In late December 1915, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Bunnie Bremner RN joined No. 2 Wing RNAS as a pilot. They were operating from the island of Imbros, off the Gallipoli peninsula. He was freshly qualified from the RNAS training school at Chingford, with less than 30 hours’ flying time in his logbook. He was immediately given the big, lumbering Voisin to fly – a steel-framed two-seater that was slow and cumbersome but very strong.
On only his seventh flight, he was shot down and had to make a forced landing on the Gallipoli peninsula itself – right under the Turkish 6 in. guns. He was told to destroy the machine without setting fire to it – not an easy task, but they didn’t want their position to be given away, particularly on this day, since the final evacuation of the peninsula was nearing completion right under the noses of the Turks.
Bunnie was on the second to last boat away from the peninsula and rejoined the Wing two days later.
A motley collection
No. 2 Wing had a motley collection of aircraft of different sorts and a wide range of tasks to carry out, from gunnery spotting for the Royal Navy ships’ big guns, to observing enemy troop movements, to submarine spotting and bombing, as well as the occasional bit of air-to-air combat.
Bunnie proved himself a very capable pilot, and was keen to try as many different types of aircraft as possible, and flew no fewer than ten different types all told. But his favourite, and the one he flew most, was the little single-seat Bristol Scout, and of all the Scouts, his favourite was 1264.
Bunnie proved himself a very capable pilot, and was keen to try as many different types as possible, and flew no less than ten different types all told. But his favourite, and the one he flew most, was the little single-seat Bristol Scout, and of all the Scouts, his favourite was 1264.
The Bristol Scout was never intended to be armed. It was, as the name suggests, meant for reporting the progress of a battle and getting the information back to military intelligence as fast as possible. But because it was so fast and manoeuvrable, the pilots all wanted to use it to shoot down enemy aircraft instead, and devised different ways of fitting machine guns to it.
The problem was that if you fitted the gun so that it was easy to aim and change ammunition drums, you might shoot your own propeller off. But the RNAS decided to take that risk, mounted a Lewis gun just beside the cockpit and simply wrapped fabric round the propeller to reduce the splintering. They had also fitted a bomb rack just behind the engine, that held four 16lb bombs, and cut a hole in the floor to aim through.
Bunnie flew 1264 in many different missions, protecting the two-seaters while they reported enemy troop movements, bombing a Turkish destroyer in harbour, and one time he engaged in aerial combat with an enemy in the infamous Fokker Eindekker.
Then in May it was decided to set up a new operation on the island of Thassos to attack Bulgaria, which had entered the war on the Axis side. This meant a 90-mile flight across open water mostly out of sight of land. It would take an hour and a half, with an inaccurate compass, no radio and no chance of rescue if he ditched, and an unknown field to land in when he got there. He made it successfully and was the first to land without damaging his machine.
Most of his work there was bombing – of crops and factories, but in August Bunnie became very ill with malaria and dysentery, and had to come home. 1264 was being sent away by ship to Malta for refurbishment at the time, so he took the stick and rudder bar and magneto as mementos.
Unfortunately the ship returning 1264 to Thassos was torpedoed, so the original machine is at the bottom of the Mediterranean.
Discovery and decision
After he died in 1983, Bunnie’s grandchildren, David and Rick, found these parts in his workshop, and in 2002 their friend Theo Willford suggested that they see if it would be possible to rebuild 1264.
They decided to do so only if they could be absolutely sure that it was an exact copy, and it took five years of research before they had enough information to go ahead.
The only other Bristol Scout to have been built since WWI was at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, and that’s where they went first. The Scout is hanging in the roof, and the curator allowed them to take close-up photographs using a cherry picker.
The builder was an American, Leo Opdyke, and he’d taken fifteen years to build it in his basement. It suffered an engine failure on his first flight in 1983, crashing into the trees. David, Rick and Theo contacted Leo, who provided them with some drawings. Many others were supplied by Derek Staha, an enthusiast in Houston, Texas, but the most important single document was a parts list owned by Sir George White, the great-grandson of the founder of the Bristol Aeroplane company that designed and built the Scout.
It took five years to assemble all this information and to be sure that they could rebuild 1264 exactly as she would have been. They didn’t know how they would get hold of an engine, but decided to make a start on the airframe anyway and trust that one would turn up in time.
David, Rick and Theo started building in 2008 and it took a further seven years before it was finished. The Scout is a very small aircraft with a simple but elegant design and they could do most of the work themselves.
Bristol Scout Builders Theo Willford, David Bremner, Rick Bremner
There were some new things to be learned. The cables that brace the structure and operate the controls are made of thin wire, and have to be spliced at each end. It’s a bit like knitting wire, and after splicing 200 of them Theo became a real expert. Each one had to be tested on a rig with a big heavy car battery on a lever.
