Bringing the FW190 back to life: Claus Colling’s last interview about FlugWerk is a story of chance, determination, and an Englishman called Arthur Bentley
Late winter 2015: Outside, along the hedgerows and woodlines where the low and bloodless springtime sun doesn’t reach, snow is still lying on the Bavarian countryside. It’s cold, but colder still in the hangar at Manching regional airport, which is the setting for the final days of FlugWerk GmbH, the company with which Claus Colling resurrected one of the most formidable fighters of WWII. Stepping in from the light, it takes a moment for the darkness to resolve itself, first into the clean avian shapes of the civil aircraft at the front of the hangar, and then, at the back, into something altogether more brutal: a pair of FW190s, hunched in the shadows on their wide-track undercarriages, blunt snouts thrusting forward from under the heavy brows of machine-gun cowlings. These Würgers the very last of the 21 machines – 18 FW190A-8s, and three long-nosed Ds – built by the company; and in the Junkers Cafe, the corrugated aluminium bunker that is the only warm place in the hangar, Claus removes his jacket for the last interview in FlugWerk’s 20-year story.
At 62, Claus has a 35-year airline career behind him, during which he became the the world’s youngest captain on a 757. He also had the distinction of being Germany’s first legal owner of a Fouga Magister warbird in Germany – an aircraft that he’d bought as a cut-away example from apprentice school and, drawing on the experience of his two years in a Luftwaffe heavy field maintenance section, returned to the air. Rebuilding the Fouga, he says, “proved the case for putting an aircraft of historic interest on the civil register”; subsequently damaging it in a take-off accident, meanwhile, proved to be the catalyst that ultimately led to FlugWerk’s FW190 joining the same register.
Belonging, as it did, to an era that combined new jet technology with traditional metal fabrication techniques, repairing the Fouga required skills that have largely vanished from western Europe – “In Germany, sheet metal skills are a rarity” – but which in the 1990s were still to be found across the recently fallen Iron Curtain in Romania. At Aerostar, the former Soviet aircraft factory, says Claus, “the technology was like the 1940s and 1950s, and it followed the Russian principle: it didn’t have an industry [supplying separate components]; instead it had a factory with 15,000 employees; aluminium, steel, and plexiglass come in at one end and aircraft taking-off at the other.
“They had all of the talents under one roof – plexiglass, welding, stamping, English wheel, stretch-forming, an 8x4m lofting table for copying parts” – and a 17-man R&D team sitting idle after the factory’s government orders dried up following the collapse of the USSR. In this vacuum, Claus saw an opportunity to offer the warbird market an exotic new flavour, a Focke-Wulf 190 – an aircraft with pedigree and performance, and of which there was, at the time, no flying example. Unlike the Bf109, he reasoned, “which is just a bitch trying to kill you, the [FW190] was built around the novice pilot” – well, the novice when judged by 1940s standards, that is. Better still, it would be a new airframe, with no concerns regarding corrosion, and powered by a reliable peacetime engine, the Ash.82 14 cylinder double-row radial, whose displacement is almost identical to the original aircraft’s BMW 801, but which produces 1950hp, compared to the 1760hp of the BMW. “‘Do you want to do this?’” Claus asked Aerostar. “And they said, ‘Da, da, da.’ So I became the first western client of the old Soviet factory.”
Working with his business partner of the time, Hans-Günther Wildmoser, “it took 10 years,” Claus recalls, “from [starting with] a blank sheet of paper and a couple of Bavarian beers to the first flight. We must have been complete idiots!” he laughs, shaking his head. Ironically, before FlugWerk’s FW190A-8/N Nachbau (replica) took to the air in 2004, the company – which was incorporated in ’96 – would help original Wurgers back into the air, though this is probably testament to the company’s research in determining what was available in terms of surviving drawings, and then bridging the gaps in information.
