Flying the Bristol Fighter

Flying the Bristol Fighter

Although I had flown several of the collection’s aircraft already, the Bristol Fighter was to be my first genuine World War 1 machine. Hence it was with some excitement that I approached my first flight in her. As a boy, during those apprenticeship days of model aircraft building before one could get into a real aircraft for the first time, I had once spent a month’s pocket money on a model of the Brisfit which I duly carefully built. Several years later, as a student on Oxford University Air Squadron, I remember coming across an old photograph of the squadron pilots in front of a Bristol Fighter which was briefly used as a flying instructional aircraft for the University students. Of course, this was at the end of a distinguished career for the aircraft during the First World War. This history has been well documented elsewhere, and my article is intended to give a feeling for the first flight in the aircraft by a pilot of the more modern era.

Before any flight in a new type, and particularly so in one so old and irreplaceable as the Bristol Fighter, a certain amount of homework is required. I know some time in advance that I am to be allowed to fly the aircraft, and I use this time to learn as much as I can. I go through the pilot’s notes, speak to as many people as possible who have flown the aircraft and spend some time in the cockpit familiarising myself with the layout. Shuttleworth is one of the few places where one can fly such interesting aircraft alone for the first time and discover their handling qualities at first hand. For me, this is one of the major attractions of being a collection pilot. 

As I approach the aircraft, certain design features give clues as to how she might handle. The high undercarriage, of relatively narrow track and set fairly far forward is combined with a non-steerable and freely moving tail skid. The aircraft also has no brakes. These factors will make the aircraft prone to ground looping on landing and I make a note to ensure that my landing will be into wind. Such aircraft were designed when airfields had no specific runways and no pilot would normally have contemplated taking off or landing out of wind. Furthermore, the hoops below the long lower wings, designed to prevent damage in the case of a ground loop, are a clear reminder that this is an aircraft that will require attention during the landing roll. The wings have double ailerons, which should help the rate of roll, although their non-differential movement is likely to cause some adverse aileron yaw. The fuselage has a large amount of side area forward of the centre of gravity and a relatively small fin. All these factors are liable to degrade the handling of the aircraft in the roll and yaw axes, and make co-ordinated turns difficult to achieve. 

I climb into the cockpit and note carefully the positions of the access steps, which are always difficult to find again on dismounting. The field of view is much better than most of the biplanes I have previously flown. This is due to the fact that the fuselage is actually raised up above the lower wing. Hence, without reducing the gap between the wings (which would cause unacceptable interference between the upper and lower wings), the pilot’s head is almost level with the upper wing. The cockpit layout is simple, although the positioning of the various instruments is haphazard and I remind myself where the most important ones are. The only complicated part of the cockpit is the fuel tank air pressure system, which controls inputs of air pressure from an engine pump, a hand pump, and a wind driven pump and supplies them to one or both of the 2 fuel tanks. I remind myself how I will manipulate the system in case of loss of fuel tank air pressure in flight, although in such a case, my plan would be to return this valuable aircraft to earth as soon as possible, using the main fuel tank. The Chief Engineer assures me this will supply sufficient fuel by gravity only providing I avoid full power and steep nose up attitudes. The final thing do before starting the engine is to look around and try to imprint the attitude of the aircraft as it sits on the ground in my mind as this is the picture I will be looking for in the final stages of landing.

Having completed a few simple checks, including priming the engine and pumping up the fuel tank air pressure by hand, I am ready to start. The fuel, throttle, advance and switches are set and on my call of CONTACT 3-2-1 GO the 2 ground crew pull the prop with linked arms. As soon as I see the propeller move, although not before or I will become extremely unpopular with the propeller swingers, I frantically wind the starter magneto handle and the Rolls Royce Falcon engine bursts into life. Suddenly, the machine feels alive beneath me and I savour the atmosphere whilst carefully monitoring the engine temperatures and pressures as they climb slowly to their normal values. As I check the magnetos during the engine run up, I note the awkward position of the switches on the outside of the fuselage, not visible from the cockpit, and practise locating them quickly by feel should I need to in an emergency. The chocks are then waived away and I taxy slowly to the holding point with the aid of wing walkers. The powerful engine requires little throttle to move the aircraft although the aircraft is difficult to steer on the ground. 

At last I am alone and at the end of the runway. All the checks are complete and I am ready to launch into the air in an aircraft built 42 years before I was born! As this is my first flight in the aircraft, I will fly for about 15 minutes. My plan is to use this valuable time as fully as possible to find out as much about the aircraft as I can. In particular, I will cover all areas of the flight envelope that I plan to use in my first display at a safe height before descending to fly a practise display over the airfield. My final action before takeoff is to review my plan if I have an engine failure on takeoff. I know that fate is cruel and may well decide to give me this test on my first flight in a new aircraft rather on a type I fly regularly and on which I have rehearsed the drills many times. By assuming this, I hope to become an old rather than a bold pilot!

As the throttle is opened, the Brisfit accelerates rapidly. Initially I keep the stick back to ensure that I have some weight on the tail skid to counteract any swing caused by engine torque as I smoothly open the throttle and ignition advance lever. Actually there is very little swing and as I raise the tail and use the rudder to keep straight the aircraft leaps into the air at about 45 mph. The take off roll is short and to be honest the aircraft feels as if it would have jumped into the air despite anything I may have done. I lower the nose to accelerate to about 65mph before climbing, all the time making small rudder inputs to keep the aircraft in balance. This is slightly above the recommended climb speed for best rate of climb but there are no obstacles ahead and I know that if I have any engine failure at this stage the high drag of the airframe will cause a very rapid speed loss. This will require me to lower the nose significantly to maintain a safe gliding speed and to land straight ahead. Hence, any initial extra speed is a bonus.

