The wind was blowing from the east, off the waters of Brisbane’s Moreton Bay, across the end of the grassed runway and into the faces of airshow enthusiasts suddenly jostling for prime position in front of one of the rarest reproduction aircraft in the world.
The word had gone around: they were about to do a ground engine run on the Fokker E.III Eindecker, acknowledged as the first true fighter aircraft with guns synchronised to shoot through the propeller arc. A scourge of the Allies after its introduction to the air war in 1915, the Eindecker is synonymous with German ace Max Immelmann, architect of the dog fight manoeuvre that bears his name.
On this day, though, the main attraction was much more engine than airframe: an impeccable, largely hand-built reproduction of a 100hp (75kW) Gnome rotary, heavily lubricated just as it would have been more than 100 years ago with castor oil.
As he primed the prop, engineer Tony Wytenberg shouted a warning to the crowd that it might be a good idea to get out of the way to avoid the inevitable exhaust plume that would be driven in their direction by the easterly.
His words had the opposite effect. The people clustering just behind the safety line shuffled as close as possible to the roar, the smoke and the unique aroma of that castor oil. Any sane observer was left with the impression that exhaust spatter or other residue on clothes or skin would be a bonus, almost a badge of honour.
For Andrew Carter, founding director of The Australian Vintage Aviation Society (TAVAS), a non-profit organisation based at Caboolture airfield north of Brisbane, the crowd reaction to the rotary engine run during the society’s Great War flying display earlier this year was nothing new.
“You know what, it happens at every show. When we first did a run, we had a members-only event and issued everyone with earplugs and told them to stand back – ‘don’t do this and don’t do that’ – and every single person bar one ditched the earplugs, stood there and said ‘this is what we came for’,” Carter said.
Rotary engines are a prime drawcard to both the Eindecker and another unique, castor-oil sucking aircraft in the TAVAS collection, a Fokker D.VIII powered by an original 160hp (120kW) Gnome. That engine was purchased as surplus after World War 1 and subsequently salvaged from its unlikely use as powerplant on an airboat, the wreckage of which was discovered languishing in a barn. New Zealand-based Wytenberg of Classic Aero Machining Services, along with TAVAS engineers Dave Walsh and David Claes, soon had the engine in remarkable condition and up and running, despite its age.
The superlative “remarkable” is equally appropriate in describing the work of TAVAS in bringing to life not only Australia’s biggest collection of Great War aircraft but also pre and post-WW1 types to illustrate the pioneering years of military and civilian flight. It is all about a focus on the first 25 years of aviation.
“We plan to give aviation history a future,” Carter states on the TAVAS website.
His deep interest was sparked when a visit to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in New Zealand and its collection of WW1 aircraft triggered a realisation that there was nothing similar in Australia.
According to Carter, entrepreneur, self-confessed aviation nut and now Boeing 737 freight pilot, the original TAVAS ambition concerned what he perceived was a gap in the WW1 centenary commemoration. While much of the nation’s attention was focused on memories of sacrifice on the slopes of Gallipoli or the trenches of the Western Front, there appeared to be little recognition of the revolution that took place above ground.
Within a year of the start of the war in 1914, a huge shift in technological development delivered a transition from lumbering, delicate recognisance machines with pilots armed with revolvers, even bricks, to relatively sophisticated, machine-gun firing fighter aircraft.
The battle for control of the air was well and truly on when the Eindecker was introduced in 1915, sparking what the Allies called the Fokker scourge because of the development of synchronisation between guns and propeller. That led, in turn, to the rapid development of faster, more manoeuvrable, better-armed aircraft on all sides as opposing forces attempted to outdo one another.
Some of the names from the period are familiar to enthusiasts and history buffs alike: the Sopwith Triplane, Nieuport 24, the Bristol F.2B, the S.E.5a, the D.VIII and, probably best known if not most famous of all (along with the Sopwith Camel), the Fokker Dr.I triplane in the vivid red livery flown by German fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen.
