Kiwis, canucks and Our Kittyhawk

 Canucks & Kiwis

As I stepped off the B-767 in Auckland, I was aware of two feelings: a deep fatigue generated by 3 days travel from Canada, and a mounting excitement rising from the understanding that I was very close to the Curtiss P-40N-1 that I would be flying in 2008. What to do? My wife and I could go straight to our host’s house and try to catch up on our sleep, or we could go direct to Ardmore airfield and see the aircraft being worked-on at Pioneer’s facility.

The Kittyhawk won. We went to Ardmore.

It’s not surprising, of course. The power of the P-40 was what had drawn us to New Zealand. Although it’s a country we’d always meant to visit someday, it probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been lucky enough to be named Project Manager for the acquisition of Vintage Wings of Canada’s newest fighter a year earlier. What followed was a continuous stream of dialogue with the folks at Pioneer Aero: hundreds of emails, dozens of phone calls, hundreds of hours of research, the writing of several papers… sleep? I couldn’t sleep anyway, knowing the aircraft was so near.

So I sat in the front left seat of Paul McSweeney’s car (Ops Manager at Pioneer Aero Restorations), watching us spin around all the go-left traffic circles (“Pay attention,” I said to myself, “You’re going to have to drive a car here in a day or two!”). Ardmore wasn’t far and we pulled up to the modest-looking hangar within half an hour. The modesty went out the window once we went inside: there were 2 (two!) P-40s in the hangar, one belonging to Garth Hogan, Owner of Pioneer, and the other… (…drum roll!) ours…

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View of the VWC Curtiss P-40N-1 Kittyhawk, looking out the door of Pioneer’s hangar. The fuselage is mostly complete and the engine is hung on. The P-40 in front is owned by Pioneer CEO Garth Hogan, and the engine has been removed for maintenance. Photo: Dave Hadfield

The fuselage sat on a wheeled frame, well off the ground. It was intact, still in the green primer paint. The tail feathers were in place, and the big Allison V-12 was hung on the front. I peered into the cockpit. The instrument panel was there, largely intact. I ducked down underneath and came up in the cockpit. There straight ahead was my first view over the nose of the fighter… and ahead to the left, in “formation lead” was Garth’s P-40. (I immediately started looking for formation line-up cues, such as wingtip-in-front-of-spinner, as if we were airborne.) My hand gripped the throttle – it felt good. My right hand moved to an imaginary stick. I evaluated the tail-up view as if we were accelerating for take-off… (not bad at all – a lot better than the Fox Moth…). I felt for the gear handle, the flaps, glanced down to set 35” and 2500 rpm… My nostrils were full of the smell of new-worked metal, primer paint, the hot metal being drilled at the adjacent wing-jig, but I imagined the smell of 100 octane exhaust, the roar of 1400 horsepower, the kick of the rudder at full power…

Next I had a good look at the magnificent Allison V-1710-81. The Bud Wheeler engine, freshly out of Ace Allison’s shop, gleamed in the shop lights. It is the correct model for the type. Two gorgeous all-brass radiators were positioned underneath. (The pure-aluminum P-40N rads have all disintegrated, but brass lives on.)

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The Allison V-1710-81 has been beautifully prepared by Bud Wheeler of Allison Competitive Engines. Below are the placements for the 2 coolant radiators. Photo: Dave Hadfield

But it was time to get to work. First, I wanted to meet the people in the shop. I made the rounds. Two gentlemen were working in the wing jigs, which are strongly-welded frames up on edge, with the wing being built vertically, leading-edge down and trailing edge up. I shook hands and discussed the work. A P-40 has 5 (five!) wing spars, which go a long way towards supporting their reputation for enduring punishment during the ground-attack role in WWII. Each construction is a finicky, close-tolerance, piece-by-piece affair. Several hands are required, and each piece has to be fitted, refined, drilled, and test-riveted many times before it is locked into place. The men worked as a team and the metal and tools passed back and forth smoothly. This was at least the 8th P-40 built at Pioneer.

