Light Aircraft Association. Francis Donaldson comments


When you’re invited to fly a vintage aeroplane which is the sole surviving example of its type, and upon which thousands of man hours have been expended to restore it from basket case to concours condition, it does rather concentrate your mind about the importance of doing a good job. Thus when I was entrusted with the task of flying the just-restored Foster-Wikner Wicko from a farm strip in Hampshire to Goodwood in Sussex to take part in a static display of aircraft at the 2007 ‘Goodwood Revival’ event, in accepting the offer my natural curiosity at flying an unusual type was tinged with more than a little trepidation.

The Wicko was the third design of Australian Geoffrey Wikner, who came to the mother country in 1934 with the idea of setting up in the aircraft manufacturing business – inspired perhaps by his cousin, Edgar Percival, who after making a name for himself as a pilot in his native Australia was then establishing his own company at Gravesend to produce the beautiful streamlined low wing ‘Gull’ monoplane. Wikner was keen on another segment of the market, wanting to supply aircraft of a more basic specification that could undercut the competition but still have a reasonable overall performance. Thus the Wicko was to be a structurally simple strut-braced high wing monoplane of all wood construction, seating two side by side and intended originally to be powered by a converted Ford V8 car engine fitted with a Pobjoy propeller reduction gear. Being a great deal cheaper than any aero-engine of comparable power, Wikner hoped to market the Wicko for around Ł450 at a time when competing types from de Havilland and Miles were being touted at almost twice that figure.

The Ford V8 engined prototype was built by Wikner in a furniture factory at Bromley-by-Bow and first flown by him at Stapleford in 1936. Unfortunately it turned out to be underpowered, having an overly long take off run and slow climb. It soon became obvious that with a weight of 450 Lbs the water cooled automotive engine couldn’t cut the mustard, so Wikner reluctantly extracted the heavy Ford V8 and substituted a conventional air cooled in line four Cirrus Minor which weighed half as much. With this engine the Wicko became a practical proposition. Though the change meant that the aeroplane would need to be marketed at nearer Ł650, Wikner still felt the aircraft was saleable and set up a small manufacturing facility of his own at Eastleigh airfield to build Wickos, settling on the popular DH Gipsy Major engine of 130 BHP. The cost of a proper aero-engine had substantially reduced the price differential between the Wicko and competing types like the Hornet Moth and Miles Witney Straight, which perhaps partly explains why only ten production Wickos were built before the outbreak of war in 1939 called a halt to production.

Outwardly, the Wicko appears quite modern in its lines compared to other high wing aircraft of the day, and from most angles the boxiness of its fuselage is not too apparent. With her curved-tipped flying surfaces, well faired cantilever undercarriage with spatted wheels and a wrap-around moulded windscreen she is a handsome aircraft and exudes an image of racy sophistication. Like most light aircraft of the day, gentle aerobatics were permitted and the certification trials included full spin tests with a spin recovery parachute.

The Wicko’s fuselage was a four-sided plywood covered box with spruce longerons and spacers and plywood covered spruce bulkheads. Where it was unusual was in the way the fuselage was made. Normally one would build a fuselage like this like a typical Keil Kraft model, by building the two sides flat on the bench, then joining them with the bulkheads, pulling them together at the stern, adding the crosswise spacers and then ply covering the top and bottom. The Wicko on the other hand was built by creating the sides, top and bottom as well as the main bulkheads ‘flat’ on the bench in separate jigs and then joining them together in an assembly jig. Each of the four longerons were made in two half-width parts which only formed a whole once the sides, top and bottom were married up. The small wooden cockpit doors on either side of the cabin were built integral with the fuselage sides and cut out after the fuselage was assembled.

For a strut-braced monoplane, the wings were unusual in being made in one piece and mounted atop the fuselage, rather than as two separate panels bolted either side. With its warren-girder spruce truss ribs and twin plank-like spruce spars each braced by wing struts, the Wicko’s wing configuration is reminiscent of the American-made Monocoupe range of monoplanes, originally conceived in the late twenties by Don Luscombe. On the prototype Wicko, the wings were fabric covered, like the Monocoupe, but all the subsequent Wickos were fully ply covered with no unsupported fabric at all. Further American influence is evident in the Wicko’s use of plain flaps, mechanically operated, to steepen the approach and lower the landing speed. British practise at the time was to use either split type flaps or simple drag-increasing airbrakes.

