Aero sport: Brooklands as an aerodrome

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(D. Bradley-Watson’s reminiscences continued from the November issue.)

I was very glad that Duncan Davis suggested that Ken Waller should complete my “B” licence training, as I found him to be a charming and kindly man and an excellent instructor. My lodgings were some distance from the aerodrome and often Ken would pick me up, sometimes in his 8-litre Bentley, but more often in his mother’s Austin 7 Ruby saloon. Inserting his 6 ft. 4 in. into this tiny motor-car must have been quite a feat. On the winding roads around Byfleet we rarely got the Bentley into top gear, but it was a very impressive-looking vehicle. If I walked it was necessary to cross over the banking by the Byfleet metal bridge, and past the sheds where they would probably be working on the latest ERA racing cars and, further on on production model Hawker Hinds, for test flying. Usually I would be overtaken by Bremridge, the charter pilot, on his old motor bike, probably in a hurry to get out the Leopard Moth and fly some “bookie” to a race meeting.

Towards the end of July I joined a class taken by Bob Ashton in navigation, with a view to sitting for my 2nd “N” in January 1938. The other members of the class were colourful characters and consisted of Tom Brooke Smith (later to become Chief Test Pilot of Short’s), Jackie Sewell, Marwick, Wigram and a cheerful rotund fellow called Harry Pepper. Bob Ashton proved to be an extremely good teacher with just the right light touch and we were soon progressing well with our course, with the possible exception of Tom Brooke Smith, who, if my memory serves me right, seemed to find the mathematics involved somewhat trying. Also poor old Harry Pepper favoured us only rarely with his presence.

After we had spent part of the morning calculating great circle courses and ETAs over vast distances we should don our flying suits and do a fairly brief triangular cross-country flight, attempting to witness wind drift accurately in the process. There was, of course, no radio or other D/F assistance available and navigation was strictly by dead reckoning and map reading. I always found it rather beyond my ability as a juggler to successfully retain control of the Tiger Moth, and open map, a CDC, and a slide-rule with which one was supposed to calculate the finer points of achieved course, ETA, etc. All this had to be done in the howling gale which always accompanied open-cockpit flying, and I lost a number of maps over the tailplane. There was no ground control for take-off and landing and one simply had to make very sure, by repeatedly craning one’s neck, that all was clear. It was really surprising that there were not more near-misses. We gave the Wellesleys’ Hinds and Wellingtons a wide berth but it cannot have been very easy for them to operate in and out of such a relatively small field.

Ken Waller insisted that it was necessary to learn the technique of cross-wind take-offs and landings which I found slightly hair-raising as it necessitated flying with one wing tip extremely close to the ground and virtually using only one wheel. I always had visions of emulating Geoffrey Tyson with his handkerchief-retrieving trick, as I grew more proficient at this manoeuvre. A spell “under the hood” at blind flying in G-AESC would follow but I found this relatively easy, and soon learnt to trust the instruments rather than the seat of my pants.

Back in the Clubhouse the bar would be open and an excellent lunch was served, but as I had not got the necessary 2s. I had to wend my way back across the track to the Queen’s Head in Byfleet where I could get beer and bread and cheese for 10d. It was amazing how the days seemed to fly by, since my log book shows that I was not flying more than an average of 1½-hours per day, and lectures could only have occupied another hour or two, but I do remember trying hard to absorb the complete “Manual of Air Navigation”, which was our standard textbook, together with sundry meteorological books and the maker’s handbooks on the Tiger Moth and Gipsy Major engine, in the rather hilarious atmosphere of the club lounge.

Brooklands naturally boasted a number of very wealthy club pilots who owned aeroplanes as well as expensive motor-cars, and among them were Bill Orton and Vernon Hunt who shared a Puss Moth, Scotty who owned a splendid open Alvis Speed 20, and Ken Firth, son of Sir William Firth, the steel magnate, who owned Avro Cadet G-ADIE, and a Lagonda. Ken was an extremely good pilot and very fond of aerobatics, which had probably influenced his choice of aeroplane. It survived the war and was last heard of in storage in Eire. His father also owned a DH Dragonfly, a similar aircraft to the one owned by the London Aeroplane Club and which I would very much have liked to fly. One day in August, Ken and Jimmy Gunn, the Club timekeeper who recorded the hours flown by Club aircraft, took off in the Dragonfly for a quick trip to Shoreham and back. What exactly went wrong I never quite found out but it resulted in the aeroplane touching some power lines and spreading itself in pieces on the hills north of Shoreham. As the two occupants scrambled out virtually unhurt from the smashed fuselage, the gate of the field opened and a car drove up to them. Out jumped a man: “Taxi sir?” he said. Somehow we just do not get service like that these days….

