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Bolingbroke Recovery

Written by Bill Zuk.

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BRISTOL BOLINGBROKE MK. IV DONATED TO 17 WING
TRAINER SLOWLY SANK INTO PRAIRIE SOD FOR 60 YEARS
By Sgt Bill McLeod – 17 Wing Photojournalist


Briefly and at a very low altitude, a Bristol Bolingbroke Mark IV aircraft took to the sky for the first time in over 60 years near MacDonald, Manitoba, as it was lifted from its resting place in the prairie sod on October 23, 2013. The Bolingbroke was donated to 17 Wing by David Morris, Ian Morris, Stephen Morris and Royal Canadian Air Force Captain 20940 Sean Morris – Class of 1997. The Bolingbroke was originally purchased in 1946 by George Morris, grandfather of the men, for $150 as surplus from British Commonwealth Air Training Plan RCAF Station Macdonald. The aircraft was towed from the rear wheel by a grain truck to the family farm, just a few miles away.

“I think the intention was to use the bits and pieces of it for farming,” says Captain Sean Morris, a helicopter pilot who was just posted from 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School in Portage la Prairie, just a few miles from the family farm, to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Esquimault, British Columbia. “From what I’ve been told, all they really took off was the tail wheel, used on a wheel barrow, and the gas tanks for use on a sprayer,” he added. “My dad remembers pumping up the hydraulics and spinning the turret around,” says Captain Morris. “In reality, it is probably his love of the plane and aviation that got me into it. So I guess I am a second generation inspired pilot.”

From October 21 until October 30, the 17 Wing Recovery and Salvage Team led by Warrant Officer Steve Sagriff and assisted by members of 17 Wing Transport, Electrical, Mechanical Engineers carefully dug the aircraft out of the ground and gently disassembled the aircraft for trucking back to 17 Wing. “We had to dig down about four feet with the excavator,” said Warrant Officer Sagriff. “The guys on the Recovery and Salvage team are a great bunch of guys,” said Sagriff. “They didn’t even stop for lunch on Tuesday (October 22) until 3:00 p.m. They just kept saying, ‘We’re so close, so close’,” he said. “The TEME (17 Wing Transport, Electrical, Mechanical Engineers) guys were great too,” he added. “They were slinging lumber around with us and everything.”

On Tuesday, October 29, the last and biggest piece of the Bristol Bolingbroke Mark IV, the fuselage, was lifted off the flatbed in Winnipeg under the watchful eye of 17 Wing Heritage Officer Lieutenant Amber Dodds. “It’s going to be a long process to restore it,” Lieutenant Dodds said. “Our Ghost Squadron is a group of 5 volunteers who come in every Monday so it would be impossible to provide a guess on when the aircraft would be completed,” she said. RCAF Station Macdonald is one of the waypoints for the students doing pilot training with 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School at Portage la Prairie so the aircraft is familiar to everyone at the school. “If you ask anyone who has been flying at the school in Portage for any length of time, they will know the plane,” says Captain Sean Morris. “It’s an easy thing to see from the air.

In the early to mid-thirties, the Royal Air Force was woefully under-equipped to wage any kind of modern war. Both fighters and bombers were typically fabric-covered bi-planes not capable of much more than 200 miles per hour. Armament of a .303 or two was considered adequate. Government exercises seemed to prove that bombers flying in neat boxes could properly cover each other with those rifle calibre machine guns. Because fighters were nearly as slow, it was assumed that bombers would always get through – speed being considered relatively unimportant.

With hindsight, of course, this stance can be seen to be completely ridiculous ...

By 1935, Germany began to re-arm, in flagrant disregard for the Treaty of Versailles. They busily began building a totally modern air force ... that finally convinced Britain to grudgingly begin upgrading.

The impetus for a totally new aircraft came from Lord Rothermere, a British newspaper magnate. With foresight, he had seen what would be required in the future.

The Bristol Aircraft Company had begun work on a high-speed commercial monoplane with retractable gear capable of at least 250 miles per hour. When Rothermere's rival, Lord Beaverbrook, ordered an American DC-1, he was stung into action. Lord Rothermere had a Mercury-engined version of the new Bristol aircraft built to his specifications. This machine, he christened "Britain First", and presented it to the air ministry for testing. It did indeed catch the air ministry's attention and pointed up the inadequacies of their existing craft. Tests showed a top speed of 307 mph, or 285, fully loaded.

A military version (now known as the Blenheim) was soon produced, with the wing mounted higher to provide for a modest bomb bay area. It had a controversial powered upper turret, as well (this last item reduced the speed to 265 mph). The government was committed heavily to this new type.

Events, however had overtaken them.

By this time, of course, the norm was for eight-gun fighter planes capable of well over 300 miles per hour, e.g. Spitfires and Messerschmitt Bf 109s. The latter had proven themselves amply during the Spanish Civil War.

