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Miles Magister

PUBLISHED: 09:05 11 April 2013 | UPDATED: 09:05 11 April 2013

The Miles Magister

The Miles Magister

KEITH WILSON (C)

Serving during WWII as a military trainer, the now almost vanished Miles Magister is less demanding than a Tiger Moth and an absolute joy to fly.

As I skidded the Magister into position for the head-on shot I sensed, rather than felt, a subtle, almost imperceptible vibration through the airframe. Suddenly, owner Peter Holloway’s briefing popped into my mind and I knew that if I applied just one more kilo of pressure on the rudder bar, the aircraft would abruptly pitch down. Not the most endearing trait for a trainer to possess…

I’ve always liked open-cockpit monoplanes, and with its tandem seats the Miles Magister is my idea of a real fun flying machine. Furthermore, its rarity and good looks always draw a crowd, and it also boasts a unique claim to fame, being the first monoplane primary trainer operated by the RAF − and the first to have flaps.

I’d last flown this particular aircraft back in 2004, when I’d accompanied Peter to Woburn Abbey for the de Havilland Moth Club International Rally. After such a long gap, I anticipated that he might want to jump in the back for a quick flip round the patch, but he simply said “Get in and get on with it.” When I reminded him that it’d been eight years since I’d last flown the ‘Maggie’, he asked me if I remembered what it flew like. When I nodded, he simply said, “well, it hasn’t changed much.”

MUCH MORE MODERN

As I began the preflight I thought how much more modern the Magister is than its contemporary the Tiger Moth. Beside the obvious difference in being a monoplane, it has brakes, those famous flaps and a tailwheel. One of the few facets that the two types have in common is that they are both powered by the same engine−the 130hp DH Gipsy Major I.

Access to the engine is good, as the side panels of the polished aluminium cowling are removable. It is fed from a pair of tanks in the centre-section with a combined capacity of 95 litres, and turns a two-blade, fixed pitch wooden prop. The fuel gauges are mounted in the wingroots just outboard of the walkway, behind the filler caps which are covered by lift-up flaps. The gauges are worthy of note as their indicator needles are remotely operated by a magnet attached to a cork floating in a vertical tube within the tank. In common with most taildraggers the gauges have two scales; an outer with large numerals for reading in flight, and an inner with the numbers in a smaller font and calibrated for the tail-down position.

The fuselage is a box structure of spruce with stressed plywood skin, while the cantilever wing’s box spars comprise spruce booms and plywood webs. Spruce is also used for the ribs and the same structure is used for the tail unit and control surfaces. The construction technique is typical Miles, the skins being held in place temporarily while the glue sets by open staples, similar to the type used to hold a magazine’s pages together.

The wings are constructed in three pieces, consisting of a fairly thick, constant-chord centre section and two outer panels that taper towards the tips. The outer panels have six degrees of dihedral, although the centre-section is flat. Large, pneumatically-actuated split flaps cover about forty per cent of the trailing edge and are constructed in four separate pieces − two being mounted on the centre section and two on the outer panels. As delivered from the factory, the flaps consisted of five segments, the fifth being mounted under the belly. The drag must’ve been eye-watering and most Maggies had the belly flap deleted.

All the controls are actuated by cables: there is a trim tab on the port elevator and, by way of fine tuning, a length of cord doped on the rudder’s trailing edge. As befits a primary trainer, the Magister boasts a usefully wide wheel track of 2.2m. The fixed, faired undercarriage uses Lockheed ‘Airdraulic’ (air/oil) dampers and is attached to the centre-section by bolts that are designed to shear in a groundloop or heavy landing in order to protect the main spar. The Bendix drum brakes are of the infamously pernickety ‘fly-off’ type, and as their steel operating cables are mounted on a wooden airframe the biting point is never the same, being affected by a number of variables including temperature and humidity and − for all I know − barometric pressure and even phases of the moon!

