Choosing a vintage aeroplane over a modern tourer, one pilot wanted his Bulldog to be perfect – but it came at a price

Derek Sharp shares with Pilot his experiences of restoring his beloved Bulldog…

After a very long and sometimes chequered career in the Royal Air Force, I hung up my military flying helmet in 2003. Yet I wasn’t ready to give up flying so I purchased a share in a swish Cirrus – its major selling point was a glass cockpit fitted with a comprehensive digital avionics suite. In short, I was seduced by all the goodies!

But the seduction didn’t last and my mind wandered back to my younger days and the question: could I find a Scottish Aviation Bulldog, such as I instructed on 45 years previously? Cirrus versus Bulldog is like comparing a modern limo with a vintage sports car. I could afford a Cirrus and hire a Bulldog, but that’s not quite the same as the joy of ownership. When I really analysed my requirements, my main delight is turning upside down, throwing my aerial craft around and landing in little fields, none of which I could do in a gin palace of an aeroplane.

So when the chance to purchase a rather untidy Bulldog arose, I grabbed it and turned a blind eye to the problems that would inevitably arise. I quickly learned that, like old cars, old aeroplanes need heaps of TLC. I totally ignored the saying, ‘Buy an aeroplane and become poor. Buy an old aeroplane and become bankrupt’.

When I started my search, a number of Bulldogs were available, but they were quickly snapped up until there were just three for sale in the world. One had no wings and was dead; another had sat in a field for years and was covered in moss and mildew; and the last was a Swedish model (no jokes please) far away in Hungary and with a duff engine. I learned about the dreaded fatigue factor and found that any Bulldog with an FI (Fatigue Index) of 114 was kaput! I did find one presentable looking Bulldog, but that had just hours to live and would become an expensive hangar queen within a year. Besides, it was a Swedish model, and I really wanted an RAF version.

All mine

Then one day a mate told me he knew of someone with an ex RAF Bulldog that he might just consider selling. To cut a long story short, and after much negotiation, I arm-wrestled him into a deal in 2013. Had I taken leave of my senses? I never purchase old cars but was now buying a 40-year-old aeroplane.

Worst still, I paid more than I wanted and it needed a lot of attention. But it was all mine! On closer inspection I discovered the pitot-head heater didn’t work, the handbrake didn’t work, the ammeter didn’t work, the underside of the wing was covered in mildew and the exhaust rattled. Hardly concours standard. Having just had its annual service, I was assured it was safe to fly but I wondered what else was broken.

The day after I parted with a King’s ransom, I took to the air – exactly 31 years and 6 months after I had handed back the keys of one of Her Majesty’s Bulldogs to the RAF. It was a poignant moment, but it felt as if I had never vacated the left-hand seat! Despite minor faults, it fitted like a glove and talked to me very nicely. My lovely bird and I flew upside down, looped and rolled. And when we finally came back to terra firma, I had decided I was going to keep it forever. I had come home.

I am no longer that brash, brave stupid boy who lacked fear and common sense. I now ascribe to the ‘there are no old bold pilots’ adage, with risk-taking relegated to the bottom of the pile. So when, during my second test flight in the Bulldog, the weather closed in, I beat a hasty retreat back to the airfield. The next time I flew, I made sure I had the necessary maps and radio frequencies to extricate myself from any embarrassing situation. I certainly was not going to give any of my former navigators any ammunition and I realised just how much over the years I had learned to rely heavily on them and modern navigation systems. My Bulldog possessed few of such aids and thus I now had to rely totally on myself again.

Once the paperwork was complete, and money had changed hands ? a little over £25,000 ? I flew G-GGRR (an appropriate registration for a Bulldog) to nearby Turweston for substantial restorations followed by a bare metal re-spray. Even that flight proved to be an adventure as the one and only radio failed once I got airborne. Luckily, the weather was glorious and a low pass by the Tower at Turweston, waggling my wings, warned them of my imminent arrival and I taxied to the maintenance shed for what was to be its home for a long time ? and the start of rather an expensive restoration. Although that was our last flight together for a while, I was confident my Bulldog would rise again from the ashes like a phoenix, and we would eventually land in little fields, turn upside down, fly in formation with other red and silver Bulldogs and whizz low over the green countryside of Gloucestershire.

