Well it's hard to know where to begin as I write this story of my journey. One often times has preconceived notions about how something is to be or how it is to turn out, but in the case of restoring the Firefly I could never have guessed.
My first recollection of the Firefly was in an article in the spring of 1974 when the Canadian Firefly was featured on the cover of Flying Magazine. I remember being entranced with the aircraft, but never had an opportunity to see it in person let alone see it fly. A chain of unusual predestined events followed in my life that all lead to the inevitable purchase and restoration of WB518.
I learned to fly and obtained all my civilian ratings while coincidentally attending undergraduate and graduate school in engineering. I entered flight training in the U.S. Navy to be retrained their way. The entire time while in the Navy from flight training through my operational tours with the exception of when deployed aboard ship I continued to fly for someone else (unbeknownst to my superiors). This flying was for a charter company in Florida, a radiologist in Texas, and DC3s in California. It was about this time I met Steve Hinton and the "Chino Kids" and had an opportunity to fly their B25. This all would be instrumental in shaping my life in the future.
After my active duty Naval career flying A4s, F8s, A7s, and S3s I applied for a research pilot position with NASA at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edward's AFB, but this was not to be. My new wife had other ideas and said" no way am I moving up there to look at a bunch of Joshua trees!" Shortly thereafter I was hired by Northwest Airlines and moved to Minnesota. I kept all of my real estate holdings in California that I had purchased while in the Navy and continued to fly the Lockheed S3 in the Reserve Air ing CAG 30 in San Diego. Even after an unusually heavy loss of life among my Navy flight training classmates and peers I was unwilling to give up this portion of my life and even continued to take students out to the ship at night. Continuing to fly for the reserves and Northwest I eventually moved back to San Diego and commuted to my airline job. While flying in San Diego I had the opportunity to fly with two pilots on exchange from Australia who I managed to stay in touch with even long after they had gone. My wife was also an Australian model and television personality. These links were to prove very beneficial in the future.
During Oshkosh of 1993 walking through the fly market I noticed a small ad for a Sia Marchetti SF260 stapled to a telephone pole. I called the number in South Africa and began negotiations to buy the aircraft. After speaking with the gentleman who owned the aircraft, I asked him "why would you want to sell it?" and promptly talked him out of selling it! Shortly thereafter Ray Middleton the owner of Q.G. Aviation of America called and asked if I would be interested in purchasing a Percival Pembroke? Now I had no idea what I would do with an aircraft like that. Ray suggested the Lone Star Museum might entertain a trade for their Firefly. Now that brought back those memories of the magazine article again.
During Thanksgiving, November of 1993 I was perusing every pilot's favorite wish book Trade-a-plane when I spotted an ad for a 60% restored Firefly! Now I am the kind of guy who will drive all over town on $25.00 worth of gas to save a couple of dollars on a pair of running shoes. I spoke with the sellers, the Simpsons, and told them that if the aircraft was as they said it was I would buy it, sight unseen! After the first of the year I made the long journey to OZ to have a look at the project and take some pictures. After having a great time with my hosts the Simpsons I returned home with the pictures and showed them to Ray Middleton and asked if he would be interested in doing a restoration. I bought Ray a ticket and had him look the project over and if it was good to start packing it. I was away on a trip at the time and on my return I called Ray and he was packing the containers! I joined him in Australia and we worked long days over the Easter Week packing the plane and parts for shipping to Fort Collins, Colorado. At the end of each day we looked like a couple of chimney sweeps covered with dirt from head to foot. We finished packing on Easter Sunday, two containers and the aircraft fuselage being shipped bulk on a Russian freighter. The Simpson's at the time had a Bulgarian man working for them who could read and write Russian and he put directions all over the aircraft in Cyrillic so it would not be damaged in transit. I met the ship in Long Beach and found the fuselage on the dock surrounded by bulldozers. The dockworkers were quite worried about it being damaged. Once the aircraft and containers arrived in Fort Collins the lowest of the eleven bids for shipping amounted to over $55,000.00! Ouch! I was already over budget and I had not even started.
