Shaun Garrity converts Gordon Whitehead’s 24-inch model of the French WW1 single seat sesquiplane fighter, nicknamed the Bébé, to electric power and modern lightweight R/C

The Bébé is my favourite of all WW1 aircraft. Designed by Gustave Delage, this single seat sesquiplane fighter was one of the reasons the Fokker Scourge ended.

The Fokker Eindecker E1 monoplane ruled the skies between 1915–1916 because of one overriding advantage – it could fire its machine gun through the propeller due to a revolutionary device called an interrupter gear that synchronised exiting bullets to miss the propeller blades. This allowed accurate sighting of the German pilots’ quarry, allowing a high degree of success in downing them. Roll control was affected by wing warping and pitch control by an all-moving tailplane.


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But the newer Nieuport 11, besides being faster, employed conventional ailerons and an elevator, which allowed it to out manoeuvre the E1 in every respect.

The Nieuport’s principal armament was a centre wing mounted .303 Lewis gun that fired over the propeller. The design of this gun didn’t facilitate synchronisation but could, however, fire continuously. Changing the ammo drums and clearing jams whilst flying was a little precarious, adding to the workload of an already stressed pilot. Equally difficult was the Hotchkiss machine gun used as an alternative. Actually, early N.11’s were unarmed, being used as scouting aircraft and they only became fighting scouts once armed.

The Bébé was held in such high regard by German pilots that captured aircraft were usually retro fitted with the synchronised Spandau gun and put back into service for the Imperial German Flying Corps. It also influenced future German aircraft design. I once read that, allegedly, pilots asked for replicas to be built for them! I seem to remember a similar request being used in the Battle of Britain movie for Spitfires.


Some Nieuport 11’s were optionally equipped with eight Le Prieur rockets on the wing struts to allow them to attack airships and observation balloons.

In late 1916 the N.11 was replaced by the updated N.16 and then N.17 versions, with the Bébé continuing in service as a training aircraft. It was one of the smallest fighters on the Western Front, a fact made abundantly clear to me one afternoon when working for Rank Xerox.

I was waiting for a customer’s arrival in the demo suite to see one of the new large format plain paper printers. He was going to be delayed by an hour so I though I would get some practice in on the machine, which entailed scaling up a 48” David Boddington plan for the N.11 to half scale, the idea being that: ‘Maybe one day, when servos become powerful enough…’ This was back in the 1980s and I still have to cut the first piece of wood!


I was surprised how relatively small the 1/2 scale N.11 plan appeared, but the full-sized aircraft was only 18ft 1in span, standing 7ft 10in tall. Performance was excellent, having a range of approximately 130 nautical miles, 2.5 hours endurance and a service ceiling of 16,000ft with a maximum speed of 101mph. It was powered by an 80hp nine-cylinder air cooled Le Rhone 9C rotary engine, delivering its power via a fixed pitch two bladed propeller.

This motor was developed from a pre-war Nieuport racer and, for the day, it was a great power unit. Cockpit instrumentation was sparse having only an Air Speed Indicator, Tachometer, Height Gauge and a clever device called a Pulsator. This was basically a clear glass bulb, part filled with oil; the air space would swell or shrink depending on the oil pump speed and it was used to measure engine speed and oil pump function.

The N.11 wasn’t without its design flaws though and the wing could buckle in high-speed manoeuvres, leading to the lower wing breaking off at the point where the single V strut attached. So, it needed flying with respect when pushing the envelope in combat.


Over 7200 were built in total, the French Escadrille having the greatest numbers, with the Italian Corpo Aeronautico Militare Squadriglia versions next, their aircraft being constructed under license by Nieuport-Macchi. Russian Empire variants were manufactured under license by Dux and other operators were the Netherlands, Belgium and Romania. Eighteen were also flown by the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) but, surprisingly, the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) didn’t have any – they dropped the ball there.

A number of France’s greatest pilot aces were associated with the N.11 – Guynemer, Nungesser and de Rose being the most famous. There is an original example of the Nieuport 11 Bébé displayed in the Musée de l’Air in France, a place definitely worth a visit when we can all travel freely again.

I have a preference for the Italian variants as they featured some interesting paint schemes. My model was decorated with a character called ‘Fortunello’ (Lucky), who was an Italian version of the happy hooligan comic strip character.


Gordon is another modeller whom you’ll be familiar with if you are old… (There’s no point beating around the bush trying to be polite here with the well used line ‘if you’re of a certain age’!)


Gordon Whitehead with his prototype – a very talented modeller.

He designed a number of excellent scale models over the years and almost all were larger that the 24” wingspan model featured here. His free flight N.11 was a simplified version but as Gordon said in his original article in the December 1972 Aeromodeller

“… it has all the grace of its full-sized counterpart despite the all-sheet construction which greatly eases both the building time and effort needed to produce a replica. Beginner or expert alike will find much enjoyment with the fine flying performance of the Class 2 model which looks so realistic in the air. The sweepback of the wings combined with a small amount of (non-scale) dihedral, provides plenty of stability”.

