing bomber at a commercial airport (its last base was RAF Lyneham) will deliver an increase in publicity, funds and visitors. It plans to develop Hangar 3 into a visitor center, with displays on the Vulcan’s restoration, technology and role in the Cold War.
The trust restored XH558 from 1997 to 2007, replacing all four of its original Rolls-Royce Olympus 202 engines with zero-hour units in storage since 1982. The big bomber is scheduled to appear at airshows across England during the 2011 season, and also perform a flyover at the Queen’s Jubilee in London in 2012. The trust plans to fly it until at least 2013, making the necessary repairs and modifications to the notoriously fragile airframe along the way. (Though the Vulcan was innovative, metal fatigue limited its effectiveness—it could sustain only 30 minutes in a high-speed dash at low level.)
“Touching down at Finningley was one of the most emotional experiences of my professional life,” Withers told the British press. For more information on XH558 and Vulcan to the Sky Trust, visit vulcantothesky.org.
Sikorsky X2 Wins Collier
For the second time, Sikorsky has earned the Robert J. Collier Trophy, awarded annually since 1910 for “the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America.” Sikorsky’s X2 team received the 2010 trophy for developing a coaxial, auxiliary propulsion helicopter (it has a rear pusher prop) that has been clocked at an unofficial record speed of 250 knots. The X2 features fly-by-wire flight controls and active vibration control. Sikorsky won its first Collier Trophy in 2002 for its X-92 helicopter, a twin-engine, four-bladed, medium-lift chopper.
In the Collier Trophy’s centennial year, Sikorsky’s X2 team faced some stiff competition, including the X-51A WaveRider scramjet—which set a record in 2009 for the longest atmospheric flight exceeding Mach 5—and Boeing’s C-17A Globemaster III cargo lifter, which was designed to take off and land on short runways. Development of the X2, described by a Sikorsky spokesman as “the result of a project to demonstrate that a helicopter can cruise comfortably at 250 knots while retaining excellent low-speed handling, efficient hovering and a seamless transition to high speed,” began in 2005. Sikorsky recently announced a light attack/scout version of the X2, designated as the X-97 Raider, is in the works.
Web Pick: aerofiles.com
Aviation buffs searching for a one-stop, A-to-Z compendium of every airplane and helicopter produced in North America need look no further than this website. Unlike Wikipedia, which lacks entries for a number of more obscure aircraft, K.O. Eckland’s Aerofiles has hard data on a comprehensive list of production types, organized by manufacturer. Besides a photograph of most of the airplanes listed, the site provides pertinent specs such as horsepower, maximum service load, speed, unit cost and total produced. It also contains easily accessible, exhaustive pages on civilian airlines, air museums, aviator biographies, civil airports and engine types.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.