Big Silver Kite

Photo: Doug Fisher

When the Westland Lysander was first conceived, it offered on paper an exceptional flying platform for reconnaissance, artillery spotting and general liaison duties. Despite its rather strange and perhaps ungainly appearance, the Lysander was aerodynamically advanced, being equipped with fully-automatic wing slots and slotted flaps as well as variable incidence tailplane. With these systems and its robust landing gear, the Lysander also had extraordinary short field capability.

Despite these aerodynamic advances, the Lysander proved to be a total failure as a combat aircraft—easy pickings for Lutfwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters during the Battle of France. Those that survived this mauling were shortly relegated to duties that kept them from the front—target towing and training, coastal patrol, search and rescue over the English Channel and North Sea. A small number of Lysanders did see operational service as clandestine special ops aircraft, bringing agents, weapons, radios and explosives to resistance fighters in occupied France—all under the cover of darkness and to unprepared landing fields. In these roles, the aircraft did journeyman service piloted by young men with not much more than 200 hours total flying time. 
While nearly all pilots who came through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada had similar short flying experience when they met the aircraft in which they would begin their service flying, those that found themselves flying the Lysander, found themselves with an aircraft that was not an intuitive flying machine as the Harvards, Finches and Cornells of their training had been. The Lysander’s unique flying characteristics resulted in many “prangs” during its wartime service when inexperienced pilots found themselves behind the curve.
Even today, the three remaining flying Lysander aircraft (two in Ontario (one of which is under repair) and one in Great Britain) remain a continuing challenge for modern warbird pilots with many thousands of hours more flying time than anyone who emerged from the BCATP with new wings. Any of the few current Lysander pilots worldwide will tell you that flying the Lysander safely requires all their years of airmanship and a good handle on situational awareness.
Over the past few flying seasons, Vintage Wings of Canada pilot Dave Hadfield has flown the Lysander Funds-sponsored Lysander to smaller flying events throughout Southern Ontario. Using the big aircraft to inspire young Canadians, Hadfield has become one of the most experienced Lysander pilots in the world, but, as the following story will demonstrate, flying the Lysander requires constant attention to its idiosyncratic systems, maintenance of a fine balance of trim and power and deep respect for this big silver “kite”. 

The big silver Westland Lysander has been “campaigned” by Vintage Wings of Canada pilot Dave Hadfield on behalf of sponsor Lysander Funds of Toronto, Canada for the past three years. It was Lysander Funds’ goal from the outset that this aircraft and the stories of its pilots and support crews should reach people in small and medium communities across Southern Ontario. From his base at Edenville, Ontario, Hadfield branched out to events across the province and by all reports, the “Lizzie’s” summer tours were hugely successful. Photo: Dave Hadfield

Whenever the Lysander was on static display at air shows and other events, Hadfield and support crew were proud to display the simple banner that told the history of the aircraft type and paid a little homage to sponsor John Carswell’s Lysander Funds. Note that the logo for Lysander Funds is the iconic and unique wing shape of the Lysander. Photo: Dave Hadfield

Wherever we brought the Lysander, especially at cadet camps in Ontario, it was a big hit with the youth, some of whom were lucky enough to hitch a ride with Hadfield. This particular scene was at Trenton, Ontario where Vintage Wings of Canada also provided a Fleet Finch and a Harvard for rides for deserving young boys and girls. Photo: Dave Hadfield


Big Silver Kite

By Dave Hadfield

There is a strong crosswind for takeoff. It’s a gusty and hot summer day, with rain showers scattered in all quadrants. They’ll turn into thunderstorms in a few hours. I have an Air Cadet in the back seat for a 10-minute familiarization flight. It’s my eighth leg of the day. And I’m in a Westland Lysander.

