If you've had the rare chance to closely examine a World War I aircraft it soon became obvious why so few early warbirds have been seriously recreated. The products of an age of low-paid labor and easy access to skills and hardware long lost to history, building an authentic continuation aircraft has proven a job mainly too large even for the most dedicated and reasonably funded enthusiast.
But now the perhaps singularly seasoned Kip Lankenau of Dallas, Texas has stepped up to this daunting task via his Kip Aero kit plane business. A veteran of all sorts of wheeled and winged vintage machinery, Lankenau understands the importance of and has the discipline to maintain the strictest authenticity in his new line of continuation aircraft. So far these are Sopwith designs thanks to the availability of original plans along with brand new Le Rhone engines, of which more shortly.
At AirVenture Lankenau is showing an un-covered Sopwith 1 ½ Strutter. Not the most common replica fodder, Kip Aero is offering the 1 ½ Strutter first because it is a 2-seater, thus giving it a wider appeal in the modern market. The aircraft is built strictly to the original plans using period correct materials and modern machining and manufacturing techniques where they don't interfere with authenticity. This keeps the cost obtainable at least to the best-funded enthusiasts or institutions interested in re-creating the WWI experience. It's also in keeping with Lankenau's experience as a parts manufacturer for the vintage automobile and aircraft restoration business where he's known for producing exact, very high-quality parts in niche volumes. Liberty V-12 and Le Rhone distributor caps, along with ignition switches are good examples of these.
Lankenau's dedication to authenticity runs so far as to re-create a Bessonneau tent hangar for his AirVenture display. The smell of oiled canvas and a portrait of King George V on the working desk inside had us ready to suit up for a patrol over the lines, but alas, we don't quite have the crowns to pay for the privilege. The 1 ½ Strutter as showing at Air Venture in kit form is priced at $185,790, or $375,790 in turnkey condition.
A princely sum, yes, but it does include a brand new Gnome rotary engine produced by CAMS--Classic Aero Engines & Aircraft Parts--of New Zealand. Headed by Tony Wytenburg, also present at AirVenture, CAMS is a well-known builder of new P-40 and other unobtainable aviation parts.
These are indeed all-new engines. Not a single original part is used, and the engines are built to plans with the exception of an extra 5mm thickness in the heavily stressed crankshaft (not that they were a common failure point, but Wytenburg is making sure).
It is the cost-effective availability of digital imaging, CAD-derived plans and digital machining that have made these engines possible. The new engines, in turn, are the key ingredient making the new airframes viable.
Other Sopwiths available are the accessible, satisfying Pup, the unusual, excellently-regarded Triplane and the not recommended for anyone except experts Camel.