Diary of a homebuilder: Part 1

Having decided to buy a set of plans for Joe Currie’s classic Wot biplane, Pilot’s former Editor finds himself engaged in three build/rebuild projects

Words Nick Bloom Photos author, Philip Whiteman & Keith Wilson

In the 1980s I read Birds and Fools Fly, Dr John Urmstone’s inspirational �account of building a Currie Wot, and the tale has stayed with me ever since. The Wot I flew a couple of decades later had a C90 engine, took off and landed in a short distance, climbed briskly, and was light and manoeuvrable. I especially liked the view from the cockpit and the undercarriage design (cross-axle and tailskid) which struck me as having traditional virtues: simplicity and ease of maintenance. I flew some loops and rolls and found them quite delightful; it was one of the nicest aeroplanes I’d flown. For the homebuilt project I was tempted for a while by the Williams Flitzer, but it still hasn’t been cleared for aerobatics. So the Wot won. Part one: 2010 “I’ve been thinking,” I say, “The homebuilding project isn’t going to be a Flitzer, it’s going to be a Currie Wot”. “Oh?” says my wife, carefully. She’s a captive audience at the moment, because we’re in the car. “I’m going to send off for the plans,” I say. There’s a heavy silence. She’s remembering the Stampe and Tipsy Nipper restoration projects and the radio control models I used to build in the evenings when we were newly married. She’s picturing sawdust on the carpet, with me trailing mess all over the house and leaving handprints on the doors. It’s late in 2010, and after a decade of full-time work on Pilot’s editorial team I’m going back to being a freelance writer. I’m expecting to be busy, just not as busy as I have been, and the idea is to have a long-term project to fill the gaps. Presumably, as I get older the gaps will become longer. My idea is that by the time this happens, I’ll be past the tricky opening stages on the Wot and it will be gathering momentum. I picture myself a decade or two from now, running out of steam, joints stiffening, memory getting worse... except that I’ve got the Wot nearing completion. How invigorating that will be. “A Wot, eh?” says Francis Donaldson, Chief of Engineering at the LAA, when I telephone for advice. “Not the easiest, nor the quickest aeroplane to build. The plans are rather vague.” He’s flown a lot of open-cockpit biplanes, so he should know. But we agree that the Wot flies well and, encouragingly, he seems to think I’m up to the challenge of building one. Francis transfers me to a secretary who takes my credit card details, and a day or so later a large padded envelope arrives. The plans it contains cost just �80 — cheap as aircraft plans go, but the design does date back to the 1930s. The envelope sits unopened for several months while more immediate matters claim my attention. It’s tempting to rip it open and steal a quick look, but I worry it’ll put me off. There’s a lot riding on this; if my new career doesn’t work out, it’ll be Wot-building that will keep me going. Besides, I keep reminding myself, I’m in no hurry. One thing I do know: you can’t hurry a Wot. As far as I can gather, most of the fifteen on the register took at least six years to build, and a few took ten years. One or two took even longer. Meanwhile, the year is coming to a close. The days are shortening and the hangar is becoming colder and damper by the day. I have memories of forcing myself out there in mid-winter and botching a simple job because my brain and fingers were numb. I must secure a decent work space before it gets too cold. The hangar next to my house began life 25 years ago as a calf shed. It was designed to be draughty to keep down the pong, with a hole in the roof to let rainwater in. The floor has a built-in slope towards two central gutters — when the hangar was a working shed, the rain would wash the concrete floor clean. I converted the shed into a hangar 22 years ago, but although I did my best to seal the gap in the roof it still leaks in a hundred places. The answer now is to lay an inner roof in polythene sheet — then when it rains, the water will run down the polythene and out under the roof. Polythene walls will keep in the heat, and I can install a door for access. Gradually a polythene-sheet box takes shape in the centre of the hangar, framed in two-by-one-inch planed wooden strips from B&Q. It has a couple of doors with Perspex windows to let in daylight, but the breeze block wall at the back looks oppressive. I knock a hole in it and add a window to the outside world, but it takes several days of work — the breeze blocks and mortar are hard, it’s difficult to make a square hole, and then I have to make a window frame out of some scrap timber. I take the frame to a glazier who measures it, says, “It’s not square, you know,” and cuts a sheet of glass which I have to putty in place. But the finished job, attached with quick-setting concrete, makes my polythene hut feel less like a prison cell. I’m absurdly proud. I buy bags of concrete and fill up the channels in the floor. I use the rest to make a wall at the uphill end of the hangar to stop water from flooding in when there’s rain. The next downpour reveals two leaks in the