• Flying the Rata
    Aircraft from the Spanish Civil War 1930?s have always had a special appeal to me. I was particularly intrigued by tales of violent, dangerous close-in dog-fights between early 109?s, Fiat CR32s and the Polikarpov series fighters, Ratas, Chatos and Chaikas.

    Of course the pre-war types are impossibly rare. I remember talking with Robs Lamplough soon after one of his warbirds recovery coup?s of the late 1970?s and early 80?s and him telling me about a Rata which had reputedly been belly landed on a remote hillside in Spain and which was still lying there in dilapidated but complete condition. I felt almost desperate with excitement to attempt to retrieve and rebuild this aircraft.

    Nearly fifteen reasonably maturing years later, how incredible then to arrive at a high, dusty, mountainous airfield to see a flight of Ratas sitting outside, cockpit doors opened and straps set as if they were ready to take off for one last duel. This was the remarkable and very exciting sight greeting my father and me when we arrived once more at Tim Wallis? Alpine Fighter Collection in Wanaka, New Zealand.

    Tim and his chief engineer, Ray Mulqueen, encountered a great deal of difficulty in fulfilling Tim?s objective in rebuilding six original Ratas and three Chaikas (the gull wing biplane comrade to the Rata) in Russia. But finally after five years of work, here at last were the first half of his Russian squadron.

    The Rata looks extremely racy. It is very small and overpowered for its time. Russian pilots more used to biplanes, looked with horror at the tiny wings and lack of flaps (in the later variants). Modern pilots also look at the same features with raised eyebrows and a certain amount of trepidation. These features plus the almost full span ailerons ("must roll like hell"), lack of trimmers, an undercarriage retraction system looking like a winch from a boat, an appalling view forward in a three point attitude, plus not an English caption in sight, all promised a fairly exciting ride ahead.

    As you approach the aeroplane and begin a walk round, you immediately notice the ply/beech wooden fuselage which is very well finished and extremely strong. You also notice with some surprise, the fabric covered metal construction of the wings and again the huge ailerons (most Russian aeroplanes roll very well).

    Other unusual features are the very delicate looking undercarriage complete with wire and cables for retraction leading up in to the guts of the aeroplane, numerous exhaust stubs emanating all around the cowling, big two bladed propeller with little ground clearance to absorb all the power from the ASh 62 IR 1,000 horsepower motor, cowl flaps are in the front of the cowlings (good for Russia but not needed in New Zealand in early summer). The cockpit is protected by a tiny windscreen and small side doors similar to the Spitfire but on both sides of the fuselage and of course, no canopy.

    Climbing on board, the blended wood fuselage is very smooth and you need care to mount the aeroplane in a dignified manner. Once sat down, you are aware that the ground angle is extreme and that the view forwards is very poor. In comparison the visibility over the nose in a Spitfire or a P-51 is fantastic. In fact, in the Rata it is worse than the Me109. The next problem is that if you choose to sit high in order to see out, the small curved cockpit doors are so tight when you close them that you now almost have to sit sideways to fit in! In conclusion, you simply end up sitting low! Having said that, there is a quaint translated note from the Russian test pilot which states "do not be shy or embarrassed to open the side doors in flight prior to landings to help you see out".

    Once finally settled in the aeroplane and looking around left to right you see in order, an emergency fuel shut-off cock, "wobble pump", throttle and mixture controls together both working in the conventional sense and a little further forward the carb heat and prop lever co-located.

    The main instrument panel is well appointed with all the standard instruments (although there is no artificial horizon). As with most Russian aeroplanes, there are a bank of switches used to ?arm? systems and to provide electrical power to them (such as fire system, turn and slip indicator, engine instruments etc.). In addition starter energiser and engage switches (on a fly wheel system a bit like the T6), plus primer, gear lights, fuel gauge and an odd pull push handle to make it read. Other peculiarities to Westerners include ASI in km/h, plus boost/manifold pressure in mm of mercury giving 0 boost at 760mm. The pilot?s straps are superb and really keep you firmly glued to the seat.

