Aero sport: Brooklands as an aerodrome

[D. Bradley-Watson, who learned to fly at Brooklands, recalls some history and recaptures the atmosphere of one of our most famous flying fields—which, incidentally, has outlived the track.—Ed.]

It was my first visit to Brooklands and from the front cockpit of a DH Moth I viewed with dismay the scene below as we were gliding in on our approach to the aerodrome in the centre of the Track. What seemed to be a very small landing space, compared with our home aerodrome at Norwich, was almost entirely littered with marker flags, rows of drain pipes, and excavated ground. It was May 2nd, 1936 and nobody had warned us before we left that we would find such major reconstruction going on over the airfield. Luckily the occupant of the rear cockpit was experienced enough to cope with the situation and as we came in low over the Hawker sheds we could clearly hear the roar of the cars on the Track as someone had also forgotten to tell us that it was a race day.

The final approach and landing run had to be made on a curve in order to keep within the markers and we were quite relieved to be taxiing up to the Club buildings with our machine intact. The purpose of our visit was to return a Moth which had been temporarily hired by the Norwich Club, and collect another in which we were to return and which later I would use to carry out my first solo. This vintage G-ABLZ aeroplane features in that fascinating book “In Full Flight” by Capt. A. Spooner, in which he relates his experience whilst training at Brooklands.

After handing over our Moth to the mechanics we were told that it would be an hour or so before G-ABLZ would be ready so we went along to the Clubhouse to watch some of the racing. Considerable formalities had to be gone through before we were admitted as strict precautions were taken against gate-crashers on race days. We spent some time watching the racing which was going on for five hours.

My pilot noted his course for the return journey on a big board at the Clubhouse, which detailed the courses to all the aerodromes in England and we then returned to the hangars to pick up our machine. There we found a dismantled Fox Moth which had belonged to the Norwich Club the previous summer and which was to survive in flying until the “seventies”. Our Moth was all ready and warmed up and as we took off over the Track we had a last look at the race, which was still in progress. [At one time landing and take off was prohibited while racing was taking place but this rule was apparently rescinded as too restrictive during long-distance races.—Ed.]

A year later I was back at Brooklands, now as a member of the Club where I was training for my “B” commercial pilot’s licence. I was in lodgings near the aerodrome and my landlady was well known to Duncan Davis who was managing Brooklands Aviation, and soon after my arrival she presented me with some old snapshots of the original Henderson School of Flying at Brooklands, taken in the ‘twenties’.

This set me thinking about the history of the aerodrome. I did some research and found out that Lord Brabazon built his own aeroplane and endeavoured to fly it at Brooklands in 1907, but without success. On June 8th, 1908 a brief flight was made at Brooklands by A. V. Roe, which was in fact the first flight in England. [There is a plaque there today, commemorating this.—Ed.] However the first official flight was not made until the next year, by Lord Brabazon.

The famous pioneer S. F. Cody flew his “Flying Cathedral” over to Brooklands from Aldershot in 1911, and A. V. Roe took the opportunity to inspect the machine and noticing an important bracing wire which was not duplicated, asked Cody what would happen if the wire broke when he was flying at 1,000 ft. Cody replied that his name would be mud!

Short Bros., who had gained a name as balloon manufacturers in the early days, started building aeroplanes and put up a shed in 1908 next to A. V. Roe’s. On one of their machines Lord Brabazon won the Daily Mail £1,000 prize for the first circular mile flight. In 1910 Martin and Handasyde were, building the Martinsyde monoplane, which proved successful, and the firm later produced machines used by the RFC in the First World War. In 1915 Brooklands was a busy training aerodrome for “ab initio” pilots. Maurice Farman Shorthorns and Avro 504s were used for instruction. By 1915 Sopwith had begun to build aeroplanes at Brooklands and their test pilot, Harry Hawker, used to fly the “Pup” under the Byfleet bridge, watched by a pupil, Cecil Lewis, later to become a fighter ace and squadron comrade of the famous Albert Ball. [And writer of that fine book “Sagittarius Rising”.—Ed.] Later in the war Brooklands became an Aircraft Acceptance Park and was the base from which pilots ferried the aircraft to France.

With the war over, Vickers Ltd. turned their attention to the production of civil aircraft, and in 1919 the famous Transatlantic crossing was made by the Vickers “Vimy”, followed by the first flight from England to Australia, also by a “Vimy” later in the year. The pilot of the latter, Sir Ross Smith, lost his life in April 1922 when the Vickers Viking amphibian which he was testing crashed at Brooklands.

Club flying in the twenties was carried out by the Henderson School of Flying owned by Col. G. L. P. Henderson, in Avro 504Ks. Col. Henderson designed and built several aircraft one of which, the Gadfly, flown by the designer, broke the World’s height record for light aircraft in May 1929. Tragically, he lost his life and those of his five passengers when flying a Junkers F13 near Meopham in July 1930. The accident was caused by structural failure in the air.

In 1927 Duncan Davis became Chief Flying Instructor. He took over the Henderson School of Flying in 1928, re-naming it the Brooklands School of Flying. He had very little money, but with the assistance of several wealthy pupils he managed to raise enough to buy a typewriter and three Avros.

By April 1929 eight aeroplanes were being operated and in July 1929 Jock Anderson flew the Henderson Gadfly three times under the iron Byfleet bridge. During 1929 more than 40 pupils gained their “A” licences. At a meeting in March 1930 Jock Anderson carried out wing-walking on an Avro, and John Tranum landed, from an early parachute of the Russell-Lobe type, in the sewage farm.