The Blenheim's cruising speed with a load was barely, or even less than 200 mph. With only a single machine gun pointing forward and another in the turret, it was incapable of defending itself. It had virtually no armour plating. Its radios, navigation equipment, oxygen systems and heaters were all outdated. Even the British bombs and bombsights were grossly inefficient, compared to the current German items.

But ... it was the best Britain had, and consequently, they were used in a variety of roles at the outbreak of hostilities, including flying the very first sortie of the war. The type was even operated as a fighter in the intruder role, usually under cover of darkness ... surprisingly with some success.

As soon as other types became available, the Blenheims remaining in service were relegated to training, utility, and communications roles.

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Bristol Bolingbroke recovered by WCAM. Photo by Gord Nowicky

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Bristol Bolingbroke in flight. Photo via the Canadian Museum of Flight

THE BOLINGBROKE

The RCAF wanted a maritime patrol general reconnaissance (GR) aircraft and, in accordance with Canadian policy, looked to Britain for its supply. The Bristol 142M Blenheim was being tested primarily as a bomber; the Bolingbroke, a maritime GR development of the Blenheim [there were substantial differences], was designed as an interim replacement for the Avro Anson GR aircraft of RAF Coastal Command. The Blenheim was ruled out because of its poor visibility. This narrowed the choice to the Bolingbroke.

Although the British Air Ministry had decided to drop Bolingbroke development, at the RCAF’s request the Bolingbroke was continued and it first flew on 24 September 1937. When the excellent performance of the Bolingbroke became known, the Air Ministry decided to redesign the Blenheim to incorporate some of its features, resulting in the Blenheim IV which, in outward appearance, is very similar to the Bolingbroke.

The Bolingbroke was of all-metal, stressed-skin construction. It carried a crew of four and had one fixed forward firing 0.303 Browning machine gun in the port wing and a turret-mounted 0.303 (first a single, and later twin Brownings) for rear defence. It carried up to 1,000 lb (454 kg) of bombs.

The contract for RCAF Bolingbroke production was given to Fairchild Aircraft of Longueil, Quebec in November 1937 and covered 18 aircraft. The first Bolingbrokes had all-British equipment and were designated Bolingbroke Is. The first of these made its maiden flight in September 1939.

Fairchild was also given the contract to develop the type as a seaplane for coastal GR. To improve the performance, the RCAF ordered 920 hp Mercury XV engines installed in place of the 800 hp Mercury VIII inherited from the Blenheim and so created a new version, the Bolingbroke III, that was first flown as a seaplane on 28 August, 1940. Only one of the Bolingbroke seaplane variant was completed.

The principal version of the Bolingbroke was the Mk. IV which had the basic British airframe fitted with Mercury XV engines and numerous Fairchild Canada designed refinements including new cockpit instrumentation and equipment to better accommodate both overwater and cold weather operations. The latter included, for example, rubber de-icing boots installed on all wing and tail leading edges. In RCAF Service the type was nicknamed the "Bolly" with the initial variant of the Mk. IV used in the intended Bomber Reconnaissance (BR – the RCAF equivalent to the RAF's GR) role.

The most numerous of all Bolingbroke variants was the Mk. IVT for bombing and gunnery training. Like the later-service Mk. IVs of the BR squadrons, this variant was fitted with a Boulton Paul Type C turret mounting two Browning machine guns. Some of these aircraft were later modified as target tugs with the armament removed. A total of 626 Bolingbrokes were built between December 1939 and September 1943.

Early Bolingbrokes served operationally on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and two squadrons also served in Alaska during the Aleutians campaign. The most prolific users of the Bolingbrokes were in the bombing and gunnery schools of the BCATP.

TECHNICAL DETAILS (Mk. IV/IVT):

Engine: Two 920 hp Bristol Mercury XV radial engines

Maximum speed: 262 mph (421 km/hr at 14,000 ft (4,267 m)

Cruising speed: 214 mph (344 km/hr at 14,000 ft (4,267 m)

Empty weight: 8,963 lb (4,069 kg)

Loaded weight: 14,500 lb (6,583 kg)

Span: 56 ft 4 in (17.17 m)

Length: 42 ft 9 in (13.03 m)

Height: 9 ft 10 in (3.0 m)

Wing area: 469 sq ft (43.57 sq m)

Armament: One 0.303 Browning machine gun in the wing, and one, later two, 0.303 Brownings in a dorsal turret; 1,000 lb bomb load.

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Bolingbroke from the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum on display at Brandon, Manitoba. Photo by Bill Zuk

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A Bolingbroke sits in the long grass in the reclamation yard at Westbourne, Manitoba. Photo by Bill Zuk

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