The restoration had already been started by Classic Aviation in Australia. It was partially stripped and disassembled, basically thousands of parts in boxes and no directions! I had purchased a giant one to one scale model. It took almost one and a half years of my spare time, lots of volunteers, and tons of 'pay' in the form of margaritas and beer to complete a fairly comprehensive inventory. Pick up the 'unknown' part, find the part number, look it up in the parts manual, write it down on the inventory, and place it in a numbered box. The sea container became my office, hot as hell in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. My job was to keep the parts flowing to the guys at Q.G. I spent the next eight years traveling the world buying and trading for the parts I so desperately needed to complete my restoration. After all these years I have enough spares to keep the machine running for years to come.
WB518 came off of a pole in Griffith NSW where it had served as a memorial to airmen. Classic Aviation had purchased the damaged wreck of WD828 and arranged a swap with the town council for the fuselage of WB518 off of the pole. Because of the historical nature of WB518 only the fuselage could be exchanged. The wings, tail, and other parts came from WD828. People love to call it a composite restoration of the two, but nothing could be further from the truth. While the aircraft were in service the hazards of shipboard life often took their toll. The constructor numbers of the components reveal a different story on this aircraft. The starboard wing bears a 1948 date stamp probably a Mark IV or early Mark V component. The port wing a 1951 manufacture date, a Mark VI, the tail plane a 1946 date, the starboard flap and the wingtips also bear dates before either WB518 or WD828 were constructed. As the aircraft were damaged in service, the parts were sent back to rework and were replaced with refurbished ones from stores. So it is for the life of a Naval flying machine. There were significant differences in the construction of some of the same components. After consulting with Dave Morris of the Royal Navy Aviation Museum in Yeovilton, the serial number of the aircraft should always follow that of the fuselage.
It was early in the restoration that I began to make serious decisions about how the aircraft was to be restored. At first all I wanted was a flying restoration and nothing more. Patience was not one of my virtues then and all that I was interested in was flying and not fixing. I began to move the goalposts according to the chief restorer, Tim Fries. It was a logical yet expensive decision to pay now rather than later! It is always cheaper to pay now rather than later, so it became a case of doing a preventative total rebuild on everything. This necessitated "undoing" all the previous restoration work done in Australia on my 60% restored project. My vision of what I wanted began to take shape and was passed on to Tim and his coworkers who began to share that same vision. I had the ideas and he had the perseverance, skill, and patience to make them happen. My project as purchased had an incredible array of parts and manuals collected by the previous owners. Through the help of private collectors in the U.K., U.S., and in Australia I was able to purchase most of what was needed to make the project whole. The Royal Australian Naval Historic Flight and the Australian Museum of Flight at Nowra generously exchanged parts with me to finish my project and help with the support of WD826 -- their flying Firefly. It then became our jobs to fabricate, inspect and restore these old parts to new for the flying machine. It is here that it becomes apparent that a museum static display is only 1/10th to 1/20th the cost of a machine that is to fly! A tremendous amount of work had to be done!
Ray always told me not to look at the project as a whole, but rather as a series of individual parts. Rather like decorating a very large complex Christmas tree. I am a very left-brained person and always wanted milestones and the like for planning the budgeting of the aircraft's work scope and completion. The 'lost art' skills necessary for a restoration of this magnitude belong to those artisans of the right-brained variety. Very foreign thinking to my own! When I asked about a completion date I was always told what I wanted to hear and that bore little or no resemblance to any sort of reality. Nobody really knew, it had never been done before. Timetables came and went and thoughts of flying became only a dim glow on the horizon. The light at the end of the tunnel always seemed to be another train. In everybody else's minds the plane became a figment of Eddie's imagination. After all, didn't he say it was going to be at Oshkosh for the last three years? I made a very conscious decision not to allow any pictures for the media during restoration. We toiled away in relative secrecy except for my own big mouth. Two trips a month on average to Colorado from my home in California living out of a suitcase at Bruce's house, a former squadron mate, provided the solace for me not to kill someone at this point.
