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de Havilland DHC-1 Chipmunk

In this guest article, published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the first flight of the “Chippy”, Head of Communications for 2Excel, former journalist and accomplished private pilot, Ben Griffiths, takes a look at why the Chipmunk has captured the hearts of so many. Words and images provided by Ben Griffiths.

For many pilots, their first aircraft is the one they fall in love with. That didn’t happen for me with the PA28 I was learning on. The school fleet was strangely unsatisfying to fly and quite limited in terms of availability and the booking system once qualified.

So, having completed my PPL at a grass airfield near my home, I soon ventured further afield and found myself the Scottish Aviation Bulldogs and Beagle Pups based at North Weald. This felt much more like the flying I’d read about in Second World War pilot memoirs. The aircraft had a proper stick and, in the case of the Bulldog, a bubble canopy with fabulous visibility. However, I’ll forever be thankful to the person who introduced me to a pal of theirs who subsequently invited me to have a day out flying in the back seat of her shared Chipmunk.

I knew as soon as I settled into that aircraft for the first time that THIS was the kind of flying I had been searching for. We flew to three airfields on that glorious summer’s day and, helping to wipe down the oil afterwards, I was in awe of what I’d just experienced. It cemented a new determination. For me, it had to be taildraggers. And it had to be the Chipmunk.

The group had a share going and soon I was a signed up member. I spent more than 100 happy hours flying around in that aeroplane. It was the best ice-breaker I’ve ever known. Working in the aerospace sector meant I was regularly rubbing shoulders with senior people from military and industry, many of whom had their first flight experiences in the Chipmunk as air cadets. Previously inaccessible opportunities suddenly opened up – would I like to fly our aircraft into the Royal International Air Tattoo? You bet. Another year we took the Chipmunk into Fairford as a static display of four to mark the type’s 70th anniversary. I also flew her into Cosford for the RAF’s Centenary celebrations – alongside a Tornado F3. Everywhere I went with the aeroplane, people wanted to talk about their memories of flying it.

I love taking friends and family for a ride. Every single person seems to enjoy themselves and understands why I was so smitten. She is a delight to fly, packed with vintage charm and the quirks and foibles make the experience even more enjoyable.

One PPL friend who came for a joyride found himself bitten with the same bug. He quickly found another Chipmunk for sale and persuaded me to join him in forming a smaller group. We are now the proud co-owners of an ex-Army Air Corps example that was built in 1950 and displayed at Farnborough that same year before going on to an RAF career like many other Chipmunks with various air experience flights, University Air Squadrons and then finally to Middle Wallop to train a new generation of ab initio army aviators.

When demobbed, she was acquired by a former British Airways Concorde and display pilot, who owned her for almost a quarter of a century. We are now proud to be the custodians of this fantastic flying machine, which is based at Old Warden among a stable that includes several others of the same type. Formation flying is now a fun activity as well as meeting up with fellow owners and pilots at various fly-ins.

So, what’s the Chipmunk like to fly? Our aircraft Golf-Oscar is what’s often referred to as a good 50-yarder. She looks magnificent while walking across the apron but is a bit tatty when you get closer. Vintage enthusiasts tell me that it’s called ‘patina’ and some people like it more than others. There’s no doubt this is a working aeroplane, not a spotless museum exhibit. 

I always start by checking the fluids when I first arrive at the hangar. Do we have fuel and oil sufficient for the flight I’m planning to make? I always like to fly with full tanks and plan on never flying for more than two hours at the absolute most, which would give plenty of reserve unless you’re doing something with lots of power changes like formation or aerobatics – but these tend to be much shorter duration anyway.

Next slide back the canopy – checking first that the seatbelts or anything else aren’t going to obstruct the runners. Always check both magnetos are off in the front and rear cockpits and I check that fuel is off at this stage as well as the ground/flight switch in the ‘ground’ position i.e. the battery is off. Have a general look around for anything amiss. I always tend to let out the harnesses to their full extent at this stage. I’m tall so it’s easier to set them longer than needed before climbing in and fumbling around.

Next, I go and open both sides of the engine bay and take my time to have a nose around and look properly at everything. Hoses all attached and in good condition? Turn the oil filter scrubber – hard to do without scraping your knuckles so we have a little tool to help. Drain some fuel to check condition and the rest of the walk around is fairly standard for a light aircraft, checking for visitors in the air intakes and pitot head, condition of tyres and airframe etc. There isn’t much to look at, but I like to take my time and it’s a familiar process which helps me get my head into pilot mode.