Taxiing out has been a struggle. The brakes are poor—they have always been poor. (They were poor during the Second World War, and they are poor no matter how much we work on them.) We have been going downwind mostly. I have used every taildragger trick I know to get out to the runway – small ground-loops; stick hard forward, bursts of power, full rudder; moving into the wind-shadow of an isolated building before I try forcing the tail up into wind… My feet are on a pivoting rudder-bar, and there are no brake pedals or tailwheel steering; instead, I squeeze a lever on the round spade-grip of the stick. If the rudders are displaced, a valve delivers more brake to that side. It’s an air system, inflating a rubber tube which forces pads up into a drum. On the back of the engine an air pump is trying pitifully and unsuccessfully to keep up—if it wasn’t for the extra electric pump we retro-fitted, I’d be an unguided object. They work for a bit, then fade.

Trundling along a taxiway on a sunny day at Midland, Ontario, the Lysander appears easy to handle, but that’s not really the case. It was designed for wide-open grass fields. With a pitifully poor braking system prone to failure, extreme interior heat, and surfaces that catch every breath of wind, flying the Lysander is nothing compared to taxiing it. Photo: William Tickle

A true, old-fashioned rudder bar, pivoting in the middle. (Note to pilot: don’t drop anything). Photo: Dave Hadfield


I’m sweating. The side windows are full-down, the rear canopy is slid back, and the prop-blast is continuous, but the enormous ramp is baking in the July sun and it’s like taxiing across a sizzling griddle. The Nomex flight suit holds heat and sweat like a plastic bag. I wear a full helmet and wish I had wind in my hair.

It’s noisy and hot and stinky. I turn and hold a thumbs-up at my passenger. She grins and does the same. We’re both having huge fun!

A selfie by Hadfield reveals the superb all-around view afforded by the Lysander, designed from the ground up as an observation aircraft to be used for army co-operation (artillery spotting and reconnaissance). What it doesn’t show is the oppressive heat felt by the pilot at all times, but especially at low altitudes on a hot summer day. Photo: Dave Hadfield

We get cleared onto the runway. This is an RCAF base and the runway is very long, but I don’t care about that. I only care how wide it is. The crosswind is 45 degrees off the runway and shaking the aeroplane in gusts. I’m prodigal with the last of the high-pressure air and take position on the far (downwind) side of the runway. The nose of the 850 hp. Bristol Mercury is angled 30 degrees left of the centre line, into the crosswind. All the way out I was nursing the RPM, trying to keep the Cylinder Head Temperatures (CHTs) down. I was not entirely successful although we’re still within limits.

There is a pause for traffic, which is good because it gives the air pumps time to catch up in case I have to abort the takeoff. I run the RPM up to 1,200—the Mercury cylinder heads like that for ground cooling. I’m holding full left stick. The wings are rocking in the unsteady wind. With my one free hand, I pull the overhead section of the canopy forward, and the side windows half up. The flaps and slats are hanging at full extension—which is what they do. I look across the infield for dust-devils headed my way. Right now, the wings are halfway flying already, and if I see a thermal whipping up the grass I’ll be getting airborne—somehow!

The takeoff clearance comes. One quick check around the panel and it’s time. I hold the brakes and continue the hard-left aileron, bring the power up and as the needle on the big boost gauge goes through about 12 o’clock I release my right-hand fingers from the brake lever and we lurch forward. My left hand on the big throttle grip keeps going forward. A hell of a racket up front turns into a RAGING BELLOW. My foot—my LEFT foot—is hard on the pedal to keep straight.

We trundle forward. It’s deceptive. It looks like I’ve made a large mistake taking this big a cut across the runway. No way will we get airborne. (Hey, I’m going to end up in the GRASS!) The tail does not come up. The elevator is in the centre. The left wing has not risen of its own accord. And yet just as the centre line passes behind us the entire aeroplane levitates magically about 20 feet. It’s as if the earth dropped away suddenly, while we’re still in a 3-point attitude. We’re flying!

