Robert W. Bradford
Associate Director National Aviation Museum

A letter to Senator Marshall, of the Canadian Senate speaking to the difficulties of landing and taking off in a Nieuport 17 without assistance.

National Museums of Canada
National Museum of Science and Technology
National Aviation Museum

15 October 1987

Dear Senator Marshall,

I am taking the liberty of writing to you to express my thoughts regarding the significant factors that may not have been fully explored in the controversy surrounding the NFB film "The Kid Who Couldn't Miss".

My main concern is regarding the film's suggestion that Billy Bishop landed his Nieuport 17, removed the Lewis machine gun mounted on the upper wing and fired a number of rounds into the tail assembly of his aircraft. It seems to be suggested that he then threw the gun away and took off again. I would like to comment on three things:

  1. Technicalities of landing this type of aircraft and taking off again without assistance;
  2. the damage suffered by the aircraft as reported by his Flight Commander*; and
  3. the question of the missing gun.
On the first point, we in the National Aviation Museum have an advantage in commenting on this important matter for we have flown our Nieuport 17 at large numbers of major air shows in Canada over a period of 15 years. The aircraft has an original 110/120 H.P. rotary engine as did Bishop's aircraft and has no braking system as is common with most WWI fighters. To begin with, Bishop or any other competent pilot could land the Nieuport 17 on reasonable ground conditions and very quickly bring it to a halt simply by depressing the "blip" switch on the control column (which cuts the electrical circuit to the Spark plugs, thereby reducing engine speed and thrust) while keeping the control column fully back after a full-stall landing which causes the tail skid (designed for stopping) to be held on the ground. He would have no difficulty then holding it there by judicious intermittent use of the "blip" switch (if he held it down continously, the engine would stop).

Now, let's look at the real problem. The 110/120 horsepower Le Rhone rotary has the characteristics of all early rotary engines - they have a high idling speed in proportion to the full power r.p.m. They simply do not "tick over" as a radial or in-line engine would do - in fact, with their fixed-pitch wooden propellor, they idle at about 45% full engine speed (500 r.p.m. as against 1150 r.p.m. for take-off at full power, - this compared with the average modern light aircraft with brakes having an idiling speed 600-650 r.p.m. against approx 2700 r.p.m. at full take-off power!). The blip switch of a rotary engined aircraft is the only means of further reducing the engine speed and subsequently, power and propeller thrust. But if the pilot of a rotary engined fighter lands and there is no one to assist him while he gets out of the aircraft, what does he do?

  1. does he shut down the engine (by holding the blip switch down until it stops) and hope that he can start it at the last setting? If so, he must bear in mind that if it should start again, there would be a sudden surge of 45% full power while he frantically tries to run around the wing tip and get into the cockpit before the machine jumps makeshift wheel chocks (tree branches, etc.) and gets away or flips over on it's nose;
  2. does he leave the engine running and attempt to tie the stick back as far as it will go in the hopes of keeping the tail skid firmly on the ground at 45% power, - get out of the aircraft and hope that, relieved of his weight, the aircraft does not roll ahead and probably stand on it's nose breaking the propeller. (Remember, if it starts to move ahead, there is a good chance that the tail will rise and a nose-over or runaway aircraft in rough ground is likely.) The whole idea of a pilot attempting to carry out this kind of exercise is, to me ridiculous.
One final comment on this point is that it was not uncommon for pilots to land on suitable ground during WWI, particularly, if they wanted to land near an enemy aircraft they had forced down. However, because the downed aircraft would attract attention of military people on the ground, as is proven by the photographs of the time, then there would be plenty of assistance in restarting the engine and restraining the aircraft until the pilot was ready to take off.

There is no question that Hollywood stunt pilots would find a way to do it alone (taxi the aircraft up an incline)but we are talking about the reality of uncertain terrain in war time conditions.

On the second point, the damage to Billy Bishop's aircraft was, as you may know, revealed in a report dated June 30, 1917 made to Headquarters of 13th Wing by Captain Grid Caldwell, his Flight Commander* which clearly states "damage done: 17 bullet holes, trailing edge of lower plane shot away in two bays". It does not indicate whether it was the port or starboard lower plane. The fabric just ahead of the trailing edge undoubtedly began to shred after a concentrated burst and, subsequently, began to peel back to the trailing edge of the wing.

There have been suggestions by people who lack knowledge about such things that if the aircraft had been shot up to that extent in the morning, then it could not have been flown by Bishop later that day. This is a totally false statement. Had our own Nieuport 17 suffered such damage, we could have it in the air again within a few hours due to the extremely rapid drying "dope" used to attach the fabric patches. The technique we would use would be the same as in WWI. The mechanics of the time were used to this kind of problem, which highlights one of the advantages of a fabric covered aircraft.

On the third point, I am intrigued by the suggestion that any pilot would fire a machine gun into the relatively fragile structure of a WWI aircraft before flying it again. Given that the structure of the Nieuport 17 was basically a fabric-covered, wooden, wire-braced frame (with tail assembly and ailerons having a light steel tube perimeter), - can you imagine anyone doing that? The chance of severing some vital member is quite real. If he did that, his next take-off would be his last. On the question of the missing Lewis machine gun, there are several possibilities. The Lewis machine gun on the Nieuport 17 can be swung down into the muzzle-high position by the pilot by the simple action of pulling a cable release to the front lock and pulling the butt downward to put it in a position for the removal of the empty cartridge drum and replacing it with a full drum. It is possible that Bishop found that the gun may have jammed in that position interfering with his vision and, at the same time, being in a useless position causing nothing but aerodynamic drag. It would be a simple matter to loosen the thumb screw on the main clamp, unscrew the Bowden cable and throw the gun overboard. One other strong possibility is that the gun became dislodged and twisted off it's mount during the gyrations of aerial combat. I understand that this would not have been the first time that this would have occured.

I do hope that the forgoing might be of some interest and value in your deliberations.

R.W. Bradford
Associate Director
National Aviation Museum


* Actually, at the time of his report, Captain Grid Caldwell was the acting Squadron Leader, as Major Scott had been injured and was temporarily relieved of duty while in hospital. Bishop was a flight commander himself at this time.

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Created December 25, 1998
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The above letter was attached to the Canadian Senate debates as part of Appendix "B" of the 17th report on the NFB film "The Kid Who Couldn't Miss".
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