Flying Under Bridges
with Derek Piggot
Ever wonder how this was done? A Fokker DR1 Triplane replica flies beneath Carrickbrack Railway Viaduct, near Femoy, Eire. The film was The Blue Max , the year 1967, the pilot: Derek Piggot. I was only six, and the third sheep from the left is called Molly.
A frame from the movie. The chase helicopter, with nose mount, approaches the viaduct with Derek in his replica Fokker. I'm terrified already.
The DR1 replica had a wingspan of about 24' - which leads one to speculate the clearance was about 9' either side. The railway closed soon after, but the viaduct is still there. There are plans to reopen it as tourist route, but not as a flight path. Just to be clear: It is a criminal offence to fly under a bridge in an aircraft. (Unless you are testing your eyes. Ho ho topical joke)
I belong to the Light Aircraft Association and the regional struts organise monthly talks, usually a pilot or designer or suchlike to talk of some derring-do exploit or design issue, or something.
For the most part, these steely-eyed knights of the air (usually small, unassuming -looking people) are only to keen to turn up and chat, and some, who have had staggering careers are... well, inclined to monotony. But others were as good a raconteur as they were a pilot. The following are my contemporaneous notes of a meeting that was held in May 2003.
"...Derek was the pilot who flew under the viaduct in 'The Blue Max', pilotted the various craft in 'Those magnificent men in their flying machines' and many others. He only missed 'Battle of Britian' becasue he was working on 'Darling Lili'.
Derek is now about eighty, still flies although not competetively, and his zest for life and flying has not diminished. He started by telling us how he got into film flying which arrived after he had been working as the CFI (Chief Flying Instructor) at Lasham for about ten years. Film flying in the sixties offered an almost unprecedented amount of money for a pilot, especially as Derek had a mechanical edge and could asist in the building of replica aircraft.
He started off talking about the replica aeroplanes in 'TMMITFM'. The Boxkite, he said was not too bad to fly although hopelesly underpowered, and the small 110 HP engine used to overheat after three or four minutes because of the blanking effect of the pilot and fuel tank. They used to just fly a single circuit until someonne pushed it a little too far and the engine seized. To remedy it they nipped into Dover town, bought the smallest drill and opened out the main jet in the carb - it runs cool now, just uses a lot of fuel. The 'Demoiselle' was the best flyer of the lot although underpowered. The VW 1200 CC engine had to be replaced by a 1500 cc engine but was jealously guarded by the pilot who weighed only seven stone! She also flew the 'Bleriot' and didn't seem to have too much trouble with it but when Derek stepped in he found the centre of gravity to far aft and had to fly with the stick almost pressed against the panel.
In fact, many of the aircraft while not exactly death-traps were very dangerous to fly. The 'Bleriot' had seperate elevators, and when the fuselage flexes (as it did) then the elevators acted like ailerons and caused an uncommanded roll, something that caused Derek a great deal of concern, but not least the people on the ground who saw the rear fuselage flex dangerously. When he got down all the bracing wires had snapped; it turned out none of the suages had been load-tested in the hurry to build the replicas.
One of the main problemms, it seemed, was that many of the wings had wing-warping, which as many of the early designeres found out, a wing weak enough to be twisted by a control wheel was weak enough to be twisted by aerodynamic forces. Adding ailerons instead did not do a lot of good as the forces of the ailerons tended to twist the wing and reduce roll rather than increase it.
The worst replica was the 'Antoinette' which no-one liked to fly, and could only really manage short hops in a straight line. The Avro Triplane (still flown along with the boxkite up at Shuttleworth) was a handful as well, having no dihedral and a lattice fuselage. Derek said he flew it once using 25 degrees of bank (almost unheard of for any of these replicas) and was given a frightful bollocking by the other pilots as they had told the film-makers that 10 degrees was the most they could do.
Anyhow, he explained the problems of film flying which were very familiar to me, and then went on to talk about the bridge scene from 'The Blue Max'. This was one of his greatest stunts - flying through the span of a bridge with only 8' either side. He went to the bridge and recced it, discovering that this could be done if he had two sighting posts placed beyond the span that he could line up on. (In fact, you can see one of the sighting posts in the final movie) He did the stunt about seventeen times over three days with two aircraft, but said:
'Only the third day when there was a crosswind did it get really tricky!'
Sort of an understatement, really. The Irish railways minister had no knowledge of what was going on; there was no insurance available that would have covered any damage to the bridg, and the minister of air for Ireland didn't want to know what was going on and stayed well away. At one point when they were flying a rail inspection cart came across the bridge and they all ran away and hid until he was gone.
From 'Max' he went onto 'Villa rides' where he crashed a Tiger Moth into a river by removing the pin from the undercarriage so they would collaspe on landing. He stopped in about 20 yards from 70 MPH and was unhurt; he had hit the spot perfectly. In 'Darling Lili' he had the chance to fly the Fokker DVIII with it's box spar, rigid wing and powerful aielerons. He called it a 'delight to fly', an accolade he didn't really bestow upon the DR1 triplane which had a tendency to groundloop, and how you were almost completely blind taking off and landing because of the oblique poition of the middle wing.
Most pilots wheeled them on but not Derek - he just looked backwards as he three-pointed it. Extroadinary fying skills, really, and highly enthusiastic. He also showed us a 20 minute documentary about test flying the George Cayley glider, firstly behind a car 'Keep going you fool!' and then from a hair-raising bungee launch. He did the stunt again for an Imax movie and they dubbed him with an American accent. Cayley is poo-pooed in America but he was the first to realise that the wings on a flying machine would have to be rigid; the current thinking had been to have an ornithopter.
He signed copies of his book afterwards of which we got a copy. It was a great talk and very lucky to hear him speak..."
Derek Piggot passed away in 2019, aged 96.