    Starting the Rata is simple. Mixture on, throttle set, wobble a bit - get some fuel pressure, prime five or six shots, energise the fly wheel, noise builds to a high pitch - engage and mags on and she?ll fire. The noise from the multiple exhaust stacks is spectacular and very satisfying. In sympathy, white smoke coughs and belches randomly from the engine. The noise and vibration levels are very similar to the Yak 11. It?s good practice to warm up to 600 to 700 RPM for a minute and then gently increase to 1000 RPM.

    The next parameters to look for are 120 degrees cylinder head temperature and 50 degrees in the oil, prior to checking the engine. Once the cylinder head and oil is increasing, you can start a gentle taxi - the brakes are not spectacularly good and taxying is best achieved by power, rudder and judicious amount of forward stick to turn. If you keep the stick back - the elevator grinds the tail wheel hard against the dirt and you will drive along in straight lines all day!

    At the hold, with the temperatures and pressures in the green, you stand on the brakes and start to increase power, hoping to get 760mm and about 2000 / 2100 RPM. There is a good chance the brakes will start to slip beforehand - say at 1700 - 1800 RPM, so cycle the prop back and forth slowly once, twice and more quickly a third time. Check the mags - not less that 100 drop per side.

    Next the simple pre take-off checks consist of Trim - N/A; Throttle Friction - tight; Mixture - rich; Pitch - full fine; Fuel contents, pressure, primer; Flaps - N/A; Gills - open; Oil cooler - open; Gyros - set; Instruments in the green; oxygen - N/A; Hood - N/A; Harness - tight and secure; Hydraulics - N/A (brakes holding?); Controls - full and free.

    It?s time to go - the power can be applied quite aggressively and you can keep it coming to 820mm & 2250RPM. The increase in noise is fantastic and it is possible to lift the tail quickly to vaguely see where you?re going - you need to have the horizon cutting the 10.55 and 1.10 position on the forward cowling. There is very little tendency to swing and she runs pretty much straight as an arrow, although the rough Wanaka grass gives a harsh ride to the hard sprung oleos, the Rata and you!

    If you have not figured it out before, it is now that you realise that excellent goggles are a must!! With a ground roll of about 400 yards and the smallest of rotations suddenly she?s airborne and with a quick glance down you see the speed very rapidly at 200 km/h which is both the best climb and gear up speed. The Russian test pilots recommend gear retraction not before 1000 metres!! This is rather conservative - but with good reason - getting the gear up is a bit of an epic.

    Power back now to max continuous 2000 & 760mm and holding the nose up to contain the speed at 200 km/h. Holding it down low after take off and snappy gear retractions are not the Rata?s forte. There is warm buffeting air everywhere, but the aeroplane immediately feels right. With a positive rate of climb it is time to sort the gear out. Check the "brake spring" is set - check the handle lock is released (allows the retraction handle to rotate) select another handle for the "hoist" ratchet gear to the up position and then start to crank like mad!! 44 turns later you can see the wheels entering the belly of the aeroplane underneath you - suddenly the handle stiffens, a last turn or half turn and "hurrah" 2 red lights telling you the wheels are up.

    By now we?re at 2000 feet and it is noticeably warmer in the cockpit. Power back to 1900 & 680 mm and the speed builds to 350-360km/h. Temperatures and pressures are good, with the oil temperature stable at 75 degrees and the cylinder head temperature at 180. How does she feel? We?re holding a slight push force on the stick (remember no elevator trim) - roll rate is excellent and very positive - about 100 -120 degrees per second. Pitch is also very effective and the Rata is delightful in aerobatics - although as speed increases in the dive, passing 400 km/h the push force on the stick reduces to 0 and then as 430 km/h is reached, a very slight pull force is required - something that needs a little care running in low level for the start of a display. The aeroplane accelerates very quickly in the dive and when seen from the ground, appears extremely fast. Stalling in manoeuvre gives plenty of warning with pronounced tail buffeting before she drops the left hand wing quite progressively and definitely not violently.

    The aeroplane delights in reversing from a max. rate turn in one direction rapidly to the other. You can see that this is a superb close in dogfighter. The delightful handling characteristics, plus the open cockpit, vibrations and noise provide a very exciting ride. Rolling requires little rudder input to stay balanced. I have the feeling that you could snap roll the Rata deliberately very precisely. Vertical performance is excellent and with excess energy pulling up and unloading straight up in to the vertical produces spectacular performance.

