Restoring a One-of-a-Kind Vintage Aircraft, The Fiat C.R.42
By Angus Noakes
There are many parallels which can be drawn between the two worlds of aviation and horology, not least the use of a variety of timepieces during flight, but the engineering and also aesthetical nature of the highest quality craftsmanship. Where finishing in horology is key to the result of an accurate timekeeper, the same can be said for a high-functioning aircraft, where the manufacture of which is designed to very similar tolerances to that of watches. This article will give an in-depth look at the restoration of a one-of-a-kind aircraft and how it came to be, drawing similarities between the restoration and engineering in watches.
The Fiat C.R.42 Falco, an Italian fighter aircraft of the Second World War. Its first flight was conducted on the 23rd May 1938, introduced into service in 1939 and obsolete by 1943, but retired later on in 1948 by the Spanish Airforce. The C.R. 42 being a bi-plane it was not especially fast, reaching speeds of 441km/h (274mph), but where it lacked in speed it made up in manoeuvrability, where it’s arguably most noteworthy ability was to out-manoeuver a Hawker Hurricane.
This specific model saw its end of the war by crashing due to pilot-error during a low-level training flight in a mountain range in Sweden. The Fighter Collection (TFC), an impressive collection of historical aircraft based at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, first obtained the airframe which was manufactured alongside another at the Italian Aircraft Museum at Vigna Di Valle. This was to be the only air-worthy example of the type. Due to difficulties with the lack of original information due to the rarity of the aircraft, and lack of manpower, the airframe made no progress. It was contracted for restoration by Vintage Fabrics Ltd in 2012.
As in horology, where a vintage and/or rare timepiece is being restored, some parts may no longer be available and very difficult to find. New components may have to be remanufactured such as balance staffs, the most common repair. The same goes for vintage aircraft, where in this instance there were very little available components.
The airframe was complete but without any systems available, and delivered to Vintage Fabrics (VF) at Audley End in June 2013. Upon arrival the airframe was already assembled, set in the rigging position with the flying controls rigged and the cables had been manufactured. VF disassembled the airframe, and research into system requirements commenced. As with all restoration projects, it’s imperative that all the components are accurate to the original design in order to both maintain authenticity, and ensure the end project functions in the manner it was designed for.
As we all know in horology, authenticity is key. For this reason, to enable accurate information on systems needed, access to original C.R.42 aircraft was arranged. Two other examples of the type exist but not in airworthy condition, one at RAF Hendon, and the other at the Swedish Flygvapen Museum. Additional information was gathered from TFC and the original Fiat archives in Turin, Italy. For such a massive project, several companies and specialists were involved in order to obtain both authenticity, and a perfectly-working project. Several RC74 engines were provided by TFC to Vintech Ltd for the restoration and manufacture of a single unit to flying condition. The end result was truly a masterpiece in craftsmanship.
The lack of original components for the aircraft systems resulted in the agreement for replicas to be manufactured where possible, or the use of equivalent items from other period aircraft, in the case they could be adapted successfully. Subsequently British period components were used for the pneumatic system, and American components were included in the fuel system. Where adaptations were not possible, bespoke components were manufactured to give the performance of the original components. In an effort to retain as much authenticity as possible, the cockpit was furnished with original equipment and remanufactured items, including the use of Italian labelling for operation.
Traditionally, fabrics such as cotton and linen were used to cover portions of aircraft such as the wings, fuselage or flying controls in order to reduce the overall weight of the aircraft, subsequently improving the manoeuvrability, speed, stall-speed and much more. There are therefore several different methods and designs of fabric application, and the Italians were no exception, implementing a very complicated, labour-intensive and time-consuming method. This bespoke application required the testing and approval of modern materials to ensure they were suitable and safe for their original use. The highly skilled Andrew, Clive and Linda Denney of Vintage Fabrics, along with myself, completed this section of the restoration.
The restoration progressed at a pace denoted by the procurement of parts, and use of original engineering documents. When authenticity is such a key element, any project can take years to complete. Once the fuselage and wing systems had been installed, and the fabric covering was applied, the airframe was prepared for paint. To ensure authenticity and originality to the aircraft this airframe was based upon, extensive research was carried out into the original finish and paint scheme by noted aeronautical researcher Maurizio Di Terlizzi. The airframe went through several versions of paint and scheme, until it was perfect. The airframe was completed for stationary exhibition for the forthcoming Flying Legends Airshow at Duxford in May/June 2018, where it was the star attraction.
Although it may look finished, there are still several challenging engineering hurdles which still need to be complete, including; a useable propeller; oleos for the undercarriage; fuel tanks; and fuel gauge system, before this unique aircraft will return to the sky.
Angus Noakes Angus Noakes is a student at Birmingham City University, practicing Horology. Angus discovered his interest in watchmaking through working in aircraft maintenance and restoration, where the need for precision engineering is paramount.