Since 2012, the airshow scene in the UK has become well accustomed to seeing Will Greenwood and his Bücker Bestmann; a very rare machine in this country. In this guest article for GAR, Will explains how he came to acquire the Bestmann and what bringing it back to the UK entailed.
As a child I always loved war films, and one of my favourites was The Great Escape. Whilst my friends generally liked the bit where Steve McQueen jumps the fence on his motorbike, I especially liked the part where two of the escapees make a break for it in a German aircraft, a little trainer called a Bücker Bestmann. Little did I know that 30 years later I would find such an aircraft and bring her home, thanks to my own “Great Escape” from Germany.
I first came across the Heliopolis Gomhouria 181 Mk6, as the Egyptian licence-built Bestmann is called, while searching the internet for warbirds. It appeared on a link to an Austrian web page, no pictures, just wording of one for sale. After the usual Google search I had a good idea of what I was looking at.
I had always admired G-ETME, a Nord 1002, in effect a French built Messerschmitt Me-108 of similar vintage and purpose as the Bestmann, and with that particular example’s modified engine bay and a Lycoming O-540 powerplant, it made for a practical, as well as an interesting, vintage military display machine. Hence, the seed was sown when I saw the 181 Mk6; this too had the classic lines and vintage appeal but with a more modern engine, the Continental O-300(145hp), giving it better climb performance than the original German version’s Hirth HM504 engine of only 105hp.
I managed to make contact with the owner by e-mail and the first hurdle was that the aircraft was already potentially sold! However, after a four month delay while the prospective purchaser tried but failed to sell his current aircraft, this deal eventually fell through and I, having already sold my previous aircraft, had cash in hand and was able to start negotiations. As soon as I was invited to Oldenburg in Germany I jumped onto an Easy Jet flight to Bremen and arrived to view it.
Not being personally familiar with the type, I had done as much research as possible beforehand, but my knowledge of wood and fabric aircraft stood me in good stead for my appraisal of the aircraft. After a good inspection of the structure and a flick through the log books, I was invited for a flight in her. I made my way towards the right seat and was told I could take the left as the vendor was an instructor; he quizzed my flying hours and was more than satisfied with my 1200 hrs on tail-wheel; fortunately I had brought my log book as well as my licence.
The Bestmann is quite a substantial aeroplane, having a wingspan of nearly 35ft and standing over six feet six inches tall. That wonderful ‘glasshouse’ canopy and tapering rear fuselage helps give her that classic WW2 German look, though as she was then finished in bright yellow, her military heritage was somewhat subdued.
The forward section of the fuselage has a steel tube ‘cage’ but the remainder of the aircraft is of wood. The control surfaces are fabric covered, apart from the split flaps, the rudder being cable operated and the ailerons and elevator via rods with that oh so silky smooth Bücker feel. Fuel is carried in a single 125L tank mounted behind the adjustable seats, which have military style recesses should you wish to wear a parachute. The baggage bay is above the tank and has a net across its face to keep luggage in its place.
Following a quick briefing I started the engine and, while we sat waiting for it to warm-up, discussed take-off and landing speeds, flap settings, the fuel system etc, these being noted on my knee pad so I could reference them if needed. After taxi and run-up checks I asked if there was any tendency for her to swing, to which I got a shrug and an answer that I should let the aircraft roll straight before lifting the tail. The Bestmann tracks very well due to its wide, well-damped oleo spring strut undercarriage, and the rudder is effective as soon as the airflow and wash from the propeller hits it. Raising the tail produced no noticeable swing and we were airborne quickly at around 45kts. The noise from the six cylinders was pleasant enough and we climbed at 70kts, the VSI showing around the 700ft/min – not bad for an old girl. Levelling out of the climb we accelerated to 95kts and set 2300RPM(economy cruise) and I began to explore the handling. Firstly, the ailerons are well balanced; making turns a joy, not quite a Chipmunk, but not far off either. The elevator is light too and the rudder firm but not heavy, she really is a delight to fly, especially with such a spacious cockpit and good vista. Dare I say it, but almost too good for a trainer!