    Stalling clean and dirty, is an interesting experience - below 250 km/h you are holding a pull force which is slightly perturbing until you get used to it. She stalls slower clean than with the gear down! Stall is at about 135-140 km/h and again is very gentle power off with a gentle wing drop that stops immediately when back stick is released.

    It is back in the circuit that the work load goes up again. You need to select the gear selector down, release the handle lock, grab hold of the gear crank handle very positively, select up slightly to release the up locks - then very carefully start to crank down. The handle will immediately start to try to run away and you must keep hold of it (it?s not that difficult) whilst the gear, aided by the airflow, comes down through the same 44 turns (only much easier than up).

    As soon as the wheels break from the underside of the wings, the through draft of air up through the cockpit starts the same buffeting as before. Finally 2 greens and you are now down wind at 200 km/h, holding a pull force and starting to turn finals. I have to say that it is here that I least like the Rata - landing on Wanaka?s narrow grass, concentrates the mind and the problem is that if you three point the aeroplane - the view forwards is really terrible. It would be fine at Duxford or on a wide concrete strip - but otherwise I am sure you are better off wheel landing the Rata. Definitely not something I expected originally. Basically, you should fly a slightly power on "hot" approach speed bleeding through 180km/h to not less than 160 km/h on very short finals to touch for a tail down wheeler. This seems to cause fairly consistently reasonable landings and the landing roll out is still only 500 yards or so, even not using brake. I have to say that, after only 5 sorties, I?m not exactly the prophet when it comes to landing Ratas - it definitely needs a bit of practice.

    How do they compare with other WW2 fighters? Well, I believe, very favourably with some of the other aeroplanes. I had just flown a Hurricane for the first time, a week before the Rata and sorry to Hurricane aficionados, but I was really surprised and disappointed in the aeroplane?s handling and performance (although very interesting and lovely to fly the type). I felt that you would be better off fighting in a Rata. At any rate I felt quickly far more comfortable in it. In air combat against early low powered 109?s, I would suspect that the two aircraft were very comparable. Later variants of the Messerschmitt would easily be able to dictate the fight against the Rata due to the 109?s superior speed and vertical performance.

    Considering the Rata was in full squadron service by 1936 and was the first heavily armed, retractable gear, monoplane fighter in the world, it has many merits and surprisingly few vices. It is a real classic in its own right with a European connection and history beyond its combat on the Russian front. I would thoroughly recommend the aeroplane to anyone who would like to own a very reasonably priced exciting example of flying history.

    I would like to thank Tim Wallis for letting me fly his Ratas and very much look forward to having a go in the Chaika.

    Flying The 109

    The Bf 109 is, without a doubt, the most satisfying and challenging aircraft I 11ve ever flown. So how does it fly and how does it compare with other WW II fighters? To my eye, the aircraft looks dangerous, both to the enemy and to its own pilots. Its "difficult" reputation is well-known, and right from the outset, you are aware that it needs to be treated with a great deal of respect. When you talk to people about the 109, all you hear is how you are going to wrap it up on takeoff or landing!
    As you walk up to the 109, you are at first struck by its small size, particularly if it is parked next to a contemporary American fighter. Closer examination reveals a crazy-looking, knock-kneed undercarriage, a very heavily framed, sideways-opening canopy with almost no forward view in the three-point attitude, a long rear fuselage and tiny tail surfaces.

    A walk around reveals ingenious split radiator flaps and ailerons with a lot of movement and rather odd-- looking external mass balances. It also has independently operating leading-edge slats. These devices should glide open and shut on the ground with the pressure of a single finger. Other unusual features include the horizontal stabilizer that doubles as the elevator trimmer and the complete absence of a rudder-trim system. Overall, the finish is a strange mix of the innovative and archaic.

    Entering the cockpit

    To enter the cockpit, you climb on board and gently lower yourself downward and forward while holding on to the windscreen. Once inside, you are almost lying down as you would be if driving a racecar. The cockpit is narrow, and if you have broad shoulders (don't all fighter pilots?), it is a tight squeeze. Once strapped in-itself a knuckle-rapping affair-you can take stock.
    First impressions are of its simplicity. From left to right, the co-located elevator-trim and flap-trim wheels fall easily to hand. You need several turns to get the flaps fully down to 10 degrees, and the idea is that you can crank both together. In practice, this is a little difficult, and I tend to operate them independently.