As the aircraft’s speed increases after takeoff, the slats and flaps begin to retractall on their own. Photo: Bruce Craig

All of a sudden, we’re horribly out of trim and my left hand drops off the throttle and frantically winds the big wheel forward. (I remembered the throttle friction-lock—lucky this time!) When the forward pressure on the stick eases off, my left hand goes ahead and pulls the prop switch back to Coarse (which aptly describes how I’ve felt during this sortie so far), then goes back to more winding on the trim wheel. And then throttle again to ease back the power to +1 lb of boost. The airspeed rises to 90 mph. The slats are mostly IN and I allow a climb to start. I check the oil pressure and temp and CHT to see if we will continue—all are surprisingly good! We accelerate to 110 mph and I glance along the line of my shoulder at the slats: fully up, a clean wing. I crank the gills a couple of turns to cruise climb and off we go.

“We accelerate to 110 mph and I glance along the line of my shoulder at the slats: fully up, a clean wing. I crank the gills a couple of turns to cruise climb and off we go”.​ Photo: Anita Thomas

I half-turn and hold my thumb up again inquiringly. In response I see big eyes, white teeth, and a small thumb held very high.

Flying the Westland Lysander is a unique blend of amazing capabilities and rather alarming liabilities. It’s intensely rewarding in its own way. There is no grand high-speed thrill like in the P-40 Kittyhawk; instead there is the satisfaction of trying to fly a very challenging aircraft in a challenging environment without bending it or causing expensive overhauls. It takes all the airmanship I’ve soaked up in 40 years of flying.

Well then, if it’s so hard, how did they fly the Lysander in the Second World War? The short answer is that they pranged a lot of them. In this aeroplane you can find yourself way out on a limb, sawing energetically on the wrong side of your perch. There are lots of pictures of Lysanders pancaked on the ground on their bellies with their wings drooped loosely over them.

First: the pilot has no control of the flaps or slats. You can’t extend, retract, lock them in, or force them out. All you can do is watch them as they creep forward and back. They move by themselves, driven by the aircraft’s angle-of-attack. The effects are huge. A demonstration I make to a pilot-passenger is to fly along at cruise, indicating about 135 mph, in trim, everything quite normal, and then hawk the stick back hard, let the speed decay to about 70 mph as I push it back over again. We were speed-stable before. And now we are speed-stable again in level flight at about half the IAS. No change to the power setting. And not much change in nose attitude. Just a huge sudden change in the wing. Odd.

A rest prior to start up, the position of the flaps and leading edge slats are not in the control of the pilot. Photo: unknown, via author

This has unusual ramifications. On takeoff, these devices start out fully extended and produce maximum lift. If you do the normal takeoff thing and force the tail up as you roll along, the angle-of-attack decreases, the devices retract, and then it takes you longer to get airborne.

And on approach if you are somewhat high, and lower the nose a bit, the devices retract, the airspeed goes up, and you land way long. Conversely if you are low and find yourself raising the nose, they deploy more, the speed drops, and you drop like a rock. You can only catch this by sacrificing altitude or adding power. But the Mercury is known for “Rich-Cut”, which means the accelerator pump in the carb is over-muscled if you jam the throttle forward, causing too rich a mixture, and killing the engine just when you need a big increase in power to stop your belly flop onto Mother Earth 200 yards short of the runway, compressing your spine and annoying the Owner.

In effect, you use the nose of the aircraft as a flap lever. Raise the nose to select more flaps/slats, lower the nose for less. Then adjust the throttle to get the flight-path-angle you want, and re-trim.

How it works is quite ingenious. Arthur Davenport of Westland wanted to design a slow-speed observation aircraft which would alleviate the pilot from watching airspeed and operating the flaps/slats while observing the battlefield at low level. It was the original HOTAS. He started with the 1920’s Handley-Page patent for self-activating slats (which can be seen on a wide variety of aircraft, such as the Gipsy Moth, the Bf-109, and later F-86 Sabres). These of course harness the upward thrust of the lift vector and direct it through some clever gearing to moving the slat panel forward-and-down. BUT, using springs and levers and even-more-clever gearing, these slats also drive the flaps down. They become directly connected. (During restoration, when the skin was off the wing, it was marvelous to see the interconnection, and exercise it.) Only Westland did this, to my knowledge (although I would be happy to learn otherwise).

The devices are divided into Inboard and Outboard sections: the Inner slats/flaps are cross-connected so that you can’t get asymmetric deployment, and the Outboard sections are slats-only and move independently. They all move smoothly and incrementally—not in jumps.

