Moth Minor Miracle

Craig P Justo describes the rebirth of Australian Mark Carr’s superb DH.94

To put it mildly, it had seen better days. Thirty-plus years ago, Moth Minor VH-CZB was to be found at the Oakey Historical Museum in Queensland and while ostensibly complete, closer inspection revealed all was not well. The wings had been roughly severed at the wing roots with angle-iron brackets and a strip of galvanized iron sheet had been strategically screwed over the gap. I next saw the DH.94 in June 1997, just after it had been acquired by the Caboolture Warplanes Museum, also in Queensland. Its state did not seem to faze Mark Carr, who expressed an interest in acquiring the exhibit and restoring it to airworthy condition, in 2003. With the blessing of the museum’s trustees, Mark was successful and the Moth was moved the short distance to Sandora Aviation’s facility in Calboolture’s Hangar 102 where the engineering team would undertake the restoration. 

 

Moth 1
Early work on the fuselage, 2004.

While the problems with the wings were self-evident, closer inspection of the fuselage structure and the tailplane groupings revealed that these too were in desperate need of serious remedial work. This was due to the failure of the Casein or Urea Formaldehyde glue that had been used as the original bonding agent. Sandora’s Chief Engineer, Allistair Hall, allocated the woodwork to Bert Persson in the first instance and later into the project, Graham Potts joined with him as his assistant. Both of these gentlemen are very accomplished timber craftsmen in their own right and well known for the quality of their work.

 

Re-assembly underway, May 2007.
Re-assembly underway, May 2007.

Taking stock

In June 2004, Bert commenced the laborious task of disassembling the plywood and timber box structure that constituted the fuselage. This was done so that plywood and timber found to be in sound condition could be re-incorporated, while the bits deemed to be past their ‘use by date’ could serve as templates.  

 

The Moth Minor' distinctive ‘perforated’ under fuselage fl ap.
The Moth Minor showing off the type’s distinctive ‘perforated’ under fuselage flap.

As the wing carry-through spars in the centre section are an integral part of the fuselage structure, the initial work focused on replacing these. With the new spars in situ and the integrity of the centre section structure re-established, Bert then set to work on the fuselage. This entailed the replacement of the entire length of the underside of the fuselage, a large section of the rear fuselage and the firewall. Twelve months later, the fuselage was ready to be covered with fabric and then doped. This was undertaken by Roy Molyneux, who has an enviable reputation for his exacting standards. Long periods of inclement weather stalled the doping process and it wasn’t until early September 2005 that the finishing coats of colour could finally be applied. While the fabric and doping was being done, Bert commenced a ‘stock take’ of the hardware that needed to be incorporated. Although the machine was relatively complete when purchased by Mark, there were some ancillary components that were missing and needed to be sourced.

Authentic but practical

At the same time, Bert began to undertake the rejuvenation of the myriad metal fittings and components that would need to be installed. Where these hardware items were found to be serviceable, they were cleaned, primed and finish coated and stored in readiness for incorporation. If they were beyond redemption and replacements couldn’t be readily sourced, he then set to work with a lathe, band saw, welder and various other tools to fabricate replacements.

 

DH.53 Humming Bird J7236
DH.53 Humming Bird J7236 was delivered to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in March 1925. 

Among the items Bert created and where necessary, designed, were the windscreen frames, trim quad, tailwheel locking mechanism and its cockpit mounted control unit, wing folding release levers, wing pins, a fuel tank and side and bottom engine cowls. As the cockpit accoutrements were refurbished, they were installed immediately and so the interior was fully fitted out well before the wings were finished. Maintaining authenticity was uppermost in Mark’s mind but functionality dictated that certain items of modern equipment had to be installed. One of those pieces of kit was the radio and Bert’s ingenuity once again came to the fore. It is installed in the instrument panel but cleverly secreted behind a cover flap that when closed, maintains the look of originality. The undercarriage needed serious attention as the oleos had seized, requiring extensive work to free them which allowed disassembly, servicing and re-assembly. By February 2006, the Moth Minor was once again standing on its undercarriage and slowly but surely, starting to resemble an aeroplane. At that time that Graham Potts joined Bert to undertake the rebuild of the wings, ailerons, fin, rudder, elevators and the perforated speed brake. The wings were in a very bad state of decay and very little of the original material could be reused resulting in the fabrication of new spars and the majority of the ribs. The fin, rudder and elevators were reconstructed in a relatively short time frame and with those completed, work commenced in earnest on the wings. Although they were still under rebuild, in May 2007 the wings were offered up to the centre section as a trial fit and as expected, due to the exacting tolerances as applied to the workmanship, they were a ‘hand in glove’ fit. The wings were finally covered with plywood and fabric applied in January 2008 which allowed Bernard ‘Speedy’ Gonsalves to undertake the doping and finishing. (‘Speedy’ had done his ‘apprenticeship’ under Roy Molyneux’s guidance.)

