More on Courtenay

As we have seen, at this period of flying, before WW2, many pilots “navigated by Bradshaw”, i e followed the railway lines. How vague direction finding was can be judged when, one summer day in 1931, Courtney flew from Stockton-on-Tees to Fleetwood. This was then a long haul over the hills by road and WC had therefore, sent his car and caravan (he was with Capt Bernard’s Air Circus) on to Newcastle, electing to go with one of the circus pilots, probably in an Avro Avian. The flight should have taken 1 1/2 hours at the most. But while the other circus pilots went under the low but broken clouds, following the valleys from the Yorkshire side of the Pennines to the Lancashire coast, WC’s man decided to go direct.

He had no blind-flying instruments and the Pennines were regarded as one of the most treacherous flying areas in England. He climbed to 7000 feet with no sign of a break in the gloom. After about 15 minutes he decided to turn back. With WC helpless in the front cockpit, the aeroplane was soon out of control. After an alarming series of dives, vertical climbs and stalls, it eventually spun to within some 200 feet of destruction, when luckily the earth became visible again and the pilot, who had 1000 hours of military flying to his credit, was able to get on a compass course for Fleetwood, landing long after all the more cautious pilots had arrived. Ever ruthless, the next day, WC castigated him in the flying column of the Daily Mail. . .

Another example of this problem came after the Trans-Atlantic airmen, Richman and Merrill, had flown their 200mph Vultee V-I a single-engined monoplane Lady Peace from New York to Britain in 18 hours in 1936, but had landed at Llandirello in S Wales instead of Croydon, having run out of petrol. WC had his BA Swallow at Croydon but as it had no navigation lights he could not fly to see them, as it was by then 5pm. The next day these intrepid pilots (actually Richman was an entertainer) intended to return to America, but WC advised them that Croydon had insufficient space for their 8500lb aeroplane to get off (the fuel load gave them a 400-mile margin on the 3600-mile crossing). They thought of Pendine Sands but WC suggested Liverpool airport, with its 2000-yard runways. Lady Peace had arrived at Croydon and merrill flew it to Liverpool, which should have taken 40 minutes in this record-breaking aeroplane with its supercharged 1000hp Wright Cyclone 2 engine; it had done Bristol-Croydon in 38 minutes. But the famous pilots had no English maps and the radio was U S so WC stood behind them to navigate. Alas, after getting them away from Hendon, which they had overflown on an incorrect course, to Heston and then to Halton, railway lines were followed to Birmingham, but the weather then really closed in and for 30 minutes WC was lost, not recognising the last line seen. With fog coming down they found themselves over the Welsh hills when they should have been over the lowlands of Lancashire. Eventually they circled a large town. WC recognised it as Chester, and course was set for Mersey. Merrill made a superb landing, but the trip had taken all of 1 1/2 hours!

So that I can convince WJT that these long-distance flight could be as dramatic as LSR attempts, let me say that Shell had sent 1000 gallons of 100-octane fuel to Liverpool for Lady Peace, which was refuelled from barrels at the perimeter of the airfield to prevent the loaded machine cutting up the turf when it was taxied. So much of the fuel had to be drained out before the machine could be moved, and always the wind was in the wrong direction. Day after day went by. The pilots, staying at the Prince of Wales hotel decided to look at Southport Sands. They approved, so a threemile runway was roped-off and lit by an endless vista of hurricane lamps for a dawn take-off. The aeroplane stood on sleepers while it was refuelled, barriers and a police patrol kept back the large crowds that had collected, and a rope barrier guarded the machine.