He wasn’t wrong as and as an enthusiastic 16-year-old modeller I quickly had one built. I regularly flew R/C at the time but had many successful flying sessions with my N.11 in its original form, guidance free. What appealed to me was the fact that although a free-flight model, Gordon had designed it with the intention of retro fitting simple rudder only control in the future. That was also my plan, until one day when out flying a dog decided it clearly posed a threat and quickly turned my model into a pile of wood chips!


Now, full disclosure here before you start cutting precious balsa…
I haven’t flown my reincarnation of the model yet due to the lockdown but I’m 100% certain it will be fine as presented, modified for R/C with e-power. Over the last four years I’ve updated around 30 retro classics and have not dropped the ball yet – am I tempting fate here?

A number of years ago, at the Annual Pontefract Retro Fly-In, I saw an R/C modified one happily racking up plenty of trouble-free airtime.

Regarding balsa, the design would lend itself to be easily built from Depron as an alternative, if you don’t have any suitable wood stock and can’t wait for supplies to start appearing back in the UK model shops.


The wings and tail surfaces are quick and easy to construct so let’s start here. For the wings select some warp free 1/8” medium balsa for the upper wing and 3/32” for the lower. To achieve the cambered section wet the upper surface and pre set the curve by using the edge of a table to roll the sheet over and persuade it to arc length wise to form a rudimentary aerofoil section. You could miss out the pre-curving stage, but it removes some of the stresses in the finished wing, potentially preventing any less than desirable twisting.


This is an easy, quick build model. The top wing is simply a sheet of 1/8” balsa. Rib tapes are replicated using doped on strips of tissue – very effective and well worth the effort.

Now glue in the ribs. I would suggest using a combination of aliphatic and cyano spots at the leading and trailing edge contact points to fix them in position, weighing down on a flat surface to ensure full contact and prevent any unwanted warps. Note the centre 1/16” W1 ribs need to be tack glued in place at this point.
Once dry gently round off the leading and trailing edges with fine grade sandpaper. Remove the centre ribs and cut the wing into two equal sections, trimming the root edges so that when the dihedral is set a neat join is made. The join needs reinforcing with a 1” strip of thin bandage applied with aliphatic; glass fibre or epoxy resin is definitely not required.


A few balsa ribs maintain the wing profile. Coloured panels are from lightweight tissue.

Once dry permanently glue the centre ribs back in place, then glue the panels together, setting the dihedral as indicated on the plan. Repeat this for the lower wing but using 3/32” sheet.

Don’t forget to add thin ply or acetate discs on the wing where the 20 SWG struts plug into the lower wing and brass tubes for locating into the upper wing.


The tail group is just simple 3/32” medium soft balsa sheet. No need to sand to an aerofoil section, just round off the edges like the wings. I would lightweight tissue and dope these items to significantly strengthen them before fixing in position, but this is optional.


I would finish the tail group before fixing in-place. It makes life easier.

Use Banana Oil or a non shrinking dope to prevent warping. Water based (internal) floor varnish would also work to seal the balsa. An old trick to make sanding sealer is to add some talcum powder to clear dope. This may work with floor varnish, although I’ve never tried it. Whatever you choose, keep it light!


Cut out the fuselage sides, formers etc. from medium sheet balsa, taking note of the grain directions indicated on the plan. It is always preferably to try to cut fuselage sides from the same piece of balsa, so they have identical characteristics when bending etc.


You’ll arrive at this point in next to no time. The stringered rear top decking is the only open structure that needs tissue covering.

Form the cabane struts (make up the undercarriage and strut wire work at the same time) and bind to F2 and F3 using thread, then smear with glue. Where F4 is located score the sides (as detailed on the plan to make a matching pair) by pressing the edge of a steel rule along the line into the balsa, then bend them a little without cracking over the edge of a table or building board. Make sure you don’t cut through the fuselage sides. Add the 3/32” balsa doublers.


Engine cowl is made using a tin can to form the shape. Alternatively, a suitably sized food container could be cut down but keep it light.

Glue in F2 and F4, ensuring they are at 90 degrees to the fuselage sides. When dry pull in the tail end and glue, making sure you do not introduce any twist. Once dry add all the remaining formers, stringers, cross braces and cockpit coaming. You can use soft 1/16” to sheet the lower rear fuselage if you don’t have any 1/32”. Don’t forget the 1/16” sheet doubler for the tail skid.


Undercarriage prior to soldering up. Have a go at making the scale wheels as they are not difficult. Thin card fairings finish off the look.

The balsa cowl is very easy to make. You don’t need to mould one but if you can find a suitably sized and profiled food container it should work, with a little modification. As per the original mine was made by wrapping two laminations of soft 1/16” balsa around a 1lb tin of Tate & Lyle ‘Golden Syrup’, using aliphatic to glue the two laminations together whilst holding in place with elastic bands until set. Remove the bands, add the cowling face F1, then trim and sand to the correct shape. I told you it was simple!


