Three Minute Insights

The Shuttleworth Collection’s aircraft cover the spectrum of handling qualities from delightful to moderately tricksy. The Hawker Tomtit is firmly at the delightful end, where it’s in good company with machines such as the Avro Tutor, DHC Chipmunk and Supermarine Spitfire. The Tomtit was designed to replace the Avro 504 trainer in RAF service but eventually lost out in competition to the Tutor. Thirty Tomtits were built and G-AFTA is the sole survivor, having spent the early part of World War Two as the personal transport of legendary Spitfire test pilot (and Mew Gull adventurer) Alex Henshaw.

Not a bad view for a biplane of this vintage
Not a bad view for a biplane of this vintage

So what do we need to be aware of before launching aloft? As you strap in the groundcrew will be keen to remind you that not only is this the last Tomtit, it’s also the last engine – so be careful with both! Regarding the aircraft’s systems, the fuel primer feeds from the neck of the main tank, so the tank needs to be full if you want to go flying – perhaps an early safety feature. There’s also a reserve tank which fills the main tank, but this can only be operated by the passenger (if fitted) in the front cockpit.

Another gotcha – the aircraft has a common-for-the-era shower-of-sparks starter magneto, therefore when the propellor is being hand-swung care has to be taken that it has rotated sufficiently before turning the starter handle. In one’s excitement a failure to do this could result in the next blade catching up with the back of the swinger’s hand, which would be disappointing for all concerned.

With the engine warm, taxying is relatively straight-forward with the steerable tail-skid but, with no brakes, wing-walkers are advised especially if it’s windy. With the aircraft weighing just over 1400 pounds empty, the 150 hp Armstrong-Siddeley Mongoose IIIc engine provides plenty of thrust so, on hard ground, the wing-walker may need to help slow the aircraft down. Additionally, the centre of gravity is relatively close to the mainwheels resulting in a light tail which, in a tailwind, requires the wing-walker aft of the cockpit to hold the tail down, just in case. The engine run-up, usually carried out near the runway to avoid too many thermal cycles on the engine, requires chocks and, again, someone holding the tail.

Taxying out with wing-walker
Taxying out with wing-walker

Assuming you’ve made it to the end of the runway safely the rest is easy. Takeoff is brisk (did you lower your goggles first?) and, once airborne, the aircraft is delightfully harmonised and very responsive. Happily, it is luxuriously appointed with an elevator trim wheel to relieve control forces in flight – not all sporting aircraft of the era were. Light manoeuvring reminds you that the automatic slats on the upper wings will pop out as the aircraft reaches the landing angle-of-attack; these are to improve the low speed behaviour although, apart from a very light bump, their operation is fairly transparent to the pilot. This is an aircraft that loves to be manoeuvred – the Tomtit must be a wonderful machine to aerobat although, in order to preserve the airframe and engine, such antics are no longer permitted. There’s not much tail-fin so one’s feet need to be left on the pedals in order for the aircraft to fly straight; again, common for the day.

Tomtit (at rear) in formation with the equally-sublime Avro Tutor
Tomtit (at rear) in formation with the equally-sublime Avro Tutor

Cruising at 90 mph, the fuel in the main tank would last around 3 hours to empty; this would be roughly doubled if the reserve tank were to be used. So, quite the tourer. It’s a comfortable cockpit too – fairly roomy and the windscreen provides reasonable protection from the elements.

Coming into land, the elevator trim is wound fully nose-up in order to grant full elevator authority in the flare. The forward view is good until the aircraft is slowed to the last-look speed, common to many of Shuttleworth’s trainers, of 55 mph – at this point the nose gets in the way but the view to the sides remains good throughout. Unusual trailing-link main gear legs provide a degree of flattery as the aircraft touches down, albeit with a strange rearwards displacement of the wheels as the slack is taken up, and the tailskid helps the aircraft slow to taxy speed. At this point, in a strong wind, the aircraft is allowed to roll off the runway while the wing-walkers run over and assist the pilot taxy to parking.

In summary, the Tomtit needs thought on the ground but is a true delight in the air – particularly for the vintage. That it lost out in the RAF’s trainer competition speaks volumes for how good the Avro Tutor must be…we’ll discuss this next time.

To see these wonderful aircraft flying, why not head over to the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden.

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