Air - The other Courtenay
Following the lifestyle of this other Courtenay evokes more memories of flying as it used to be. The pilot I am recalling is not to be confused with Capt Frank Courtney, who test-flew so many different aeroplanes in the 1920s, including the Cierva and Avro Autogiros, and won the 1920 Aerial Derby in the Martinsyde Semiquaver at 153.45mph (crashing it after finishing but emerging unscathed). He then won the 1923 King’s Cup race in an AW Siskin II at 140mph, before a row with Juan de la Cierva over Autogiro design and Armstrong-Whitworth over the sale of a car given to him for his King’s Cup victory took him to the USA, testing Curtiss flying-boats, until his return eight years later to test flying-boats for Saunders Roe.
Nor should the subject of this look-back be confused with Air Chief Marshall Sir Christopher Courtney, who was Air Member for Supply and Organisation on the Air Council during WW2. The Courtenay I am thinking of is William Courtenay, MM, ARAoSI. And before you notice the difference in name-spelling, let me say that even here confusion exists; Harald Penrose, whose stupendous five-volume history of British Aviation should be on every aeroplane enthusiast’s book-shelves, (1903-1939, Putnam; 1967-1980, HMSO), repeatedly indexes both Frank and William as “Courtneys”…
Cheshire-born William Courtenay served during the First World War with the 4th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, at SuIva Bay — in the days of the Regular Army, the thin red line, the old English redcoats, the Kaiser’s “Contemptibles” and those imperturbable British Staff officers — before he transferred to the RFC. He trained at Heliopolis on Maurice Farman Shorthorns and DH6s, the latter at Amria aerodrome, graduating to the BE2c and Avro 504. Courtenay went solo after 3-1/2 hours’ dual instruction. He survived his only forced-landing, when the engine of an Avro seized and he put it down at Helouan — a Crossley tender brought out another engine, which was fitted in the day, and Courtenay flew the machine back to Heliopolis, just clearing the palm trees on take-off.
Returning home, aged 24, flying offered few prospects. Most of the 3000 front-line aeroplanes (of a total built of over 50,000) were scrapped after the Armistice and of the 30,000 or so surviving RAF pilots, under 1000 were retained. So Courtenay went to study at London University.
His first civilian job was lecturing with Lowell Thomas, the American who was in London showing his travelogue Lawrence in Arabia. That was how the ex-pilot met Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith, who had flown a Vickers Vimy (two R-R Eagles) from Hounslow to Darwin, Australia, in 1919 in 129 hours flying-time. Courtenay became interested in long-distance flying and linked up with Alan Cobham, who was successful when many others were failing, some fatally. By 1928 he was helping to organise the lecture tour Cobham gave after his flight from Australia, to alight on the Thames in front of the Houses of Parliament in a DH50 seaplane with Siddeley Puma engine, for which he was knighted. Courtenay later became Press and Publicity Manager of Sir Alan’s ambitious Air Tour of Britain, aimed at promoting interest in flying, which in 6-1/2 months in 1929 was said to have attracted 250,000 spectators and given 40,000 people flights, including 10,000 school children paid for by Sir Charles Wakefield (of Castro! Oil), who sponsored the whole idea.
Cobham used a DH51 10-seater biplane Youth of Britain for passenger flights, with an Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar engine. To lay on the advance arrangements Courtenay was provided with a 20hp Armstrong Siddeley two-seater, a rather rare model; but perhaps a dickey compartment was thought useful for carrying the leaflets and posters, etc. In fact, Armstrong Siddeley provided other cars, in return for which Cobham used the Jaguar aero engine. The two-seater Armstrong Siddeley lasted only until that August. Courtenay was driving it from Taunton to Bristol when it skidded on the wet road and demolished the front room of Mrs Jones’s Post Office at Huntspill, near Highbridge — I have always intended to go to see if the damage to the Post Office is still discernable, but never have; perhaps a reader will tell me? The car was beyond repair but Mr and Mrs Jones got two free tickets for flights when the Air Tour came to their area and Courtenay a guinea for the story he gave the Bristol Evening News. Also, a new car…
The Air Tour ended with a meeting of 500 Lord Mayors in London as guests of Lord Wakefield to discuss the prospects of municipal aerodromes in their towns, following the lead of Manchester, Hull, Blackpool and Bristol. William Courtenay turned his attention next to Amy Johnson, becoming her manager after her solo flight from England to Australia in a DH Gipsy Moth. He took over everything, planning a tour of Britain for her on her return. It has been said that Courtenay intruded unduly, getting the Daily Mail to pay £10,000 for Amy’s story and to sponsor her tour, resulting in the nervous breakdown she suffered after she had come home from her 19-day record-breaking flight. Her arrival back in England was highly dramatic. Without TV, people had to go out to see such events in 1930 and they did this in staggering numbers, for her arrival at Croydon on August Bank Holiday in the Imperial Airways A W Argosy air-liner. They lined the entire route from there to Grosvenor House in Park Lane, where she would be staying.
