One of the aircraft restoration projects currently in progress, and making the news, is indeed something of a rarity! It is the construction from a very faded and sketchy print of plans of a hardly known WWI fighter, the Eastchurch Kitten, of which only 3 prototype examples were built. The aircraft would almost have disappeared from history had not an attempt been made in the early 1980’s to essentially build one from scratch. However, this effort stalled and what existed in the shape of a incomplete fuselage, came to the Museum in 1987. It has lain in store, awaiting its turn, in a long line of aircraft restoration projects until Spring 2011, when the green light was given to the Museum Aircraft Engineering team commence the re-build.
The concept behind the Eastchurch Kitten was by the Admiralty for a ‘high altitude’ fighter to tackle the threat posed by the Zeppelin airships which had brought the war to our shores with bombing raids in 1915. The Kitten was planned to be launched from platforms on battleships, cruisers or even torpedo boats. It was to be a ‘disposable’, one operation aircraft, to simply go up, intercept and shoot down the airship, then ditch in the sea. In 1917, the Royal Naval Air Service Experimental Construction Depot at Port Victoria produced two concepts, the P.V. 7 ‘Grain’ Kitten and the P.V.8 ‘Eastchurch’ Kitten. The latter proved to be the better and made its first flight on 1st September 1917, but was found to be unstable, leading to redesign of the horizontal tail surfaces, elevator and tailplane.
The alterations made the P.V.8 a pleasant aeroplane to fly and it performed better than the P.V.7. However, the 35 h.p Gnat engine was unreliable and the aircraft would have benefited from a more powerful engine and might have been a practical anti-airship weapon. But by this time the threat of the airships had receded and the project was deemed unviable. There was interest in the project in the USA from the aircraft designer James Martin and the P.V.8 was packed for shipping in March 1918 and that’s where the story ends, for it was not known if it ever made the journey or what became of it.
The story of the aircraft and its restoration is now very significant, encapsulating this fascinating piece of aviation history. The project received a major boost during the summer of 2012, when two young French aviation design students undertaking a placement here at the Museum, were able to assist the project leader Ray McElwain, and made many of the wing struts and other parts, such as cable brackets, putting their metal working skills to the test. Since then, the framework has been covered in Irish linen, tautened with dope to a tension similar to a drum and painted in the original specification for a Royal Naval Air Service craft. In addition we have sourced a similar twin cylinder air cooled engine and refitted all the controls so that this 97 year old design is once again live.
Although non-flying the aircraft will be completed for live “ground running” in time for the WWI centenary commemorations alongside the Museum’s other WWl fighters, which include the 1914 BE2 and the 1917 SE5a which is also a live ground running aircraft. The first planned running of the Kitten will be on Sunday 6th April, during the first of our 2014 “Thunder Day” engine running shows. It is also planned for the Kitten and BE2 to be exhibited in the centre of Leeds to herald the regions WWI Centenary Commemorations.