She stalls at 38-40kts (full flap), the ailerons being effective right to the stall and with no large wing drops, the flaps were easy to lower from a very respectable flap limiting speed of 90kts. Roll reversals gave a sprightly turn, not surprising as the Bücker range of aircraft has a good name for handling. Descending back to the airfield I went through pre-landing checks and turned downwind to set an 80kts leg. Turning base leg I slowed to 70kts and pulled the first stage of flap, 15 degrees, turning final I approached at 65kts and pulled on the full 45 degree flap with the trimmer wound all the way back. Concentrating on my flight path we arrived over the hedge at 60knts, levelling off just above the ground before closing the throttle and holding her in the three-point attitude. I flew a few more circuits before we headed to the pumps, my host commented that he was happy I had handled her well and a deal was struck while we put her away for the night.
The next challenge was to get the money transferred quickly, I used World First which transferred the money in Euros and it cleared into the vendors’ bank by the promised date. The final step was to book another flight to Bremen and get her home. On the 6/7/11 I was flown to Andrewsfield by a friend, from where it was a short taxi ride to Stansted and my flight to Bremen. Arriving at 16.00, the vendor kindly put me up for the night and I flight planned my trip home to Sussex via Midden Zeeland and Headcorn; so far everything had gone to plan.
However, the next morning the front that was supposed to have cleared during the night was still around, and looking out of the window did not give me much hope of flying that day. After breakfast and checking the Met we decided to prep the aircraft for an afternoon departure, although to be honest the day had that clagged-in feel to it. Oldenburg is to the S/W of Bremen, and on arrival you could see the clearance as a rather brighter sky some way in the distance below the 800ft grey Germanic sky. After a good pre-flight and packing my meagre belongings into the aircraft – she was already full of fuel from my last flight – I filed a flight plan for EHMZ. By now it was 10am. Various local pilots told me that I was flying over the low country and that 800ft was fine, provided I could see the clearance in the distance; one pilot even went for a quick flight and confirmed the conditions, so a plan was hatched to “Escape.”
With my flight plan accepted, I climbed aboard the Bestmann, said my farewells and started up. While waiting for the oil to warm up, I made a plan in my mind that if things were not to my liking, I would return or divert to the gliding site at Aschendorf which was only a short distance en route; as after that there was a long stretch with few diverts. Climbing out the cloud-base was, as expected, just 800ft but the visibility was good underneath and I could clearly see signs of the brightness ahead. I changed to Bremen control and settled in for the 2 hr 30 min sector toward EHMZ; the gliding site came and went and the weather held, so I continued, the odd shower passed and I had to fly to the North for a 20nm divert around some rain, not really what I wanted. Concentrating on my navigation, I soon saw my first wind farm, boy those turbines look large when you’re flying at this altitude, however they were a good reference and helped with confirming my position. Looking ahead the glow of better weather beckoned me onwards toward the Dutch Border, by now I was 45 mins into my flight. Spotting my next waypoint, a mining railway track, I change course to avoid a firing range and for the first time I was able to climb to the dizzying height of 1000ft, which improved navigation markedly.
Crossing the FIR the weather gradually improved and at last I could begin to relax a little, but kept a steady finger on my chart. Talking to Dutch Military I progressed steadily SW in improving conditions to just south of Arnhem, where the weather improved dramatically and at last I felt I had made my “Escape” and was able to climb to 2500ft en route to Dordrecht. By now the landscape was becoming familiar, a slight left turn put me on track to EHMZ, a sense of relief after two hours in the saddle. Crossing the estuaries and islands before my final approach to Midden-Zeeland I detoured slightly to see the Sport Hotel, where we used to stay many years ago; as always people were enjoying water sports at the still popular venue. A welcome response from EHMZ gave me joining instructions and a gentle landing was made on the wide grass runway – the first leg had been safely completed.