First up was a total redesign of the avionics. Forget the state of the art in 1972, when I first flew the Bulldog. The skies above the UK were now like shark-infested custard so my precious, elderly aeroplane needed a decent navigation system, with a mode S transponder, to allow ATCOs to identify me and offer help with collision avoidance, while keeping me out of trouble ? or at least restricted areas.

And then, once the maintenance team started work, they quickly discovered all was not well. For example, the magnetos had not been refurbished for nine years (when it was recommended that they should be done every four). Holes were found in the fibreglass, rivets were loose and there were more leaks in my Bulldog than in an English Electric Lightning ? and they only stopped when the tanks were empty!

Goodness knows how it was granted an airworthiness certificate and passed its annual. More problems were found and the two to three week refurbishment dragged on for months. My learning curve became almost vertical. Where once I had simply handed my aeroplane over to the Engineering Officer with a brief comment on what was broken and wandered off to the pilots’ crew room while they fixed it and did the paperwork ? all at no cost to me ? now I had to learn and to pay, so I could monitor both what my maintenance chaps were doing and my rapidly depleting bank balance. Frustratingly, things didn’t always go smoothly. I was left for many months with a Garmin 430W installed, but no CAA authority to use it. Eventually, after calling in an independent team, the vital approvals were granted, but not until more money changed hands.

Planning to make it the very best

After a long and expensive winter, I managed to fly and enjoy G-GGRR during the summer months, but then I found even more things wrong. By now, I had plans to turn my safe Bulldog into the very best one on the planet. Consequently, in the autumn of 2013 part two of the restoration began in earnest. Come that winter I needed the annual done and what I thought would be a few simple repairs, followed by a comprehensive (and expensive) bare metal re-spray.

Well, no actually. Part two lasted six months as the engineers discovered a major crack in an important part that held the undercarriage on. In short, frame 82 was bust. Moreover, it appeared that this problem had possibly existed for over 10 years. How had that been overlooked for so long? I then learned a little about mending aeroplanes… apparently one cannot just ‘fix’ the problem. I had to get approval from de Havilland Support and, of course, pay for the repair scheme. Talk about naïve! I had set aside a healthy restoration fund, although it was rapidly dwindling. Nothing could proceed until I located a new frame 82 and, in addition, my excellent engineer had not done this particular repair before, so we needed outside help.

Luckily, I managed to find a replacement in the USA and that, together with a new exhaust, starter motor, battery, elevator trim tab, windscreen, complete upgraded Cleveland brake system, wheels and tyres were just a few of the things I needed. Just the windscreen took a week to fit as none of the replacement Perspex screens was the right size so one had to be cut to fit, holes drilled for the screws (ensuring the Perspex didn’t crack), then make sure all was watertight.

During previous fuel/water checks I had noticed minute particles in the fuel, indicating that the rubber lining of the four fuel tanks was breaking down and would ultimately clog up the fuel filters. The fuel tanks had to come out and be thoroughly cleaned. This was yet another difficult task, but at least I could renew all the interconnecting fuel hoses at the same time and investigate why fuel leaked from the aeroplane when the tanks were filled.

This is apparently a common Bulldog fault. Eventually this was sorted and we found the source of the leaks ? the overflow pipes that took excess fuel away from the filler area passed through the fuel tanks. Over the years, these pipes had developed minute cracks, possibly due to flexing during aerobatics. Consequently, fuel was leaking from the tank into the overflow pipe and thus depositing a tell-tale puddle under the wing. This was easily sorted, but would have been impossible without tank removal. Finally, just about every nut, bolt and screw was replaced with stainless steel items; even new Bulldogs didn’t get those!

Now we could concentrate on the paintwork and upholstery. I went for the ‘Rolls-Royce’ approach. When everything was dismantled and all paint was removed, we made an interesting discovery. I knew the starboard wing had been replaced early in its civilian life when G-GGRR overran a short field and hit a tree, which necessitated a new wing together with prop and engine repairs due to a concurrent prop-strike. But when all the paint had been removed from the fuselage, it was discovered the rear half of the Bulldog had been replaced, almost certainly during RAF service. Eventually, after several weeks, the job was complete and I was delighted with the finished product, though I’m not so sure my bank manager was very happy.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Later that year we flew into the former Battle of Britain airfield of North Weald to attend an Air Britain rally and soak up the atmosphere of vintage aeroplanes. That day we were definitely glad of our 21st-century avionics as we had to battle through awful weather. Two days later, I got a call from the organiser. “You left without collecting the cup,” he said. Apparently our pristine refurbished Bulldog had been voted Star of the Show and had won the A J Jackson Trophy for the Concours d’élégance. Later we were invited to display at the Royal International Air Tattoo and incredibly, amongst an impressive international entry, came in the top 20 of the world’s best.

