Found in rural Northamptonshire, Spanhoe Airfield was once called home by both the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force. Now, some 70 years after the airfield was returned to the farmers it was requisitioned from, its remnants house a near-unknown type, the Reid and Sigrist R.S.4 ‘Bobsleigh’. Making its first post-restoration public appearance at the recent Spanhoe day/night photocall held by Threshold.aero, AeroResource’s Jamie Ewan was there.
With types from the stables of Cessna, Piper, Taylorcraft and Boeing calling the hangars home, Spanhoe Airfield seems like another typical GA (General Aviation) airfield. Join them with the likes of Fokker, Beagle, Argus and Helio and it becomes something different. Add to them the name of a company that built just two aeroplanes and it becomes somewhere special. That name? Reid and Sigrist.
Having languished for some four decades, the R.S.4 has far outlived the very company behind its creation. In fact, it is easy to say that many in the aviation world won’t have heard of it, the outfit behind it or the boffins behind the aeroplanes carrying their name – all three of them! With that in mind, the chances of Reid and Sigrist’s ‘aviation legacy’ making it into the twentieth century were slim. Until now – thanks mainly to the efforts of aircraft maintenance company Windmill Aviation.
Working alongside the Spanhoe based outfit, February 10 saw Threshold open their 2018 account with a day/night photocall at the former Second World War airfield that allowed ‘unprecedented access’ to the plethora of aeroplanes that call it home, including those staying put in their hangars. With money raised being donated to The Air Ambulance Service, the event would see some thirty or so aeroplanes lined up with photography in mind for a four-hour afternoon photocall before an evening session ‘under the lights’. As well as the residents in the line-up, the one and only R.S.4 and other staples of the GA world would be joined by a number visitors dropping into the airfield – subject to that one nemesis in all things aviation of course… Mother Nature!
Ah, Mother Nature! No doubt, like many who had booked a ticket, the ‘F5’ refresh key on their keyboard has been worn down with the repeated bashing while keeping an eye on the weather in the days leading up to event, hoping that the projected forecast to be completely wrong. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, with a band of rain stretching the width of the country hitting mid-morning leading to many of the visiting pilots scrubbing their flights. Despite this, one aeroplane, G-CEHR – a 1961-built Auster AOP.9 wearing Army Air Corps marking – did manage to make it through to Spanhoe. Thankfully in spite of the odd light shower stopping by, the worst of the rain had all but gone by the time those attending passed through the airfield’s gate.
On the note of tickets, Spanhoe saw Threshold offer a ticket for either the day or night session or a combined one for both – a huge plus for the organisers, especially with those just after record shots of the aeroplanes and not fussed about them at night or those only able to attend one of the sessions.
Another huge plus was the organisation of the limited car parking on the airfield – those with a day ticket turned left at the ‘Bobsleigh’ (as would those with a night ticket arriving at their allotted time) and those with a combined turned right – easy!
With the day’s aircraft line up sitting on the grass next to Spanhoe’s sole runway, it was the aeroplane at the head of it that had almost immediate attention – those arriving whipping phones and cameras out to ‘bag’ that first shot of the R.S.4. Wearing a faux-pax camouflage scheme it picked up while with the world-renowned Strathallan Aircraft Collection, the story of how this near- apocryphal flying machine ended up at Spanhoe is worthy of an article in itself – in fact with its re-emergence some of the R.S.4’s story is just coming to light. That story begins back with the R.S.1 Snargasher way back in 1939 and ends with the aeroplane now nearing its first flight in nearly 40 years. In between, the story includes the development of the ungainly named R.S.1 by Reid and Sigrits’ boffins, leading to the elegant looking R.S.3 ‘Desford Trainer’, which in turn became the basis for the R.S.4. Radical development to undertake prone position pilot trials led to spells with the Royal Navy and Farnborough’s Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) for said trials wearing the serial VZ7281. Following service with RAE, the R.S.4 passed through the hands of numerous civilian owners (as G-AGOS) and had a number of uses – including an air courier and aerial survey work with Kemps Aerial Surveys out of Eastleigh Aerodrome. A closer look at the aeroplane shows flecks of its original silver scheme breaking through. The story even includes the first ever aircraft auction by Christies, and time spent with the incredibly short-lived Scottish Aircraft Collection Trust. Unbelievably, the R.S.4 even spent a number of years stored in the miner’s washroom of the former Snibston Colliery it would go on to call home, finding ownership with Leicestershire County Council (LCC), to whom it belongs to this day. Unlike some owners that squander their ‘one and only’ example away out of sight or in the corner of a museum collecting dust, LCC have entrusted Windmill Aviation with the R.S.4’s restoration to flight under the leadership of Auster maestro Carl Tyers. Nevertheless, as I say, the story deserves an article of its own.
