Flying the Sopwith Snipe

News Article / May 12, 2017

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In 1967, Canada was celebrating its centennial with exuberant projects and a new Canuck pride from coast to coast. Canada was indeed young, but so was aviation. Just 58 years before Centennial Year, the first flight by a powered heavier-than-air aircraft in Canada took place on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Along with massive celebratory events like Expo 67 in Montréal, everyone in the country had pet Centennial projects, from building new community centres and skating rinks to painting Centennial symbols on their houses.

 In Ottawa, Ontario, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the National Aeronautical Collection at RCAF Station Rockcliffe staged a celebration of the enormous part played by aviation in Canadian history. A massive air show in Ottawa was planned for early June that would display everything from an ancient Blériot to the absolute latest in RCAF hardware, the Canadair CF-104 Starfighter. One of the pilots who were tasked with demonstrating some very rare First World War aircraft of the Rockcliffe collection was Wing Commander Dave Wightman. Now, in 2017, on the 150th Anniversary of this remarkably wonderful country, Wightman tells us of those days 50 years ago.

By Major General (retired) Dave Wightman

Early in May of 1967, I received a phone call from Wing Commander Paul Hartman who was one of my predecessors as Senior Test Pilot at the Central Experimental and Proving Establishment based at RCAF Station Uplands in Ottawa, Ontario. Paul had become well-known in aviation circles when he flew a replica of the famous Silver Dart aircraft, originally flown in 1909 by J.A.D. McCurdy at Baddeck Nova Scotia. The replica had been constructed at RCAF Station Trenton, Ontario in honour of the 50th anniversary of powered flight in Canada. Paul would later be inducted as a member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

Paul was languishing in a staff job at headquarters, but was determined to keep his hand in flying. He volunteered to be the chief pilot for the then National Aeronautical Collection museum at Rockcliffe. He told me that he and museum curator Ken Molson had decided to organize an air show to take place at RCAF Station Rockcliffe in June to celebrate Canada’s Centennial. The museum had agreed to release several of their very valuable First World War biplanes to be flown as demonstration aircraft. He told me that the museum staff were very edgy about the whole project because of the priceless value of their exhibits. Paul assured Ken that he would be very careful in the selection and training of the pilots who would fly these artifacts.

Paul said that he was going to fly the Sopwith 2F.1 Camel and asked me if I would like to join him on his team and fly the Sopwith Snipe. He planned to invite several other pilots to join us and fly the other aircraft that the museum had agreed to release. It took me all of 30 seconds to agree enthusiastically.

The National Aeronautical Collection museum had amassed a significant collection of First World War biplanes and other examples of early aircraft that had been flown by Canadian pilots with the Royal Flying Corps. Some of the aircraft were originals and some were replicas carefully constructed to be accurate representations of the originals. The aircraft we would fly were the Camel and the Snipe, as well as a Sopwith Triplane, a Nieuport 17, and an Aeronca C-2. A Fleet Finch two-seater would be used to train our team. The Camel and the Snipe were the two originals, each 50 years old at that time. Each had original rotary engines and they were truly unique museum specimens.

By mid-May, Paul had rounded out the team with several well qualified and enthusiastic pilots. Flight Lieutenant Bill Long would fly the Nieuport 17, Flight Lieutenant Fitz Fitzgerald the Sopwith Triplane, Flight Lieutenant Neil Burns the Aeronca C-2, and Flight Lieutenant Jock MacKay the Fleet Finch. The Finch would be used to refresh each pilot in the feel of flying a tail-dragger aircraft.

The “squadron” was completed with the addition of a skilled and dedicated maintenance group consisting of both RCAF and museum aircraft technicians. They were Squadron Leader J. Murphy, Mr. A.D. Fell, Sergeant W.D. Scholey, Mr. C.E. Adams, Corporal C.S. Gallison, Mr. W. Merrikin, Corporal L.S. Moody and Mr. C.G. Aylen. Of course, we informally dubbed ourselves “The Snoopy Squadron”.

