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Finches and Moths of the Rio Grande Valley

No, it's not an article on birds and bugs. It is, however, a fascinating study of three rare aircraft whose homes are with the Rio Grande Valley Wing.

by Randy Wilson

Copyright © 2001 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 26, Number 3, Fall, 2001 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

No, this is not about birds and insects in deep South Texas, but rather the development history of three training aircraft assigned to the Rio Grande Valley Wing of the CAF - the Focke-Wulf Fw 44 Stieglitz (Goldfinch), the de Havilland D.H.94 Moth Minor and the Fleet Finch.

The German Acrobat

In 1931, famed German aerobatic pilot Gerd Achelis asked the Focke-Wulf company for a new two-place sporting, aerobatic and training biplane. The design known as the A 44 but little work was done on it until a new chief of design and flight testing, Kurt Tank, joined Focke-Wulf in November of that year

Redesignated the Fw 44 and given the name Stieglitz (Goldfinch), the new design was to become one of the first major successes for Focke-Wulf. The Goldfinch featured a welded steel tube fuselage and wooden wings, all fabric covered, which were designed to withstand the stresses of both aerobatics and primary flight training. The prototype first flew in 1932 powered by a 150 horsepower Siemens Sh 14a seven-cylinder radial engine.

Getting the bugs out of the design required extensive test flying and redesign by Tank, however, this resulted in a very strong aircraft with unusually good handling characteristics. Once production began, the Goldfinch became popular with civilian flying schools and clubs in a number of countries, and the design became the first to enter large-scale production by Focke-Wulf.

Some of the first production Goldfinches were powered by a 120 horsepower Argus As 8 four-cylinder inline engine and were designated Fw 44B. The major production version, however, was the Fw 44C, powered by the Siemens radial engine with an oil and fuel system which allowed the engine to continue running even during inverted flight.

The Goldfinch had an empty weight of 1,158 pounds and a maximum loaded weight of 1,985 pounds. Cruising speed was 107 mph with a maximum speed of 115 mph. Touch down for landing was at 45 mph.

In 1936, Gerd Achelis flew a Goldfinch to win the international aerobatic competition know as the Grand Prix of Nations. Fw 44s were also flown in aerobatic competitions and displays by famed pilots Otto Graf, Emil Kopf and Ernst Udet.

The Fw 44 also caught the attention of the German Luftwaffe, which ordered a large number of Goldfinches for service in its pilot schools, and these continued to serve in the training role until the end of the war in 1945. Many former Lufwaffe pilots still remember the Stieglitz as one of their favorite aircraft, both for training and also simply to enjoy its excellent aerobatic ability.

So popular was the Focke-Wulf design that several countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Sweden and Czechoslovakia, were granted licenses to build Goldfinches locally to meet the demand for the plane. Other countries which purchased and operated Fw 44s included Bolivia, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Finland, Rumania and Turkey.

Certainly, the Rio Grande Valley Wing’s Fw 44 Goldfinch must be considered one of the best flying “birds” in the Ghost Squadron.

The Last Moth

When Geoffrey de Havilland founded his aircraft company in 1920, he was determined to build planes for the civilian market – a market that required inexpensive and economical designs.

After several attempts to build a successful two-seat aircraft of less than 50 horsepower, de Havilland arranged for a new four-cylinder 60 horsepower engine to be constructed from one-half of World War I surplus Renault V-8 engines. Designed by Maj. F. B. Halford in 1924, the new engine was named the Cirrus and became the powerplant for the D.H.60, the first of the long line of de Havilland Moths.

Over the next ten years, the Moth series of biplane and high-wing monoplanes were one of de Havilland’s most successful series of aircraft, and in 1934, the D.H.82 Tiger Moth was accepted as the primary trainer for the Royal Air Force and ordered for similar use by a number of other countries. Configured as a military trainer, the Tiger Moth biplane was powered by a 130 horsepower Gipsy Major engine, and its loaded weight had grown to 1,825 pounds.

In 1931, de Havilland designed the first low-winged monoplane Moth, the D.H.81 Swallow Moth, an open cockpit two-seater with 80 horsepower. This was an attempt to get back to a lighter, more efficient aircraft than required for military training. Despite being flown and demonstrated successfully, the Swallow Moth was not produced due to a weak economic climate.

In 1937, the basic light monoplane concept was revived and emerged as the D.H.94 Moth Minor. The first prototype flew in June of that year powered by a 90 horsepower Gipsy Minor engine. The aircraft weighed only 960 pounds empty and 1,550 pounds fully loaded and had a top speed of 118 mph and a cruise of 100 mph. The fuselage was the well proven wooden box design of the Moth series but the monoplane low wing was plywood covered and of a higher aspect ratio. The tail and other control surfaces were fabric covered. To reduce the space required to hangar the design, the outer wing sections folded backwards from the center section.