Having parked up, I headed for the tower I filed a flight plan for Headcorn, only to be told of a one hour delay, nut no worries as I needed a break, so a quick re-fuel and a nice salad with chips and that great mayo they serve in Holland went down very well! By now it was early afternoon on a hot summer’s day, but luckily I had remembered a hat and brought water for the trip. Fed and watered I did another walk around, checked the oil and fired up and taxied out for my 1400 departure. Climbing away from EHMZ I set course along the coast towards Zeebrugge and a quick call to Ostend had me transiting north of them at 3000ft. There was a slight delay while some heavy traffic cleared and I was through their zone and heading down coast towards Dunkerque and Calais. Easy navigation for this leg and only a 1 hr 35 min sector to Headcorn. Changing to Lille Info they handed me to Calais tower for the Channel Crossing, Cap Griz Nez to Folkestone. Now, how many of us have done this sector? Easy stuff in this weather but not much fun when it’s grey and 1500ft!
There is always something welcoming about crossing the UK FIR boundary and calling mid-channel, the white cliffs in the distance welcoming you back home to England; a switch to London Info and a basic service until crossing the coast, and nearly there as we chug along at 2300rpm and 95kts. Folkestone slips past I set a direct course for Headcorn. A gradual descent after Ashford and a straight join in for 29, landing checks complete and I rumble on.
I pick up a mate at Headcorn for the last sector back to my airstrip near Lewes, Jonathan Wilkins, who later flew the camera ship when we took the flying shots that accompany this article, was joining me. Again a pre-flight check and we are away and en route, by now its 17.00 and the summer sun casts shadows across the Kent and Sussex countryside, what a difference from this morning’s gloom, I let Jonathan do the flight home, only taking control for the landing; he’ll get a go later when I have more experience on her. I call Safety Com 135.475mhz and land on 24, we taxi to my hangar and after a engine run down I pull the mixture and the blades wind down. We have made it home, we have made our Great Escape. Incidentally if you are trying to remember whether our two heroes from the film, Donald Pleasance (Blythe) and James Garner (Hendley), made it back home, sadly they did not. They crash-landed short of their goal, the Swiss border, when the engine failed, Blythe being shot and Hendley recaptured.
Since getting the aircraft home there has been a blur of activity, the transition paperwork to complete before the annual expired on the 9th August – don’t let it expire or you may have trouble from the LBA (the German CAA); however, having done my homework, this did not happen and they cancelled my German Certificates with typical efficiency, on the due date. Meanwhile, a quick trip to Turweston to see the high command (Heir Donaldson) on the 25th July to confirm we could make plans to add her to the LAA fleet – thank you to the engineering team at the LAA. Then on 27th July she was taken to Vintage Fabrics at Audley End to be lightly restored and re-sprayed in Luftwaffe markings by Clive Denney. They did a cracking job, thanks guys! And lastly the CAA sorted my re-registration and exemptions with an excellent response, they also confirmed that she could go on the LAA permit, now the ball was rolling. When my Permit to Test arrived in November, friend and colleague Dan Griffith helped me with the flight testing to confirm an unbiased review of the flight test results.
It’s been quite an adventure for Will Greenwood since he began displaying the Bestmann on the British airshow circuit in 2012; he débuted at the Abingdon Air & Country Show in May 2012, and since then has appeared at numerous events including Headcorn Combined Ops 2012 and 2013, the Sywell Airshow 2012 and RAFA Shoreham Airshow 2012 and 2013, as well as taking the aircraft on long-distance overseas trips to the Pardubice Airshow in the Czech Republic in 2012 and the Hahnweide fly-in and airshow in 2013. Hopefully the 2014 airshow season will yield more bookings for Will and his Bestmann.
With thanks to Will Greenwood and Richard Foord.
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