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Happy workers make better aeroplanes! Pictured is Chris Evans, who is more often inside our P-40 cockpit assembling the instruments and controls. In view behind is one of the wing-building jigs.. Photo: Dave Hadfield

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Excellence in this line of business starts with the experience and work ethic of the people putting the airplanes together. Pioneer's staff are among the finest in the world. Clockwise from the upper left are Brent Mealing working on the RH wing, Will Lowen working on the LH wing ammo bay doors, Steve Cox working on the LH wing fuel bay match angle and Les Marshall working on the undercarriage doors. Photos: Pioneer

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Another view of the engine installation. One of the radiators is placed below the engine. These are brass – the original aluminum rads built for use in the lightened P-40N-model aircraft have not stood the test of time. Photo: Dave Hadfield

I looked around for the original structure. (In 1944 this aircraft was bulldozed off the side of a runway in New Guinea after encountering a soft-filled shell-hole while landing. It went onto its back. The rest of the squadron, low on fuel, had to land. The inverted airplane was pushed away immediately, and ultimately abandoned, not to be recovered until the 1990s.) There were tables full of parts and skins against the shop walls. Sure enough, they were pitted and corroded, giving evidence of their 50-year immersion in the jungle undergrowth. This made me look closely at the wings – after all, it’ll be me who’ll be looping this thing – and I was reassured that they were essentially new-built. Some of the original parts were worked into the fuselage (not the heavy structural ones, it was pointed out).

Paul took me on a guided tour. He was an Air Force Flight Sergeant, retiring after a full career of technical work. Garth Hogan, the owner, had a large auto-parts business, and got involved with vintage aircraft later on in life, but with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. Together they make an excellent team. I was shown containers full of parts all labeled and categorized, racks and shelves of wonderful stuff liberally coated with the “patina” (read dust and old paint) of authentic historic parts, and the wherewithal to make things new. Next they took me into the resource room for the first of our several meetings. Around the walls were aerial photos of Pioneer’s various restorations, and it was an impressive show – not just a series of P-40s, but Yaks, a Russian LA-9 (very hot looking machine) and others. There I fired up my laptop and we began to discuss the many questions about options and extras and instrument-panel layout and other issues that crop up during a restoration of this kind. It was all quite useful and friendly. And it served to keep everyone on the same page while adding to the authenticity of the airplane; for example, Stocky Edwards (whose aircraft we are attempting to emulate) was an outstanding judge of high-angle deflection shooting. (During his 1943 tour as a gunnery instructor, for a lark, he used to make his own runs on the target drogue while inverted.) One of the modifications he made was to have an extra “ball” (the lower portion of a needle-and-ball instrument) mounted up at the top of the panel, right below the gunsight. Just before squeezing the trigger he’d glance down to see if the aircraft was yawing one way or the other. We intend to duplicate details like that.

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Lavochkin 9 - hot and for sale -- John Lamont, of Warbirds over Wanaka, says the performance of this late WWII Soviet fighter exceeds that of a Bearcat or Sea Fury. And no wonder - the radial engine delivers 1850 hp, and the aircraft only weighs 5800 lb empty (A P-47 weighs 10,000 lb!). This airframe was traded by a Chinese museum to Ray Hanna, and rebuilt (though it was largely intact) by Pioneer. (That’s me just before climbing inside!). Photo: Dave Hadfield

I also wanted a belly tank. This aircraft has a second pilot’s seat with a rudimentary set of flight controls in place of the stock fuselage fuel tank. This limits the fuel capacity, and Canada is a big country – the airshows are far apart. Having an extra 90 gal of “life” hanging beneath the fuselage will add greatly to safety. (And here we were fortunate to find that Garth had a complete set of authentic WWII drop-tank fittings – very rare now.)

At any rate, that set the pattern for the next few days. I imagine that the re-builders thought I was nuts – I stood in the cockpit, binder open in one hand, muttering checklists to myself, pretending I was airborne. I practiced imaginary aerobatics with an imaginary stick, my feet twitching strangely. I poked and peered and prodded. I did my best to visualize flight-scenarios to make this a better, safer aircraft while preserving its WWII character.

I must admit though, that it wasn’t all Kittyhawk. Ardmore is a nexus of vintage aircraft, and a tour of the hangars netted a number of old aircraft, such as a DH Dove, several Moths, a Harvard, a P-51, a Cessna T-37, L-19, many Yak 18s, and so on. Fortunately Robin, my wife, had loaded the camera with a disc large enough for about a thousand pictures – which we stretched! And we each got up in the Tiger Moth belonging to Rob McNair, one of Pioneer’s employees. This was a gem, an absolute cream-puff of a stock, brake-less DH 82A (different from the BCATP DH 82C of the VWoC collection), and we went up and did aerobatics over the lovely green hills of NZ’s North Island.

