Fleet Finch The classic WW II Canadian trainer

In 2019, I went to the EAA’s AirVenture fly-in in Wisconsin for just the second time. The first was back in the ’80s when I flew there in a friend’s Piper Arrow. This year I took my Stinson instead. But this is not about the trip but about one of the planes that really caught my eye.
I clearly have a thing about old airplanes; after all, like me, mine is over 70. But what caught my eye was a beautifully restored Fleet Finch 16B powered by a 5-cylinder 160 hp Kinner engine. And I love the sound of that fine old engine.

The first time that I sat behind a Kinner engine was in a Ryan PT22. It was one of those great summer days when everything goes just right. There I was in the front seat of an open cockpit airplane while the pilot in the back seat looped and rolled all over the sky. The five cylinders of the Kinner just sort of popped away and blew smoke and bits of oil in my face, but who cared?
Years later in the summer of 2000, it was a different Kinner, but the sound was the same, the air smelled great, the view was different this time through the wings of a biplane and once again I’m having a ball. I’m the pilot this time in the front seat of a 1941 Fleet Finch II/16B biplane. Yes, the front seat; the Finch is flown from the front seat unlike the Tiger Moth or Stearman that are flown from the rear. This gives a much better view of the ground in the immediate area around the nose than some others.

Aerobatic trainer

The Royal Canadian Air Force purchased the Finch II in 1940 from Fleet Aircraft of Canada Ltd. in Fort Erie, Ontario. Depending upon the source, between 431 and 623 were built by Fleet and used as elementary trainers at British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) facilities across Canada. The Finch was a strengthened replacement for the Fleet Fawn and meant for teaching aerobatics. It was later replaced in turn by the Fairchild Cornell. Built in 1941, the aircraft shown in the detail photos is owned by the Canadian Museum of Flight in Langley, British Columbia. It is painted bright yellow in the style of the BCATP in World War II and carries the number 4725 on the fuselage. It was used during the war by 9 EFTS Elementary Flight Training School (EFTS) at St. Catherines, Ontario and later at 11 EFTS in Cap de Madeleine, Quebec. During its service career it was involved in at least four minor accidents.
The Fleet, also popularly known as the “Yellow Peril,” suffered heavily at the hands of students and instructors alike. According to Spencer Dunmore’s book, “Wings for Victory,” 48 were destroyed, 92 had to be returned to Fort Erie for major repairs, and there were 648 repairs completed at the bases. Another source, “Behind the Glory” written by Ted Barris, indicates that a number of losses were due to both student and instructors getting the aircraft into inverted flat spins. It was difficult to recover from this maneuver in early models, and after some losses were incurred a redesign of the tail and the installation of some gap seals between the fuselage and the horizontal stabilizer eliminated the problem. After the war, 4725 was sold to Barry Jackson, who operated the Finch in New Mexico and in Mexico. Barry restored it in 1976 and in 1979, donated it to the museum.

The front pit, meant for the student or solo pilot contains everything required for day/VFR flight. What can’t be seen is the portable radio for operations in today’s controlled airspace

The rear seat was normally occupied by an instructor or passenger and contains a minimum of instruments along with the normal flight controls and heel brakes.

The externally mounted magneto switch allowed the person swinging the 8-foot wooden propeller to confirm that the mags were correctly and safely positioned while the prop was being rotated. (Photos by Mike Davenport)

An exquisite restoration finished to represent a Canadian Finch no. 4756 seen at the EAA’s AirVenture in Oshkosh in 2019. This one had been modified with the addition of a starter and is flown from the back seat instead of the more usual front seat. (Photo by Mike Davenport)

Not much can go wrong with this externally mounted air speed indicator and while it did seem more natural to use the one in the panel, it was fun to compare the two.

The left side collector ring of the 5-cylinder 125 hp Kinner B5 radial engine contains some of the noise and fumes from three of the five cylinders while the other two are contained by the collector on the right side. (Photos by Mike Davenport)

Hiding between the gear legs are the modern-day ELT and radio antennae as well as the venturi, all unnecessarily well-lubricated. (Photo by Mike Davenport)

A much younger version of the author taken at the 2001 Abbotsford Airshow. Demonstration flights were flown each of the three days of the show. (Photo by Dennis Cardy)

Preflight: Coveralls required

When preflighting the Fleet, there is a lot more to check than on my Stinson Voyager; not the least of which is one more wing. Being a biplane, there are fittings and wires to look at as well as many other things that the C150 student will never see. The push/pull magneto switch can be checked either inside or outside the aircraft by looking at a large lever on the right side of the fuselage clearly marked on/off. Fuel must be turned on from inside the cockpit when the control lock (seatbelt) is undone. Cushions are required to fill the space formally occupied by the seat pack parachute. On the outside left is a sign that states whether or not the airplane is serviceable. The 125 hp Kinner B-5 5-cylinder radial engine is almost completely exposed, making it easy to check for leaks, cracks etc. A screwdriver or Swiss Army knife is needed to access the back of the engine and the fuel drain. Oil can be checked and topped up if necessary from outside. I like to pull the engine through at least 10 blades to ensure that there is no oil in the lower two cylinders and to check compression. The wooden prop is 8 feet long and tipped in brass. This needs to be checked for cracks and or loose rivets. It does give plenty of leverage but can be a bit of a reach if you are 5 foot, 5 inches tall.
The tail wheel is unique in that you have to disconnect it to move the airplane around on the ground. When the locking pin is pulled it will rotate through 360 degrees, making it simple to put the plane back in the hangar or the tie-downs. However, it must be locked and thus reconnected to the rudder pedals prior to taxi. This is a reason for coveralls, as I accomplish this by lying on my back at the rear of the airplane to position that large greasy bracket and pin that connects the rudder to the tail wheel.
Starting the beast involves setting the chocks, four shots of prime while pulling the prop through with each shot of prime, followed by shouts of “Clear!” and then if all the stars are aligned, she will start on the first pull. Let the oil pressure stabilize at between 75 and 100 psi and then head for the run-up bay.

