Rolling
back the years
Slider
From Criquet to Storch: The reversion of a liaison warbird

From Criquet to Storch: The reversion of a liaison warbird

Following the completion of the monumental DH-9 restoration, world-renowned engineer and restorer Guy Black has set his focus on Retrotec Ltd’s next project: the reversion of the Historic Aircraft Collection’s (HAC) Morane-Saulnier MS.505 Criquet G-BPHZ to its authentic German Fieseler Fi 156 Storch specification.

Fieseler’s response to the Reich Aviation Ministry’s call for a new liaison, cooperation and medevac design in 1935 went on the become one of the finest of its type during the Second World War. Largely the work of Fieseler’s chief designer Reinhold Mewes and technical director Erich Bachem, the design took inspiration from earlier Junkers designs that featured Doppelflügel (double-wing) control surfaces with a hinged and slotted set of control surfaces running along the entire length of the wing’s trailing edge to aid low speed handling, operating in tandem with fixed slats that ran along the leading edge. The Storch’s short take-off and landing (STOL) performance was astonishing and despite being more than double the weight of an American Piper L-4 ‘Grasshopper’, take-off could be achieved in just 70 metres and a full-stop landing completed almost in its own length. The fixed undercarriage featured long legs that combined a ‘pre-travel’ distance of 20cm with oil and spring shock absorbers that would dampen a further 40cm, allowing the aircraft to operate from rough terrain where others could not. These long legs dangled in flight, and in combination with the large 46ft 11in wingspan, earned the Fi 156 the nickname ‘Storch’, or ‘Stork’.

Slider

 

The Storch served on every German front. In Germany the aeroplane was produced at Fieseler’s Kassel plant from 1937 to 1942, at which point the demand for Fieseler to serve as a subcontractor building Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s saw production moved to the Morane-Saulnier plant in Puteaux, occupied France. In 1943 production also began at Leichtbau Budweis in Germany, relocating in 1944 to the Mráz factory in Chocen, Czechoslovakia.

Following the liberation of France in 1944, Storch production at the Puteaux plant near Paris continued at the request of the Armee de l’Air with the initial batch of aeroplanes, designated the Morane-Saulnier MS.500 and named the ‘Criquet’, utilising fuselages, Argus engines and other partially completed components from Germany. Subsequent versions saw the airframes completed by Morane-Saulnier re-engined with a series of different power plants, mostly radial engines, and with subtle tweaks to the airframe design as the type evolved through the MS.501, 502, 504, 505 and 506 lineage. Some 925 Criquets had been built by 1965.

HAC purchased its Morane-Saulnier MS.505 Criquet in 2002. It was a popular performer at airshows, often paired with an L-4 ‘Grasshopper’ for a re-enactment of the last aerial engagement of the European Theatre of Operations in the Second World War. The Criquet had served with the Armee de l’Air from 1946 and was later transferred into civilian ownership and registered in France as F-BJQC. There it was utilised as a glider tug, before sale to Graham Warner saw it moved to the UK during 1988.

Slider

 

HAC’s Criquet last flew in 2006 and was then withdrawn for extensive maintenance, during which time discoveries were made that alluded to the airframe’s history. The unearthing of new photographic material indicated that the airframe had at one time been in a much earlier configuration than previously thought, making it a particularly interesting example of the type with rare provenance. “The first thing I noticed was that the data plate in the cockpit was riveted on top of another one”, says Guy Black. “Under the French MS.505 plate was a German data plate denoting it as an MS.500, with Werke Nr. 53 stamped into it, which really caught my attention and intrigued me.” With the fuselage’s Irish linen covering removed, inspection of other parts of the airframe shed light on the aeroplane’s past. Guy continues: “We found a lot of original German parts on it; the undercarriage legs, the tail oleo and all sorts of things still had their German serial plates. I’d been looking into the history and the background of the Criquet and it was quite hard to find any information about how that came to be”.