Next: the elevator isn’t powerful enough to control the aircraft at either end of the envelope. After the first test flights made this clear (1935), the solution was to use the horizontal stabilizer as an adjustable surface. It’s mounted via a jackscrew connected to a large trim wheel by the pilot’s left hip. This is stiff, and takes about 15 seconds to wind from one extreme to the other, depending on the degree of panic.

The infamous Lysander pitch trim wheel and index. You need this plus the joystick to control the aircraft’s movements, and it takes 15 seconds to wind it from one end to the other. Photo: Dave Hadfield

Most of the control panel is quite original. Note the location of the brake air pressure gauge at upper left—there is a reason it is so up-front-and-prominent. Photo: Dave Hadfield

You need this authority to control the aircraft. For example, if you left the trim in the middle, and you flared for landing, and pulled the power to idle, the nose would pitch down even if you had the stick pulled behind your kidneys. You’d end up on your back. The authority of the horizontal stabilizer is required to be able to make a power-off flare. Conversely, if the trim was in the middle and you applied full power as in a go-around, the nose would point at the moon even if you had the stick rammed into the panel.

This all means that you deliberately mis-trim the aircraft. You trim for the NEXT phase of flight. On takeoff, you start with the trim too far aft. This would allow you to flare and land if the engine were to quit under 100 ft. Later, during approach, if planning a power-off landing you fly at about 80 mph. Then, when you are certain you will be landing—the commit-point—you hold the stick where it is while winding the trim back-and-back-and-back (pushing more and more forward) so that you will be able to flare the aircraft when the power comes off. Again, odd.

You can of course leave the power up a bit and wheel it on, and leave the trim alone, but if the engine were to quit during that last 100 ft, you’d be screwed. You’d be in the wrong nose-up attitude, without time or control authority to correct.

During a go-around, you do it in thirds: move the power up a good bit, trim and accelerate, up a bit more, trim and accelerate to get the drag devices mostly in, then go to climb power and trim for a normal climb. You never, EVER jam the throttle in a Lysander.

And there’s another aspect of the elevator—on approach if it is displaced from the in-trail position, then every time you add or subtract power/prop/blast, you change the elevator’s effectiveness even though the stick hasn’t moved. All aircraft do this to some extent, but in the Lysander­­­­­­­­­ it’s particularly noticeable. You end up really trying to avoid jockeying the throttle around; otherwise you’re pogoing on approach and feeling like a Slinky going down steps. Fortunately, the aircraft sideslips quite well; rather like a Waco or Stearman. And if you’re a bit high on approach it’s often easier to simply slip it off. That way the engine RPM and slat/flap position don’t change.

Anyway, once you’re in Cruise, all is well. The control harmony is unusual: a bit stiff in roll, normal in pitch, and feather-light in yaw, but you get used to it. The slip-skid indicator is a Reid & Sigrist. It’s a marvelous instrument, but the yaw-indicator is the needle on the top, not the bottom as in a needle-and-ball. And it’s a LEFT-FOOT aeroplane! All quite normal for a Tiger Moth pilot, but unusual in North America. The aircraft does lovely Lazy-8’s. It cavorts and pirouettes over a very small patch of real estate. (At an air show display this year a fellow-pilot commented that it was very entertaining to watch the slats and flaps moving continuously during the manœuvres.) We don’t roll it. We don’t even think about looping it.

A lovely photo of Hadfield in the Vintage Wings of Canada Lysander flying over the western tip of Lake Ontario near the small city of Grimsby, OntarioPhoto: Doug Fisher

Hadfield flying over the Niagara Region of Ontario, an agricultural region that, on the surface, has not changed much since the days when Lysanders were coming off the National Steel Car factory at Malton, about sixty kilometres away. Today, the region is famed for its wine production but during the Second World War the area was known for its fruit orchards and farms. Photo: Doug Fisher

What speed does it stall at? Haven’t the foggiest. The only way you could stall it is to use considerable power to provide the necessary prop-blast over the elevator while using full back-trim. Then after it did stall, you’d sink vertically for a considerable wedge of the Troposphere before you’d get a lift-vector again. There’s no money in it. We don’t go there. Nor do we Spin. The Air Ministry Pilot’s Notes say not to do it, but that if you do the recovery inputs are normal. That’s good enough for me. A touchdown at 60 mph is slow enough. The slats and flaps are so draggy that once the power comes off, your forward movement across the planet pretty much stops. There’s no need to go slower than 60 mph, and there is quite sufficient margin above the stall.