Setting the hours back to zero

But the work was still not finished. So at the six-monthly check in mid-summer, I sought perfection, determined to get my beloved Bulldog into a even better condition than when it was originally delivered to the Manchester and Salford University Air Squadron way back in 1974.

I wanted a host of new parts, so out went the sticky rudder trim cable, the tatty control column leather gaiters and the noisy flap motor. Then the whole inner fuselage and wings were treated to a special anti-corrosive fluid and a few minor oil leaks attended to. But I was aware that G-GGRR was still something of a curate’s egg. For a start, the engine was 42 years old and I was advised it was probably far too elderly to overhaul. So the plan was to replace the engine with a lovely new factory-built one, and if I was going to do that, perhaps I ought to get the propeller and constant-speed unit fully overhauled too, so that everything would have zero hours. That also meant replacing all the hoses in front of the firewall and behind it.

Consequently, later that year more upgrades were ordered. During the annual maintenance I fitted the new engine. After all, if the engine stops, you fly straight to the scene of the crash and are fortunate if you can land in a field. So my elderly Lycoming came out and a brand new one from the factory in the USA went in. The advantage of a factory engine would be that, not only would it be a true ‘zero time’ engine with new log book, it would have the added advantage of modern innovations, such as roller tappets and Slick magnetos, which enjoy a longer life than the original Bendix versions.

At the same time, the propeller and associated items went off for a complete overhaul and all the 42-year-old rubber hoses were replaced. Some essential components were NDT tested for hairline cracks, the oil cooler was back-flushed and a fuel flow computer was installed, as fuel gauges can be notoriously inaccurate. This modern bit of kit would connect to my Garmin 430W to let me know how much fuel I would have at each turning point. My Bulldog was beginning to cost a small fortune. Correction; a large fortune!

Work progressed during the following winter period and finally the new engine arrived. Joy ? but short-lived! During its RAF life, the original engine had been modified with the Christen inverted flight oil system, so I had specifically checked I would receive one with this modification. I had been told that an engine with this mod has a sump with connection for return oil when the aeroplane is inverted: oil only flows downhill so if the sump is above the engine that would present a problem.

Unfortunately, I found my shiny new Lycoming to be pre-mod. I had a problem. A replacement engine would take time and, if nothing else, would significantly delay return of my core deposit. Moreover, any drilling and tapping of the new sump would probably invalidate my new engine warranty. Removal in toto of the inverted oil system would probably require CAA approval, but would be a reasonable option given that I don’t engage in sustained inverted flight any more. (Moreover, that would seem sensible as aircraft with the inverted oil system tend to suffer from clogged oil lines if the aeroplane is never inverted allowing hot oil to cleanse the pipes).

Lycoming came up trumps and offered to manufacture a new post-mod sump for XX614. It seemed that RAF Bulldogs were modified to take the Christen system by Scottish Aviation, but some overseas air forces took delivery of engines already factory modified to accept that system. Panic over.

Another interesting discovery was that, apparently, my Bulldog is the very first to receive a true ‘zero hour’ replacement engine from the factory.

After a short delay, the correct sump arrived and was fitted. During that time, although we had already back-flushed the oil cooler, we took some advice and had it ultrasonically cleaned, overhauled and pressure checked so nothing should block our brand new engine.

Finally, as the spring of 2015 arrived, G-GGRR did indeed rise from the ashes. Now she is perfect inside and out and arguably the very best Scottish Aviation Bulldog on the planet. So much so that a fellow Bulldog pilot suggested she is a really magnificent investment. I had difficulty accepting that comment, given I had spent about twice as much as it is realistically worth ?around £140,000 in total.

But in the end, not only are we going to enjoy our beautiful bird, but I also have to keep reminding myself that we are merely custodians of these very special aerial machines. Hopefully they will still be flying for many years to come.

For those considering their own restoration project, Mick Allen at Turweston did a splendid full strip down paint job?not cheap but worth every penny. AKKI, then Chiltern Classic Flight (later called ATSO) also at Turweston, completed the majority of the rebuild.

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