February 21 2010
Hanging from the ceiling of the Science Museum in London is a single-wing German Fokker EIII Eindecker. It looks like a winged go-kart cobbled together by Just William and his gang of Outlaws.
It is more Buster Keaton than Biggles and gives form to the word “crate”, the early RAF slang for an old plane. It is not something a grown-up would choose to travel in to reach for the sky.
And yet this elderly first world war flying machine is one of the earliest purpose-built fighter aircraft. At its zenith, the British and French forces referred to the “Fokker scourge” and its victims, in particular allied aircraft, were described as “Fokker fodder”.
The deadly monoplane, which was fitted with the first synchroniser gear that allowed the pilot to fire a machine gun through the arc of his propeller, ruled the skies over Flanders from July 1915 until September 1916, after which it was overtaken by newer and technically superior aircraft. However, in those months it became a legend, a plane that every German and Allied pilot with a soupçon of romance secretly wished he had flown; but by then it was too late.
Only 416 Eindeckers were built, and after the summer scourge of 1915 they disappeared as quickly as mustard gas in a gale. Some were shot down, others crashed and the rest were gutted or left to rot. Only one survived. On April 8 1916 a novice German pilot took off from Valenciennes, got lost in a haze and ended up at a British aerodrome east of St Omer. The plane was captured intact, sent to be examined in Wiltshire and eventually strung up in the Science Museum to be drooled over by every schoolboy fighter pilot manqué.
One of those dreamers was George Simoni, a microlight service engineer and former award-winning product designer, who fantasised well into adulthood about flying out of the sun in a fighter plane.
“Everyone wants to be a fighter pilot,” says Simoni, who learned to fly on a three-week crash course at the Algarve Airsports Centre. “But unless you’re a highly trained RAF pilot, you will never be able to fly a modern fighter. And very, very few can afford to fly something like a Spitfire, even if it is a replica.”
The obvious solution was to fly a fighter plane from the first world war, and Simoni chose an Eindecker. Last autumn he took off in Gloucestershire in the first Fokker Eindecker to fly over the green and pleasant land since George Formby Sr topped the bill at London’s Gaiety Theatre. However, the aerial jaunt in the “Jerry kite” (as such war planes were known) was not just for personal pleasure. It was a test flight to see if the plane would cut the mustard. For Simoni’s Eindecker is a cunning replica that – thanks to a new category allowing single-seat microlight aircraft with an “empty weight” (ie, no pilot or fuel) of 115kg and a wing loading not exceeding 10kg per m² – conforms to British airworthiness regulations. Now anyone who buzzes about in an Eindecker can pretend dogfight over the UK.
Simoni had not intended to be the first 21st-century Englishman in an Eindecker. By chance, he and his flying friends Shaun Davis and Robin Morton were all interested in flying single-seat planes and planned to chip in to buy one when the law approved them.
“We were aware that the microlight community was pushing for a deregulated single-seat category and that the legislation was about to be changed so we agreed to start looking for a plane to build, and we all picked the Fokker,” explains Simoni. “It was the most appealing design and the specification seemed to fit the new UK regulations.”
The trio chose the plane from Airdrome Aeroplanes, a US company that specialised in producing first world war aeroplane kits three-quarters of the scale of the original models “at a price less than that you’d pay for a used car”. The aerial musketeers decided they could buy one each and, during the process of placing their order with Airdrome Aeroplanes, became its UK Agent. The result was the birth of Grass Strip Aviation Ltd.
The new company quickly discovered that it was more than a question of importing the raw material kits and selling them on. The UK market demanded a higher level of prefabrication, which prevented them from selling kits for the first year. So the team redesigned the plane for the English market with an amended set of their own full-size drawings. It took two years of blood, sweat and new tail fins to achieve.
“It flies better than the original aircraft,” says Simoni, proudly. “The early Eindeckers had wing warping and a rotary engine that meant it could turn one way more easily and struggled in the other direction. We haven’t replicated those faults. We have the benefit of hindsight.”
The Grass Strip Aviation Fokker Eindecker kit now comes with much of the groundwork done and understandable plans. It will take around 400 hours to build – and, according to Simoni, all you need are basic tools such as a hand drill, hacksaw, file, spanner set, rivet gun, and a garage in which to build it. When completed, it will only need around 328ft of grass to take off or land and will fly for about two hours on a single tank of fuel. It will cruise at around 55mph (it could fly on a single-cylinder 28hp engine but Grass Strip Aviation is using a twin-cylinder 45hp engine) and will have a stalling speed of around 25mph. “It is as safe as the pilot flying it,” says Simoni.
The kit costs about £11,000, depending on specification. Amazingly, Grass Strip Aviation sold two aircraft before its own plane was ready to fly and has a mailing list of 80 potential customers, including three pensioner Light Aircraft Association members, who one day dropped into Simoni’s workshop near Stroud, saying they’d like one each.
Dave Stevens, company director of the DSSL security group and a self-confessed first world war “flying nut”, bought one of the first kits. “I chose it because it is the only flying machine that looks like an aircraft and is within the SSDR [single-seat deregulation] rules that allow you to build an aircraft and maintain it without all the bureaucracy associated with CAA permits,” explains Stevens, from Canvey Island. “This Eindecker has not only taken all the red tape out of flying but it is also real seat-of-the-pants flying. It is unique. I think the company will be inundated with orders. Everybody who has seen mine has been gobsmacked.”
The Fokker Eindecker is the first plane of three that Grass Strip Aviation plans to reproduce. Next year the company intends to sell “the Dream Classic”, a Demoiselle-like monoplane that is straight out of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, and the following year hopes to add the Blériot XI Monoplane, which was the first aircraft to cross the English Channel.
“Many people who fly want to capture that nostalgic feeling of early aviation,” says Simoni. “I’m interested in the Edwardian period, when everything about flying was a bit quirky. The form of the aircraft had not been established and the first pilots didn’t really know how to control the machines.”
And absolutely central to that nostalgia is, he admits, the Fokker Eindecker. Professor Andrew Nahum, principal curator of technology and engineering at the Science Museum, agrees: “It is a hugely romantic bit of kit. It was not magically agile. It was very close to the French Morane-Saulnier monoplane. But because the Eindecker was the first plane with a machine gun that could successfully fire through the propeller it became a legend – if only for a bit.”
And now that legend has been relaunched (last November), 95 years after it first appeared, at The Flying Show at Birmingham’s NEC.
“What I am really looking forward to in the next few years is for all of us who eventually own Eindeckers getting up early one morning and setting off in formation pretending we are fighter pilots and flying out of the sun,” says Simoni. Just William would have been proud of them.