SOLOED FROM EITHER COCKPIT

Access to both cockpits is from the starboard wing root. Unusually, the Maggie can be soloed from either cockpit, although pilots above a certain weight must fly from the front. The wingroot walkway is sensibly sized, and below each cockpit’s small fold-down door is a non-slip footstep. There is also a generously-sized baggage bay aft of the rear cockpit that is accessed by a door on the starboard side. The windscreens look curiously mismatched, as the rear one is simply a big, curved piece of Perspex, while the front one appears to be a more 1930s-style three-pane unit, with a mirror on its left. The front screen transparency is actually a single piece of Perspex, shaped in to three angled facets. Its frame is the exposed part of a clever steel-tube crash-pylon incorporated into the structure.

The rudder pedals can be adjusted, although not easily − seating position is otherwise only optimised by the selective use of cushions. When I last flew this Maggie it had lovely, newly-made and correct for the period Sutton harnesses. However, Suttons are expensive, lifed items these days, so Peter has reluctantly decided to fit the later, stronger Z-type.

The controls also have their idiosyncrasies: while the throttle/mixture quadrant is nicely situated on the left cockpit sidewall with the flap selector and indicator mounted directly underneath, operation of these controls is distinctly non-standard. Mixture rich is back, not forwards, while the flap lever is pushed forward for down and back for up. Furthermore, although when selecting flaps up it is important that the lever is moved back to the neutral position, it is imperative that when selected down the lever is left in the down position.

This is because the flaps are powered pneumatically, the ‘suck’ being provided by tapping off the inlet manifold. The vacuum actuates a large leather-sealed piston in a cylinder below the baggage compartment. Although the system should retain residual vacuum sufficient for one extension in the event of engine failure, the force of the slipstream tends to drive the flaps back up. Consequently a flapless landing should therefore be planned in the event of an engine failure.

The elevator trim handle is on the right cockpit sidewall and the lever for the brakes is by your left knee. Typically ‘thirties’, the panel is dominated by a huge Reid and Sigrist turn and slip indicator. The ASI is immediately to its left and − like the T & S − is generic to many types of the era. I know this because the needle indicates through about 560 degrees, even though (on the Maggie) you’re never really likely to need more than the first 180. Vne is an impressive 164kt. To the right of the T & S is a curious, liquid-filled U-tube, mounted fore-and-aft. This device is actually an early attempt at displaying the aircraft’s pitch attitude.

On the far left of the panel are the only engine instruments (a tachometer and oil pressure gauge) while on the right is a contemporary single-pointer altimeter which is partly obscured by a P8 compass. The altimeter is turned ninety degrees clockwise for some reason, while the P8 looks as if it has been stolen from the wheelhouse of a small yacht.

Below this is the fuel cock, which is marked (clockwise, from twelve o’clock) both tanks on, starboard, both tanks off and port. It is important to remember that it is the small end of the selector that points at the selected tank. Furthermore, an AD mandated that the both tanks position be wired off (I imagine to stop the pump sucking air from an empty tank). Consequently you have to go through off to change tanks.

NO SIDESLIPPING NEAR THE GROUND

Peter wandered over to start the engine, and give me a quick brief on the important speeds and a reminder on a couple of salient points: basically, no sideslips anywhere near the ground − and if I was to go-around, decide early and don’t retract the flaps below 300ft.

Having primed the Gipsy, Peter gave the prop a flip, the motor burst into life and as soon as I’d noted the oil pressure rising I moved the flap selector to the up position and then back to neutral, had a guess at where the brake lever needed to be on a warm Tuesday morning with relatively high humidity and the moon waning, and was ready to taxi. The view over the nose while taxying is excellent for a WWII trainer and, once I’d worked out where to set the brakes, things proceeded in an orderly fashion. The pre-takeoff checks are very straightforward, so having noted the strength and direction of the surface wind, I aligned the aircraft with the centreline, rolled forward a few metres to ensure the tailwheel was straight, and opened the throttle. There’s no difficulty keeping straight. Acceleration was adequate but not outstanding, although to be fair it was quite a warm day.

