Fea­ture: Bris­tol Sy­camore

Mak­ing his­tory as the sixty-yearold he­li­copter flies in the UK for the first time in 46 years, vis­it­ing air­shows, turn­ing heads and con­fus­ing air traf­fic con­trollers

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words: David Monks Ae­rial pho­tos: Red Bull

Icould tell the Den­ham con­troller was hav­ing dif­fi­culty be­liev­ing me. “Say again?” he said.

“Bölkow 105 and Bris­tol Sy­camore for­ma­tion in­bound to you from Sta­ple­ford, re­quest join­ing in­for­ma­tion.” There was a pause. “Was that two 105s in­bound?” “No, a 105 and a Sy­camore.” An­other pause. “What­ever you are, join at St Giles left-hand zero six, cir­cuit is clear.”

Not un­til he got a good look at us on fi­nal did he be­lieve. I gave him some non-stan­dard R/T as we crossed the fence. “You see, I was telling the truth,” I said. “Weren’t you just.” You couldn’t blame him. Not for 46 years has a Bris­tol Sy­camore flown over Eng­land, and he’d prob­a­bly never seen one, even in a mu­seum. Hav­ing this his­toric he­li­copter ma­te­ri­alise out of a clear blue sky was a unique ex­pe­ri­ence, and one that may never be re­peated. For this was, of course, the Red Bull Sy­camore, OE-XSY on a sum­mer tour of Eng­land tak­ing in air shows at Cos­ford, Fair­ford and Farn­bor­ough, with a twoweek res­i­dency at the He­li­copter Mu­seum at We­ston-su­per-mare. And I had been in­vited to fly it down the Heliroutes through Lon­don.

Over the years I’ve de­vel­oped a close and sup­port­ive re­la­tion­ship with the Red Bull Fly­ers−so much so that I got the chance to fly their Cobra in Aus­tria with Chief Pi­lot ‘Blacky’ Sch­warz, along with their Bö105 and Cessna Car­a­van on floats. I’ve been fol­low­ing their metic­u­lous restora­tion of the Sy­camore for some years, and had ac­tu­ally seen it fly at their Salzburg base. When they were plan­ning to bring the Sy­camore home to Eng­land they con­tacted me for help and in­for­ma­tion, and one of the things they par­tic­u­larly wanted to do was to fly it along the Heliroutes through Lon­don, ac­com­pa­nied by the 105 as a cam­era ship – they planned to make a thirty-minute doc­u­men­tary film of this his­toric event. They wanted me, as a na­tive English speaker who was fa­mil­iar with the Heliroutes, to ac­com­pany them along the Thames, and you can imag­ine how pleased I was to oblige!

The Bris­tol Sy­camore was the first British he­li­copter to go into pro­duc­tion, al­though it was de­signed by an Aus­trian, Raoul Hafner, who im­mi­grated to Eng­land be­fore the Sec­ond World War. The pro­to­type flew with a Pratt & Whit­ney Wasp en­gine in 1947, and the Mk 2 came out in 1949 with a 550 hp nine-cylin­der Alvis Leonides ra­dial en­gine, mounted hor­i­zon­tally be­hind the back seats. Hafner, who had cut his teeth on au­t­o­gy­ros with full cyclic con­trol, was a vi­sion­ary as well as a ge­nius. He pro­vided the Sy­camore with three blades on both the main and the tail ro­tor which, as I was to find, en­dowed the he­li­copter with re­mark­ably low vi­bra­tion lev­els, even by modern stan­dards.