polythene inner roof, which I seal. There’s no flood down the channels in the floor; the polythene box remains dry. Ten years ago I was given a Calor gas heater, but it has been rusting quietly in a corner of the hangar ever since. I find a shop that swaps the empty cylinder for a full one, fit it, turn the tap and apply a match. The pilot light ignites and, with a bit of fiddling, so does the fire itself. It works just like the gas fires I used to huddle over in bedsits in my student days — I could make toast. I do make toast; it’s good. As Christmas approaches, LAA Inspector Simon Westley visits to renew my Tipsy Nipper’s Permit (the hangar already has the Nipper and a long-grounded Jodel already in residence). Simon is managing my Wot project, and he’s surprised and — dare I say? — a little impressed when I open the door and show him into my new den, cosy and warm, courtesy of Calor. “Will this be OK for building the Wot?” I ask. He looks around; one of LAA inspectors’ duties is to approve workshops. At least it’s well-lit — I've rigged four strip lights and two bulbs with lampshades. “You’d better seal the floor,” he says, “or you'll suffer from perpetual damp”. I buy a gallon of sealant from B&Q (which I've been visiting with increasing regularity). ‘Do not allow pooling,’ the instructions say, but the floor is as pitted as the surface of the Moon. Pooling is inevitable. After some experiments I find that if I brush the floor vigorously with a stiff broom and apply the sealant a little at a time, the noxious liquid eventually spreads across the floor of my polythene shed — and it’s almost an even layer. It’s supposed to dry in an afternoon, but it takes days for the tackiness to go. Despite the sealant, I detect a remaining problem with damp. Paper loses its crispness in my workshop, and I dread to think of the effect on aircraft timber. I buy a dehumidifier — at �80 it’s not cheap, but it’s worth a try. I’m instructed to leave it alone for six hours after it’s in place, so I leave it overnight. In the morning, the reservoir is full of water drawn from the damp air, and after weeks of daily emptying the workshop remains dry no matter how humid the weather. Now I’m ready. I open that envelope. It’s time to study the plans. And study them some more. I decide to begin with the tail surfaces. I ring Tim Moore of Skysport (an old friend) to order wood. “So you’re building a Wot,” he says, clearly thinking I’ve gone mad. “Send us a cutting list.” I thought I’d got the hang of how the tail surfaces are put together, but I discover I haven’t. After hours of calculation, sketches and notes I’m finally ready to email the list. It’s long and complicated — a sign of things to come? Part two: 2011 On a freezing January morning, I’m taking off downhill when the engine on my Tipsy Nipper sputters into silence. The cause is fuel starvation (fuel had transferred from the main to the wing tank) and I have no choice but to land in rough, sloping pasture. Although I’m OK, the Nipper is an insurance write-off — but it can be repaired providing I do all the work on the wing myself. So now the Wot will have to wait. The repairs take months, but they enable me to resurrect my woodworking skills, dormant since the last aeroplane project. And yes, the Nipper’s wing does fit into my polythene workshop, although not until I’ve made an extension. Just as the repairs are nearing completion, I get an email from Skysport. They’ve got a Wot project for sale — am I interested? Not really, is my first reaction. My Wot-from-scratch was supposed to be a way of life, a long-term raison d’etre, and finishing off an incomplete Wot Two is another matter altogether. On the other hand, the wood for the tail surfaces alone cost me �750, and the asking price for the largely complete project is only �3,000. I telephone Simon and we both go for a look. Wot Two appears to have been abandoned by the original builder in 1980 and then passed from hand to hand. There are few receipts for materials, and although the project was registered with the PFA and even has an expired G-registration, there is no indication of how much was cleared during construction by a PFA inspector. Some of the work looks professional, some looks bodged. However, the undercarriage, fuel tank, wing struts and most of the metal fittings are included, as well as four covered wings, a fuselage, and nearly all of the tail surfaces. “Buy it, buy it,” Simon hisses, so I do. Now I have two Wot projects, and I haven’t even finished the Nipper’s wing. Simon comes down to look at my woodwork on the Nipper and pronounces himself satisfied. We take a first proper look at Wot Two. There are some broken ribs in the wings under their fabric covering. Simon suggests an aviation equivalent of keyhole surgery, gluing reinforcing strips of wood through carefully-cut slots under the rib tapes. “Then make lots of inspection holes so I can get my remote camera in,” he says. The fuselage has decades of muck on its floor, and some of the metalwork is rusty. “Clean it up,” advises Simon. Before his next visit, I’ve bought a cheap beadblaster from Machine Mart, a bench grinder and an ingenious small bending brake you can mount in a vice. I’ve also acquired some