It’s not until you come up close that you appreciate how Wickner was seeking to cut costs through simplicity of specification. Thus, whereas most of the competing monoplanes were designed with wings that could be folded back to reduce hangar space, the Wicko’s one piece wings had no such facility. Where the fashion was for putting the fuel tanks in the wings where they were thought to create less of a fire hazard, the Wicko had a single big fuel tank mounted in the fuselage at the rear of the cabin. Afraid of the implications of ditching a high-wing aircraft, other manufacturers of the period provided a break-out panel in the roof of the cockpit which the crew could in theory escape through as the cockpit flooded with water – the Wicko had nothing but unyielding acetate and plywood forming its roof. Where tailwheels were de riggeur by the mid thirties, the Wicko stuck with a simple fixed tailskid, relying on independent wheel brakes to aid in ground steering.

Other evidence of economy comes in the design of the few metal fittings in the Wicko structure, which appear crude by the standards of the day – well up to the job, but lacking in finesse. They give the impression of having been designed by someone more familiar with agricultural engineering than with delicate aircraft components.

G-AFJB has had a particularly interesting history. The 5th Wicko built, she first flew at Eastleigh on 26th October 1938, receiving a Certificate of Airworthiness on 1st November. She was gifted to the Midland Aero Club at Castle Bromwich by N B Graham, joint proprietor of Wolverhampton's Express and Star newspaper who presented her to the club to use in the new Civil Air Guard scheme, with the proviso that the club must train four pilots nominated by the paper free of charge each year. Upon the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, the club’s CFI took her to Hucknall where she was operated by Rolls Royce as a communications aircraft, still on a civilian C of A. Impressed by the RAF, in July 1941 she was allocated to the White Waltham based Air Transport Auxiliary fleet with the military serial number DR613, her original red and white colour scheme having now disappeared under drab camouflage. Her life as a ferry pool aircraft ended in 1942 after a taxiing accident at Andover. She was repaired but then moved on to Heston for a short time before being allocated to Cunliffe-Owen Aircraft Ltd at Eastleigh where she spent the remainder of the war as a company hack, based just a few yards from the place of her manufacture. As the war came to a close, along with most other surviving impressed light aircraft ‘JB was put in store with 5MU at Kemble.

Post war, ‘JB was bought back by Wickner, who had a new C of A issued in March 1946. Wickner had himself spent the war as an ATA pilot. Ever adventurous, in the same year he managed to buy a surplus Halifax bomber and flew it to Australia along with 21 passengers and crew. To help finance this venture, the Wicko was sold to ex Hamble ATA pilot Philippa Bennett who had set up as an air taxi operator, based at Eastleigh.

One can’t help but wonder how successful the Wicko could ever have been as an air taxi, handicapped as it was by a complete absence of a baggage compartment, the only space for bags being on the shelf behind the crews’ heads. It was during its air taxi period that according to legend, when landing at Walney Island airfield in bad weather the aircraft ran off the end the runway and fell off an 80 foot cliff, ending up inverted in the sea, fortunately without serious injury to the crew. One can only wonder at the difficulties of escaping from the aircraft in this position ! For most aircraft this would have been the end of the road, but the chunky Wicko survived the exploit to be repaired and returned to service at Eastleigh. In 1950 Philippa Bennett sold the aircraft to Lettice Curtis, one of the most senior of the former lady ATA pilots famous as having been the first of the ladies to be checked out for ferrying four engined heavy bombers. The Wicko was based at Boscombe Down, where Lettice Curtis was employed as a flight test engineer in the Civil Aircraft Test Section. A keen racing pilot, (including on the civil Spitfire G-AIDN), the Wicko was raced extensively by Lettice and others although due to over-optimistic handicapping the aircraft never placed highly.

