The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome
No. 13 Summer 2006
by Chris Parker
The 1928 Pageant of Progress gets underway,
led by the cave-man on his pogo-stick.
In this article we take a look back to Sywell's earliest years and in particular the public air displays or 'Pageants' as they were known which very successfully helped to establish Sywell as a nationally known airfield and also created a very positive reputation for the Northamptonshire Aero Club.
Air displays of various kinds became very popular as public spectacles from the late 1920s through to the outbreak of the Second World War. Few people saw aeroplanes close to in the early years of this period, and even fewer had ever flown - at an air show they could do both. The shows at the time took various forms. 'Flying Circuses' such as Sir Alan Cobham's famous National Air Days were extremely popular as they travelled the length and breadth of the UK (operating from suitable grass fields) giving the public the opportunity to fly and the excitement of various aerobatic and 'stunt flying' routines. Equally popular were the annual RAF displays held at Hendon, showing off the Air Force's latest machines and techniques. The third type of displays were the events organised by local Aero Clubs on an annual basis both to raise revenue to help balance the Aero Club's books and to attract in new members to learn to fly.
The incredible Sywell Mayfly makes its alcoholic
way around the aerodrome in 1929.
Sywell's "First Great Aerial Pageant", as it was titled on the advertising material and the Programme, was held to celebrate the aerodrome's official opening on September 28th 1928 (some 78 years prior to the event currently being planned for September 20061). The opening ceremony was performed by the Director of Civil Aviation the indefatigable Sir Sefton Brancker who had flown to Sywell that morning from Holland in his Cirrus Moth (carrying the first personalised registration to be issued G-EDCA). Brancker's enthusiasm for flying led to government financial backing for the newly established Aero Clubs which in turn helped Britain to establish the World's leading light aircraft industry and Club network -Happy Days! Sir Sefton sadly lost his life two years later in the crash of Airship R101 in October 1930.
The 1928 Pageant set the format for future Sywell displays: Local pilots demonstrating Club machines -outside participation by nationally known pilots and recently developed aircraft - and memorably one or more 'novelty' items prepared by the Club members led by the ever-imaginative founders of the aerodrome brothers Jack and Geoff Linnell.
John Tranum, pioneer parachutist,
made several pageant appearances.
In the '28 Pageant the famous names displaying aspects of their flying skill included the Chief Test Pilots of the Handley-Page and de Havilland companies, respectively Captains Cordes and Broad - the former demonstrating the slow flying ability of an aircraft fitted with Handley-Page's patented wing slots (which may still be seen today fitted to some Tiger Moths), and the latter giving what was reported as an "amazing" display of Crazy Flying. The RAF provided two of its leading aerobatic pilots, Fit Lt Soden and Flying Officer Atcherley, performing in a Genet Moth what the Programme described as "the most difficult feat ever attempted in aeronautics - flying upside down at low altitude". The pilots indeed flew their Moth inverted down to the sort of height likely to have turned spectating pilots pale.
Excitement of a different kind was provided by Mr John Tranum who made some parachute descents from Aero Club Moths. Tranum was a parachuting pioneer who appeared widely at the air shows of the time and introduced the idea of free fall descents and controllable 'chutes.
Novelty was provided through first a "Pageant of Progress" including a hirsute stone-age traveller on his pogo-stick through Penny Farthing riders and on to riders and drivers of the latest racing motor bikes and cars. In addition was a splendid "All transport" race in which the programme informed us that competitors would "run 50 yards, cycle 50 yards, don overalls, ride donkeys 50 yards, drink a bottle of beer, drive a car to their aeroplane, take off and fly round a course (a lap of Sywell reservoir), then first past the enclosure wins". Fantastic! (no Civil Aviation Authority rules or official observers in those carefree days)
To sum up the feelings of those attending the first pageant I can do no better than quote the author of the Northampton Independent's 'Gossip' column who wrote in the October 6th 1928 issue - "Northamptonshire Aero Club's splendid Flying Pageant has been veritably the talk of the week, and very justifiably so. Knowing the men at the 'joystick' of the event I had anticipated great things. But along with most of the great crowd who were delighted with all they saw, I hardly expected a fine sporting gathering of such an auspicious nature as this. For a first event it was great in every sense of the word -great in its conception, great in its organisation and triumphant in its execution. To all concerned the very heartiest congratulations!"
