Air - talk with a test pilot

I DROVE up to North Wales the other day to chat with Mr. Jeffrey Quill, OBE, AFC, FRAeS, the famous Spitfire test-pilot. Educated at Lancing College, Jeff Quill joined the RAF in 1931, which many think of as the golden period of flying. His Short Service Commission commenced at No. 3 Flying Training School, Grantham, where his ab initio training was done on Avro Tutors, the then-new biplane trainers. He graduated in the senior term to the Armstrong-Whitworth Siskin fighter, his motoring at this time being in a 1924 Amilcar, purchased for £24. I am sure many people will think that flying Siskins and driving an Amilcar must have been very pleasant indeed. . . .

I asked about youthful frolics in the air and so forth, but was told that that kind of thing really belonged to the former decade. By the 1930s RAF discipline was strict, student-pilots spending half-a-day flying, the other half on lectures, with the weather still quite a determining factor with the former. A pilot would fly whichever machine was allocated to him, but would have usually one Instructor. After first going solo he would do stints of about 21/2 hours alone, after which dual-flying to check efficiency would be resumed. Only after the year’s training course, consisting of the Junior and Senior terms, would a pilot be “promoted” to extensive flying. Even then, unless on a special cross-country assignment, flights away from the home aerodrome would not last more than about 21/2 hours at most. There was, however, the odd unintentional forced landing.

Jeffrey Quill is convinced that the RAF training was the best in the World. Young men who held civilian pilot’s licences and who joined the Service were told to forget all that; they would be taught how to fly properly! Before the war there were four main Flying Training Schools, at Grantham, Digby, Sealand and in Egypt. The Instructors came from the Central Flying School, as had been the form from RFC times onwards, and every to often a spot-check on a young pilot would be made by a visiting Examiner and if his flying was not up to the high standard expected, one of the Flt.-Lts. who had been instructing would soon hear about it. When Quill joined the RAF, blind-flying was only just being introduced, but force-landings due to bad weather were rare. On attaining his “wings” a pilot would be posted to a front line squadron either in Fighting Area, consisting then of only 13 Squadrons, to Wessex Bombing Area or overseas. In Quill’s case it was to Upavon, to No. 17 Fighter Squadron, flying Bristol Bulldogs. The Siskin is remembered as “an interesting aeroplane” and the Bulldog as being a “step forward but a heavy, uninspiring machine”. However, he remained in the Squadron for about a year-and-a-half, doing Air Exercises, etc.

I asked what became of the Amilcar. It burst one of its b.e. tyres when being cornered fast on the Great North Road near CFS, at Wittering, and the solid back-axle making it difficult to hold, it turned over. The remains were sold to a garage close to the aerodrome, for about 30-bob. There was no trouble with the RAF on account of car accidents so long as you kept out of Court, but the airmen, who possessed motorcycles, were frequently in trouble on that score. After the Amilcar, Quill had a series of Morrises. A bull-nose Oxford was “a very good old car” and then came a flat-radiator Cowley two-seater. From time to time the big-ends would begin to knock and, when it was convenient, the sump would be dropped and new bearings installed. After the posting to Duxford in 1935 a Morris Minor two-seater was purchased for £50, in very good condition.

From Upavon Jeff Quill was transferred to the Met. Flight at Duxford, an exacting business involving taking Siskins up to perhaps 30,000 ft. on weather checks. Quill also flew the Bulldogs of No. 19 Squadron stationed on the aerodrome and later the much faster “Gauntlets” with which they were later re-equipped. If the weather clamped down while on a Met. Flight, pilots were permitted to land in any convenient field, to get their reports to a telephone, which called for skilled flying and some mild adventures, to put it modestly. After two years with the Met. Flight there was a posting to the RAF test centre at Martlesham Heath, after which Flt.-Lt. Quill had the difficult decision to make of whether to stay in the Service or go as a Test Pilot to Vickers-Armstrongs at Weybridge. He chose the latter course, and was soon to commence his great testing and development work on Spitfires. But as he has written a book about those days, I agreed not to poach those interesting preserves.

With the posting to Vickers in 1934 came his 3-litre Bentley, disposed of when war broke out for some £90. Quill flew extensively in every mark of Spitfire and has definite views as to which was the best, but for this you will have to read his book.

Naturally it was about Brooklands that I talked most. Quill had been taken there as a schoolboy, in the days of Campbell and Kaye Don, but otherwise it was new to him, when he joined Vickers. The aerodrome was then really too small for the bigger or faster aircraft, but if the bankings affected things at all, it was with an uplift on windy days. Quill lived near the Track, at Walton-on-Thames, and he and his fellow pilots would frequent the Aero Club and the Paddock Clubhouse when off-duty and sometimes watch a motor race, especially after the Campbell circuit had been built. Quill remembers seeing Earl Howe’s ERA crash there and he knew drivers like the Hon. Brian Lewis, Charlie Martin, Fairey’s test-pilot Chris Staniland, etc., and especially Johnnie Wakefield who later joined him at Supermarine’s and was killed in a PRU Spitfire. He was also friendly with Comdr. Peter du Cane, who built Campbell’s speed-boats. Bob Ashton of Brooklands Aviation gave Quill some tuition for an Air Ministry navigator’s licence. I mentioned the Vickers Virginia bomber that crashed on landing close to the Byfleet banking before the 1933 500-Mile Race and was told it was a visiting RAF machine which had used the short run and come to grief. l asked about the Vickers “Venom” prototype eight-gun single-seat fighter, as I thought I had seen an altercation on the aerodrome over its dangerous qualities. Jeff Quill did much of the testing of this aircraft, designed to very much the same specification as the Spitfire, but it did not go into production. Quill said it was a splendid little aeroplane, very manoeuvrable, but it became too dangerous to fly it out of the very small aerodrome at Brooklands so he transferred it to the bigger, safer Eastleigh aerodrome where the Spitfire was. Incidentally, he spoke of how close the Vickers’ sheds at the Fork were to the outer edge of the Track, so that when opening the small postern-door to check on the weather, the pilots had to be careful no car or motorcycle was approaching at speed. And of how, when he owned a very effective Canadian Ford V8 while he was with Vicker’s and pulled Rolls-Royce’s leg about it having superior acceleration, for its low price, to the new 41/4-litre Bentley. Conduit Street lent him one of the latter cars for a weekend, which he drove to his old quarters at Duxford, which must have made some of the RAF officers think there was something in the Test Pilot game. Incidentally aeroplanes had to be taken across the Track to the aerodrome at Brooklands, causing practice to be suspended for which I believe the BARC made a charge — See picture above.

Finally, I spoke of the Vickers M.1 / 30 torpedo biplane which I saw come apart in the air over Brooklands on November 23rd, 1933, while it was doing a high-speed dive, both occupants landing safely by parachute, one of them on the roof of the Hawker sheds. Mr. Quill told me the pilot was “Mutt” Summers, the Observer John Radcliffe, and that the latter was wearing a superior type of knee recording-pad which he inherited and which survived his own bale-out from a Vickers Wellesley later on. It is now in the RAF Museum at Hendon.

J. K. Quill, after a life devoted to flying and during the war to essential testing of the Spitfire and all the subsequent antecedents up to the Attacker, now enjoys a well-earned retirement, in a quiet part of Wales. He drives a Volvo 343, his wife a Fiat 126. — W.B.