In 1955 Lettice moved jobs to the flight test development team of Fairey Aviation at White Waltham, where the mighty Rotordyne compound helicopter project was underway. On finding that unlike her previous employers, Fairey’s wouldn’t give her hangar space for the Wicko, the aircraft was sold to a young enthusiast Michael Dible, who based the aircraft at Denham. Along with his brother, Joe, the pair accumulated 120 hours flying in just 18 months before, in search of more sophisticated flying, they replaced the Wicko with a Proctor. ‘JB moved on to the Southport Aero Club for a period, where she was operated off Southport Sands alongside Tiger Moth G-ANOD. However the salt water laden environment soon took its toll on both of the elderly wooden aircraft, and they were sold to make way for more modern machinery.

This time ‘JB went to a group in Yorkshire, by now in a seriously tired condition. Photographs of her in this period show her spatless and in a simple paint scheme with all red fuselage and fin and silver wing and tailplane. In the early sixties she was acquired through ‘Exchange and Mart’ by the Warwick Autocar Ltd in exchange for a sports car, and based at Bagington. After the C of A lapsed she languished at Bagington for a while, accumulating unpaid hangar fees and by default became the property of Light Aircraft Servicing Ltd. Semi-derelict, as was the way with aged wooden light aircraft at that time, she seemed in danger of imminent destruction by the airfield fire service. Auctioned in 1965, fortunately the aircraft was acquired by Ken Wooley who retrieved the aircraft to his own premises at Berkeswell Forge, Coventry and repainted her in camouflage with her wartime identification markings. In 1971 the owner successfully negotiated with the ARB (now CAA) that the aircraft could be restored via the PFA scheme (now LAA) for a permit to fly, and PFA put the owner in touch with fellow local PFA vintage enthusiasts in an attempt to set the restoration off to a good start. Nothing appears to have been done however and the condition of the Wicko’s wooden structure deteriorated further in storage to the point where anyone would have said that her flying days were at an end.

Move on to the late 1990’s, when with a long and successful piloting career behind him, first on fast jets and then with the airline Joe Dible was looking for a new project. Hearing that the Wicko was still in existence, he purchased the remains of the aircraft at the end of 1998, three decades since it had last flown and four decades after he and his brother’s adventures with it at Denham. Joe arranged with vintage restorer Ron Souch of Aero Antiques to restore the aircraft. With no expense spared, Ron undertook not only to bring the Wicko back to life but to rebuild it to good as new condition. As the Wicko was part of the very strong aviation heritage associated with the Southampton area (think Avro, Supermarine, Fairey, Armstrong-Whitworth, Cierva, Cunliffe-Owen and Folland), it was particularly appropriate that the Aero Antiques workshops at Durley in Hampshire is located near Botley, at the head of the Hamble river and no more than four miles from the old Eastleigh Airfield site where the Wicko had originally been built.

Ron’s initial survey showed that the aircraft had suffered widespread glue failure and much of the wood members were beyond redemption. When a wooden aircraft has reached as bad a state of decay as this, the restorer is often put into a quandary. Traditionally, the ‘identity’ of an aircraft is taken to reside within its fuselage. Presented with a wreck, the quickest way to achieve an airworthy fuselage may be to start again and build a new one from scratch, either by taking measurements from the original or, if they are available, working to the original drawings. This however begs the question whether this is indeed a rebuild or a replica, and leaves the difficult issue of what to do with the carcass of the old fuselage once the new one is complete. To quietly destroy it would seem an act of wanton destruction of a historical artefact. On the other hand, for as long as the old stripped-out husk of a fuselage remains in existence it risks being picked up as the start of another restoration project that might lead to arguments over the provenance of the first rebuild.

In the case of ‘JB, the decision was made not to start again with a new fuselage but rather to take the original, build a jig around it to preserve the essential geometry and then replace almost all the wood and plywood pieces in a progressive manner, so that after a period of months the original age-weakened frame metamorphosed into an immaculate structure with fresh wood and ply almost entirely replacing the original, but at no stage had the structure been completely dismantled. In this way, there’s no question that the aeroplane has been restored rather than replicated and its identity never compromised.