Perhaps the most encouraging discovery was a photograph of HAC’s aeroplane in its postwar civilian life as a glider tug powered, crucially, by an Argus engine. “That was one of the nicest things we found, and that really clinched it – our aircraft had started life as an MS.500 and ended up as an MS.505”, Guy says. Though the airframe completion date isn’t clear, with many of the parts constructed and even assembled prior to the liberation, HAC do know that the aeroplane entered French military service in 1946, and thanks to the postwar photograph, now know that it would have flown initially as an MS.500 with an Argus engine. In the 1960s, Reims Aviation fitted several Criquets with newer engines for the work many of them found as glider tugs; this is where F-BJQC received its Jacobs radial and the newer data plates secured over the old ones, designating it as an MS.505. With the aircraft stripped down and with this new information to hand, the idea for the project crystallised in Guy’s mind: “Following Peter Holloway’s example with the restoration of his Criquet to Storch configuration, I thought it would be a nice thing to do myself. Having got that far with the overhaul, and with the discoveries we made, I took the plunge and decided to rebuild it perfectly as a German specification Fi 156 Storch, as it was when it was an MS.500”.

The Criquet was subsequently moved from Duxford to Retrotec’s workshops in deepest East Sussex, where the airframe was dismantled and stripped down to begin the process of restoring it to its original German specification. Whilst other projects such as the Sopwith Pup and DH-9 took precedence in recent years, the Storch is now Retrotec’s main focus and, Guy says, has reached the point where more parts are being reunited with the airframe than removed from it, and the aeroplane is beginning to take shape. The wings sit ready to be reattached to the fuselage once restoration of the airframe has reached a critical point; these are of French metal construction as opposed to the original wooden type. Many French Criquets were deployed to Vietnam where the hot and humid conditions caused issues with the original wooden wings and tail structures. The French quickly designed metal wings which looked externally identical but had a different internal structure, and to that end all bar two of the Storches and Criquets flying today have these metal wings, and it is entirely sensible to utilise them.

Slider

 

Currently sitting in the main workshop where so many other Retrotec masterpieces have come together over the years, the bare tubular frame construction of the Storch’s fuselage is instantly recognisable. Irish linen fabric (now made in continental Europe) and dope covering will soon be applied and as much internal work as possible is being carried out ahead of this, including the installation of the flight control and trim cable systems currently visible within the exposed airframe. The cockpit is beginning to come together, with the pilot’s seat, control column and rudder pedals installed. On the port side the throttle and mixture quadrant, elevator trim wheel and cabin air vent lever are all in place. The panel will be built up using many of the original instruments and dials Guy has been acquiring from myriad sources. Lithuanian husband and wife pairing Arvydas and Alina are hard at work on the project; two of Retrotec’s most prized employees, the couple specialise in intricate woodworking and fabricing. At the time of our workshop visit Alina was busy re-covering the rudder, which has now been completed, whilst a second rudder sat in place on the fuselage to test fitting.

The installation of the Storch’s 26-pane glasshouse is now well underway – a particularly labour-intensive aspect of the project. Each pane of Plexiglass will have a string and fabric tape glued to its edges, and the entire windowpane will then be stitched to the fabric wrapped around the metal fuselage frame. Once complete, more fabric tape will then be stitched on top of the seams.

Guy’s interest is manifestly focused on the restoration and engineering of a project; by his own admission, his interest begins to wane once the aeroplane has made its first flight. The enjoyment, perhaps, is in the pursuit. An offshoot of that mantra is his attitude towards the Storch’s paint scheme. Little is known of this aeroplane’s Armée de l’Air service and returning it to its first scheme would be a difficult task. Guy has opted instead to paint the Storch in Luftwaffe markings, as was the intention when its construction began at Puteaux; as yet, however, a decision on the exact scheme has not been made. “I know it sounds odd, but that side of it doesn’t really interest me too much”, he says. “When it comes to it I will seek a few opinions as to what people think we should do with it, and there will be some very strong opinions, I’m sure!” The likelihood, Guy adds, is that the aeroplane will receive western front tri-colour splinter camouflage, but he remains open to suggestions.

