Mr. Arango’s Aeroplanes
A World War I aircraft enthusiast’s collection tracks the evolution of the species.
- By Peter Garrison
- Air & Space magazine, February 2013
(Page 3 of 4)
Original instruments and other components can still be found, sometimes in odd places. “You know where we get the magneto switches for the British airplanes? You can go to old British hotels, and that’s the light switch,” Arango says. “It’s exactly the same fixture that they’re using now.”
Engines are a perennial challenge. Arango’s airplanes all have or are awaiting original engines, and all but one is in flying condition. Most of the airplanes in the collection are outfitted with rotary engines. Not to be confused with the modern Wankel-style rotary, World War I rotaries look like radials until they start, and you find that not just the propeller but, improbably, the entire engine spins. One of their peculiarities was lack of a throttle; pilots decreased the power output by cutting the ignition to various cylinders with a “blip switch.” Although these engines were manufactured in the hundreds of thousands, very few still exist. The 110-hp LeRhône, which would be the correct engine for many types, is in particularly short supply.
The collector’s dream is to find, tucked away in the back of a barn, an intact airplane. It seldom happens anymore; the barns have all been searched. But Arango has had that time-capsule experience. “A couple of years ago we got a phone call from someone who said: ‘I know you have these airplanes, are you interested in an engine? It belonged to my father or grandfather or whatever and it’s in a case.’ And the case was the original case. We opened it and there was a 160 Gnome inside—from 80 years ago, untouched.”
Like airplanes, engines can be reproduced to perfection. For several years a Paso Robles machinist, Richard Galli, has been creating for Arango a set of 10 precise copies of an original 110-hp LeRhône. The work generates mountains of metal chips, liberating, for example, a 35-pound crankcase from a 650-pound slug of steel. The manufacture of the required 90 cylinders—an inhumanly tedious task—has been outsourced: They are being hewn out of steel bar stock in New Zealand on computer-controlled machines owned by film director Peter Jackson’s Vintage Aviator Ltd., which reconstructs World War I aircraft.
The ability to fly the airplanes, not merely look at them, is crucial to Arango’s effort to gain insight into their evolution. Contemporary reports of their flying qualities are not always intelligible to a modern aviator. He recounts, “One of the British aces, Albert Ball, flew Nieuports and he flew the S.E.5, and he complained that the S.E.5 is slow. I’ve flown both. There’s good data on the speeds. The S.E.5 is a much faster airplane—so what did he mean?” He may have meant that the S.E.5 was less quick on its feet, less responsive, than the Nieuport, but only a pilot familiar with the flying characteristics of both types would know. Similarly, pilots claimed that the Fokker Triplane climbed “like a monkey,” although its rate of climb was actually average. Like other thick-wing Fokkers, however, it could fly in a more nose-high attitude without stalling than the thin-wing Sopwiths and Nieuports, and the appearance of climbing steeply may have convinced other pilots that it was climbing rapidly.
Each type has a distinct personality in flight. “Some of them, 10 minutes and you get out of the airplanes, your legs are shaking, and you’ve aged,” Arango says. “The Nieuport 11, for example, is so tail-heavy, you have to be pushing the stick all the time. Eventually we put in bungee cords to help. The rudders have no feel, so you end up pushing with both legs and releasing with one. The airplane’s wandering all over the place. If I want the simple, safe airplane, the S.E.5 and probably the Fokker D.VII are the best. They’re comfortable, the engines are quite reliable, they’re stable, especially the S.E.5. One of my favorites is the Sopwith Camel. It’s marginally stable, but if you get to know it, it’s so much fun. It climbs at double the rate of any other airplane, it turns in nothing, it maneuvers—you just think and it goes there—and once you get used to its peculiarities of flying sideways and not doing what you expect all the time, it’s a very nice airplane to fly.”
First flights are always a challenge; the only possible preparation is experience in many airplane types. After taxiing and raising the tail, says Chuck Wentworth, who has made first flights on many of the aircraft he has built, “you just take a big deep breath and go.” The airplanes designed late in the war fly much like airplanes of today; the 1914 Eindecker, on the other hand, is more peculiar, having only movable controls, no fixed surfaces on the tail, and no ailerons (to bank, the pilot uses cables to twist the wings). Even the blip switch is primitive: The ignition is either on or off, full power or nothing. “I put myself into the 1914 mindset to fly it,” Wentworth says. “I don’t expect it to fly like a Decathlon or a Pitts Special.”
Arango, who has written several scholarly articles about the subjective characteristics of World War I aircraft, has begun testing some with modern digital data-gathering equipment, gyros, accelerometers, and force gauges that are now sufficiently compact to fit even in the claustrophobia-inducing cockpit of a Camel. The final results of his scholarship are still to be published, but it already appears that some commonly accepted wisdom—for instance, the idea that the gyroscopic forces of spinning engines powerfully affected maneuverability—may be exaggerated.