The Red Bull Sy­camore was built at Bris­tol’s Old­mixon, We­ston-su­per-mare fac­tory in 1957 for the Ger­man armed forces, and served un­til 1969. Af­ter de­mo­bil­i­sa­tion it passed through var­i­ous hands be­fore be­ing bought by Swiss he­li­copter en­thu­si­ast Peter Sch­midt. It

The only Sy­camore fly­ing, it rep­re­sents the en­i­tirety of the type

was Peter who worked to ob­tain the req­ui­site per­mis­sion from Buck­ing­ham Palace for the Sy­camore to wear RAF colours and roundels. Iron­i­cally, the air­craft was never in ser­vice with any branch of the British mil­i­tary al­though, as the only Sy­camore fly­ing, it rep­re­sents the en­tirety of the type. Royal per­mis­sion was granted on the con­di­tion that the he­li­copter would only ever be a source of pride and hon­our to the RAF, and how could it be oth­er­wise? Peter, who owns a vine­yard, sat in the back while we flew through Lon­don.

My own Sy­camore jour­ney be­gan at Sta­ple­ford, but get­ting the Sy­camore there was a long and tor­tu­ous process, and I’m not talk­ing about the flight from Aus­tria. In the be­gin­ning there were in fact fears that the he­li­copter could never be made air­wor­thy, par­tic­u­larly be­cause of the wooden blades, which are del­i­cate, hand-crafted works of art. It was with some trep­i­da­tion that the blades were sent to the Tech­ni­cal Univer­sity of Graz for test­ing. The re­sult was a sur­prise−they were deemed to be ‘like new’, even af­ter 61 years.

The He­li­copter Mu­seum at We­ston pro­vided tech­ni­cal

as­sis­tance, in­clud­ing sup­ply­ing archived main­te­nance man­u­als. A Ger­man Sy­camore spe­cial­ist, Di­eter Hase­brink−a for­mer tech­ni­cian at the Ger­man armed forces−played a sig­nif­i­cant role in the restora­tion, with la­bo­ri­ous re­pair work re­quired on many com­po­nents. The canopy glass was re­placed, the en­gine was worked on, the avion­ics, the tanks and the trim pumps all needed at­ten­tion. (Trim pumps are needed be­cause the Sy­camore moves wa­ter bal­last around as fuel is burned off to keep the C of G within lim­its.)

Reg­is­tra­tion was not a fore­gone con­clu­sion. Type ap­proval was nec­es­sary be­cause the Sy­camore had never pre­vi­ously been reg­is­tered by the Aus­trian au­thor­i­ties, who stip­u­lated that nu­mer­ous re­quire­ments and pa­ram­e­ters had to be met. This proved to be a ma­jor chal­lenge be­cause there were no longer any li­censed pi­lots or tech­ni­cians. A test pro­gramme was cre­ated to­gether with Aus­tro Con­trol, start­ing in July 2013 with a fif­teen-minute hov­er­ing flight, with Blacky Sch­warz at the cyclic. Fur­ther flight tests took fif­teen hours and in­cluded thirty land­ings. The Sy­camore was granted a type ap­proval by the Aus­tri­ans in 2016 and it was reg­is­tered as OE-XSY, hav­ing pre­vi­ously been on the Ger­man reg­is­ter in the 1970s as D-HALD, and on the Swiss reg­is­ter as HB-RXB. It last flew in 2006, and had come into the Fly­ing Bulls pos­ses­sion in 2010.

In June I flew my R22 down to Sta­ple­ford to meet Blacky and the Sy­camore as it made land­fall in Eng­land, along with the Fly­ing Bulls’ Bö105. It’s a mea­sure of the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the Fly­ing Bulls that the 105 pi­lot, Mirko Flaim also wanted a na­tive speaker on board (de­spite his own ex­cel­lent English), just in case we had ra­dio fail­ure… so we ar­ranged to go first to Den­ham, where Mirko would pick up Hugh Barklem while we had a cup of tea.

