The Aladdin's Cave of Booker

We look behind the scenes at Personal Plane Services 

Specialisation, at one time very much the way forward, seems to have become the victim of expansion. Traders want to trade in anything with a profit margin, Boots have long given up being just chemists and we know of one filling station which sells, among other things, corn-cob pipes and contraceptives.

In aviation it’s not quite the same. Diversification is costly and margins can be so fine that the chances of recovering an outlay, let alone making a profit. are very small indeed. Most people seem to stick to the things they do best, unlike supermarket giants who cast envious eyes towards the profits of their smaller neighbours.

But there are exceptions, and one company which makes a point of stressing its ability to tackle all manner of aviation projects is Personal Plane Services of Wycombe Air Park near Booker in Buckinghamshire. Let’s make it quite clear that this is no trawler of the air, casting its net towards every kind of fish. They are really specialists in the unusual, with talents spreading across a wide band of aviation activity.

Personal Plane Services was formed in 1947 by the late Doug Bianchi, one of the great characters of British aviation, and within 10 years he had joined forces with Patrick Garland, pilot, racing driver and entrepreneur, to build a British version of the pretty French aircraft, the Piel Emeraude.

The Garland-Bianchi Linnet, as it was called, was built under licence at White Waltham, and had a Volkswagen engine and wings very like those of the Spitfire. It’s no longer made, of course, but its descendants, the CAP 10 and the more powerful and agile CAP 20 manufactured by Avions Mudry, are still imported by PPS which is now based at Wycombe Air Park.

Importing, selling and servicing the two-seater CAP 10 and the single-seater CAP 20 is just one facet of the company’s activities. Doug Bianchi, alas now dead, had a fascination for old aircraft and spent much of his effort and energy on their preservation in flying condition. His enthusiasm rubbed off on his son Tony, who now runs the company with his mother, Edna. Their dedicated staff might, at any time, be working on restoring a Spitfire, building a replica triplane, servicing a customer’s Yak, loading up in readiness for a flying display or preparing a CAP 10 for dual aerobatic instruction.

Tony Bianchi learned to fly at While Waltham, and it was a natural progression to take to aerobatics in the CAP 20. There is now an acrobatic training school at Booker, and the CAP 10, a side-by-side two-seater, not a tandem, is ideal for this work. It is fully prepared at the factory, of course, and has fuel and lubrication systems to cope with inverted flight.

Having mastered aerobatics — he flew for the Pace Aerobatic Team — Tony Bianchi regularly flies historic aircraft in various displays, and there is very little in his Aladdin’s Cave of a hangar that he cannot take out and fly. His customers for restoration and maintenance include Adrian Swire, Patrick Lindsay, Amschell Rothschild, Michael Astor and Stephen Grey, to name just a few. 

Currently in the PPS workshops is a rather strange aircraft, a two-seat Spitfire, one of several which were sold to the Indian Air Force after World War Two and converted to tandem configuration for the training role. This one has recently been brought back to Britain and is now being restored at Booker to its original single-seat state.

There are many other restorations which notch the mallet handles of the PPS workshop staff, including a derelict Yak brought back from Famagusta and restored to flying condition and the remains of a Lysander brought in roped to a flat-backed lorry and lovingly pieced together so that it is now fully airworthy again.

It is one thing, of course, to acquire the pieces of a 40-year-old aircraft, dismantle them, clean and refurbish them, and manufacture the missing parts so that the complete aircraft can be reassembled in its original form. It is quite another to build something from scratch without as much as a rough drawing from which to work. Yet this is something which PPS will undertake without turning a hair. 

Remember the film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines? Acquiring such old aircraft in flying condition presented the film makers with quite a problem, but PPS obliged by building flying replicas of a Demoiselle and a Bleriot / Vickers 22, not to mention various other static copies. A Phalz D3 was constructed for the film Blue Max, and every one of the aircraft for Aces High, some built from scratch and some as cosmetic conversions of something already airworthy, usually a Stampe biplane.

