Period Piece

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76

There are no “Cars in Books” this month, for not even in the case of the open car which “had to be pushed out of its garage and the hood put up in case it rained,” while a glider was built in its garage during the winter of 1922/23, is the make mentioned, in “Airdays,” by John F. Leeming (Harrap, 1936). But this is a splendid period piece for vintage aeroplane enthusiasts, and does make passing reference to A. V. Roe’s two-wheeled cyclecar, which, until the police stopped it, was “one of the brightest entertainments” of the 1924 Lympne light-‘plane contests.

The early misfortunes of this L.P.W. glider, which was afterwards stored in the deserted but otherwise fully-equipped war-time aerodrome at Alexandra Park, Manchester, and later became a motor-glider which never took off, its engine being too heavy, and the formative years of the Lancashire Flying Club, are described and the great spirit of pioneering and companionship that prevailed at the 1923 Daily Mail glider trials and the subsequent motor-glider competitions at Lympne are delightfully recaptured. Thereafter this book, one of the few accounts of the commencement of the light aeroplane movement in the autobiographical sense, tells of the adventures of setting up a flying club, of getting delivery of the first D.H. Moths, of putting on air displays, often with virtually only one serviceable aeroplane available, and gives interesting insights into the characters of famous pilots like Hinkler and Cobham.

Some of the happenings are extremely humorous, as when the author was mistaken for Cobham after he landed in an Avro 504 at an improvised aerodrome at Old Hall Farm, Withington, followed by a couple of Moths (does the field still exist ?) in connection with Manchester’s Civic Week of 1926. In those days so little was known about flying by ordinary people that when Leeming was explaining how Cobham would taxi in from his landing point, an alderman said that most certainly the great aviator must not be allowed to come by taxi and that an official car would be sent to meet him! How long ago it all seems. . . .

Much of the book is concerned with the difficult task, eventually successfully accomplished, of landing on the summit of Mount Helvellyn, at the request of the Director of Civil Aviation, as a useful demonstration of how practical aeroplanes had become! For this hazardous flight Leeming used an Avro Gosport two-seater biplane, G-EBPH, with experimental 100-h.p. Avro Alpha 5-cylinder radial engine, borrowed from the Avro Company. This aeroplane was so experimental that it had to be given a special permit for the flights from Woodford aerodrome to Cumberland, as it had no C. of A. The attempts were exciting in the extreme, and the author pays tribute to Hinkler’s skill when forced landings were inevitable. The mountain-top landing was successfully accomplished three days before Christmas 1926. Originally a landing on Snowdon had been suggested but Leeming says this proposal had been turned down by the Managing Director of Avro, who apparently “lived quite near Snowdon; he had even climbed it once in a motor car—the first and, as far as I know, the only motor car ever to have performed this feat.” This, I think, refers to Sir William Letts, who is usually credited with the first successful ascent, in an Oldsmobile, in 1904, although other reports claim that the first climb was made by Harvey du Cros in a 15-h.p. Ariel early in the same year. Leeming was wide of the mark, anyway, because successful ascents were made, in 1923, by 4and 6-cylinder A.C. cars and by air-cooled Stoneleigh and B.S.A. light-cars, the last-named leaving the “record” at 42 min., R.A.C.-observed, on its non-stop run.

It was this aeroplane which Leeming landed, on another occasion, on a main road, in order to take on petrol from a wayside garage. There is a picture in the book of the Avro Gosport nearly touching a barn on one side, with its wings spanning the road, which was at Bucklow Hill, near Northwich. Taxi-ing to the garage, the Avro was refuelled “with 12 gallons of Shell “and flown back to Woodbridge. The author says it would be indiscreet to tell the whole, amusing story in his book and I gather he got various “rockets” for this episode in the technical Press. One day I must certainly see what C. G. Grey of The Aeroplane, who was a stickler for safe flying, wrote about it—incidentally, Leeming praises this great Editor, whose paper changed so drastically and dismally soon after he relinquished control of it. . . .

The “Cars in Books” feature is about references to cars (and sometimes aeroplanes) which occur in fiction and biography not expressly about motoring or flying. “Airdays” was a flying book, so naturally it is all about aeroplanes; thus this recollection of it perhaps comes more under the heading of a “belated book review.” Anyway, it is extremely enjoyable, to those of us who like reading about flying in the 1920s—about Leeming flying Sir Sefton Branker, then Director of Civil Aviation, from Woodford to Castle Bromwich in an Avro Lynx in the summer of 1927 and getting lost on the way, and another about how he covered the total eclipse in the same year, with a Lynx, for the benefit of the Press. There is much about the joy-riding activities of F. J. V. Holmes, who, into the 1930s, had perhaps a dozen Avro 504Ks for this purpose, an account of flying to Cork in a D.H. Moth which was the first aeroplane to land there since 1923, of taking the Lord Mayor of Manchester from that City to Croydon in a machine (unnamed) which developed engine trouble but managed to keep going, accompanied by Northern Air Lines’ converted D.H.9 (I wonder if contemporary Press accounts reveal how very nearly that Lord Mayor was force-landed?). Very much in the same vein is the story of how Leeming agreed to navigate a Ford Trimotor (disguised, admittedly, in the book as a three-engined all-metal monoplane carrying two pilots and 12 passengers and built by “a large and very important firm of American motor-car manufacturers”) from Croydon to Wythenshawe and became completely lost in fog soon after take-offone day I must consult the Press accounts of that demonstration flight, to see if they so much as hint at how nearly it ended in disaster! Truly a fascinating book, a splendid period piece. . . .—W. B.