Blacky put me into the left seat of the Sy­camore−the first ver­sions were flown from the left, but af­ter the Mk 3 it be­came the con­ven­tion that the he­li­copter was flown from the right. First im­pres­sions are of a ven­er­a­ble old ma­chine smelling of oil and leather, with pe­riod clocks on a vast panel stretch­ing right across the he­li­copter and leav­ing rel­a­tively lit­tle room for a wind­screen. The con­trols are con­ven­tional ex­cept for the col­lec­tive, which takes some get­ting used to. There’s only one, sit­u­ated be­tween the seats, and while it goes up and down like a nor­mal col­lec­tive, the throt­tle sticks out per­pen­dic­u­lar to the lever and is ma­nip­u­lated fore and aft, like a mo­tor­cy­cle twist-

Wa­ter bal­last is moved around as fuel is burned off

grip. There are some modern touches−up-to-date avion­ics have been in­stalled, and the seats have four-point har­nesses – but oth­er­wise the lay­out is ex­actly as it was be­fore I was born.

Blacky started the en­gine, lifted into the hover and had hardly com­pleted the trans­la­tion to for­ward flight when he said: “You have con­trol”. We had agreed that be­cause of its po­si­tion and nov­elty he would re­tain re­spon­si­bil­ity for the lever, as well as the bal­last trim, while I did the rest. The cyclic felt very heavy, es­pe­cially when com­pared with the R22 I fly−al­most as though there was a big spring hold­ing it back−and at the be­gin­ning it was quite a trick to get the trim just right. I soon got used to it, how­ever.

One sits well for­ward in the air­craft so it doesn’t feel

It doesn’t feel as big as it is... it re­sponds like a lighter he­li­copter

as big as it is; the bulk is all be­hind you, and it re­sponds like a lighter he­li­copter. It is un­ques­tion­ably noisy, even with good head­phones, as the en­gine is hard up against the pas­sen­ger com­part­ment. I pointed her west­ward at eighty to ninety knots, and vi­bra­tion lev­els were sig­nif­i­cantly lower than I had ex­pected in such a ven­er­a­ble he­li­copter. Bal­anc­ing three wooden blades must be a black art, but the Fly­ing Bulls have mas­tered it.

Our flight to Den­ham was over in a few min­utes, and turns onto base and fi­nal were with­out drama; I’d got the hang of the cyclic trim. One in­ter­est­ing point: the Sy­camore is best landed with a mod­icum of for­ward speed, which re­lieves some of the stress on its tri­cy­cle un­der­car­riage.

We had our cup of tea and re­viewed the Heliroutes chart with Blacky and Mirko while Hugh called the Den­ham con­troller to find out who was work­ing the airspace just in­side the Heathrow zone. To­day it was Northolt. The Den­ham con­troller ap­peared to have briefed them on who was com­ing be­cause we were dealt with ex­pe­di­tiously and with gen­uine in­ter­est. I could imag­ine them stand­ing in the win­dow with binoc­u­lars, keen to wit­ness this unique event.

The plan was zone en­try at North­wood for H9, H10 and H4 to exit at the Isle of Dogs and re­turn to Sta­ple­ford. We took off, di­alled in a squawk for both he­li­copters and re­ceived an im­me­di­ate clear­ance to en­ter at North­wood. With Northolt in view Blacky said, “Take over, will you?” and be­gan rum­mag­ing in his pock­ets. I took the stick as he pro­duced his cam­era, and from that point on I flew the re­main­der of the trip, while he snapped away.

Northolt passed us to Heathrow Radar and we picked up the Thames at Kew Bridge. It takes time to be­come suf­fi­ciently com­fort­able with a new he­li­copter to al­low your

The ex­pe­ri­ence of a life­time... in such a gem of a he­li­copter

brain to shift a gear, to give you enough spare band­width to start ap­pre­ci­at­ing your sur­round­ings and cir­cum­stances, but by the time we got over the river I was be­gin­ning to mar­vel at ex­actly what I was do­ing, in what, and where: I was pi­lot­ing a one­off piece of British he­li­copter his­tory over the cap­i­tal. What an ex­tra­or­di­nary priv­i­lege! We must have been vis­i­ble to hun­dreds of thou­sands of Lon­don­ers… what would they think, if they looked up? How many would recog­nise that a ghost from the past had come to life and flown over their heads?

