Auster

Some years ago, having left England for my French retirement, I imported an Auster from the UK with a view to displaying her at regional southwest events over the summer months. After several years of displaying in the UK a Nanchang CJ6, a superb radial engine plane that was used by the People’s Republic of China to train their recruits on before going on to fly Mig 15s, I thought it was time to try my hand at a something slow for a change, a plane with robust flying capabilities.

Auster

The Auster’s specialty is low and slow.

This J/1N Auster was a 1946 continuation of the type used during WWII as an artillery spotter, notably during the Italian campaign in 1944. It acquired a great reputation for flying low and hovering above German targets, chasing Panzers hiding amongst farm buildings or in the deepest forests before calling the shots, after which it was time to go back to camp at nightfall, landing on incredibly short strips surrounded by trees. Great fun, I imagined.

Let me tell you what makes this plane so incredibly fun to fly: it is a 900 kg, four seater cabin with a big prop fed by a 130 hp Gipsy Major (of the sort seen on Tiger Moths), its huge flaps when lowered to 40 degrees let you bring the speed down safely to 30 mph (28mph stall) to take off or land—shortly indeed in less than 100 metres. These are numbers that a microlight would struggle to achieve, should they be able to carry four adults.

So, I applied myself to develop a little routine around her flight qualities. J1/Ns are not cleared for aerobatics, so a display concentrating on a series of low passes at “top speed” (90 mph!) would, I thought, only achieve turning the crowd’s attention to their frites. It was therefore obvious that the six to eight minute display would be centred around slow flying. Conscious of the security recommendation I received a long time ago from my mentor, Brendan O’Brien, to never do more than 50% of what you and the plane can achieve, it would go as follows: after a short take off with mid-flaps and a climb at 60 mph, I would turn downwind at 80 mph and present her top and bottom. Then I would turn upwind slowing down, with full flaps, at 40mph and proceed to make a series of tight left and right orbits. I would do the same again while climbing and descending.

If the wind was kind enough, I would do a series of flat turns followed by slow climbing turns. At a good height, I would regain speed and proceed to do a couple of lazy eights and chandelles. Then I would work a series of approaches, as described earlier, touching down and up again with full flaps to impress on the Auster’s ability to climb steeply at 40mph. A very short landing preceded by a falling leaf completed the routine.

Auster on final

Short final is not the time for a wing to drop.

Everything had been rehearsed to satisfy Bob Hoover’s motto: “Know what you can do with your airplane and then, when you’re caught short, you’ll be successful in saving that airplane.” A good thing I always keep in mind. In that first summer, we produced a handful of displays for a public eager to discover a plane they’d never seen before.

During the last display of that first year, this happened: at approximately 300 ft, reaching the end of downwind and getting ready to start the first of my slow orbits to the right, without any warning, the right wing fell abruptly 90 degrees and the nose pitched down, an incipient spin if anything. I had never experienced this with Miss Piggy (her affectionate name) before. The trees at the side of the runway were coming up too fast for my liking. Immediate full application of left rudder fortunately prevented serious aggravation of the situation.

I decided there and then to abort the display and to land at once. I radioed in and, on short finals just before touchdown (still at about 20 ft), the same happened again! Same event, same reaction, and I managed to land safely. Upon cursory examination of the tail plane, elevators, ailerons, struts, and a look at the wings themselves we couldn’t find anything obviously wrong to justify such severe occurrence. In cases like these, one always questions oneself whether the flight was handled properly, but I knew I had done everything as usual.

In fact, during a rehearsal, prior to the display, everything had happened as expected and nothing unusual was noted. As my routine involves operating at or near stall speed, I am particularly sensitive to the plane’s behaviour. I rely on, and rightly receive from Miss Piggy, slight buffets from the controls to warn me of impending loss of flight. When this happens, it is just a case of reducing slightly the angle of bank or of adding a little power to put things back to normal. Everything is gentle, no problem.

I remember discussing this event with friends and colleagues before departure. Some put it down to possible weather or previous traffic occurrence on this dull, drizzly day, with no wind over the trees bordering the runway. Somehow, I doubted this was the reason. During the return flight, I was particularly attentive to any unusual behaviour and we landed at base without further problem. Just in case, I had added 5 mph to my approach speed.

Cockpit

There’s no glass panel to give real-time angle of attack information here.

