By Douglas J. Kohlan, DDS; 23 April 2002
Six years ago I would have been totally mystified if someone had asked me about a World War II aircraft called a Fairey Firefly. I might initially have pictured a small homebuilt or kit plane, but those types of aircraft had not been realized in the 1940's. Instead I learned that the Firefly was a rare British warbird in its fighting days, and it has attained acute rarity in today's collections. My introduction to this aircraft is a story that I feel is worthwhile relating, and I hope the Firefly will be much better known and understood in the future. So I will share with you the story of an aircraft and its owner that will certainly draw much interest in the months ahead.
It was my first flight at the age of fourteen that began a path in my life toward meeting an aviation legend. My cousin had invited me at that young age to sit in the right seat of a Cessna for a few touch and gos. The sounds of the engine and the vision from the sky were overwhelming, but the words "you have the aircraft" struck both fear and excitement in my young mind. As we were coming up on my first landing, my knees were shaking and my body was rigid, but we touched down and so did my introduction to aviation.
It was many years later that I had a chance to apply for a Mission Specialist position at NASA. I was trained as a dentist and had spent two years practicing in Japan with the US Navy. I had a very mechanical mind. What else would I need? Well, the first question that caught my eye was "what is your flight experience?" I still have the letter of regrets from NASA and I will always wonder if my chances would have been realistically better had I been able to show some formal flight training on my resume. My next duty station took me to San Diego where I joined the NAS North Island Flying Club. My first few flights followed the Cessna Integrated Flight System, and everything was going well. It took me on a path that I could never have expected.
One Thursday afternoon as I was checking out an aircraft, a tall, blond and "somewhat" outspoken individual was noticeably trying to recruit anyone to help share expenses on a weekend flight to ski at Mammoth Mountain in northern California. I raised my hand and met Ed "Captain Eddie" Kurdziel. I doubt that anyone who has ever encountered Captain Eddie has ever forgotten him, for he is a blend of humor, flamboyancy, and intensity mixed with a deep sense of purpose. Ed had been flying F-8's at Miramar Naval Air Station and was transitioning into the S-3A Viking at VS-41 at North Island. I could not resist the opportunity to get in some skiing, so we rented the flying club's Piper Arrow that weekend and several others that season to ski at Mammoth. Flying up the Owen's Valley past Mount Whitney and landing at Mammoth Lakes Airport always afforded spectacular scenery. Over the years Ed and I have shared many unusual experiences whether hiking the volcanoes of Hawaii, skiing most of North America's major resorts, or rendezvousing somewhere in the world in our naval duties. The major interest of Ed's life was aviation. He seemingly knew of every conceivable aircraft if he had not flown it. His home was filled with aviation journals and books of flight. Warbirds were the biggest passion in his collective knowledge, and it was all leading up to orchestrating a project that few people would dare to imagine.
Ed left active duty in 1983 and began flying for Northwest Airlines. He is a captain on the 747-200 series and has continued flying general aviation aircraft with the same passion. Some part of the aviation puzzle was missing, though, and in 1994 he began telling me of the restoration project that he had begun. Ray Middleton, a well-known restorer of vintage British aircraft and owner of QG Aviation in Fort Collins, Colorado, together with Ed, found the Firefly in pieces in the south of Australia. A previous owner, Bruce Simpson, a Qantas pilot, had started the work from an aircraft that had been relegated to high atop a pole in Griffith, New South Wales, as a memorial to airmen. The initial goal was to bring the aircraft up to reasonable flight condition, but, as Ray put it, Ed kept "moving the goal post". The result was a long and expensive ordeal that has been more than eight years in the process. The majority of the restoration has been at QG Aviation and the engine rebuild by Mike Nixon of Vintage V-12's in Tehachapi, California. Ed often confided to me of the time and money and the numerous side projects involved in the restoration, and I was once more compelled to raise my hand to help him complete the project. I do not regret one moment of it, for the Firefly is a piece of history that will now continue to fly. To be associated with the project has been an honor and an unforgettable experience.