They spent many weeks at Theo’s house in Dorset building the tail, the wings and then the fuselage. The completed wings were stored behind the settee in Theo’s living room for two years. The room seemed twice the size when they were finally removed!
When the parts were too big to fit in Theo’s workshop they were brought to the airstrip at Milson and put together to make the completed airframe. It looked very beautiful – far too good to cover up with fabric!
Meanwhile the search went on for an engine. 1264 had originally been fitted with a Gnome, but in March 1916 the designers replaced the Gnome with a Le Rhône, which was more powerful. There are no Gnome engines in existence now, but the Le Rhône is not too uncommon. The difficulty is that they very rarely come up for sale. One collector had a dozen of them, in racks, but wouldn’t be prepared to release one.
Eventually, an organisation in New Zealand was persuaded to do a deal. It is called The Vintage Aviator Ltd (TVAL), and was set up by Sir Peter Jackson, producer of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. It builds the most accurate WWI aircraft ever. Every part of every machine is carefully researched down to the tiniest detail, and all of them are airworthy and flown regularly. Because 1264 would be the only airworthy Bristol Scout in the world, and because it was being built to TVAL’s standards of accuracy, it was happy to provide the engine.
David and Theo went to New Zealand to see the engine being test-run, and a few months later it arrived in the UK, together with two completed WWI aircraft being delivered to the UK for another owner.
All aircraft at this time were covered with linen or cotton fabric to which a special paint, called dope, was applied, which made the aircraft airtight and waterproof, and also tightened them up.
The linen has to be sewn into bags, and Theo learned to be an excellent seamster, sewing the bags very accurately using a ‘balloon stitch’, which is doubled over for strength.
The bags were then pulled over the structure and the ends glued in place before the application of a little bit of demineralised water to take the creases out, and painting with dope.
Later on in WWI, aircraft were painted different colours, but 1264, being an early machine, had clear dope applied. This means that every mistake can be clearly seen. In the air it looks very delicate, since the structure inside is visible through the white linen.
The military markings are unusual too. When aircraft first went to war, there were no markings, and ground troops opened fire at all of them, wherever they came from.
So the airmen quickly applied distinguishing marks. The Germans used the black cross. The British used the Union Flag, and the French used their cockade. Unfortunately the Union Flag was easily muddled up with the German cross, so the British used the French cockade instead, and that’s what’s applied to 1264. Only later on in the war did the British decide to reverse the colours of the cockade (with the blue on the outside) to make it into the familiar roundel.
Civilian aircraft normally have to have their registration prominently visible. 1264 has a civilian registration – G-FDHB (Bunnie’s initials) – and special permission had to be sought from the Royal Air Force to use military markings. That permission was obtained, and now the only place the civilian registration can be seen is on a little brass plaque inside the fuselage.
1264 lives in a purpose-built trailer which makes it possible to transport her wherever she’s needed.
Her first public outing was at the Bicester Flywheel event in June 2015, at which she appeared alongside the 1938 Bristol Blenheim bomber: the first and last designs by Frank Barnwell. Sir George White signed the propeller, thus making it a ‘proper’ Bristol machine, and the engine was run to much acclaim.
The following week 1264 was at Milson, where the History Makers team arrived to do their interview, and immediately after that she was on static display at the Shuttleworth Collection near Bedford. The Shuttleworth Collection is the UK’s only museum where aircraft from WWI and before are flown regularly. It was a busy time!
Eventually the list of jobs got fewer and fewer, until at last it was completed, and 1264 was ready for her final inspection, after which a ‘Permit to Test’ was issued so that it could be flown by test pilots to ensure it was safe to fly.
The first flight took place on 9 July 2015 in the hands of Gene De Marco, who had supplied us with the engine and who has more time on WWI aircraft than anybody else in history. (Gene originally hails from New York but is now based in New Zealand as Production Manager and Chief Pilot at Vintage Aviator Ltd. )The weather conditions were perfect – a flat calm summer’s evening with not a cloud in the sky.
To say that it was a nervous moment is something of an understatement. There had been only one flight of a Bristol Scout since WWI and that had ended in a crash. But Gene flew it as if he’d been flying it all his life and made three immaculate flights before darkness fell.
The remainder of the test flying was carried out by Dodge Bailey, the most experienced pilot of WWI aircraft in the UK and a professional test pilot.
On 18 September 2015 Dodge said he was satisfied with 1264’s behaviour in the air, and even asked if she could be made available for her first public display at the Shuttleworth Collection on 4 October.
After that, David and Rick and Theo will be learning to fly her, and in 2016 hope to take her back to Thassos, the Greek island where Bunnie flew 100 years before. They also hope to fly her over the Somme on 1 July 2016, to commemorate Bunnie’s cousin, David, who was killed in that frightful first assault at Beaumont Hamel. If you want to find out more about the project, visit the blog or the Facebook page.