Above & Beyond: Wings? Frail. Engine? Weak. Fly? Let’s.

Above & Beyond: Wings? Frail. Engine? Weak. Fly? Let’s.

Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

An overhaul of the 85-horsepower Continental C85 engine was outside the budget, but cleaning and gapping the spark plugs and running it up sufficed. The engine sounded smooth enough despite the dismal compression readings.

The fabric appeared to have been compromised at the wing's leading edge.  Rumor had it that the wings had once been stored against a hangar wall, with the leading edges down, and that the building had later been flooded.  Water stains were clearly visible a foot back from the leading edge.

When the FAA inspector arrived, I picked a couple of areas well back from the stains to do the fabric punch tests. Twice the needle in the spring tension gauge eased up through the red and just entered the yellow before the fabric gave way and a little hole indicated the fabric’s failure point. Even the best of the linen was just barely strong enough to be certifiable.

The inspector asked me what the museum planned to do with a 12-month airworthiness certification. The airplane was technically—if marginally—airworthy, but one look at it made you wonder how wise it would be to fly it. I told him we planned three flights at the airshow and that I would be the only pilot. He told me to be careful and signed the certificate of airworthiness.

Once the Blériot had been disassembled, moved to Brown Field, and put back together, airshow preparations kept taking up the time I had hoped to use to get acquainted with the airplane. And so it was that the first time I clambered up to stand on the wooden seat with intent to fly was the first day of the airshow.

Fortunately, the Blériot controls matched the convention for stick and rudder; many early designs did not. The control stick was capped with a small wooden steering wheel The rudder was operated not by independent pedals but by a single bar that pivoted. The engine control was a knob on the left top longeron of the cockpit. The instrument panel held an oil pressure gauge and a tachometer. On the right was a pair of magneto switches.

I pushed the stick hard to the left to check that the controls were free and clear. I was also checking to see, for the umpteenth time, that they were hooked up correctly.  What I could not get used to were the massive ripples in the fabric as the entire wing twisted in response to the control input.

Adjusting my goggles, I reviewed what I had been able to glean from the few living pilots who had Blériot time. Let it fly itself off: Don’t ask it to do anything it doesn’t tell you it is ready to do. Keep the power on during descent and fly it firmly back onto the ground rather than glide to a flare. Never let the bank get too steep, particularly down low—there’s not enough rudder to pull you out of a spiral.

I opened the throttle, pushed the stick full forward, leaned into the blast as if to help the airplane accelerate, and watched as the ground speed gently increased. It was like being in a dream where you run harder and harder to escape and yet cannot go any faster. Eventually, though, the tail lifted lazily from the ground.

With no idea what the airspeed was or what was needed, I held the nose on the ground well past when I thought we should be able to fly. Then, in response to slight back pressure, I got unstuck. I eased off a little back pressure to hold the airplane in level flight, just a few feet off the runway, to let it gather what remaining speed it could. Sitting half out of the fuselage, awash in prop blast, I was exhilarated.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus