“I sat at the end of Duxford’s runway in the Lysander with more than 40 years of Bristol Mercury experience behind me. It all started there, and the Lysander’s first flight was a culmination of sorts.”
John Romain is recounting the maiden flight of the Aircraft Restoration Company’s (ARCo) Westland Lysander Mk.IIIA V9312 on 28 August 2018. His reference to a culmination alludes, perhaps, to the latest chapter of a saga that dates to 1974 and spans three Blenheim rebuilds, involvement with two airworthy Lysanders, and V9312’s restoration.
The Lysander project surfaced during a visit to Kermit Weeks’ Fantasy of Flight air museum in Florida, USA in early 2003. There John was introduced to the dilapidated but largely complete Westland Lysander V9312, held in Weeks’ storage hangar. “Kermit explained that he had two Lysanders [V9312 and the ex-Brian Woodford aeroplane, V9545] and asked if I would be interested in buying the one he had in storage”, remembers John. “Interestingly, it was a very rare British-built Lysander, identifiable by its hollow one-piece undercarriage legs, British electrics and instrumentation, and wooden ribbed wings, rather than the more familiar tubular alloy ribs of the Canadian-built Lysanders – perfect for our collection. Restoring that would be a real challenge. I thought about it for a few days and we spoke again, agreeing a price. It wasn’t long before we headed back to Florida to break it down for shipment to the UK”.
The Lysander arrived at Duxford on 4 June 2003. Its home, initially at least, was ARCo’s famous Building 66 workshop – the beating heart of the Blenheim rebuilds – where it was stripped down ahead of a full restoration. ARCo had Lysander experience, having operated for a short period in the mid-1990s Weeks’ ex-Brian Woodford aeroplane and the ex-Strathallan Collection machine that now flies with the Shuttleworth Collection, but they hadn’t yet restored one to flight. John recalls: “We knew it would be a huge undertaking. You’re dealing with a massive aeroplane that is classically British in its design, with all the eccentricities of the era. Leading edge slats and interconnected flaps, huge amounts of woodwork and fabricing, a sensitive engine – all the hallmarks of a pretty monumental undertaking”.
John was intimately involved from the outset: “There are pictures of George [Romain] and I taking the engine out. Dave Ratcliffe used to work on it as he was just starting out with us. We had a mix of engineers and volunteers getting into it. There was a real team effort up until the Blenheim incident in 2003. The rebuild of that aeroplane then took precedence and the decision to put the Mk.I nose on it extended its repair. The Lysander continued coming along and was registered [to Propshop Ltd as G-CCOM] in December 2003, but the work didn’t progress at the speed we thought it would as internal resources were being poured into the Blenheim project.
“The emphasis transitioned to that repair work, and big chunks of the Blenheim went into Building 66”, John continues. “Nonetheless, ‘Smudge’ Smith led the work on the wings, establishing how sound the spar booms were and then manufacturing the two-part wooden wing ribs to build up each wing. In the meantime, my involvement was focused on working on the Lysander’s Mercury engine. Parts from a Bristol Mercury XX acquired from the Netherlands during the Blenheim project were combined with the engine pulled out of our aeroplane to restore one complete engine. Colin Swann, Smudge, Ian Arnold, Debs Perrot and Mike Terry then stripped and worked on the fuselage and tail. As soon as the Blenheim rebuild finished in 2014, it was Lysander time.
“We effectively split the project between Building 66 and our hangar facility, with 66 doing the cowlings, lift struts and fairings by that point, and the systemisation, fabricing and engine integration taking place down the eastern end. The wings came out of Building 66 for fabricing, which we did in a custom-built tent in the hangar. I taught [Aerial Collective’s] Lisa Waterfield about fabricing as we were doing it – she did a great job. Then we were putting in the Perspex windscreens, fitting out the cockpit and conducting a trial fit of the wings whilst the lift struts came together in Building 66. In the latter stage and as everything edged towards conclusion, Billy Kelly and Ian Arnold were heavily involved in finishing the aeroplane – Billy’s a good finisher, and really knows how to wrap up those monumental restorations.
“The next thing of real excitement was the first engine run”, Romain remembers. It was early evening on Wednesday, 8 August 2018 when the Lysander was rolled out of ARCo’s hangar, sans cowlings and disrobed of its side panels to expose the fuselage structure and nest of control cables within. With a succession of pops, bangs and an abundance of smoke, the restored 860hp Bristol Mercury XX fired for the first time, turning over in the characteristic low, guttural radial churn.
Sat on the taxiway, the aeroplane stands taller than most single-engine historic aircraft at 14ft 6in. – a good few feet higher than the V12 warbirds ARCo operates. A sprawling 50ft wing incorporates the aerodynamically actuated manual slats and flaps responsible for the Lysander’s extraordinary low-speed handling characteristics. Independently operating inboard and outboard slats are fitted to the leading edges along the whole length of the main planes, whilst the trailing edge flaps are connected to the inboard slats and deploy in tandem as wing incidence increases.
Access to the lofty cockpit is achieved via a series of foot holds on the port side of the undercarriage spat and fuselage which elevate the pilot to the lift struts and then the cockpit edge. The cockpit itself, John says, is a reasonably spacious and intuitive environment for its era. The elevator trim wheel, so vital to the Lysander’s operation, sits low to the left of the pilot’s thigh, and counterclockwise movement of the handwheel decreases the incidence of the tail plane. Throttle and mixture controls are mounted in a quadrant forward of the trim wheel; the throttle lever moves across three marked positions – ‘Shut’, ‘Cruising’ and ‘Take Off’ – whilst the two-stage mixture lever can be set to ‘Normal’ (Rich) and ‘Weak’ (Lean).
Blade pitch on the de Havilland DH 4/3A propeller is controlled by a red knob on the port side of the instrument panel. The cowling gills are opened and closed by a handle on the starboard side of the instrument panel. The six core blind flying instruments are centrally located in front of the pilot, as was customary for all RAF aeroplanes at the time. Engine instruments are grouped to the right, comprising gauges for the boost (measured in 1b./sq.in.), tachometer, cylinder head and oil temperatures, and fuel and oil pressure. The fuel tank is activated by a handle on the port cockpit coaming, and fuel is drawn from a single 95-gallon tank that sits aft of the cockpit. The Kigass primer and priming controls are on the starboard side of the instrument panel, with the control lever indicating three positions – ‘Off’, ‘Prime Carburettor’ and ‘Prime Engine’. Finally, the engine starter button sits under a hinged cover beneath the engine instruments.
The starter sequence sees the fuel system activated and three shots of primer injected into the top three cylinders. The ground crew then turn the propeller through five blades before the pilot gives the engine a further shot of primer. Magnetos are switched on and with sufficient priming, the engine fires as soon as the starter button is activated. Oil pressure is an immediate concern; the Mercury’s high initial oil pressure system circulates oil at around 100psi on start-up and if the pressure doesn’t rise within 30 seconds, it’s critical to shut down the engine immediately. “Start-up is quite a visceral experience,” adds John, “and you’re feeling the heat radiating through the instrument panel, smelling the warm oil as the temperature rises”.
As the oil temperature increases through 40°C a valve in the oil system adjusts the flow from the tank and the high initial oil pressure system effectively cuts out, the pressure then diminishing and stabilising at 80 to 90psi. The propeller pitch is brought from coarse to fine by pushing the pitch control knob in, oil pressure momentarily dropping as the piston fills with oil and the angle of the propeller blades changes. This adjustment has a marginal effect on static rpm, though the tachometer only reads from 1,400 rpm and at idle power any rpm changes are noted aurally. Some dissipation in fuel pressure may be symptomatic of the fuel tank’s position when the aeroplane sits in a three-point attitude, as the tank is mounted broadly in line with the engine and the gravity feed through the fuel lines is weak. This can be rectified by directly priming the carburettor chamber.
Says John, “Cylinder-wise it warms up a lot quicker than the Blenheim, which is disconcerting as the cowling designs are so similar and you would expect the two to behave broadly the same way. On a hot day you need to be conscious of cylinder head temperatures and don’t want to see more than about 180°C on the gauge. You need to have the cowling gills wide open on the ground and it’s essential to start into wind, otherwise you’d quickly end up with high temperatures in the cylinders and a low oil temperature.”
A series of engine runs established the Mercury’s operating parameters at high and low power, including typical static oil and fuel pressures, cylinder head, carburettor and oil temperatures, and boost and rpm. Ignition tests at 1,800 rpm recorded a drop of 50 rpm when running on a single magneto, whilst running with carburettor heat on (whereby warm air is fed from the cylinders to the carburettor to avoid cool air icing up in the intake and restricting air flow to the engine) caused a 20 rpm drop. Latterly, a high-power tie-down run tested engine conditions at maximum power of +4 ¼ lb./sq.in. boost and static revs of 2,600 rpm; that gave a reasonable indication of the anticipated in-flight rpm at maximum boost, which is usually in the region of +100 rpm.
Protracted ground running can be detrimental to bedding in what is ostensibly a “new” engine. Each cylinder is manufactured with grooves scored into the internal walls at a microscopic level to allow a thin oil film to lubricate the pistons when the engine is operational. Any uneven high spots in these grooves are fined down by metal-on-metal contact early on in the engine’s life as the piston rings rupture the oil film on the cylinder walls and shear them off. Once the engine has satisfactorily run-in, little contact should occur, and the engine should operate smoothly. Static engine runs with low loading can cause the oil to form a fine lacquer glaze in the grooves on the cylinder walls, known as “bore glazing” – should that happen, the piston rings will not seal properly and the cylinder walls will no longer carry lubricant in the surface grooves, the oil instead burning off on the walls under the intense heat from combustion gases passing the piston rings.
“We also use straight oil during the initial bedding-in phase, rather than detergent oil,” John explains, “as the latter is self-cleaning and isn’t particularly adhesive, for lack of a better word. Straight oils will stick to the surfaces and stay on the bores. That’s perfect for running the engine in as it ensures proper lubrication. We transfer to detergent oil later on but having a coating of oil within the engine prevents corrosion and just makes the thing run a lot smoother.
“You do need to get that aeroplane in the air as soon as you can,” stresses John, “as you need to get the engine working at higher boost with the cooling airflow across the cylinders that you just won’t get on the ground. If the cylinder walls get very hot, it compounds the glazing problem and you could end up with an engine that heavily consumes oil and smokes as it burns the oil on the cylinders. You’d then be in a position of needing to strip down the engine and remove the cylinders for overhaul”.
Taxi trials followed on 20 and 25 August, and were an important step in the aeroplane’s return to flight, as John explains: “You can learn a great deal from taxiing an aeroplane around. It’s your first impression of the aeroplane in travel – you’re monitoring the responsiveness of the engine and propeller, the brakes and air pressure, and feeling out the elevator, aileron and rudder to ensure the control runs have all been fitted correctly. It’s all creaking and groaning, and that gives the impression of moving a large aeroplane around. The Lysander’s brakes aren’t brilliant and you’re instantly aware of that fact; you have to predict a turn and that will influence where and how you taxi the aeroplane around, particularly if the aerodrome is busy. As you apply the brakes you can see the undercarriage leg flexing and moving, and it is initially alarming to see the spat come backwards by about an inch as you brake, before the aeroplane turns. You couldn’t instantly stop it with full brake; it slows to a halt fairly sedately by comparison with most aeroplanes and you need to be conscious of that.”
Lysander V9312’s maiden post-restoration flight came on Tuesday, 28 August 2018.
The flight was preceded by a fast taxi run with the tail raised, which confirmed the position of the aeroplane’s centre of gravity. The air test itself primarily assessed engine performance, control effectiveness, and slat and flap deployment at low airspeed. In all, it lasted just 20 minutes chock-to-chock. Duxford’s runway 24 was in use, as is preferable during flight testing. “If I’m getting airborne in a ‘new’ aeroplane on runway 06 and need to abort at a late stage, I’d need to throw it into a high-speed ground loop to avoid the bank of earth at the M11 end”, Romain says. “On 24 I’ll accept going off the runway and taking the grass and the fence, as I’d be hitting them wings-level with an element of control. Ultimately, it’s about whether your intuition is that an issue can be resolved in flight, or that you need to get that aeroplane back on the ground, and that decision-making process has to be second nature. You need to be mentally ahead of the aeroplane”.
Prior to take-off the Lysander is taxied to the runway hold point and positioned into wind, brakes set, elevator trim checked to be in the take-off position, and throttle opened to 0 lb./sq.in. boost for sequential ignition and propeller pitch checks. “You can accept up to a 140 rpm drop on the magnetos, but it’s rare to get that – normally the Mercury will tell you it’s unhappy on a magneto check by blipping 200 rpm and backfiring,” John says, “which means the spark plugs are oiled up and haven’t burned off – then it’d be back to the hangar to get the cowlings off, identify the affected plugs, clean them off and close it back up”. The propeller is then cycled twice from fine to coarse pitch, moving hot oil into the piston and ensuring that the constant speed unit is functional.
Settling onto the grass runway for departure, the aeroplane is held on the brakes for three seconds with the stick aft as the throttle is opened to +1 lb./sq.in. boost. Torque effect is negligible as the aeroplane sets off, with little rudder input required. As the acceleration increases, the slats and flaps automatically retract. John: “You can really feel the acceleration as it pulls you into the sky. That brief transitional period between rotating and settling into the climb gives a good idea of slow-speed handling, which will be important later. It’s also the point that any control issues, be it elevator, aileron, rudder, slats or flaps, would become evident, as all are in use during the take-off.
“In the initial power-up I’m looking at acceleration and throttle responses; instantly, subconsciously feeling the controls and anticipating something that indicates a problem. Keeping an eye on the air regulator – if that goes off the clock, you’ll need to come on and off the brakes in flight to dissipate the air. If the regulator fails, the air pressure can eventually cause the bottle to fail. Alternatively, if you lose air pressure, you lose your brakes. Monitoring temperatures and pressures constantly, repeatedly – they’re the life blood of that engine. If you see the worst-case scenario of declining oil pressure and rising oil temperature, you’ll turn downwind and land without hesitation. If one changes without the other, it could be a gauging problem and you’d keep the aeroplane in an orbit over the aerodrome while you monitor it. Quite often we see gauge issues with these aeroplanes. It’s about reading those gauges and understanding the story they tell. Smell is another big factor – you’re sensitive to the smell of fuel and oil and the potential leaks that may be associated with them, and you’d then be into looking for visual signs of a leakage. It didn’t happen with the Lysander, but a shiny coating on the tail feathers would be a sure sign of an oil leak.”
Power is maintained at 0 lb./sq.in. boost to achieve 150 mph in the climb, and as the aeroplane flies through 500ft the propeller is brought into coarse pitch and the cowling gills closed. Fuel mixture is leaned above 1,500ft, warranting a slight reduction in rpm. Those parameters stabilise the engine temperatures with a reasonable airflow whilst not working the Mercury too hard through high boost and rpm. “That said, we didn’t pamper the engine on its first flights,” notes John, “as it needs to run in positive boost for at least 25 to 30 hours to bed it in – it’s a continuation of ensuring the bores don’t glaze. We saw the difference latterly as the oil consumption went from being high initially to stablising at a lower level, at which point we knew the engine had run in. Thereafter you can handle it like any engine”.
He continues: “Everything is smooth in the ascent, and I’m settling down to what would be a normal cruise power setting of +1 lb./sq.in. boost and 1,750 rpm, seeing 160 mph on the clock and watching the cylinder head temperature coming down to 150°C. The oil temperature climbs a little and stabilises at 60°C; oil pressure stabilises immediately in the region of 80-90psi. As soon as the systems and the engine give you a level of comfort that everything is doing what it should, it’s onto general handling and giving the engine a workout whilst getting used to the performance. I fly some gentle pitch ups and pitch downs and a series of turn reversals and orbits, noting stick loading and climb and turn performance at cruise power.
“Then it’s crucial to bring the power back to assess the low-speed handling, as you never know whether you’ll need to get the aeroplane back on the ground swiftly – the reality is, though, that if there was a major problem you’d get it back on the ground more rapidly than a normal landing. I bring the boost back, finding an airspeed of 75 mph that I’m comfortable is satisfactory for landing without edging towards the stall, and monitor the aileron responsiveness, pitch sensitivity and rudder authority at that airspeed and mentally note the aeroplane’s performance in what is effectively its landing attitude. Controls are fairly light, but the ailerons feel slow to make any significant rolling motion and the elevator remains sensitive. Stability is good in pitch, a little more unstable in roll, as is the case across all airspeeds. I note outer slat deployment at 105 mph, inner slat and flap deployment at 85 mph. Then it’s back to the field for a run through at 700ft and around 180 mph and peel into the circuit.”
In the downwind the throttle is brought back to -1 lb./sq.in. boost, settling the propeller at around 1,200 rpm, and the mixture brought back to rich to avoid a lean cut. Incremental nose-up trim is critical to counteract the nose-down pitch characteristic of automatic slat and flap deployment, and this is fed in via the handwheel as the airspeed diminishes. “You have to just bite the bullet, get the trim in, hold the nose high and match the power to that angle of attack”, explains John. “You’re still putting in nose-up trim at that point and if you let go of the stick, or if you overcompensate on the power, the slats will retract, and you’d end up with pitch oscillations. You should aim to be over the threshold somewhere between 75 and 90 mph, holding off near full nose-up trim with forward stick, which feels counter-intuitive but helps with the round-out after touchdown as you’re coming from a positive push forward to a fairly relaxed aft pull to pin the aeroplane on the ground.
“That trim issue is perhaps the most critical handling trait of the Lysander,” John muses, “and the RAF pilot’s notes don’t quite reflect the reality of what can happen to you if you get it wrong – I don’t share their optimism! Ultimately you’ve got to have a go yourself and make your own determination.” That first test flight logged 12 minutes of airtime and gave John preliminary notes on all aspects of the Lysander’s engine, systems and performance to feed back to the engineers for fine-tuning ahead of the second flight. Those notes, he says, are made on practically any suitable surface: “I’ll write on anything I can – usually my gloves, which come back covered in times, temperatures and pressures and the like. I have a kneepad I can use as well. I’ve even stuck masking tape to my thigh and written on that, then peeled it off back in the hangar and handed it to the engineers. Anything that won’t get in the way if I need to get out of the cockpit quickly.
“I landed after the first flight and everybody was jubilant,” he remembers. Those who stood by as the Lysander ran down on the taxiway had been intrinsically linked to the aeroplane for years. Romain’s eldest son, George, who had accompanied his father to Florida to recover the aeroplane in 2003, and younger son Alex, now one of ARCo’s engineers. ‘Smudge’ Smith, Colin Swann, Ian Arnold, Billy Kelly and Col Pope, whose irreplaceable expertise had been so instrumental in completing the Lysander’s restoration. Lisa Waterfield, who had worked on fabricing the wings. For them as much as John, the maiden flight signified the completion of a significant chapter. But, Romain says, “I was on the wrong footing for it and felt incredibly exposed in flight. Sad to say, I couldn’t share their enthusiasm. I just didn’t want to be up there any longer. It seemed uncharacteristically loud, far more so than I remember from the other two Lysanders I’d flown, to the extent that it was uncomfortable. The lift struts played on my mind for most of the flight, almost like a fixation. The originals were badly damaged, and we’d gone through an authorised repair on them, including x-raying. I knew they were sound but couldn’t shake that feeling of apprehension. I felt so exposed on the first flight and couldn’t work out why; I started thinking about wing struts failing, the wing folding and it being curtains for me and the aeroplane.
“I think I ended up with a bit of vertigo. I’d taken off with the hood open and the side screens down, completely open from the waist upwards. Most aeroplanes wrap around you, even open cockpit types, but the Lysander doesn’t – you’re perched up there, feeling like you’re sat on a pack of crates, with the wing at eye level behind you and out of sight. I remember climbing out of Duxford, seeing the farms and fields getting smaller below and just having this fear. That was a new and unsettling experience for me, and at the time I couldn’t get my head around why.”
The Lysander’s second test flight came the following day, Wednesday, 29 August 2018. This was a longer 35-minute flight from Duxford, whereby Romain assessed the aeroplane’s climb performance and high-speed dive to VNE (Velocity Not Exceeded).
“I closed the hood and the side screens on take-off, and it was a fundamentally different experience – a world apart from the first flight”, he says. The noise issue that plagued the maiden sortie, it transpired, was down to the new helmet John was wearing. The mic was later found to be transmitting background noise through the earpieces at higher volume than was necessary – exacerbated by the aerodynamic din created by the open cockpit. “The concerns I had first time round faded away and it was incredible how my mindset changed in an instant. Everything rationalised and I was able to delve into the testing whilst appreciating the experience.”
Once north-west of Cambridge and within sight of the diversionary airfield at Bourn, a timed climb to height was flown at +2 ¼ lb./sq.in. boost with the propeller in coarse pitch, cowling gills a quarter open, two divisions of nose-up trim and an airspeed of 120 mph with full fuel and a gross take-off weight of 5,568 1bs. At those parameters, the Lysander climbed to 3,800ft in two minutes and reached 4,520ft by two and a half minutes, at which point the climb was stopped on account of engine considerations. Towards the end of the climb, maintaining +2 ¼ lb./sq.in. boost and 2,200 rpm, cylinder head temperature of 180°C, oil temperature of 58°C and oil pressure of 85psi were recorded. Subsequent climbs at different power settings provided additional engine data. “The concern there,” John says, “is running those cylinders too hot and deviating from the comfortable range of 140 to 160°C. Up at 180 you’re approaching the critical zone.
“It’s also essential not to temperature shock the engine,” he continues, “and when flying above a couple of thousand feet on a cool day with moisture in the air, carb heat should be left on and maintained during the descent. Closing the throttle in the descent will knock the cylinder head temperatures and carburettor temperatures into critically low figures, risking icing in the chamber and choking the airflow to the engine to the extent that the engine loses power and runs rough, and opening the throttle will cause it to backfire. During that second test flight I established that -2 lb./sq.in. boost with carb heat on in an orbital descent away from the airfield was an effective means of maintaining sympathetic temperatures. Flying back to base thereafter at around 1,000ft controlled that potentially damaging temperature fluctuation. If the cylinder head temperatures drop rapidly during the descent, you can hold off on the descent and orbit with some power on to stabilise the temperature before attempting another descent.
“The Mercury is all about doing things slowly. It doesn’t respond well to rapid advancements or reductions in throttle and you’ll get a rich cut if you throw the throttle open – recovering from that safely might not be possible at low altitude, as it could take 15 to 20 seconds to pick back up. Mid-range boost is preferable, between +/- 2 1b./sq.in., where the engine is running smoothly, the temperatures should be sat in a comfortable region and the propeller isn’t driving the engine. Those techniques were learned on the Blenheim and are an essential part of Mercury engine management.”
For the VNE dive, the Lysander climbs to an altitude of 5,000ft, maintaining an airspeed of 200 mph with two divisions of nose-down trim applied in anticipation of the dive. With the nose tipped to a descending angle of around 40°, the airspeed slowly and progressively increases to 280 mph at +2 ¼ lb./sq.in. boost and 2,500 rpm noted on the tachometer in the dive.