Slider

 

One of the driving factors behind a project of this nature is the pursuit of authenticity. Sourcing available, genuine parts from private collectors and individuals is a time consuming, gruelling process that can tax even the most ardent restorer. “It is really, really hard,” Guy stresses, “and just looking for parts alone has been occupying me for at least five years. It’s partly because other people are looking for them as well, to do the same thing with their aeroplane”. Nonetheless, he relishes the challenge – part of the pleasure comes in discovering those much sought after components, sometimes via the most unlikely of avenues. The German Ebay, for instance, has yielded some extremely rare items. “The problem is, I’ve started buying things I didn’t think I had, twice!”, laughs Guy. “You see something for sale and think, ‘Oh God, I’ve always wanted one of those’, and when you put it on the shelf you find you’ve already got at least one of them, if not two!

“All that aside, the key to any project is the engine”, he adds. The acquisition of a viable Argus As 10 was a fundamental step in the Storch’s restoration. This will replace the Jacobs radial engine that was previously fitted to the aeroplane: “The Argus had been 50% completed at the point we had a customer’s engine come into the workshop – so of course mine has gone to the back of the queue! It has been overhauled, we’ve got everything for it and it is ready to assemble. Our customer’s engine is nearly finished, and attention will then turn to completing the Argus restoration.” Argus engines have historically suffered a comparatively high number of failures through bearing issues – a fault Guy is keen to rectify. This has involved delving into the maintenance manuals and identifying clear instructions on lubrication, which the team will adhere to when the time comes to run the engine: “As far as I can find the common issue was the pre-oiling – purging the system of air, getting it all out. An air blockage doesn’t lubricate bearings!”

An original Schwarz Propeller-werk wooden propeller found in Germany and bearing the original manufacturer’s transfers will be mated with the Argus in due course. “We think it’s never been used, although it has had an Argus hub on it at one point,” explains Guy, “but that will be checked for soundness, which you do by the simple procedure of knocking it, and depending on how it rings you can tell whether it’s delaminating anywhere. From my experience it is sound, but I will give it to our propeller man for a full assessment.”

Slider

 

With those two “big-ticket” items secured, the engine bearers – a pair of forged aluminium beams that hold the engine in place – proved to be a significant hurdle. “We had to have those forged and we had a bit of a struggle to get there”, says Guy. “The company we used also broke their machine in the process, such is the unusual shape of the bearers!” With economy of scale in mind, Guy commissioned the forging of several sets of these beams, to help recoup some of the costs involved and benefit other Storch projects in turn.

The Storch’s famously tight-fitting cowling sections are currently being fabricated, with much skill and care going into reproducing these to accurate measurements. Retrotec has also gone to the effort of manufacturing German specification nuts and bolts, such is the desire for authenticity. “We’re even having the electrical wiring reproduced so that it’s exactly right, so it’s going into incredible detail”, Guy adds. A mass of parts and components sit on the storage shelves at Retrotec’s facility, awaiting their turn in the workshop, and Guy surmises that he now has virtually everything he needs to complete the restoration. Among the shelves are landing lamps, cockpit plug lamps, electrical control boxes, seat belts, compasses and assorted instruments. Where possible, Guy tries to source parts that share the same manufacturing date as the aeroplane. “It’s pathetic, isn’t it!” he jokes.

Guy owns three examples of the variometer (or Ausgleichsgefäß in German), which is mounted externally on the port side of the fuselage in line with the rudder pedals and actuates the vertical speed indicator in the cockpit. One of these is a very early cardboard cased example which has survived in remarkable condition: “They are extremely rare and I found that although it’s got a Polish plate on it, it is actually a German one”. He also owns two later metal versions – one rather battered, and one in very good condition, with the latter earmarked for incorporation into the restoration. “That’s why I try to procure more than one of each item, because I want to be able to get it completely right – whether that means reverse engineering and manufacturing a new example, or combining multiple components to make one serviceable item”, he adds.

