Subsequent to the first edition of this book being published, Ralph at long last, has had the pleasure of seeing his rotary aero engine alive and running.
All the components had been finished ready for final assembly when Ralph experienced a fall, resulting in a broken hip. This caused a rather sudden downturn in his health, already affected by ongoing Parkinson's Disease. Unfortunately and frustratingly, as a result he was prevented from assembling the engine. This was a minor procedure when considered against the years of previous intensive effort.
However Allan Woolf kindly took over the task and assisted by like minded friends, carefully put everything together. There was constant reference to Ralph at every step of the way, but there were no problems. Allan was not unduly surprised to find everything going together perfectly, but even so, the exact degree of accuracy evident most certainly did impress.
Earlier Allan had assisted with the construction of the mounting frame used for the engine. The frame had been designed to allow Ralph to bolt the assembly onto a trailer Allan used for transporting his Brabham Formula Junior racing car.
This arrangement provided for both transport as well as test running. As a result, Allan was provided with the facilities he himself now required, and it was not long before he had the complete engine ready for a test run.
At this point, the engine was transported, bolted to the trailer behind Allan's car with participating friends aboard, to Te Aroha, where Ralph was in residence at the Community Hospital. The covers were removed in the Hospital grounds and Ralph was able to see the substance of his creation, planned and hewn during nearly eight years of exacting effort. There were many questions requiring confirmation in respect of the final assembly. It is to Allan's credit that our special engineer was well satisfied that all was as it should be.
Due to a copy of the first edition of this publication appearing on Ralph's bedside table, most of the hospital staff, as well as a number of residents, were aware of his exploits, so that there was considerable interest in the proceedings. Those who know Ralph, will not be surprised that he was quite humble when accepting the many words of admiration.
With the engine back in Auckland, the project continued. An extensive search, finally located a wooden propeller suitable for test running. True to form, Ralph had sensibly constructed the engine propeller boss so as to be common with engines in current use. Therefore there was not a problem in this regard. An aluminium propeller had earlier become available, but Ralph quickly and emphatically pointed out, that everything was designed with wood as the material to be used. This was due to the distinct advantage of considerably less reciprocating weight.
Allan set up the required auxiliaries to enable a test run to be carried out. For this exercise fuel was supplied from a container, via an S.U. electric petrol pump powered by a motorcycle battery. The overall result was an excellent test rig, worthy of Ralph's work.
Reports covering rotary engines used on aircraft at the time of the first world war, indicated considerable effort being required at start up. Also made clear was the danger involved. Allan was heard commenting with some trepidation on this aspect of anticipated proceedings. There were also thoughts of horrendous noise likely to upset the neighbourhood and ear protectors were on hand.
Without drama, the untried Watson engine, at the first pull of the propeller, fired after only the second compression of its seven available cylinders. It ran sweetly with no vibration and was altogether well mannered. There was some oil being thrown out of the exhaust ports, which was not quite as it should have been. Could this have been some kind of reversion towards its notorious ancestors and a reluctance to immediately accept the twenty-first century?
After this trial run the engine was again transported, as before, down to Te Aroha, for a demonstration to be witnessed by its maker.
The engine was well covered for protection against the elements, but the exposed propeller now fitted, no doubt had many on the road guessing. There were of course comments within the towing vehicle towards wasted power, which could easily be harnessed to invigorate progress. The driver was not convinced on several counts.
When Ralph sighted his engine ready for action, he was alarmed to see what appeared to be an aluminium propeller and voiced his disapproval. The propeller as acquired, was nicely finished in silver lacquer and certainly had the appearance of being of aluminium. When brought close enough to touch the suspect item, his concern was put to rest.
It can be truthfully said that Ralph was quite moved to see his last project come to life and this time on the first compression. He had sadly resigned himself to disappointment several months earlier. Smile he did. The engine ran discreetly without disturbing anyone, in spite of the demonstration taking place within hospital grounds. Again we had several interested onlookers, no suggestion of complaint, but many compliments.
Later Ralph gave instructions as to where his calculations, covering oil orifices, could be found at his home. These were to be sent down for his further perusal, so that he could offer suggestions towards reducing oil flow, in order to rectify the oil discharge. This was an area where some fine tuning and adjustment had been anticipated, as the oil system is a previously untried novel design. Allan later diagnosed part of the problem through observing oil flow, while running the oil pump by means of an electric drill, but further experiment is required in order to adjust things exactly.
We were party to a demonstration confirming once again that a special engineer, does not require the building and testing of several prototypes, in order to arrive at a perfect original design. As designed this engine was built. As intended the engine performed.
Ralph's rotary aero engine has since been demonstrated several times, in the hands of Allan Woolf, before quite large groups of enthusiasts. Because of its unusual concept it proves to be of real interest. A complete engine rotating at high speed, is certainly something special to behold.
All those who have seen it running have been greatly impressed, due to the way it has started easily and run so smoothly. The lack of anticipated ear shattering noise and a generally quiet temperament, is a complete surprise.
There most certainly is no sign of stress or vibration up to the designed operating speed of 1,400 R.P.M and the engine gives the impression of being bullet proof.
For demonstration the engine swings a 6 ft 3 in. diameter propeller, which is smaller than required to achieve full thrust. It is estimated that power is available to swing a propeller of around 7 ft 6 in. if the engine were used for motive power. This would be truly impressive in motion, but also inconvenient.
The original intention was for the engine to take to the air fitted to a replica aircraft. All design and construction was engineered to this end, even to the point of arranging the auxiliaries so as to provide maximum space for the pilot's legs. However Ralph has now decided that as he has been unable to personally attend to trial running and full final testing, no one else should be called upon to carry the responsibility for any aspect of safe performance in the air.
It is planned that Ralph's workshop, complete with his lathe, will be set up at a suitable venue, as a permanent exhibit, incorporating his rotary engine. The plan is for the engine to be kept in running order and remain portable, for demonstration purposes. There will also be an associated display of photographs and data illustrating all aspects of Ralph's achievements.
The project will involve considerable work and therefore it is hoped many friends will be available to reduce the burden. There is no doubt that Ralph's work will stand in good stead amongst other exhibits of a like kind, and it remains to bring the plans to fruition.
Of special note is the spline on the propeller shaft. This arrangement provides drive through plates on both sides of the propeller, rather than simply via the rear plate and the fixing bolts. This is a refinement not often encountered and exemplifies an attitude towards perfection, regardless of the extra work involved. Fitting is absolutely accurate in any position of the plate and represents further evidence of extraordinary work, using only limited resources.
The valve gear is not enclosed in the interests of saving reciprocating weight and this gives the engine a distinct vintage character, in line with its heritage. The push rod marked with a band for timing purposes, appears to be out of alignment due to reflection, but all is as it should be. The inlet tubes are easily distinguished. Exhaust gas exits directly from the exhaust ports, but results in very little noise, apparently due to the rotary motion of the whole assembly.
Spark plug wires must withstand reciprocating forces and therefore are in the form of wire springs, as can be seen. Engines used during the First World War used longer plain straight wires. These tended to fatigue and break due to vibration and proved to be a continual problem.
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