The crowd enthralled by the rare sight of the
Avro-Cierva autogyro going through its paces in 1929.
The three thousand plus paying public who attended made Sywell's 1928 Pageant a great success - launching the new aerodrome in style, providing funds to enable the Northants Aero Club to purchase its first aeroplane, Cirrus Moth G-EBRX, and setting the format for the displays to be held over several years to follow Great enthusiasm was generated by 1928's achievements, and plans were soon laid for a Whit Monday event in 1929, and personalities attracted to the May 1929 meeting included long distance aviatrix Lady Bailey, Alan Butler, Chairman of the de Havilland company, Harold Penrose, Chief Test Pilot of the Westland company demonstrating his company's latest light aircraft the Widgeon, and George Lowdell, demonstrating the Blackburn company's light fighter the Uncock. The meeting was opened by the Aero Club's President Lord Spencer from Althorp.
The very large crowd attending (estimated at 13,000) was entertained by Air Racing, several Aerobatic routines (including Capt. Neville Stack whose display was reported as "hair-raising" in the Press), and a Linnell Brothers' inspired novelty item in the shape of the Sywell 'Mayfly' The Pageant programme had quite a lot to say (tongue in cheek) about the Mayfly informing readers that - "The Parade of Machines is concluded by a demonstration of the Sywell Mayfly, a slotted wing monoplane entirely designed by members of the Aero Club, at great personal inconvenience and enormous expense. The motive power adopted is highly novel, inefficient and uneconomical, the fuel being obtainable at any licensed filling station. The Club has been fortunate in securing the services of the famous pilot, Mr Titus E. Canby, and the eminent Chinese navigator, Mr Warethee .L Arwee. The Mayfly will taxi past the Clubhouse, refuel, pick up numerous passengers, freight, and provisions, for a prolonged cruise to the Red House Inn". The motive power referred to took the form of a V-12 engine layout with the cylinders comprised of pint bottles of Phipps IPA!
Well known names participating in the 1931 All
Women's meeting included (left to right)
Dorothy Spicer, Joan Page and Pauline Gower,
seen here in front of a Robinson Redwing.
The huge crowd provided funds sufficient to allow the Aero Club to purchase two new Gipsy Moths. Success indeed!
The second Pageant that year, in September 1929, again attracted a good crowd and included Sir Alan Cobham providing joy-rides in an aptly named de H 'Giant Moth' carrying up to eleven passengers at a time, and two leading RAF Central Flying School pilots again providing the thrills of formation aerobatics fresh from that year's RAF Hendon pageant.
The Northamptonshire Aero Club's first aircraft Cirrus
Moth G-EBRX, funded by the profits from the
The winning formula continued for the 1930 and 1931 pageants. The 1931 event held as usual on Whit Monday was reported in detail by 'Flight' and 'Aeroplane' magazines, both being very complimentary over the content and organisation of the display - as Flight put it -"On Whit Monday many sensible folk went to Sywell - in addition to good weather they had what visiting pilots and others never fail to get at the hands of the Northants Aero Club and that is good management and several original turns on the programme". Representatives of many of the current light aircraft types were demonstrated including Avro Avian, Desoutter, Spartan Arrow, Blackburn Bluebird, Robinson Redwing, Parnell Pixie, and de Havilland Gipsy, Genet and Puss Moths. Heavier types included the Blackburn Uncock, Cierva Autogyro, and the three-engined Westland Wessex 'airliner'. Other display items in addition to the regular aerobatic routines included an Air Race, 'Sharp Shooting' from the air, and a demonstration by the BAC VII glider towed by a splendid Bentley tourer. The novelty aspect was not ignored and included the attack and destruction of a native 'Fort', and a demonstration of the Club's own glider the 'Sywelider' -this flimsy caricature of a machine with its straw pilot was again towed off by the Bentley, climbed rapidly to around 40 feet at which point it disintegrated and fell to earth, providing, in Flight's words, "a grisly sight".