The wings were not in such a bad way, and once the external ply skins were stripped off, the spruce spars and many of the ribs were found to be usable so it was a case of cleaning everything up, replacing or re-gluing those ribs which didn’t pass muster, re-painting the structure, refurbishing the aileron and flap control runs and then applying new ply skins. The main challenge was in getting the ply to go around the curved tips, as this involved a modicum of double curvature and it was important not to get a ‘starved horse’ effect. Using a number of small sections scarfed together, the skinning went beautifully, as one would expect of Ron’s team of master craftsman. Interestingly, the wings had apparently been stored for many years resting upright on their leading edges, seemingly supported near each tip but not in the middle. This has resulted in the wooden spars taking on a slight permanent ‘set’ and the wings assuming a minute amount of unwanted sweepback, just visible if you look for it in the pictures.

During the restoration, the heavy telescopic Magister type castering tailwheel assembly which had been rather crudely retro-fitted post-war was removed and a compact modern Scott tailwheel unit mounted on a conventional leaf spring, thus returning the aeroplane closer to its original tailskidded appearance and, with tailwheel steering, promising improved directional control. The thin wall streamlined steel tube wing struts had become too corroded to re-use as primary structure. As the original tubing was long since out of production, a modification was devised in which the old streamlined tubes were sand blasted and re-used, but this time only as a fairing for new round section thick-wall steel tubes which were inserted up the middle of each strut. New aluminium cowlings were made by metal working wizard Steve Moon of Botley, using the originals as a pattern, as were the curvaceous strut end fairings. Unusually for Aero Antiques, for expediency the wheel spats were re-made not in aluminium but in fibreglass, but are shaped exactly as the originals and are externally indistinguishable. The upper part of the original telescopic leg undercarriage units were salvaged but the sliding lower legs and axles were remade, taking the opportunity to adapt the axle design to suit modern wheels and reliable disc brakes. While most of the original flying control system was salvaged, along with the steel tube engine mounting frames, many of the smaller brackets were re-made. The wooden tail surfaces, flaps and ailerons were all rebuilt in their entirety.

Painted in a glossy scarlet and cream scheme that duplicates the original factory prototype, the result is glorious. Ron’s team have turned out an aeroplane that is undoubtedly better than new, inside and out.

When the Wicko was being rebuilt, one feature that stood out was the tiny size of the front-hinged wooden cockpit doors, and I was intrigued to find out just how a full-sized person was going to get aboard through such a minute aperture. As it turns out, there’s no particular problem thanks to the fact that the short undercarriage places the low-slung fuselage at quite a convenient height above the ground and you can stick one leg in, then can grasp the twin diagonal vee struts in the windscreen area to take your weight as swing the rest of you up and into the cabin, folding the remaining leg up to get it in last of all. Once seated, the internal space seems adequate if not generous. The instrument panel is a radiussed triangular shape with real vintage charm, and carries a minimum of instruments. Unusually, at the base of the instrument panel is a wide shelf, presumably a place to rest your charts and so on in flight. Stick and rudder bars are well paced. The throttle control is bizarre however, being a plunger-type that emerges rearwards from the instrument panel not in line with either the pilot’s left or right arm, but directly in front of his face. Seemingly it’s at arm’s length at cruise power, so you fly the Wicko in a most unusual posture.

A chrome plated tubular flap lever sprouts from a fulcrum on the cockpit floor, gated to give the barn-door like plain flaps three positions to choose from. An exposed chromed aileron pushrod runs up adjacent to the front door pillar on the left hand side, transmitting the aileron motion from the stick assembly at floor level up to the wing – another Monocoupe feature. A similar rod runs up unshrouded through the baggage area to activate the flaps. The aircraft’s electrical system, a later addition which serves only the electrical fuel gauge, is run off a small battery and controlled by a master switch hidden beneath the panel’s ‘shelf’.

