Halcyon Days


Having ventured to re-introduce a modicum of aviation interest into these pages, without so far as I am aware, any complaints, I am encouraged to recall an aspect of private flying I encountered before the war. The British ex-Indian Army pilot with whom I was associated, and who gave me my first flight from Brooklands in DH Gipsy Moth 1 in 1933, used light aeroplanes to attend steeplechase and point-to-point race meetings at which he or friends were riding.

How carefree such things then were is illustrated by an occasion the following year, when a friend was to ride in the Newton Abbott steeplechases. A DH Leopard Moth was booked from Wrighton Air Hire Ltd of Heston for £3 a day inclusive of insurance, which may raise an eyebrow or two among those who still hire aeroplanes for the purpose of retaining their licences or for business or pleasure journeys. The pilot arrived at Heston at 10am the next morning, was asked to do a trial circuit and landing as he was unknown to the hirers, and then he, his amateur jockey friend, and the latter’s dog, set off for Haldon in Devon. The aeroplane proved very easy to handle in bumpy conditions and cruised at 120mph at 2000rpm. The dog looked out of the window, no doubt counting the rabbits on Salisbury Plain.

A NW wind made landing at Haldon none too easy, so this sensibly cautious pilot first did a couple of circuits, then came in fast, at 70mph, air-brakes off, and might have got in, but prudently went round again when he could have got in, air-brakes still off, at 60mph, but once more caution prevailed and the Leopard Moth was taken round again, after which a “quite nice” landing was accomplished, air brake in use, although the wheel brakes were needed to stop in time. The aeroplane was pegged down and the three aerial travellers taken in a 1925 Model-T Ford to the races. The jockey rode an excellent round, winning his event, after which all returned to Heston in hot sunshine, coats and hats discarded, with an enjoyable view of the Isle of Wight, the Bristol Channel, Portland Bill and five counties as they approached Salisbury. The 147 miles were flown in one hour. Thanks to a company that hired Leopard and Puss Moths, Moth Majors and Klemms and Miles Hawks from £4.10/(450p) an hour.

Another flight made by my pilot-friend at that time was to Holland in Theo van Markham’s Tiger Moth, to bring back to England a Gipsy Moth. The outward trip was very pleasant but on the return they were down to 50 feet in a hail-storm and it took 45 minutes to cross the Channel, at 400 feet in a 60mph gale. Later in 1934 the same pilot was asked to fly a rider to the Tenby Chases. He again used Wrighton’s and as their Leopard Moth had not returned by the 10am scheduled time, a Moth Major, (“a nice aeroplane, but 40mph slower than a Leopard”) was hired instead, after helmet, goggles and gloves had been borrowed from Capt Shaw, who was off to Lympne in the Miles Hawk in which Tommy Rose had come in second in the King’s Cup race, the Hawk having a warmer cockpit.

A strong headwind was blowing, as they flew as low as possible among the Welsh mountains, a car overtaking the aeroplane as it was proceeding along the Resolven Valley at 90mph air-speed. Although people could be seen bathing from Pendine Sands, where two cars were having an impromtu race round a course laid out with towels, Tenby was shrouded in heavy rain. However, the AA Scouts on the race-course were spotted by their yellow oilskins and white-topped hats and they signalled the best way to land. After the meeting, where they won the first race and were second in the third, the AA refuelled and swung the Moth and it set off for Cardiff, still in pouring rain, watched by the intrigued crowd. (I once asked the pilot how he managed when landing away from an approved aerodrome, for such horse-riding happenings. “Oh,” he said, “you open an engine-cowling when you see the inevitable policeman on his bicycle approaching, tell him you have had a spot of magneto trouble, and ask him to guard the machine while you go off to get it fixed. When you return, although he may look a bit askance at your racing silks, he will be useful in keeping the crowd back for your take-off, after you have remembered to tinker with the engine for a while, pretending to put it right. . .”).

The rain persisted, so they flew up the Bristol Channel en route to Gloucester and Sywell, where presumably the passenger had to be dropped. Then, attempting to return to Heston, the rain became heavier and by 9pm it was almost dark. Low flying over Whipsnade in an endeavour to skirt the storm showed that conditions had become impossible. A retreat was made to the lower ground around Dunstable and after circling the village of Standbridge, near Leighton Buzzard, for some minutes a suitable field was seen and a safe landing made. Soon what seemed like the whole village arrived en masse, led by the son of the lady who owned the field. After helping to tie the Moth to a tree and peg its tail down the pilot was taken to the farm, given supper, lent pyjamas, and spent the night in a comfortable bed. Meanwhile, he had telephoned his wife, to explain his absence. I was in his Knightsbridge office the next morning and recall how he arrived with wringing wet maps, which I was instructed to dry out carefully over the gas-fire. He had photographed (this was the age of the first miniature Contax cameras) the field and farmhouse after taking-off that morning and he sent an enlargement to the farmer; I recall that it showed very little space between the hedge and the corn storks where the landing had been made.

Some time after this the same careful pilot got lost coming from a French GP and landed at an aerodrome to check on his route. Unfortunately it proved to be a forbidden military zone, war was approaching, and the French authorities interned both camera and the aeroplane, which was one of R O Shuttleworth’s Desoutters. From the aforesaid office I had to parry calls from the famous racing driver, asking what had become of his aeroplane! But that, and the experiences of going to continental motor races for MOTOR SPORT, in chartered aeroplanes (one of which was flown by the same pilot) are other stories.