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Biggles' Biplane

By Stephan Wilkinson 
Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: July 11, 2011 
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The "Biggles" B.E.2c replica, constructed using de Havilland Moth components, returned to the air on May 10. (Damien Burke)
The "Biggles" B.E.2c replica, constructed using de Havilland Moth components, returned to the air on May 10. (Damien Burke)

"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.

For 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.


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