My flight in a WW1 plane over Bicester Heritage

| 14 May 2018
My flight in a WW1 plane over Bicester Heritage

There hasn’t been a day out of the past four years that I haven’t thought how privileged I am to work at Classic & Sports Car; to be in a position to get behind the wheel of cars I’ve dreamed about since I was small, and to write about them in the world’s best-selling classic car magazine and on its website.

But for a person enchanted by planes and trains, in addition to automobiles, last week was one to remember.

The setting was Bicester Heritage – the incredible automotive and aviation industrial hub housed at one of the country’s best preserved former RAF bases – and the event was a press preview day for The Classic & Sports Car Show in association with Flywheel, which aimed to showcase the very best classic and vintage machines to the national newspapers.

My flight in a WW1 plane over Bicester Heritage

To mark the occasion, the organisers had gathered a selection of historic vehicles to give the assembled press a taste of what the 23-24 June show has to offer.

I was immediately drawn to the road cars, which included a stunning Alvis and Lagonda pair, AC Ace, Porsche 911 and Ford Mustang, crowned by Pendine’s Aston Martin DBR4 Grand Prix car, which is set to carry out a series of demonstration runs during the event.

But while the press pack tested their mettle on Bicester’s test track, I sloped off to inspect a line of WW1-era aircraft arranged at the edge of the grass airfield.

Assembled were a brace of Tiger Moths, Fokker and Sopwith Triplanes (the Germans having pinched our design after shooting one down), and the star of the show – at least for me – a BE-2.

It was the world’s first purpose-built military plane, designed by de Havilland and first flown on 12 August 1912. It was also one of the most prolific aircraft of the conflict: more than 4000 eventually saw service, and on 13 August 1914 HD Harvey-Kelly became the first pilot to arrive in the theatre of war when he landed near Amiens.

My flight in a WW1 plane over Bicester Heritage

Back then, when RAF Bicester was an active airfield home to the Royal Flying Corps and No 118 Squadron, light aircraft were used not so much to fight one another as to photograph enemy positions, map the battlefield and to guide artillery barrages.

And so, it was that I found myself being invited for a rare flight in a BE-2…  

The role of the observer is one I'm keen to play as Matthew Boddington, my pilot for the day, tugs down on my skull cap and arranges my flying goggles before directing me where to stand while climbing into the cockpit. A vital task: as the sun streams through the stretched fabric coating the wings, the clear outlines and shadows of wooden spars show what a fragile machine this really is. One wrong step could be costly.

Once aboard, it’s difficult not to draw parallels to a pre-war racing car, with the hand-operated fuel pump (for show only on this aircraft) and a view ahead dominated by the mechanical components of the Warner Scarab engine, itself a later unit from the 1930s.

Control rods run either side of your legs, and the throttle linkage, which sits proud of the engine, suddenly begins to operate. From behind, there’s a shout of “contact!”, followed by an abortive attempt to spin start the prop. Two more goes and it catches with a roar, the continuing blast of summer air and the smell of hot oil whipping at my face.

Taxiing across the field involves zig-zagging from left to right, I assume to ensure that the way ahead is clear, given that the pilot can see little more than the back of my head. We weave towards the centre of the airfield before turning into the wind and hitting full throttle, quickly gaining speed and bouncing roughly across the airstrip.

Within seconds we’re airborne, the twin wing design offering plenty of drag offset with prodigious amounts of lift; we shoot skyward, but with a top speed of just over 100mph.

Banking over Bicester Heritage is a surreal experience, and one I feel fortunate to share. Seeing the sheds and buildings through the eyes of a WW1 observer feels like reaching back in time, and it isn’t long before the majesty of the scene becomes quite overwhelming.

My flight in a WW1 plane over Bicester Heritage

I’d taken to the skies before in a glider – a unique experience in itself – but to do so in such a historic machine is truly special. That our charge is even airworthy is something of a miracle, and a tale of restoration and preservation that rivals Bicester Heritage itself.

The plane was built in 1969, an exact replica of the original aircraft created for the film Biggles Sweeps the Skies. The movie never reached completion, but the plane was used in the BBC drama Wings and eventually went to America, where it was flown in a WW1 flying circus.

In 1977 it crashed in Wisconsin and it was subsequently thought lost until 2005, when the remains – consisting of little more than the damaged tail section – were discovered in New York.

Pilot Matthew is well aware of the plane’s history – his father, Charles Boddington, was the man who built it – so when the opportunity came to repatriate the remains he and Stephen Slater jumped at the chance.

Six years of hard slog followed before the pair finally returned the ‘Biggles’ Biplane’ to the skies.

My flight in a WW1 plane over Bicester Heritage

Our flight continues over RAF Upper Heyford, an air base about 10 miles from Bicester; easy to spot thanks to a series of reinforced hangars dating back to its time as a front-line bomber station during the Cold War.

From above, Upper Heyford is a scene of change, with hundreds of new-build homes popping up all over the sprawling base – a sharp contrast to the seemingly timeless Bicester. The sheer extent of the works is made clear from up here, and it feels like the countryside is being consumed by the red-brick identi-kit houses, criss-crossed with the dirt streaks of unfinished roads.

Boddington pitches the BE-2 to the left, banking hard to show what the plane can do. It’s easy to imagine the frantic attempt to evade a closing Fokker Triplane, under which circumstances the observer would turn 180 degrees, placing the Vickers machine gun at the back of their seat and firing backwards just inches above the pilot’s head.

It’s a scenario that rarely ended well for Allied pilots: though the Fokker wasn’t the quickest plane in the sky, it was one of the most manoeuvrable thanks to its enormous rudder and ailerons that extended beyond the wing tips and into the air flow. The Triplane was a favourite of Baron von Richthofen, who shot down as many as 18 BE-2s during his career.

My flight in a WW1 plane over Bicester Heritage

It isn’t long before we bank gently back towards the airfield, and while we don’t have to contend with the threat of the Red Baron, the journey home becomes a bit more hairy. Despite the beautiful summer sunshine – or perhaps because of it – the plane is being buffeted and knocked about by thermals, which are particularly noticeable when flying over the fields of bright yellow oilseed rape surrounding Bicester Heritage.

I’m glad of the respite that comes with lower altitude, and Boddington lands beautifully, throttling back into the wind and dropping the air speed to what feels like walking pace before touching down and stopping on a sixpence.

Of course, come 23-24 June, BE-2 will be flown in a more spirited fashion. Boddington will take to the skies in a mock dogfight against the two German machines, in an evocative sight that will make our pleasure flight seem very pedestrian…

Don’t miss out on your chance to see the BE-2 in full flight! Click here to buy tickets to The Classic & Sports Car Show in association with Flywheel