Very perturbed by this incident, I did further stall tests at altitude. On every occasion, the right wing would drop massively. I no longer recognised Miss Piggy in this violent behaviour and, literally, I was feeling disappointed, if not plain angry, with her as if she had broken the bond we had managed to build together. I had to find out what was wrong with her. Many an engineer had inspected the structure of the plane, the angle of the wings, etc., and I realised that no one had fully investigated all possible causes of the problem.

Having borrowed a stepladder, I wanted to look in detail at the wings themselves. I didn’t have to go far. As I was passing my hand over the leading edge of the right wing, my fingers felt what appeared to be a fine, eight inch wide, slit in the fabric right behind and parallel to the edge. It didn’t take me long to understand what had been happening. As speed neared the stall, the disturbed airflow would lift the fabric and form a pocket and the air would rush inside the wing, thus creating a violent gush and precipitate the stall. The sudden distortion of the fabric had happened at the worst possible place in terms of lift. I had found the culprit. Of course, on a low wing aeroplane, this would have been spotted earlier.

Paradoxically, I felt relieved that my flying was not the cause of the incident. Some will say that a series of cursory pre-flight checks over time was responsible, and I have to admit it. A simple glance at the state of the fabric from the back of the wing is quicker than climbing a stepladder before each flight but would have not spotted the thinning of the fabric. I have learned a lesson from this and now, being tall enough, I do pass my hand over the leading edges before each flight. The slit was promptly covered with duct tape and a further flight confirmed only a benign stall. Things were back to normal. The bond was reformed. The previous owner had assured me that the fabric, not at its best, would last another two years before needing replacement. And how right was he.

Didier Keller
Latest posts by Didier Keller (see all)
12 replies
  1. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Really enjoyed your article. Impressively designed aircraft for that era with its slow flight characteristics.

    Reminds a bit of another source of loss of lift, that being insects. A friend shared in his book, God, Me, and Those Flying Machines, his experience when doing a test flight in a Rutan canard design aircraft. Seems that shortly after takeoff he flew through a swarm of insects and the resulting insect debris dramatically reduced the lifting effectiveness of the canard wing. This resulted in losing lift when reducing any speed. The pilot was able to make a long low level circuit to return for landing which was at somewhere near 150 mph. He later had a discussion with the designer, Burt Rutan, at AirVenture where avoiding rain became a lively topic. Goes to show that not only ice can dramatically reduce lift.

    Reply
    • Didier
      Didier says:

      The excellent flight characteristics are what made me decide to get this plane. They have a very good WW2 record with British artillery in spotting enemy tanks and directing fire during the Italy campaign in particular. In that respect Austers rejoin the triptyque of similar machines, namely the German Fieseler Storch and the famous USSAF J3’s/L4’s. This is no coincidence since Piper Cubs were designed by a C G Taylor ) of Taylorcraft Co, hired by a Mr Piper of the Piper Aircraft Co. until they parted ways. If you happen to see a Taylorcraft B or C, you will see how much they look alike with J2’s and J3’s.

      Reply
  2. Steve
    Steve says:

    Fascinating article! Quite an interesting and hardly known aircraft – and quite an intriguing enigma. Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Alston Beinhorn
    Alston Beinhorn says:

    Thank you for this valuable lesson and most interesting tale. Even newer fabric planes can have surprising punctures. At the recent annual of my Carbon Cub two small punctures at the bottom of the left side of the fuselage were discovered. It’s not an area I normally look at during the pre-flight. My mechanic suggested my dog, who normally flies with me, jumped up and perforated the fabric. But she’s a tall dog and were she to jump up, her nails would have hit much higher on the fuselage. After much thought and observation of many large grasshoppers inside my always closed hangar this spring, it occurred to me that the likely cause was a Texas grasshopper or two feasting on the fabric in a leisurely manner. They can stick on any vertical surface and enjoy destroying one’s clothes if given the chance. Go figure.

    Reply
    • Didier
      Didier says:

      Well, Alston, after this incident I immediately decided to have the wings recovered. I used a very interesting new fabric developed in Germany by the name of ORATEX 6000, mostly for ultralights, which while more expensive to purchase than Ceconite, was easier to work on, mostly with a hot gun. Advantages were well worth the cost : lighter weight (no paint to apply) > some speed gain > and ease of repairing damaged parts or hangar knocks, thanks to the heat process.

      Reply
  4. Mike Wood
    Mike Wood says:

    It’s always the Little Things, isn’t it? The stuff you don’t find on a routine inspection that just jumps out of the long grass and bites you. Well done for saving the situation and finding the reason for it.