To start the Wicko’s hand-swung Gipsy Major, the first step is to prime the engine. As this involves opening the cowlings, the prop-swinger needs to be well briefed in advance. The cowling is unusual. Most Gipsies have fixed nosebowl, top and bottom sections and hinged side panels for access to the engine. On the Wicko the side cowlings extend over the top of the engine and are hinged along the top centreline, like the bonnet of a vintage car. Twisting the two quick-release catches at the bottom edge of each cowling half allows each side to open clamshell-like to expose the whole engine. To prime the motor, there’s a button on the top of the carburettor which you have to press to depress the float, allowing neat fuel to run into the intake manifold. As the Wicko’s Gipsy is pump fed rather than gravity fed with fuel, you have to wobble the hand-lever on one of the two engine-driven pumps at the same time. As the carburettor and fuel pumps are situated on opposite sides of the engine, to facilitate one-man priming there’s a crank arrangement connected to a stranded steel cable which allows you to press down the flooding button remotely by tugging on a small ring-pull that emerges alongside the fuel pumps. Once surplus fuel starts to drip from the intake manifold drain, you can button up the cowlings.

The starting routine is normal Gipsy Major ie suck in four blades with switches off and throttle closed and then ‘throttle set’ and ‘contact’. Usually she will fire up on the first or second blade, announced by a spasm of vibration that runs the length and breadth of the wooden airframe. Thanks to the long chromed exhaust pipe that stretches almost half the length of the fuselage, the Gipsy’s exhaust note is moderated to a pleasing burble at idle. While she starts easily enough, once the engine’s running the critical moment comes when you flip each magneto switch off in turn to check for misfiring, as this particular Gipsy seems very prone to oiling up her plugs when static. Normally a fouled plug clears itself during the run-up, but if it refuses to clear and you have to shut down and extract the plugs for cleaning, by that stage engine and plugs are hot, hot, hot ! Unless you have asbestos fingertips you’ll need to leave it for twenty minutes or so to cool off before starting work.

The first thing you notice when you come to taxi the Wicko is how poor the view out is to the right hand side, as the instrument panel and engine cowl blot out any view of the terrain you are about to taxi over. You have to be ultra-cautious and weave continually to check that you are not about to run into pot- holes in the ground, traffic cones, marker boards and all the other airfield snares that are set out to embarrass vintage taildragger pilots. Thanks to the steerable tailwheel and independent heel brakes, she’s easy to control directionally on the ground and only the poor view out and the queer positioning of the throttle control mar what would otherwise be a straightforward taxiing experience.

On take off, the Wicko accelerates well enough and is easy to keep straight. You have to bear in mind that with 153 square feet of wing area the Wicko’s wing loading is a fair bit higher than on other Gipsy Major powered aircraft (De Havilland’s Puss Moth, for example, boasts 222 square feet of wing to carry essentially the same max gross weight as the Wicko). Therefore, even with first stage of flap its best to resist any temptation to fly her off the ground at less than 45 knots. She seems to climb away happiest at about 55 knots, increasing to 60 once the flap has been cleaned up. The propeller now fitted is giving around 530 ft/min rate of climb at max gross weight, turning at 2150 RPM.

Up and away, with the present propeller the Wicko settles to a comfortable 85 knot cruise at 1950 RPM, increasing to 95 knots at a max continuous of 2100, the controls feeling unexpectedly crisp and responsive. In her racing days, she seems to have achieved around 120 miles an hour (107 knots) around a cross-country course, but that would have been with continuous full throttle, in the days when Gipsy Majors were cheap and plentiful. Today we see exactly this figure if the engine is ‘red lined’ at 2300 for a short test, but generally she is nursed a great deal more gently.

With her stiff ply-covered structure, and modest wing loading there’s none of the ponderousness of many of her contemporaries, and were it not for the rather marked adverse yaw caused by the combination of plain ailerons with a rather small fixed fin, this could be mistaken for a much more modern aircraft. The lack of dihedral means there’s not a great deal of lateral stability, but tentatively testing light presses on either rudder pedal results in a slow banking tendency in sympathy with the yaw inputs, indicating just positive dihedral effect. With a high or parasol wing aircraft, even a flat wing acts like one with dihedral, because of the way that the low-set fuselage influences the cross-flow of air over the wing in a sideslip. Interestingly, as we plough through light turbulence the stick bobbles fore and aft under your hand as the elevators try to align themselves with each passing upgust, something you come across more often with aircraft with an all-moving tailplane like a Robin DR400. In the case of the Wicko, the fact that the elevators occupy almost half the total tailplane chord (rather than typically around one third) means that the elevators are less inclined than normal to align themselves with the fixed tailplane and more prone to trail with the local freestream, hence their responsiveness to passing disturbances.

