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Historical Stuff

Bill Wilkman  | Published on Saturday, April 1, 2017

 

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Ron Davies, intrepid and unofficial leader of the Inland Empire, Southern California contingent of the Austin Healey Association, has arranged for his gaggle of Healey enthusiasts to meet at the Riverside Air Show scheduled to take place at Riverside Municipal Airport on the first of April. There vintage airplanes, including war planes from World Wars I and II will share the tarmac with a variety of vintage cars, including our Austin Healeys. No big deal, you say? Maybe not, but it gave me a brilliant idea for April’s Historical Stuff column.

 

Did you know that when Austin and Healey tied the knot in 1952 that Donald Healey was joining forces with a former aircraft company? Nope, it’s not an April Fools joke; it’s a true fact. Yes, while little known, the Austin Motor Company, maker of all manner of land vehicles from tiny Austin Seven cars to giant Austin Loadstar trucks, once had an airplane component, known as the Austin Aero Division. The advertisement in the accompanying photo proves this fact.

 

It all started in 1917. Already a well established motor vehicle maker, Herbert Austin, old man of the Austin Motor Company, set up an aircraft design department to produce a range of light airplanes for World War I. His first effort resulted in the completion of a prototype aircraft designated the AFB -1. (Photo) The designation AFB came from the initials of flying ace Albert F. Ball, whose ideas inspired some of the design aspects of the plane.

 

Designed by C.F. Brooks and with a wooden frame and fabric covering, the prototype was powered by a 200 horsepower Hispano-Suiza V8 liquid-cooled engine. An important feature of the plane was a machine-gun that would fire through the centre of the propeller shaft. AFB-1 flew for the first time in July of 1917. Capable of 138 miles per hour, the little

fighter could fly as high as 22,000 feet.

 

Unfortunately, while a valuable learning tool for the engineers of the Austin Motor Company, the little plane did not make it into production.

 

Also designed in 1917 was the Austin Osprey, (Photo) created to compete with the Sopwith Snipe. Like the AFB-1 the Osprey had a fabric covered wooden frame. Powered by a 320 horsepower Bentley nine cylinder rotary engine, it featured three pairs of identically designed wings that could be interchanged as needed. Armament consisted of two fixed 7.7mm Vickers machine guns synchronized to fire between propeller rotations and one Lewis gun of similar caliber, mounted so as to fire upwards over the top wings. The Osprey prototype was first flown in February of 1918 and was abandoned soon thereafter, due to lackluster performance that proved inferior to that of the Snipe.

 

The next Austin airplane to take to the skies was designated the Greyhound. (Photo) Designed by John Kenworthy, it was a 130 mph tandem two-seat fighter-reconnaissance aircraft powered by a 320 horsepower Dragonfly nine cylinder radial engine. Fitted with two synchronized 7.7mm Vickers guns and a single 7.7mm Lewis gun, the plane never saw action, as the first prototype was not completed until after the Armistice of 1918. Nonetheless, flight testing was undertaken in May of 1919 with three prototypes built and flown. However, with the war having ended, the prototypes became the end of the line.

 

With World War I in the rearview mirror, Austin diverted its Aero Division to the development of airplanes for the private market. First off the drawing board was the Whippet, (Photo) another John Kenworthy design. A single seat biplane with open cockpit behind the wings, it first flew in 1919. A unique feature of the plane was its fold-

back wings (Photo) that made it possible to house the aircraft in a small shed measuring just l8 feet long, 8 feet high, and 8 feet wide. The fuselage of this airplane was made of steel tubing, while the structure of its wings was made of wood. As displayed at the 1919 Aero Show, the prototype was fitted with a 2-cylinder horizontally opposed

engine. For the production version, this engine was swapped out for a 45 horsepower Anzani six-cylinder air-cooled radial engine equipped with a two blade propeller. Capable of a top speed of 95 mph and a cruising speed of 80 mph, the versatile plane could land at only 30 mph, thus making it possible to do a complete landing in only 450 feet. First shown to the public in July of 1920, only five planes were produced due to the craft’s steep price and the lack of a market for private aircraft.

 

Another John Kenworthy design was the Kestrel. (Photo) A two seat biplane, the initial experimental prototype was completed in early 1919. With a steel tubing fuselage, the plane’s wings were designed to fold up, thus making it possible to store it in a relatively small building. Power was from a 160 horsepower Beardmore engine. In an effort to stimulate interest among manufacturers, the British Air Ministry, organized an Air Trial at Martlesham airfield near lpswich in August of 1920. Motivated by total prize moneys of £641,000, Austin entered the Kestrel in the competition. In the end, the Kestrel took third place, winning £1,500. Unfortunately, private orders were not forthcoming and consequently Herbert Austin destroyed the prototype and exited the aircraft industry to concentrate on motor vehicles.

 

Overall, then, while Austin made a gallant effort to produce aircraft, it was not successful in the development of an airplane that could be put into volume production. Nonetheless, during both World Wars I and II, it did produce under license, planes designed by other manufacturers. World War I planes produced by Austin included the Bristol F2B, RAF SE 5, RAF SE 5A, and the RAF RE7. World War II planes produced by Austin included the FAIREY BATTLE, HURRICANE, Shorts Stirling, and the Avro Lancaster.