Hangar Talk

Comment on historic aviation by the chief executive of the UK’s Light Aircraft Association



Keith Sissons in the cockpit of B-17G Sally B at the last Great Warbirds Air Display in 1994.

’‘It is a sad fact that the primary sources of information on flying many aircraft types are now passing into history. One wonders how we can best record what’s left’‘

There is an old axiom that one never stops learning, and nowhere better can that be illustrated than in historic aviation. It is amazing just how much we can learn from those around us, but also how fragile that knowledge base can be, and how important it is to preserve it.

At the recent annual general meeting of the Light Aircraft Association, Shuttleworth Collection chief pilot Roger ‘Dodge’ Bailey gave members a fascinating insight into flying the DH88 Comet. What particularly impressed was that ‘Dodge’s’ presentation focused not just on handling what is probably the most demanding aircraft in the Shuttleworth fleet, but also on how he went about making its first postrestoration flights.

He showed that for several months he researched the Comet’s development and production history, creating an empirical, scientific approach to reviewing its likely low-speed handling, angle of attack and stalling characteristics with a combination of historical data and modern mathematical modelling. It meant that well before the maiden flight, ‘Dodge’ had a pretty good idea of what was likely to happen and when, making the early sorties as much a case of verifying expected responses rather than exploring the unknown. It was an example that could and should be followed by anyone who is about to fly even a less demanding machine for the first time.

We lesser mortals can be well-served by the knowledge and experience around us. For example, if you or I were to be fortunate enough to fly a Spitfire, we would be mentored by some very experienced pilots, who in turn probably learned the skills from some who flew the aircraft in anger in the first place. However, it is a sad fact that the primary sources of information are now passing into history. One wonders how we can best record what’s left.

The loss of two well-known pilots recently demonstrated this. Keith Sissons, who died at the end of October, was renowned as one of the former display pilots of B-17 Flying Fortress Sally B and converted many to the joys of seaplane flying. In the late 1960s he was the driving force behind the formation of the Tiger Club’s seaplane section, operating Sea Tiger G-AIVW. Later he trained several pilots to fly Plane Sailing’s two PBY-5A Catalinas, as well as displaying them, too.

During the 1970s he, CAA test pilot Darrol Stinton and Hawker Siddeley test pilot Duncan Simpson were worried about the accident rate surrounding historic aircraft displays. In response, they helped form the Historic Aircraft Association to provide a repository of technical knowledge and expertise from known ‘good eggs’ in the flying and operation of the aircraft. Their work reduced accidents and boosted safety records in a matter of months.

Unfortunately, in December we heard the sad news that Keith’s fellow HAA co-founder Duncan Simpson had passed away. There is much more to be read about Duncan in the obituary in the news pages, but his distinguished life took him from the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School and Hatfield’s experimental department to a military test flying career that saw him connected with the Hunter, Harrier and Hawk success stories.

Duncan was equally passionate about historic flying. He displayed — and often battled with company management to invest in helping to preserve — aircraft such as Hart J9941/G-ABMR, now in the RAF Museum at Hendon, and Hurricane PZ865, today operated by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. He also flew the likes of the Hurricane and Lysander for the much-missed Strathallan Collection.

Both Keith and Duncan were ever-generous with their time and willing to share their knowledge at every level, but one wonders what gems of information, perhaps deemed inconsequential by them, have now disappeared with their passing. It makes it all the more important to identify, listen to and record the knowledge of those who learned lessons first-hand, lessons that might benefit the next generation of historic aircraft pilots and engineers.