Saturday 25 January 2014

First World War fighter plane restored at air museum

First World War fighter plane restored at air museum

Here now is one of the first of many posts that are destined to appear on this blog in the next 12-48 months as the commemorations for the centenary of the First World War start to get underway.  In this instance the story is of a long-forgotten World War One aircraft prototype and one museum's attempt to construct a working replica in time for this year's events.

The Eastchurch Kitten - or to give it its full designation, the Port Victoria P.V.8 Eastchurch Kitten - was borne out of an Admiralty specification created in 1916 for a small, light single-seat fighter designed to fly at high altitude and intercept the Zeppelin airships that were then terrorising the south-east of England.  Two front-runners soon emerged from Royal Naval Air Service stations based in Kent.  One was the brainchild of designer W. H. Sayers, based at the Port Victoria Marine Experimental Aircraft Depot on the Isle of Grain.  The other was the Kitten, designed by the pen of G. H. Millar, located further along the north Kent coast at the RNAS Experimental Flight in Eastchurch. When the commanding officer of the Experimental Flight then took over at the Port Victoria station it was decided that the competing aeroplanes should both be further refined together at Port Victoria, therefore the Eastchurch design was called the P.V.8 Eastchurch Kitten while the other was renamed the P.V.7 Grain Kitten.  Both were of a similar layout to meet the Admiralty requirement for a compact, lightweight interceptor that could be launched from the cramped confines of a Navy destroyer's fo'c'sle.

© IWM (Q 67564) 1917 Port Victoria P.V.8 Eastchurch Kitten

Volunteers restore 100-year-old First World War prototype fighter plane at Yorkshire Air Museum 

The P.V.7 was in fact the first to fly, on the 22nd June 1917, but it was found to be tough to handle and tail-heavy in flight.  The P.V.8 finally took to the air on the 7th September 1917 and although like the Grain Kitten it was hampered with the temperamental 35hp ABC Gnat engine it soon became apparent that - despite being larger and heavier than the P.V.7 - the Eastchurch machine was the more advanced. In the end, however, the Admiralty chose not to pursue the P.V.8 design.  By the time both aircraft were at the test-flight stage the sturdier and better-performing Sopwith Pup and Sopwith Camel had been adapted for higher-altitude work, aircraft carriers were developing apace and the threat of Zeppelin raids had receded.  Neither the P.V.7 or P.V.8 ever flew again; the original Eastchurch Kitten airframe was due to be sent to America for further evaluation but what became of it from that point remains a mystery.

‘Zeppelin zapper’ returns to life

Obviously some plans of the P.V.8's design survived, though, as an attempt to create a replica of the aircraft was made as far back as the 1980s.  Now thanks to the sterling efforts of the volunteers at the Yorkshire Air Museum a remarkably accurate copy of the Eastchurch Kitten is finally nearing completion, with appearances (albeit sadly static) scheduled at both the museum's own displays and also in Leeds town centre later this year.

I'm happy to see so much going on at the museum's preservation hangar and it's splendid to see a project such as this come to successful fruition, with volunteers and aviation design students keeping alive the skills needed to help ensure that an interesting part of First World War aviation history is not forgotten, hopefully inspiring and engaging all those who come to see it at York in the next four years and beyond.

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