John continues: “It’s really hammering down at that point! It’s a visceral experience, for sure, with hot air rushing around the cockpit, the engine roaring and the airflow creating a terrific noise. I’m holding off the nose-up pitch with forward stick and working the rudder pedals to remain in balance, but the aeroplane feels solid and stable. Recovering from that at 280 mph by slowly retarding the throttle, the stick forces are heavy but the aeroplane remains responsive”.
The third and final 30-minute test flight was flown later in the day on the 29th, focusing predominantly on general handling at high and low airspeeds.
John: “Control harmonisation isn’t particularly good – inputs are light across all axes, but the elevator isn’t effective, the ailerons heavy and the rudder light. Full aileron deflection is possible, and the Lysander starts rolling instantly, but the roll rate isn’t quick. Near the ground in windy conditions, in an orbit at 300 to 400ft, a strong gust could rotate the aeroplane on its longitudinal axis quite rapidly such that there wouldn’t be the aileron responsiveness to recover safely. No propensity to yaw, but it does have a very small amount of pitch instability – too much negative pitch, say on a gusty day, and you might get a murmur out of the engine due to the float carburettor.
“The aeroplane can be trimmed nose-down at high airspeed and normally during a display I’ll take the stick loading rather than constantly trimming during manoeuvring. At 0 1b./sq.in. boost and the propeller in coarse pitch the Lysander can easily achieve 2,300 rpm and 220 mph in a shallow dive. It is impressively fast. The ailerons stiffen but the elevator remains effective. In the climb, the rpm decreases and you can bleed the airspeed down to 65-75 mph, with the revs right down at 1,400 rpm, but that won’t give any thrust over the elevator and you would be looking to put the propeller back into fine pitch, just temporarily, to maintain safe handling parameters. Typically, I’d be looking for 105 mph at the top of a wing over, at which airspeed the slats and flaps are in, the rpm remains in a more effective range and the controls are more positive.”
Slow-speed handling at altitude sees the Lysander brought down to 65 mph – still, John notes, not slow enough to stall the aeroplane, owing to that highly effective slat and flap combination, and without power on at that airspeed it is found to descend with a rapid sink rate at a high angle of attack. The need for correct application of the elevator trim is unequivocal: “In most aeroplanes, if you were to take-off with the elevator trimmed incorrectly, you could handle the heavier stick loads and correct it once airborne. Get it wrong in the Lysander and you categorically will not hold it. If it was trimmed for landing, full nose-up, and you started the take-off roll with the normal amount of power it would pitch extremely nose-high on rotation and it would not be possible to stop it. That is an alarming trait and it influences how we handle the Lysander in present-day operation.
“You could turn final at 55 mph at a high angle of attack, full nose-up trim, slats and flaps down, holding it in the air with power on. Develop a big sink rate in that position, maybe through a gust of wind or an engine problem, and you’re hitting the ground hard. The elevator trim just won’t allow you to escape in the way a conventional aeroplane would. For that reason, post-testing we typically aim to turn final between 75 and 90 mph, so we don’t have full slat and flap deployment until we’re lower to the ground. In-flight the vibrations will move that trim wheel forward by itself, so you’re constantly trimming it off. Rats ended up putting a little bungee into the cockpit during a transit to Holland in 2019, linked to the trim wheel to stop it moving. A good move! We need to increase the friction on the trim jack to prevent that.”
In the go-around the Lysander’s worst traits come to the fore, the unconventional characteristics making rehearsals an important aspect of the final test flight. Aborting a landing requires consideration of the limitations of both the engine and elevator trim. Progressive advancement of the throttle (avoiding the rich-cut symptomatic of rapid power increases) combined with forward stick should maintain longitudinal stability. As the throttle reaches approximately half of its travel the stick will hit its forward stop, at which point nose-down trim must be fed in to the extent that the stick can be brought aft, with the throttle opened incrementally until the aeroplane is climbing away from the runway at a sympathetic power setting. It sounds convoluted, and it is.