They are names more than familiar to TAVAS because true to life replicas of each type (with the exception of the Camel), many of them in flying order, form the backbone of its collection alongside other extraordinary aircraft from the pre and post-war period.
Led by Carter, his partner Nathalie Gochel, engineer Dave Walsh, and a group of dedicated volunteers, TAVAS has now embarked on the next phase of what has been a five-year labour of love and huge personal expenditure – the further development of a dedicated exhibition space.
Hangar 106 at the Caboolture Airfield opened officially to the public in June, the culmination of a frenzied period of volunteer activity to deliver not only aircraft displays and explanatory placards but also wall-mounted exhibits detailing the early history of flight and the largely unheralded exploits of Australia’s WW1 aces.
In an interview for Australian Aviation in April, ahead of the flying exhibition that would commemorate the 100th anniversary of the shooting down of von Richthofen, Carter said he was aware that many Australians had no idea of the depth of ability and bravery of its pilots in WW1.
“Our aces wall exhibition is about putting that right,” he said.
Further behind the scenes work ahead of the opening included diamond cutting and epoxy painting of the floors, preparation of exhibition cabinetry and installation of audiovisual services.
Carter paid particular tribute to Renni Forbes and Dave Walsh for creativity in partitioning the exhibition space from the ongoing workshop. After all, TAVAS is about acquiring examples of historic aircraft and working on them to deliver the capacity to fly.
The acquisition of each of the 14 aircraft on show in Hangar 106 is a story in itself and a tribute to tenacity, capacity for research, and pure engineering ability of each member of the TAVAS team.
Pre-war exhibits include:
A 1909 Johnson monoplane, designed by brothers better known for their marine outboards. Carter said the TAVAS example is the only reproduction in the world of an aircraft that first flew in 1911 when the brothers charged 25 cents a person to view the aircraft and took in $600 over a weekend. The reproduction was built by Herbert Seiser in South Africa and donated to TAVAS in mid-2014.
A Henri Farman III, obtained via Carter’s contacts in New York (who, incidentally, helped source the Gnome 160 rotary now powering the D.VIII) and about as far away as possible from the 737s Carter flies today. In a newsletter to TAVAS members he described it as a type that had always fascinated him because of its similarity to the Bristol Boxkite. “I just had to have it,” he said. “It is a large and impressive aircraft that immediately conjures up images of Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and as such will be a major attraction at any event.”
The Great War exhibits are anchored by:
A Bristol F.2B, known as the two-seat Bristol Fighter, sourced from New Zealand’s Vintage Aviator Limited via its original repro build in the United States. TAVAS has repainted the aircraft and changed the serial number to B1229, operated by Captain Ross McPherson Smith of 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps in Egypt with subsequent links to the campaigns of Lawrence of Arabia. It is flown at the TAVAS airshows by the now 88-year-old Jack McDonald, a 60-year warbird veteran.
The all-red Fokker Dr.1, the so-called Red Baron aircraft, recognised as the only one of its kind flying in Australia. Sourced from the United States the only deviations from true authenticity include disc brakes, a tailwheel rather than a skid, and a Lycoming engine. TAVAS intends to replace the engine with an authentic rotary at the first opportunity.
The E.III Eindecker, an authentic reproduction with a German-made airframe conforming to factory specifications from 1915-16. It boasts a Belgian-sourced linen covering from the same family-run business that was making fabric for these aircraft 100 years ago.
The rotary engine Fokker D.VIII, known to the Allies as the Flying Razor because of the configuration of the wing sitting above the fuselage. This example, fitted with the genuine 160hp (120kW) Gnome, is on loan to TAVAS until 2030 from German Fokker reproduction expert Achim Engels.
A key post-war exhibit is the Pietenpol Air Camper which has a particular place in Carter’s heart as the first aircraft he bought after quitting his import/export business (and before he realised he would have to keep working to help sustain the TAVAS ambition). It was the first true budget aircraft, costing less than $500 to fly in the 1930s when competitors were charging around $10,000.
