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A Mosquito finds its wings

This month, a Mosquito aircraft made its first flight from Ardmore, NZ after a lengthy build process which had been largely inspired by the late Glyn Powell in New Zealand. In November 2009, The Shed published a story I wrote about Glyn's previous Mosquito project: an extraordinary, complex challenge that helped preserve one of the most successful fighters of WWII.

© By Rebecca Hayter

Most people who are bitten by mosquitoes scratch the itch and get on with it, but when Glyn Powell was bitten by the Mosquito, there was no hope of recovery.

Glyn first featured in The Shed in November 2005 for his jumbo jet-sized task of building a Mosquito aircraft. They were designed in the late 1930s as a fast fighter and bomber for imminent war and, for two-and-a-half years, were the fastest operational plane in the world. War rumour had it if a German pilot shot down a Mosquito, it counted as two victories.

During the 1940s, the British built 7781 Mosquitos; the prototype took 11 months to design, build and fly, after which they went into mass production. It was that 11-month time factor which tripped up Glyn Powell. “Well,” he thought to himself, “if the Brits could build one in eleven months, I should be able to do it in four or five years.” That was 20 years ago and Glyn is yet to complete a Mosquito – despite dedicating 40 hours a week to it.

To be fair, he has come close a couple of times. His first fuselage he sold to an enthusiast restoration group in Canada. That gave him enough money to start building one for real but, as it took shape, a Warbird collector from America named Jerry Yagen offered to buy it, to undergo completion at Ardmore near Auckland, so Glyn sold it to maintain cash flow and set to work again. This one is third time lucky. The wings are nearly complete, the fuselage is half-built, the tail fin is complete; Glyn has started on the engineering but says it still needs several years’ work to complete it.

For the first five years, Glyn worked on the project full-time, on his own. Since then he has had up to three guys working with him, either full time or in specialist fields such as avionics, including Mike Tunnicliffe, Corrin McCrae, Peter Ridealgh and Stuart Atkinson, working under the supervision of certifying engineer, Les Wilson.

Twenty years may seem like a long time, but when you see the scale of the job, it’s amazing what they’ve achieved in such a short time.

The Mosquito is built in wood, which gave it excellent strength properties and an ability to absorb damage from bullets. But wood has also been its Achilles’ heel in longevity. After the war, Mosquitos became redundant and were either burned or left outside to rot. When Jerry Yagen’s Mosquito takes flight in about a year’s time, it will save its breed from extinction.

The Mosquito weighs around 18,000lbs. It has two Merlin engines which, as Glyn ruefully points out, means twice the cost and installation, plus twice as many controls. The Mosquito has 3000hp for takeoff, and a maximum speed of 437mph, cruise speed of 250-300mph. Even now, that’s fast for a 1940s plane. After flying his Cessna, Glyn says, it will be like getting out of a Morris Minor into a Maserati. It can carry 700 gallons of fuel, enough to fly to Australia.

Glyn is a retired electrical engineer, has been involved in the building trade and holds a private pilot’s licence. After his wife died, he was looking for a project. “A bunch of guys had been collecting Mosquito parts,” he says: “elevators, control columns, rudder pedals, control pulleys – there’s truckloads of them. They reckoned that between them, they had enough bits to build a Mosquito and I thought that would do me. If you haven’t got the drawings, you can forget about it so I went tramping around the world looking for the drawings. I went to England and visited Baes, who took over de Havilland, but they don’t want to know about it. They’re frightened of liability claims.

“I’ve got as far as leaning on the cabinet that contains all the microfiche that I want. I’ve found Mosquito drawings in almost every country in the world: England, Canada, America, New Zealand, Australia and Denmark.”

But it’s not that simple. There are about 45 marques of Mosquito, since the speedy aircraft proved adaptable to many tasks such as fighters, fighter-bombers, reconnaissance and pathfinders. For example, the bombers have the entry door underneath, but the fighters have cannons there so the door is in the side. The fighters have massive reinforcing to take the recoil of the four 25mm cannons and four Browning 303 machine guns. Each marque has about 10,000 drawings for building it. Glyn is restoring a T43 fighter bomber model, a trainer, because he wanted the dual control. His drawings are mostly incomplete sets, including 8500 sheets of microfiche and copies of original hard copies, in varying quality. He has gone over the plans in meticulous detail to find all he needs for the T43 model.

“That’s been a major battle and still going on,” he says. The mezzanine floor of his huge barn has trays and trays full of drawings. “You can’t read half of them. They are all in English, except the parts manual - that’s in Swedish.” Well, there are parts manuals in English but they are not illustrated, so he finds the relevant diagram in the Swedish manual and then relates it back to the English manual for the parts numbers.

About that barn. Glyn started building his Mosquito at Chris McMullen’s boatyard before building a workshop at his property at Drury. When that proved too small, he built a larger, 24m x 19m barn, including its two extensions. It is part hangar, part storeroom. There are container loads of Mosquito parts which he has gathered from around the world. Identification is even harder than for the plans. Some are pieces of corroding metal hanging on to rotting timber. If they might be useful, they are disassembled, scrutinised for tiny cracks and flaws and either restored, used as a template for new parts or discarded. They sit in boxes on shelves, similar to an automotive parts shop. The overhauled parts have been stripped, inspected and painted and stored, ready for installation.