We began our training with a flight in the Fleet Finch with Jock McKay. A couple of quick circuits and we were all good to go. I logged my training flight on May 16, 1967, with a duration of 15 minutes. Two days later, after a briefing from Paul, I took off in the Snipe for the first time. The flight lasted 25 minutes during which I learned a great deal about flying First World War biplanes. It was an exciting flight almost equaling the thrill of my first solo flight during initial training in the Harvard aircraft back in 1951.

Over the next three weeks, until the Centennial Air Show on June 10, the team flew as many practice missions as the weather and other commitments would allow. We had the field to ourselves as there were no other aircraft using Rockcliffe airfield during that period. Our line shack was the airport grass in the summer sunlight. We would assemble there and watch as the crew hauled out those magnificent old airplanes and prepared them for flight. It was just like the operations of a First World War squadron at Cambrai or Arras must have been in 1917.

Those three weeks of work-up did not go without incident. The Nieuport 17 came to grief one day as Bill Long was transiting over the field in straight and level flight, getting the feel of things. Those of us watching on the ground saw the aircraft suddenly shedding bits of aluminum from the engine cowling. As we watched, the cowling detached, moved forward and was chewed up by the propeller. The engine ground to a halt and Bill began a left gliding turn to get back onto the grass of the airport.

As bad luck would have it, the tried-and-true emergency landing straight ahead was not an option for Bill as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride was out in force on the field into which he would have pancaked. He very nearly made it to the grass at Rockcliffe, but as he crossed the fence he struck the ground hard, throwing the aircraft up onto its nose. We watched in horror as the aircraft teetered there on its nose and then slowly settled in a precarious vertical position. Sprinting to the aircraft, a half dozen of us broke all records for the 200-metre dash. Bill was still in the cockpit looking very groggy and bleeding from a gash caused when he struck his forehead on the machine gun. We helped him exit and, after a little medical attention, Bill was fine. The same could not be said for the Nieuport 17. The Nieuport was not able to fly in the show and the National Aeronautical Collection museum pulled the Sopwith Triplane over concerns for its structural integrity.

On one of my flights, I was flying the Snipe east to west over the field when I saw an aircraft approaching rapidly from the west at low altitude. We had no indication there would be other traffic that day and of course we had no radios on board so I simply kept out of his way. To my amazement, it was a Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft of Second World War vintage. We found out later that Bob Diemert from Carman, Manitoba, had arrived at Uplands in his restored Hurricane and decided to have a look at Rockcliffe. No harm done, but afterwards I couldn’t help chuckling at the thought of someone telephoning the Directorate of Flight Safety and telling them that there had been a mid-air collision between a Sopwith Snipe and a Hawker Hurricane! There would not have been much left of the Snipe.

On another of my flights, I made what I thought was a beautiful landing on the grass at Rockcliffe only to discover that I had landed on the cricket pitch! No harm done to the cricket pitch, but I was ribbed about it frequently.

The Museum Snipe, E6938, was built in England in 1919 and imported to the United States around 1926 by Reginald Denney. It became a movie star, appearing in the Hollywood film “Hell’s Angels”. After the film was completed, E6938 became a museum exhibit in Los Angeles and spent the next 20 years or so in various United States locations, finally becoming the property of the USAF. In 1953 an aircraft restoration expert, Jack Canary, acquired E6938 and began an epic restoration project. With the help of interested individuals and organizations on both sides of the Atlantic, Canary produced a magnificent example of his craftsmanship. In 1960, it was widely acclaimed as the finest restoration of a First World War aircraft anywhere. When it appeared on the market for sale in 1964, Snipe E6938 was purchased by the Canadian War Museum.

The airplane is powered by a Bentley rotary engine developing close to 200 horsepower. A rotary engine has its crankshaft fixed to the aircraft and the entire engine rotates about the crankshaft. The propeller is bolted to the engine in order to provide thrust for the forward motion of the craft. The result is that the pilot must cope with the effects of a gigantic gyroscope attached to the front of his airplane. The way a gyroscope works is that if you apply a force to it, the gyroscope will move in a direction 90° away from where the force was applied. Everyone who has ever held a small gyroscope in their hand will be familiar with this effect. In the Snipe, the result for the pilot was that, in a right turn, the nose would drop and in a left turn the nose would rise. So the pilot had to use left rudder no matter which way he was turning, just more of it in a left turn. I am sure there was some reason for this bizarre design but it has been lost in the mists of time. Suffice to say, the stability characteristics of the aircraft would be totally unacceptable in a modern fighter!

