"Building aeroplanes for 'those magnificent men'"

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“Building Aeroplanes for ‘Those Magnificent Men'” by Air Commodore Allen Wheeler, C.D.E. 95 pp. 9 7/8 in. x 7 1/8 in. (G. T. Foulis & Co. Ltd., 1-5, Portpool Lane, London, E.C.1. 15s.)

This book was as satisfying as it was unexpected. We had early knowledge of the ambitious 20th Century Fox film “Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines,” a reader tipping us off that a “wooden Brooklands” was springing up on Booker Airfield, which enabled MOTOR SPORT to publish one of the first pictures of this dummy film-track. Naturally, I was immensely intrigued and set about offering advice re Brooklands details and ascertaining how I could have a look at the shooting and describe the car and aeroplane “props” for the benefit of our readers, who would then be likely to make a point of seeing the film when it was released. Alas, although very willing to offer assistance, 20th Century Fox have so many cooks that, in spite of many ‘phone calls, letters and long waits on windy Booker Airfield, I never tasted the broth,—although I was allowed to go on my own into the sheds to look at some of the magnificent machines they had created and did see the Boxkite fly. But no invitation came to the pre-view. I have not seen the film, and it was impossible to publicise what is, after all, in the comedy class.

However, Air Comdr. Wheeler’s book fills the omission, so far as the replica aeroplanes are concerned. It might be thought surprising that I should enthuse over descriptions of building replicas of historic machines. The fact is that Wheeler, whose writings are so very readable, his dry humour so delightful, relates the “fakes” of 20th century film-men so closely to the originals, explaining how the chosen subjects came into being back in 1910, the methods of construction employed by the pioneer builders of aeroplanes (and again why they were so), and the shortcomings of early control systems, especially in respect of wing-warping versus ailerons for lateral control, not only in general but related to the six individual aeroplanes built for the film, closely based on the 1910 originals, that this is aeronautical history in its own right—one of the best old-aeroplane books I have read. And in any case, few genuine historic aeroplanes remain to be restored (although five Bristol Fighter fuselages did come to light recently in Oxfordshire, where they had been supporting the roof of a barn for many years).

Separate chapters deal with how the replicas of Demoiselle, Avro triplane IV, Antoinette, Eardley Billing, Bristol boxkite and Vickers 22 were built, why they were chosen, the constructional methods adopted and the problems involved—both structural and in flight. I found it entirely fascinating.

The chapters on “How They Flew in 1910” and about flying adventures with the replicas are equally intriguing. They emphasise that some modern pilots are as brave (or as foolhardy) as the pioneers—do you realise that these replicas flew out over Dover harbour and back to the cliffs, and that the Bristol boxkite was flown by Derek Piggott from Skegness to Booker, a cross country flight of 121 miles at an average speed of 33.8 m.p.h.? Wheeler’s flights over a train in the Avro triplane, dressed in Edwardian clothes, were pure ad hoc adventure, and a forced landing would indeed have been tragi-comic, and nearly became necessary when he couldn’t locate Old Warden aerodrome! The bravery of Joan Hughes in taking the Demoiselle out over Dover harbour “in about the worst ditching position imaginable” is well put over, as are the hazards of the “on-fire” shots, and one feels for Piggott “holding onto a strut alongside wishing that I had a parachute” at 2,000 ft. in his lonely pilot’s seat on the Bristol boxkite, which on some cross-countries averaged only 20.7 m.p.h.

Piggott describes the sensation his boxkite made on onlookers below, and seems to have become so accustomed to their astonishment that when cars stopped on the M1 it occasioned him no particular surprise! This book and film should encourage someone, the Daily Mail or whoever, to stage a London-New York Air Race in 1969, 50th anniversary of the Vimy’s Atlantic crossing, on the lines of the London-Paris Air Race of 1959.

It is interesting that the modern engines used in the replicas showed up badly against the rotaries and other early-power units, which made-up in torque and low propeller speed what they lacked in manufacturer’s quoted horse-powers by 1965 standards, a situation not unknown in the world of vintage cars! And the Rolls-Royce C90 engine in the Bristol boxkite continually overheated on the shortest flights.

The Foulis proof-readers must be first-class, because the only errors I spotted were a possible mis-spelling in a caption, another in the text, and the Avro Triplane called 1911 instead of 1910 on one page. . . .

This book is magnificent value at 15s. It contains many fine pictures of the replicas used in the film, a map of the Bristol boxkite’s flights, test-flight reports by G. H. Miles on this replica and diagrams of early constructional details, etc. If it inspires Air Comdr. Wheeler to give us a bigger book about the evolution of the aeroplane seen through the eyes of the pioneers and using individual aeroplanes to expand the theme, this will be very nice. Meanwhile, “Building Those Aeroplanes . . .” is an unique, extremely enjoyable surprise, worth every bob of the modest 15s. Foulis ask for a copy.—W. B.

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