Building aircraft out of ash wood and Irish linen
If left to my own devices, without the influence of classes or teachers or scholarly communities, my interests will naturally gravitate and oscillate between two subjects: submarines and airplanes. It has been like this since I was in middle school, except now instead of scouring books for colorful pictures and playing computer simulations, I read memoirs and secondary sources about air wars and naval battles of the 20th century.
After a visitation from the Muse of U.S. Submarine Operations in the Second World War (which compelled me to dive deep into my long-shelved copy of Clay Blair’s classic, Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan) my tastes were swung upwards and backwards to the heights of the air war during World War I. What did it this time was a documentary I watched on YouTube one night about the British aces James McCudden and Edward Mannock, which described their struggles with the stresses of primitive air combat and their untimely deaths.
This led me to embark on an unsystematic perambulation through the history of air combat during World War I. Curse Amazon and their “1-Click Ordering”, but I impulsively bought James McCudden’s memoir, Flying Fury: Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps, for my Kindle and received instant gratification reading it at a local Starbucks. I am still working through it, but have also gone on to watch other documentaries freely accessed on YouTube on the subject (such as this hidden gem: “Aces: A Story of the First Air War”, the probably-fictional story of a Canadian pilot in the RFC as narrated to his grandson).
As part of this binge of media consumption, I stumbled upon (though not through StumbleUpon, which I tried as a novel way to browse the web but with which I was slightly disappointed) a site called The Vintage Aviator, which is the actual topic of this post.
The Vintage Aviator Ltd. is an aircraft aviation and restoration company based in New Zealand, which specializes in building airplanes flown during the First World War. There are many such shops around the world, I’m sure, but what made this particular one catch my attention was their excellent website.
While reading the Wikipedia entry about the type of airplane flown by James McCudden, the SE.5a, I ran across the article on The Vintage Aviator website titled, “Building the SE.5a”. There, the writer(s) for The Vintage Aviator describe the process of how they set about tackling their first major manufacturing project: putting together three flyable and one display replica of the SE.5a pretty much from scratch.
It is a joy to read this article because the website is so well designed, photos illustrate the various steps of the aircraft-manufacturing process, and there are links to pages which explain in greater detail the intricacies of the project. This is how websites should be made (unfortunately, too many great stories such as this are lost on the web due to horrendous-looking and poorly-planned website designs).
Take for example their complementary article titled “Working with Irish linen”. Without question the most advanced part of a World War I airplane is the engine; the rest of it is stupendously simple-looking (though it is anything but simple to build, especially if you want the thing to eventually fly). The “skeleton” of the airplane is made of wood, and that wood is draped with fabric (yes, fabric) that is then shrunk to present an aerodynamic frame. Aviators in the First World War dueled it out in the skies in craft whose elements are differentiated from that of a large kite only by the metal engine and machine guns.
The article suggests that it’s no picnic to build these historic aircraft after a hiatus of their production for the past 90 years or so:
Sourcing a good supply of linen was the first hurdle. Initially getting the linen in an untreated state so that it will shrink proved to be an issue. Finally when that problem was resolved getting it in a natural look was the next issue. We tried some which was bleached but proved to be too light with not strong enough for aircraft use. The number of threads per inch was unacceptable and an uneven number of threads on the warp and weft caused the fabric to shrink one way better than the other. Ultimately a source of proper aircraft grade Irish linen was found, this fabric meets the original British Standard 9BSF1 specification. Additional specifications and manufacturing instructions were taken directly from the “Military Aeronautics Specification” dated 1916!
To someone who can hardly put together a model plastic airplane from a kit bought in a hobby store, these guys seem like wizards to me. Our goal, they say to themselves, is to build an historic airplane from wood and fabric exactly in the way they were built decades ago. Then, we’re going to have one of our guys risk his life and fly this aircraft that we just built from scratch many years after the last person who was related to its actual development has died. What, we can’t install vintage Lewis machine guns on our SE.5as because that would “create legal problems”? No problem, we’ll build our own machine guns that fire blanks and house them in our armory for air shows.
Their passion for detail is equally inspiring. About forming the wood for the frame of the airplane, they write: “With steaming we discovered that air dried timber versus kiln dried timber have different bending properties. Glue tests are always made and we retain samples of every batch of glue we mix and the parts that have been glued with each mix.” To reproduce the Lewis machine gun that is fitted on the top wing of the SE.5a via the Foster mount, the engineers at The Vintage Aviator made molds of existing machine guns, but made sure to alter the mold for aircraft that have more than one gun so that each gun would have a unique serial number.
So if you’re on a World War I aviation history reading frenzy like I am, or just want to all of a sudden be inspired to work on something with your hands, visit the beautifully-designed website of The Vintage Aviator. As for me, seeing as how web design is technically one of my areas of professional focus, I should probably read the article about how The Vintage Aviator website was designed in Drupal, but for now reading Flying Fury or even building a model airplane just seem so much more interesting.