...it'll FLY right !' This old pilot's saying generally seems to be true. Think, North American Mustang, de Havilland Mosquito, Hawker Hart, Supermarine Spitfire. However, it seems that the converse also applies....let's consider the case of the Percival P.40 Prentice.
Captain Edgar Percival was a prominent Australian pilot and designer, who formed an aviation firm in the U.K. The Percival Aircraft Company produced very fast, long range racing and touring aircraft, in wood, during the 1930s. Some, like the Gull 6 - and its development, the Vega Gull - were record breakers (one was used by the New Zealand aviatrix, Jean Batten, to break the England to New Zealand record). During the Second World War, Percival built hundreds of Proctors (similar to the Vega Gull) as communications machines and radio trainers. They were absorbed by the Hunting Group in 1944. Postwar, following the departure of Edgar Percival, the company decided to move into the manufacture of metal aircraft. Their very first attempt was NOT to be a happy one.
The Percival P.40 Prentice first flew on the 31st March, 1946. If I were the company, I would have held the test flight back just one day! They COULD have claimed that they wanted to celebrate the anniversary of the Royal Air Force (formed 1st April, 1918), for the Prentice was designed to an Air Ministry Specification T.23/43, for a primary trainer to replace the beloved de Havilland Tiger Moth. In actuality, the date would have proved even more significant. Right from the start, the Percival P.40 design had major problems. The rudder had to be significantly enlarged, as there was not enough control in the yaw axis; anti spin strakes were fitted, then large areas of the elevators were removed. All these changes made the tail area look very odd. Stability also proved a problem, with a very poor spin recovery and you can see in the above photograph that the wingtips were sharply canted upwards, in response to this problem; this is unusual in a primary trainer.
To make matters worse, even when fitted with a de Havilland Gipsy Queen Six of engine 251 hp, the aircraft proved to be sadly underpowered, particularly in 'hot and high' conditions. One of the major faults of the T.23/43 Specification was that it envisaged the aircraft as a THREE seater, the instructor and pupil side-by-side, and an extra pupil (with no controls) being seated behind them, to 'observe'. This was supposed to cut down the number of sorties required to qualify a pupil for their RAF 'wings'. As one would imagine, this turned out not to be the case.
Despite all the above faults, the RAF ordered the P.40 as the Prentice T.1, and it began to replace the much-loved, but worn-out, Tiger Moths in Flying Training Schools - and also Reserve Flying Training Schools, like No. 16 RFTS at Burnaston, Derby - in 1947. Percivals were heavily involved with other projects, so the whole of the production run was built by Blackburn's at Brough in Yorkshire. They were an aircraft company noted for building other firms' designs under licence; they had built the majority of Fairey Swordfish, for example. Over 360 Prentices were built, but they proved such a disappointment in service that they were withdrawn from the training schools in 1953. A few examples soldiered on with two RAF Air Signalling Schools, training radio operators, with the last being withdrawn from No.1 Air Signalling School at RAF Swanton Morley i Norfolk, in 1956.
It was at this low point in the Prentice's career, that a 'white knight' hove into view. Freddie Laker, one of the most flamboyant figures in commercial aviation (later to form Laker Airways) had his company Aviation Traders Ltd, buy no less than 252 of the redundant Prentices. The idea was to convert them as cheap, four-seater aircraft for the civilian market. To say that this idea was a flop would be putting it mildly - if the aircraft was underpowered as a three-seater, adding an extra passenger made no sense! One brave soul tried to covert a Prentice as a 6-seat 'pleasure flying' aircraft - I can only wonder at his bravery; it was offered for sale in a 1966 issue of 'Flight' magazine for £750 (when a Piper Tripacer 150 would cost you three times as much)! Only 28 were converted and put on the British Register, with over 200 aircraft either scrapped or left to rot on airfields such as Southend (SEN) and Stanstead (STN).
Here we can see one of the very few survivors; there are two currently flying in the U.K. G-APJB, which is owned by RVL Aviation, but leased by Air Atlantique at Coventry, has a full Air Transport Certificate, and as such is seen awaiting its next load of passengers at Coventry Airport (CVT), in the West Midlands. You can see the amber tinted side windows, which - when a student wore specially tinted glasses - gave the impression of flying at night, enabling 'night' flying training to be undertaken during the daytime. The aircraft is carrying the RAF serial 'VR259', and the identity letter 'M', along with the all-over Silver with Insignia Yellow bands used to identify training aircraft of the period.
Although the early withdrawal of the Prentice allowed Percivals to step in with a much better trainer as a replacement, their Provost (see diary), the real winner, in my opinion, was a beautiful little aircraft designed in Canada, and built in that country, the U.K. and Portugal - the de Havilland DHC-1 Chipmunk, which the RAF accepted with delight!
One thing that has always puzzled me. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited obtained a licence for, and built, 66 Prentice aircraft for the Indian Air Force (one survives on display in their museum in Bangalore). Since most of India defines the terms 'hot and high', one wonders how they managed!
All in all, not the best trainer in the world.