At the Movies: Take Two

World War I airplanes star in a feature film about the Lafayette Escadrille.

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The only genuine Nieuport 17 in the world sits in the Royal Army and Military History Museum in Brussels, Belgium. Only replicas still fly, and of the half-dozen available, a majority work the airshow circuit and are booked more than a year in advance. To help round up the aircraft needed, Bill called on Sarah Hanna, who with her father, Ray, a former airline pilot and once the leader of Great Britain’s Red Arrows aerobatic team, has run a museum and airshow business, the Old Flying Machine Company in Duxford, England. (Ray Hanna died last December.)

Bill also turned to Mike Patlin, who had worked as an aircraft provider and aerial coordinator on several film productions. Patlin introduced Bill to Ken Kellett and Andrew King, two pilots who probably have more experience with early aircraft than anyone else in the United States.

In addition to his Old Rhine-beck background, King, a tall, friendly man who has a taste for adventure, works on vintage aircraft at his airplane repair and restoration business in Virginia. He has 2,750 flying hours (all but 200 of which are in vintage types) in 100 types of vintage aircraft. His earliest memory, he says, "is of Cole Palen’s Nieuport 28 being run up on the ground, with three or four guys on each wingtip holding it back."

Kellett, a youthful-looking man in his 50s with a laid-back, chatty manner, started flying at 15. He’s flown about 50 types of airplanes, a dozen of which were vintage, and been involved in 45 restoration projects. He also has the distinction of having built and flown a full-scale replica of the earliest aircraft. For the 75th anniversary of the first powered flight, Kellett flew his Wright Flyer replica in front of a crowd of 10,000 at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, and landed on the front page of nearly every major newspaper in the country. "I have four minutes total time [flying the airplane]," says Kellett. "And I couldn’t look you in the face and say that I ever truly had the airplane under control. You get on it, ride it, and hope you don’t get hurt in the end."

Today Kellett is a restorer at the Fantasy of Flight museum in Florida, owned by pilot and collector Kermit Weeks. For years visitors to the museum were greeted by a Nieuport 17 replica suspended over the museum entrance.

Weeks agreed to have the replica removed for use in Flyboys, but the airplane, built in 1971, was unflyable. Once Kellett got it down from the ceiling, he discovered it needed a new engine, firewall, tail skid, control cables, and fabric covering.

In just six weeks, Kellett managed to complete the job. He called on King to help work out the bugs in the new engine and to flight test the airplane.

In the meantime, Kellett was tasked with tracking down a two-seat fighter. He knew of a replica two-seat Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter for sale. Built in 1915, the Strutter was a forerunner of the famous Sopwith Camel. The Strutter replica, built in 1992, was part of a private museum in Guntersville, Alabama, whose holdings were being sold off.

"[The Strutter] had never been flown," says Kellett. "The FAA saw it on Friday, we test flew on Saturday for [the required] five hours…tore it apart Sunday, and shipped it to England on Thursday."

In addition to the Strutter and Weeks’ Nieuport 17, Patlin and Sarah Hanna put together a fleet that included another Nieuport, two German Fokker DR I triplanes (made famous by German ace Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron"), a British Bristol F-2 fighter (of the first six of these biplanes built, four were shot down by von Richthofen on the Western Front in 1917), a French Blériot XI, and a Royal Aircraft Factory SE-5a. The fleet was still short. To make sure there were enough airplanes to fill the takeoff and landing shots as well as backups, Bill wanted at least four more Nieuports. Patlin called Robert Baslee, of Holden, Missouri, who builds full-scale replicas of vintage aircraft using techniques of ultralight aircraft builders. His replica, made with aluminum tubing and a Volkswagen engine, weighed less than half what an actual Nieuport does, but Baslee promised the airplane had comparable performance. Baslee started in December 2004; in 52 days, he built four Nieuport replicas.

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