    Coming forward, you see the tailwheel locking lever. This either allows the tailwheel to caster or it locks it dead ahead. Next is the throttle quadrant, which consists of a huge throttle handle and the manual propeller pitch control. Forward and down on the floor is an enormous and very effective ki-gas primer with a T-shaped handle. Directly above this and in line with the canopy seal is the red hood-jettison lever. Pulling this releases two very strong springs in the rear part of the canopy and causes the rear section to come loose and, therefore, the whole main part of the hood is unhinged and can be pushed away into the airflow. Looking directly forward you see, clustered together, the standard instrument panel with the vertical-select magnetos on the left, starter and booster coil slightly right of center and engine instruments all grouped on the right-hand side. This aircraft's instrumentation is all German apart from the altimeter.

    The center console under the main instrument panel consists of a 720 channel radio, VOR, ADF and E2B compass. Just to the left of the center console, close to your left knee, is the undercarriage up/down selector and the mechanical and electrical undercarriage position indicator. On D-FEHD, this is a two-- button selector. Select the undercarriage up or down position by lifting the guard and simply pushing the relevant button. Radiator flaps are controlled by a four-position selector-"Zu," "Auf," "Auto" and "Ruhe" (rest).

    The right side of the cockpit has the electrical switches, battery master, boost pumps, pitot heat, and that's it! There is no rudder trim or rudder-pedal adjust; also, the seat can be adjusted only during preflight and offers a choice of only three settings. If you are any bigger than me (six feet tall), it all starts to get a bit confined. Once you are strapped in and comfortable, close the canopy to check your seating position. If you haven't flown the 109 before, you usually get a clout on the head as you swing the heavy lid over and down. Nobody sits that low in a fighter!

    D-FEHD has a beautiful "Galland hood" that offers a much improved view compared with the earlier, heavier-frame canopy.

    Up,up and away, almost

    It's getting dangerously close to going flying now! OK; open the hood again (in case you catch fire and have to get out in a hurry). To start, power ON, boost pumps ON. Five good shots on the primer. Set the throttle to IDLE. Energize the starter; when the pitch of its noise reaches its apex, press the starter button. It's a good starter, and with a brief snort of flame, the 109 fires up immediately.

    Check the oil pressure right away to ensure that it is rising, idle initially at 700rpm, then gently go up to 1,000rpm, and the whole aeroplane starts to rock from side to side on the gear with some sort of harmonic. This is a most unusual sensation and it is good fun!

    After the start, you are immediately aware that the airplane rattles. The engine canopy and reduction gear all give off little vibrations and shakes that transmit directly to the pilot. Check the red flaps control to ZU. Check that they close together. Reopen them now to delay the coolant temperature rise. The 109 needs a lot of power to get moving, so you need to allow the engine to warm up a little before you pile on the power. Throttle up to 1,800rpm and suddenly, you're rolling; power back. To turn while taxiing, push the stick forward against the instrument panel to lighten the tail, add some throttle and a jab of brake (do this in a Spitfire and you're on your nose!). The 109, however, is very tail-heavy and is reluctant to turn; you can very easily lock up a wheel. If you do not use the above technique, you will charge off across the airfield in a straight line!
    Forward view is appalling, and because of the tail/brake arrangement, this makes weaving more difficult than on other, similar types. By the time you are at the end of the strip, the aircraft is already starting to get hot. So, quickly on with the run-up.

