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A relic from World War II is remade

Years ago, I was manning the phones for a kit aircraft company in the western United States. I answered one of the first calls of the day and a voice asked in accented but perfectly understandable English if we had a weighted flop tube for a fuel tank in stock and could ship it soon. We did, and I asked where we might be shipping it.
Photography by Andras Fabian and Gabor Fabian.
Zoomed image
Photography by Andras Fabian and Gabor Fabian.

“Hungary,” said the voice. I’d fielded calls from all over western Europe, South America, Australia, South Africa, but I didn’t know we had a customer in Hungary. I said as much.

“Oh, it is not for one of your airplanes. It is for another type of airplane we are making here.”

What might that be, I inquired.

“Oh, you have never heard of it,” said the voice. Game on. I do pretty darn well in the name-that-airplane contests that crop up around work. On my birthday my wife once asked all the guests from our airpark to bring a photo of an airplane to try and stump me. It was pitiful. Of course I know a Miles Libellula or a Bristol Bagshot when I see one. So, I said: “Try me.”

“We are making a Levente II,” said the voice.

I had never heard of it.

Chastened, I Googled “Levente II.” What appeared was a pretty little primary trainer. It had two open cockpits in tandem, a slender in-line engine, and a tall tailskid landing gear. Its outstanding feature was a graceful all-wood elliptical wing, mounted on struts above the fuselage. It was a completely Hungarian airplane, manufactured in Hungary, powered by an engine built in Hungary, and designed by Hungarian engineer András Fábián.

I glanced at my order pad. The flop tube had been ordered by András Fábián! The man I’d just spoken with could not have been old enough to have designed an airplane that first flew in 1940, so I emailed and asked Fábián to tell me about his project.

The modern Fábián was the namesake and great-nephew of the designer. He and friends László Váradi, Zsolt Gettler, and Attila Gyetvai had started thinking about building a Levente II in about 2007, but there was a problem. No drawings or engineering data had survived World War II. Designer András Fábián, too, had perished in an Allied bombing raid. Although four prototype and 86 production Levente II aircraft had been built up until 1944, the war had left just a handful of rebuilt survivors. These had seen limited post-war use as glider tugs and club airplanes until attrition and disinterest had reduced their number to one. That sole survivor was sitting, forlornly, in the Hungarian Technical and Transportation Museum in Budapest.

The team got their big break in 2009, when the museum contracted them to do a “cosmetic” restoration. They took it much farther than that. They freshened up the original Levente, took advantage of the opportunity to measure and draw every part of the airplane, returned it to the museum, and used the drawings to create a second, completely new, airplane.

“We had the plane for six months, and during that time we dismantled it completely.” Fábián said. “We measured every part and drew it, both by hand and in CAD. After that we developed a complete 3D model of the airplane and its systems. The modeling project took more than two years.” The computer files were used to develop templates for the parts and the jigs to assemble them. This was particularly useful when building the wing. European spruce forests are not gone, but finding trees that could yield spar stock for a 9.5-meter two-spar wing was, as Fábián put it, “a very hard task.” With help from a German aircraft restorer, he was finally able to import suitable timber from Sweden.

Once the material was on hand, they faced reality: Building an elliptical wing is a geometric nightmare. Such wings were in vogue during the 1930s. Major manufacturers like Supermarine and Heinkel used them, but the aerodynamic advantages could not overcome the manufacturing difficulties and by the end of World War II they had virtually disappeared from production airplanes. The Levente II wing uses stick-built truss ribs—only two can be the same—and the ailerons must match the curve of the trailing edge. Add to that a wing with a double taper in thickness and a 7.5-degree sweep and it’s easy to understand the 3,744 man-hours that went into a set of wings—that’s without counting the difficult plywood skin that covers the leading edge. In the end the team produced a set of wood wings that matched the computer model to within four millimeters, measured diagonally across the span. It is an exceptional feat of craftsmanship.

Using the computer model, a massive fuselage jig was welded up from rectangular steel tubing. Clamps installed on the jig held the 4130 steel tubes of the fuselage in place while they were TIG welded together. It is a time-consuming and exacting task to cut, fit, and weld even the basic structure—and after that comes a seemingly endless number of brackets, tabs, and clevises.