Cam Harrod’s refurbished Fleet 16B and its gleaming five-cylinder Kinner look as good as they did in the 1940s. (Photo by Eric Dumigan)

Airborne at last

Werner Griesbeck, then the museum check pilot, rode back seat for me for the first hour while I tried to get a handle on the old bird’s idiosyncrasies. The first rule of Finch is to taxi slowly, very slowly. Absolutely no faster than a walk. I have earned the reputation of taxiing too fast, and it was a challenge to slow down. The heel-operated mechanical brakes are very efficient, and a light tap with no one in the back seat will pick up the tail. This is a real attention-getter, keeping in mind both the difficulty and the cost of replacing the propeller.
Once in the run-up bay and the oil temp is starting to rise, mags are checked at 1500 rpm and a small drop of 20-25 rpm is to be expected.
I learned several things about biplanes just in the course of the first hour or so: I can’t see much out of them. They have a very poor glide ratio. They insist on being landed 3-point every time. They demand full attention to the rudder. They are very drafty. I can’t see much out of them, and did I mention that they must be taxied very slowly? And if you are as sensitive to cold as I am, an insulated flight suit or similar coveralls are mandatory.
The radial engine on 4725 is a 125 hp Kinner B-5 and it has its work cut out to climb to anything like circuit height. Factory specifications optimistically claimed 1000 feet in 2.3 minutes.
Takeoff is straightforward, and the aircraft shows no tendency to swing with the application of full power. Acceleration is brisk as the large, slow-moving wooden prop takes large bites of air. However, the stick must be held full back until the speed is high enough to give full rudder control. At that point, the tail can be lifted to a level attitude and then she will lift off quite readily on her own. Climb speed is recommended at 65 mph and 1,925 rpm.
The approach speed of 70 and over the fence at 60 works well. Landings must be made in the 3-point attitude with the stick firmly back in your lap again to maintain directional control. My initial landings on the grass strip turned out reasonably well, but the move over to the pavement proved trickier. I find that the Finch is very sensitive to any crosswind and that a firm landing helps to maintain directional control. Crosswind landings on pavement should be avoided and grass is preferable at all times. The landing gear has a long stroke and when airborne, extends a long way down with a significant camber. On landing the gear compresses differentially, which results in a dart or swerve in the direction of the compressed leg whereupon the other one compresses and the aircraft then darts off in the other direction. You have to be “spring-loaded” with the rudder and brakes to prevent things from getting out of hand. Observers have noted that I’m so ready with rudder that I appear to be “sculling” during the flare.
Range is quoted at 320 or 350 miles with 24 gallons of gas at a rate of 5 to 6 gallons per hour and up to 93 mph cruise, depending upon the source. So far, my experience indicates a much higher fuel consumption and somewhat slower speed. This particular aircraft should be on the ground after about two hours and probably something less than 200 miles. Empty weight is 1,222 pounds.
The wings are 28 feet long. The top wing is flat, and the lower one has a very pronounced dihedral making the Finch very stable in level flight. This stability is difficult to disturb, as the ailerons are located on the lower wing only. I don’t know if this is common to the type, but this particular aircraft is very heavy in roll. A bank from 45 degrees left to 45 degrees right is a two-handed process. The stall at 55 mph is gentle and gradual as the wings stall sequentially. The lower wing lets go last with plenty of warning and recovery is straightforward.
The elevators are very powerful, making it easy to load some G’s. Elevator trim will lighten up the workload.
Early attempts at formation flight felt good as there is enough power to accelerate and enough drag to decelerate to gain or hold position and it has a significant advantage over the Tiger Moth in this respect. However, the Moth will outclimb the Finch, so some planning is required for the join up.

The Canadian Museum of Flight’s Finch during members’ day rides. (Photo by Dennis Cardy)

The aircraft was built as a primary trainer and as such it was designed for aerobatics. The flying and landing wires are doubled up, as are the tail brace wires to provide the necessary strength. It was reputed to be able to do outside loops “all day long,” and others claim that it doesn’t have enough aileron for snap rolls. As this aircraft was 61 and I was 58 (in 2002), those two maneuvers were no longer on the agenda for either of us.
A short cross-country or a “fam-flight” on a sunny day with the sight of those big yellow wings and wires, the regular pop of the 5-cylinder Kinner, and the smells of the great outdoors have been some of my greatest flying experiences.
It has been a while since I last flew the Finch but after re-reading this story, it seems like just yesterday.
Back to the Fleet at Oshkosh. The thing was perfect in all but two areas. First, it had a starter and even more heretical, you had to fly it from the backseat. I mean come on … really?
I’d like to thank Cam Harrod, a Fleet Finch owner in Ontario who answered my questions on restorations and put me on to Eric Dumigan, aviation photo journalist extraordinaire for the in-flight photos of Cam’s very original aircraft, C-FDAF.

Updated: October 7, 2021 — 8:39 AM

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