Historic aeroplane comes home
Parked innocuously in a hangar at Stratford Aerodrome is ZK-AQX, a little two-seat aeroplane that could tell quite a tale—an extraordinary tale of Kiwi resourcefulness and a 1940s record-breaking journey in a machine ahead of its time.
It looks smart. Parked next to a modern light plane at Stratford Aerodrome, it’s difficult at first glance to tell the 1930s-designed aircraft from its modern-day equivalent.
ZK-AQX is an ERCO Ercoupe, an American-built monoplane, a rather revolutionary aircraft that a WWII pilot flew from Belgium to Taranaki in 1947. Last year ZK-AQX, fully restored, came back to the family of that pilot and is today flown around Taranaki by Matt Newton and his children.
Matt’s father Harold was a WWII pilot, flying Beaufighters and Mosquito fighter-bombers as well as Wellington bombers. He received the DFC for shooting down two Dornier bombers and damaging a third, over London on his first flight in a Beaufighter. As a flight lieutenant he continued flying after the war for the RAF’s Berlin Air Command, bringing food and supplies to starving Germans in Russian-held Berlin.
After the war Harold was shipped back to New Zealand, but he returned to England a year later to bring back his English girlfriend.
Alas, she had married another.
“Dad then switched to his second love—aircraft,” says Matt. “He couldn’t stand the thought of another long boat trip home, so he decided to fly.”
Harold found the Ercoupe at a trade show in Belgium. “I think it cost about £1200 to buy,” says Matt, “a lot of money in those days and his entire savings, but I believe he had the idea of selling these aircraft in New Zealand.
“That didn’t work out due to government regulations and import restrictions that were later brought in.”
Harold named the little aircraft Petit Pegase (Little Pegasus). He left Belgium with £40 in his pocket and arrived in Australia with £17 remaining. He heard Australians made fine saddles and used the last of his money to buy a saddle for the farm and put it in the cockpit before heading across the ditch. He reported the worst part of the journey was over the Tasman where he hit bad weather.
Harold’s trip was a world record and may still stand for a 75hp aircraft flight over that distance. It was the smallest aircraft to fly from Europe to New Zealand and the smallest to cross the Tasman.
The 19,000km journey took 22 days, 16 of those in the air. Harold planned ahead to land mostly in places where there was a British presence. He was well received and sometimes fuel was donated for him to carry on.
His destination was New Plymouth but 20 miles out it got dark and he turned to Auckland for a safe landing at 10pm.
Harold had made a few alterations on the aircraft for his big trip. He mounted a 40gal (181lt) extra fuel tank on the passenger seat, attached a loop aerial for navigation and fitted a variable pitch propeller, which gave him more power for takeoff on short runways with the ability to alter the pitch to save fuel in the air. Matt still has that prop tucked away in a shed.
Matt says the fuel drum attached to the seat and the 25gal in the wing tanks gave the aeroplane a 15hr endurance, enough to get from Sydney to Auckland. He says navigating with the loop aerial involved Harold homing on airport beacons along the way and sometimes tuning into two different city radio stations and then triangulating the bearings to get his position.
Harold flew into a big sandstorm over the Arabian Desert and had to climb to 10,000ft to get above “great clouds of billowing sand”. He also flew through monsoon rains across India and at one time the engine was coughing and missing due to carburettor ice forming in the humidity. He found he got the best economy on the flight by flying at 95mph at 5000ft, using 3½gal (16lt) an hour.
In the 1950s Harold sold the Ercoupe to the Auckland Aero Club, where it was modified and conventional controls (such as rudder pedals) fitted for training. Harold then bought a four-seat Auster Autocar and began a charter business from New Plymouth. There were no commercial aircraft operating in Taranaki in those days.
After a few years he became tired of the growing aviation regulations, sold the Auster and purchased a 1600ha sheep station at Urenui, north of New Plymouth. He loved operating tractors and bulldozers, breaking in the back country land, and did this for the rest of his days, tragically losing his life in 2003, aged 86, in a tractor accident. In a remarkable twist, Matt flew the TET rescue helicopter to the farm to collect his father, even though he knew who the accident victim was.
The story of the Ercoupe does not end there. Put into storage by the Auckland Aero Club for a number of years, it was later purchased by Peter Beck of Auckland. Over 25 years Peter restored the aeroplane to its original condition and Matt used to visit regularly to view progress.
Last year Matt bought the Ercoupe and returned it to Taranaki and the family.
“The Ercoupe is a 1937 design but was way ahead of the field,” says Matt. “Prior to 1937 almost all light aircraft were taildraggers, and it was always difficult to taxi without seeing where you were going.
“The Ercoupe came out with the tricycle undercarriage with a wheel in front and made life easier for pilots.”
Its designer, Fred Weick, was a clever man. He went on to help develop the popular Piper Pawnee and Cherokee series of light aircraft.
The Ercoupe was the first aircraft certified by the US Civil Aeronautics Administration as “characteristically incapable of spinning” or stalling. A revolutionary move was to have no rudder pedals. A two-control system linked the rudder and aileron systems, controlling yaw and roll, as well as steering the nosewheel, with the pilot’s control wheel.
“It’s probably the only aircraft that can be flown by paraplegics or amputees [without modification],” says Matt. “It’s very easy to fly and I reckon you could take a person off the street and teach them to fly in 10 to 20 hours.
“The original engine was the standard Continental four-cylinder boxer engine, still in production today. It came out with a 75hp engine but the Auckland Aero Club replaced it with a 90hp version.
“It’s quite strange that aircraft engines today are still the same dry-sump, air-cooled boxer engines that were in use over 75 years ago,” he says.
“Perhaps everyone’s too scared to try anything different in case they fail in flight,” he adds with a grin.
It has a wide wingspan which Matt says makes it slow but stable. “It needs about 150m of runway for takeoff but handles really well in the air. It cruises at about 90kt but probably needs another 50hp to bring it into today’s world.”
The Ercoupe is clad in aluminium with fabric on the wings, and the glazed cockpit canopy sides slide down into the fuselage.
Matt picked up the flying bug from Harold and today he and his wife Tammy have their own aviation business, Precision Helicopters Ltd, with eight helicopters operating all over the country.
Tammy’s father was a chopper pilot and her grandfather flew in WWII. Two of their children, Lilly (18) and Gabriel (17), are this year in Motueka at flight school. It seems the family has aviation in its blood.
- Report byRay Cleaver, phototraph by Rob Tucker.
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