Lined up on Duxford’s runway, it occurred to John Romain that with more than forty years of Bristol Mercury experience behind him, this was a special moment. “It all started here, and the Lysander’s first flight was a culmination of sorts.”
In recounting the maiden flight of the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Westland Lysander MkIIIA V9312 in August 2018, John alludes to the latest chapter of a saga that dates back to 1974 and spans three Blenheim rebuilds, personal involvement with two other airworthy Lysanders, and V9312’s restoration.
The Lysander project surfaced during a visit to Kermit Weeks’ Fantasy of Flight air museum in Florida, early in 2003. There John was introduced to the dilapidated but largely complete V9312, held in Weeks’ storage hangar. “Kermit explained that he had two Lysanders and asked if I would be interested in buying the one he had in storage,” remembers John. “Interestingly, it was a very rare British-built Lysander, identifiable by its hollow, one-piece undercarriage legs, British electrics and instrumentation, and wood ribbed wings, rather than the more familiar tubular alloy ribs of the Canadian-built Lysanders−perfect for our collection. Restoring it would be a real challenge. I thought about it for a few days and we spoke again, agreeing a price. It wasn’t long before we headed back to Florida to break it down for shipment to the UK”.
The Lysander arrived at Duxford in June 2003. Its home, initially at least, was ARCo’s famous Building 66 workshop−the beating heart of the Blenheim rebuild projects− where it was stripped down ahead of a full restoration.
ARCo had Lysander experience, having operated Kermit Weeks’ other example, ex-Brian Woodford V9545, for a short period in the mid1990s, and the former Strathallan Collection machine that now flies with the Shuttleworth Collection− but they hadn’t yet restored one to flight. “We knew it would be a huge undertaking. You’re dealing with a massive aeroplane that is classically British in its design, with all the eccentricities of the era. Leading-edge slats interconnected with the flaps, huge amounts of woodwork and fabricing, a sensitive engine−all the hallmarks of a pretty monumental undertaking.”
John was intimately involved from the outset: “There are pictures of my son George and me taking the engine out. Dave Ratcliffe used to work on it, as he was just starting out with us. We had a mix of engineers and volunteers getting into it. There was a real team effort up until the Blenheim incident in 2003. The rebuild of that aeroplane then took precedence and the decision to put a MkI nose on it extended its repair. The Lysander continued coming along and was registered [to Propshop Ltd as G-CCOM] in December 2003, but the work didn’t progress at the speed we thought it would as internal resources were being poured into the Blenheim project.
“The emphasis transitioned to that repair work, and big chunks of the Blenheim went into Building 66. Nonetheless, ‘Smudge’ Smith led the work on the wings, establishing how sound the spar booms were and then manufacturing the two-part wooden wing ribs to build up each wing. In the meantime, my involvement was focused on working on the Lysander’s Mercury engine. Parts from a Bristol Mercury XX acquired from the Netherlands during the Blenheim project were combined with the engine pulled out of our aeroplane to produce one complete unit. Colin Swann, Smudge, Ian Arnold, Debs Perrot and Mike Terry then stripped and worked on the fuselage and tail. As soon as the Blenheim rebuild finished in 2014, it was Lysander time.
“We effectively split the project between Building 66 and our hangar facility, with 66 doing the cowlings, lift struts and fairings by that point, and the systems fit, fabricing and engine integration taking place down the eastern end. The wings came out of Building 66 for fabricing, which we did in a custom-built tent in the hangar. I taught [Aerial Collective’s] Lisa Waterfield about fabricing as we were doing it−she did a great job. Then we were putting in the Perspex windscreens, fitting out the cockpit and conducting a trial fit of the wings whilst the lift struts came together in Building 66. In the latter stage and as everything edged towards conclusion, Billy Kelly and Ian Arnold were heavily involved in finishing the aeroplane−Billy’s a good finisher, and really knows how to wrap up those monumental restorations.
“The next thing of real excitement was the first engine run,” Romain remembers. It was early evening on Wednesday, 8 August 2018 when the Lysander was rolled out of ARCo’s hangar, sans cowlings and disrobed of its side panels to expose the fuselage structure and nest of control cables within. With a succession of pops, bangs and an abundance of smoke, the restored 860hp Bristol Mercury XX fired for the first time, turning over in the characteristic low, guttural radial churn.