“Exploring the trim characteristics came late on in testing for a reason,” John nods, “but it’s serious enough an issue that had it been a brand-new type to me, I likely would have investigated it in the first flight at height. You do not want to open the throttle without dampening that nose-up trim, otherwise the Lysander will literally pitch nose-high, roll a wing and crash. There was a lovely story told by Ken Wallis, who flew Lysanders in the Second World War. He had an American pilot who did just that and opened the throttle without taking the nose-up trim off. He instantly pitched but immediately rolled it on its side and allowed the pitch to put him in an orbit while he figured out what to do. As Ken said, a brilliant way of overcoming the problem!”
After three successful test flights, the application for the Lysander’s Permit to Fly was submitted to the Civil Aviation Authority on 30 August 2018. Following its grant, the aeroplane was flown to the Goodwood Revival over the weekend of 7-9 September and entered into the annual Freddie March Spirit of Aviation Concours d’Elegance, where it was awarded second place. Third place, incidentally, was awarded to the Lysander’s stablemate, Bristol Blenheim Mk.I L6739. The pinnacle of the Lysander’s post-restoration air display appearances was, perhaps, Duxford’s Battle of Britain Air Show in September 2019, flying alongside the Blenheim and the Shuttleworth Collection’s Lysander and Gladiator. The four-ship formation brought five Mercury engines together for the first time in over 20 years. That ARCo has, to varying degrees, had a hand in the restoration, preservation or maintenance of three of the four aeroplanes is a testament to their standing in the industry as Bristol Mercury specialists.
John: “I have experience rebuilding and overhauling several Mercuries over the course of four restorations for three aeroplanes. It’s fair to say I know that engine very well. The more you know, the more you know can fail! That certainly played into the flight testing of this aeroplane – you know how best to handle them and treat them well. There is an added consideration because of that, I think.
“Not all of it is a positive”, he considers. “The positives are that you know pretty much every nut and bolt in that aeroplane and appreciate that it’s all been restored to the highest quality. From that point of view, you have confidence in the work that’s gone into the aeroplane and know there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it. You also know the systems in intricate detail – what it’s doing and how it’s working. The negative side was more strongly felt with the Lysander and I couldn’t work out why for a couple of flights until I got my head around the vertigo issue and the problems with the headset. Once those issues went away, it was like flying an aeroplane I recognised as ‘a Lysander’, and it was a wholly more pleasant and rewarding experience.
“I’m 60 now”, he reflects. “I was 17 when I started on the first Blenheim project, working alongside guys who were fundamental to our Lysander’s restoration. I had limited Mercury experience when I first flew the Lysander in 1995. Before getting into our aeroplane in 2018, I’d last flown a Lysander when I was 40 years old with two young children. My eldest, George, was 11 when we broke down our aeroplane in Florida to ship it to the UK – my wife and I took him out of school to help with that, on the proviso that he would give a presentation on it when he got back to class! I was coming at the Lysander test flying with 14 years’ experience flying the Blenheim, to say nothing of the innumerable hours spent rebuilding and overhauling Mercuries and other engines.”
It’s a story subtly written on Romain’s office walls: Pencil drawings of his sons in their childhood years. A framed cutaway Mercury engine diagram. An original painting of the second Blenheim’s first flight, John at the controls. A huge Dunkirk movie poster. Brass Blenheim models, both Mk.I and Mk.IV, sit on the shelves. The Lysander is the latest chapter of that rich history, but not the last.
“We’re caretakers of the history, yes – ensuring these aeroplanes survive for future generations to learn from – but there’s so much more with aeroplanes like this”, John says reflectively. “A lot of incredibly skilled people have poured their heart and soul into that machine – the finished aeroplane is a manifestation of that, in some ways. You don’t dwell on it at the time as your mind is focused elsewhere, but you are absolutely taking all of that airborne with you, particularly so on the first flight. It’s after the event that you appreciate the wider significance of what you’ve been involved in…” He trails off for a moment. “… And where that sits in your own history.”