sheet metal from LAS and made my first metal brackets for the Wot. Two were missing, and now that I’ve made them I can carry out a trial rig, attaching upper and lower wings on one side. But it’s clear from early on that there’s something odd about the Wot. I mention it to Francis Donaldson when I inform the LAA that I’ve taken on the part-completed project. I email him pictures of the trial. “There’s no centre section in the top wing,” I tell him, “and there are what look like Pitts Special-style inverted-V mounting struts.” “It’s almost certainly a Super Wot,” says Francis, who knows everything. The Super Wot’s lower wings have the same span as the upper pair with no centre section; a feature designed to make the most of a Pobjoy engine. By all accounts, it flies better for having less wing area. The project came with an engine mount for a Pobjoy (but no Pobjoy) and one for a Continental C90, and the fuselage front end conforms to the plans for a Continental. Simon comes back a month later to collect the Nipper’s newly-covered wing so that he can paint it, and to look inside the inspection holes in the Wot’s wings. “I’m not sure about these wings,” I tell him. “Some of the ribs do look awfully distorted.” Simon pokes his camera through the inspection hole and his face falls. “Nick, I think you’d better strip this wing so we can give it a proper look.” I get my Stanley knife and start cutting. A minute or two later the wing is exposed, and it really doesn’t look great. There are glue runs everywhere, some discoloured and warped plywood biscuits, but most troubling of all is that nearly every rib boom is bent and a few are broken. Simon borrows my micrometer. “This wood isn’t thick enough,” he says, and we check the plans. Either the wood has shrunk, it’s been over-sanded, or it was too thin to start with. Simon is nothing if not brisk. He tells me to replace the rib booms both top and bottom on every rib except the nose ribs. That’s 78 long and fiddly strips of wood to carefully cut away wherever they’re glued, and then replace with pre-formed new strips. I am to do them one at a time — painstaking, but the only way to conserve the structure. “You’ll need one of these Bosch reciprocating saws,” says Simon, leafing through my Machine Mart catalogue. I get one delivered from an unlikely source — Amazon, which seems to be consistently cheaper than the companies that specialise in supplying engineering workshops. Amazon also sent me beads for the beadblaster by next day delivery, undercutting all other retailers by around �10. It’s a wonderful thing, the beadblaster. Wearing built-in rubber gloves like a research chemist, you hold a rusted bit of metal inside the cabinet, blast it with a gun, and it comes out shiny. Simon was right; the Bosch saw is the perfect tool for the job. The only downside is that it makes exactly the same noise as a dentist’s drill and it drives my wife mad. She can hear it in the house even though I’m in a separate building. Craftily, I persuade her it’s OK by pointing out that it must also be irritating for the tennis club next door, which has an annoyingly loud Australian coach. To drown him out I have the radio on all the time. My station of choice is BBC Radio Three; classical music is soothing, and anything else quickly becomes irritating. My current way of life differs in one marked respect from working in Pilot’s offices — a lack of company. Fortunately, the Jodel’s owner Gordon drops by from time to time. He’s done a lot of aeroplane woodwork in his life, so is handy to have around. His verdict on the wings (“They should have used low-tautening dope, and the stringing is too tight”) is, however, dismissed out of hand by Simon — and Simon turns out to be right. But Gordon makes up for it with a timely lesson in how to hone chisel and plane blades. My 78 rib boom strips arrive within a fortnight, sent by Swindon Aircraft Timber Company (it was its speed of delivery that stopped me giving Skycraft the order). The strips cost �144 and are superb quality, much better than the dross that was fitted originally. Once I get my hand in I find I’m able to fit five in a day. With new booms the wings feel much more solid. The wood for the tail surfaces of Wot One, the one I plan to build from scratch, sits carefully labelled and wrapped in newspaper on a shelf in the polythene workshop. It’s already been raided to make a fin for Wot Two. Aside from a fin, the Super Wot is missing one other essential component: an engine. Pilot very kindly runs a free ad to help me find one. Several are offered by readers, and I go for a 1,300-hour C90 that’s come out of a Jodel based near Port Talbot, Wales. After three hours in the boot of my Honda Civic it arrives home — it’s currently hanging from a winch in the hangar, waiting its turn. The wings are now ready to cover again and the Super Wot is back on course. The Nipper is currently being painted and will return for me to re-assemble in a month or two. Fate will no doubt haunt me for saying this, but I expect to have the Nipper back in the air before the end of the year, and Wot Two ready to fly by the end of 2012. And then, one of them will have to go... I wonder which of the two I’ll end up liking the best.