WC (as we will call William Courtenay) had arranged for four Armstrong Siddeley cars for the journey, with Amy and her parents in the first one, himself and F E Gordon, a Daily Mail staffman, in the rear car. Amy’s touch-down was scheduled for 4pm but the Argosy had encountered head winds and rough weather, reducing it is to a 65mph cruising speed, and it was 9pm before it reached Croydon. Meanwhile, the crowds had increased. I remember the occasion well. I had gone to Brooklands by train and on arriving at the little low-level station at and on arriving at the little low-level station at Streatham Hill and climbing the stairs on my way back I was surprised to find the road ahead solid with humanity. Due to the floodlit reception at Croydon, the expected cavalcade of the four Armstrong Siddeleys, those red, white, blue and green demonstration cars, was well over five hours late, and with no communications to the police controlling the route, one can understand why the burly policeman who impeded me was anxious not to have anyone in the road! I had to tell him I was tired after a day watching motor racing before he would let me return home, up Leigham Court Road. However, for Amy Johnson it was 2am before she was allowed by the crowds greeting her in the hotel, to get to bed, after her day had commenced at 7am…
Prior to this, WC had gone out to Marseilles to meet the liner Naldera on which Amy’s crated Moth, “Jason”, had been loaded. A barge brought it ashore, and WC went with it in the freight truck of a train to Calais, where it was shipped across the Channel and taken to Croydon on a lorry, WC still in attendance. His day had begun with a 2-1/2 hour stint in another Argosy air-liner from Croydon to Le Bourget, and ended 24 hours later, the famous aeroplane getting to Croydon at 11am on the day of its heroine-pilot’s return. When Amy Johnson felt fit enough WC set her off on her Daily Mail tour and organised all manner of other appearances for her. Little wonder that her health broke down and the tour had to be abandoned. But she flew “Jason” to a roped-off field near Eastbourne for the first of her Tour landings. The Daily Mail was apparently the first newspaper to have an aeroplane of its own and this followed, flown by Capt Wilson.
It was while in this small cabin aeroplane that WC experienced the anxiety of flying close to the 1100ft and 1800ft radio masts of Daventry and Rugby, with visibility down to 200 yards. Then they saw the name NUNEATON in 12ft high white letters on the ground and knew at last where they were. The LMS had set up this sign and WC tried to get other railway lines to copy it (I wonder if any traces of this first one still exist?). In these days of radio beacons and other navigational aids it is sobering to remember that as late as 1936 the very experienced Amy Mollison lost herself and crashed at Chelsfield, Kent, unaided by ground signs.
WC then worked for Capt Bamard’s Air Circus, setting out to find nearly 150 suitable landing-grounds. As in the Amy Johnson tour, Armstrong Siddeley cars were used and the lead aeroplane was the ex-Duchess of Bedford’s record-breaking Fokker The Spider. Barnard also had an Avro Avian, a slotted Potez cabin monoplane, a 3-seater Simmonds Spartan, a sports Avian, and a Cierva Autogiro, etc. The Daily Mail gave £6000 in sponsorship and hired for the six months, for over £6000, the Marconiphone Company’s wireless coach. It also put on the Daily Mail flying-lessons, with a radio-equipped Spartan (30 min) and the Autogiro (15 min). WC had married and he and his wife used a caravan, towed by an aged Armstrong Siddeley Sixteen which Cobham had used on his 1929 Tour but which was 100 per cent reliable, WC said. Then for three weeks in 1932 WC flew to India and back with Capt Neville Stack, in a three-seater Spartan monoplane.
Later that year he organised the opening of Hillman Air-Lines, run by Edward Hillman who had started with a coach-service between Stratford and Chelmsford and had blossomed out into air travel by buying a few DH Puss Moths, then getting de Havilland’s to build him a twin-engined machine to his requirements and price, which became the DH84 Dragon (two Gipsy engines). The opening at Romford aerodrome was dubbed the Essex Aviation Display, and Bristol Bulldogs from Hornchurch gave an aerobatic display.
WC had taken his pilot’s “ticket” at Brooklands and he later bought his own aeroplane, a Cirrus-engined BA Swallow. Flying it from Leicester to Heston he found the four railway lines south of Duxford aerodrome, checked them on his map, but got lost in low cloud and rain. He was about to land in a suitable field “in the Brooklands manner” when he saw a hangar. He flew round to investigate and came in safely, having picked up the wind direction from a factory chimney. Two mechanics from a cross-roads garage, having seen the machine circling, came out with a car and WC discovered he was at Coal Aston, which had served the RFC during WWI. He had flown due north, instead of south, after checking those railway lines! He did a piece for the Evening Standard about this “ghost” aerodrome — shades of Patrick Stephen’s series of Action Stations books of the 1980s.
It is a reminder of how easy it was to get lost in light aeroplanes in those 1930s that CW got lost at 4000 feet over the Pennines when flying from Tollerton to Liverpool, but luckily found the aerodrome at Woodford with AVRO on it. Then, lateish one evening, he set off from Liverpool from Hanworth and again ran into rain clouds. Having brought off a safe landing he remarked on his skill to the farmer. “So what?”, was the reply, “this is the biggest field in Cheshire!” I think he was using a biplane, as he was able to fold its wings for the night, but of his Swallow he claimed 90mph cruising speed and 3-1/2 to 4 gallons per hour with the 80hp Cirrus Minor engine. (To be continued) WB