A replica Fokker EIII monoplane, built in 1965 complete with top-mounted machine gun firing through the propeller arc, still occupies part of the PPS storage space, but not the N-type Morane built for The Thirty-Nine Steps. Even a Bristol fighter was put together for the film Omar Mukhter, later renamed Lion of the Desert.

Purists might be offended by all this artificiality, but without it such excellent films would lose much of their realism. And after all, at Booker they take great pains to achieve a result as close to authenticity as possible. All manner of equipment, instruments, armaments, insignia, fuselage panels, propellers, engines, cowlings and undercarriages grace what we have already called the Aladdin’s Cave of Booker, all ready to be used for whatever construction or disguise is required by a customer.

Last year, Bianchi and a colleague spent most of a six-month period on a film location in Jugoslavia, flying two converted Stampes from a dirt strip in the mountains for the film High Road to China. Alas, one of the Stampes was so badly damaged against a tree that it could not be flown home.

When not engaged in building or flying for film companies, Bianchi instructs would-be aerobatic pilots, flies at displays and oversees the maintenance and construction work at Booker. He is full of enthusiasm for the CAP aircraft which are very much in the role of sports cars of the air. He should know; in the corner of a hangar is a March F1 car which he uses at hill climbs.

Purpose-built acrobatic aircraft like the single and two-seater Pitts are not really suitable for commuter flying. They have limited carrying capacity (Who wants a weekend away alone, anyway?) and are rather too sensitive for relaxed flight. The CAP 10 is rather different, more in the nature of a road-going sports racing car than one built solely for the circuits. Its side-by-side seating is also much more friendly than the segregation of a tandem.

Described as an aerobatic tourer, it derives its agility from the Emeraude, not to mention the Spitfire which inspired Piel’s designs. But it has a range more like that of a tourer than an acrobat, and can cover some 600 nm. (about 690 miles) with two occupants, 100 lb. of baggage and both tanks (one front, one rear) full at 33.8 gallons. Of course, the aerobatic category limit is rather less at 1,675 lb. max. gross. The utility maximum is 1,829 lb.

Built largely of wood, the construction is simple, which makes for low insurance costs. The fuselage is covered by synthetic fabric whilst the wings are ply-covered and, like helicopter rotor blades, symmetrical in cross-section, producing a clean attitude when flying inverted. Control surfaces are much bigger than those of more stodgy aircraft, producing hefty and instant response, and to help overcome the air resistance there are streamlined balance weights on the ailerons. These are rod-operated, but uncommonly smooth and friction-free.

Its cruise speed at 75% power is 156 m.p.h., or 135 knots if you prefer, and its maximum (Vne) is 210 m.p.h. (183 knots).

The engine is a fuel-injected Lycoming 10-360 B2F peal ucing 180 h.p., driving a Hoffman fixed-pitch wooden propeller, and its components are readily available world-wide. Much other equipment is also of American origin, with similar ready availability.

It’s all too easy to regard the CAP 10 as a pure aerobatic aircraft with no other purpose, and indeed this is what is inclined to happen when you notice the “stirrups” on the rudder pedals, the big ailerons and the inverted slip indicator on the instrument panel. But it is as much an aircraft for the sportsman who flies for fun as it is for a loop-and-roll exponent, as much a fast transport as it is a good handler. At £39,000 basic, without VAT and optional extras, it might be a bit pricey, but what Ferrari owner complains when he writes out his cheque?

A more powerful, sleeker version of the CAP 10 is available as a single-seater for aerobatic pilots who have displays and competitions in mind rather than just the exhilaration of flying for pleasure. This is the CAP 20 which comes in three versions, 180 h.p. driving fixed-pitch or constant-speed propellers, and 200 h.p. driving a constant-speed prop. Performance is correspondingly improved, of course, and this is the aircraft which Bianchi uses for his acrobatic displays.

One could go on writing of this remarkable company for pages, but a line must be drawn somewhere, so we’ll end by recommending Personal Plane Services to anyone who has a derelict aircraft to restore, who is looking let someone to maintain a historic machine, who hankers after aerobatics, who needs replicas for filming, who wants to hire a display team or who wants to buy a sports two-seater of distinction.