Having locked up the hangar and got myself and any passengers ready to go flying with a proper brief, a final check of NOTAMs and the weather etc, it is time to start her up. The priming procedure is a little odd but comes naturally once you’ve been flying this aeroplane for a while. Firstly, double check the mags are still in the off position in both cockpits. Apply the brake fully and turn the fuel cock to ‘on’, ensuring the throttle is closed.

You jiggle a little lever in the port engine bay up and down to introduce fuel to the engine at the same time as pulling a ring to open the inlet valve. Once fuel starts to dribble out of a pipe sticking out the bottom of the engine bay – if you’re ready for this it need not soak your boots – you can stop jiggling and release the ring pull. At this point I close the engine bay cover and then pull the prop through for six blades. There is constant debate about how many blades are required. I’ve found this depends entirely on which aircraft you’re flying, how warm the outside air temperature is and what day of the week it is…

You should now consider the prop to be ‘live’, so don’t touch it again. Walking up the wing root to strap in and it’s time to settle into your seat, inhaling the famous Chipmunk aroma of oil, leather and fuel (some say theirs also has a tinge of ancient air cadet vomit!). 

Mags on in front and rear cockpits – it helps if you have a passenger otherwise don’t forget to flip the rear switches up before you strap into the front seat. Every Chipmunk pilot has done this at least once a season, which requires some unstrapping and reaching back to an awkward position for the rear switches.

Starter switch goes on, throttle is cracked open and a check made to ensure brakes are applied then depress the starter switch. Nearly all Chipmunks now have an electric starter. In the early days they were all cartridge started.

You should find the engine fires after one or two blades, so set 1,100rpm and watch your temperature and pressure gauges. All starting to move and everything looking normal? Turn the starter switch to off and prepare yourself to taxi when ready.

I tend here to roll forward and check the brakes are working OK before taxiing out onto the maneuvering area for power and pre-departure checks. Old Warden is often unmanned so we make blind traffic calls when around the airfield.

Once ready to go and lined up, advance the throttle to full power and ease the stick forward as the speed builds. This gives you more rudder authority. There is no magic to flying taildraggers. Use the pedals to keep the aircraft tracking straight with some into wind aileron to counter any crosswind. The aircraft tends to want to fly at about 55 knots – usually once it hits a slight bump in the runway. Allow the speed to climb before pulling back the stick and climbing away at 65 knots with takeoff flap down. At 300 feet I retract the flap and look to begin the crosswind turn at 500 feet.

Flying solo the aircraft climbs fairly well. With a second person onboard it is more sluggish, given the Gipsy Major is just 145hp. My favourite time to fly the Chipmunk is a summer’s afternoon and just to delight in some general handling, some wingovers or gentle aerobatics and to drop in on friends at another grass strip. Despite being very near, Duxford is also a regular haunt or venturing further afield to Goodwood. The magic of arriving at a historic airfield in a vintage taildragger can’t be beaten and there’ll always be someone who wants to talk about their memories of flying this machine.

The Chipmunk is often described as among the nicest handling of light aircraft, so beautifully harmonised are the controls. It’s not fingertip sensitive like an Extra but it does reward a cultured yet firm hand. Of all the half dozen Chipmunks I’ve flown, GO feels lighter, probably due to the thin layers of paint on her fabric and since the last annual the control cable tensions were tweaked to perfection so you have a sense that she goes exactly where your brain transmits you want to be. It is truly effortless flying.

 On returning to base things are more serious. This is after all a taildragger and needs to be respected throughout the approach and landing and, to use the old adage, the flight is not over until the Chipmunk is safely away in the hangar. Having said that, it isn’t an experience to be afraid of. Simply exercise good speed control – downwind I reduce speed to 70kts, deploy first stage of flaps and trim for a gentle descent around base leg, easing back to 65kts on final as full flap is deployed. At Old Warden I’m typically 55-60kts over the fence and a nice three-pointer is satisfying to achieve. A crosswind focuses the mind somewhat more but is easily controlled with a bit of into wind aileron and liberal use of the rudder. Find yourself too high on final – simple sideslip to bleed height. The Chipmunk handles delightfully with crossed controls. I’m still perfecting my wheeler landings.

The more I fly the little de Havilland Chipmunk, the more I love it. It’s a gentle introduction to the world of flying warbirds but also fulfilling in its own right. It’s become a cliché, but the Chipmunk really is easy to fly but difficult to fly well. That makes it all the more rewarding, which so far has offset the pain of the maintenance bills. Parts are increasingly difficult to find and the aircraft is labour intensive. But when you’re airborne and the engine is purring, there’s few finer cockpits.