The Maggie used about a third of the runway and climbed away at about 800fpm at a trimmed speed of 70kt. Its handling is agreeably smooth and light, the breakout forces are low and the ratio of stick force to speed seemed satisfactory. Although I hadn’t flown this machine for eight years, it honestly felt like I’d flown it last week.

Formation flying with the camera ship always reveals any control inadequacies, and if the Maggie does have any deficiencies I wasn’t aware of them. However, deliberately slipping and skidding so that Keith got some different angles soon revealed that although control may not be an issue, in some corners of the envelope stability certainly can be.

With the photo session complete I carried out 360-degree turns with varying amounts of bank in both directions. Both the ailerons and elevators are powerful and felt very light and smooth, and the controls are also nicely and correctly harmonised, with the ailerons being the lightest and the rudder the heaviest.

I always like to know what the handling is like at the slow end of the speed spectrum, so a clearing turn was swiftly followed by a couple of stalls. Flaps up, the Maggie finally quit flying at about 42kt, and although it dropped a wing at the stall this was easily corrected. Having slowed to 60kt I lowered the flaps. These extend almost instantly, inducing a pitch-down and generating lots of drag. The flaps-extended stall occurs at about 37kt.

While still at a safe height I decided to investigate my options in the event of a go-around. The flaps extend to sixty degrees, and the Maggie is quite reluctant to climb when they’re down. However, because they move so quickly when you select flaps up, the aircraft seems to fall out of your hands instantaneously and drop about fifty feet. The bottom really does fall out of your world, and if you retract the flaps near the ground the world could fall out of your bottom as well!

Suitably chastened, I accelerated to around 80kt for a look at the stick-free stability. This is positive in pitch and yaw, and just barely neutral in roll. However, when I tried applying sufficient rudder to generate some sideslip I could sense that the airflow over the tailplane and elevator was separating and that the longitudinal stability was degraded. (Peter explained that if the sideslip angle gets excessive, the rudder can blank the tailplane and elevators, causing the Maggie to suddenly pitch down, coupled with a significant decrease in elevator authority: not nice if you’re near the ground.)

RELUCTANT RETURN

The worst part of borrowing a nice aeroplane for flight test is that sooner or later you have to give it back. During the brief transit, I cruised at a comfortable 1,950rpm, which gave just under 100kt IAS for a fuel flow of approximately 30 lph. At this power setting, even a leg of some 200nm would leave you with about an hour’s fuel in reserve.

Sliding into the circuit at Old Warden, I sat up a little straighter in my seat. My experiments with flap and sideslip had convinced me that this was not a machine to take liberties with on final. I began decelerating towards 60kt, waited until I was abeam the numbers and then selected flaps down. As the airspeed tapered off, the nose dropped. Setting the trim fully aft, I banked towards the runway.

The Maggie is nicely speed-stable and by flying a curved ‘constant aspect’ approach with just a suggestion of power it was easy to judge when to roll the wings level while simultaneously drawing off the last bit of power. A fleeting, floating moment and the Magister settled gently on all three wheels. I must have touched down on a particularly smooth bit of runway, because without even a hint of a skip the aircraft rolled sedately to a stop. I taxied back towards a grinning Peter Holloway.

In light of the above you have to ask why production of the Maggie ceased in 1941. The Magister stalls at a higher speed than the Tiger, and of course also requires a faster approach speed. However, I would say that the Magister’s handling is actually less demanding − particularly on the ground. Furthermore, the low wing, flaps, brakes, and multiple fuel tanks certainly made the Maggie more representative of the type of aircraft that students would fly later in their training.

So why were only 1,300 Magisters built, as opposed to over 7,000 Tigers? I can only imagine that the it was deemed to be too easy to fly or too expensive to build−or perhaps the longitudinal stability issues made it ‘too dangerous’ for students?

Whatever the reason for its short production life, the Maggie is a wonderful plaything today. The War Ministry might have turned its back on the Magister in 1941, but I absolutely loved it.

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