During the 1930s keen drivers began to think of private aircraft as aerial sports cars. WB considers what might have tempted him
If I had been amongst the lucky people who owned a Bentley, 30/98 Vauxhall, Alvis, Lagonda or other lively sports car in the 1930s and also possessed a pilot’s licence, what aeroplane would I buy?
Before WW2 there was a desire among some affluent owners of pedigree fast sports cars to increase their enjoyment by learning to fly, and perhaps owning a sporting light aeroplane. In these ambitions they were encouraged by the subsidies granted to flying clubs in 1924. Introduced by Air Vice-Marshall Sir Sefton Branker, the Director of Civil Aviation and a pilot himself with his own Desoutter, these reduced the cost of an hour’s dual tuition from £2/15s to £1/10s and solo instruction to £1 an hour. On average this enabled one to acquire a PPL for about £20. Once in this position a pilot was legally free to fly any type of aeroplane providing no payment was involved! Such leniency was fortunately controlled by Clubs not encouraging risks to their aeroplanes and the British Aviation Insurance Group making compulsory insurance difficult.
Quite why these generous subsidies, increased to £50 per pupil in 1927, were introduced is a mystery, apart from Branker’s personal desire to see everyone fly who wanted to. After WW1 the aircraft industry was in a depressed state as orders for military machines were closed, but by the middle-1920s it was again busy building airliners, etc. Nor at that time could many have foreseen the need for an increase in pilot numbers which the forthcoming war would urgently require. Yet, by the end of 1938 there were 64 flying clubs operating in the UK, rising to nearly 200 post-war. The British Register showed 62 private owners in 1927 of whom 27 owned DH Moths (on which most civilian pilots would have been trained), rising to 206 by March 1930 of which 135 were these dependable Moths, to 478 by March 1935, with 147 Moths.
The first Moths, of 1925, had the 4.4-litre 60hp Cirrus engine, devised by Major Halford, later to race his Halford Special car, by using one cylinder-block of the wartime 80hp Renault/120hp Airdisco V8 engine of which there were plenty of new ones available. The first Cirrus Moths cost £885, reduced to £795 by 1926, had a top speed of 90mph, a stalling speed of 138mph, and a range of 320 miles. The Cirrus II Moth was down from £830 to £730 with the later Gipsy I engine. The 1928 Moth could exceed 110mph.
A popular fast light aeroplane of the 1930s was the Comper Swift. These little single-seater high-wing monoplanes were built at Hooton Park aerodrome near Liverpool by Nicholas Comper after he had left the RAF in 1929. The Swift was a development of Comper’s CLA-3 racer, an all-wood concept with a wing which could be folded to a width of 7ft 6in. The first Swift had an ABC Scorpion II engine and weighed a mere 600lb ready to fly. Its undercarriage with its rubber-cord suspension was partially enclosed within the fuselage. In 1934 it cost £400; by 1935 a 75hp Pobjoy-R engine increased performance to 130mph, with a stalling speed of 35mph; the price was £700.
Richard Shuttleworth used to keep his Popjoy-Swift outside his Brooklands shed so that if spares were needed for his racing Bugatti he could fly to Old Warden at Biggleswade to fetch them. But he also flew it to India and back, 15,000 miles, accompanying his friend George Stead in a Gipsy III Swift, to take part in the Viceroy of India Trophy race. He retired, but his friend finished in the Wakefield Cup race at 163.4mph. They then flew back to England; a rather good show by two very amateur pilots.
Amateur pilots would have been impressed by the racing successes of these neat little aeroplanes, which included Comper’s win at 149.75mph in a Swift in the 100-mile Manchester to Birmingham contest and his 2000-mile flight to Italy and back, from Croydon, in 26 hours, a 100mph average. The 1934 Comper Swift with Gipsy III engine was capable of 170mph.
To endorse these was the epic England to Cape Town and back record by Alex Henshaw in 1939, accomplished in 2 days, 31 hours and one minute flying time, a 120mph average speed including his overnight pause and a day’s break, a memorable flight described in the pilot’s no less epic book The Flight of the Mew Gull (John Murray, 1980). The cramped cockpit was packed with fuel and oil tanks, leaving almost no room for the pilot. When Henshaw landed back at Gravesend he was so exhausted he had to be helped out of the cockpit and there was alarm over much blood therein, due to Alex’s nose having bled to add to his other prolonged discomforts and problems.
During the war Henshaw relentlessly and untiringly test-flew Spitfires of all types, at a time when these were a vital part of British defences. A great many of us consider that such dedication should have been recognised with an honour not requiring monetary persuasion to Mr Blair.
The Gull was another important aeroplane for private pilots, and they were raced very successfully by professionals like Henshaw, Charles Gardner and trilby-hatted Captain Percival himself. The first Mew Gull was built at Gravesend in 1934, a low-wing aeroplane with a Napier Victor engine, but the 200hp Gipsy Six was used for the racing versions, giving 170mph, and 230mph with the Gipsy Six series II six-cylinder engine. The loaded weight was then 2125lbs, stalling speed 60mph, and the initial rate of climb 1700ft/min, with a ceiling of 21,000ft and a range of 860 miles; so essentially appealing to any experienced driver of a fast sports car in the 1930s. If you had some extra money they would make you a racing Gull able to fly at 256mph. Before WW2 notable records and race-wins had been established by Mew Gulls, flown by pilots who included Amy Mollison, Jean Batten, Tom Rose, HL Brook, Air-Commander
Sir Kingsford Smith and HF Broadbent.
Motor Sport’s logo used to be ‘Land-Air-Water’ so when I was editor it seemed appropriate to publish reports of flying tests of light aeroplanes by David Ogilvy, such as the Comper Swift and the Gull, which he regarded as an aeroplane which could not be compared with any other of its kind, as its performance with the Gipsy Six-R engine was on its own. He felt he would have liked to own one.