Warbird People: Scottish “Strutter” – WW1 Replica Nears Completion

The Aviation Preservation Society of Scotland is an East Lothian based group that has been in place since 1973 with an aim of providing members with education and experience in aviation. Today this society has around 80 members, of which 25 are working members. Though a number of projects are in progress, the undoubted “headliner” is the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter, which is now tantalizingly close to completion. With this month marking 100 years since the end of the conflict that brought the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter to fruition, it seemed fitting to get in touch with the team for a catch up on the project and the much-needed funding needs they currently face. I spoke with Gerard from the APSS about the project and the work that has been completed to date.

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The project has its roots as far back as 2000, when the group approached the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune, with the idea of building a representative early aeroplane for the collection. The Strutter design was chosen, with the idea of building to an airworthy standard, allowing the aircraft to travel the country and tell its story. Work began shortly after and an epic project was born.

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Steady progress was made over the first decade of the project, with the eventual first complete assembly of the skeletal frame taking place alongside Concorde in the museum’s main hangar in 2013. This was an impressive chance to see the machine take shape. Work continued after this initial assembly and the airframe would later return to display in the hangar complete with its Rotec engine and propeller. The Sopwith 1 1/2 will be powered by a Rotec radial, that will provide 150hp. This has an advantage of giving a realistic rotary style appearance when static on the ground, while offering modern day reliability. I asked Gerard about the potential challenges of using this lower powered engine and propeller combination as opposed to the original rotary power plant. He commented that the airframe is much lighter than they would have been during the war as there is no ammunition carried within the aircraft or weapons. The power offered by this engine should be more than enough to get the aeroplane into the air. The engine certainly looks the part!

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One of the incredible things about this machine, when you look at the detail in these pictures is that everything has been recreated for the project, no original parts have been used. So while the machine is a replica, it certainly has the attention to detail and high standards of the original machine, complete with functioning air brakes, a remarkable inclusion for a design of the time.

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Years of work continued since the roll out, together with a successful crowdfunding campaign later that year. In early 2017 however, it was announced that due to change in policy at the museum, the airframe would have to move out. After a long nerve-racking search for a new location, the team settled on a workshop at Congalton Gardens, in North Berwick. The move to the new location took place in February this year and since this point work has continued at a pace. When the aircraft left East Fortune, it was still an uncovered frame, with much of the detailed internal work completed. Over the course of 2018 the team have taken on the task of delicately and painstakingly covering the delicate woodwork in order to prepare the aeroplane for flight. As with many of these projects it almost seems a shame to cover up all that incredible work!

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By summer the fuselage covering was well underway, while the team also carried on with important systems work, with electrical and radio systems being essential to modern operation. 15th August saw a milestone moment as the completed and painted “tail feathers” were added. This momentous step saw the wooden frame become instantly recognisable as one of those classic Sopwith designs and a hint of the paintscheme to come. The wings were covered at this stage as well, but still needed the all important coats of paint applied. By late September the finishing touches of the roundels were being carefully added to the completed wings.

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But what of that paintscheme? The fuselage markings are yet to be applied and revealed, but the team have confirmed that the 1 1/2 Strutter is to wear the colours of Vice Admiral Richard Bell-Davies. Bell-Davies was a VC holder who learnt to fly in 1910 and joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 2013. He was awarded the Victoria Cross in January 1916 when he successfully put his own aeroplane down in the midst of a bombing mission to pick up a fellow airman Gilbert Formby Smylie who had been forced down in combat and carry him to safety, even with approaching enemy on the ground. This was considered by many to be one of the first noted examples of a search and rescue aerial rescue. Though not at the controls of a Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter on that day, Richard spoke fondly of the type in his book, citing it as his favourite mount and the machine he flew during experimental take offs and landings on an aircraft carrier in the Forth. A fitting colour scheme that tells an incredible story for such a beautiful replica.

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Bringing things up to date, the wings are now ready and waiting, while work continues to complete the fuselage ahead of the final assembly. The team hope that all being well they may be in a position to aim for a realistic first flight in the spring of 2019. This would see a Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter take to the British skies for the first time in many years (aside from a brief visit from an American metal replica, during the filming of Flyboys a few years ago.), which will be a remarkable moment. With the Strutter in the air the UK will have seen an airworthy example of almost all of the key Sopwith scouts from the first world war over the last 4 or 5 years.

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While the team are settled in to their new home, there is still the ever-present problem of funding. There have been crowdfunding efforts in the past alongside funding from the Heritage Lottery Funding for initial planning. The team also received a grant from Awards for All and Cala Homes. While all of these grants have been hugely helpful, there is a real need to become self-sufficient ready for the machine taking to the skies.  This is by far the most important message to take home from this piece, without ongoing financial support and stability, it may not be possible for this wonderful machine to remain flying in Scottish skies.

Once the aircraft has taken its first flight and gone through a thorough Light Aircraft Association testing process, it is the intention of the group to display the aircraft at airshows and events. The idea of having a touring project that can tell the story not just of the airframe and its wartime pilots, but also the incredible work that the team have carried out for almost twenty years. With a radial, rather than rotary power plant flying the Strutter from venue to venue should be more practical than a more original powerplant, though for longer distances the team may opt to take the aeroplane apart.

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The next chapter of that story, that is even starting right now is expanding the workforce, the workspace and ultimately the presence of the team as a whole. With the right funding it is hoped that a larger building can be constructed that would allow further WW1 airframes, along with simulators and a full heritage centre. Of course something like this would cost a great deal of money and the team are looking for any keen investors or sponsors to create something entirely unique.

The team behind the replica have already rebuilt a glider in the past and many of them fly gliders as well. While they may not be able to get behind the controls of the Sopwith machine themselves, they are no doubt looking forward to taking a flight in the observer’s position of this incredible recreation.

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What about if you would like to get involved but don’t have significant sums of money to give to the project? Well, if you are local then you can get involved in the story yourself. The team is looking to expand their volunteers and would always be keen to talk with potential assistance. It is also hoped that trainee apprenticeships would be able to be offered if future plans come to fruition which of course would be crucial in passing these incredible skills on to a new generation. With the aircraft in the air, the group will have a very impressive flag to fly and have a wonderful vehicle for spreading the word. As preparations for the next phase of the projects growth, work has already begun on another Sopwith, this time a Pup, very fitting as that Scout got its nickname from a senior officials comment of “your 1 1/2 Strutter’s had a Pup”. What a fitting machine to follow this original replica.

As you can no doubt tell from the above, the team behind the 1 1/2 Strutter have worked incredibly hard for an incredibly long time and they are very passionate about what they do. However, they rely on public help in order to get to the point where they are able to show the 1 1/2 Strutter to the masses. Please check them out on twitter and facebook and see how you could help, either with your time, or a donation. 

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