The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome
No. 12 Summer 2005
Sywell Aircraft - Percival Prentice
by Chris Parker
A line-up of No.6 Reserve Flying School Prentices
at Sywell in 1952.
An aircraft with a short-lived period of service at Sywell, but an important one nevertheless, was the Percival Prentice basic trainer.
The Prentice was designed and built by the Hunting Percival Company at Luton to an RAF specification for a basic trainer to replace the Tiger Moth. Wartime training experience had led the RAF to conclude that initial training should be given in aircraft with more complex systems than hitherto, ensuring that pupils who made the grade at the basic level would not have problems when they progressed to more complex aircraft types.
The specification to which the Prentice was designed was a challenging one - requiring side-by-side instructor and pupil seating (a first for the RAF), a full blind flying instrument fit, radio, 'synthetic' night flying equipment, aerobatic capability, and a third seat allowing a second pupil to be carried (providing additional air experience). The Prentice was selected for the RAF, and the prototype first flew in 1946. Several handling problems soon became apparent, in particular poor spin recovery. Eventually the spin performance became satisfactory after several aerodynamic modifications including an enlarged fin and rudder, anti-spin 'strakes' on the rear fuselage, and increased wing dihedral accomplished by fitting turned up wingtips. All these changes resulted in aircraft of functional but rather inelegant appearance. The Prentice was a low Wing all metal aircraft with a very large fully enclosed cockpit area. Power was provided by a 250 hp version of the reliable de Havilland Gipsy Queen engine. To provide the more 'complex' features required, the aircraft was fitted with a variable pitch propeller, pneumatically operated flaps and brakes and a full blind flying instrument panel. The synthetic night flying equipment referred to consisted of moveable amber screens inside the canopy glazing plus blue tinted goggles for the pupil pilot -this arrangement gave visibility inside the cockpit but not to the outside world.
One of the few civilianised Prentices.
Surrey and Kent Flying Club's G-APIU,
'snapped' by the author's Box Brownie
at Sywell in the summer of 1958.
The Sywell based Tiger Moths of No 6 Reserve Flying School were replaced by Prentices in 1951, 10 of the type being taken on strength. Compared to the Tiger, the Prentice was a much larger and heavier aircraft -some 12ft larger in wingspan, and over twice the weight. Although obviously more comfortable, particularly in the winter months, with its enclosed cockpit the Prentice had lost the Tiger's delicacy of handling and sporting feel and in the RAF at large the type was not universally popular. By mid 1953, the Reserve Schools across the country were closed, the Prentices left Sywell and RAF training at the aerodrome came to an end after some 18 years. All the RAF's Prentices (some 370 had been built) were retired from service by the end of 1953 being replaced by the Percival Provost (which was developed a little later into the long serving Jet Provost).
Most of the redundant Prentices were scrapped, but a small number were 'civilianised' and sold by Aviation Traders at Southend - various cockpit configurations were offered, including a seven-seat option! A few civilian Prentices appeared at Sywell on occasion in the late 1950s/early 1960s including the yellow and blue G-APIU of the Surrey and Kent Flying Club from Biggin Hill, and G-AOKH of BMK/Lambtex Rugs. This latter aircraft was seen widely across the UK on banner towing duties advertising Lambtex products.
Just a handful of Prentices survive today, including an airworthy aircraft operated by Atlantic Aviation at Coventry, and an example under restoration at Shuttleworth at Old Warden. (A restoration since shelved - Ed)