Jimmy Gunn served as a bomber pilot in the war and was still engaged in commercial aviation until a year or so ago.

Our lectures were sometimes enlivened by the addition of a girl student, Mona Friedlander, who was shortly to obtain her “B” licence and served throughout the war with ATA. She owned a tuned open Singer which she would on occasion drive round the Track to see if she could raise its maximum speed. One morning she asked if I would mind going along as ballast for her “three landings light and three landings loaded” test, which was a preliminary to getting another type of aeroplane on your licence. As we came in to land for the first time in the Leopard Moth it became obvious that the unaccustomed weight of three people in the aircraft had upset her normally accurate approach, and momentarily it seemed likely that we should all be soon climbing out of the sewage farm. However a burst of engine pulled us in, but we made a very rough landing and had to go around again. It was so bad that I began to regret my offer of becoming additional ballast, but next time round she had got accustomed to the feel of the loaded aircraft and all was normal.

Apart from the “home” Service aircraft of Hawkers and Vickers, we had fairly regular visits form the prototype Spitfire, flown up from the Supermarine Works at Southampton by Jeffrey Quill, their test pilot. It seems that he used it to commute to his home at Weybridge at weekends, involving a total journey time of seven to eight minutes.

This aeroplane was revolutionary in concept for those days and was only rivalled by the prototype and early production Hurricanes which we saw. The approach into Brooklands for the Spitfire was somewhat breathtaking, at least for the spectators. But even that was overshadowed by the single-seat, radial-engined Vickers Jockey or Venom, monoplane fighter which never went into production, but which was still being tested at Brooklands in 1937. I think that it had too large an engine or too little wing area, for its approach was at about 140 m.p.h. and it was reputed to touch down at 110 m.p.h. which was rather fantastic on that short and bumpy grass field. Jeffrey Quill was the only Test Pilot who felt inclined to try it, and we always held our breath as it tore in and bumped crazily over the field, seeming certain to overturn. Fortunately, it never did.

Apparently there were other complications involved in the take-offs and landings of early Spitfires according to Test Pilot H. A. Taylor, who recalls that early production models (the first was completed in July 1938) of the Spitfire Mk. 1 had no engine-driven hydraulic pump and the undercarriage was operated by means of a long hand-pump on the right, “Not only had one to change hands in order to select ‘up’ after take-off” he states “but while flying with the left hand, this pump had to be worked vigorously, and with no previous experience of the type’s very sensitive elevator control, departure was made in a series of fore and aft over corrective pitchings.” Later on, pilots learned to be very ambidextrous and to be in good control of muscular reflexes, so that the inevitable “hunt” could be reduced to an amount which, at least, did not give them away to watchers on the ground.

Taylor went on to explain that in the early days the throttle damper was not very effective unless tightened with a pair of pliers, it being necessary sometimes to stop pumping the undercarriage while changing hands yet again in order to deal with the sudden extraordinary silence as the ivory-handled throttle vibrated quietly back.

Another difficulty which occurred with many of the early Spitfires concerned the way in which the undercarriage selector would occasionally jam irrevocably in the half-way position when selecting “down”. For one reason or another the “up lock” pins became immovable, and it was necessary to take the weight off the retracted legs if any further landing progress was to be made. Since, of course, the only way of doing this was to invert the aircraft, Spitfires might occasionally be seen on their backs over Brooklands during the circuit. An alternative method of freeing the selector was to push the nose down violently, while at the same time giving the lever a sharp tug.

