“The most exciting one of all”

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Ballerina – Run like the Wind

Ballerina – Run like the Wind

Of all the Formula One-class air racers still flying in the UK, none quite boasts the legendary charisma of Cosmic Wind Ballerina.

“To my mind, it is quite the most exhilarating small aircraft in the British Isles”. Those words, written in 1963 by Flight magazine’s tester Mark Lambert, might just have easily been penned today, for LeVier Cosmic Wind G-ARUL Ballerina is as wondrous a machine even now.

For its long-time custodian Pete Kynsey, former British aerobatic champion and current chief pilot of The Fighter Collection, Ballerina never ceases to delight. Fellow aerobatic and warbird flyer Richard Grace said he may even have been more excited to fly the Cosmic Wind for the first time than he was the family Spitfire. Anna Walker calls it “the most exciting one of all” the machines she’s sampled. Such is the legend of this tiny air racer, one associated throughout a colourful career with some great names.

The first, of course, is Tony LeVier. A pilot since 1930, when he was aged just 17, this young man from Minnesota soon took up aerobatics and air racing. At the controls of a Rider R-4 named Firecracker, he placed second in the 1939 Thompson Trophy closed-course race. Joining Lockheed in 1941, during wartime he ferried Hudsons, tested Venturas, made the maiden flight of the XP-80 and helped perfect the P-38 Lightning, becoming chief engineering test pilot before hostilities were over. All the while his passion for competition remained undimmed. When air racing resumed post-war, he used a surplus, modified P-38L, again claiming the Thompson Trophy runner’s-up spot in 1946. LeVier’s displays in this bright red aircraft also became renowned.

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But air racing was changing. Types such as P-38s and P-51s were out of most competitors’ reach, and there came recognition of the need for a lower-cost class, still able to provide excitement while offering a cheaper way into the sport. What’s more, members of the Professional Race Pilots’ Association were worried it had become dull. The September 1947 issue of Flying magazine quoted PRPA president Art Chester as saying: “Spectators started leaving the [National Air Races] in 1946 before they were over, just because there was no competition”. In the January 1948 words of Popular Science, “they could see the time coming when the turnstiles wouldn’t make music any more.”

The specifications laid down by the PRPA, and approved by the National Aeronautics Association, were stringent. Foremost among them were a maximum engine displacement of 190 cubic inches and a wing loading no higher than 12lb per square foot. Airframes had to withstand 6g, while pilot experience was to be checked closely by the governing bodies, for they had no wish to see the fatalities experienced in higher-powered categories. Sponsorship and US$25,000 in prize money came from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Thus was ‘midget’ air racing born.

No surprise, perhaps, that it piqued the interest — as pilot and engineer — of Tony LeVier. He and eight fellow Lockheed employees formed LeVier and Associates, their aim to build a midget race winner. Among them was to be found a wealth of experience. Not just LeVier, but the likes of engineering test pilot Herman ‘Fish’ Salmon (himself a pre-war air racer), P-80 production test pilot Charles Tucker, and design engineer Irving Culver were men at the cutting edge of 1940s aerospace technology. Working, Popular Science said, “in six separate garages around Los Angeles”, their vision came to life.

The result they called the Cosmic Wind. Powered by an 85hp Continental C-85 four-cylinder air-cooled piston engine, this sleek, all-metal, low-wing monoplane, just over 4ft tall and 16ft long, was a stunning example of the midget breed. LeVier took the first, registered NX67888, for its maiden flight on 3 July 1947. The second, NX67889, followed soon after.

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By the time of the Cosmic Wind’s debut at the 1947 National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio, LeVier’s own mount NX67888 had been named Little Toni and given race number 3. NX67889, to be piloted by Salmon, carried number 10. It was un-named, but Flying’s contemporary report already used the moniker Minnow. Certainly, it bore the logo of magneto manufacturer Slick.

Both reached the Goodyear Trophy final, and around 25 laps of the 2.2-mile course performed well if not victoriously. Behind Bill Brennand, flying Steve Wittman’s modified pre-war machine Buster, and Paul Penrose on Art Chester’s Swee’ Pea came Salmon and LeVier. The fastest Cosmic Wind posted an average speed of 158.798mph, just over 7mph down on the winner. The Popular Science article reported that LeVier and colleagues “had to make the ship bigger to bring it up to the minimum and add wing area to hold down the loading”, reducing its ultimate pace.