A full set of drawings for the FW190A would probably amount to about 5000 sheets and 15,000 individual drawings. Of these, less than four hundred production drawings survive, and these were assembled from various sources. Some were conventional sources: the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London, for instance, had boxes full of items collected from the rubble of the bombed-out FW facility in Bremen which the British Army over-ran, and which had lain virtually untouched since they’d been archived. Among them were 120 sheets totalling about 350 drawing numbers covering the cockpit canopy, tailplane and rudder, and bits and pieces on wings.
Other drawings reached FlugWerk by extraordinary chance: “There was a gentleman who worked in the design branch of Focke-Wulf. When the war was at an end and everything was in ruins, and people had barely what they had on to dress in, he had a makeshift wooden cabinet with two or three good shirts. To avoid getting splinters in the shirts, he used blueprints from a drawing board at Focke-Wulf, and because they were used as shelving paper, they survived in the darkness. Several years after the war, he got a new cabinet but kept the drawings,” and they eventually found their way to Claus. “They were very vital drawings; priceless to us. And there are a lot of stories like this; a lot of good fate brought us to the point where we could build this aeroplane.”
It was during this process, says Claus, “that I ran into a very helpful Englishman, Arthur Bentley, known for bringing out scale drawings, mostly for the model market. His life-long love is the FW190: he is a walking dictionary when it comes to them” – but he also has a skill set that made him invaluable to the FlugWerk project.
Arthur joined the British aircraft industry in ‘56, serving a five-year apprenticeship at de Havilland’s; as an office boy, apparently, he delivered Geoffrey de Havilland’s post. In ’61, he joined the technical publications (TP) department, where he took an interest in drawing cut-aways. One of his early drawings was the Tempest, for which he drew on Hawker’s own archive. On the back of the finished cut-away, Scale Models commissioned a GA drawing of the Tempest. It was the first of a long series of scale drawings for the magazine that were produced during lunchtimes and after hours while Arthur continued to work first for de Havilland, Handley Page, and then Hawker Siddley, where he moved from TP to the drawing office as an engineer draughtsman.
“The drawing office dealt with just about anything – undercarriage, electrics, hydraulics. The section leaders specialised, and sat down the side [of the office]; as they wanted labour, they’d go into the pool of draughtsmen in the middle and grab whoever was available. Moving around gave [draughtsmen] a really good grounding in aircraft design.”
Coming from TP, with its cut-away drawings and exploded diagrams, but being trained as a draughtsman meant that Arthur was given jobs others found difficult. “I was able to visualise in three dimensions, so when they had a job that needed to explain something on a drawing” – sealing tanks on the HS146 fuselage, for example – that was difficult to show in a 2D drawing, “I’d quite often do a perspective view.”
This, quite literal all-round understanding was put to work in one of his first scale drawings, a plan for radio-controlled FW190. When he came to scale up the available drawings, Arthur found that they contained so many errors he decided to spend his first Scale Models cheque on a week in Bremen, which had been Focke-Wulf’s pre-war base and was then one of the sites of Germany’s slowly amalgamating post-war aerospace industry. The head of TP there, an Englishman, let Arthur leaf through surviving FW190 files looking for drawings, and spending two days copying everything he could.
The illustration of the FW190 that finally appeared in Scale Models in ’75 drew, in part, upon that factory data, and distilled it though the filter that is Arthur’s three-dimensional understanding of what components made up an aircraft and how they fit together. Knowing what he should be looking for meant that he knew what hadn’t been found: “I was the one,” says Arthur, “who was able to put the pieces together and fill in the gaps that other people couldn’t see but which were perfectly obvious to me. Although there wasn’t a physical drawing there, there are rules – edge distances for riveting, bend radii, flange widths – and [they provide] the information to create new drawings.”
