Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Robert Brothers' Flying Flea

I discovered the amazing life of George Roberts by reading his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald. A very gifted person with all things mechanical, George Roberts was the oldest living former employee of Qantas where he had contributed in a major fashion to aircraft maintenance and flying safety before, during and after World War II.

Other national and local newspapers also carried the story and the forum thread on pprune has a photo of George Roberts as well as messages from people who crossed paths with him and unanimously remember him as a gentleman and a great bloke.

His dedication to the Flying Kangaroo did not stop when he retired in 1970 as he went on and volunteered his time to preserving the history of the early days of Qantas. Such a priceless treasure trove of information he was that a book was written about the pioneering years of Australian aviation seen through his eyes.

I would like to expand on one particular story from his very rich life.

In 1935, one year before he joined Qantas at Archerfield near Brisbane, George together with brothers Norm and Don built a Flying Flea aircraft. Building anything from plans was certainly no challenge for the three brothers who grew up building cars in the family's motor shop in Ipswich.

The aircraft only flew once and is now on display at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. The fact that no-one got hurt in the maiden flight is more than many can say about the Flying Flea. On a recent visit to the museum I took a few photos of what was probably the first aircraft design in history made available to amateurs who wanted to build and fly it themselves.

As these photos unfortunately fail to show, the Flying Flea has two staggered wings. The pilot controls the angle of attack of the larger wing above his head by moving the stick forward and back, while the smaller wing behind the pilot is fixed and is actually more of a horizontal stabiliser. There are no ailerons, which explains the very large rudder: roll is obtained indirectly as a secondary effect of yaw. There's nothing wrong with that: the first-generation ultralights in the 70's were designed this way.

The text next to the display has this to say:

The ultra-lightweight Flying Flea was designed in France by Henri Mignet for hobby builders. Considerable numbers were constructed throughout the world. This example was built by members of the Roberts family in Ipswich in 1935. Due to the large number of crashes of Flying Fleas, particularly in England, the Roberts' aircraft was not officially allowed to fly. After one unofficial test it was stored under their Ipswich house, until they donated it to the Queensland Museum in 1982. The aircraft is constructed of plywood and fabric, and is powered by a 23 h.p. (17 kW), 4 cylinder Henderson motorcycle engine.

Note how the lateral movement of the stick controls both the rudder and the tailwheel using external cables, very similar to a billycart. Legend has it that Mignet failed at flying regular 3-axis airplanes because of his lack of coordination between hands and feet, hence the absence of rudder pedals in his design.

Later designs of the Flying Flea solved the aerodynamics problems that killed many flying enthusiasts in the late 1930's and convinced the Roberts brothers not to attempt a second flight in what people started calling the Crashing Flea. In the video below Henri Mignet can be seen showcasing his airplane in England after flying across the English Channel, 26 years after Louis Blériot.

The video also shows a Flying Flea built by a young English pilot by the name of Stephen Appleby, with sponsoring from the Daily Express. After an unsteady take-off, the footage captured his airplane performing a somersault after landing in a ploughed field. The pilot was unhurt and went on to rebuild the machine, again with sponsorship from the Daily Express.

The Flying Flea today serves as a reminder of a time when flying was new, trendy, accessible and dangerous. An era nicely captured in the 1958 French film Les Copains du Dimanche and plenty others.

Homebuilt aircraft are now on the come-back. Safe designs are available as pre-built kits. Some use wood and fabric, others are all-metal or even composite airframes. And enthusiasts can still be found who build and fly Flying Fleas.

It is a big understatement to say that aviation safety has come a long way since the time of the pioneers. Every single aspect of aviation, from weather forecasting to pilot training and from engines to airframes and instruments is now many orders of magnitude safer than it was back then. Something we have to thank people like George Roberts for.


Ben Sandilands said...

Thanks for these superb insights into another part of George's amazing life and times.

And for maintaining such an interesting blog, especially for those like me who are very light on our knowledge of GA.

Chris said...

There is a book called "QANTAS, By George," about his life, which was pretty interesting and well worthing searching for.

From memory, I think Bleriot's early designs excluded ailerons. He crossed the channel without them :)

Julien said...

@Chris: you are actually entirely right, Blériot's Blériot XI aeroplane didn't have ailerons but used wing warping instead for roll control. He didn't have a compass either, but it's not like you can miss England when flying out of Calais anyway.

I think what Blériot is usually credited for is the arrangement of elevator and rudder together at the tail end of the aircraft, but I could be wrong here too.

There seems to be quite a bit of controversy actually about who invented ailerons first. The word aileron sounds very French to me (aile means wing in French), so I would go for the Frenchman Robert Esnault-Pelterie. But then again, I may be biased :-)

Julien said...

@Ben: Thanks a lot for the link to Making Time for Flying on your blog and all the kind words! You really made my day (and a big traffic spike).