The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome
No. 12 Summer 2005
Recollections of Sywell
By Alex Henshaw, MBE (Honorary President Sywell Aviation Museum and Friend of Sywell Aerodrome)
Alex Henshaw with Tony and Arrow Active
at home airfield December 1935.
When asked recently if I would write a short article on my recollections of Sywell before World War II, I almost declined. It was a long time ago, the memory can be very fickle and I am not sure that the modern generation would appreciate the views and comments from an old man who first flew from their airfield over seventy years ago.
The late 20s and 30s was a period of deep and hurtful depression and the agricultural community of Northants suffered in particular. In fact I was told by Duncan Davis and Tommy Rose that the proposed Airfield Flying Project almost failed before it started.
Apart from financial problems in establishing a sporting project which - it had to be accepted - was primarily aimed at the wealthier classes and those who could afford the luxury of a weekend amidst the delight of snow-white clouds against a background of Reckitts blue sky. Furthermore, this was hunting country and horses and aeroplanes do not mix well.
I have always felt that the foundation of Sywell as an important social and flying establishment owes a great deal to Tommy Rose. Tommy was a Major in the R.F.C. and on demobilisation continued the work he loved so much, as a flying instructor. Not only was Tommy a fine instructor, he also had one of the most endearing and stimulating personalities of anyone I have ever known.
One has to appreciate that in those early years, class difference and divisional mode of living was accepted as normal. To establish a flying club in a county where the aristocracy, prominent industrialists and wealthy landowners enjoyed a pastime shooting or racing to hounds over the lush green fields of their county, was bound to be a lost cause.
"Pop" and Alex winning first London IOM race
in Leopard Moth 1936.
With trepidation and hesitancy it was decided to work from the top downwards. Considerable time, money and expertise was spent in organising a 'Banquet' and invitations were sent out to the most notable and affluent social set, the largest and most esteemed landowners and farmers coupled with industrialists and aviators or others who might stimulate a significant degree of interest in what the Sywell Flying Club was endeavouring to achieve.
I was later told that the evening reception was very formal, somewhat 'starchy' and had the portent of being a dull and boring event. After the meal, apparently the ladies gathered in one room and the men in another with small groups according to their'pecking' order.
The story goes that later in the evening whilst the men were 'supping' their brandy or port there came squeals of laughter from the adjoining room followed by hilarious 'giggles' as if some of the ladies were really enjoying themselves. Duncan said that the carousing prompted the men to join the ladies to see 'what was going on'. He said he would not have believed it possible. Gone was the somewhat frigid conformity to social decorum. Each and everyone of the ladies was bubbling with partially restrained exuberance as they listened to 'Tommy's' enthralling and sometimes 'risque' tales about an aviation world of which they had never seen or heard. As we all know, Sywell Flying Club from then on became the premier social centre of the Midlands where all classes, young and not so young, could enjoy the unique experience of watching in action a new science of the air and what is more, participate on a sporting or professional level.
On reflection, I think I must have made more friends at Sywell than at any other club in the U.K. This was brought home to me when Jeffrey Quill took me to the Polygon Hotel just before I had my posting from Supermarine to Castle Bromwich as C.T.P., on outbreak of World War II. We came in from the 'black-out' to be momentarily dazzled by the bright lights, to be regaled by dozens of shouts from a large group of young men all in the dark uniform of the Fleet Air Arm. With my eyes clearing I saw immediately that they were nearly all my old friends from Sywell.
With the passage of time I have sadly forgotten most of their names but I do remember that two were farmers, one was prominent in the Oil Industry, another a solicitor, there were two well known 'film-stars' and another the winner of the Grand National and several who had left the security of important industrial concerns to serve their country as best they could in time of war. For me personally, the happiest time at Sywell was during the late 30s. In particular the 'Midlands Contact Air Race' was one of the highlights. In 1936 I had entered our Leopard Moth G-ACLO with my Father as passenger. It was to start at Castle Bromwich with landings and check points at Sywell, Leicester, Tollerton and Stoke-on-Trent. It was certainly the most exciting race in which I had ever competed but I have to admit it was a 'bit dicey'. I think there were about a dozen aircraft entered for the race of various shapes, sizes and horsepower.