Sat at the head of the line, the ‘Bobsleigh’ was joined by a brutish looking Focke-Wulf FWP-149D, a smart Grumman GA-7 Cougar, a battle-worn Nord NC-856 Norvigie which had run up for the first time in a number of years the week before, and a 1970-built Series 1 Beagle Pup wearing a delightful red and white scheme. Sat next to them, a Reims-Cessna FR172 Hawk adorned in a sharp white and black scheme, a silver example of de Havilland’s venerable Chipmunk (another example sat nearby in its ‘tug’ configuration), an ex-Royal Air Force 1944-built Taylorcraft Auster V and a mighty blue and white Piper Tri-pacer – a SOCACTA TB10 Tobago sitting close by. Opposite them sat two more brutish types, a Vietnam-esque Helio H-295 Super Courier and a French Navy marked Morane-Saulnier MS733 Alcyon. Another classic on show was a cowl-less PT-17 Kaydet – radial goodness! The bottom end of the airfield was awash with colour with an Auster J-5L Aiglet in a smart red and yellow ‘Shell’ scheme joined by an ex-Dutch Air Force Fokker S-11 Instructor in its distinctive yellow scheme, while a bright orange Italian marked Siai Marchetti SF.260 closed the line off. As well as the line-up, the various hangars offered some ‘gems’ including the former Air Cadet Beagle-Auster Husky still in its red and white RAF training scheme, the appropriately named ‘Bluebell’ – a stunning all over blue Piper PA15 Vagabound, an ex-South African registered Fairchild UC-61K Argus III masquerading as a Royal Air Force example and even a Brügger Colibri MB2.
With two planned sessions of photography, the first saw the added bonus of a tour around the various hangars for those wanting to log those aeroplanes still tucked away from the elements. Yet another huge plus for the organiser in allowing those that wanted to the chance to tick off airframes they may not get a chance to capture elsewhere, this being evident by almost everyone there tagging along for a nosey about. With numerous Cessnas dotted around the place as well, more Austers, a lonely yellow Piper Cub and even a random Pitts Special squared away in a hangar to name a few, Spanhoe is a GA haven. In fact, it isn’t just aeroplanes that call Spanhoe home but a number of wheeled machines too – a few wrecks and relics being spied around the site including a US Army M3 Half-track that was parked next to the R.S.4 for the afternoon. Something different!
In addition to the tour, the afternoon session included a number of the aeroplanes undertaking engine runs, the Cougar, Courier and Norvigie – the latter, an ex-French Army example, spitting fire and producing some impressive prop tip vortices.
However, of the afternoons ‘runs’ it was an aeroplane without wings or even a canopy that caught the most attention! Sat in the back of one of the hangars, Erco Ercoupe 415D N2844H showed off its smart blue and green scheme off with a bimble around the airfield. What has to be commented on is the sheer effort from the guys behind the runs to get both this and the Norvigie started – both aeroplanes spluttering numerous times before finally bursting into song. That same effort had been seen long before the gates opened with both the organisers and those lending a hand dragging and positioning the aeroplanes – something not easily done with the weather conditions and near saturated grass. Likewise has to be said for the two ladies who were on hand to keep those attending watered and fed with copious amounts of tea, coffee, burgers and bacon! What more do you need… aeroplanes, coffee and burgers!
Like the afternoon session, the evening session saw a number of engine runs, the Norvigie and Helio running up again with the Argus, Auster AOP.9, Focke-Wulf and ‘Bobsleigh’ joining them – the latter running twice, once during the dingy Northamptonshire twilight and later when it was dark. As can be imagined, with many having made the journey solely for R.S.4 there was a slight but understandable ‘humph’ in the air when word was passed that the aeroplane had decided it didn’t want to start in the morning when the crew had tried – despite trying for over an hour to coax the Gypsy Majors into life. Thankfully, the aeroplane burst into life after just a couple of attempts and to give the ‘fire spitting’ Norvigie a run for its money with its own bursts of flame from its exhausts.
As well as the lights being used to light up the runners, the static aeroplanes were also given a chance to pose ‘under the lights’. Further kudos must go to the Threshold guys for asking the gathered photographers if the lighting was what they wanted and for running forward and backward to accommodate the numerous requests – especially for that extra few seconds during an exposure!
Having run up during a private event late last year, this was the first time in nearly 40 years that the R.S.4 had been seen doing it in public – an incredible sight and sound. Thanks to LCC’s far sighted decision to have the machine restored to airworthiness and the work of Windmill Aviation, this piece of aviation history has been given the chance to spread the word of both it and Reid and Sigrist.