Then there was the matter of the engine. The original Levente II used a MÁVAG-Hirth—a German Hirth 504 A2 built under license in Hungary. The Hirth is an inverted inline four-cylinder engine that uses 242 cubic inches to develop 105 horsepower at 2,530 rpm. It has a magnesium alloy crankcase and a roller-bearing crankshaft. Hungarian MÁVAG-Hirth versions were extinct, but Fábián managed to find a German Hirth in Lithuania. After purchasing it, he accompanied it to the workshops of Dirk Bende in Germany. Bende is well known for his airframe and engine restorations and is fully capable of building any engine part he can’t find in his extensive collection of spares. The engine was found to be in very good condition internally. A couple of cylinders, a corroded main bearing, and all the valve guides were replaced, but the cam, crankshaft, and connecting rods were re-used. Later, when it was installed on the covered fuselage, the original hand crank started it easily.


Before actual construction began, András Fábián developed a complete computer model. One wonders what the first András Fábián would have made of such tools. The brand-new Levente II, at large in its native habitat: a Hungarian grass field. Photography by Andras Fabian and Gabor Fabian. The dapper designer of the Levente II, András Fábián, sometime in the 1940s. László Váradi and András Fábián, the designer’s namesake. Zsolt Gettler, in insulated coveralls, made the maiden flight. Flying at last, the Levente II shows off its graceful elliptical wing.

No period Hungarian instruments could be found, but most of them were license-built versions of German units. A set of German instruments was gathered—all with radioactive radium still on the dials. They were stripped and the faces re-screened for use in the Levente II.

In 2014 there was good news: The Csepel district of Budapest (where the original production started in 1942) awarded the project the equivalent of $28,000 U.S. It was a welcome boost to the team (in the end Fábián estimates the airplane cost between $90,000 to $100,000). There was also some difficulty: Hungarian aviation authorities insisted on a completely new set of load calculations and engineering data before issuing the permit to fly. Five students at the Nyíregyháza Aerospace College made the necessary calculations as part of their degree. They confirmed the wood wing did meet the ultimate load factor calculated by the original designers: 12.

By 2015 the team could assemble the uncovered airframe. A wood propeller had been copied from an original prop using a pantograph machine. The wood formers had been installed on the steel-tube fuselage. The difficult sheet metal nose bowl and cowlings had been formed and fitted. It looked like a flying airplane was not far away, but as anybody who has built an airplane can tell you, when it looks like an airplane, you’re not even halfway there. Covering, painting, systems, rigging…it all consumes vast amounts of time. It was October 21, 2019, before it could be wheeled out onto the grass airstrip and flown.

Early in the construction process, Fábián had been able to interview an elderly pilot who had flown the Levente II. They found their airplane matched his description quite well. It’s a docile machine, stable and easy to fly. Stalls are straightforward, with no tendency to drop a wing. There are conflicting specs for the original propellers, and the prop chosen proved a little too large.

“We plan to trim the prop blades by 20 mm to allow more rpm,” says Fábián. “And right now, the stick must be pushed forward at cruise speed, so we are working to find the best setting for the horizontal stabilizer. Both these things should help the speed. The published speed in level flight is 180 kph, but I will settle for 175—I know most aircraft manufacturers like to round up.” Maneuverability is good and a full aerobatic workup at the hands of Hungarian Red Bull pilot Péter Besenyi is planned.

The team is careful to point out that their airplane is not a replica or restoration. For all practical purposes it is another production airplane. Now when Hungarian plane-spotters see that graceful wing overhead, they will know it is not a new design. It is just the ninety-first Levente II—flown 76 years after the ninetieth.

Ken Scott is a freelance writer living in Oregon.

The beautifully made wood propeller proved to be slightly too long. The wing took two years to build; the curved trailing edge of the ailerons had to match the shape of the wing exactly. A fixture of square steel tubing held the fuselage tubing for welding. A typical mix of materials for an airplane of the time: wood, wire, steel tube, and sheet metal.

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