Flying the Anson
I recall reading a magazine article a few years back about the Anson being rebuilt in Nelson by Bill and Robyn Reid, and looking forward to seeing it fly. It never occurred to me that I might get to do this for the first time from inside the aircraft, and the invitation to do so was a very pleasant surprise.
Bill’s idea to have two pilots to do the test flying was a good one, enabling Sean Perrett and me to alternate between flying from the left seat and recording the results of our investigations from the right.
A couple of visits to the project before it was complete gave me great confidence in the quality of the restoration. Watching the guys working on it, though, gave me a tangible feel for how much time and effort has gone in to it, and the thought of being entrusted with the product of all this effort was sobering.
Approaching the Anson you are reminded of a black-and-white sketch at the beginning of a chapter in a Biggles book — it is just such a classic British WWII shape. A walk around the aeroplane reveals some interesting features. The tailplane is huge and angular, with narrow and almost elegant tips, while the rudder is also large but by comparison somewhat squat and rounded. Perhaps the designer had misplaced his French curves when it came to drawing the tailplane?
A glance underneath the wing roots reveals the bomb doors which operate like a letterbox. The bomb is released, whereupon it falls onto the spring-loaded door which then opens to let the bomb pass, after which the door springs closed again.
The engine cowlings have a pleasing art deco look about them, tidily enclosing the Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah seven-cylinder radial engines. The bomb aimer’s station at the nose of the aircraft — complete with bomb sight — has liberal amounts of Perspex allowing a clear view vertically below the aircraft, a good spot to enjoy some low flying from, no doubt.
Speaking of Perspex, the wraparound cabin windows from trailing edge to trailing edge give a great field of view, and most of them double as escape hatches.
My understanding is that the Anson was the first RAF aircraft to be produced in significant numbers that was a monoplane, that had an enclosed cockpit, and that had a retractable undercarriage. So the fact that it has eleven escape hatches may have been due to some pilot paranoia about not having an open cockpit.
Also, the undercarriage main wheels remain slightly proud when retracted, so if you land gear up you still land on the wheels and can still use the brakes. The only casualties would be the flaps (if extended), the pitot head and the propellers, so it might be a bit noisy taxying in this configuration. A good feature, though, for pilots of that era who were not familiar with wheels that go up and down.
Most pilots upon climbing aboard an unfamiliar aircraft for the first time make a beeline for the cockpit. But the interior of this aeroplane is so diverse and interesting I found myself wanting to explore the cabin instead.
As you climb the steps to enter the cabin the gun turret is almost in front of you. It just begs investigation, but more on that later.
As you enter, the most immediate accessories are the first two of four compasses — well, four that I have discovered so far anyway. Bill advises there are actually six compasses, so I’m looking forward to hunting down the last two.
There is a gonophone (don’t ask!), a pair of engine crank handles, an Aldis lamp, a couple of flame floats, some sea dye marker … it is like a flying museum.
The wireless operator’s station is the first stop on the left en route to the cockpit and has all manner of black boxes, including a Master Oscillator (can’t wait to get checked out on that) and a large Morse key. To get to the cockpit you have to step over the rear and main spars — both of which look big enough for a Lancaster — which carry through the cabin.
Sandwiched between these spars are the navigator’s station on the left and an electrical panel on the wall on the right. This panel includes the GROUND/FLIGHT switch — effectively a master switch — that wouldn’t look out of place on a locomotive.
There is a lot more interesting stuff to fiddle with and look at in the cabin, but since this article is supposed to be about Flying the Anson I’ll move on.
Almost reluctantly I get to the cockpit, where there is a lot of more mundane stuff that I can easily recognise.
Not all of it is familiar, though. Sitting in the left seat, there is a large cocking handle beside your left knee for the fixed Vickers machine gun, complete with curved ammo feed belt. The central throttle quadrant has an extra lever — a single mixture lever that controls both engines. Like most mixture controls of that era, it works in the wrong sense. Forward is for WEAK mixture; halfway back is RICH, and all the way back is TAKEOFF, which is “very rich”. This selection also activates a boost override, allowing full power to be obtained.
Ergonomically the cockpit is pretty good as most of the engine instruments are stacked neatly above the central throttle quadrant. But the ones you want most — the RPM gauges — are located as far away as possible on the left side of the panel. Also, they have a ladder style vertical tape display which takes a bit of getting used to. And the magneto switches for some reason are located at the top of the central windscreen.
The undercarriage selector is a telescopic tube with a knurled top mounted on the floor to the right of the left seat. Easy to reach but it involves looking down and to the rear at a time when you would rather be looking out the front.
Starting the engines is a team effort as they have to be manually primed with a Ki-Gass primer in the left side of each nacelle. This works best if the props are pulled through at the same time. Then the throttle is set to about 1in open and the booster coil switched on.
With your left hand, press the starter button on the left side console, which turns the prop and activates the booster coil. Keep your right hand on the mag switches at the top of the windscreen, ready to flick them ON as soon as the engine fires. And keep your third hand on the throttle, ready to catch the engine when it fires and bring it up to a smooth idle at 1000rpm once the oil pressure has come up.
The previous owner apparently told Bill that “if you can taxi it, you won’t have any problem flying it …” Having now done both, I can see where he was coming from.
The tailwheel is castoring, and steering is achieved by differential pneumatic braking. Squeeze the brake lever on the control column yoke with the rudder centralised, and you get equal braking to both wheels. As you deflect the rudder to the left (or right), however, more brake pressure is fed to the left (or right) wheel, and this is how the aircraft is steered.
