During my time as a flying instructor with the RAAFs No 1 Flying Training School I was selected to fly the RAAF Museum’s Fokker Triplane replica. This came about when the Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Geoff Radbone entered the instructor’s crewroom and asked “which of you fighter guys has taildragger experience?” whereupon I put my hand up. I did my initial flying training on the Winjeel. I was then informed that I was to be endorsed on the Fokker Triplane. My training consisted of firstly flying the Tigermoth before attempting the Triplane so that was not too difficult. On reading the flight manual I discovered the aircraft had no electrical system, no compass, no attitude indicator, no trim system and only rudimentary brakes, wonderful. The manual also indicated that the aircraft exhibited significant torque roll effect on lift off and was exceptionally difficult to land due to it’s short wheel base, marvelous.
The aircraft itself had been built for the movie ‘The Great Waldo Pepper’, it was painted black and one of three replicas built for the production. These aircraft were slightly bigger than the original and were powered by a radial engine from a tank instead of the original rotary engine. This particular aircraft was purchased by Mr Neil Cottee and brought to Australia where it was repainted red and it was sponsored by Pacific Film. At some point it was decided that the aircraft should be donated to the Australian War Memorial (AWM). The rumor is that some pilots had scared themselves flying it and were disinclined to continue operating it. In any case the AWM did not have any room for the aircraft and so it was passed on to the RAAF Museum (then a subsidiary of the AWM). Three ADF pilots flew it before me and I was to take over from Air Commodore Bob Walsh, at the time the Officer Commanding RAAF Base Point Cook.
Bob was a really nice guy and he had no reservations about flying the aircraft which put my mind at ease, somewhat anyway. Come the day a small crowd of onlookers gathered to witness my success or failure to cope with my first flight and first solo, it only had one seat. I was told in no uncertain terms about all the difficulties of flying the aircraft and particularly to land it in the three point attitude or I would lose control on landing. While doing the engine run up, to see all was well with the machine I accidentally let the stick go forward a bit and the tail rose up and started to fly even though I was still in the chocks. Poor Bob leapt onto the rear fuselage trying to hold it down. Not a great start. So off I went and to my surprise I found the aircraft to be quite reasonable to fly. I failed to notice the ‘significant torque effect’ on lift off and although the landings were a bit of a challenge I didn’t mind it at all. Bob was very pleased with my performance which was encouraging.
My only real adventure with the aircraft was flying it North to Wangaratta for an airshow. The aircraft had no tail fin just a rudder hinged in the middle and there was no trim for it. When cruising you had to lock your right leg to prevent the aircraft from yawing. So during this flight I relaxed my leg slightly and the rudder over powered my grip and the aircraft flat turned through 180 degrees before I could regain control of it. Embarrassingly I was now looking at where I had just come from. I can only imagine how the manoeuvre might have looked from the ground. The other experience I had was flying the aircraft to East Sale. There was a thunder storm way to the North of my track with a very high overhang above me. Sitting there enjoying the trip I was suddenly struck on the forehead by what I first thought was a bullet, but my search for blood revealed I had been hit by a raindrop. I continued the trip with my head held down as low as possible not wanting to get hit by another murderous raindrop.
For the most part the airshow routines were mock dogfights with the Sopwith Pup belonging to Mr John Pettit a Victorian Optometrist. Because the Pup was able to produce smoke the fight always ended with the Triplane flown by ‘Baron Von Dreadful’ winning over ‘Sir Percy Goodfellow’. Following the show and sometimes before it, we would walk among the crowd dressed in WWI uniforms. I had a German helmet with a spike on top and a large German leather coat (both original genuine items). During one such walk I introduced myself to a little boy who quickly took exception to me shooting down Sir Percy and promptly kicked me in the shins. Nice to see my acting skills didn’t go unnoticed.
After operating the aircraft for a while I decided that landing it in the three point attitude was risky so I changed to ‘wheeling’ it on or landing it in the straight and level attitude and lowering the tail wheel when the aircraft slowed sufficiently. This was a much more comfortable way of getting it on the ground and although the pureists were unimpressed I continued to do so for the rest of my time with it. In terms of performance it cruised at 80 knots and was limited to a top speed of around 110 knots, it was not aerobatic although it might have been rolled accidentally (of course) once or twice. With three and a bit wings (one between the wheels) it turned on a sixpence, so I imagine as a fighter it would have been quite formidable when it first came on the scene. I flew the aircraft for a little over a year and really enjoyed the privilege not knowing that this was my introduction and start to the world of warbird flying.