First World War replica bi-plane built by volunteers in East Lothian over 23 years to star in new documentary
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A replica First World War bi-plane which a group of retired volunteers began building from scratch 23 years ago is finished and ready to fly.
And now a Bafta-nominated film director is to make a documentary telling the story of the magnificent East Lothian men and their flying machine – and their new connection with Ellie Carter, who at 16 was Britain's youngest female pilot to qualify.
Now 20, Ellie will be the first woman to pilot the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter – which the volunteers have named Sophie – honouring the women who originally built Strutters at the East Fortune airfield in East Lothian during the First World War while the men were away fighting.
The documentary, to be called Ellie and the Time Machine, is being made by film director Alex McCall, best known for The Boy David, telling the story of a Peruvian boy with severe facial deformity who was abandoned as an infant and adopted by a Scottish plastic surgeon who restored his features.
But the group needs to raise £22,300 by December 1 to ensure the documentary goes ahead. And they have launched a Kickstarter crowdfunder appeal where people can pledge support, with the project only receiving funding if it reaches the target.
The volunteers began building the plane in 2000 at the Museum of Flight at East Fortune, though they later had to move to a large farm shed near North Berwick. Their project was not to build a replica for display – it was to be a fully-functioning aircraft able to fly. Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutters were built in 1915, so trying to construct one from scratch 100 years later meant a lot of research and making many of the components themselves.
The volunteers – a group of retired men which included engineers, teachers, a surgeon and many more – came together to work on the plane once or twice a week.
Mike Harper, chair of the Aviation Preservation Society of Scotland (APSS), which is behind the project, said: "It's like a Men's Shed on steroids – a group of guys who are retired with a lot of knowledge and experience and wanted to get involved in this. Now the plane is completed, it's ready – we've got the paperwork into the Light Aircraft Association and we're just waiting for them to come back to us and say it's all fine and we have clearance to do our first flight."
But Mr Harper said they were reserving their excitement until take-off. “It's a real milestone to have it finished. We're delighted with the aircraft, but one of my colleagues described it as 'excitement fatigue' because we have been near it so many times and then there are little snags that have to be taken care of – we had to go and find a new propeller, which set us back six months – but that happens with every build. Once the members are standing on that airfield and watching this aircraft take off for the first time, that's when it really is going to hit home."
And not all those who have helped to build the plane will see it fly – but they will not be forgotten. "Having started 23 years ago with retired guys, there are a lot who are no longer with us who have contributed to the build, so there will be a plaque with their names on it in the back cockpit as she takes off for the first time."
Strutters were seen as too stable to be effective in dogfights with enemy aircraft, but were good for long-range reconnaissance and were also the first planes ever to land on a moving ship at sea, paving the way for modern aircraft carriers.
Ellie, who first heard about the men’s project on social media, is already excited about the prospect of flying the plane. She has been interested in planes from an early age, allegedly being fascinated by pictures of aircraft before she could read. She got her pilot’s licence on her 17th birthday and is now studying aeronautics and astronautics at Southampton University.
She has flown some Second World War planes, but not any First World War ones. "I can’t wait,” she said. “Warbirds are my dream – I’ve always wanted to fly them, the older the better – so I think it’ll be brilliant.”
And although the Strutter is finished, the volunteers have already started work on their next project – building a Sopwith Pup. “It won’t take nearly so long,” said Mike Harper. “The Pup looks similar to the aircraft we've just built, but it's smaller. When you have to do a job for the first time it takes ten times longer, but once you understand what you're doing you can crack on.”
The APSS is hoping to buy the shed or “hangar” where they have built the Strutter and make it a permanent base for the two planes. “People would be able to see a finished article and one we're working on,” said Mr Harper. “We rent it at the moment, but the owner wants to sell, so we have six months to find £100,000 to buy it.”
And he said the group also had important links beyond the airfield. "We're actively engaged with the local community through schools and colleges on STEM subjects, we're partnered with Leonardo at Crewe Toll in promoting these subjects and we've been working for the last couple of months with Edinburgh College on a design project they're doing.”
They hope the documentary will be screened on TV and boost their profile, allowing them to continue their work. “If we had the building we'd be able to go from strength.”