    I'm sitting as high as I can, and my head is touching the canopy. I am not wearing goggles, as they scratch and catch the hood if they are up on your head. A large bone dome is out of the question and, in my opinion, is a flight-safety hazard in this aircraft.
    Hood positively locked-push up on it to check. Oil temperature is 50 degrees, coolant temperature is greater than or at 70 degrees. Brakes ON (there is no parking brake), stick back, and power gently up to 30 inches and 2,100rpm. Exercise the prop at least twice, with the rpm falling back to 1,800 each time; keep an eye on the oil pressure. The noise and vibration levels have now increased dramatically. Power back to 1,800rpm and check the mags. Insignificant drop on each side. You must hurry, as the coolant temperature is at 98 degrees C and going up; you have to get rolling to get some cooling air through the radiators. Pre-takeoff checks: elevator trim set to 1 degree, no rudder trim, throttle friction tight. This is vital, as you will need your left hand for various services immediately after takeoff. Mixture is automatic, pitch to fine. Fuel cock is ON, both boost pumps are ON, pressure is good, primer is locked. Flaps crank down to 20 degrees for takeoff. Radiator flaps checked at full open; if you take off with them closed, you will certainly boil the engine and are guaranteed to crack a head. Gyros set to Duxford's runway. Instruments: temps and pressures all in the green for takeoff. Radiator is now 102 degrees. Oxygen, you don't have; hood rechecked down and locked; harness tight and secure; hydraulics, no check. Controls full and free, tailwheel locked. Got to go-105 degrees. There's no time to hang around and worry about the takeoff. Here you go!


    Power gently up and keep it coming smoothly up to 40 inches. Keep the tail down initially, and keep it straight by feel rather than any positive technique. Tail is coming up now, and the rudder is becoming effective. Unconscious corrections to the rudder are happening all the time. It's incredibly entertaining to watch the 109 lift off the ground; the rudder literally flashes around!

    This little fighter is now bucketing along, accelerating rapidly. As the tail lifts, there is a positive tendency to swing left. This can easily be checked; however, if you are really aggressive in lifting the tail, the left swing tendency is difficult to stop and happens very quickly. Now the tail is up, and you can vaguely see where you are going. It's a wild, rough ride on grass, and with all the noise and the smoke from the stacks, it's exciting.

    Quick glance at the airspeed indicator (ASI): 160km/h, a light pull-back on the stick, and you're flying!

    Hand off the throttle, select FLUG on the undercarriage selector. The mechanical indicators motor up very quickly, and you feel and hear a "clonk, clonk" as the gear comes home. A quick look out at the wings, and you can see that the slats-fully out-are starting to creep in as the airspeed increases and the angle of attack reduces. With 230km/h and an immediate climbing turn-up, you enter the downwind leg just in case you need to put the airplane down in a hurry. The Old Flying Machine Company's SOP is always to fly an orbit overhead of the field to allow everything to stabilize before venturing off-this has saved at least one of our airplanes.
    Start to frantically crank up the flaps and increase the airspeed through 250km/h; power back to 33 inches and 2,300rpm for the climb. Plenty of airflow through the narrow radiators now, so close them and remember to keep a watchful eye on the coolant gauge for the next few minutes until the temperature has settled down. With the radiator flaps closed, the aeroplane accelerates positively. As you climb, you're aware of holding in a little right rudder to keep the ball in the middle, but the foot loads are light, and it's no problem. Level off and power back to 30 inches and 2,100rpm. The speed has picked up to the 109's cruise of about 400km/h, and now the ball is right in the middle, and no rudder input is necessary.


    Once settled down, with your adrenaline level back down to just plain high, you can take stock of the situation. The initial reaction is of delight to be flying a classic airplane, and the next is the realization that this is a real fighter. You feel aggressive flying it. The urge is to go looking for something to bounce and shoot down!

    The roll rate is very good and very positive below about 400 km/h, and the amount of effort needed to produce the relevant nose movement seems exactly right. As the stall is reached, the leading-edge slats deploy-together, if the ball is in the middle; slightly asymmetrically, if you have any slip on. The aircraft delights in being pulled into hard maneuvering turns at these slower speeds. As the slats pop out, you feel a slight "notching" on the stick, and you can pull more until the whole airframe is buffeting quite hard. A little more and you will drop a wing, but you have to be crass to do it unintentionally.

    Pitch tends to be heavy above 400km/h, but it is still easy to manage up to 500km/h, and the aircraft is perfectly happy carrying out low-level looping maneuvers from 550km/h and below. Above 550km/h, one peculiarity is a slight nose-down trim change as you accelerate. This means that when you run in for an airshow above 500km/h, the airplane has a slight tucking sensation-a sort of desire to get down to ground level. This is easily held on the stick, or it can be trimmed out, but it is slightly surprising initially.
    When you maneuver above 500km/h, two hands are required for a more aggressive performance. Either that or get on the trimmer to help. Despite this heavying up, it is still quite easy to get 5G at these speeds.