Finally, in the pitch dark of a starry night (if that seems a contradiction in terms I quote WC himself) all was ready. WC landed first, in his BA Swallow, then Lady Peace followed him in. Fire-engine and ambulance had been provided. At 3.03 am the return Atlantic flight commenced! WC rushed in a car to warn the ambulance crew but before the mile mark the monoplane unstuck, exhaust stubs glowing, the landing-light full-on, to climb slowly away over the sandhills. WC waited half an hour in case the Vultee had to return, then later flew in his Swallow back to London. In fact Lady Peace’s pilots had to jettison much of the fuel and they landed at Musgrove Harbour, 150 miles from their destination, after 17 hours 47 minutes, whereas with the extra 50 gallons of petrol Southport had permitted (a total of 800 gallons) Merrill had expected to reach New York in about 18 hours. It was implied that Richman, who owned Lady Peace, should have placed more trust in the more experienced Merrill and let him continue.

Reverting to WC’s difficulties, there was the occasion when he was at Hanworth Air Park, near Feltham (where the Bertelli Aston Martins were made) and wanted to get to Brooklands, where he had left his car. By air it would take 15 minutes, by road 1 1/2 hours he said, although the latter estimate seems rather pessimistic; I think I could have done it by Austin 7 in under an hour. Anyway, WC went with a pilot of 100 hours experience and a friend, in an early Desoutter cabin-monoplane. Its pilot elected to take-off from halfway across the field, on this windless day, with the result that the aeroplane hit a house on the northern boundary of the aerodrome. The pilot and other passenger were almost unhurt but WC was out cold and spent three days in Hounslow Hospital. There had been no fire but the cabin of G-AATF had been completely wrecked and its tail had ended up in a young lady’s bedroom. . .

WC’s adventures didn’t take place solely in the air. While he was with Bernard’s Air Circus and when it was located at Perth in Scotland, news came through of the mutiny in the Fleet anchored off lnvergordon. Ever the reporter, WC took one of the Daily Mail cars, a powerful 20 hp Armstrong Siddeley, with the photographer, and drove hard through the night to Inverness, averaging 40mph or more for nearly 170 miles. Two hours later, some nine hours before the Fleet Street professionals arrived by LMS sleeper, they had reached lnvergordon.

The BBC asked WC to broadcast a report of the 1934 England-Australia Race; he had flown to Liverpool the day before and was wanted in the London studio by 6.30pm. Bad weather delayed his return, but taking-off at 2.30pm he got to Brooklands in two hours, pushed his aeroplane into its hanger and fled to the station, (then called, as I remember, West Weybridge, when Oyster Lane was grass verged and there were no traffic lights where it narrowed at the railway bridge), caught the 5.15, got to Waterloo an hour later and was at the studio, by taxi, in 13 minutes, with two to spare. . .

In spite of having driven Amy Johnson to a nervous breakdown after her solo flight to Australia, WC joined Amy and Jim Mollison to manage their long-distance flights, Courtney, described as the tall, curly-haired, ubiquitous, likeable but unbearably persistent PRO, even making much of the famous aviators’ marriage. He was present at all their record attempts from this country, including the unsuccessful take-off of the DH84 Dragon “Seafarer” when its under-carriage collapsed at Croydon (it later got off for America, from Pendine Sands) after which WC flew in a Percival Gull to London in 1 1/4 hours. I recall going to Croydon to see the record-breaking pilots land, in the Jean Batten days, for instance). Courtney had sat behind the 400-gallon petrol tanks in the tail of “Seafarer” on its flight from Cardiff (where sightseers had paid 6d (2 1/2p) to view it) to London and later to Pendine, with his portable “Corona” on his lap, typing an imaginary story of what the forthcoming Atlantic crossing might be like; remarkably, he had to stop at the point where they were imagined to be at Maine, U S A, which was about where the Mollisons were to force-land in reality, almost out of fuel!

Towards the end of her great aviation career, Amy Mollison turned to cars, driving in a few rallies, after Sir William Morris had given her an MG saloon, WC once went with her in “her high-powered Mercedes” from London to Leeds and over the Pennines to visit her sister in Blackpool, after Capt Wilson had flown her famous DH Puss Moth to be put on display at Lewis’s stores. This may well have been the 38/250hp Mercedes-Benz illustrated in last month’s “Vintage Postbag”. It is all rather typical of those free and easy far-away days!