From Barnes we were cleared to Vaux­hall Bridge, then to Lon­don Bridge. Blacky kept tak­ing pic­tures as the Houses of Par­lia­ment slipped be­neath us, the Lon­don Eye, St Paul’s and The City. Even­tu­ally we were held at the Isle of Dogs, cir­cling over Green­wich Park while City Air­port cleared some traf­fic, then we were cleared across their ex­tended cen­tre­line. City asked us to ex­pe­dite. I replied that ninety was the best we could do, and it wasn’t bad for a six­tyyear-old.

“It cer­tainly isn’t,” they said, and held their traf­fic.

We con­tin­ued up the Lea Val­ley−over the spot where 110 years ago A V Roe was threat­ened with ar­rest for dis­turb­ing the peace by at­tempt­ing to fly the first British air­craft of any type−and back into Sta­ple­ford, and I felt a sense of ful­fil­ment such as one rarely en­joys. It re­ally was the ex­pe­ri­ence of a life­time, ne­go­ti­at­ing the Heliroutes suc­cess­fully and with­out in­ci­dent in such a gem of a he­li­copter, and it’s not un­til it’s all over that the magic im­presses it­self on you. I bade farewell to Blacky and Mirko, who con­tin­ued their jour­ney to Cos­ford well sat­is­fied with the film footage they’d taken, and flew Hugh back to Den­ham in the R22 be­fore head­ing home.

It wasn’t un­til later that I re­alised that I’d been so be­daz­zled that I’d left my wal­let in the Sy­camore, and I had to drive all the way up to Cos­ford the fol­low­ing day to fetch it.

The Sy­camore moved on to the He­li­copter Mu­seum at We­ston-su­per-mare, where it was de­liv­ered into the care of mu­seum founder El­fan ap Rees. The mu­seum has two Sy­camores on dis­play, nei­ther of course air­wor­thy−in fact the last time a Sy­camore flew in Bri­tain was in 1972. But El­fan had the priv­i­lege of fly­ing OE-XSY down to the seafront for the We­ston Hel­i­days, and for him it was a re­u­nion with an old friend. He’d flown the same ma­chine in Ger­many with its first pri­vate owner in the 1970s. El­fan adds: “We also flew the aer­o­batic se­quence in the 105−loops, rolls, the works. An­other tick on my bucket list!”

ABOVE LEFT: track­ing along the south coast, Dover in sight

MAIN IM­AGE: brood­ing weather and a slant­ing sun cre­ate an im­pres­sive Lon­don back­dropRIGHT: David Monks and (right) Red Bull Chief Pi­lot ‘Blacky’ Sch­warzBE­LOW: Blacky flies the Sy­camore in for­ma­tion with the Bulls’ Bö105

The Red Bull Fly­ers’ Bö105 po­si­tioned at Den­ham

RIGHT: head­ing east, the Sy­camore ap­proaches HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge

Fol­low­ing H4 past the Palace of West­min­ster and (right) Saint Paul’s Cathe­dral and The City come into view

ABOVE: P1 sits on the right, shar­ing a cen­tral, hor­i­zon­tal, twist-grip throt­tle-topped col­lec­tive with P2

David and Blacky see Lon­don at low level as only the he­li­copter pi­lot can

If you are go­ing to be put into a hold­ing pat­tern, what more in­ter­est­ing spot could there be than the Isle of Dogs

BE­LOW: job done – David and Blacky ar­rive back at Sta­ple­ford

ABOVE: City traf­fic per­mit­ting, the Sy­camore heads north to­wards the Lea Val­ley

Ro­tary-wing air­craft old and new – Sy­camore parked next to a Chi­nook at Cos­ford

Will­ing hands ma­noeu­vre the VIP guest into the He­li­copter Mu­seum

PHOTO: ALAN NOR­RIS

Com­ing home – the Sy­camore lands at its birth­place in We­ston-su­per-mare

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