Their love of aviation and history have led Retired USAF Colonels Blake and Sandy Thomas to build replicas of World War I aircraft. Last year at SUN ’n FUN, they brought the replica they built of a 1917 Nieuport-28. This year, they brought a replica 1915 Sopwith Schneider they built in 2012.
It took them 688 hours to build it from the kit designed by Robert Baslee of Airdrome Aeroplanes. Baslee’s company built the planes used in the movies “Fly Boys,” “Amelia,” and “Game of Aces.”
If you haven’t heard of the Sopwith Schneider before, it’s understandable. The U.S. had only one of them in use during World War I and it was on floats.
Blake and Sandy dove deep into research on this early warbird.
“Tom Sopwith loved yachts and seaplanes. The Sopwith Tabloid was built as a racing seaplane. In 1914, he modified it and won the Schneider Air Race in Monaco. He then called the modified version the Schneider,” Blake said.
“After the war began, it was used as a scout plane for reconnaissance. Because they didn’t have radios, they’d fly over enemy positions and report back what they saw,” he said. “They also carried handguns and steel darts with a charge in them. They used these steel darts on enemy airships and balloons.”
Blake reports there were 136 built during World War I and they were used by the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Service. The U.S. bought one and it was stationed in Pensacola.
“There are two of these in museums in England and they’re replicas because the planes were all destroyed during the war,” he added.
Eventually, the warplanes were armed with a Lewis machine gun, bombs, or steel darts, according to Blake.
“The gun mounted on the side would shoot through the propeller, which had a metal deflector on it. Occasionally, the bullets would break into fragments and ricochet back at the pilot,” he said. “You can imagine it’s the worst case of friendly fire.”
The gun mounted on Blake and Sandy’s aircraft is a replica that was used in movies to match the look of the real gun, which shot 7.7 mm or 303 bullets.
Blake and Sandy’s Sopwith Schneider (N394FF) has 50 hours on it. It has no windshield and no floats.
It has side-by-side seating for two and there are two antique instruments on the panel — a compass and an altimeter. The plane has a 39-mph stall speed and though the original had no brakes, they installed mechanical brakes.
Sandy hand painted the concentric circles on the wings and fuselage.
“Originally, it had a VW engine, but it would overheat,” Blake said, “so we put a Lycoming O-320 in it.”
“Uncle Sam’s hat in the ring painted on the side of the aircraft represents the pre-World War I status. After we entered the war, the hat was turned upside down, like you would throw a hat, to show that we were joining the fight,” said Blake.
Blake and Sandy plan to fly the aircraft to the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I in Dayton, Ohio. The WWI Dawn Patrol Rendezvous will be held Sept. 22-23 at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Sandy and Blake will wear re-enactor’s garb — a fighter pilot uniform for Blake and a volunteer driver uniform for Sandy.
After building an RV-7, a replica 1917 Nieuport-28, a 1915 Sopwith Schneider, and restoring a WWII jeep, what will their next project be?
“Our next airplane will be a ’43 Stearman,” Sandy reported.