More was promised for 1948, including a third Cosmic Wind. N22C was built for another member of the LeVier and Associates team, Lockheed flight test engineer Glenn Fulkerson. Its name Ballerina was down to the fact that Fulkerson’s wife was exactly that. With race number 5, Bob Downey flew it into seventh place at the 1948 Goodyear final.

Ahead of it were both earlier machines. Little Toni had been re-registered as N20C and Minnow as N21C, while their looks had altered, too. A tail-heaviness problem was cured by extended engine mounts (and, thus, longer noses) improving the centre of gravity. More streamlined bubble canopies further helped them along. LeVier had retired from racing, so it was Billie Robinson who took Little Toni to fifth, but the big prize went to Salmon. Aboard Minnow he triumphed, setting a new record average speed of 169.688mph.

There was to be no such luck in 1949. In the name of still greater speed, Minnow received a new fuselage and mid-wing arrangement, but the last Goodyear Trophy brought only fifth place, right behind Vincent Ast in Ballerina. Before long, Minnow was back to its previous appearance.

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For the National Air Races, and thus the Goodyear competition, 1949 was the end of the road. The consequences of Bill Odom’s P-51 crashing into a house, causing three deaths including the pilot’s, and then the start of the Korean War, saw to that. The initial three Cosmic Winds were sold to Pacific Air Races, but midget racing — not for the last time — found itself temporarily on the wane. Soon the aircraft languished at Van Nuys.

Enter a certain Milton Blair. At some point, this California-based aircraft dealer and pilot bought Minnow, Ballerina, tooling and spares from LeVier’s original programme, which, period reports confirm, was to have made five aircraft rather than three. Blair’s aim was to produce a Cosmic Wind-derived light counter-insurgency aircraft, later known as the American Electric Piranha and evaluated in 1966 under a US Air Force project codenamed ‘Little Brother’. This abortive effort resulted in the end of Minnow’s flying life when it was dismantled and had its wings used for structural testing. Our subject here was luckier.

According to Ballerina’s records, Blair started flying the aircraft in 1961. “It appears he flew it to Trinidad and back to California with a long-range tank in the back”, says Pete Kynsey. Ballerina was then shipped to Britain, being re-assembled by Viv Bellamy’s Hampshire Aeroplane Club at Eastleigh. There Blair put on a spectacular demonstration, and the Tiger Club’s founding father Norman Jones was much taken. As Peter Phillips, another of the aircraft’s leading exponents, wrote in Flight, “Jones was quick to recognise a thoroughbred and bought it on the spot.”

His instincts were entirely accurate. With the Redhill-based Tiger Club, Ballerina was to achieve some of its most notable feats. By the year’s end it had been registered as G-ARUL, ready to join the UK air racing circuit and become a star performer at displays. In this it became a favourite mount of two true greats, Peter Phillips and Neil Williams. Both flew it during the Cosmic Wind’s British public debut, made in a Tiger Club show at Panshanger in April 1962. To Williams, as related in his book ‘Airborne’ (Airlife, 1977), “As a handling machine she approached perfection”. A favourite display manoeuvre was a dead-stick outside loop, so fast and controllable was it.

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On the racing scene, that 1962 season brought class victory at Shoreham for Williams and Ballerina. The King’s Cup meeting at Coventry proved less successful, ‘Pee Wee’ Judge being eliminated in the Air League Cup qualifying race. But the big target in ’62 was not so much air racing as aerobatics, for Phillips was due to fly the aircraft as part of the British team at the World Aerobatic Championships (WAC) in Budapest. It was not to be, Flight reporting, “The attempts to obtain from the USA parts with which to modify the Cosmic Wind’s 85hp Continental engine for inverted flying proved unsuccessful.”

Its moments in the sun came in 1964. That August, British European Airways pilot Dennis Hartas flew Ballerina to victory in the King’s Cup, enough to make him British air racing champion. Weeks later the Cosmic Wind was off to Bilbao for its WAC debut, a performance to go down in the annals. Although full-span ailerons help afford a very high rate of roll, it was not an ideal competition aerobatic mount, even for someone as skilled as Neil Williams. Pete Kynsey, himself later a WAC competitor, says: “It was too fast, really. Compared with the other aeroplanes of the day, it would have used up quite a lot of airspace. It had quite a low-powered engine, and if you slowed it down, say during flicking manoeuvres, it would take a little while to build up the energy again.

