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Wooden Wonder Wows Warbird Watchers

By Frederick A. Johnsen

  • Wooden wonder wows warbird watchers
    Once given up for dead, the de Havilland Mosquito is back in fine form, as demonstrated by this fighter-bomber restoration that flew in to AirVenture 2015.
July 21, 2015 - Like a ghost some thought they would never see, a flyable World War II de Havilland Mosquito fighter bomber came to AirVenture 2015.

The pride of the Military Aviation Museum of Virginia Beach, Virginia, this Mosquito was resurrected from a shambled hulk found in Canada.

Owner Jerry Yagen told a crowd of about 600 at Tuesday morning's Warbirds in Review session that the wooden Mosquito project he bought "was terrible looking. It was a pile of wooden mush."

De Havilland had experience with wooden aircraft structure, and opted to design the fast Mosquito to use mostly wood as a means of conserving valuable aluminum. It also enabled a British cottage industry of fine furniture makers to contribute to the war effort from their dispersed workshops.

The Royal Air Force's initial indifference to the company-funded project changed when early Mosquitoes proved faster than the vaunted Spitfire fighter.

The flyable Mosquito at AirVenture is a Canadian-built variant. The construction rationale calls for spruce plywood and balsa for the fuselage and wings.

Warren Denholm of Avspecs, the New Zealand company that rebuilt this Mosquito, told the crowd the fuselage is molded in two halves like a giant model kit. A New Zealand businessman with a passion for Mosquitoes did the research and crafted the molds by reverse-engineering drawings, Denholm explained.

To build a Mosquito, plywood is wrapped over the mold and clamped in place with steel straps until the glue dries. The de Havilland rationale called for installing all the guts of the Mosquito—wiring, equipment, and other components—into each half before mating the fuselage pieces. This made for easier access.

The restoration of Yagen's Canadian Mosquito used a lot of metal components from the hulk, Yagen said. "Surprisingly little metal work had to be remade." The engine cowling is new, but much of the other metal survived even as the adjacent wooden structure returned to nature.

Except for "a few bits," Denholm said almost all of the wood on this Mosquito is new. "We ordered the plywood from the same manufacturer who made it in World War II," he added. The restoration team needed to use the original three-ply style of the wood, since that was a factor in the strength characteristics designed into the Mosquito. "You can't change the plywood style without re-engineering" the project he said, since three-ply wood is twice as strong in one direction as it is in the other. To use a different number of plies could change the load characteristics.

One modern incorporation is good for the Mosquito restoration—modern glues and epoxies promise great strength and longevity for the new-made airframe structures, Denholm said.

Denholm approaches warbird rebuilds with a touch of the museum conservator in mind. When asked if he saw a future in making all-new Mosquitoes, he said such machines would be prohibitively expensive when compared to projects with some actual hardware, while the restorations that incorporate actual Mosquito hardware have more historical provenance, and hence, value.  

The Mosquito parked on the Warbirds in Review ramp is a study in contrasts. Its generally smooth form and minimalist structure speaks of speed, while its heavy bedstead landing gear with huge metal mudflaps looks like farm equipment run amok. Nonetheless, aesthetics trumps hardware in the overall appearance of this rare piece of World War II history.

In the sunlight, a faint hint of the diagonal wrap of plywood can be seen. Visitors seem irresistibly drawn to lightly thump the fuselage, gaining firsthand tactile confirmation of how it sounds and feels.
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