It took Glyn five years to build the two moulds for the fuselage in cedar. It resembles a huge woodwind instrument, with thousands of finely crafted scarf joints. The fuselage is built on two, male half-moulds, port and starboard. The moulds have slots to take the half-bulkheads and other members which are made separately, then placed in cradles within the fuselage mould to hold their exact position. Wherever there are half-bulkheads or other members to be incorporated into the fuselage, there is a screwing strip glued and screwed on, then a laminated, curved member made over a mould is added. As the outer skin takes shape on the mould, the half-bulkheads become a part of the fuselage.

Glyn spent a year making templates and patterns, shaped to the complex curves of the mould. He uses these patterns to draw, precisely in pencil, the outline of the now-concealed members under the plywood skin so he can position them correctly for gluing on the mould. The first layer of the fuselage is thin plywood, each piece cut to shape and scarfed to its neighbouring piece of plywood.

“Every little piece you make has to have a pattern or a jig or a template or all of the above,” he says. “You make a mould then use a template to say where screw holes are.”

A layer of balsa is glued on to provide stiffness, before a final layer of ply. As each layer is applied, steel bands, made to exact curves and carefully labelled, are laid over the laminate and tightened with turnbuckles to apply pressure until the glue sets. The final plywood skin is fitted prior to fairing and sealing with epoxy. Painting comes later.

Nearly every piece is a complex curve. This has taken Glyn into the realms of trigonometry, which he hated at school, adding mathematician to his other skills-list of storeman, engineer, builder, electrician and draughtsman. “You have to find it or you have to make it,” he says of every component.

At one end of the barn hangs a massive wing spar, like a giant coathanger. The spar is the basic structure of a wing, made from laminated spruce and laid up on the wing jig. The jig, a huge, green-painted steel structure dominates the shed and took six months to build.

“That’s an absolute work of art, that thing,” Glyn says. “Everything has got to be held accurately to within 50/1000ths of an inch or less – otherwise you may as well throw it away and start another one. It would cost you a million dollars to make some of the jigs de Havilland used – we have original jig and tool drawings.”

To ensure that level of accuracy, the team commissioned CNC technology to make drill plates for making the holes for the main wing pick-ups. “The drill plates have long bushes to keep the drill from wandering all over the place,” Glyn says.

The wings have a front spar and rear spar, with ribs inserted to create the cross section. Wing tips, leading edges, ailerons and flaps will be added later. Reinforced bays inside the wings take the engines and their huge radiators and fuel tanks. The location of stress panels is crucial. “If you want to undo any panel, you have to jack up the aircraft first so you don’t stress the wing,” Glyn explains. Massive pick-up fittings will join the wings to the fuselage – an example of why drilling has to be so accurate.

Then there are the engine controls, fuel lines, hydraulics for flap and undercart controls and wiring for navigation lights. In a metal plane, the aircraft is its own earth, but on a wooden plane every piece of metal has be bonded, or earthed, to a thin copper strip that runs throughout the plane, inside the wings and fuselage, to deal with issues such as lightning strikes and radio interference. “It must be pretty important because they’ve gone to an awful lot of trouble to do it,” he says.

Glyn has applied the original RNZAF number NZ2308 to his Mosquito and has reserved the original squadron marking YCZ as the registration ZK-YCZ. After the war, New Zealand bought 80 Mosquitos from England, but four were lost en route, so a replacement four were brought over from Australia. Most of them were burned in the 1950s but NZ2308, from Australia, escaped and was left to rot. Glyn calls this a restoration. “The purists will say it’s not a restoration, it’s a rebuild,” he grumbles, “but I believe it is a restoration because it has so many original parts.” As he points out, many so-called restorations are only 5% original. The plane will be painted in original RNZAF markings.

The mezzanine floor houses the cockpit gear, including the instrument panel, including original fuel gauges, instruments, and the start and booster coil buttons which are pushed simultaneously to start the engines. There is an extremely uncomfortable looking, original armour-plated pilot’s seat, with a parachute to be added.

The Mosquito flies to 38,000 feet; pilots need oxygen above 10,000 feet so there is an oxygen regulator, too. The dual control throttles are off the last Mosquito that flew in Britain. “It crashed about four or five years ago,” Glyn says. He points out the throttle and pitch levers: “These levers here are for extra power – if you get in the shit, you put the throttle forward and go for it.” There is also a complicated hydraulic system that operates the undercarriage, flaps and bomb door.

Glyn doesn’t do flight dates but, when he is airborne, his plans include Warbirds at Wanaka, before going on to Australia and then England. And, yes, he intends to be in the pilot’s seat. “Absolutely. That’s what this is all about.”

He knows some people think he’s mad, but there are worse ways to spend your time than bringing back from extinction the aircraft that helped to win the war. Not only that, but Glyn has plans for all the pieces he’s going to have left over: making a fourth Mosquito, because England needs one.

“I’ve got all the stuff here, all the templates, all the patterns and moulds,” he says. “You’d be mad if you didn’t.”

Photo: The Mosquito after its first flight in March 2024. Supplied by Harold Kidd

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