Other projects in Hangar 106 include an ambitious plan to convert to flight status a current static display example of the bird-winged Gustave Whitehead Plane 21, otherwise known as the Condor. Carter points to a growing body of evidence that Whitehead, rather than the Wright Brothers, could lay claim to the first powered flight.
Other aircraft in Carter’s sights, in terms of adding or rotating through the collection, include an example of the Type X1 monoplane flown by Louis Bleriot across the English Channel, plus what he calls more examples of the pre-World War 1 “stuff”.
“But what we really need to do is develop the interactive side of it. The concept of the museum comes from the late 1700s. Today with the internet, the concept of a static museum is dead. To engage young people, you need to entertain and through entertainment educate. The new TAVAS motto is that we will entertain, educate and inspire.”
For Carter, no matter what, authenticity is key when it comes to the aircraft exhibits: “When you come and see our (aircraft) you are literally transported back in time,” he said.
“The fabric on those aircraft is made by the same family-run business that was making fabric for those aircraft back in 1915, ’16, ’17 and ’18. The method of construction is exactly as it was back then, the engines that are in them are exactly the same as they were back then, and we run castor oil, so it smells the same as it did back then.”
So does he feel safe when he flies an aircraft with a footprint around 100 years old?
“First and foremost, they are all well-constructed,” he said.
“If we get anything that seems remotely sub-standard our wonderful engineer David Walsh will get it up to something better than required. He gets it to the stage he would be happy to fly it himself.”
He added a sobering comparison.
“You know what, people don’t understand that today we are supposed to be so much smarter – CAD this and that. What many miss is that these people were clever. They had to overcome (design) problems that weren’t even known about.
“So they discovered the problems and overcame them with ingenuity and sheer skill. That D.VIII rotary engine, though it’s all machined and built by hand, is an absolute engineering masterpiece, beautifully crafted, and whenever its run is covered in castor oil. It’s not going to break down.
“How do I trust my life behind a 100-year-old engine? It is brilliantly well-machined. It will probably be around in another 100 years’ time. Don’t forget, all the aircraft in our collection so far are the winners, proven performers in their day, successful designs – and meeting all the CASA regulations. They are as safe as they can be.”
It is not unusual to see the society’s aircraft at shows in other states. Three aircraft were shown at the Avalon Airshow, two transported via a shipping container and the third, the DR.1 triplane flown down and back by Carter over two days: eight and a half hours on the first “hop” and three on the second.
“It was comfortable enough over two stages,” he said. “But you wouldn’t do that in a rotary.
“We did Wollongong last year, Raglan up near Rockhampton, Watts Bridge.”
That said, recognition of the work of TAVAS remains an issue and something of a concern for Carter. “We had a period there for about three or four months where you couldn’t pick up a magazine without seeing us. We were in Australia, New Zealand, even France and the United States, but lots of people in Wollongong had never heard of us. It’s just the way it is here,” he said.
“So now it’s time to bring ‘Mohammed to the mountain’ and we are promoting the fact that Caboolture is the home of World War 1 aviation in Australia.”
Despite pressure on its limited volunteer resource, TAVAS is now looking to take the museum another step forward with promotion through the tourism industry. At the same time it is hoping for greater synergies with education through schools.
Carter said that, so far, museum throughput has been promising. He said the team was aiming for visitor numbers around 1,000 a month with a subsequent ambition to double that.
“Yes, it’s a big ask requiring a lot of effort on a lot of fronts but we are doing everything correctly, planting the seeds now, with a lot of scope in the tourism industry. A lot of the work we are doing now with tourism, we won’t see the results for nine months or so because they plan so far ahead.”
TAVAS is part of the Australian museum national network and Carter said all the aviation museums get together once a year to discuss ideas and opportunity. “I know what the good, established museums are doing,” he said.
“It’s up to us to do even better.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 edition of Australian Aviation magazine.