I liken the project to when we were kids and had to have that special prize that resided at the bottom of a box of cereal that we made our parents buy. We had to have THAT prize whether we liked the cereal or not! It then became all about eating the cereal that we did not necessarily like and in this case it was quite a big box! The experience metaphorically was all about the cereal, the prize having long since been forgotten. Learning to work with others and trying to make the best out of what appeared to be a journey without end. It was here six years into the journey that my girlfriend offered me a way out of my paradigm. She asked the simple question, " Did you ever consider that this project is more important to the people that work for you than it is to you?" That simple question opened a whole new world for me not only in relation to the airplane, but to how I viewed my place in life. The closer the aircraft came to completion the more I began to realize it did not belong to me! It started to become obvious that I had paid a lot of money and invested even more in terms of time to become a custodian. I guess when we buy something we only rent it for our lifetimes. The men come and go and the only vestiges of times gone by are the machines that remind us of their exploits reflecting the history that belongs to all men and, more importantly in this case, to the men of the Royal Australian Navy.
Once free of my 'restoration paradigm' a new world of cooperation began to unfold between myself, and my coworkers. My vision began to become reality in the shape of the object forming on the hangar floor. All of the planning, research, and hard work were beginning to pay off. Everyone began to share the same vision. Fred Hug, one of my best friends, spent many months of his time repairing the damaged wings and flaps. Jaime and Cliff made the sheet metal what is. Don did the machining. Dr. Doug helped with tons of odd jobs. In the last couple of years things began to move much more quickly as parts finished years before disappeared from the shelves. Mechanically, it was as perfect as was possible.
It now came time for the cosmetics that most people only see. WB518 was one of the first ten MK VI s built but still retains the earlier fuselage of the MK V. The aircraft was originally delivered to 817 Squadron. 817 Squadron then exchanged their aircraft for those of 816 Squadron for duty in Korea. The aircraft has been painted to represent WB377 which was loaned to 817 Squadron aboard HMAS Sydney by the Royal Navy for duty in Korea. The Australians had damaged most of their original aircraft in accidents. WB377 '201' in the commanding officer's colors was no exception being damaged in Typhoon Ruth in October of 1951. I picked the wartime guise of 201 not only for aesthetics, but because I had most of the representative equipment of the period i.e. rocket rails, drop tanks, etc. The Firefly had such a long life it is only possible to 'fix it in time'. Ron Mahle the painter commuted more than twenty times from Minnesota to Colorado to complete the striking scheme. It is original even in the duplication of the luster. Ian Huntley generously provided the finishing info.
After the paint was nearly complete, last minute mechanical work was finished and the Nixon Vintage V12's engine roared back to life. Kevin Arditto of Australia obtained many of the difficult to find items such as flare pistols, compasses, relief tubes, etc. to complete the all important cockpit details I find so intriguing.
When it came time to flight test the aircraft most people said I should do it myself because that is what I had done in my previous life in the Navy. I opted to have Don Sigournay the former Commanding Officer of the Royal Navy Historic Flight come from the U.K. to do the honors. Again another person generously donated their time. I felt that I was personally way too close to have an unbiased decision- making process in the early flight tests and I lacked the experience in testing this type of aircraft. The aircraft flew with only minor glitches in its first flights, radiator shutter doors and an inoperative number two generator. Not a bad showing after eight years and 40,000+ man-hours of work by 100's of contributors. The aircraft was given a 'thumbs up' by Don S. To prepare for flying the Firefly I made literally thousands of landings in all types of tail wheel airplanes including the Spitfire and T6. The day before my first flight I made in excess of 40 landings from the backseat of a T6. The T6 is also used by the Royal Navy Historic Flight in their conversion syllabus and is a fairly good simulator as far as view etc. The Firefly is much heavier and quite 'jet like' when it comes to handling the power during landing and approach. With power off and gear down it sinks like a coke machine!
