An Occasional Section Devoted to Aeronautical Affairs

An Aero-Watcher’s Random Recollections

IN MY school-days I divided my time between motor racing and aeroplanes, which my mother no doubt thought was better than bird-watching. It became an obsession to visit as many aerodromes in the vicinity of London as possible, where I would hang about waiting for some activity, as other kids waited for steam-rollers to start work. How one envied the hidden denizens of the sheds and Flight-Officers, who actually knew when the next machine was due to fly!

These happy expeditions took me to Brooklands, which had the double attraction of racing cars to be examined at close quarters in the Paddock when one tired of the flying, if one chanced making what was probably a frowned-upon brisk walk across the grass flying-ground to the Weybridge side. Later, at Brooklands, I was to see that Vickers Vildebeest torpedo-biplane break up in the air, pilot and observer landing safely using their parachutes, one on the roof of a shed. They never did find the aerial-torpedo the Vildebeest was carrying, although notices offering a reward for its recovery were posted up in local Police Stations. Less fortunate was the pilot of a School DH Moth, who was giving his girl-friend a flight and, probably under-shooting and not wishing to land in the notorious sewage-farm, did a stall turn and crashed outside the Track boundary. I was on the Railway straight with Cecil Burney at the time — one moment there were two Moths aloft, then suddenly there was only one. We got into his Bentley and raced to the unhappy scene, along with other cars.

I had my first experience of flying, from Brooklands, in an early DH Moth. It was a cold morning, I had only a light coat, and the pilot was trying out his new Contax miniature camera. This entailed putting the Moth in a climb, taking both his hands off the controls, hanging over the side of the cockpit to look for suitable subjects to photograph, then recovering only when a wing had dipped and a stall was imminent. The combination of chill and spin caused me to feel sick for days afterwards, but nevertheless I walked on air. . . . It was at the same place, groping my way along the Aerodrome road in my Austin 7 in a thick fog, that I heard not far away the sound of an idling Rolls-Royce Kestrel engine. Just visible was a Hawker Hart, with two Sidcot-suited figures standing beside it. I expressed suprise that they should even taxi out on such a day, let alone fly, but they said cheerfully that they had landed to relieve themselves, adding “You can always find Brooklands, by following the railway line”. With which, they climbed in, opened up, and quickly vanished into the murk.

Kenley was a popular haunt of mine, before the war. I found it by accident, when, with a school friend, I had set off for a picnic. Coming up a country lane, we saw an aeroplane land on the open space ahead of us. Thinking it had force-landed, we ran towards it with heroic ideas of telling the pilot where he was and helping him find a telephone. He waved us away crossly but it was sometime before it dawned on us that we were in the middle of an operational RAF airfield. You see, in those days, there was no fencing of any kind round the Kenley ground, only a few warning notice-boards and a white line, such as those on tennis courts, marking the boundaries. A road even ran close to the field and after a carter, standing up on his horse-drawn vehicle, had been knocked off it by an incoming aeroplane, a special notice was put up, advising such persons to “remain seated while crossing the ‘drome”. (If anyone has a picture of this notice, I would be glad to see it. The only one I have is of a similar notice I saw on the beach at Southport, where a joy-ride DH Fox-Moth was operating into the 1950s.) In those pre-war days the cumbersome Vickers Virginias flew out of Kenley, where my favourite aeroplane of the time, the Gloster Gamecock, might be seen.

My aerodrome visits pre-war took me to Stag Lane, already hedged with new Edgware housing estates, but from where many School DH Moths were doing seemingly endless “circuits-and-bumps”, and to Hendon for the never-to-be-forgotten Air Displays. Before I had my Austin 7 I used to avoid the difficulty of getting a seat in the Underground back into London by walking to the next station up the line, where the trains would slide in with empty carriages.

I was at Brooklands for a BRDC 500 mile Race the day a Vickers Virginia crashed almost on the Byfleet banking during a stalled take-off. It had to remain in there all day, as the racing cars whined and thundered past. Not all these school-boy visits came off.

In later times, but still prior to the war, I got to know a pilot of some skill, who told me was going to test-fly someone’s new Flying Flea at Heston and invited me along to watch. Alas, the Flea buzzed splendidly, its wing just visible above the long grass at the edge of the field, but it never got off the ground. When they removed the sparking-plugs from its inverted Scott two-stroke engine so much oil came out that it ran up their sleeves! Hanworth Air Park was another pleasant place to go to, there was always a chance of seeing some racing Aston Martins as well as B. A. Swallows and the like.

The pilot who gave me my first flight used to take jockeys to point-to-point races, as this enabled them to ride in two different meets on the same day. “Where do you land?”, I asked. The reply was that there is usually a handy field near a race-course and the riders could be in their silks and run from it to the start. The pilot then pretended to look for a faulty sparking-plug while the race was in progress, to appease the inevitable policeman who would arrive on a bicycle, finding it only when he saw the riders running back towards the aeroplane. A carefree age!

I was a staunch reader of The Aeroplane, to the extent of taking a long ‘bus-ride from South London to Piccadilly so as to get my copy the day before it was on the book-stalls. This led to its famous Editor, C. G. Grey, asking me to report the 1936 King’s Cup race from the Bristol Control. When I told him I have never seen an air race, only motor races, he retorted “All the better, you will be unbiased”! My copy was published in full, unaltered. I have never been able to decide whether this was because I had learned more about aeroplanes than I realised or because of the casual aspect of the journalism of the period. When war broke out I went to the RAE at Farnborough, to be interviewed for a job entailing more technical writing and was surprised to discover that this top-secret aerodrome was, like Kenley, then unfenced — I believe the “Keep-Out” notices could still be seen beyond the fencing that was put up when the war warmed up — and may still be there. I got the job but was even more suprised to discover that the Farnborough experts who interviewed me had never heard of the Gnome rotary engine. They looked sideways at me when I showed them a description I had written about it, saying tersely: “You bolt a crankcase to the air-frame so the cylinders cannot revolve”. Later, I had another shock when my Head of Section, looking over a Spitfire drawing, asked, absolutely seriously, why he couldn’t see the slipstream, the purpose of the drawing being to show how this could buffet dangerously air-crew draped over the tail of the more powerful Spits, while the engine was being run-up! — ANON.