Asymmetric power is also available, but it is not very precise. What seems to work best is to get it up to a reasonable speed and apply full rudder to turn in the desired direction. If you don’t get the change in direction you want — and almost invariably you won’t — then a short jab on the brake lever with the rudder still fully deflected will get it turning.
Unfortunately you will need another short jab, or jabs, in the opposite direction to subsequently stop the turn. Releasing the brake lever after each jab results in a loud hiss of escaping air.
Having zigzagged our way to the holding point, the run-up and pre-takeoff checks are routine. The only difference from the norm is the selection of TAKEOFF with the mixture control. For the first flight it was comforting to have Bill in the other seat as he has a better understanding of, and empathy for, the Anson than just about anyone. It also seemed very appropriate to have The Creator of this project participating on this special occasion.
Lining up on the runway, a review of “what might happen next” is in order. In particular, defining as clearly as possible at what point it might be too late to stop the takeoff should an engine fail or some other calamity occur. Also, consideration of how to deal with potential out of trim or (lack of) stability issues — especially in pitch.
Then … throttles cautiously open to the stops, giving +4lb boost (equal to 38in of manifold pressure), approximately 2100rpm, and a satisfying roar from each of the 410hp engines. There is little tendency to swing, and the tail begins to lift at around 20kt — not surprising with that huge tailplane. The rest of the aeroplane seems very reluctant to stay on the ground past 50–55kt, so shortly thereafter it too is allowed to rise, and when the remaining runway ahead is too short to be of any further use the gear is retracted.
The first few moments after lift off on a first flight are always interesting as you can never be certain how the aeroplane will behave. Clearly Bill and his team have done an excellent job as the Anson’s handling was ideal throughout.
Accelerating to a best climb speed of 87kt, the mixture lever is then moved from the TAKEOFF detent forwards to the RICH detent, which brings the boost down to a climb setting of +2¼lb boost (35in MP), without moving the throttles.
The Anson requires very little trimming over its normal speed range and is responsive with a pleasant control harmony. The field of view is very good with the large acreage of windows on the aircraft including the cockpit roof, and the cockpit itself is roomy with comfortable seats, all of which makes flying the aircraft a very agreeable experience.
Synchronising the engines is a little more labour intensive than usual since the props are fixed pitch. At –1lb (28in) of boost and below, it is permissible to move the mixture lever fully forward to the WEAK detent. This produces no change in boost or rpm, but drops fuel consumption by about 25 percent to around 28gal/hr, giving a cruising speed of 115kt. The Anson carries 140gal of fuel in four 35gal tanks, giving a safe endurance of around 4½hr and a range of a little over 500nm.
Manoeuvring is predictable. Steep turns require a fair bit of back pressure to keep the nose on the horizon, but the view is excellent, especially with the clear vision roof. Stalls are benign and occur below 50kt in both clean and landing configuration.
Simulated engine inoperative handling is also straightforward, although the inability to feather a propeller in the event of engine failure would be a significant handicap.
The cabin is quite spacious and access to the navigator’s and wireless operator’s stations is easy. Access to the gun turret is a little more difficult and is achieved by opening the cabin rear bulkhead access door, rotating the turret through approximately 90deg to move the bicycle seat out of the way and then crawling up into it. Once there, sitting on the bike seat, it is draughty and cold, but the view is excellent.
Of course, if that view happened to include a Messerschmitt it wouldn’t seem quite so excellent, and the thought of being cooped up in that tiny space with the drum fed Lewis popgun and taking on any sort of fighter attacking from behind is appalling.
On one of the test flights Air Gunner Perrett went back into the turret and took some video of the wind driven gun sight correction mechanism mounted on the end of the Lewis gun barrel. Its behaviour was very interesting … if you have the opportunity to see the Anson close up take a look at it, and if you can figure out what its designer had in mind when he created it please let me know.
With its large wing and comparatively light weight (the wing loading is very similar to that of a de Havilland Rapide) the Anson seems reluctant to descend at normal operating speeds even with low power. However, pushing the speed up above 130kt into a higher drag situation brings it down with a reasonable boost setting to keep the engines warm.
As with the Rapide, though, even in the landing configuration it seems to require a very flat final approach angle to avoid a glide approach. After crossing the fence at 60kt, wheel landings (main gear first) are straightforward … touch wood … and since the tail refuses to stop flying until around 30–20kt, the tailwheel touchdown is usually imperceptible. Any tendency to swing is easily countered with rudder and, if need be, short jabs of brake.
Post landing ventilation is good — simply slide the large side window(s) adjacent to the cockpit seat(s) rearward.
Shutdown is achieved by idling both engines and pulling the red toggle sticking out of the centre of the instrument panel. It is connected to a cord which, when pulled, closes the engine idling jets, thereby shutting them down. If you keep either engine running at or above 1600rpm, pulling the toggle will not stop it.
The Anson is a very comfortable and pleasant aircraft to fly, and I would have been happy to go to war in it as long as no one was shooting back at me. Having said that, with its two machine guns and two 100lb plus four 20lb bomb capability, it would make a huge improvement to the RNZAF’s current somewhat modest offensive capability.
Perhaps this is an avenue to be pursued in the future?
Finally, I would just like to thank Bill and Robyn and their team firstly for resuscitating this magnificent artefact and allowing all of us a glimpse of aviation circa 1934, and secondly for the wonderful opportunity of being able to fly it
- Report by David Phillips, photographs by John King
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