It cruises at 200-210 kts. IAS on a par with other aircraft of the period: i.e. the Spitfire and Mustang. On the way to Oshkosh in company with Bill Greenwood's TrMK9 Spitfire I consumed nearly twice the fuel at every stop. The Firefly is quite impressive in any flybys especially at speeds over 300 kts. It is definitely different than other aircraft in terms of sound and presence.
After 23000+ hours of flying including 5000 hours of tactical military time, I was ready for another challenge. A large piston engine fighter provides an experience very different to that of the fast jet world especially in regards to the skill set necessary for landings and takeoffs. It certainly is different in that arena of operations. After that the similarities return to that of the fighter world. I really had no preconceived ideas about what the experience would be like. The smells and sounds are certainly intoxicating. The Griffon has a sound like no other. It is deafening without lots of hearing protection in the front cockpit and the heat the engine produces is oppressive especially with high outside air temperatures. This summer has been unusually warm in the U.S. with temperatures routinely approaching 40 degrees C. The front cockpit becomes a veritable oven. Once at altitude with lower outside air temperatures you finally begin to dry out and cool off. It requires constant trimming for any power changes large or small. It is a typical Navy fighter of the era possessing optimized performance from 0 - 15000' for fleet defense. It has a loiter capability for slow speeds with the maneuver flaps extended to the cruise position. It also has a high-speed dash capability, but you really pay for it in terms of fuel consumption. How fast do you want to go? The Firefly is heavy compared to some similar types. The entry speeds for aerobatics are a clue to its performance, 350 kts IAS for entry into an upward roll. Very much like an underpowered jet
Few things systems wise have been changed from the original. Agonizing over the small changes that were made was a very difficult exercise in having to depart away from what is totally original. The airspace in which the aircraft is to be operated is dense with other aircraft and restrictions. These modern concessions were to ensure that safety of flight considerations were met. Inside the original fuse boxes are micro circuit breakers all labeled as in a more modern aircraft. With the covers on, nothing is different from the original. The attitude indicator is from a T38 and the HSI compass system is from a C130. All the flight instruments are electric with the exception of the original vacuum powered turn and bank. The original vacuum panel and instruments could easily be substituted if one wants. The radios are all removable and a substitute original panel covers their space. The windscreen deicing switch has been removed and in that space an RMI, standby horizon, G-meter, and a digital fuel flow analyzer have been substituted. Everything else is original and it all works: gyro gun sight, UV lights etc. When flying, I replace the gun sight with a color moving map GPS. The aircraft is certificated for both night and IFR flight. As the late Frank Sanders once said to me years ago, "It is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it!" I also installed a modern pressure demand oxygen system in both the front and back cockpits. These are just about the only modern concessions. The aircraft retains the original airbrakes on the stick. Most U.S. Sea Furies have had these removed and replaced with hydraulic toe brakes. The airbrakes were strange at first, but work OK once you get used to them. It was very disconcerting at first to run up the power without depressing the tops of the rudder pedals with your toes!
Flying the Firefly is definitely a job not to be taken lightly and demands some serious attention especially in formation or flying in one of the big shows. I quickly went back to my roots in the Navy. Formation joinups, popups, and strafing passes all came back in minutes after not doing them in years. It would be a pretty big plate if you had not previously been trained or operated in this sort of high tempo environment!
It has been especially rewarding for me to see how much pleasure the Firefly has brought to others, especially those that have never seen one before. You hear all kinds of comments; "twin naval Mustang conversion", naval spitfire, etc., etc. No it never carried torpedoes, but an FW190 did! It has been great to share an important piece of history with the younger generations especially. I even had one person ask if the Australians had fought on the side of the North Koreans in the Korean War!
Well one journey that of the restoration has ended and another I have waited many years for is just beginning. I am very fortunate through an unusual set of circumstances to have become the custodian of WB518 while I am here on this earth or decide to pass it on. I must be paying back some debt from a past life! With the proper sponsorship I would love to bring the aircraft to Europe for a season. If you diehards are still interested in more information, checkout our new website at faireyfirefly.com. And to all of you who are not named, you know who you are, I can never thank you enough for everything you have contributed to this project! WB518 looks and sounds great back in the air again!