I was interested to find out whether the use of a much lighter engine than first intended might make the Wicko show signs of tail heaviness. However despite the presumably more rearwards cg, the Wicko’s elevator position is neutral at cruise speed so they’ve got their tail setting angle right, and the aeroplane is positively pitch stable, needing progressively increasing stick forces to move away from the trim speed, so cg position and tail sizing have worked out well. The overall control harmony is far from ideal, with relatively heavy ailerons and light elevators and rudder, but less so than many other aircraft of the day. Any shortfall in this department is more than compensated for by the overall responsiveness of the controls which inspire confidence, especially when manoeuvring near the ground, as for example when hitting a gust that pulls a wing down on short finals.

Looking briefly at the power-off stall, using the standard 1 knot/second deceleration rate the Wicko buffets just perceptibly at 40 knots, shrugs her shoulders and drops the nose at 38. Full flap (taking care not to exceed the flap limiting speed on the recovery) we get a lower nose attitude, a more noticeable buffet at 38 knots and a slight right wing drop at 35, easily contained by normal use of the controls. A second attempt yields a left wing drop, so clearly the entry parameters are critical to the result. In a modern aircraft we would expect to see rather better pre-stall warning, but she is acceptable by the standards of the day.

As first rebuilt, one’s peace of mind during the landing approach was eroded by an unusual vibration and unevenness from the engine compartment at 1200 to 1500 rpm - which for me at least, encouraged either glide approaches or ‘dragging it in’ at higher power settings. First thoughts were of carb ice. The Gipsy Major has a built-in automatic carb heat system which activates at low throttle, so this was unlikely to be an issue. Later adjustments to the engine mount’s rubber mounting feet have apparently fixed the problem, so it was presumably an issue of either resonant frequencies or lack of clearance.

Flying the approach at 55 knots with full flap we aim for a ‘last look’ speed of 50 knots over the fence, knowing that despite her moderate wing loading, failing to nail this speed will mean the Wicko will float a hundred yards or more. The touchdown comes naturally either as a three-pointer or a tail-low wheeler, and the short, internally sprung gear legs do a good job of soaking up the bumps. The only thing that mars the experience of landing the Wicko comes when you say goodbye to all your forward view to the right hand side in the flare, and just have to trust that the way ahead on that side is clear. No surprise, then, that twice during this aeroplane’s life it has had major mishaps on landing ! Nowadays with the benefit of both a steerable tailwheel and very effective modern independent heel brakes, any ground looping tendency is easily contained and the speed quickly slows to walking speed where you can revert to weaving to check the space ahead for hazards.

To summarise the Wicko, clearly many modern LSA type aircraft fly faster, climb quicker, land shorter, carry more payload, have more cockpit space, a better view out and, increasingly important these days, burn less fuel. But for its time it was a brave attempt to embrace the LAA ethos of reducing the cost of flying, and its early flying with an automotive-derived powerplant may well have sown the seeds for the post-war airborne adoption of the VW flat-four which was the great enabler of the early days of the PFA. Wikner’s idea that there was a market for a cheaper style of aircraft was vindicated by the success of other emergent types like the Taylorcraft and Moth Minor, which had the advantage of emanating from much better-established manufacturers.

To return to the start of the story, the Wicko’s appearance at the Goodwood Revival in 2007 led to it being awarded the Freddie March ‘Spirit of Aviation’ award, in effect the concours d’elegance prize of this prestigious event. It also resulted in an invitation for me to display the aircraft at the Goodwood Air Show in May of 2008, when the excellent set of photos that accompany this article were taken by Simon Fenwick. Since then the aircraft has been looked after by Mike and Owen Watts who have found a more suitable propeller and made various other tweaks which have further improved the aircraft. Over the last four years ‘JB has been an occasional visitor to local vintage fly-ins, allowing Joe Dible to show off his superb aircraft and recall the fun that he and his brother and enjoyed with her back in the fifties. A unique survivor of her type, long may she continue to grace our skies.

With thanks to Joe Dible and Ron Souch and his team for the opportunity to fly the Wicko, and to Simon Fenwick for permission to include his pictures in this review.