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Owned and beautifully restored by Rob McNair (one of the men building the VWC P-40), this DH 82A Tiger Moth operates in its original configuration of no brakes and a tailskid. (Obviously taxying on pavement is done with great care!) Rob won a Tiger aerobatic contest in this aeroplane, and was kind enough to take my wife Robin and myself up for a flight to show us how. Photo: Dave Hadfield

The only item that might be listed as a “snag”, came from Garth’s own P-40. Its engine was apart. The Annual Inspection had discovered minor problems, and that meant I couldn’t go for a ride in one. But anticipation makes the heart grow fonder!

Next we made a number of Field Trips. First was an honest-to-God DH Mosquito factory. Glyn Powell, in an astonishing effort, has devoted the latter part of his life to re-creating the wooden-wonder. His shop is a marvelous collection of molds and patterns and jigs and plugs dedicated to scratch-building (full scale) the real airplane. He has built several fuselages, and during our visit we saw the magnificent one-piece wooden wing completed on its 60-ft assembly table (for Jerry Yagen). We were stunned at the accomplishment.

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It’s amazing what these Kiwis have in their back sheds. You drive up a long country laneway to this building amongst sheep and cattle, and expect to see a Massey Ferguson through the open door. But this is the location of Glyn Powell’s DH Mosquito “factory”. Surprise! Photo: Dave Hadfield

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Pictured is a half-fuselage solid mold. The supporting members of the fuselage are bent into recesses cut into the plug, then the wood veneers are bonded on top. There are 2 molds: one for each fuselage half. Hanging up to the right is an actual Mosquito wing recovered from a remote location in Canada, and used for reference. Photo: Dave Hadfield

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This monumental piece of superb wood craftsmanship is a DH Mosquito wing. It’s built as one unit, and as shown is mostly complete. Both the materials and manufacturing technique are of the highest quality. (The table it was built on (in the next room) is nearly 60 ft long, true in flatness and twist to within a millimeter.) Stunning piece of work.  Photo: Dave Hadfield

That was followed by a DH 84 Dragon giving Young Eagle rides. What a lovely big bird! And its performance on merely a couple of stock Gipsy Majors was impressive – as was its wings, which were folded in 5 minutes at day’s-end before we pushed it into a little hangar.

Not to mention a Vickers Vincent, a 1930s British biplane Pegasus-powered bomber so huge – and magnificently ugly – that the sheer effrontery of its design leaves one speechless with wonder. (Little did I imagine that I would ever see a biplane larger than the Collection’s Fairey Swordfish.) We reeled at the very sight of it.

But there was more to see, spreading south from Ardmore, so after a few days Robin and I uttered our most heartfelt thanks to our hosts the McSweeneys, picked up our rental car, and set off to dare the traffic circles and scare senseless the poor unsuspecting sheep.

There were many other sights, aviation-related and otherwise, during the next 3 weeks, but my mind kept drifting back to the sight of that P-40 in the Ardmore hangar. As I drove, I flew the Kittyhawk. Before I drifted into sleep at night, I fired up the Allison. Right side up, up side down, on take off, during landing, across country, low level, in front of airshow crowds or at little country airports, I flew the P-40.

Maybe that was a bit hard on Robin and the rental car, but we survived.

We played tourist, sometimes staying at backpacker’s hostels, sometimes fishing lodges; once I dug out my dinner jacket and we stayed in a Grand Hotel that reminded me of Chateau Lake Louise.

