Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Man spends £50,000 building himself an exact working replica of the German pilot's Fokker triplane

  • Paul Ford, 52, spent five years on his DIY replica inside an old factory in his in-laws' garden in Cambridgeshire 
  • All 320 Fokker Dr1 Dreideckers have been destroyed or lost, so he had to base it on 1970s U.S. technical drawings
  • Mr Ford is no ordinary enthusiast - he spent 26 years at Cambridge University and entered BBC hit show Robot Wars
  • He narrowly avoided death when he crashed it last year, but rebuilt plane and made sure it passed safety checks
  • 'It was very scary the first time I flew it,' the hobbyist admitted. 'But after the first time they're just so much fun to fly'
A plane-mad engineer has spent five years and £50,000 building a perfect replica of the Red Baron's Fokker triplane - and is still flying it despite coming close to death in a crash.

Paul Ford used his wife's patience, his in-laws' garden and his three children's help to recreate the Fokker Dr1 Dreidecker, a First World War fighter made famous by German pilot Manfred Von Richthofen.

Nicknamed 'The Red Baron' for his penchant for painting his aircraft scarlet, Von Richthofen downed at least 70 allied pilots until his death in aerial combat aged 25 a few months before the war ended in 1918.

The 52-year-old assistant at Derby Aero Club has been obsessed with vintage planes since he became an 11-year-old volunteer at Duxford Airfield in Cambridgeshire, now home to the Imperial War Museum.

The triplane is his crowning achievement and his full-time career - delighting air show crowds across Britain in mock dogfights with a vintage Tiger Moth.

'It is the ultimate plane from the First World War,' he said. 'My wife, Sarah didn't believe I'd do it until one day when the metal and the wood arrived at the front door.'

His madcap project took 3,500 hours and began 15 years ago, when he built a radio-controlled quarter-size model of the Red Baron's scarlet craft.

'I wasn't satisfied', he said. 'I had to have the real thing'.

So to the bemusement of his 50-year-old wife, he bought a book called How to Build a WW1 Replica AND Stay Married! and began work on the Fokker in his in-laws' garden in the village of Cottenham, Cambridgeshire.

'Ironically my wife had time to read it but I didn't,' he said. 'I was too busy working on the plane'.

Mr Ford added: 'I was very lucky. Sarah's parents lived in a very old Victorian house and in the garden there was an old basket-waving factory from the 1800s so we used that. Most of it was built in there'.

The challenge was not easy. All 320 Fokker Dr1 Dreideckers have been destroyed or lost, and many surviving photos were grainy at best.
If there had been a fire I wouldn't be here.

So Mr Ford, from Egginton, South Derbyshire, used technical drawings created in the 1970s by aviation fanatic Ron Sands, a U.S. engineer who drew up detailed plans for many wartime planes.

It meant converting many imperial measurements into metric ones and hand-making the parts, but without the drawings the plane would never have been cleared to fly by the Light Aircraft Association.

With the help of friends and Mr Ford's three children - Ashley, 25, Kirsty, 20, and Michael, 17- the Fokker had its first test flight six years ago and built up a reputation at air shows, where it flies replica dogfights with an original Tiger Moth.

But a year ago, Mr Ford crashed the plane on the grass runway of Podington Airfield in Northamptonshire - narrowly avoiding death.

'I had a little accident', he admitted.

'The trouble with First World War planes is they have to be landed into the wind. Unfortunately a gust of wind caught me sideways, the wing clipped a gate and I landed on my back.

To this day, the only part of the plane which wouldn't have been the same in 1918 is the engine. Instead of a rotary engine it is a U.S.-made Lycoming which allows him to fly for up to four hours.

To complete the look there is a dummy engine - little more than three old fire extinguishers painted silver - and machine guns on the nose, unarmed of course.

Mr Ford is no ordinary hobbyist.

He spent 26 years developing gas turbines in Cambridge University's engineering department - despite not having a degree.

With talented colleagues there he made Mortis, one of the most famous, fearsome and expensive entrants ever to the BBC's hit show Robot Wars.

He then quit to run his own company which worked on military jet engines, where he spent ten years.

Unlike similar lookalikes which modified an existing plane, the Fokker was completely built from scratch.

'There are a few other planes that are quite similar to this one but the Fokker just stood out to me,' Mr Ford said. 'It can be a little unstable when flying it but that's what makes it so special.

'It's actually unstable on purpose because it means when it's in the air it can get out of the way very, very quickly and back on your opponent's tail in a dog-fighting situation.

'It was very scary the first time I flew it. Having built it myself I was a little bit nervous - you always are. But after the first time they're just so much fun to fly.'

The Red Baron's is not the first plane Paul has built. He is currently working on two other projects inspired by German First World War planes which he hopes to have finished by next year. Once they are completed, he intends to begin work on a British plane.

Paul, who thanked several devoted friends and family members including his wife for their help, said: 'They cost around £50,000 to make, but they're worth a lot more. The tri-plane is worth around £180,000, but I won't sell any of them.

'They're a lot of fun, and they'll keep me busy when I retire.'

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