Geoffrey de Havilland discussing with A.H. the
flying qualities of the XF after collection
from Luton, May 1937.
The pilot and machine that I feared the most as we lined the machines up, was a Monospar flown by an old associate Seth Smith who was a test pilot with Hawkers and later sadly killed in a Hurricane. I was alerted however, when I saw his passenger was Pobjoy, the owner and designer of the famous little radial engine which had been so successful in the Comper Swift. My mind sharpened still further when I heard that the two engines in the Monospar were prototypes and of larger cubic capacity than the previous range of Pobjoy engines. I had an uncomfortable feeling that Pobjoy had come as a passenger especially to be with his engines as they won this prestigious race around the Midland Counties. The race started in the usual manner but the difference from all other races was the fact that once you had crossed the line of an airfield check point you were free to land as quickly and as close to the control tent as was possible. I remember snapping the throttle closed as we passed the line and then throwing the Leopard in a series of vertical high 'G' turns and dropping the machine so close to the marshal's table on which could be seen the log-book all competitors had to sign, my starboard wing almost overlapped the small tent in which very scared occupants cowered from such an unexpected onslaught. My father, very agile for such a heavy man, having grabbed and signed the log-book had hardly got one leg in the machine before I opened up for the starting line. There was no control or regulation on how fast you were permitted to taxi down-wind to the starting line. Suffice to say, if the machines were not flying with their wheels on the ground - they were not far off. The only stipulation was that each aircraft had to take-off into wind.
The tempo of the chaotic onslaught that had startled the bewildered onlookers at Sywell, increased gradually to the last turn onto the final leg at Stoke on Trent. As Stoke was so near the finish, aircraft were beginning to bunch and you now had a situation where the slightly slower machines were taking off on the line already chosen by a faster machine for their check landing. I was so tense with concentration and awareness, that I had no idea at that stage how well we were progressing. I almost clipped across the grass on Cannock Chase as we coaxed every ounce of speed from our willing steed. Suddenly Dad let out a loud expletive, "I can see the Monospar, give it all you've got Son, it's in the bag". I think the Leopard crossed the line at Castle Bromwich several miles in front of Seth Smith and his Monospar. I was elated, not so much by winning, but by the fact that I had thoroughly enjoyed the almost frantic degree of concentration that brought airmanship almost to the limit of control. For the first time in all the races I had been contesting over the years, I felt that whereas the handicap was the greatest decider on the good fortune in winning a race, today I was elated as I was sure airmanship had played the larger part. More than that - my father had contributed far more than I thought a man of fifty could ever do under such exacting circumstances.
By the end of the 30s Sywell was the proud owner of a modern Control Tower and clubhouse with enthusiastic support from a wide cross-section of the community, some of whom had their own aircraft and travelled the world. I remember that only a short time before the declaration of World War II, meeting Henry Deterding, Miss Tyzack and Ken Whittome in various parts of Europe, all flying their own machines. Sadly it was a golden period doomed to end forever by the depravity of an evil man by the name of Hitler.
My connection with Sywell on outbreak of hostilities came quicker and in a more forceful manner than I could ever have dreamed.
With the explosive ending of the 'Phoney War' in May 1940, we immediately faced the fact that there really was a war. We were going to fight a battle with our 'backs to the wall' and if we did not move fast, the world of freedom as we had known it was finished.
A Charles Brown Special 'shot' of Chief Test Pilot
Alex Henshaw with latest Mark of Spitfire, taken from a
Lancaster on which he had just completed flight trials.
With my posting from Supermarine as C.T.P. of the huge Castle Bromwich Lancaster and Spitfire works was the responsibility for the testing of the Seafires and later types of Spitfire from South Marsdon, those at Desford & Cosford and for a time the testing of repaired and battle damaged spitfires from Cowley and Wellingtons from Sywell.