Putting it all back

With the project now making good headway, Mark dispatched the DH Gipsy Minor four-cylinder in-line piston engine to Aero Technology in New Zealand where specialist Jim Lawson assumed responsibility for its overhaul. Mark also engaged the services of Richard Sweetapple to craft craft a laminated propeller. The overhauled Gipsy Minor arrived back at Sandora in December 2007, and as the engine bay had been ready to accept it since the previous October, it was installed in double quick time. This in turn allowed for the controls to be finalized, piping and hoses to be connected and also, the cowls to be fabricated and trial fitted. By July 2008, the restoration had become an assembly process as all of the components were beginning to be amalgamated. In mid-August an inspection revealed a few minor items that needed to be addressed. These were completed in a timely fashion to pave the way for the machine’s first flight in 61 years. 

 

The Gipsy Minor engine installed
The Gipsy Minor engine installed.

On August 29, 2008 Bert and the team conducted the obligatory preflight inspection and he strapped himself into Zulu-Bravo. Having fired-up the 90hp Gipsy Minor, he proceeded to get some air under the wings of this magnificent machine and conducted a 20-minute test flight and a couple of follow-ups later. This was a significant occasion for all involved as it was the culmination of a fastidious restoration process that spanned five years. 

Prize winner

Queensland Vintage Aeroplane Group’s ‘Festival of Flight’ Fly-In commenced the day after the test flights and the intention was to take Zulu-Bravo over there for its public debut. Bert set-off for Watts Bridge Memorial Airfield but, ten minutes into the flight, the engine began to misfire. On his return to Caboolture, an inspection revealed that a broken rocker arm was the culprit. Although there were spares in stock, they had to be modified and to the disappointment to all, there was no time to do this, and the Minor did not make it to the event. RAAF Base Amberley’s airshow was scheduled for October 4-5 and this became the venue for VH-CZB’s debut. This was quite appropriate as 24 (General Purpose) Squadron Moth Minor A21-26 became the first RAAF aircraft to land on Amberley’s newly completed runway on July 4, 1940.

Owner Mark Carr with Bert Persson
Owner Mark Carr (front cockpit) with Bert Persson – woodworking maestro.

Mark lives near Euroa, Victoria, and had constructeda hangar to accommodate Zulu-Bravo. Although airworthy, the Minor remained in the care of Sandora for the next 12 months and during that time, it was flown regularly with Mark getting familiar with it. Given that it was still residing locally at the time of the 2009 ‘Festival of Flight’, once again Bert headed for the home of the Queensland Vintage Aeroplane Group and a year after the failed attempt, VH-CZB finally kissed the grass at Watts Bridge Memorial Airfield. This was rewarded with the much-coveted Grand Champion trophy, by the unanimous decision of the judges. Two weeks later, it was time for Zulu-Bravo to be ferried to its new home. With Sandora’s proprietor, Ed Field and engineer Andy Heath travelling by road to provide support as required, Mark and Bert set off from Caboolture on September 13. On the mid-afternoon of the following day, the Moth Minor arrived to join Mark’s recently-refurbished Commonwealth Winjeel VH-CZE. Under the title Military Air Training Heritage, Mark offers a unique experience to those who wish to fly in these former RAAF trainers. Six long years after he had purchased the ‘grass roots’ project and commissioned its restoration to airworthy condition, Mark’s Moth Minor can be counted amongst the finest examples of type in the world. His commitment to bring this significant machine back to airworthy status, and to share experience with others, has served to enrich Australia’s aviation heritage.

Pictures: Key Archives