At about 300ft, I throttle back slightly and adjust the radiator setting to keep the coolant temperature at it’s optimum 80 deg C. During the climb to 2000ft, I begin to have a look at the lateral and directional handling characteristics of the aircraft. The ailerons feel fairly heavy, and as expected, they produce large amounts of adverse aileron yaw. This means that in a roll to the right, the aircraft actually yaws to the left due to the increased drag of the downgoing aileron. This undesirable characteristic has been overcome in more modern aircraft by various methods, the most common being the use of differential ailerons. However, for the Brisfit it means that the pilot must balance turns carefully with rudder. Infact, I have been told that it is easier to lead turns with rudder, and then follow up with aileron. I try this and find that it works well. The aircraft has a slip bubble to measure yaw , which works in the opposite direction to a modern slip ball. Thus, I am able to turn with rudder and then move the stick in the direction of the slip bubble to balance the turn. This I find works well and I continue to practice steeper wing overs and turns as I gain confidence in and understanding of the aircraft’s handling characteristics. I find it a useful exercise to fly snake like manoeuvres, turning one way and then the other. I have reasonable success with these although it is hard to keep the aircraft totally in balance and I note that accurate gun sighting during combat must have been extremely difficult in this machine.

Having reached 2000ft, I then explore the slow speed handling characteristics of the aircraft. I fly straight stalls with power on and off, initially decelerating at about 1mph per second and then approaching the stall at faster and slower rates. In all cases, the stall is easily identified as a mild buffet felt throughout the stick and airframe with no significant wing drop. I experiment with applications of rudder and elevator at the stall and find no serious adverse effects. I cross check my proposed approach speed of 55mph with the stall speed and all seems well. I then slow to approach speed with a small amount of power on. The aircraft feels stable and all controls are responsive although the elevator feels light in comparison to the rudder and ailerons and I make a mental note not to over control in pitch when I fly the approach. Whilst still at low speed, I experiment with side slipping. This is entirely normal with no obvious errors induced in the air speed indicator. However, with so much drag with the engine throttled back and a reasonable field of view, I do not expect to use much side slip on the approach in the Brisfit. Before accelerating, I climb the aircraft at full power at about 60mph (the recommended climb speed) and close the throttle to assess the pitch change required to get into the glide after an engine failure. As expected it is considerable.

I now accelerate the aircraft to about 100mph. The trim change with speed (longitudinal static stability to those of a technical nature!) is easily matched by the rate at which pitch trim can be adjusted by the large lever on the right side of the cockpit. In the Shuttleworth example, this required me to change hands on the stick although I understand that the original aircraft had the throttle on the right hand side, thus negating this minor problem. The aircraft performs well in this department, with enough pitch force change with speed to give the pilot a good feel of speed when manoeuvring without the need for constant retrimming to relieve excess forces. However, as speed is increased, the ailerons feel exceptionally heavy and I find I need to use two hands on the stick at 120mph, (10mph below the aircraft’s maximum permitted speed).

Before returning to the airfield, I fly a few display manoeuvres, (basically a series of linked wing overs), at about 1500ft. At present, there is no aerobatic clearance for the Shuttleworth Brisfit. Overall, at display speeds of 80 –100mph, the ailerons feel heavy compared to the rudder and elevator and care is required to fly accurate balanced turns. I decide that the technique of leading turns with rudder is best, but even then it is possible to come out of manoeuvres with the controls crossed. In particular, during steep wing overs, the nose does not drop down naturally and align itself with the relative airflow as in a more conventional aircraft, and continual use of the rudder is required to push the nose in the direction it is intended. I now feel happy to return for a quick low level practice display before landing , but decide to limit the steepness of wing overs until I have more experience on type.

Throughout the flight, the engine has behaved impeccably, and I have found it easy to manipulate the radiator shutters to keep the temperature in a sensible range. I conclude my flight with a short practice display, lasting 3-4 minutes. Having watched the aircraft displayed many times before by others, I expect to hear the loud whistling of the wires although this is completely inaudible in the cockpit. However, the aircraft feels solid and stable and apart from the care required to balance turns accurately, is easy to display.

Finally, my busy 15 minutes are over, and I set up for landing. The wind is still blowing directly down the runway and the ground is relatively soft. This is important as baked hard short grass can produce a surface more like tarmac and a far more demanding landing roll. Nevertheless, although conditions are easy, I concentrate extremely hard. A good landing starts from a good approach and I give myself plenty of room and work hard to cross the hedge at the correct speed of 55mph. I try to picture the attitude I saw sitting on the ground before take off and slowly raise the nose to achieve this attitude as the speed washes off. The elevator feels slightly oversensitive and I force my self to make small adjustments. I fail to achieve the perfect 3 pointer that I was aiming for and the main wheels touch first. However, as the touchdown was smooth there is only a small bounce and as the tail touches the ground I hold the stick fully back to get some weight on the tail to keep straight. At the same time, I go into high gain on the rudders ready for any possible swing. The aircraft rolls straight and as I come to a halt I am met by the faithful wing walkers who help me taxy the Brisfit, unwieldy now earthbound again, back to the line.

And so ends my first flight in the F2b. I still have much to learn about the aircraft which I will hopefully discover on short flights throughout the coming years. However, I have covered the basics and now have enough knowledge to fly the aircraft safely in displays during the right weather conditions. That evening I review the flight at home over a beer and remind myself yet again what a fantastic organisation it is that can regularly get a real Brisfit into the air for all to see.

Trevor Roche