An aerial cyclecar
With the new Micro-light flying having attained the BBC “Nationwide” programme on TV (and, of course, the recent pages of Motor Sport!), I have just remembered that when road-testing a T-type MG Midget for this paper I overtook, along the fen-roads of Northamptonshire, a sort of “aerial-cyclecar”, which I knew to be a BAC Drone, Whether it was in some kind of trouble or just very slow, I do not know — if its pilot is alive and has his log-book, the date was December 20th, 1936…
There had been, mostly abortive, attempts at very simple, low-powered aeroplanes long before this. We have discussed previously the Lympne Light ‘Plane Contests, for up-to-750 c.c. machines in 1923 and those with engines of up to 1,000 c.c. in 1924 (see Motor Sport, July 1981, p. 918) and how, although some of these tiny machines achieved quite impressive performances, they required skilled pilots to fly them safely and suffered from too-frequent forced-landings because the converted motorcycle engines that powered them disliked full-throttle work for any length of time.
The BAC Drone appeared much later, in 1932, inspired by the resumption of interest in gliding, as a powered-version of glider made by the British Aircraft Company of Maidstone, of which Mr. C. H. Lowe-Wylde, who had demonstrated towed take-off with a glider along the Brooklands Finishing-straight during a Brooklands Motor Race Meeting, was the designer and Managing Director. This Mk. VII glider was provided with a 600 c.c. air cooled, flat-twin Douglas motorcycle engine driving a pusher propeller. Called the BAC Planette, the machine was publicised at Hanworth Air Park (home of Bertelli’s Aston Martin cars) early in 1933, when the pioneer aviator, Claude Grahame-White, flew one with his cap reversed on his head, as in the pre-1914 flying days. Later in 1933 Lowe-Wylde was killed flying a Planette and the famous Austrian glider-pilot, Robert Kronfeld, took over production of a revised Planette, the Drone, made at Hanworth, the power-unit of which was a 750 c.c. Douglas Sprite, developing some 23 b.h.p. With its simple glider-type fuselage, a high monoplane wing with a span of 39 8″ which the pilot of this single-seater sat in front of, gaining a good view, the engine mounted behind and well above the wing on a pedestal, and a simple fixed undercart, the Drone was the epitome of the low-powered aeroplane of the 1930s, It weighed 390 lb. empty, 640 lb. laden, and had a top speed of 70 m.p.h. under good conditions, which is presumably how I was able to overtake one that was battling with a headwind in that T-Type MG. The Drone climbed at 380 ft. / min, near ground level, stalled at a safe 22 m.p.h., would cruise at 60 m.p.h. for 300 miles on a tankful of petrol, and could apparently be coaxed up to 12,500 feet.
There were many people who disparaged such ultra-lights. They considered that nothing less than 60 h.p., as possessed by the original Cirrus-DH Moth that pre-dated the Drone by nine years, was any use to a serious aviator; apart from which, the Moth was easier to store, its biplane wings, apart from the fact that they could be folded-back, having a span nearly ten feet less than that of the Drone’s wing. C. G. Grey, the outspoken Editor of The Aeroplane, frequently expressed his dislike of little aeroplanes whose engines had only two cylinders. He used to call them “pop-bottles”, when scathingly referring to them…
Be that as it may, Drones could be hired for 19/- (95p) an hour from the Leicester and Ely Flying Clubs (I expect the one I saw 47 years ago was from the latter) and after instruction costing less than a “fiver” a pilot’s restriced A-licence was issued. Moreover, in 1936 Col. The Master of Semphill (later Lord Semphill) flew a Super Drone from Croydon to Berlin, setting an International distance-record for single-seater aeroplanes of under 200 kg. empty weight. Although this long stint may not have compared with E. O. Llewellyn’s 23-day flight from England to Johannesburg in an Aeronca, H. L. Brook’s England to the Cape in a Praga Baby, or the great and couragous one from England to Australia in nine days by C. A. Butler in 1931 in a Cowper Swift, the outward flip to Germany, against a headwind, took Semphill 11 hours, so those have done long spells in vintage cars should have some respect for the Master’s endurance. Coming back, with a gale behind him, the Super Drone took only nine hours. The petrol consumed cost a mere 25/- (£1.25) for the trip to Berlin, and afterwards G-ADUA was duly exhibited at Selfridge’s. At least 28 Drones were built and Scott’s Flying Circus used one.
The Drone was by no means the only “cyclecar of the air” that took to the skies before the war. The theme persists, for one of my daughters had a flight from Booker aerodrome not all that long ago in a Falke motor-glider with Volkswagen auxiliary-power, and I have seen Mavrogordato, son of the 1914 GP Opel owner, racing one at Shobden. If I could do so, and had to, I think I would rather fly a Drone or a Falke then a modem Micro-light. — W.B.