A length of brass tube is needed to join the undercarriage. Cut the slot shown in the lower centre wing rib to locate the rear, and for the front I used a strip of wood from a coffee stirrer, glued in place.

Like the cowl the wheels are easy to make, being scale in appearance and light. The ‘tyres’ are cut from medium 1/8” balsa glued onto a 1/16” ply disc. Sand to shape, then add the bushing and thin card cones. Alternatively source some suitable lightweight plastic ones as sold by free flight specialists.


Keeping it light is the key to success so don’t plaster on the finish. In the olden days coloured dope was heavy and the weight could pile on, but modern rattle can paints have good coverage from a single application. The alternative is old school coloured tissue. I have had varied results using floor varnish with tissue so I would suggest traditional dope if this is your preferred finish.


Gary did a fantastic job of reproducing this image using coloured tissue and marker pens.

I have to thank my mate Gary, who built and tissue decorated the model for me; even the Fortunello logo on the fuselage sides was fashioned from tissue. His outstanding skills as a sign writer and his craftsmanship put my efforts to shame.


A little scale detail adds significantly to the overall appearance. All it takes is some cotton and card.

The U/C legs, cabane and wing struts all have thin card fairings glued on to give a more scale look. A simple over-wing Lewis gun is easily fashioned from scraps of balsa and would be worth the effort to complete the scale appearance.


The original power specified was 0.3cc to 0.8cc, a wide range covering the minute Cox PeeWee 020 up to older diesels such as the DC Merlin. The free flight version would have had ample power with a 0.5cc diesel such as the DC Dart but, as mentioned, Gordon intended putting R/C in at some point, so he used the 0.8cc DC Merlin. He also noted in his article that it was the smallest engine he possessed.


From a distance the CD Rom style motor looks a little like the original Le Rhone – if you really, really squint! The ESC is also mounted in the cowl to keep as much weight as possible forward of the C of G.

An old trick was to put the propeller on back to front to reduce the power; this was often suggested for the test flights on free flight models. The Merlin is approximately equivalent to a 50W electric set-up, but the advantage of e-power is it’s easy to tailor the output by under-propping or reducing the cell count if you have a moderately more powerful motor to hand.


Servos are fixed in place with double sided tape. Seal the wood first to ensure maximum bond strength. I would suggest mounting them as far forward as practical, again to save adding nose weight.

My set-up comprised of a 4-Max PPOM-2321-2050 motor, 7″ x 3.5″ prop, a 12A speed controller and a 2S 500mAh LiPo. This gave 53 watts according to my trusty meter (around 11ozs of thrust) so ample for the task of getting the model skyward. Any motor delivering around this power will be suitable, but I wouldn’t go above an 8” prop – that’s unless you want to get some interesting torque rolling manoeuvres!


You need a small lightweight receiver. If you are confident remove the case and put a heat shrink sleeve over it to prevent shorting. But this may affect any warranty claims, so your call!

Servos for the rudder and elevator can be 4 – 5g types but as I’ve mentioned in past articles some of the very cheap examples can have a surprisingly high current draw so make sure the speed controller BEC can cope and not cut out when they are operated to extremes.


Pushrods are 2mm carbon with 20 SWG wire ends. The horns are fashioned from thin glass fibre sheet or ply. Cup washers were soldered on to keep the pushrods located onto the horns.

Gordon’s original free flight model weighed in at seven ounces and mine, with R/C etc., tipped the scales at just under nine ounces. You need to keep all the R/C gear as far forward as possible and the tail light, otherwise you’ll be adding unnecessary nose weight to achieve the correct C of G position.


Ensure that everything aligns, is warp free and that incidences and thrust lines are as detailed on the plan and the C of G is correct. A test glide over long grass wouldn’t go amiss but unlike its free flight trim of a left turn on power and glide go for a straight glide with some speed i.e., not on the verge of stalling.


Finished and ready to fly. My only regret is not building another one years ago.

The rudder and elevator surfaces are relatively large so keep the throws down to around 3/8” each way to start with if you are not quick on the sticks. The model will always fly better when correctly trimmed and not by relying on tweaking the transmitter trims.


There are some great colour schemes available for the Nieuport 11. Don’t forget the tissue rib and fuselage edging tapes. They really add to the overall appearance of the model.

Have fun with your Bébé. Why not build a Squadriglia and have your own Dawn Patrol? At this size of model, it won’t cost much.


Name: Nieuport 11 (Bébé)
Model type: Semi scale WW1 fighter
Designed by: Gordon Whitehead. EP conversion by Shaun Garrity
Wingspan: 24” (610mm)
Weight: 9oz max. (0.26kg)
Functions Rudder, Elevator, Throttle
Servos 4 – 5g (i.e., 4-Max ES9051)
Motor 50 – 60W (i.e., 4-Max PPOM-2321-2050)
ESC 12 – 15A (i.e., 4-Max 4M-ESC 12A)
Propeller 7″ x 3.5″
LiPo 2S 500mAh


You can download the Bede plans here:


Wings & Tail


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