In Blenheim, we saw Peter Jackson’s WWI Flying Museum at Omaka, including 7 (!) flying Fokker DR1 Triplanes. The sets and presentation are wonderfully elaborate (these Lord-Of-The-Rings people do good work), but there we encountered the most amazing co-incidence: in the lunch room, after the tour, we were introduced to the man who pulled our P-40 out of the New Guinea jungle! Rob Greinert , a most interesting fellow, just happened to be visiting from Australia. (It’s what Kiwis call “the West Island”). He told me the story: he was at Tadji rescuing parts for a Bolingbroke project, when a local resident walked over and said, “While you’re here, would you like to see the fighter that ended up in my backyard?” Rob gets this sort of remark all the time when on an expedition, and usually it doesn’t pan out, but when he finally got a chance to look the thing over, he was astounded to see that it was a virtually intact late-model P-40. The only trouble was the “backyard” was a swamp. A bulldozer would sink and vanish. Heavy machinery would be useless. It was a many-feet-and-hands operation. However Rob understood how to get things done, and by hiring the entire village, and by supplying the necessary antidotes to the dangers of dehydration (in large quantities), an extensive team eventually waded into the muck and literally “walked the thing out”. (Rob Greinert could give Indiana Jones lessons.)

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RAAF maintenance crews pose with P-40 Kittyhawk "Come in Suckers" somewhere in Papua New Guinea during the Second World war. This is the airframe that was recovered and is presently under restoration for Vintage Wings of Canada. For more on the Kittyhawk, visit the Kittyhawk page on our website under “THE AIRCRAFT”.

Eventually, we arrived at Garth’s lovely home at Wanaka, on the South Island, and met a number of the people behind the “Warbirds Over Wanaka” airshow. One of them, John Lamont, has extensive P-40 experience (and will be test-flying the VWoC Kittyhawk), so I cornered him one morning in his home office and he was kind enough to brief me at length on the airplane and let me copy many of his extensive notes.

Later we boarded Garth’s Cessna 337 and flew through a steep mountain pass (my finger firmly on the topo map every inch of the way, blessing the 2 engines) down to Mandeville’s perfect grass runway, where we met Colin Smith, the man who re-built the Collection’s Fox Moth. He and his and wife Maeva operate Croydon Air Services, and have nearly the entire range of vintage DH aircraft either flying, in stock or under restoration. Included was a DH 88 Comet, a complete and wonderful surprise. There was a smell of wood dust and fabric dope and green grass. Everywhere we looked there were perfect wooden hulls and wings. About a dozen people were in overalls, busy with long lengths of spruce or hunched over workbenches. They had just built a Rapide fuselage from scratch. The place was a time-capsule.

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DH Comet at Croydon – This project started in Alberta, but the builder passed away, and Colin Smith, the de Havilland guru at Mandeville, acquired it. He has the Gipsy Queens to power it, and thus intends to re-create the aircraft that won the MacRobertson England-to-Australia Air Race of 1934. Photo: Dave Hadfield

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The final product in the Dragon/Rapide line was the Dragonfly, a smaller executive-transport aeroplane of the late 1930s, using the simpler Gipsy Major. (This, plus the Staggerwing in the USA, was the Lear Jet of its day.) Pictured in the Croydon flight museum, this one, at Mandeville, still flies. Photo: Dave Hadfield

Eventually we had to come home, but as far as 2008 is concerned, one day in late summer a transport truck and container will magically roll up in front of the hangar in Gatineau. We’ll pull the prize out of the box, roll up our shirtsleeves, and start putting things together. With any kind of luck at all, a Curtiss P-40N Kittyhawk, wearing the desert colours of Stocky Edwards’ 260 Squadron, will grace Canadian skies next year before the snow flies.

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DH 84 Dragon for sale – This is the aircraft that came after the Fox Moth in DH lineage. It’s a small airliner designed to carry 6-8 people out of grass strips on the power of 2 Gipsy IIIs of 130 hp. It did very well -- and still does! On the day of the photo it was busy giving lucky young people their first rides in a vintage aeroplane. And when it was finished, the wings were folded by one man in :05 minutes, and it was pushed into a small hangar. (This design was later upgraded with stronger engines and slimmer wings to become the Dragon Rapide/Dominie.)

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This odd aircraft surprised its pilots by flying quite well. It’s a Transavia Airtruck, a crop-duster first produced in New Zealand. (It was tied-down at Ardmore and begged to be photographed!)

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Robin and I dropped into Loburn, near Christchurch, which is where Campbell Classic Headsets are built. (Last summer she bought me one – not pictured – for my birthday. Wonderful piece of kit! ) They also build 80% scale Mustangs and Spitfires there, so we climbed aboard for a portrait, borrowing Ivan and Sandy Campbell’s own headgear.

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