Warbird Articles

FEB 08 2011
Warbirds >> Fairey Firefly WB518 / N518WB - Capt Eddie

San Diego is a city with a rich naval heritage. Its harbour is home to the largest naval base on the west coast of the US, and NAS North Island is generally considered to be the birthplace of US Naval Aviation. It is somewhat appropriate then that a classic British naval aircraft has found a home in the city, with a man with his own naval background.

Capt Eddie Kurdziel is a former US Navy pilot with experience on such classic jets as the S-3 Viking, F-8 Crusader, A-4 Skyhawk and A-7 Corsair. Having left the US Navy, he now flies commercial airliners alongside several business interests. He is also the owner and operator of one of the last airworthy Fairey Fireflies in the world.

The aircraft in question is WB518, a Fairey Firefly AS.Mk 6, built in 1950 and originally delivered to the Royal Australian Navy. The Firefly entered service with 817 Squadron (it later served with 816 Squadron) and saw action during the Korean War when it flew from the deck of HMAS Sydney. Its service career over, the aircraft was retired and displayed on a pole in the town of Griffith, New South Wales as a war memorial.

The Firefly was later acquired by Classic Aviation in Australia for restoration. Classic Aviation had previously purchased the damaged wreck of another Firefly (WD828) and this aircraft formed the basis of a replacement static exhibit for the town of Griffith. WB518 was removed from its pole and restoration commenced. By 1993 however, the restoration programme had stalled and the aircraft was offered for sale. It was at this point that Capt Eddie became aware of the aircraft’s existence and availability.

Eddie had been a fan of Fairey’s enigmatic fighter since he saw a photo of a Canadian Firefly on the cover of Flying Magazine in 1974. The aircraft obviously made a big impact on him: “I remember being entranced with the aircraft, but never had an opportunity to see it in person let alone see it fly.”

By 1993, Eddie was on the lookout for a warbird project and an advert in Trade-a-Plane magazine offered WB518 for sale as a 60% complete restoration project. The advert brought memories of that magazine article almost 20 years ago flooding back and Eddie immediately contacted the owners and registered his interest.

The Firefly was eventually purchased, dismantled and packed up for the long sea journey from Australia to the US with its final destination being Fort Collins, Colorado, home of renowned warbird restoration company QG Aviation Ltd. It rapidly became clear that restoration of the Firefly would be a huge job and in fact much of the previous restoration was undone to start again from scratch – the result would be a far more authentic finished product.

The restoration process took eight years before the completed machine was ready to take to the sky. Despite Eddie’s flight test background, he felt it appropriate to have former Royal Navy Historic Flight Commanding Officer and experienced Firefly pilot Don Sigournay conduct the first post restoration flight. With Don’s seal of approval, Eddie took to the sky in the Firefly for the first time – and has been the only person to fly the aircraft since.

The Firefly made its long anticipated public debut at Oshkosh in 2002, where it generated quite a stir, scooping several awards including Grand Champion Warbird Post WWII and the Oshkosh Golden Wrench award for QG Aviation of America. Capt Eddie was presented with the Rolls Royce/Smithsonian 2002 Aviation Heritage Trophy at the Reno Air Races. The Firefly was also chosen for the People's Choice Award..

Since its public debut at Oshkosh, Capt Eddie has flown this wonderful aircraft at many shows, including appearances at Aviation Nation at Nellis AFB and at the Planes of Fame Airshow at Chino. Wherever the Firefly appears it draws admiring glances both for the quality of the restoration and also for the sheer impressive nature of the aircraft itself.

The Firefly was conceived during the early part of WWII as a fleet defence fighter and reconnaissance aircraft. It was designed to be deployed from the Royal Navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers, and the requirement for navigating over open water meant that provision was made for an observer/navigator in a separate glazed cabin behind the cockpit. What is not always apparent is the sheer scale of the aircraft – at nearly 40 ft in length it is considerably larger than a Seafire or a Mustang, although it shares the Rolls Royce Griffon engine of the former.

The Firefly was produced in fairly large numbers – just over 1700 were delivered in total – and served with a surprisingly large number of operators. In addition to the Fleet Air Arm, the navies of Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and India operated the aircraft at one time or another, with the air forces of Denmark, Sweden, Thailand and Ethiopia also being Firefly operators.

