The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome
No. 3 Autumn 1999
RB: her life and times
Auster G-AJRB (RB) has touched the flying lives of many at Sywell. Nick Ravine gives insights into its long relationship with the aerodrome over its 50+ years.
RB's 50th birthday was celebrated at Sywell in 1997, and many people who visited that June weekend re-acquainted themselves with an aeroplane that had played a part in their flying over the years. Some even flew her again to bring back some memories. When you land RB somewhere and get out, somebody will wander over to you and introduce themselves by saying, 'I used to fly RB years ago!'
Always known as RB rather than Romeo Bravo, Auster G-AJRB was built at the Auster aircraft factory at Rearsby near Leicester in early 1947. The full designation of RB is Auster V (S) J/1 'Autocrat' construction no. 2350. Her first test flight was on 21st May 1947, and lasted for twenty minutes.
RB became the property of Brooklands Aviation Limited, who ran several flying schools across the country at the time. On 23rd May 1947 a Brooklands pilot picked up RB and flew her to Sywell, then flew her on to Shoreham, another of Brooklands flying schools.
RB's long association with Sywell really began in 1951, when the aeroplane was officially received and accepted by engineers Frank Golding and Cyril Gross of Brooklands, Sywell.
For the following 25 years RB was a flying school aircraft with several changes of ownership, ultimately with Paul Smith at Northamptonshire School of Flying.
Those years through the 50s, 60s and early 70s were RB's busiest years. Many people who learnt to fly then would have flown RB at some point and many would also have made their first solo flight in her - a memory no pilot would ever forget.
Paul Smith, Chief Flying Instructor, favoured RB for the strengthened aerobatic seats. Les Hilditch, Paul's predecessor, favoured the sister aeroplane. Being a favourite may explain why RB has lasted so well and been maintained to such a high standard over these years.
RB airborne in the mid-90s over Sywell.
It wasn't all plain sailing, though. The aeroplane worked very hard during this period with many students doing their best to inflict damage. A look through the many logbooks reveals some of the work undertaken by Cyril Gross and his team to keep RB airworthy: a replacement engine in 1952, repairing minor damage in a landing accident in 1966, a new undercarriage leg in 1970, and more landing damage inflicted in 1973.
There were of course many other mishaps along the way, including at least two ignominious nose-overs on to her back. Considering the amount of hours RB has flown, (over 7000 hours), most of which have been in the hands of student pilots, she has done remarkably well to achieve a happy middle age.
In the 1970s a radio was fitted. Many of you who know RB are probably thinking, 'Yes, and I bet it's the same bloody radio that they are still using today!'. I must thank the Control Tower staff for putting up with various noises, or lack of them, over the years. Frank and Den got so used to dodgy transmissions that they would anticipate messages and interpret crackles and whistles with, 'If that's RB calling, you are cleared to land/take off/taxi' etc. (How anybody could instruct properly before radio/intercom was fitted is beyond me. If you take your headset off inside RB the noise is unbelievable.)
In 1976 Trevor Booth bought the aeroplane from Northamptonshire School of Flying, which had gradually been modernising its training fleet. RB then moved to Doncaster where she was fitted with a long range fuel tank under her belly, and a VOR which enabled the new owner to use her extensively. Experience gained on RB helped Trevor achieve an instructor's rating and a Commercial Pilots Licence. RB then disappeared from view, eventually languishing at the back of a hangar in Doncaster.
Stewart luck, who, a few years earlier, had learnt to fly at Sywell on RB and later taught people to fly on her, tracked her down and managed to buy RB in 1980. His persistence and persuasion enabled RB to return to Sywell, via stays at Rothwell and Audley End for repairs and maintenance work, in 1983. This six-year absence was the last time RB left Sywell for any length of time.
Stewart formed a syndicate group to run and operate RB which is still going to this day.
RB pictured late evening at Keystone airstrip.
RB is now a vintage aeroplane and with that comes certain idiosyncrasies. Like any tail wheel aeroplane, Austers can bite people who don't pay enough respect or attention, but generally the handling is docile as befits an aeroplane designed as a basic trainer.
With an empty weight of 1035 pounds and a maximum weight of 1850 pounds, RB can lift a lot more than most imagine -it just takes an enormous amount of time to get that load any distance! A cruising speed of 80mph means plenty of cross-country time and with a good head wind, RB can do a very good hovering helicopter impression.
The aeroplane has very good short field take off and land capabilities, helped by an astonishingly low full flap stall speed of only 24mph. In the summer those huge wings make a very effective sailplane. Any half-decent thermal will allow a fair rate of climb, even throttled right back.
Austers have been used for many purposes such as aerial spotting and photography for the military, crop spraying, glider towing and arctic surveys, but the majority were built for private touring and training purposes, and were sold all over the world. Ronald Porteous, the Auster test pilot, will probably have given most people their best memory of an Auster with his crazy flying displays, particularly at Farnborough during the 40s and 50s.
Compared to other vintage types, Austers are seen as very unglamorous, but you can still get a capable aeroplane for a reasonable price. Flying an Auster will teach the basics of 30s style flying, giving a lot of fun and different type of arrival every time you land it.
It's a bit like an old British motorcycle with about the same degree of sophistication. It can be oily, smelly and very noisy, but it's different and that is part of the charm.