Conceived in 1988 and originally called The Wombats, 2014 is set to be by far the busiest and most significant year in the existence of the Great War Display Team (GWDT) to date. Karl Drage caught up with the team during their first practice weekend of the year at Sywell Aerodrome, Northants.
Since that first season, the personnel and aircraft operated by this World War I inspired display team have frequently changed. Initially comprising five S.E.5as, two Fokker D.R.Is and a Fokker D.VII, the team expects to have up to nine aircraft available in 2014: three S.E.5as, two Fokker Dr.Is, two Junkers C.L.Is plus single examples of Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c and Sopwith Triplane.
Traditionally, many of the team’s pilots have also been the creators of the aircraft to have flown with the GWDT.
Of course, the reason demand is so high in 2014 is that events right across Europe will be marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I – or the Great War.
“For the first time ever, we’re having to turn airshow organisers down”, team pilot and manager Gordon Brander tells me. “Demand has been nothing short of phenomenal, and we are limited by the fact that it takes us so long to transit anywhere making it impractical to do more than one display per day!
“Without doubt, getting around is the most difficult part of the operation due to slow speed, limited endurance, exposure to weather and a severe shortage of good grass landing areas. In some cases, the provision of a single-direction grass runway at displays might satisfy the display organiser but most times it means we have to cope with a crosswind in aeroplanes which always took off and landed into wind in the Great War…the big enemy is wind in a Triplane and we need a big grass area like Sywell or White Waltham to land comfortably.”
With aircraft spread from Somerset across to Norfolk, the plan for this year is to concentrate on events in England, despite numerous pleas to head north of the border and into Europe. Confirmed venues already include Throckmorton, Cosford, Farnborough, Yeovilton, Bristol Balloon Festival, Sywell, Weymouth, Dunsfold, Shoreham, Southend and Duxford.
“It’s always hard to turn down displays but we are very conscious of trying to look after the aeroplanes and keep them flying through a busy season”, Gordon explains. “They are fragile by nature and some of the further afield offers from Scotland, northern England and Europe would take several days to achieve, and that exposes the aircraft to the vagaries of wind, weather and technical problems.”
It is the intention, however, that 2015 will see the team stretch its legs a little further, hopefully taking in some of the more significant locations that are unfortunately going to have to miss out this time around. Bookings have already been confirmed for venues in Picardy and Flanders.
The team is, and always has been built around some of the most experienced and respected pilots going. Its founder, Doug Gregory DFC, flew Mosquitos during World War II and only bowed out in 2013 at the age of 90. Gordon describes the ensemble as being, “As professional as an amateur team can be”.
Eminent test pilots Dan Griffith and Vic Lockwood are integral parts of the team, with the former also adopting a mentoring role to some of the newer, less-experienced (at least with WWI types) members.
Dan is something of a ‘floater’ and will fly whatever aircraft is available, while Vic owns and flies S.E.5a replica ‘80105’ (PH-WWI) and describes himself as a “clapped out Lightning pilot”!
Dave Linney AFC, who leads the team in the air, flew Harriers in the RAF and later Hunters, Canberras, Hawks and Falcon 20s with FRADU and Cobham. Dave owns and operates S.E.5a replica ‘F8010’ (G-BDWJ).
Gordon himself and Pete Bond have both amassed thousands of hours as commercial pilots, Gordon having flown the Trident, BAC 1-11, 757, 767 and finally 747-400. He owns and flies the Sopwith Triplane replica G-BWRA (masquerading as ‘N500’ – the first prototype aircraft) with the team, while Pete flies Fokker Dr.I replica G-BVGZ.
Plymouth-based Ernie Hoblyn has been displaying for 15 years with the GWDT, initially on the Sopwith Triplane that he built and flew for many years and also the beautiful Sopwith Pup which is sadly no longer available. He is currently flying the team’s third S.E.5a, G-BUOD, for the 2014 season.
Alex Truman, meanwhile, comes from a gliding background and works for British Airways as an engineer. Like many of the team’s pilots, he has a fascination with homebuilt and classic aircraft. He flies Junkers C.L.I replica G-BNPV.
Matthew Boddington joined the team in 2013 with his stunning replica B.E.2c, the so called “Biggles Biplane” (G-AWYI), which is the aircraft he and Steve Slater lovingly restored between 2005 and 2012. The attachment ‘Bod’ has to his aircraft is a very personal one, it having been built by his late father, Charles, for a 1960s’ film that was ultimately never made.
Richie Piper is one of the more recent arrivals and will most likely be known to regular UK-airshow goers for his Harvard and PT-22 displays. He’s also now involved with the Radial Revelations T-28 Fennec, N14113, and owns and flies Junkers C.L.I replica G-BUYU with the GWDT.
2014 will also see two new names welcomed into the fold: Will Greenwood and, perhaps rather more surprisingly, heavy metal legend, Bruce Dickinson!
Lead vocalist with Iron Maiden, Bruce is also a well-known and highly-respected pilot in his own right. Holder of an air transport pilot’s licence, Bruce flew 757s for Astraeus before the company’s cessation, and, more recently, he launched aircraft maintenance, technical support and training organisation Cardiff Aviation Ltd at the former RAF St Athan.
Following the tragic death of GWDT member and highly-accomplished aircraft builder and pilot John Day in 2013, whilst flying his Fokker E.III Eindecker replica, Bruce elected to purchase John’s Fokker Dr.I from his estate when it became available.
Will, meanwhile, will be used as a reserve pilot as one or two members of the team are still gainfully employed and liable to miss the odd display.
The final practice at Sywell saw both Will and Bruce fly with the team for the first time.