The aircraft saw operational service with the Fleet Air Arm during WWII, and also later during the Korean War where they served alongside aircraft of the Royal Australian Navy. The Firefly was also used operationally by the Royal Netherlands Navy in Dutch New Guinea as late as 1962.

Today, there are thought to be in the region of 24 Fireflies around the world, with their distribution reflecting the nations which operated the aircraft over the years. Most survivors are concentrated in the UK, Canada and Australia; additionally single aircraft survive in Thailand and India. Interestingly, there are two aircraft currently on display or under restoration in Canada which were discovered in the Ethiopian desert – survivors of the batch of Canadian Navy Mk Is sold to the Ethiopian Air Force in the 1950s.

Eddie’s Firefly is the only complete example in the US, and one of only three airworthy aircraft worldwide. The other two flyers are based in Canada and Australia and are seen in the air considerably less frequently than WB518. This makes the Firefly something of a novelty at airshows and has led to some amusing comments from an unfamiliar public, who have referred to the aircraft as a “twin seat, navalised Mustang” amongst other things.

The quality of the restoration is self evident, and features lots of fascinating, original touches. One of these is the ability to send Morse code messages via the aircraft’s navigation, formation and recognition lights. “The aircraft of the day lacked secure voice communications,” Eddie explains, “so Morse was a way of silently passing messages between aircraft in the formation.”

The interior restoration also shows plenty of attention to detail – there are a few small concessions to modern avionics, but they are subtle and limited to items required for flight safety. These include a GPS moving map which can be fitted in place of the gunsight. When not flying, the GPS is easily swapped out for the original gunsight, adding to the authentic feel of the cockpit.

The restoration turned up several unexpected clues to the aircraft’s history. The fuselage came from WB518, the wings and tail from WD828 with both aircraft being built in 1950. However, the starboard wing bears a 1948 date-stamp, the port wing bears 1951 and the tail 1946. This would appear to indicate that the aircraft was damaged during service and had various parts replaced from earlier machines.

The exterior restoration is really set off with the addition of four replica RP-3 rockets under the wings. In the ground attack role the Firefly could carry sixteen such weapons – although there is a substantial increase in weight and drag (and therefore fuel consumption) with the rockets fitted, they add a great deal of interest to the aircraft and also properly represent the operational configuration of the Fireflies which served during the Korean War.

So what is the aircraft like to fly? According to Eddie, it is something of a challenge. “Flying the Firefly is definitely a job not to be taken lightly and demands some serious attention especially in formation or flying in one of the big shows. I quickly went back to my roots in the Navy - it would be a pretty big plate if you had not previously been trained or operated in this sort of high tempo environment!

“Having said that, a large piston engine fighter provides an experience very different to that of the fast jet world, especially in regards to the skill set necessary for landings and takeoffs. It certainly is different in that arena of operations. After that the similarities return to that of the fighter world. The Firefly is heavy compared to some similar types, very much like an underpowered jet.”

Like all aircraft of its vintage, the Firefly has bags of character and certainly provides its pilot with a unique environment. “I really had no preconceived ideas about what the experience would be like. The smells and sounds are certainly intoxicating. The Griffon has a sound like no other. It is deafening without lots of hearing protection in the front cockpit and the heat the engine produces is oppressive especially with high outside air temperatures - the front cockpit becomes a veritable oven. Once at altitude with lower outside air temperatures you finally begin to dry out and cool off!”

Spending time in Eddie’s company, his enthusiasm for the aircraft is obvious and infectious. Over the course of the restoration programme and his subsequent operation of the aircraft, his attitude towards the machine has developed so that he now accepts that he is the custodian of the Firefly, rather than “merely” its owner.

“The closer the aircraft came to completion the more I began to realise it did not belong to me! It started to become obvious that I had paid a lot of money and invested even more in terms of time to become a custodian. I guess when we buy something we only rent it for our lifetime. The men come and go and the only vestiges of times gone by are the machines that remind us of their exploits, reflecting the history that belongs to all men and, more importantly in this case, to the men of the Royal Australian Navy.”

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