How does it compare to a Fiesler Storch? Answer, it doesn’t. The Storch can only go slow. The Lysander can do 200 IAS if you combust enough 100-octane. (Try that in a Storch and you’d rip the wings off.) The Lysander can go slow AND fast. That’s how it got to France and back in one night. But to be prudent, we usually cruise at about -2 lbs. of Boost, which gives about 135 mph and under 30 Imp Gal/hr. (The tank is just over 90 gals, so the range is decent.)

What’s all this pounds-of-boost stuff? Strictly British, old bean. Instead of inches-of-mercury as in N. American aircraft, the Brits early-on went to lbs-of-mercury relative to the 14.7 lbs. or so of ambient pressure. In use, it doesn’t matter. Different units, same info.

But of course, if we’re getting Boost, that means a supercharged engine. The Bristol Mercury was a refinement of the Jupiter, getting the same horsepower out of less displacement by means of a geared supercharger, plus a geared-down prop. The result for a –XX is 835 hp. out of about 950 lbs. of machinery. It’s plenty. At our modern display weights, we are nowhere close to wartime loading. The book says I can go to 4 ¼ lbs. of boost for takeoff. I haven’t been there yet. In reality, I move the throttle gently and by the time I get to just over 2 lbs., we’re airborne.

The Bristol Mercury: 850 horses, geared and supercharged. It was a sturdy, dependable workhorse for two barnstorming seasons. Photo: Gus Corujo

The prop is odd. (Have I mentioned oddness yet?) It’s not constant-speed. It’s a de Havilland 2-position: Coarse and Fine. The limits are ground-adjustable. We use Fine for takeoff; however, if we left it like that and accelerated with takeoff power on, the engine would rev beyond its 2,600 rpm limit, so very shortly after becoming airborne we select Coarse. The mechanism is oil/hydraulic, but takes quite a while to cycle—often 30 seconds or so. Later, on approach, we avoid selecting Fine until the speed is back to 80 mph. This avoids back-loading the prop, or over-revving it.

Photographer Eric Dumigan helps Dave Hadfield turn the Lysander’s prop through three blades. The lower cylinders of a radial engine may fill with oil during a prolonged sit. If this happens, and the engine is started, cylinders will be damaged and a very expensive overhaul will result. Solution: pull the prop through by hand before start, and if the prop won’t turn, pull some sparkplugs and let the oil out. Photo: Bernadette Lebarre Dumigan

Is it comfortable? No. A Lysander is an honour to fly; it would be too much to expect comfort. Early on I sacrificed a leather belt out of my closet to get some lumbar support (wrapping it around the seat-back tubing). It’s a tin bucket seat and you wear a seat-pack parachute. But it’s HOT. The first year I campaigned it, I roasted. Much of the oil plumbing to the 2 (very efficient) oil coolers routes through the cockpit. Plus, the firewall has no heat or other insulation. (“Noisy did you say? What? I can’t hear you!”) But we later found some seemingly minor air leaks in that firewall. By sealing them all up we reduced much of the furnace-blast. You can lower the side-windows completely in flight but then there is a hurricane in the cockpit. So, on the hot summer days, you cook. A flight suit is prudent, plus there is no floor in the cockpit, so all those pockets are useful. (On July days, I often take a water bottle and soak my arms and shoulders before mounting-up.) There is a map compartment and another pouch, plus a Garmin GPS. The seat goes up and down—a huge range of movement: while taxiing you can crank it up so high it seems like you could reach out and change the light bulbs on the terminal roof. You can actually see over the nose. The rear canopy slides and the passenger can select whichever position desired.