“Having been brought up on Biggles to the horror of my English teachers, the chance to fly a Fokker triplane Dr.I was second only to owning a Sopwith Camel”, Bruce tells me. “A share in a Bucker Jungmann and a conversation with GWDT manager Gordon Brander led to a chance to buy a superbly constructed full-size replica of the iconic German fighter.
“Built by the late John Day, I intend to display the aircraft with the team in commemoration not just of the Great war, but also as a tribute to one of the UK’s premier engineer/builders.”
Of course, aircraft design has moved on the proverbial country mile since the types the GWDT operates were introduced and used in anger. As pure flying machines, however, how do the World War I era aircraft compare?
Gordon explains, “The aircraft are the most difficult and challenging to fly that I have come across because they are so limited in power available and the effectiveness of controls. In the Triplanes, visibility is also severely limited…it’s like looking through a set of semi-closed Venetian blinds! Another analogy likens it to a runaway stepladder!
“In the Sopwith, if you bang on full left aileron, the first thing you notice is the nose of the aircraft shooting off to the right, so it’s very much a learning curve, with the rudder being the primary control!
“The most interesting aspect is controlling the aircraft on the ground. With no brakes or steering, you are sometimes just along for the ride!”
“Although replicas, they retain many of the characteristics and foibles of the originals – powered flight was less than 15 years old when these aircraft were used for warfare”, adds Richie Piper. “The aircraft are generally much slower and more draggy than the standards of GA today, making display transits often tricky.
“Control effectiveness and harmonies are also more challenging and, as taildraggers, visibility and landing anything other than into wind is an issue. This last matter creates many operational limitations, especially for those aircraft with tailskids as they were not designed for today’s single runway environment but rather literally a grass field where into wind was always available.
“This is both part of the challenge and enjoyment of flying these aircraft. The triplanes, and to a lesser extent the biplanes, continue to have view limitations in flight – an important consideration in designing a safe routine.
“One area where we have an advantage over the originals is powerplants which are simpler to operate, although you might not think that when hand swinging the radial of the Dr.I!”
Vic Lockwood, explaining why he wanted to get involved with aircraft from this era, says he was, drawn by the complete contrast between his professional life as a test pilot flying jets to the very basic flying experienced in his S.E.5a and also a desire to broaden his already considerable knowledge of aviation.
“This simple type of flying involving tailchases and formation”, he says, “resonates with the early days of his flying career. The same problems still exist as in the Great War…after a two-hour transit, you are so cold you have to be lifted out of the cockpit!
“Transit times are longer so weather plays an increasing part with wind direction and strength a vital part of the equation. As a result, thought processes have to be wide ranging and constant.”
For Richie, a number of things drew him to the GWDT: “It is a combination of factors – everyone loves flying and flying interesting aircraft. The history and what the flyers of World War I went through is part of that interest and a direct way to pay tribute to their skills, courage and sacrifice. By flying these replicas we understand that better than some.
“I personally believe flying multiple aircraft together creates a much more dynamic and interesting display and recreating the battle vistas from WWI is central to what we do and keeps it interesting.
“There is also a great benefit to flying in a team; it is more fun when travelling around and staying overnight for shows to do it with a bunch of mates. The team has a great variety of backgrounds both civilian and RAF that just seems to work out well. This is a major difference from the solo display work I do.”
Dave Linney’s interest in primitive flying machines goes back somewhat further than most. “I was fascinated as a child by World War I aviation”, he tells me. “The RAF S.E.5a has always been one of my favourite aeroplanes. The chance to own a replica S.E.5a came about 14 years ago and was not to be missed. I have never been disappointed.
“Despite having been a pilot for nearly 50 years the S.E. has provided a new challenge. The aeroplane has delightful and forgiving handling characteristics, almost identical to the full size S.E.5a according to a well known test pilot who has flown both.
“It is an aeroplane that you sit in and not on and it imparts a not disimilar sensation to another very small aeroplane: the Folland Gnat. However, it also throws up the same challenges as those that must have been met by the pilots in 1917/18. To fly for any length of time in such an open cockpit machine can be excrutiatingly cold, even in summer at 1,000ft, yet in World War I they flew even in winter at heights up to 22,000ft. I regularly marvel at the extreme courage shown by those pilots having to withstand such extreme cold, oxygen starvation, exhausted, often by up to three two-hour or more sorties per day with the fear of being shot down in combat or by anti-aircraft fire and no parachute to escape and always the ever-present fear of being shot down in flames. Those airmen have my undying respect and hopefully displaying my aeroplane with other similar WW1 types will remind people today of the exceptional courage, skill and devotion to duty that they exhibited.”
While the GWDT is in some instances able to offer reduced numbers of aircraft, it’s as the full nine-ship where the display truly excels. The constant ‘in-front-of-the-crowd’ presence is something which is simply impossible to achieve for almost every other display act out there, and you often find yourself on the crowdline not knowing where to look next.
Despite this, Gordon, sadly, does feel that there is ordinarily a lack of appreciation of what the team brings to the table by display organisers in the UK.
“We supply a unique display in that we are probably the only Great War act in Europe and certainly the UK. It would be nice to find that organisers wanted to provide a more varied flying programme at shows and recognise that aviation started well before the Battle of Britain! It’s noticeable that we are more popular in France and the Low Countries than the UK but we are certainly grateful to shows like Shoreham, Cosford, Sywell and Farnborough which have historically supported us”
As a huge fan of the team and all it stands for, I hope the various anniversaries and commemorations in the next few years may open a few eyes to just what an amazing act we have here in the UK – one that arguably does not get the credit (or bookings) it deserves.
Karl Drage extends sincere thanks to Gordon Brander and everyone at the Great War Display Team.