Another interesting feature of First World War airplanes was the lubrication system attached to the engine. Castor oil was the lubricant used and it was a simple flow-through system. A tank full of castor oil fed the lubricant through the engine and vented it overboard. There was no recirculation of the oil. Now we can understand the need for the white scarf that pilots wore. Their goggles quickly became coated with castor oil and required frequent wiping. Not only that, but the pilots ingested significant quantities of castor oil flying several missions per day which presumably meant that they did not suffer from constipation! Mercifully our flights were so few and so short that we did not experience this difficulty. Following Bill Long’s head injury I decided to wear my standard jet hard hat during the practice flights but wore a leather helmet and vintage goggles for the show day. And of course, the obligatory white scarf!

The Bentley rotary engine started very reliably with a couple of hand pulls from the ground crew. There were three levers which the pilot used to adjust the engine RPM. There was a throttle control, a mixture control and a spark advance control. I don’t think any of us ever figured out exactly how to set these levers properly, but after fiddling around with them until the engine was running more or less smoothly, we simply left them alone. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! The airplane was designed with something called a blip switch. This was a pushbutton mounted on the control stick and operated by the pilot’s thumb which cut the ignition completely allowing the engine to freewheel. Using the blip switch to control all descents, especially for final approach and landing, meant that the engine was either at full throttle or cut off completely according to the flight profile.

The Museum Snipe, E6938, was built in England in 1919 and imported to the United States around 1926 by Reginald Denney. It became a movie star, appearing in the Hollywood film “Hell’s Angels”. After the film was completed, E6938 became a museum exhibit in Los Angeles and spent the next 20 years or so in various United States locations, finally becoming the property of the United States Air Force. In 1953, an aircraft restoration expert, Jack Canary, acquired E6938 and began an epic restoration project. With the help of interested individuals and organizations on both sides of the Atlantic, Canary produced a magnificent example of his craftsmanship. In 1960, it was widely acclaimed as the finest restoration of a First World War aircraft anywhere. When it appeared on the market for sale in 1964, Snipe E6938 was purchased by the Canadian War Museum.

On June 1, 1967, having become more or less comfortable flying the Camel and the Snipe, Paul Hartman and I launched twice on a perfect morning so that photographs could be taken of the two historic aircraft in flight. The picture of the Camel and the Snipe in formation over the Ottawa River was a unique and evocative photo. It eventually graced the cover of Ken Molson’s book, Canada’s National Aviation Museum: Its History and Collections, published in 1988.

At last, on June 10, 1967, the team arrived at Rockcliffe for the Centennial Air Show. A large crowd had assembled and there was a celebratory feeling in the air. A well-known vintage aircraft collector, Cole Palen of Old Rhinebeck, New York, had agreed to put in an appearance with his Blériot Monoplane, and Bob Diemert would fly his Hurricane – this time fully coordinated with the rest of us.

As far as the Museum aircraft were concerned, we conducted the flying display with great care due to the value of these priceless exhibits. We limited ourselves to a series of level flypasts close to the crowd with the pilot waving to the onlookers and waggling his wings rather gently. At each end of the pass a climbing “chandelle” turn would be performed to reverse course for another pass. The level part of each pass was performed at an altitude of 100 feet [30.48 metres] or less and at a speed of around 75 knots (the equivalent of about 140 kilometres per hour). The audience had an excellent close-up look at the old aircraft and a good whiff of castor oil to boot!

After we all had landed and shut down our engines, we climbed out and bade farewell to what, for me, was the most memorable flying experience of my entire career. That was true in spite of the fact that I was flying a variety of different aircraft types during the same period in my job as Senior Test Pilot at the Central Experimental and Proving Establishment.

A single page in my logbook shows that I was flying the Sopwith Snipe, the Canadair CP-107 Argus maritime patrol aircraft, the Canadair CT-133 Silver Star jet trainer, and the Lockheed CF-104 Starfighter supersonic jet fighter concurrently. I doubt there is another logbook page to match it anywhere!

This article was first published by Vintage Wings of Canada, and is reprinted here with permission.

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