Monday 18 March 2024

The refurbishment of Sidney Cotton's G-AFTL

By, er, popular demand:  a short account of the recent refurbishment of Sidney Cotton's legendary Lockheed Electra 12a, UK registration G-AFTL.  For more on why it's a legend, see these earlier posts.  Here, we're concerned mostly with the airframe.

Photo: IWM

G-AFTL was one of several (probably four) Electras acquired surreptitiously, just before WW2, on behalf of the British and French secret services.  Each was modified in different ways to facilitate its use for clandestine aerial photography.  Some were fitted with inconspicuous cameras - they wouldn't be noticed by a passenger.  Others carried cameras so big, nobody inside the cabin could possibly miss them.  The exact camera fit of G-AFTL is the subject of very careful current research, but I'm only covering it briefly here (see below).  Official records of the missions Cotton flew in it differ from his claims on the matter - he seemed to be conveniently and boastfully conflating missions by more than one plane and more than one pilot; and the claims of his personal role (made on his behalf via fawning biographers) are certainly exaggerated.  That doesn't really matter for our purposes here: the whole pre-war and early-war exploit was astonishing and very productive.

After many successful missions, G-AFTL was in a hangar at Heston (near today's LHR) when in September 1940 it suffered a direct hit by German bombing - a parachute mine.  Word was, it had been crushed - but in fact, it had quite miraculously escaped write-off damage, see photo below.  It seems that Cotton's MI6 handler, one F.W.Winterbotham (another James Bond character), gifted Cotton the plane for services rendered, and helped him get it back to Lockheed in Burbank, California (under a 1941 "export licence") to be fixed - not a trivial matter in wartime.  

Rumours of its demise had been exaggerated ...  photo: Tuttle

In any case, fixed it definitely was.  And there was a lot more work done on it in North America over the years, as would inevitably be the case for any aircraft that's been flying, on and off, for over 80 years  When recently the plane was stripped right down, evidence was found of several fairly major jobs done over the years.  The extra fuel tanks fitted by Cotton had been stripped out in the USA.  The damaged port wing and aileron were replaced by Boeing of Canada in 1942, using cannibalised parts from probably two other Lockheeds.

In 2022 the plane came back to Blighty from a prolonged period of semi-neglect in the USA, and was taken in hand at Sywell.  A very exhaustive (and costly) refurbishment followed, with a lot of research and detective work thereby facilitated on all manner of different aspects of the plane, its history, and Cotton's claims.  It turns out G-AFTL's cameras (no longer extant, but the fittings can be detected) must have been of the bulky non-covert type - and thus G-AFTL wasn't one of the planes that carried out recce actually within Germany during "commercial" visits (Cotton had business there).  Also, only one of this pair of large cameras benefited from one of Cotton's many genuine innovations - he was a serious inventor and holder of many patents - the diversion of hot engine air to play over the lens of the camera to stop it from freezing at altitude, a major issue for high-altitude aerial reconnaissance at the time.  Only the starboard engine had its air pipework modified, and the mods only reached the starboard aperture.  It is felt that the port camera may have been kept warm by virtue of its positioning in the body of the aircraft.

The undercarriage proved to be the most difficult thing to fix in the 14-month rebuild.  Painstaking efforts to find clues under the several layers of paintwork as to its pre-war livery have failed to come up with anything definitive, so the current 'restoration' paint scheme is speculative.  This is a bit of a shame because part of the Cotton legend is that he invented "CamoTint", a bluish paint job that made it very difficult to spot at high altitudes.  

Propellers of a different type to the original have been used for the reconditioned engines.  No example could be procured of the 'tear-drop' type of canopy extension that Cotton had fitted to at least the port side of the forward cockpit glazing to facilitate good 180 degree sideways visibility for the pilot - another 1939 innovation, though Cotton himself didn't hold the patent for that one.  The interior has been fitted out for passenger use (and rather sumptuously, too - the new owner probably knows his market) rather than in the necessarily spartan, ultra-utilitarian way Cotton converted it for his 1930's purposes. 

Photo: IWM

All this work culminated triumphantly in complete restoration to airworthiness, as you can see in that IWM film.

Hope that satisfies interest!



Bloke in Callao said...

Many thanks for that.

djm said...

Fascinating, ND. Thank you

That last pic looks a lot like the WW2 heinkel HE111 !

Anonymous said...

OT, but yesterday a USAF C130 left Tblisi in Georgia, then flew to Almaty in Kazakhstan. The plane has in the past (and still is for all I know) been assigned to special forces.

I wonder what nasty surprises they're delivering to those countries, and who will be (at least ostensibly) firing them.

Anonymous said...

Also OT, has anyone noticed how "third world" countries like Vietnam don't have rough sleepers and beggars all over every transport hub?

(OK, I'll leave India out of that, but then you have to sometimes wait a long time for a connection)

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this most interesting follow-up article on the Lockheed Electra. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

OT, sorry, but more private company military aircraft accompanying our few remaining Tornados over East Anglia. This time from this crowd. BAe Hawks and more L-39s.

Why don't we just sell them the Tornados and privatise the entire RAF?

Anonymous said...

Destroying NS2 just keeps on giving...

In a joint paper designed to underline the depth of the economic crisis in Europe’s erstwhile powerhouse, two former economic advisers to the German government have said that real wages in the country slumped further in 2022 than in any year since 1950. A failure to protect German industry from the energy price spike may turn the 2020s into “a lost decade for Germany”.