“But the worst thing was that the inverted system he had was next to hopeless. It had a makeshift system, and he had to turn the fuel off and on to try and keep it running. Once the engine quit during the competition, and he had to make a dead-stick landing in front of the judges.”

No wonder Peter Phillips wrote in Flight that Williams, taking part at world level for the first time, “was the admiration of all competitors for his courage in flying what is really a pretty hot ship for this kind of competition”. He failed to make the final round, but not for want of trying.

Sadly, the association between the Tiger Club and Ballerina did not have long to run. On 29 August 1966, it was competing in the Goodyear Air Challenge Trophy at Halfpenny Green, Wolverhampton, with British European Airways pilot Bill Innes at the controls. Rounding the first pylon turn, he stalled the Cosmic Wind into the ground. A bloodied, injured Innes survived the crash, but Ballerina was a write-off.

The name, though, rose again. The wreckage was acquired by former King’s Cup winner Paul Bannister, who used it to help re-create Ballerina with a slightly more powerful 100hp Continental O-200A engine. The result was allocated the same registration, though the CAA now lists the aircraft as being built in 1973, when the fruits of Bannister’s labours took to the air again.

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Ballerina ‘mark two’ found itself thrust into the heat of battle. As Formula One air racing took off in Britain, so the Cosmic Wind enjoyed a competitive renaissance. Joining in was Little Toni, brought to these shores in 1970 by Ian McCowen and registered G-AYRJ. There was also a brand-new example — well, almost. Robin Voice’s G-BAER Filly was built up from various parts, some emanating from Minnow, others from the stock Milton Blair had brought to Britain with Ballerina.

Only in October’s final Teesside round of the five-race 1973 Heineken Trophy Series did the freshly finished Ballerina make its presence felt, but it did so in style, Bill Walker emerging victorious by just four tenths of a second from overall champion Tom Storey’s Cassutt. Despite winning most of the rounds and setting a new British class record of 217mph at Shobdon, new owner Walker missed out on the 1974 title by just half a point, Storey again the victor. Ballerina missed the 1975 season, but was back in 1976, and embarked upon a remarkable run of success. Fred Marsh used it to win the British Formula One title twice in a row; then John Mirley did likewise.

The pace of development still had not quite told against the Cosmic Wind. Graham Horder proved as much during the Cranfield event in September 1981, setting a British category record of 214.7mph over 5km. But then Ballerina seemed to disappear, and Pete Kynsey, already one of Britain’s leading aerobatic pilots, noticed. “It hadn’t been around, seen at any airfields or flying at any races, for a while, and I just grew curious as to why”, he says. “So, I tracked the owner [Horder] down, and he revealed that some work had been done on it that hadn’t worked out. He was in a tricky position trying to then repair it.”

Having in large part been inspired to get into flying and aerobatics by the example of Neil Williams, Pete was well aware of the Cosmic Wind and its qualities. “The first one I flew was Filly, owned by Robin Voice. He asked me to do an airshow one day and I came back thinking, ‘I’ve just got to have one of these’. It was just the most delightful-handling aeroplane I’d flown, with a phenomenally high rate of roll. I’d flown lots of competition aerobatic aeroplanes, but although they are very capable and their performance is very good, their handling is not always particularly fantastic.

“I took a friend of mine, Geoff Masterton, who was a very practical engineer, along to look at it. He was fairly convinced that he could find someone to come up with a repair scheme. Fortunately, having done his apprenticeship with the RAE at Farnborough, he approached a retired stress analyst who took on the project to design a repair for the wing attachment.

“I was able [in 1984] to buy it for very little because it was definitely not airworthy. Fixing it was a challenge, because the access to the wing bolts was incredibly difficult, and using the limited equipment that we had it was a miracle that Geoff Masterton managed to drill the new holes. When the final bolt slid through, it was a great relief! We knew it was going to work. After about 18 months, the parts were manufactured, the PFA [Popular Flying Association], as it then was, approved it, and it was flying again.”