    The rudder is effective and of medium feel up to 500km/h. It becomes heavier above this speed, but regardless, the lack of rudder trim is not a problem for the type of operations we carry out with this airplane.

    Initial acceleration is rapid up to about 560km/h-particularly with nose down. After that, the 109 starts to become a little reluctant, and you have to be fairly determined to get over 600 km/h.

    Contemporary comparisons

    First, let me say that all my comments are based on operations below 10,000 feet and at power settings not exceeding 40 inches and 2,600rpm. I like the airplane, and with familiarity, I think it will give most of the Allied fighters I have flown a hard time-particularly in a close, hard-turning, low-speed dogfight. It will definitely out-maneuver a P-51 in this type of fight because the roll rate and slow-speed characteristics are much better. The Spitfire, on the other hand, is more of a problem for the 109, and I feel it is a superior close-in fighter. Having said that, the aircraft are sufficiently closely matched that pilot ability would probably be the deciding factor.

    At higher speeds, the P-51 is definitely superior, and provided the Mustang kept its energy up and refused to dogfight, it would be relatively safe against the 109.

    Other factors affecting the 109 as a combat aircraft include the cramped cockpit. Although the view out (in flight) is better than you might expect, this is quite a tiring working environment. The profusion of canopy struts is not a problem. In addition, the small cockpit makes you feel more a part of the airplane, and the overall smaller dimensions make you more difficult to spot. There's no doubt that when you are flying the 109 and you see the crosses on the wings, you feel aggressive. If you are in an Allied fighter, it is very intimidating to see this dangerous little airplane turning in on you!


    Returning to the circuit, it is almost essential to join for a run and break. Over the field, break from SO feet, up and over with 4G onto the downwind leg. Speed at 250km/h or less, gear select to DOWN and activate the button and feel the gear come down asymmetrically. Check the mechanical indicators (ignore the electric position indicators), set the pitch to 11:30; fuel, both boost pumps ON. If you have less than half a tank of fuel and the rear pump is not on, the engine may stop in the three-- point attitude.

    Radiator flaps to full open, and wing flaps to 10 or 15 degrees. As the wing passes the threshold downwind, take all the power off and roll into the final turn, cranking the flap like mad as you go. It is important to set up a high rate of descent and a curved approach.

    The aircraft is reluctant to lose speed around finals, so ideally, you should initiate the turn quite slowly at about 190 to 200km/h. Slats normally deploy halfway around the final, but you, the pilot, are not aware that they have come out. The idea is to keep turning with the speed slowly bleeding and roll the wings level at about 10 feet at the right speed and just starting to transition to the three-- point attitude. The last speed I usually see is just about 180; I'm normally too busyafter that!

    The 109 is one of the most controllable aircraft that I have flown at slow speed around finals, and provided you don't get too slow, it is one of the easiest to three point. It just feels right. The only problem is getting too slow. If this happens, you very quickly end up with a high sink rate and with absolutely no ability to check or flare to round out. It literally falls out of your hands!

    Once down on three points, it tends to stay down, but be careful; the forward view has gone to hell, and you cannot allow any swing to develop. Initial detection is more difficult-- the aircraft being completely unpredictable-and can diverge in any direction. Sometimes the most immaculate three-pointer will turn into a potential disaster halfway through the landing roll. Other times, a ropy landing will roll straight as an arrow!

    FLYING THE Bf 109

    When we started flying the 109, both my father and I did a lot of practice circuits on the grass before we tried a paved strip. Operating off grass is preferred. Although it is a much smoother ride on the hard surface-directionally-- the aircraft is definitely more sensitive. Without doubt, you cannot afford to relax until you are stationary. You would never make a rolling exit from a runway in the 109.

    To summarize, I like the airplane very much, and I can understand why many Luftwaffe aces had such a high regard and preference for it.

    Mark Hanna

  • I can't count how many times I've read the 109 section... Just great!

  • A wonderful read Duggy.

  • An excellent read thanks Duggy. It says a lot for Il2 that these impressions of REAL aircraft, like the low-speed fallout of the 109 and the need to maintain energy with the P51, translate very closely in the sim.

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