    Reply
  5. Bill McMonagle
    Bill McMonagle says:

    You were lucky to have the 130 hp Gipsy engine model. I bought an Auster Autocrat in June 1967 which had the 100 hp Cirrus Minor.(I paid $800 for it). The registration was VH-ALM. I was a young commercial pilot flying in outback western Queensland, Australia. It taught me heaps about tail wheel flying particularly as it had a castoring tail wheel i.e. no tail wheel steering.I can attest that it had an incredibly low stall speed of 28 mph with full flap.It was very slow with a max cruise speed of around 75 knots but it beat the heck out of travel in western Queensland where all of the roads in those days including the major highways were were just graded dirt. It was not used as a commercial aircraft. For that I was flying Cessna 182s and PA24 Comanches.

    You mentioned “flat turns”. That is one manouver in which the Auster excelled. Initiating the turn with rudder and holding off bank with aileron allowed the military spotter to keep a ground target in sight rather than losing it by having it obscured by the wing. I hazily remember a placard in the cockpit saying not to exceed rate 3 in flat turns. I think it was around the root of the right hand wing.

    In regards display flying I can only endorse Brendan O’Brien mentors concept of staying right inside the aircraft’s capability. I have been involved in low level aerobatic display flying since 1970 initially in DH 82 Tiger Moths, Fuji 160, Citabria etc. then from 1982 in my own CAC 25 Winjeel which is an Australian designed military trainer with a 450 Hp Pratt and Whitney engine.(Looks similar to a Percival Provost but is not related). I have tested numbers of aerobatic instructors and have applied the same concept to stay well inside the aircraft’s capabilities as well as their own

    Regarding Bob Hoover I had to fly with him to endorse his Australian pilot licence for aerobatic recency but that is another story.

    Reply
  6. Geoff Kingman-Sugars
    Geoff Kingman-Sugars says:

    Hi there.
    I flew your aircraft (G-AJAE) four times back in 1959 when it was on the strength of the Christchurch Aero Club. From memory, a nice aircraft to fly. All the early J/1N Alpha conversions were done at Christchurch with the first being G-AJEP which was completed in mid-1955. I have many fond memories of hours flying in J/1N Alphas.

    Reply
  7. Bartr
    Bartr says:

    I’ve had a very similar thing happen to me on two different airplanes. The first was a Stinson 108-2 a friend purchased sight unseen from an owner in Minnesota. The airplane was flown to Texas apparently with no problems but shortly after he got it, new to Stinson’s, it developed a tendency to turn right at will and resisted turning left. It scared his so much he wouldn’t fly it any more and after all the local experts and at least one IA looked at it and couldn’t find anything wrong he parked it. Since I was in the process of restoring a 108 and had several hundred hours in them he offered it to me. I flew it an hour or so with my son, then about 15 years old, and confirmed what he was experiencing and while standing on the ramp a hundred feet or so behind the airplane talking with a friend about it my son said, “Dad, look at the right wing where the gas tank is.” There was a subtle but apparent bulge upward just behind the tank only visible from some distance. When standing right behind the wind it was almost undetectable but upon close inspection we found that someone had glued fabric tape from the wing surface to the tank in order to cover up the gap between the tank surface and the wing. This was not the way the wing was originally covered and we soon realized why. When the tape pulled lose from the top of the trailing edge of the tank it created a perfect 3” high by 2 foot long spoiler which retracted almost completely when the airplane was sitting still. Duct take fixed that one too to confirm the problem and we then cut the tape off behind both tanks to solve it permanently.
    I bought a 1952 PA-18 a couple of years ago which had been restored with Ceconite and Dope in 2001 put into a museum and flown very little until I bought it. When it started to exhibit symptoms similar to the Stinson I knew to do a thorough inspection of the top of the wing and discovered a three foot section of tape along the leading edge on the top of the wing had pulled loose. Almost exactly the same result. In the past two years I’ve replace all the leading edge tape on the left wing of the airplane in 3 foot sections working from inboard to the tip. Something clearly went wrong in the covering process on that wing as the tapes are not sticking to the fabric since when they pull up they leave a perfectly clean Ceconite surface below. I plan to do a whole airplane rejuvenating process on the fabric this fall when the Texas temps moderate some in hopes that I can avoid having to recover the wings.

    Reply

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