How a Rolls-Royce pushed this motor enthusiast’s problem-solving skills to the limit
Len Hart and Frank Fiddes watch in awe as the vintage aircraft engine turns its shiny birch propeller, which whirs rhythmically catching the East Lothian wind: “Would you listen to that?” Len pipes up. “Music to my ears – a finely tuned instrument!” The 79-year-old retiree is grinning proudly from ear to ear as the life-sized replica of a Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter biplane – which helped lead Britain to victory in The Great War – springs to life.
Frank, a former toolmaker and garage proprietor who has spent much of the past 23 years in dusty overalls helping build this First World War aircraft from scratch with a team of up to 20 headstrong pensioners, offers a matching smile. “Beautiful,” the unassuming 85-year-old asserts as he watches the test on the plane’s engine.
Admiring the completion of so many years of collective work, Len, a former schoolteacher, reflects on the comradeship he found among the men who helped to create the aircraft. After retirement, he suffered from depression and the project gave him a creative outlet as well as a group of new friends.
“I wasn’t too wonderful at the time,” he recalls. “I had six or so of the eight symptoms of depression.” He started going to the shed – where the magnificent machine was brought to life – weekly and began to feel better. “It’s basically a kind of lunch club with lots of fun – and an aeroplane – and it has become a constant in our lives.”
Len has a passion for his subject and while working on the Strutter, he has enjoyed sharing his knowledge about the pilots who flew them. He speaks of these young men, barely out of childhood, who risked life and limb flying the biplane.
“They must have endured a mix of both elation and terror at the same time – to be up there flying, tempered by the anticipation of someone coming in the opposite direction as hell-bent on destroying you as you are them,” he says. “The average life expectancy of these guys was just six weeks. They were so young.”
Frank lost his wife while working on the plane and felt her absence deeply. The Strutter project offered some solace. “I was just so happy to become part of the team,” says Frank, whose metalworking skills have been a vital asset.
“I considered myself lucky to continue on this job after my wife passed away.” In a matter of weeks, the plane will be ready for its first flight and, although the men who worked on it will not be able to fly it themselves, as you need years of experience to pilot a Strutter, they will each get a chance to go up in the two seater plane accompanied by a skilled aviator.
Frank can’t wait: “Flying in it is going to be absolutely magical,” he says. “I will feel so proud! I am not scared at my age. We have been waiting for this for so long – it will be really, really fantastic. There has to be a big party.”
“It’s basically a kind of lunch club with lots of fun – and an aeroplane – and it has become a constant in our lives.”
John Guy, 85, who has been with the project since its inception, shares this excitement: “It will be amazing,” he smiles.
“It has been a long, slow slog but then you cannot rush an aeroplane construction.” In his years working on the biplane, he has witnessed major life changes. After a career as an orthopedic surgeon, he didn’t want to feel “on the scrapheap of life” after retiring. But working on the plane helped sustain him. However, when Doreen, his wife of more than 50 years, developed Alzheimer’s disease, he felt compelled to move away from the shed to care for her. “I spent five years as her full-time carer – I did my best for her,” he says.
Doreen is now in a nursing home, and working on the plane busied John, whose needlecraft skills, garnered from his former job, were very useful when it came to stitching up the fabric that covered the plane.
Naysayers thought the men were foolish to be indulging in such an ambitious project. After all, they were all amateurs, from all walks of life: sign-writers, filmmakers, civil engineers. Not a single expert in building aircraft. They should surely be reaching for the pipe and slippers? But after more than two decades on the project, these stalwarts are now first-class aeronautical engineers.
Self-taught and determined, they have completed a glistening Sopworth Strutter like those once headed for the Western Front. Seminal in the development of flight, 6,000 Strutters were built in both British and French factories after 1916. The aircraft’s greatest feature was a synchronised machine gun that allowed bullets to be shot through the propeller without destroying it. Initially they engaged in armed combat before being employed on reconnaissance missions once they were superseded by the more agile Sopwith Pup and Camel.
The men now plan to build a Pup that will hopefully take to the skies one day too.
Their current location, a converted fruit shed in Congalton, near Edinburgh, has witnessed members with issues from cancer and crumbling hip and ankle joints to nervous exhaustion, severe depression, marriage breakdowns and loss of their spouses, pick up their tools and simply get on with it. Mike Harper, chairman of the Aviation Preservation Society of Scotland (APSS), was knocked to the floor when his 30-year marriage collapsed in 2018. He found solace in the project.
“I was in a state of shock, I think,” he says. “Coming to the shed contributed to a sense of purpose. Having a band of brothers with the same focus as you is a wonderful thing. You can leave your problems at the door. Having tasks to focus on becomes a meditation. Slowly I got back on my feet and I now have a lovely new partner who appreciates my unusual hobby.”
I have chronicled their progress over almost a decade, watching them through big wins and major losses, including their premises at the National Museum of Flight, which gave them a £5,000 grant and a place to work on the plane. After 15 years the men were told the project had outgrown the space the museum was able to afford and they had to find a new home for their work. The group members found the shed they could rent from a local businessman in Congalton, but, as he hopes to sell his property soon, they have another problem on their hands if they can’t raise enough funds to buy it.
Despite the challenges, Sophie the Strutter, as they call her, will soon be the only flying replica of her kind in the world and one of only five in existence.
The project was the brainchild of Adam Smith, former director of the National Museum of Flight. In 2000, he recruited volunteers – mostly retirees – from the APSS to build the plane. Now, on the eve of her test and maiden flights, he couldn’t be prouder of what they have achieved.
“This project has now become a piece of history of its own,” he says. “I can’t think of any parallel to this group of volunteers who worked for more than 20 years to create this amazing aircraft.”
“Having a band of brothers with the same focus is wonderful.”
So moving is this story that the men are going down a storm on social media. Some posts have already gone viral on TikTok, while one Instagram picture reached 1.3 million views.
Sophie’s first flight, following meticulous inspections by the Light Aircraft Association, is likely to attract huge interest online.
Sadly nine of the men who worked on the plane won’t get to see this seminal moment and their names, including that of the founder of the APSS Jim O’Donnell, have been honoured by a plaque in the cockpit.
Evan Pole, 86, a former lecturer in engineering and one of the original stalwarts of the project, regrets that some of his closest pals passed on before the machine was complete, including Bernard Ginty, the chief engineer. Evan had a hip replacement in 2016 giving him a new lease of life but says he can no longer crawl under the machine.
Building the second plane – the Pup – was a collective bright idea, but Evan says he is ready to hand on the baton to new blood and the men are now looking to recruit more younger volunteers to help.
Given the many years of work that went into making her, there won’t be a dry eye in the house when Sophie finally takes flight. But after that, the volunteers will shrug their shoulders and look to the next project.
These men don’t have time to hang around. After all, there is a Sopwith Pup in the making waiting for their attention.
Find Sophie the Strutter on both Instagram and TikTok @sophie_the_strutter.
To get involved, contact Mike Harper at email@example.com