Sometimes you find something that surprises you – immensely. It is rather like panning for gold, and coming up with a huge, rough diamond. At Abingdon, during an early phase of the Great Vintage Flying Weekend event, I came across this pretty aircraft; it was rather like some Malagasy fishermen hauling up their nets and finding a coelcanthe (Latimeria chalumnae).
The genesis of the Leopoldoff is shrouded in the mists of the Bolshevik Revolution. It is said that the plans of the original aircraft were drawn up prior to 1917 by E.T.S. Leopoldoff, who, when the Imperial Russian regime fell, hurriedly left the country. Like many other Russian emigres, he ended up in Paris (French had been the preferred language of the Imperial Court, and most of the Russian aristocracy). There, the Russian community scratched out a living as best they could; some were shopkeepers, some salesmen, and some, as in Leopoldoff’s case, became taxi drivers. He finally persuaded a French company to build a prototype to his drawings, which flew in September, 1933. Progress was slow, with the first production machine appearing in 1937. Minor variations gave rise to changes in designation, with the main version being the L.3. Leopoldoff had formed his own company by now (Societe des Avions Leopoldoff), which undertook to build this pretty aircraft as a two seater for club or touring purposes. Just over 30 aircraft were produced before the Second World War broke out.
The L.7 Colibri (named after a genus of hummingbird) is a post-war modification of an L.3. The original aircraft would have been fitted with a Salmson 9Adb radial engine of 45hp, leaving it rather underpowered. Instead, the L.7 now has the ubiquitous Continental Motors Corporation A65-8S engine, of 65hp, driving a wooden Sensenich W72CK propeller – a much better proposition. You can just make out that the L.7 is a sesquiplane (or unequal span biplane). Some Leopoldoff aircraft were ‘normal’ biplanes, and you can see that this has given rise to an odd appearance. The attachment points for the interplane struts on the upper wing have stayed the same, which means the struts now make an acute angle with the shorter, lower wing. Note the pronounced wing dihedral. There are echoes of WW1 aircraft in this design; indeed, one of the few examples still extant (in the collection of L’Amicale Jean-Baptiste Salis, at La Ferte-Alais in France) is painted in German WW1 markings.
Post-war, six more aircraft were built in Morocco by Societe des Constructions Aeronautiques du Maroc, and one of these made a noteworthy flight on the 3rd July 1948, when it successfully completed a 600km course as part of an aviation rally organised by the Aviation Federation of Morocco. The Leopoldoff (powered by a Salmson radial) landed safely back at Rabat, where the crew of Dr Saugnes and M J Rousseau were greeted by the Resident General de la France au Maroc, General Juin and Prince Moulay Hassan. It was the smallest aircraft in the rally, and had no special navigation instruments!
This L.7 is the only one on the British register, and was owned by D’Arcy Aviation in the 1970s (it had been on the French register, at one stage, as F-PCZX). It is now in the capable hands of Mr William Cooper. Long may she grace British skies.