The Brooklands Aero Club was formed in the Spring of 1930 with one aeroplane, a Metal Gipsy Moth. A rate of £2 per hour was charged. On May 17th a Display was held to mark the opening of the Club and amongst other things Murray flew his SE5A. Dudley Watt rebuilt an SE at Brooklands. in 1927 and designated it DW1, and another was rebuilt and sold to the comedian Will Hay, who flew it from Sherburn-in-Elmet.

The Club prided itself on being able to provide immediate instruction any time between sunrise and sunset, and businessmen would phone the aerodrome for an appointment and on arrival at the aerodrome (35 min. from Waterloo) would find aeroplane and instructor ready. They could be back at their offices within two hours of leaving Town. The cost of training a pupil, at this time, to “A” licence standard worked out at £42 10s.

In 1929 “Mutt” Summers became Chief Test Pilot to Vickers and George Bulman acted in that capacity for Hawker Aircraft. In 1931 new buildings were provided and Gipsy Moths replaced the old Cirrus Moths. At this time Francis Chichester was being trained by Duncan Davis and Ted Jones. He was not a quick learner as he had taken 24 hours to go solo, although only five and a half hours of this dual instruction was done in England.

In the summer of 1931 the Club had introduced both advanced flying and blind flying courses, and it was possible to take courses in aero-engineering. In October the College of Aeronautical Engineering opened premises at the aerodrome and in the middle of 1932 it formed its own flying club, using the School aeroplanes.

On September 18th the new building for the Brooklands School of Flying was complete. Incidentally, the size of the landing area was N. to S. 800 yards, N.E. to S.W. 900 yards, E. to W. 600 yards, S.E. to N.W. 450 yards and it was usual to take off to the North when there was no wind. The new concrete Clubhouse was attractive and the interior was pleasantly decorated in bright orange and buff which gave a cheerful air. The tall control tower gave an excellent view over the aerodrome.

At the end of the Summer of 1932 a large electric “R” was put up on the Vickers factory as a reminder that a right-hand circuit was in force at Brooklands. It flashed intermittently and could be seen for miles. When a left-hand circuit was in force the sign was unlighted. A tarmac apron was laid by the clubhouse. Early in 1933 the Brooklands Flying Club Ltd. was formed with Duncan Davis and Bill Massey as Directors.

In April 1933 Capt. Bush was appointed Secretary of the Brooklands Flying Club and Robert Ashton was Navigation Instructor. R. 0. Shuttleworth started his collection of antique aeroplanes, which are now kept at Old Warden. He flew regularly in air races and the King’s Cup Race but was to lose his life serving with the RAF in 1940. John Grierson kept his celebrated Gipsy Moth “Rouge et Noir” at the aerodrome and it was fitted with a special Marconi homing device, one of the first such navigational aids to be operated.

Duncan Davis instituted the “Dawn Patrol” for clubs. The object was to land at Brooklands from other clubs without the registration letters of the aircraft being noted by defending aircraft. If raiders managed to get down without being spotted they were given free breakfasts.

By 1934 the Club had five Gipsy Moths and Duncan Davis was still instructing. On one occasion he was flying a pupil round the aerodrome when they saw below an RAF fighter land, run on too far, and stand gently on its nose in the sewage farm. The pupil asked what aeroplane it was, and when told it was a “Bulldog” exclaimed, “Oh! I suppose he is burying a bone”.

Capt. Ian Mackenzie had become Chief Flying Instructor and was joined by J. Sholto Douglas as assistant, and they trained 67 pilots to “A” licence standard and seven to “B” licence. The new Hawker sheds were in use and assembly of Hart Hind and Fury biplanes was proceeding. The Hawker team of test pilots consisted of Bulman, Summers, Lucas and Hindmarsh.

In October 1935 the prototype Hawker Hurricane was taken from the Kingston works to Brooklands and on November 6th, Bulman test flew it. By mid-1936 work was complete on the prototype Vickers Wellington which made its first flight from Brooklands on June 15th, piloted by “Mutt” Summers.

By the time I arrived at Brooklands in July 1937 the Vickers Wellesley was in full production. This aircraft was a “geodectic” forerunner of the Wellington and was a large single-engined monoplane powered by a Bristol radial engine which was sometimes prone to failure. If this occurred on take-off one might fail to clear the banking of the rack-track, and the trees immediately beyond, but if one was lucky enough to do that one was bound for the cemetery just ahead. Presumably all that was necessary then was to shovel the earth over one.

The Club’s first Tiger Moth had been delivered in July 1936, but by the time I arrived nearly the whole fleet consisted of Tigers and Ken Waller was Chief Instructor, assisted by Leslie Cliff and Roland Morris. The latter had been an airline pilot with Scottish Airways, and said that he had come to Brooklands to relax from the more arduous duties of flying in the Highlands in bad weather. On occasion he would play the violin for us, and was much in demand by the female pupils, as he was a handsome bachelor. Leslie Cliff was a quiet man who could be extremely sarcastic if you failed to please him in the air. He had organised his life extremely well, since he spent his summers instructing at Brooklands and his winters in warmer climes on the other side of the World, although in between he and his wife managed to find time to be a world famous ice figure skating team.

(To be continued)