The Sywell repair unit was operated by Brooklands Aviation and managed by Bancroft who as a first class engineer had dealt with a Pobjoy engine problem when forced down in the 1933 Brooklands - Newcastle Race. It became my practice with the enormous pressure resulting from the German 'Blitz' and the fall of France to organise our heavy works programme so that there was no wastage of time or effort. On this particular occasion I had taken off in a Spitfire at first light. The machine seemed to be without serious problems so I decided to take it up to rated altitude en route for Sywell where I had been informed that a Wellington Mkl was awaiting flight trials after a complete re-build. I am not likely to forget that particular flight. As I climbed for altitude away from Castle Bromwich I saw the pall of smoke and debris that twenty-four hours before had been Coventry. I knew it had been badly hit as my home was but a few miles away and my wife and I had been up all night dealing with our own problems. As I circled over Sywell, keeping a careful eye on the EFTS Tiger Moths that were flying around like wasps over a jam-pot, I realised how bad the condition of the grass airfield was after the heavy rains. Without doubt, under normal circumstances the airfield would have been declared unserviceable. The balloon tyres of the light Moths were coping but in doing so were creating puddles that were rapidly becoming ponds. I touched down with the Spitfire to a deluge of dirty mud and water not far from the hangar, outside was the Wellington awaiting test-flight. It took me an hour or so to fly the machine which proved satisfactory other than minor adjustments. On the return flight to Castle Bromwich, it took me some time to pick a path for the Spitfire for Take-off. Taking all the room I could, the throttle was opened wide and after the occasional dousing in mud and spray the machine was at the take-off point with my hand on the undercarriage lever when as the wheels were lifting off I pulled the lever up. I am not sure which I was conscious of first, the deep pool of water that deluged the whole machine which spluttered the engine in an ominous manner or the sound of the wheels slotting into the wings as they retracted. I was in serious trouble as the power went. I could not turn right as the Wellington Hangar was just below my Starboard wing. I could not turn left, this area was covered with Tiger Moths and the large Control Tower-Clubhouse. There was a small paddock immediately ahead but this accommodated a large Manor House, (Sywell Hall) which obstructed any desperate attempt to find a clear space.
Sir Winston Churchill with Chief Test Pilot ALex Henshaw
after demonstration with latest mark of Spitfire in 1942.
If I did not do something and did it immediately I was going to strike the manor house at about bedroom level. I did the only thing I could think of. I had already lowered the flaps but kept the undercarriage up, I then forced the machine on to the grass area in front of the manor. With the wheels up, I found that I was able to control the expected bounce as the under-belly struck the soft ground but in doing so there was the imminent danger of the machine 'cart-wheeling' on it's nose as the air-take dug in. I must confess that those last few moments churning across the virgin pasture with the tail poised high in the air and the sight of this enormous impassable obstruction coming towards me, was something that I will never forget. I braced myself as never before. Yards from the lower windows of the manor house, I pulled on my safety harness as hard as I could. In those last few seconds the deep trench gouged out of the virgin turf had at last taken a firm hold and in one abrupt menacing moment the machine came to a sudden standstill with the tail crashing into the ground and the nose almost resting on the 'Ha-Ha' wall surrounding the Aerodrome - only a few yards from the Manor House.
On many occasions since, I have promised myself that I would take time to measure the exact distance from the airfield fence to the low wall surrounding the Manor House. My guess is that it is less than 200 yards.
The link between today's civilian air activity and that adventurous period now referred to as the 'Golden Age of Flying' was aptly displayed at the Sywell Air Show recently when my old Mew Gull G-AEXF was flown in at special request by 'Taff' Smith. No aircraft could be better chosen to represent that decade before Word War II in a more prestigious and convincing manner. Strangely enough, few today are aware that this diminutive single seater aircraft still holds the fastest speed for any British winning aircraft of the King's Cup Race. That in spite of advancement in navigation and the jet engine, it is the only aircraft in the world to hold long distance world records still unbroken after 65 years. Up until the post-war period XF held these records in every class for the London-Cape Town, the Cape Town-London and the London-Cape Town London flights. In spite of the advent of the jet engine and enormous improvement in the performance of all aircraft, XF still holds all these records as a solo flight and almost certain that it still holds the London-Cape Town-London records for this flight in every class.
Chief Test Pilot Alex Henshaw with senior members of his test team -
Flt Lt Rosser, A.H., Capt Olaf Ullstad and Flt Lt Jicha, Castle Bromwich, 1945.