Fairey built the Mk I Firefly as a fighter-reconnaissance aircraft beginning in 1941. It carried a crew of two in separate areas fore and aft. The earlier models could be identified by the cooling intake beneath the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine. The later versions moved the intakes to the leading edge of the wings where coolant and oil circulate through radiators governed by temperature-controlled cowlings. The big Griffon 74 is an injected V-12 with stock output in excess of 2250 hp. The earlier Mk I used a thirteen feet in diameter three bladed prop that was expanded to a four bladed unit on the later Marks. One of the unusual features of the aircraft was a design called a Youngman flap, which extends traditionally in the landing configuration. The flaps can drop straight down, as well, in an almost biplane fashion, giving the Firefly outstanding turn characteristics rivaling smaller aircraft. The construction included fabric only on the rudder, making the aircraft rugged but also somewhat heavy at over 10,000 pounds empty weight. With the observer's cockpit the aircraft later was deployed in anti-submarine missions, carrying sonobouys and, of course, being fully capable of carrier launches and recoveries with folding wings and a tailhook. In all, it was a very versatile airframe, and its history proves that fact. It was the first British fighter over Tokyo in World War II and it saw action throughout the Korean conflict. Only 1702 of all the versions were produced, so the relative rarity of the aircraft is explained. Only ten airframes exist today and probably only four may ever fly again. This aircraft, a MK 5 Firefly WB518, is one of only two operational examples along with a recently completed project in England that is undergoing flight tests.
The first time I visited the restoration, the wings and engine were in floor mounts, the fuselage was completely stripped, and parts were everywhere. The extensive detailing and corrosion protection were in process. The rework had taken tedious hours on every component. Captain Eddie had searched from Australia to England to make his Firefly both complete and authentic, and he had employed Ray Middleton, a complete gentleman with experience to match. Ray's crew includes Tim Fries and Jaime Quiroz who have spent several years of their lives with the project. Tim has been the primary assembler and has provided the air-worthiness of the restoration. When people have asked Tim how long he has worked on the aircraft, he says humorously, "Since I was little". Tim amassed over 25,000 hours of his devoted talent to make the Firefly a reality. Additional help has come from Fred Hug in Phoenix who has years of experience in aviation maintenance, and he added many months of his time in the airframe and flap assemblies. In Australia, Kevin Arditto has unmatched knowledge of the history and maintenance of the aircraft and he has followed the project in its entirety with manuals, blueprints, and technical information along with many hours of hands on time. In England, Cliff Colmer has applied his mastery of sheet metal. Ron Mahle, based at Anoka County Airport in Minnesota, has provided his expertise in surface and paint detailing that have given the aircraft the scheme and colors of its heyday. Others associated with the project are Al Kellogg and Mike Conway, both former military and airline pilots. Terry Hetherington, Peter Croser, and Keith Boundy of Royal Australian Navy Historic Flight have provided invaluable assistance throughout the project. Royal Navy Historic Flight's Eric Young, who has operated a Firefly in England, and Dave Morris of the Royal Navy Aviation Museum in Yeovilton, have provided invaluable operational assistance. Jeremy Flack and his family in the UK, as well as Ian Huntley, provided invaluable assistance in research for parts and historic authenticity. Special work was contributed by electronic genius Bill Hale, and Chuck Cabe on the avionics. Don Bowman, machining perfectionist, and John Martinez, upholstery wizard, added their talents to the aircraft. Manley Butler provided parachutes and emergency rigging. Throughout the project, Bruce Prutzman, an American Airlines captain, provided his patient support to Ed and others who needed a home away from home in Fort Collins. Literally hundreds of other individuals from around the world have contributed to the success of the project. When I became involved, I had no idea of the enormity of a restoration like this and the need for so many people who would eventually combine their talent and expertise. I saw only little ol' me with no experience and no knowledge, just a strong desire to assist Ed in getting his dream project off the ground.
My first job was to strip paint from some of the wing panels, which were covered with several layers of red and blue. What a messy job! "Strip this; bead-blast that! Dammit, don't lose any more parts in the bead-blaster," Ed would remind me. Pretty soon I felt like Ed and the other experienced people trusted me! After all, I was a dentist with great hands! I was used to working in close quarters on small things. As time went on, I found myself painting precious parts and helping to assemble a canopy that was designed to be far more complicated then it should be. The Brits built a quality aircraft that certainly was not simple! Captain Eddie and I probably spent more than 80 man-days on the canopy alone! Slowly and surely the aircraft began to stir enthusiasm in those who saw her. Her form came together and the details of her former colors started to take shape.