The All Women's meeting is opened by Mary,
Duchess of Bedford seen here (in light-coloured
clothing) standing with Mrs Victor Bruce near
the tail of Miss Doreen Tyzack's Gipsy Moth.
Later in 1931, on September 19th to be precise, Sywell's world famous "All Women's Flying Meeting" was held. This event was planned, organised and run by an all female sub committee of the Aero club - all the participating pilots also being ladies. The event was opened by one of the period's best known female pilots, Mary, Duchess of Bedford, and participants included many of the leading aviatrixes of the time. Amongst them were round-the-world- pilot Mrs Victor Bruce, Airwork's Susan Slade, and air circus proprietors Pauline Gower and Dorothy Spicer (Miss Gower later becoming leader of the women's section of the Air Transport Auxiliary in WW2) Prior to the meeting, the organising committee was delighted to learn of the planned attendance at Sywell by two Polish airwomen announcing themselves as the Baroness Orhansky and her niece Princess Bianca Katunka. The excitement surrounding their arrival at Sywell lasted until realisation dawned that the two ladies bore an uncanny resemblance to Messrs Charles Newton and Henry Deterding (seen escaping through the lavatory window of the Aero Club as their cover was blown). Events at the ladies' meeting included regular items such as aerobatics and flour bombing, plus an Air Race which apparently caused many spectators to suffer palpitations - Flight magazine suggested that "the lady pilots temper their enthusiasm with a little more caution in future" and that "they realise that it is better to avoid endangering other pilots, even if it means losing the race". Must have been some race!!
Sir Sefton Brancker (left) arrives at Sywell in 1928 to
officially open the aerodrome and the Club.
The run of good weather enjoyed by the first four Pageants came to an end with the fifth held on May 16th 1932. Despite the wind and rain the usual fine variety of participating aircraft were present including such types new to Sywell as the Comper Swift , Arrow Active, Avro Cadet, and an RAF Tiger Moth. This latter machine equipped for inverted flying and aerobatted "brilliantly" by Fit Lt W E P Johnson, was making the first Sywell appearance by the type destined to have an unbroken association with the aerodrome for the next 74 years! The 1932 novelty item provided the grand finale for the show and involved a naval gun battle and aerial bombing. The principal 'ship' was another result of the Aero Club's efforts and, being based on the regularly used ancient Ford Model T car chassis, was aptly name the 'Lizzie A Gayne' registered in Detroit. Guests of Honour were the newly married Jim and Amy (nee Johnson) Mollison who attended both the Pageant and the evening's subsequent gala dinner.
The fun continued annually through to 1935. By this time Sywell's focus had moved from civil aviation and club flying to military training centred on the newly established No. 6 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School.
Perhaps the spirit of these early flying meetings and the objectives of the Club members who worked so hard to make them successful is captured by the author of one of the Pageant programmes who wrote - "Every now and then we have an air pageant at which really skilful pilots, both of the home club or other clubs, as well as Air Force aces, perform interesting and thrilling evolutions, and prove to you, if indeed you were unwise enough ever to doubt it, that you can tumble about and throw an aeroplane into every conceivable position and not take the least harm from it. These pageants are thoroughly entertaining and, if you wish to remain unconverted by the subtle lure of flying, you had better stay away from them, for they would be a danger to your peace of mind." Fond memories of these great Pageants remained for many years with those who participated or spectated. Those memories were the catalyst for a reprise in 1949 in the form of a '21st Birthday' for the Northants Aero Club. But that, as they say, is another story!