The maiden flight of the prototype Spitfire had taken place on March 5th, 1936 with “Mutt” Summers at the controls, and in the same year it was exhibited at the RAF Display at Hendon in the “New Type Park”, finished in a high gloss pale blue paint. At the 1937 Hendon Display, which I attended, there was exhibited in the “New Type Park” the Hawker Henley, a very clean if somewhat tubby mid-wing monoplane, officially described as a “single-engined bomber”. The prototype was frequently wheeled in and out of the Hawker sheds near the Clubhouse at Brooklands and the engine run-up. More infrequently, it took to the air, piloted by Philip Lucas. It seemed quite fast, but apparently its performance was disappointing since it never became operational and was relegated to target-towing duties. P. G. Lucas and “Johnny” Hindmarsh carried out the routine testing of the Henley and also the seemingly never-ending stream of obsolete production Hinds which were being turned out. Whether it was obsolete or not, the Hind was still a fascinating aeroplane and to hear it warming up on the tarmac, rumbling and crackling away in staccato fashion, was a delight to the enthusiast. Tragically “Johnny” Hindmarsh was later killed testing a Hurricane which failed to pull out of a dive and crashed into the Vickers’ works.

Ken Waller had come fourth in 1934 in the England-Melbourne race, flying a DH Comet with Cathcart-Jones and in August 1937 he entered for the King’s Cup race, flying a Comet again, but this time it was G-ACSS, the winner of the Australia race, which had been rebuilt after crashing in 1936. Ken was busy collecting maps and after a while he stuck them together to form a long roll. The roller map was a useful technique to use in cramped cockpit, and especially with an aircraft which, for those days, had a high cruising speed. Initially Ken had some trouble with the gyro-compass, but the machine remained at Brooklands for some time whilst he got in some practice. He finally flew it into twelfth place and was rather disappointed.

From time to time on a calm day one of the pre-1914 aeroplanes preserved and restored by R. G. J. Nash would be wheeled out and after the engine had been coaxed into life, the little machine would make a brief hopping flight. We viewed these attempts with much more scepticism than do the onlookers at a vintage ‘plane display today. This was probably because the pilot in the ‘thirties was more cautious in his handling of the machine. These days so many successful replicas of veteran aircraft have been constructed that they are not treated with such extreme care.

Brooklands Aerodrome was sometime used by film companies for location work, and coach-loads of technicians, actors and production staff with their bulky equipment descended on us and would proceed to take over the Clubhouse and surrounding areas, by prior arrangement with Duncan Davis, of course.

If one had the time to spare, the casual onlooker obtained an interesting insight into the mechanics of film-making. To myself, the arranging of the set and props seemed very interesting but the filming itself proved incredibly boring, due to the vast number of re-takes required for each brief scene.

After the carpenters, etc., had painstakingly achieved their object of changing the box-like outline of the Clubhouse into a Spanish hacienda and had carefully planted, complete with hidden supports, some very unlikely-looking Mediterranean-type trees to frame the building, the shooting would begin, with the heroine making some dramatic gesture and the hero starting the engine of his snazzy Stinson Reliant monoplane, handily parked adjacent. With a quick burst of throttle and standing on the brakes would blast the tail round preparatory to take-off. Unfortunately more often than not the slipstream had the effect of blowing the sub-tropical trees into the middle distance. All, except for the weary scene-setters, then took a break until the set background had been restored to normal.

Similar misfortunes accompanied the shooting of other scenes and I recall some unfortunate bit-player perched on top of the high wing of the Stinson, repeating the same few lines for hours in take after take, and all this in the heat of a sultry August day. The causes of the repetition would very from some clot opening the hangar doors at the critical moment to the sun going in, or a thoughtless Test Pilot engaging in a mild shoot-up of the Clubhouse in a Hawker Hind. Although this type of thing must be normal in location filming, no doubt all the film personnel were only too relieved to return to the more controlled environment of shooting in the studios, and we, in turn were not too sorry to see them go, so that we could once more get a meal and a drink in the Club, and also find a chair in the lounge to absorb the latest activities of “Popeye” in the Daily Mirror.

