Large or Small [SportPilot 90]

Last edited: 30 August 2022, 9:56am

If you are a member of RAAus it goes without saying you love to fly, and the flying chariot you choose to lift into the air is merely a vessel to get you off terra firma and into the realm only pilots, and at times their lucky passengers, get to enjoy. But within the boundaries of aero-planes that must meet an arbitrary weight limit of 600kg there is the scope to get you airborne and fly something that goes beyond an airframe that is merely an aerial conveyance and instead becomes the pilot in command’s only chance to pay homage to young men who fought a series of small battles over the skies of London and ultimately prevailed.

Those ‘small battles’, when put together became The Battle of Britain though it’s doubtful whether the brave aviators who were a part of that operation in a huge world war understood the role they were playing in history. More than 22,000 Spitfires were built yet only a handful are still flying, and to buy one requires either a private oil well, a shopping centre empire or the elusive ability to forecast six random numbers from a pool of 45.

Having established that buying a full-size Spitfire is in the realm of owning anything built from ‘unobtanium,’ the next best thing is buying one that is a bit smaller than the original. Less ‘unobtanium’ means more aeroplane.

Enter Neil Cooper. He’s a check and training captain with Virgin so his day job is guiding the 737 across the country. But flying is in his blood so operating the 737-800 doesn’t fully satisfy his need to be in the air, though he does admit to doing a lot of hand flying in the Boeing. At the same time, he’s always had a love of R.J Mitchell’s iconic fighter but even as a senior airline pilot he couldn’t afford a full-size original version unless he bought into a syndicate with 1000 members and got to fly at 0320 on a Tuesday morning.

So a scaled-down replica became the answer. He found a project that was being scratch-built by a fastidious craftsman who realised early in the build that his height wouldn’t allow him to fly the aeroplane without extensive modification, hence his need for someone to take over the project. “I took the aeroplane over in the later stage of the eight-year build and I’ve had it for two years. Chris Weber, who started the project and has become a good friend, was happy I wanted to keep it as K 5054, and not make it, dare I say, just another camouflage painted replica.” Neil says. “I’m trying to make this a tribute to the prototype that spawned the aircraft which became a legend. I wanted to try and keep everything as close as I could. The aeroplane’s serial number is K 5054 and RAAus gave me the registration 19-5054. I’ve tried to keep the cockpit as authentic, or to put another way, as rustic as possible with the spade grip control from a full-size Spitfire as well as original master and mag switches. There’s no EFIS but rather all analogue gauges. The pitot head is from Mk V Spitfire.”

“It’s amazing what you can find on overseas eBay sites. Chris is brilliant at hunting out unique aircraft parts.”

An important part of the build was finding the correct paint colour given K 5054 was the original test airframe. The colour was designed to help provide camouflage against the sky. But given no records exist about exactly what pigments created the exact colour Neil and Chris had to do a bit of detective work.

“All of the surviving pics of K 5054 are in B/W but R.J Mitchell gave his son a model truck painted with the same paint as the full-size aircraft. We were able to make that paint by contacting the Spitfire museum in the UK, where the toy is held, and getting the colour scanned,” he says. The aircraft is a genuine one-off, with only a small number of parts sourced from one of the many Spitfire kits available.

“We’ve done a lot of work since I joined the project. Some of the wing panels and some of the fuselage structure are from the Sullivan kit, but apart from that, it’s all custom-built from the ground up, including the undercarriage. It’s a constantly evolving thing.”

“I’ve kept the Rotax in so I can keep it in RAAus. Then I can work on it. It does about 130kts which isn’t bad for a little 100hp engine. That also means there isn’t a lot of swing on take-off.

“I have an Airmaster constant speed prop which improves performance. The tail comes up very quickly, with about 25kts showing on the ASI. There’s a little bit of swing, but I was surprised to find it’s a very forgiving aircraft on the ground, even with the narrow track undercarriage. It flies off at around 55kts to 60kts depending on environmental conditions. I climb out at around 80kts.

“You have to move a pin to bring the gear up and you can raise them together or separately. I usually do them separately because it’s a bit easier. Just like the original Spitfire you have to take your hand off the throttle onto the stick so you can use your other hand to hit the switches. Plus if you do it one by one it looks more like the original as it climbs out. At 80kts you are getting a 1500fpm climb rate. Once in cruise, I set 5400rpm and if I want to cruise economically I’ll set 24inches and I’ll get 115kts, whereas if I go to 26inches I get about 130kts.

“Coming into the circuit it’s pretty slippery. Talking to people who’ve flown the replicas and the full-size, they say aerodynamically most scaled-down replicas are the same and so behave the same, though obviously, they don’t have the same power-to-weight ratio. So in the circuit, I keep about 80kts because the airspeed is your friend. If I can do a curving approach I will because it has a very big nose on it. I drop the first stage of flap and the gear at 80kts and then drop the second stage on the final. Depending on the wind I cross the fence at around 60kts and she’ll fly on in the three-point attitude beautifully.”

Neil did the entire test flying program at Taree, taking advantage of the large runways and open areas around the airfield. With what is basically a one-off prototype, the test program exposed a few problems. “The very first flight was with an aft centre of gravity and with the gear down. I went up to 5000 feet and did some stalls that really got my attention with a large wing drop. Then later in the program I noticed a smell of fuel and saw I had a leak from the front of the tank, with fuel sloshing around my feet. I got it down pretty quickly!

“Interestingly the full-size prototype experienced the same issue during its test flying. I’m hoping that’s the last fault I find in common with the full-size given it met with an unfortunate end.”

Despite coming from a flying family, with his father an airline captain in the 1960s, Neil learned to fly later in life when he was 29, after a successful career as a TV news cameraman.

Captain Cooper and his pride and joy.

 “I started learning to fly when I was working in New Zealand for TV 3. That was a great place to learn about the terrain and the weather. I did my PPL and then CPL and then built hours flying for the TV station, flying to stories. That worked out cheaper for the station. I also started a flying school with some other pilots. I ended up flying all over New Zealand, mainly in a C310, shooting a gardening show and then made the switch to a regional airline.

“I was about to start with Ansett main-line in New Zealand when they went under so I came back to Australia looking for work. I was flying a Bandeirante for Sunshine Express when Ansett Australia went broke so that flying dried up. I went back to TV work, shooting and editing when Virgin started to expand after Ansett’s collapse so I joined them in 2002 and have been with them ever since.”

There is a reminder of his father built into the Spitfire as a tribute to his flying career.

“The spinner on the Spitfire is actually of a Vickers Viscount. My dad was killed in a Viscount crash in 1966 and so this pro- vides a nice link.”

An original Spitfire control column

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