History takes flight

It’s before dawn on April 25 and three men are wheeling a 1917 World War One fighter plane out of its hangar at Serpentine Airfield, 55km southeast of Perth. This is a difficult task at the best of times, but with the sun not yet up it’s even more challenging.

It takes two men to turn the propeller 180 degrees and start the engine. Maintenance engineer Robert Felton does a couple of final checks before the pilot, Bert Filippi, carefully climbs into the tiny plane, accelerates along the grass runway and takes off into the darkness.

Because the aircraft has no radio, an escort plane flown by Filippi’s friend Werner Buhlmann was supposed to follow him to the destination. But once Filippi is in the air, trouble strikes. He can’t see anything. The two planes have lost each other in the blackness.

Filippi and Felton wheel the aeroplane out.

Filippi and Felton wheel the Pup out to the runway at Serpentine Airfield.

Somehow Filippi eventually finds the tiger moth chase plane hovering over Kwinana, about 38km south of Perth, just as the sun begins to rise.

Filippi and Buhlmann arrive at their destination over Perth’s Kings Park War Memorial at 7am. As they move through the air, they watch as thousands of people below tilt their heads to the sky at the loud roaring engines.

When he lands back at Serpentine Airfield, Filippi collapses in a heap of exhaustion. This plane, he says, is the most difficult he has ever flown.

Nearly one year on, Filippi reflects on his 2014 Anzac Day flight.

He begins to talk about the young World War One soldiers who flew these planes 100 years ago.

“In World War One they would climb to 20,000ft in the middle of winter and the temperature would be minus 20 degrees,” Filippi says.

“And they would stay there for an hour, just hoping to see the enemy, and pounce, shoot, kill.

“They did that every single day, and I was exhausted after that flight over the memorial.”

Filippi has been collecting vintage aircraft for years, but describes himself as an “amateur” pilot because he has never flown professionally.

“I only do it for the fun,” he says.

“It’s always been a hobby and not a profession.

“If it were work, it wouldn’t be fun.”

He says naming one of his nine vintage aeroplanes a favourite would be akin to naming one of his children a favourite.

“You would never admit it – but of course you do have one,” Filippi smiles.

“I’m afraid the other [planes] will be jealous if I admit to it.”

But if you had to pick one?

“Probably the Pup,” he says.

Felton says he feels privileged to work on a 1917 aircraft.

Felton says it’s a privilege to work on a 1917 aircraft.

The Sopwith Pup, which Filippi flew over the Anzac Day centenary dawn service last year, holds a special place in aviation history. According to Filippi, this plane “changed the face of the war”.

Royal Australian Air Force Museum director David Gardner says Australian soldiers used Sopwith Pups to train and fight during World War One.

“[Australia] used Sopwith Pups in England in the first world war as a trainer. The Royal Naval Air Service used Pups as well. For the Australians, it was one of the best training aircraft we had and we used them quite considerably in three of our four training squadrons in the UK,” he says.

“Australians that couldn’t join the Australian Flying Corps went to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps. They then flew Sopwith Pups in battles on the western front against the Germans.”

Gardner says during World War One many Australian pilots went into battle with fewer than 10 hours flying experience.

“Some would go solo after 2½ hours,” he says.

“After a couple of hours they would be told: ‘You can handle it, you took her off okay, great – off you go, we have a battle to fight’. That’s the way it was.”

Gardner says after British company Sopwith Aviation made the Sopwith Pup they created the Sopwith Camel, which became a pivotal fighter plane used by English and American forces in the war.

Filippi says before the Sopwith Pup and Camel aeroplanes, the Royal Flying Corps did not stand a chance against their enemy.

“It was Bloody April [of World War One], during the Fokker scourge,” Filippi says.

“The Fokker aircraft was made by a Dutch engineer who built the most beautiful, most powerful aeroplane for the Germans. These aeroplanes were so much better than the British ones and the Brits were being decimated. In fact, at one stage, every two weeks the Royal Flying Corps would lose one third of its air force – both pilots and aeroplanes.

“Then Sopwith built these agile little aeroplanes [the Pup and Camel] and all of a sudden, the Fokkers had a fight on their hands. Those Sopwith aeroplanes made the difference. I think the turning point of that war started in the air.”

The Sopwith Pup is Filippi's favourite aeroplane.

The Sopwith Pup is Filippi’s favourite aeroplane.

According to Gardner, Filippi’s Sopwith Pup is one of just three replicas in Australia, but it’s the only one with fully original parts, including a rotary engine. The RAAF Museum has a replica and there is another one privately owned in Victoria, but both have modern radial engines.

Filippi says his Sopwith Pup is the result of a 20 year project by a retired US air force colonel, Harold Shultz, who decided to build a replica with original 1917 parts.

“[Shultz] would get up at 7 o’clock in the morning and stay up until 7 o’clock each night, seven days a week. And he managed to get the best components – everything original,” Filippi says.

“Then he met World War One pilot Norman Arthur Dimmock.”

Filippi says Dimmock had one kill during World War One, in the Sopwith Pup. After that kill another pilot flew the plane and crashed it. But Dimmock collected the joystick and the windshield out of the aeroplane and later donated them to Shultz’s project.

“So everything is original of that era. The turnbuckle, the wires, the machine guns, the engine and the fabric, which is painted with a silk hand brush. Everything has been built exactly as it would have been in 1917,” Filippi says.

“After 20 years working on the Pup, Shultz contracted macular degeneration and could not finish the project. But he wanted to make sure the project would be finished.

“[Schultz] asked me three questions. One: ‘Are you doing it as a business?’ And I said no. Two: ‘Will you fly it?’ I said of course. And lastly, he asked: ‘How much do you weigh?’ And I lied. I lied because I knew that a World War One pilot had to be 11 stones or less because they had to carry a lot of bullets. So, at that stage I must have been about 87 kilos. But by the time I picked up the project, I was down to 72 kilos.

“[Shultz] was looking for someone who would really look after the plane. And we have done honour to it.”

The nickname "Normie" is in memory of Arthur Norman Dimmock.

Filippi nicknamed the plane “Normie” in honour of Arthur Norman Dimmock.

This Anzac Day, Filippi and Buhlmann will again fly over the Kings Park dawn service to commemorate the centenary of the Anzacs.

“To have a World War One aeroplane up there on Anzac Day – that’s special,” Filippi says.

“But the reason we want to do it is not because we want to celebrate war. The reason why I collect these old aeroplanes is not to celebrate wars. I am celebrating the courage of those young men. And the aircraft that taught those pilots how to survive combat.”

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