THE IMAGE OF firing up a vintage aeroplane is embedded in my mind: An intrepid fellow manually turns the propeller through a couple of rotations. The pilot yells “Contact!” The fellow gives the prop a healthy tug. And the engine roars into life. Well, usually….
Bentfield Charles Hucks’ Better Idea. Just about at the World War I Armistice, Royal Flying Corps Captain B.C. Hucks came up with a mechanical alternative to manual aeroplane engine starting: Originally called the Airco Aero Engine Starter, later named the Hucks Starter in his honor, the device was assembled atop a Ford Model TT, the truck variant of the famed Model T.
Captain Hucks’ Career. Aeroplane notes that “Bentfield Charles Hucks qualified for the 91st British pilot’s license in 1911, and as a display pilot pioneered loops and inverted flying.”
“Joining up in August 1914,” Aeroplane continues, “he was invalided out of the Royal Flying Corps due to an attack of pleurisy but soon afterward became a test pilot, flying for the Aircraft Manufacturing Company (Airco).”
The Hucks Starter. His invention received a U.S. patent in August 1919. Alas, by then Hucks had perished during the 1918 influenza epidemic. The Hucks Starter continued in use into the 1930s and 1940s, especially with airplane engines of higher compression ratio or larger displacements. Eventually, self starters replaced the device.
Its Ford Model TT basis was chosen for this truck’s differential featuring a worm drive; this, making precise maneuvering easier and safer directly ahead of the aeroplane. The Hucks Starter required a crew of two: One crew member on a forward platform adjusted the shaft angle and attached the device’s claw to the aeroplane propeller. The TT driver operated the chain-driven power take-off to the device’s prop shaft.
Hucks incorporated clever features in his design: The crewman set the appropriate shaft angle through a clamp and collar of its X-support. His work platform folded to give access to the Model TT’s engine crank.
As Aeroplane notes, “The innovation in the connection design was that it would automatically disengage and quickly retract when the engine fired and turned faster than the claw.” A simple bungee cord brought about this retraction.
Widely Used for Decades. The Hucks Starter was not affected by cold weather. In fact, it could be used to motor the engine, ignition off, to circulate lubrication prior to firing.
Aeroplane quotes a Canadian authority: “The groundcrews became really good with them during the ‘20s and ‘30s. They were sometimes able to start aircraft at a rate of one a minute. So, if a squadron had three or four of them, they could get all the airplanes cranked quickly enough for a squadron take-off.”
Aeroplane notes, “The Hucks was in military use across the British Empire and beyond, including one with the U.S. National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA.)” Both the Soviets and Japanese used Hucks-type starters as late as World War II.
Aeroplane reports, “The longest serving, most frequently used Hucks Starter today is the Shuttleworth Collection’s.” The magazine also lists other Hucks in use or display around the world. ds