AIR - THE FLYING ELLISONS
By the 1930s, long-distance flights in light aeroplanes flown by amateur or semi-professional pilots were becoming almost too common. C G Grey, the famous and notably out-spoken editor of The Aeroplane, was apt to castigate such endeavours, especially when a crash or a poor time failed dismally to set up a new record. The flying done by Alfred Ellison and his brother were in a different category. Alfred had been a RFC pilot and continued his flying without a break until he started to use his own light aeroplanes for adventurous but successful business journeys. Previous to that he had raced the 15-litre 1912 GP Lorraine Dietrich, which he called Vieux Charles Trois, at Brooklands, also very successfully, with in 1924 a best lap of 105.29 mph, as recounted in my book about the history of the old Motor Course. Ellison also drove a Renault 45, Vieux Charles IV, at Shelsley Walsh in 1926, clocking a time of 69.0s with this cumbersome car. Later, when he had gone to live in Nassau, he found the roads unkind to his Mercedes-Benz 300SL.
A member of the Midland Aero Club, Alfred Ellison took part in the then-current Air Rallies, often with his wife as passenger, to places such as Warsaw, Bucharest and indeed all over Europe, but it was his flight with his brother George Ellison to Africa in his own DH Puss Moth, G-ABMP, that endorsed his ability as a pilot and the fact that he used his aeroplanes for serious business-promoting flying. It was customary for the brothers to fly in business suits, without overcoats in the comfort of the Puss Moth’s enclosed cabin. The flight to Africa, carefully planned, commenced early one Tuesday morning in September 1934, from Castle Bromwich. Alfred was MD of the Black Lake Iron Works, George Ellison MD of George Ellison Ltd making electrical switchgear at Perry Barr; the purpose of the long flight was to call on business prospects and visit associates in Africa — and also enjoy a holiday. They reckoned on the 18,000-mile out-and-home flight occupying five weeks.
The brothers arrived in Cape Town after nine days, conducted business there, then made an extensive aerial tour of South Africa. The route had been Heston, Lympne, through France to Spain, Tangier, Tripoli, Cairo, Luxor, Khartoum, Nairobi, Broken Hill, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Ladysmith, Durban, to the Cape. Few problems were encountered but the Italian Customs held them up for some hours, and in Egypt they were made to land at Tobruk for checks that the seals put on the cine-cameras with which they had filmed wild life had not been broken; on their return they were able to show a film to members of the Midland Aero Club. And there were riots going on near Tripoli, but the Puss Moth was well received at the military aerodrome there. A wise decision was made to refuel at Sirte, otherwise there could have been a forced landing in the Libyan Desert, “ten times worse than any sea, shark-infested or not”.
The military authorities had landing lighting ready, but the Ellisons got into Bengazi just before dark. After flying through a sand storm and crossing the Nubian desert in torrid heat, they landed at Wadi Haifa for petrol, seeing there an imperial Airways aeroplane bound for Cairo. After more than ten hours’ flying, Khartoum was reached, two very tired aviators attending to the Puss Moth, which was refuelled, oil checked, and cleaned and picketted-down, before they met their own needs. W/Cmdr A Conyngham was most helpful, they reported. Then it was on through torrential rain, to land for more fuel at Malakal, where the wind was blowing across the only runway (for the use of Imperial Airways). After debating whether to sideslip in or land on the fairway, the latter course was taken; the touch-down was alright but they then taxied into high elephant grass, which the propeller swathed deep into the cabin. Later on the inevitable, if you fly in Africa, locust clouds were encountered, which with that grass and the sand storms, removed paint from the wings and undercarriage.
The dreaded Sudd swamps crossing, where a forced landing could be disastrous, was reduced to about 15 minutes by using the narrow north end. Ideal for sighting elephants — the Puss Moth circled to film the Bor herd of some 400 animals. More petrol at Kisumu, then over Kilimanjaro, after which the Imperial route was left for a short cut to Mpika, to meet Mr and Mrs Roland Smith, who by themselves had built the splendid “Crested Crane” hotel, 300 miles from any railhead. Salisbury was reached in bad visibility and so this journey took the Ellisons on to Johannesburg, in nine days. They had circled interesting ground sights and altogether had treated the matter as a routine flight.
After touring S Africa they had intended to return in the same fashion. But the brothers were persuaded to have a crack at the Cape-England record. It stood at 7 days, 7hr 5min, Cape Town to Croydon, to the credit of Mrs Amy Mollison, flying the DH Puss Moth “Desert Cloud”, with 130 hp Gipsy Major engine, The standard 120 hp Puss Moth had a top speed of 128 mph, a cruising speed of 108 mph and a range of 300 miles. (Puss Moths had been involved in nine fatal accidents, including that of racing driver Cmdr Glen Kidston, in Africa, and the famous pilot Bert Hinkler; but that was now behind them).
