The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome

No. 18 Summer 2011

Biggles Biplane flies again!

by Steve Slater

In early May 2011 Biggles Biplane, a unique replica of a 1914 BE-2c observation biplane, returned to the skies, 42 years after it last flew at Sywell and 34 years after being wrecked in a crash in the USA.

BE2 first flight
The first flight of the BE-2 after historic rebuild (photo: Damien Burke)

Six years after retrieving the wreck from a barn in upstate New York, owners Steve Slater and Matthew Boddington have not only restored the aircraft to flight, they have returned Biggles Biplane to its Sywell birthplace.

The aircraft was built at Sywell in 1969 as a film replica, designed to look and fly in an identical manner to the world's first purpose-designed military aeroplane. It was initially commissioned by Universal Studios for a big-budget movie, Biggles Sweeps the Skies, based on the books by Captain W.E. Johns.

As there was no original, airworthy example in the world, Matthew's father, Sywell-based engineer Charles Boddington was given the task of creating the flying replica BE-2c.

BE2 at Sywell 1969
The BE-2 at Sywell in 1969

The deadline was almost impossibly tight. Charles, assisted by his brother David and a team of local engineers, were given just 13 weeks to design, build and test fly the aircraft, before it was due to be shipped to Algeria for filming in the North African desert, but while the Biggles Biplane BE-2 was completed on time, other replica aircraft commissioned by the film company were delayed. They literally missed the boat.

By the time the fleet was completed and the next boat ready to sail, it was the hottest time of the year in North Africa and there were doubts whether the aircraft could be safely flown in the extreme desert heat.

It combined with financial issues to seal the fate of the movie and Biggles Sweeps the Skies was canned. Biggles Biplane was, instead, shipped to the USA and sold by the film company in 1970. Charles would never see his creation again. He was killed in September of that year in a flying accident during the making of the film Von Richthofen and Brown.

On 14th June 1977, it seemed that Biggles Biplane would fly no more. Climbing out from an airfield in Wisconsin, the pilot lost control and the aeroplane spun into the ground from around 500 feet.

"Thankfully the pilot escaped with just a broken leg," says Matt, "but the forward fuselage was completely wrecked as far back as the front cockpit and both lower wings were basically loose bags of canvas, full of broken bits of wood."

The aircraft was deemed beyond repair and was ultimately acquired by Tiger Moth owner Bill King. He hoped it might provide some useful parts for his aircraft Moth and hung the remains in the rafters of his shed, hoping they may be useful some day.

Remnants of the BE2
Remnants of the BE-2 arrive at Sywell

The aircraft effectively disappeared. Then, in late 2004, Sywell-based Tiger Moth owner Chris Parker visited Bill King while on vacation. Recognising the remains, Chris shared his information with Matthew Boddington on his return and a series of transatlantic telephone calls culminated in Matthew and I flying out to New York to bring Biggles Biplane home.

"It was a pretty emotional moment," says Matt. "I walked into the back of the barn, past various bits and pieces, and there it was. Dad's aeroplane."

A few weeks later the aircraft arrived back at Sywell Aerodrome and, in a workshop immediately next door to where it had originally taken shape, the hard work began.

From the start of the restoration, the duo, assisted by keen Sywell volunteers, made a commitment to reusing as many original parts as possible, commensurate with safety. It meant that the first six months were largely spent dismantling, cleaning, repairing and painting a huge number of tiny components.

Fuelling for the first flight (photo: Damien Burke)

The fuselage was completely rebuilt using both old and new parts and even the wrecked wings yielded almost complete sets of metal fittings. They were integrated with new-built items and brand new spruce wing spars sourced in British Columbia, Canada.

The reassembly of the replica's specially modified 145-horsepower de Havilland Gipsy Major engine marked an interesting blend of old and new.

Much of the work was carried out by Frank Golding, one of the team who had originally built the Biggles Biplane in 1969. Frank first worked on Tiger Moths at Sywell for Brooklands Aviation in the 1940s and remains a licensed aircraft engineer into his ninth decade.

Another challenge that the team faced came at the very end of the rebuild when the aeroplane was rigged, to ensure the wings, struts and supporting wires are properly aligned and tensioned. While all biplanes require rigging, the BE-2 is a double-bay biplane with two pairs of interplane struts between the wings. There are no less than 16 sets of flying wires and landing wires. Each needs to be accurately adjusted to allow the aeroplane to fly smoothly, but the Biggles Biplane team was helped by a voice from the past.

Matthew Boddington
Matthew Boddington after the first test flight
(photo: Damien Burke)

In 1918, a young Royal Naval Air Service aircraftsman named R. A. Randall kept a hand-written notebook throughout his training at Heme Bay in Kent. What happened to Randall is lost in time, but his notebook survives and in it, his personal notes on rigging the BE-2. It was like finding gold.

BE2 team
The BE-2 team - Matthew Boddington, Steve Slater
and Paul Ford (photo: Damien Burke)

Rigging a double-bay biplane is about more than just dimensions. It is also about the correct order and procedure, to rig outwards from the cabane struts without putting unnecessary load on the structure. Randall's notes proved every bit as educational as they were over 90 years ago.

However, Aircraftsman Randall could never have imagined another challenge the team had to face. As no prior stress calculations existed, the Light Aircraft Association, responsible for the aircraft's future airworthiness, requested a complete structural evaluation. Airworthiness engineer John Tempest used the CATIA computer softwear, normally used by Airbus industry, to digitally model the structure and stress levels, finally delivering a 118-page report.

Now the aeroplane is proving itself in the first phase of its flight testing (note: flight testing was completed later in the year and the aircraft has since joined the airshow circuit). Keep up to date on progress by checking on the Biggles Biplane website.

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