I ask the Cadet, “I can stay up here and do some manœuvres, or we can go down low and look at the crops. Which would you like?” Almost universally the cadets say some variation of, “Go crazy!” I don’t, really, but they want some yank-and-bank. Adults, when asked the same question, opt to go sedately look at the daisies. (No problem. I enjoy both.) So, for the cadet, I start a flow of wingovers, smooth and steady, ball in center (needle, actually) and no sudden onset of G (haven’t made a kid hurl yet!). The aeroplane does this very well. I leave cruise power on and never move the stick fast; just ease it up and over and around. The bank angle never gets beyond 45, and the pitch angle never even gets to 30, but because we’re continuously moving, and the picture is changing, it seems like more. We make the turns into wind and thus don’t drift very far, I never do them over the same house twice, the engine purrs, the cylinder heads are cool, the fuel burn is minimal, and we both smile at the end.

Now to get back onto the Earth… I call the Tower and sort out where the other aircraft are. It’s a busy RCAF base, so there are jet and C-130 and C-17 movements all the time. I hold for a while over the Bay of Quinte, admiring the sailboats as they tack, and noticing that some sails are reefed (which means something technical I’m sure). I get cleared to join on a left base for 24.

I start to plan. The goal is not just to land. It’s to land where I don’t have to taxi too far, and can turn off at the best place to access the destination Ramp, and also at a bit of an angle to cut down the crosswind. The GUMPFF check is simple: Gas is only supplied by one tank. (I would find it more convenient if I could actually see the float-gauge, but by holding a make-up mirror over my left shoulder I can get a glimpse of it.) Undercarriage is down and welded. Mixture is not in WEAK, which is always comforting. Pitch I will change to Fine once I’m short final and the speed is back. Flaps (wing) I have no control over. And Flaps (cowl) I crank open for the potential go-around and on-ground cooling.

I peer back for the last time and hold up a thumb. “All OK?” Again, an emphatic thumbs-up in reply.

I keep quite high on approach—dragging a Lysander in low and relying on power gives me that “naked” feeling. The Tower says, “Expedite!”—I can see a C-130J waiting to get on the runway. I reply with my call sign, but think to myself, Expedite? In a Lysander? I’m just happy to land… But I add power and fly down the runway towards the turn-off. I keep 80 mph. The pitch is in Fine. The air-tank-pressure for the brakes is good. The crosswind isn’t too bad at the moment but there are gusts. (Surprisingly, the Lysander does reasonably well in a crosswind, even 3-point. The rudder is quite effective.) I pick my touchdown point and angle-off a bit to cut down the crosswind component. At 200 AGL I commit, and hold the stick where it is and start winding the trim back. At about 20 ft I pull the power off and raise the nose. The speed decay is almost instantaneous and we touch with a mild thump. A bit of rudder work with stick hard to the left and we’re down to jogging speed. I let the aircraft continue on its vector across the runway and onto the taxiway.

Caption  PHOTO?

Gills wide open, talk to ground, transponder off, windows all open, and taxi back. We’re into the wind this time, not downwind, and it’s a piece of cake—the rudder actually functions. I pull the prop back to Coarse for the shutdown (it takes a while). The marshaller waves me in, I leave the rpm at a moderate 800 for a minute to equalize the CHTs, and then pull the Idle Cut Out. The Mercury runs down and stops.

I half-turn, “How was that?” “GREAT!!!” is the reply. The Handler helps the girl out and down, and before she’s halfway back to the building her phone is out and she’s Facebooking and Instagraming and whatever else these kids do.

I pull out my water bottle and drain it.

“You OK for another?” my handler asks.

I hold a big thumb up in reply.


Big Silver Kite, by Dave Hadfield, was first published in the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Warbirds magazine in June of 2017. Thanks


The complete Warbird U Calendar for 2012
© 2019 Vintage Wings of Canada, all rights reserved. Vintage Wings of Canada, Warbird U., and Vintech Aero are trademarks of Vintage Wings of Canada