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Initially, Pete raced Ballerina in the Formula One series, but this didn’t last long. “By the time I bought it, the fastest Cassutts had overtaken it, and it was never going to win again”. So, since 1986, he has concentrated on demonstrating the Cosmic Wind’s considerable prowess in phenomenal aerobatic displays. “You can fly it with just a few fingers, really”, he comments. “The stick forces are very light.”

A signature manoeuvre, as also flown by the likes of Peter Phillips and Neil Williams in the 1960s, is a 16-point hesitation roll. According to Pete, “It’s got such a high rate of roll and such light ailerons that it’s very easy to do. But what is surprising to perform in it is a vertical eight, which it’ll do from 250mph. That’s a half-loop, a roll and then another half-loop. A lot of aeroplanes would struggle with that.”

The absence of an inverted fuel system demands care and attention. “Three-and-a-half upward rolls are not a problem for it”, Pete continues, “but although I do vertical rolls in it, I very slightly barrel them all, so it’s going up in a slightly spiral fashion just to keep the engine running.”

What of Ballerina’s idiosyncrasies? “It’s got spring aluminium [landing] gear instead of spring steel gear, and it’s not great at absorbing rough grass runways — it prefers hard ones. It’s given me some alarming times when I’ve been thrown into the air below flying speed. The take-off speed is relatively high; you can’t get it airborne below 70mph. Racing across rough grass on aluminium legs at 70mph is always going to be interesting…

“And it’s got an abrupt stall to it. If you put it into stall buffet, there’s no warning — one moment it’s flying and then it gives up. It tends to drop a wing. Keeping clear of the stall and not pulling it into an accelerated stall is crucially important. That’s what caused its accident at Halfpenny Green in the ’60s.”

Richard Grace has long been an admirer. “Once I bumped into it in The Fighter Collection’s hangar when I was a kid”, he recalls. “I remember looking at it for ages, and I couldn’t get over the fact that it even existed. If anyone hasn’t seen Pete fly his Cosmic Wind, they need to see it, and when they see it they need to appreciate that it’s got 100hp… When Pete said I could fly that aeroplane, I almost keeled over. It was like a childhood dream. You always think, ‘Flying a Spitfire’s great’, but, actually, flying a Cosmic Wind is something else for me. It is just the most wonderful aeroplane.

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“Then Pete asked me if I could fly it at an airshow [at Duxford in September 2014]. I thought I’d better be able to do this justice, particularly as he was there flying something else. It was exceptionally kind of him to trust me with what I’m sure is his pride and joy. It does make life easy — it is hard to understand that such a tiny little aeroplane can handle quite so well. It doesn’t seem to have any vices as long as you keep the speed up.”

Ballerina actually isn’t quite as rapid as once it was. “When I first had it”, says Pete, “and [raced] it in Formula One air racing, cleaned-up in max level speed it would get to around the 225-230mph mark. Now I don’t clean it up for racing, so it does just over 200mph, maybe 210”. G limitations must, of course, also be observed. “The LAA [Light Aircraft Association, successor to the PFA] imposes quite low limits on it, but, in actual fact, a stress analysis done by [American Electric] proved that the airframe of the Cosmic Wind was capable of at least +6 and -3g at a maximum weight of 2,000lb. Well, the all-up weight of this aeroplane is only 850lb. If you do the sums, you discover that it’s actually very strong.”

For an experienced private owner well-versed in the type’s performance and quirks, the Cosmic Wind is a joy. Despite its diminutive size, the type is surprisingly practical. “It’s had some fairly big pilots in it. The cockpit is very wide — if you’ve got long legs you’d probably run into a problem, as your legs would touch the bottom of the instrument panel.

“It’s a great aeroplane for touring. I’ve been to St Moritz in it, I’ve been to Courchevel in it. From the days when you could only bring 11 bottles of wine back duty-free from France, I can tell you that you can get 11 bottles of wine in the Cosmic Wind…”

An aeroplane of many talents, you might say. No wonder Pete Kynsey so loves it. Long may his Ballerina continue to dance through British skies.

"Flying a Spitfire’s great’, but, actually, flying a Cosmic Wind is something else...
It is just the most wonderful aeroplane"

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The author expresses his gratitude to Don Berliner, past president of the Society of Air Racing Historians. This piece is an adaptation of an article that first appeared in the November 2015 issue of Aeroplane magazine.

With thanks to Ben Dunnell & Pete Kynsey.