Lastly, it was Ron Mahle's turn to step in and complete the paint, and stenciling and other esthetic touches were carefully added to historic detail. Engine runs had been successfully completed in July of last year with Mike Nixon at the controls. First ground runs and taxi trials began early in April of this year with British test pilot, Don "Siggy" Sigournay in the cockpit. It was a historic day in British and Australian aviation history on April sixth, and a fulfillment of a dream for Capt Eddie as Firefly WB518 lifted off the runway at Fort Collins Downtown Airport. Don confidently showed his fondness for the Firefly and turned back over the field to salute the crowd before climbing out into the Colorado sky. As I looked into the eyes of the people that day who had worked so long to make this flight a reality, I noticed tears of joy and pride. E-mails soon followed and told the story of that first flight.
From Northwest Pilot and friend Bruce Corell came this vivid description:
"After 8 years of lies and gross exaggerations, Capt Eddie Kurdziel's Firefly did in fact depart the earth. It was a MAGNIFICENT sight!!! A British test pilot was brought in to conduct the maiden voyage of this impeccably restored British warplane. After several delays and adjustments following runup the plane lowered its wings and roared down the runway. It was a dramatic moment. You could see the stressful anticipation in Eddie's eyes as he stood on the taxiway mid field where a large crowd had gathered despite his attempt to keep the test flight a secret. As the Firefly roared down the runway towards us, you could feel the ground shake from the sheer power of the engine. The plane departed impressively. It was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced in my aviation career. Pieces of various Firefly's from all over the world had been carefully crafted into perfection by a very talented team of experts spending tens of thousands of hours over eight years. After departing the runway, Don, the test pilot, tested the flight controls briefly before making a 180 back to the field to make a low pass to show his confidence in this powerful bird. As we stood there and watched this warbird descend upon us, you could feel the intimidation of those who may have suffered its fury. We were speechless!"
The plan was for Eddie to depart in a Stinson and be the chase plane over to the larger Fort Collins-Loveland Airport. The test pilot was to hopefully keep the Firefly airborne for 40 minutes to allow Eddie and the rest of us to get to the other airport to witness the landing. We jumped into our cars and headed for the other airport a mere 15 minute drive away. We searched the sky for any sign of the Firefly, but we saw nothing. As we approached Fort Collins-Loveland Airport, we could not help but notice a plane approaching from the south. It was fast and had an unusual profile. As it got closer and lowered its gear, there was no doubt, it was the Firefly. The landing was as perfect as its components. As it approached the hangar, it folded its wings with the arrogance of a peacock and the grace of a butterfly, signaling that it had done its job and had done it well. Its proud owner, Captain Eddie, and the entire team of professionals who had engineered its success were flush with pride. As Eddie was contemplating his own checkout and flying, many of us were left to wonder...will this bird be the Best of Oshkosh this year; will it end up in a museum? It is truly a masterpiece!"
Soon after came this heartwarming tribute from Bruce Simpson of Qantas Airlines who had so lovingly started the project years before:
A lot of blood, sweat, tears, etc in the beautiful Firefly. Fly her proudly, for she carries many hearts, and many, many stories. Great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice, and is never the result of selfishness.
Well done, sir!"
The adventure did not stop at that point. It merely shifted from the reality of flight for the Firefly to the reality of scrutiny by the aviation world. After several more test flights in Colorado, Captain Eddie piloted his dream machine on its first cross-country on July 19th of this year. With Tim Fries flying along as his crew, Eddie flew north to Minneapolis and made several stops along the way. Each time a crowd would gather around the aircraft to marvel at it and try to identify the type. After final polishing and detailing, the Firefly's last leg took it to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the 50th annual EAA Fly-in. It is difficult to describe the number of magnificent aircraft that gather in Oshkosh every year, with a dazzling array of warbirds. To be judged in that environment is indeed humbling! The dream did not stop, however, for the Firefly proudly earned for Captain Eddie the Grand Champion Award. So now the Firefly will carry with her another story, a trophy, and the memories of how she earned it.