A film entitled “Q. Planes” was made, partly at Brooklands, starring Sir Ralph Richardson, and for this all the Club aircraft were pressed into service, complete with volunteer pilots and the ground staff dressed in their best white overalls. No doubt all this helped to make Brooklands Aviation a more viable financial proposition, and it was typical of Duncan Davis not to miss a trick.

Another method of increasing the hours flown by Club aircraft (and therefore the revenue to Brooklands) was the organising of monthly competition e.g. spot landing, navigational exercises, forced-landing tests, etc., the winner of which received a silver spoon adorned with the Brooklands badge and inscribed with the owner’s initials. It was the aim of some members to obtain a complete set, but I was lucky enough to achieve one as a result of winning an altitude race.

The idea was that each competitor should take-off (using the same machine), and endeavour to climb as high as possible in 10 minutes. A barograph, frequently used for proving the height achieved in the “A” licence tests, would be placed in the luggage locker behind the pilot and the cart would show the maximum height gained in the allotted time. Several pilots had had a go and I was just strapping myself in, when an elderly member pointed out that I was obtaining an unfair advantage. Not only was I the lightest person competing, but my aeroplane had already used up some of its petrol load. Ken Waller, probably considering the likely delays caused by topping up with petrol after each competitor, hastily brushed aside the objection and I took off. In five minutes I had reached 5,000 feet, but I knew that it was unlikely that I could keep up this rate of climb, as the official handbook for the Tiger Moth gave the time to climb to 5,000 feet as 7½ minutes and the time to 10,000 feet as 18½ minutes. It needed careful judgement to gauge when the machine was “mushing” through trying to climb it too steeply and one had to “feel” it all the way up. Soon I was climbing through wispy cloud and after 11 minutes I had reached 9,000 feet, so I throttled back and turned round. I had been flying on a compass course and I found myself over Heston. Gliding down, at 4,000 feet I passed through some clouds and came out over Staines Reservoir. I had to put on engine to get into the aerodrome. When they removed the barograph it appeared that I had reached 8,000 feet in 10 minutes. Ken Waller thought his was rather phenomenal, and later on I heard that I had won and duly received my silver spoon, which I still possess. One competitor became so engrossed in climbing that he became lost in cloud and eventually landed at Farnborough.

In early September I took up “SC”, the Club’s blind and night flying machine, which was heavier to handle than the other Tigers. It was considered advisable to get used to this machine, which would be used for one’s night flying test for the “B” licence. After some time practicing forced-landings for my “B” general flying tests I brought her in and it was the last time I flew her. Two days later she was written off by an experienced member, who was carrying a passenger. Apparently the pilot was indulging in aerobatics too low down and had completed a very stalled stall turn, spun off it, and being in too much of a hurry to come out, spun into the ground in the opposite direction. His passenger, being in the front seat, came off worst, with a fractured spine, fractured skull and bad concussion and cuts. The pilot had a badly sprained ankle and a fractured skull. They had crashed in the garden of a house in St. George’s Hill, near the aerodrome, and had made a nasty mess of the garden. Marwick and I drove up there after our navigation lecture and found that they had extricated the pilot.

Subsequently this crash was often discussed as the Club rarely lost an aeroplane in training. After the loss of “SC” the Club did not maintain a special machine for night flying and when one wanted to take the night flying tests for the “B” licence it was necessary to have one specially prepared.

The “B” tests were almost comical in their inadequacy since they consisted of achieving three landings after dark and a cross-country flight which invariably took place from Croydon to Lympne, since this was the minimum distance for licensing purposes. It was also quite usual for the pilot never to have flown at night before until he took the test, and on that occasion the instructor would accompany him to Croydon, give him one landing dual at dusk, let him do his three landings (observed), and then send him off to Lympne. The flying would be done on instruments with the aid of a hand torch, and most people made it all right and were then entitled to fly “for hire and reward”, if necessary, as a night mail or airline pilot!

Although at the end of September I had passed the general and blind flying tests for my “B” licence, my brief time at Brooklands was nearly over, since the blow fell when the RAF Central Medical Board (who conducted the tests for “B” licence candidates) temporarily grounded me. The prognosis was not good, “eyesight condition borderline and likely to deteriorate”, and very reluctantly I had to consider earning my living in another fashion.

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