Despite the open cockpits, the Moth Minor was a very clean and attractive design, with the pilot seated in the front cockpit and a perforated flap or speed brake fitted under the center section to steepen and shorten the approach to landing. Demand for the modern and economical Moth Minor from flying schools and clubs in a number of countries resulted in production reaching eight aircraft per month by mid-1939. When the Second World War began in September of that year, over 100 D.H.94s had been completed but demand for production space to build combat aircraft caused the unfinished Moth Minor airframes to be shipped to de Havilland’s facilities in Australia for completion.

More than 40 Moth Minors assembled in Australia were used as trainers by the Royal Australian Air Force until enough Tiger Moth trainers became available. In Great Britain, some civilian Moth Minors were impressed into service for general utility and communications duties with the British Air Ministry and other services. One former civilian Moth Minor was even operated by American forces in the Near East with the nickname the Sand Fly.

After the war, some Moth Minors were fitted with canopies and variable pitch propellers and one of these, still with only 90 horsepower, averaged over 137 mph in air races in 1950. A small number of D.H.94s still survive and fly today, including the Ghost Squadron’s own RGV Wing Moth Minor, the last in the long line of de Havilland Moths.

A Canadian Finch

Reuben Fleet founded the Consolidated Aircraft Corp. in 1923 to build trainers designed by the Dayton Wright Co. for the Army Air Corps. Fleet’s modifications to the design resulted in the first Consolidated trainer, which was ordered by both the Army and Navy with the nicknames Trusty and Husky.

In 1928, Fleet decided to try the civilian market with a lighter weight two-place trainer, called the Model 14 or Husky Junior. The first prototype flew in November of 1928 powered by a 110 horsepower Warner Scarab seven-cylinder radial engine. The appearance of one of the first Husky Juniors in the International Aeronautical Exposition in Chicago that year resulted in a number of orders for the plane at $7,500 each.

The other directors of Consolidated were not as keen on the civilian market as was Fleet, and wanted to discontinue the Husky Jr. in favor of the more lucrative military market. Fleet decided to purchase the rights to build the plane from Consolidated, and in February 1929, formed Fleet Aircraft Inc. Fleet then contracted with Consolidated to build 110 Husky Juniors. After a few months, Fleet sold his company back to Consolidated but the design bore the Fleet name from then on.

The Fleet biplane had a welded steel tube fuselage and tail unit, and the wings were constructed with a spruce wood spar and aluminum ribs, all of which were fabric covered. The second production model, the Fleet 2, switched from the Warner engine to a Kinner K-5 five-cylinder radial engine of 90 to 110 horsepower.

Unlike many contemporary trainers, the Fleet design had neutral stability, which made it a more demanding trainer for students but also made it an excellent aerobatic aircraft. In 1930, famed pilot Paul Mantz flew a Fleet 2 to establish a world record of 46 consecutive outside loops. More than 200 of this model were built in 1929-1931, including a few for the Army as PT-6s and Navy as N2Ys. Six of the Navy aircraft were used as “Skyhook” trainers for pilots assigned to the airships Los Angeles, Akron and Macon.

In 1930, Fleet established a subsidiary, Fleet Aircraft of Canada (later renamed Fleet Aircraft Ltd.), in Fort Erie, Ontario and began to assemble and eventually manufacture the Fleet biplane in Canada. The Canadian Royal Air Force purchased Fleet 7s and Fleet 10s for use as trainers, and in 1938 requested a version of the Fleet with specific modifications for RCAF training.

The Fleet 16 was the result, with wing spars of Douglas fir, double landing wires and a 125 horsepower Kinner B-5 radial engine. Fully loaded, the open cockpit, two-seat Fleet 16 weighted 1,860 pounds, had a top speed of 113 mph, and was fully aerobatic. The RCAF named it the Fleet Finch.

About 430 Fleet Finches were delivered to the RCAF beginning in 1939 and most were used as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) at over 230 bases across Canada. Along with de Havilland Tiger Moths and Fairchild Cornells (RCAF versions of the PT-26), the Fleet Finches helped train over 130,000 pilots and aircrew members during World War II.

The CAF’s Fleet Finch now lives in the RGV Wing’s Brownsville hangar, peacefully sharing space with a former enemy bird, the Focke-Wulf 44 Goldfinch. This is part of the magic of the Ghost Squadron.

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Please note that the members of the Confederate Air Force voted in 2001 to change the name of the organization to the Commemorative Air Force and this name change took effect on 1 January, 2002. Articles copyrights should reflect the name change. Articles reproduced on this site are with the permission of the authors and copyright holders.