Slider

 

In its stripped-back state, signs of the removal of the airframe’s original MS.500 features are clear to see. The first, Guy points out, is where the electrical control box is located, in the lower cockpit aft of the pilot’s seat. This, he says, was only fitted to the German specification aircraft, and HAC’s aeroplane bears the scars from where it was removed, likely during its MS.505 conversion. Similarly, where the French version hinged vertically upwards, the door on the German airframe was hinged on the leading side and opened much like a car door. The original German arrangement is visible in HAC’s aeroplane, albeit the hinges have been cut through, and is a further indicator of the aeroplane’s provenance. This will be rolled back to the German spec. and Guy found an original cockpit door, still wrapped in its German protective paper, to work into the restoration. He muses that the modifications evident between the MS.500 and MS.505 suggest standardisation of the type: “A lot of the aircraft were built to MS.505 specification straight from the stock of fuselages, and I think the early ones such as the MS.500s that were made to the German specifications were later standardised with these modifications. It’s just the evolution of a type and a design”.

The same is true of the gun ring mounted in the rear part of the Storch’s glasshouse. This circular tubing had been removed from the aeroplane in its previous configuration and has now been reinstalled as part of the reversion. Into this the rare circular moving lens mount will sit; this part has its own interesting story, as Guy explains: “The gun ring was from the rear canopy of a Junkers Ju 88 that was shot down in the Battle of Britain. A farmer found it in a field and kept it and later it ended up with a local collector, from whom I acquired it”. An original MG 15 will be mounted on the ring to complete the Storch’s armament, incorporating an equally rare ball mount along with a full rack of old stock ammunition saddle-drums. One of the most interesting of Guy’s finds was a complete toolkit for the MG 15 in a beautiful leather holder: “Quite a few of them come up on Ebay, but they never have any tools in them – so this is super rare! It is complete, with things like spare firing pins, spare springs for the firing unit, a tool for removing burst cases and suchlike”. An incredible little artefact that illustrates the level of detail and authenticity Guy strives to attain.

Guy: “One of the nice things about the whole endeavour is that there’s a Storch community who help each other without regard to profit and things like that, which has made it a very pleasant activity over the last few years”. In scouring Europe for parts, information and knowledge, Guy has been warmly welcomed into this small community of continental Storch owners and restorers. Indeed, one such individual he has corresponded with throughout this process has first-hand experience of Retrotec’s endeavour, having reverted his own airworthy MS.500 to its original specification. “There are some absolutely superb restorations out there,” Guy continues, “and I think the best is probably in Norway with Tor Nørstegård. He is a fine fellow and we’re in regular contact.” Incidentally, Tor’s Storch was one of the MS.500s that was unfinished at the time of France’s liberation, and with number 47 stamped on its data plate, was just six ahead of HAC’s aeroplane on the production line.

Slider

 

Guy has clearly taken inspiration from this little corner of the aviation preservation scene and hopes to fulfil his own contribution towards the survival of this important liaison type by making his Storch recreation as accurate as possible. Retrotec’s ethos is well-known within the historic aviation scene, illustrated so perfectly by the projects they have completed to date – be it DH-9 or Hawker Fury: “When I say I want it to be perfect, I mean that I want it to exceed all the other near-perfect Storch restorations that are out there, because that’s the way I work. It’s not to try and outsmart or belittle people, it’s just because I like total authenticity, as far as you can get it. That’s the challenge!”

The return to the scene of HAC’s aeroplane will be particularly significant, not least for the high level of authenticity Guy and the Retrotec team continue to strive for in this restoration. The Storch’s revival will mark another chapter in their impressive portfolio.

Slider