These rules, the DNA of the aircraft, were teased out of many fragments. When Arthur picked through the IWM microfilm reels, for instance, spotting the uncatalogued or wrongly catalogued drawings, he was able to come away with enough information to assemble the design rules relating to frames and longerons. And because the Germans’ pragmatic approach to production engineering meant that, unlike the British with the Spitfire, many FW190 parts were interchangeable, proving their interchangeability only required tracing the connections created by the rules. They helped him, for example, to show that the nest of sections for the Ta-152 found on a crumpled drawing in the US archives were the same as the sections of an FW190 from the firewall back.
“We collected odd bits of information here, a bit there; it didn’t all come at once.” A repair handbook contained stringer sections, for example; British intelligence data provided wing skin thicknesses; Claus’ searches turned up a key drawing showing the wing wash-out from root to mid-aileron. As he gathered the rules, and combined them with a copy of the RLM specifications for all wood, metal, leather, and paint used in wartime Germany, Arthur was able to help stitch together the original drawings, which represented several different versions of the 190, including the A2, A8, the long-nose D-9, as well as the Ta-152, and collectively described 100% of rudder, 80% of the elevator, about 25% of the horizontal stabiliser, and 15% of the vertical stabiliser, as well as wiring routings, and sheet metal covers. To these were added the results of the reverse engineering carried out in Romania where Claus sent tons of salvaged parts, some from the wartime crash sites that litter Germany.
Whatever the source of the information, however, Arthur was the nexus: “Claus paid for it all,” he says, “he had the knowledge, the contacts and the production facilities. But what would’ve happened if he hadn’t met me?” Arthur considers the question. “He wouldn’t have been able to do it.” And it’s a debt that Claus freely acknowledges: “Without Arthur,” he says, “this project wouldn’t have come through, not in the way it did, being so close to the original.”
Eventually, the cold and the deepening shadows drive us out of the hangar; as we close the doors on the 190s, Claus reflects on the legacy that all this work represents. “I achieved something that nobody else did before: FlugWerk [managed its way] from an idea to twenty-one aircraft with the same company, the same guys. When you take the complexity of an aircraft, with retractable undercarriage and a constant speed prop’; when you have to redesign, reinvent, reverse engineer; when you have to cast your own wheels, make your own brake systems, your own radiators for oil cooling, come up with your own spinners; to build the landing gear legs… That is something. Yes I made mistakes, we threw away a lot of things that didn’t work as intended, but in the end we did it. So in the aviation world I’ve left a little bit which will be there for quite a long time, at least for the kids of my kids, who can say, ‘Grandad made that!’”
We go in search of food, and in the warmth that this brings the conversation widens to include the veterans Claus met during the course of project. “They’re all gone now, but in the early days we had guys come in on a cane” – Claus mimes the stoop of old men – “but as soon as they saw the aeroplane, the cane went to the wall and they could walk again,” he says, standing up straight, “and they were standing up straight in front of the engine, recalling the start-up procedure.
“We had one pilot who, on the day of capitulation, was in somewhere like Estonia or Poland, with the Russians on the perimeter of the airfield. So they took 32 FW190s and got rid of all the ammunition, the radios, everything heavy, and they had drop tanks, and they took all of the entire personnel out of the airfield. They left no-one behind. He had three [passengers] in his 190; two in the tail, and a 16-year old armourer on his lap. He crossed the Baltic and landed in Schleswig and went into British PoW camp. Amazing stories.”
I learn that Claus’ father fought on the Eastern Front; that he prefers to avoid political issues, and regards the war as history. “So many bad things happened because of the politics in Germany in those years, there’s no way to argue anything different; it’s a fact. But this is today, tomorrow’s another day.”
Even so, I have to ask the awkward question: what does the 190’s silhouette signify when it’s seen over Germany today? “It’s about the technology,” he maintains. “In only three years we designed an aircraft that was able to fly faster and carry more ordnance than others, and all this under constant bombing raids. And this is the way people find their reason to say ‘What a beautiful aeroplane’.”
Will he be sorry when the last two aircraft are sold, when the FlugWerk story is over? “There may be an emotional moment, but I’ll be happy when they’re gone; then I can close the book.” Tomorrow, after all, is another day.