“That can’t be a real airplane! It’s much too small!” That’s what one visitor said when he saw Tom Wathen’s full-scale replica Avions Caudron C.460 on display in front of Vintage Aircraft headquarters at this summer’s AirVenture.
The airplane, which hails from the 1930s, the Golden Age of air racing, measures 23 feet from spinner to tail. Wing span is about 22 feet. For comparison, a Cessna 152 has a wingspan of about 33 feet and a length of 24 feet.
What grabs you about the Caudron is the thinness of the fuselage. This is a single-seat pilot design and that pilot better be small or flexible or both. Similar to the GeeBee racer, the Caudron is an airframe strapped to an engine for maximum speed.
After inspecting the Caudron, several visitors asked if the vintage machine could really fly, suggesting that it had been trucked to AirVenture for static display because it looked too unstable for a cross-country jaunt. They were surprised to learn that it had flown all the way from the West Coast to Oshkosh.
“It flies,” laughed Wathen, the owner of Flabob Airport (RIR) in Riverside, California, which is home to the Wathen Foundation, an organization that works with youth and others to promote aviation. Wathen’s personal aircraft collection is heavy on vintage designs, especially racing airplanes. The Caudron is the latest filly in the fold.
“The airplane flew for the first time in February 2009. It’s fast, and I like fast,” said Wathen. “This is the first time we’ve brought it to Oshkosh.”
The Caudron was designed in 1934 by Marcel Riffard of France, during the Golden Age of air racing. At the time, airplanes flying around pylons were akin to today’s NASCAR. The Depression was in full swing and people were looking for excitement, living vicariously through dashing aviators like Roscoe Turner.
Riffard designed six variations of the Caudron. It raced all over the world, often finishing in the top three, at least in Europe. American races, on the other hand, were dominated by American airplanes and pilots. That changed in 1936 when the C.460 was brought to Los Angeles to compete in the National Air Race.
“It bested all the competition,” said Wathen. “It essentially wiped out the Americans and all the other airplanes it raced against by big percentages. It took home the much-coveted Thompson Trophy.”
The airplane is on the technological cusp of the change between wood and fabric early aircraft and the metal designs that followed.
“The airplane is entirely made of wood except for the landing gear and, of course, the engine,” said Wathen.
The landing gear was of special interest to Oshkosh visitors. It is retractable and hydraulically actuated. The curious shape of the wheel pants made some visitors get down on all fours to inspect it. The wheel pants have a sort of lip on them, so it doesn’t look like they could fit into the wheel wells.
“The landing gear not only folds up into the belly, it twists to do so,” said Mark Lightsey, who piloted the Caudron from California to Wisconsin and led its construction at AeroCraftsman, Inc., a restoration and replica construction shop at Flabob Airport. “It was a team effort,” he stressed, noting that it took the talents of metal workers, carpenters, and fabric coverers to build the Caudron.
The challenge began with creating plans for the airplane, because, as Wathen noted, “It was essentially a one-off, and no plans existed for it. We were able to construct this one from some drawings we found in the aviation museum in Lebouget, France. The original Caudron C.460 crashed in a lake during an attempt to set a speed record and it’s still there.”
“There were no parts that we could use to make templates,” Lightsey chimed in. “This was done strictly from model airplane drawings, pictures, whatever documentation we could find. It took us about two-and-a-half years to build.”
Although the aircraft bore a “please do not touch” placard, it was all some people could do to keep from gently tapping the skin, especially a large silver patch on the left side of the nose.
“The silver patch is a skin-type of oil cooler,” Lightsey explained. “Because it was flush in the skin, there is no drag from the oil cooler, which is what you want in a racing airplane. But a few years later the skin-type oil coolers proved to be not very effective on war planes because they were too susceptible to being damaged because there was too much area to shoot at, so they fell out of favor.”
According to Lightsey, the original airplane sported a 370-hp Renault engine that was capable of reaching speeds up to 272 mph.
“I wish we had that, but we don’t,” he sighed. “The biggest engine that is available today, the one we have, is a Czech 260-hp LOM. Typical cruising speeds are about 205-210 mph at 25 inches of manifold pressure and 2,300 rpm. The fastest it’s been flown to date is 280 mph indicated at 6,000 feet MSL.”
One of the more intriguing things is the diminutive cockpit.
“It’s a squeeze,” said Lightsey, who stands over 6 feet and is broad shouldered. “The cockpit is tiny — it’s too narrow to even wear a headset. It was designed strictly for racing, so you wear the airplane — I mean you literally put the airplane on. The door opens and the canopy slides forward so there is room to get in, but when you close everything in you really feel claustrophobic. It’s fun for about 20 to 25 minutes, then you are ready to jump out”
Lightsey recounted the trip from California to Oshkosh: “It took about three days, 11 hours of flying, nine fuel stops, lots of weather, lots of wind, a broken exhaust stack, but no major trouble,” he grinned. “It burns 100LL, about 10 gallons an hour in cruise. It carries a total of 43 gallons, of which 40 is usable.”
The longest leg of the flight was two hours and 40 minutes, because the airplane is so fatiguing to fly. “It flies very unstable, very sensitive,” said Lightsey. “That’s how they were designed as racers. They were designed to be very light on the controls. It’s also very blind and has a high approach to landing speed. It is very challenging to fly.”
Blind is an understatement. Because of the tailwheel, high nose-up pitch angle and the low position of the cockpit, even serpentine taxiing is a challenge. Several AirVenture visitors crouched down next to the cockpit and looked toward the nose. Most stood up shaking their heads, commenting that the pilot must have been crazy, especially adventurous — or both — to fly it.
Lightsey watched these reactions and just shrugged. “It wasn’t designed to be a cross-country airplane, it was designed to be a racer,” he laughed.