I once flew a Focke-Wulf Piaggio D149. Yes, it was one of the more memorable flights and yet, was also one of the shortest. A hop from Rand Airport to Lanseria, co-pilot aboard the Piaggio D149 FWP, licensed and produced by Focke-Wulf of Germany, manufactured in 1953, registration ZS-FWP. Zulu-Sierra Foxtrot Whisky Pappa.
Historic, total time 0.3. Which is 15 minutes. Why the excitement you ask? As I will explain, Piaggo Aerospace is one of the oldest motor or tech companies in the world, with its history going back to 1884. Unfortunately, the aviation arm is now bankrupt. More about this matter below. But first, a memory.
It’s Spring in Johannesburg, temperature 30˙, really hot on 21st October 2008. and the plane had not flown for a year and flight instructor Russell Donaldson busied himself around the hangar checking the “warbird”. The D149 single engined “beastie” as Russell called it was manufactured after the Second World War, and it smelled of old oil, ageing leather and hot aluminium.
No pictures exist of that day, just this entry in my logbook. Russell would probably just shrug anyway, he’s flown just about everything with wings since he took off in 1962.
The year of my birth.
We were far too busy that morning at Rand Airport ensuring that this aged plane would actually get us off the ground in weather that was both hot and high. Being a rookie, my role was to hand tools to Russell who spent more than an hour going over the log book, the engine, and the plane. We weren’t entirely certain it would start.
But FWP turned over and purred like a big cat. Its thundering engine made the seats tremble, the Lycoming GO-480 B1A6 flat-six geared piston engine blasting away.
I must admit I was nervous, yet all my job entailed was to flip the undercarriage lever up and keep a close eye on the oil pressure, and a little radio comms. Russell was going to heave the “beastie” into the air and needed every ounce of focus on the aircraft.
The run up took 15 minutes as we listened for any sign of engine trouble. It also gave the Lycoming time to heat up so that any oil leaks or fuel fires would hopefully start now, if they were to start at all.
No fires. We’re off.
Russell taxied out to runway 350 and turned left at the threshold instead of right, saying he wanted as much runway as possible. He also knew that at the end was a golf course, a couple of warehouses, and mine dumps. If we had to go down, rather there than towards suburbia on runway 290.
Runway 350 is 4800 feet long and 50 feet wide – 1463 x 15 meters. That’s not a lot of space for mistakes.
We began the 4750 run from the very edge of runway 350.
My heart was in my mouth as the old warbird gathered speed, and finally 70 knots – ROTATE!
As the wheels left the tar I flipped the undercarriage lever up and fixated on the oil pressure and temperature gauge. All good so far.
We just cleared the trees and I saw golfers eyes flash past below. That was low.
After we climbed to 6500 feet Russell said “You’ve got her” and I held the stick. No yoke or side lever here it was just good old fashioned stick between the legs stuff.
A few minutes later we were in Lanseria Airspace, Russell took over, undercarriage down, land.
What an experience on so many levels. But this tale has a sad ending. Piaggio Aviation, you see, have just declared business rescue – the company is bankrupt.
Which is confusing because Piaggio also produces the wonderful moped known as Vespa which is a roaring success.
Founded in 1884, Piaggio Aero Industries is one of the world’s oldest aircraft manufacturers and has always designed unusual planes. Probably the most unusual is its final plane, the flagship P180 Avanti II, a twin-engine, turboprop executive aircraft known for its “distinctive styling, spacious interior and low fuel consumption”.
The main problem, however, has been the business of aviation. There’s no doubt the Avanti II is the best of its kind in the world.
The company manufactured in short bursts, and that was its achilles heel. For example, the Avanti Evo is one of the best looking planes ever built. Yes, beauty is sometime in the eye of the beholder, but here’s a picture.
Here’s another :
The Avanti II producer is now insolvent, in special administration. That is despite being bought by a Sheik. Well, by Mubadala, an investment fund based in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
This is a real pity for world aviation and pure blooded brilliant aviation design. The company was busy with unmanned reconnaissance aircraft design too, called The Hammerhead. As you can see, the Evo is pretty much a Hammerhead.
Piaggio are probably more famous for the Vespa, through the official motoring company Piaggio & C. SpA. They produce seven brands, including the Vespa, Gilera, Aprilia, Moto Guzzi, Derbi and Scarabeo.
Quite a change from a company that was formed to build locomotives and railway carriages.
As with all Italian mechanical engineering companies, at first the company build defence type machines too. Like motorboats, then anti-submarine motorboats, aeroplanes, seaplanes, and onwards to land.
Between 1937 and 1939 Piaggio broke 21 world aviation records for both aircraft and engine design. The most feared for allies was the Piaggio-P.108 bomber.
That attracted attention, and in 1940 the company’s Pontedera plant was flattened by Allied bombing. After the war, the company diversified and the MP5 or Paperino (Italian name for Donald Duck) was born. All because the first Vespa was so strangely shaped.
After a few rejigs, the Vespa proper (which means wasp) was born, and by the sixties, more than a million of these fund bikes were rolling around Europe.
And Italians got a new word – “vespare” which means to go around on a Vespa.
But I must say I’m rather sad. The fantastic Piaggio D149 that I flew across Johannesburg in 2008 remains in my memory for its pure-bred power and excitement.
One of these is still around in South Africa, the ZS-FWP that I flew has been altered to a ZU-FWP non-type certified and is hangared last I heard at Baragwanath airfield.