The Ellisons set off in high spirits, but when about an hour from Mpika the engine lost power. They made the aerodrome but “opening the bonnet” (which vintage aeroplanes have) the inlet manifold was seen to be holed. It was patched up and the Puss Moth flown back to Jo’burg, a loss of two days and an added 2000 miles to the return trip. Re-starting after a top overhaul by de Havilland’s at Baragwanath, having survived a gale and a puncture (repaired with jack and patch as with a car) fate turned against them after landing at a farm to enquire the way. Heavy rain didn’t help and Customs at Petersburg kept the aviators waiting an hour, in spite of a telegraphed warning of their arrival. At Salisbury they had to taxi through hordes of locusts — “the smell of roasted locust lasted for days” — but made the difficult-to-find Mpika aerodrome just before it got dark. Off at dawn, all hope of the record receded when low cloud necessitated a return there. However, they continued at a less frenzied pace, flying over the wreckage of Van de Leeuw’s Leopard Moth which had crashed and killed him a few days previously, when it became trapped in a valley, in cloud, near M’beya. The Ellisons were in cloud here and they were forced to fly low over a village, shouting for directions — shades of Lindbergh over the Atlantic! Then it was on to Juba, at 12,000ft.
The Puss Moth was now pointed for Asyut, across 355 miles of trackless desert, when after 45 minutes at 5000ft, the engine began to misfire badly. Alfred Ellison aimed for the Nile, and after “the worst hour of my life”, they made Wadi Haifa and cleaned sand out of the petrol filter. It all ended when they failed to find Almarza aerodrome at night, the beacon not being on, although they circled flashing a torch. With oil on the windscreen a landing was tricky; they bounced, and wrote-off the undercarriage — whereupon the landing lights came on! A good try had failed. The Puss Moth was crated and sent home for its overdue 300hour overhaul and rebuild. The brothers came back to England by Imperial Airways to Brindisi, train to Paris, and by air to Croydon. Jo’burg to Cairo had taken four days. So the record might, I suppose, have been theirs. Undaunted, in 1935 Alfred Ellison acquired a DH Leopard Moth (top speed 137 mph, cruising pace 119 mph), and with it competed in a number of air rallies, taking his wife with him on some of them. First, he and brother George took off from Heston for the AC of Morocco Casablanca rally, winning a silver trophy. Next, they tried to fly 2400 miles in two days to the Trilioli Rally, but fog at Lympne made the Channel crossing impossible. There had been plans to fly to Moscow and China, abandoned for frontier reasons, but to offset disappointment over the Tripoli Rally, after the fog cleared Ellison flew to Dieppe for another rally there and escorted Herr Kronfield part way over the sea in his BAC Drone on the return crossing. The Leopard Moth was also used for the Belgian, Austrian and Hungarian rallies. In a month and a half it had logged 150 trouble-free hours. That summer Alfred Ellison took in the Rome rally, competed in the 3-day Belgian Aerienne, toured Holland to visit friends, and two days after getting home, left for the Magyar Pilot’s Picnic at Budapest. Bad weather at Berck ruined that, so after a short delay Mr and Mrs Ellison flew instead to Perpignan to see more friends, then to Barcelona, Alicante, Gibraltar and across to Casablanca. After which they “just pottered about”, down the West African coast. In one day Ellison and his wife flew 1080 miles, homewards bound.
Off to France soon afterwards, there then came another Cape flight, which ended at Nairobi, where Ellison sold the Leopard Moth to the famous pilot Beryl Markham. . . I believe that later he may have obtained a racing Percival Mew Gull, which would have given him a top speed of some 250 mph, and been able to cruise at over 200 mph.
Obviously Alfred Ellison was a very capable pilot. Yet, although his serious use of light aeroplanes should have appealed to the aforesaid CGG, who disliked those who simply took risks chasing records, I do not recall any mentions of the aforesaid journeys in The Aeroplane, although I read it avidly then, and still do.
When war broke out in 1914 Ellison had joined the Public Schools Battalion, 21st Royal Fusiliers, but transferred to the RFC and flew on active service from 1915 to 1916, with Nos 2, 4, 12 and 13 Squadrons. He was Observer in the BE2c with which Lt Sanday (who became a Lt-Col, DSO, MC, with four more German aeroplanes to his credit) shot down one of the first Albatrosses. Commissioned in the Field and mentioned in Dispatches, Ellison learnt to fly (R-Ae-C Certificate 2249, CFS Certificate 899) and was 27 when he turned to motor racing.
At that time he lived at Footherley Hall, Shenstone, and George at Batts Hall, Knole W D Wallbank told me that when he bought the venerable Lorraine in 1929, after a hair-raising demonstration run, he drove it non-stop to Brooklands from Birmingham, fearful of being unable to re-start the enormous engine if he stopped! Some years later, wanting to contact Ellison, I called at Footherley Hall, to find that it was then a Convent. Advised to write to the Mother Superior explaining my motor racing interest,I received her reply, stating that she had no forwarding address, but added that she was interested to learn that an old racing car had been kept there “which must have been very exciting”. I rather liked that. . . !
I have since been able to make contact, thanks to Mr R Trotman of Tufnol Ltd, a successor of one of the Ellison companies, with Alfred’s daughter, and VSCC member H Stockley, has kindly provided some of the data on which this piece is based. W B