I'm a writer, the story I'm writing is set in 1942. It's an alternate history of sorts, so there's no pesky WW2 to worry about, but technology has developed in roughly the same way. As part of an action sequence, my character, Scarlet, is going to steal a biplane to escape pursuit. She has a pilot's license and knows how to fly, but until this point, she hasn't needed to actually show her stuff.

What I do need to know, in layman's terms, are the general procedures of how the flight would go, any preparation that might be needed, and approximate speeds.

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    $\begingroup$ The time (1942) is right for biplanes, but flying a plane, biplane or not, is not as easy as driving a car. Scarlet may have a license and know 'how to fly', but flying away in an unfamiliar plane (and not crashing) is something only highly experienced pilots, with thousands of hours in different planes, may be able to do. $\endgroup$
    – xxavier
    Commented Dec 25, 2017 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ @xxavier: Oh, come on! This might be true for complex aircraft, but given the time it is highly likely that Scarlet was trained on a very similar aircraft. No flaps, just basic instrumentation and a fixed prop. It can't get much easier than that, but it will exclude her from flying IFR. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 25, 2017 at 10:12
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    $\begingroup$ You won't be able hand-waive away the rate of technological advancement without WWII. Make sure that you come up with a good reason for having such advanced machinery. $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Commented Dec 25, 2017 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ I think open collaboration between Russian, German, and American scientists would have had the same effect on technology as ww2 without all the bloodshed. $\endgroup$
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 25, 2017 at 20:02
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    $\begingroup$ There were plenty of biplanes, as well as more advanced aircraft, before WWII, and biplanes continued in use during the war. The war did raise incentives for some technological development, but biased heavily toward military applications. I don't see any glaring technological anachronism in this question. $\endgroup$
    – David K
    Commented Dec 25, 2017 at 21:20

2 Answers 2


First follow @Jim's advice for getting the plane set up and the engine running.

A biplane is most likely a taildragger, which means that it has two main wheels and a third all the way in the back. This will give the plane a nose-high ground attitude, and taxiing to the runway will involve Scarlet to wiggle the plane left and right because the forward fuselage is obstructing her forward vision. This is not made easier by the fact that tandem two-place biplanes, the most common type, are flown from the back seat in order to get the center of gravity right.

Next, she should wait until engine temperature is high enough to run the engine at full load. I would expect that in a pursuit she skips that step but will worry that oil temperature has not reached the required temperature. The next step would be the magneto check which she will also skip.

In the takeoff run she will first orient the aircraft into the wind and then gently apply throttle so the aircraft doesn't end up in a headstand (meaning the propeller pulls the nose into the ground without the wheels moving). This also requires her to pull the stick all the way aft so the empennage (horizontal tail) keeps the tail low. A headstand is shown in the second picture of the second linked answer (this one).

Airfields back then were mostly round grassy patches, so the take-off direction could be freely selected in order to take off directly into the wind. However, you might want to add some suspense when Scarlet finds her biplane at the wrong end of the field and has no time to taxi across it, but takes off with a tailwind. This will make the takeoff run longer and the climb after takeoff more shallow, so she might just barely escape collision with an obstacle there.

When the aircraft picks up speed she should reduce back pressure on the stick and move the stick to a roughly central position in order to reduce downforce on the tail so the tail can lift off the ground. Bonus points for mentioning the gyroscopic effect from the propeller as the aircraft lifts its tail which requires the brief application of rudder to keep the nose pointed into the desired direction.

Liftoff is rather unspectacular and happens when the aircraft is fast enough. However, if elevator trim is set the wrong way, the aircraft will stay on the ground for too long (too much nose-down trim) or lift off too early at a too slow speed (too much nose-up trim). Trim means that either a spring in the elevator linkage or a small auxiliary flap is set such that it pulls the elevator to a certain deflection angle. This is helpful for adjusting control forces according to the desired flight speed and center of gravity location, but if it is set the wrong way on takeoff, Scarlet might be surprised by unusual stick forces.

While the takeoff is flown at full rich mixture, once in the air Scarlet should adjust the fuel to air mixture in the engine according to flight height. You might want to add a dramatic moment where the engine runs rough or even stutters due to too lean mixture.

After that, the escape should be easy.

  • $\begingroup$ @dalearn: Yes, agreed. I added a link. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 25, 2017 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ You never cease to impress @PeterKämpf. Mastery not only in explaining engineering, but now also in prose! $\endgroup$
    – Waked
    Commented Dec 25, 2017 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ "After that, the escape should be easy." True, although she might eventually prefer to land the plane herself. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 0:24

Simplified, for a fiction book in my best attempt.

Step one you'll need to identify a biplane that had electric start, unless someone's available to prop the plane...though the character could do this on their own.

Has fuel, no water in fuel, Wheels chocked, Brakes set, Master switch on, Both mags on, Start engine(ignition switch or prop start), Pull wheel chocks(this would be prior to starting engine if electric start), Climb in(this would be prior to starting engine if electric start), Run up and adjust mixture, Check controls for free movement, Check control surface deflection, Idle engine once at operating temp, Release brakes, Stick back for ground maneuvers in a taildragger unless it's windy, Point towards open Tarmac and go full throttle, assuming radio calls and finding the actual runway aren't necessary in such a daring escape

Happy writing


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