Sat on the taxiway, the aeroplane stands taller than most single-engine historic aircraft, at 14ft 6in. A sprawling fifty-foot wing incorporates the aerodynamically actuated slats and flaps responsible for the Lysander’s extraordinary low-speed handling characteristics. Independently operating inboard and outboard slats are fitted to the leading edges along the whole length of the main planes, whilst the trailing edge flaps are connected to the inboard slats and deploy in tandem as angle of attack increases.
Access to the lofty cockpit is achieved via a series of footholds on the port undercarriage spat and side of the fuselage which allow the pilot to reach the lift struts and then the cockpit sill. The cockpit itself, John says, is a reasonably spacious and intuitively laid out environment for its era. The elevator trim wheel−so vital to the Lysander’s operation, as we shall see−sits low to the left of the pilot’s thigh, anticlockwise movement of the wheel decreasing the incidence of the tailplane (i.e giving nose-up trim). Throttle and mixture controls are mounted in a quadrant forward of the trim wheel. The pitch of the two-position de Havilland DH 4/3A propeller is controlled by red knob located on the port side of the instrument panel. The cowling gills are opened and closed by a handle on the starboard side. The six core blind-flying instruments are centrally located in front of the pilot, as was standard for all RAF aeroplanes at the time. Engine instruments are grouped to the right, comprising gauges for the boost, tachometer, cylinder head and oil temperatures, and fuel and oil pressure. Fuel is carried in a single 95-gallon main tank located between the cockpit and observer/ air gunner’s compartment. The tank is pressurised by a handle on the port cockpit coaming. The Kigass primer and priming controls are on the starboard side of the instrument panel, the control lever having three positions−‘Off’, ‘Prime Carburettor’ and ‘Prime Engine’. Finally, the engine starter button sits under a hinged cover beneath the engine instruments.
A cold start requires three shots of primer, injected into the top three cylinders. The ground crew then turn the propeller through five blades before the pilot gives the engine a further shot of primer. Magnetos are switched on and−with sufficient priming−the engine fires as soon as the starter button is activated. Oil pressure is an immediate concern: the Mercury’s system circulates oil at around 100psi on start-up and if the pressure doesn’t rise within thirty seconds, it’s critical to shut down the engine immediately. “Start-up is quite a visceral experience,” adds John, “and you’re feeling the heat radiating through the instrument panel, smelling the warm oil as the temperature rises”.
As the oil temperature increases through 40°C a valve in the oil system adjusts the flow, the pressure then diminishing and stabilising at 80 to 90psi. The propeller pitch is brought from coarse to fine by pushing in the pitch control knob, oil pressure momentarily dropping as the piston fills with oil and the angle of the propeller blades changes. This adjustment has a marginal effect on static rpm, though the tachometer only reads from 1,400 rpm and at idle power any rpm changes are noted aurally. Some dissipation in fuel pressure may be symptomatic of the fuel tank’s position when the aeroplane sits in a three-point attitude, as the tank is mounted broadly in line with the engine and the gravity feed through the fuel lines is weak. This can be rectified by directly priming the carburettor chamber.
Says John, “it warms up a lot quicker than the Blenheim, which is disconcerting as the cowling designs are so similar and you would expect the two to behave broadly the same way. On a hot day you need to be conscious of cylinder head temperatures and don’t want to see more than about 180°C on the gauge. You need to have the cowling gills wide open on the ground and it’s essential to start into wind, otherwise you’d quickly end up with high temperatures in the cylinders and a low oil temperature.”
At 1,800rpm the mag drop should be fifty rpm or so, carb heat causing a twenty rpm drop. Before the first flight full-throttle ground testing gave 4 ¼ lb/sq in boost and static revs of 2,600, which gave a reasonable prediction of the anticipated rpm at maximum boost in flight, which is usually accurate to 100 rpm or so. However, protracted ground running can be detrimental to bedding in what is effectively a new engine, as running with low loading can cause the oil to form a glaze on the cylinder walls. Should this ‘bore glazing’ occur, the piston rings will not seal properly and combustion gases and oil will get past them.
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