[Before the war regular aviation articles were published in Motor Sport and in view of the interest still shown in vintage and later light aeroplanes we intend to resume this feature, although not necessarily every month. We commence with an interesting memory of owning a £50 Austin Whippet, by Air-Commodore HM Pearson CBE, for the contact with whom we are indebted to Phillip Gordon-Marshall. – Ed.]
Memories of the Austin Whippet
I was commissioned at RAF Cadet College, Cranwell, at the end of 1928. With five other ex-Flight Cadets I was posted to the Flying Boat Course at RAF Calshot, for which all six of us had applied. It was the year of the Schneider Trophy race and Calshot was the place to be! At the same time, our course on Flying Boats and our Navigation Exercises were of abundant interest; alighting for lunch at Plymouth one day, the Scillies another, Guernsey another, and now and then longer two-day trips to the Firth of Forth via Felixstowe.
Those days, when no war was on the horizon, may in retrospect have been irresponsible. But what else was there for us to do but improve our knowledge and our friendship. We still had many friends from Cranwell who took great interest in the flying, which went on in the UK and also Overseas. One of these friends was “Girly” Leach who was in a Fighter Squadron based at Tangmere. He was a year senior to me at Cranwell and flew his small aeroplane from Hamble, just across Southampton Water from Calshot. On his recommendation I became a member of the Hamble Flying Club. “Girly’s” aeroplane is one I cannot identify. It was obviously of pre-Moth vintage, powered by a four-cylinder ADC (Cirrus) engine. It had one cockpit with two seats in tandem, so the passenger sat as if riding pillion on a motorcycle, clinging to the belly of the pilot·. His favourite pastime was to approach Hamble from under the trees and bob up over the airfield. He stopped this when someone explained to him that there was a road under the trees along which a double-decker ‘bus passed every 15 minutes! Sad to relate, my good friend died in hospital from a kidney ailment towards the end of the year. It was at Hamble that I qualified for my Civil Pilot’s Licence (No. 1879) dated 25th May 1929, which I still hold; but I doubt whether it is still valid.
And so to my Austin Whippet. Although I had no money beyond my Pilot Officer’s pay of £34 a month, I was determined to buy a light aeroplane of my own. First, I explored the rejects from the 1923 Lympne Light Aeroplane competition, without success. Then someone told me that an Austin Whippet was for sale at Castle Bromwich. I had not heard of this make of aeroplane before, but off I went one weekend to Birmingham.
It was just what I wanted – folding wings, single,seater, and tubular steel frame. It looked a bit grubby, but I was sure I could put that right once I got it to Calshot. The owner was an actor comedian (I think it was Tommy Handley, but am not sure). I dealt with a Flying Club representative there. We agreed a price of £50, to be paid at £5 a month for ten months. He explained to me that the previous engine was a 45 hp Anzani but as it was underpowered a 60 hp Anzani engine had been installed. Both these engines had suction inlet valves, hence the oil which sprayed over the fuselage. He gave me the oil pump from the previous 45 hp engine and suggested that it might reduce the excessive oil flow. I flew round one circuit, landed, and then took off and headed south. I found that 70 mph was the best cruising speed.
My first stop was at Upper Heyford near Oxford and the second at Worthydown near Winchester. I had telephoned friends at both these RAF stations in advance so, although a weekend, they arranged for fuel to be available. From Worthydown, I set course for Calshot. There was a small field just behind the Officers’ Mess and the farmer had agreed that I could land there once. So that is what I did. I had alerted “Red” Scarlett who owned an Austin Seven Gordon England Cup Model. He was one of my Cranwell contemporaries. His father was a very senior RAF (ex-RNAS) Officer still serving at that time. “Red” himself later had a brilliant wartime career in Coastal Command. As an Air Vice Marshal he was missing, assumed dead, on attack on Enemy shipping off Norway.
“Red” met me on the field and we found no difficulty in fixing the tail-skid of the Austin Whippet into the boot of the Austin Seven, and so we towed the aircraft to the car park of the Officers’ Mess, where it stayed until the following weekend. spare During the week, and whenever I had any spare time, I looked for more permanent accomodation, where I could work on my new acquisition and rejuvenate it. I found an empty shed, which was an annexe to one of the flying boat hangars, and the following weekend Red and I towed the Whippet down the spit to its new headquarters. One morning during the following week I was summoned to the office of the Flight Commander and received a mild rebuke for planting my aeroplane on property under his jurisdiction, without his permission or indeed any permission whatsoever. However, Bill Staton agreed, after my apology, that I could continue the temporary occupation of these desirable premises. I now had to concentrate on the task of rejuvenation.
My first impulse was to have the old and oil stained fabric replaced. There was a fabric section at Calshot, where they could have made a hiighly professional job of refabricating the wings and fuselage, but the Officer in charge, although sympathetic, needed approval from higher authority, and that was not forthcoming. Next I needed a length of “bungie” for the undercarriage. I found in the stores a stock of this, which although unused and unsoiled, had been condemned and classified as scrap. I helped myself to what I needed. In short, I cleaned and painted where I could, took bits apart and put them together again as best I could, and washed the fabric where I could. What is more, I changed the oil pump to the one given to me at Castle Bromwich, which had come off the 45 hp engine.
While I was doing all this in the evenings and during the weekends, life was hotting up at Calshot with the advent of the High Speed Flight, commanded by Squadron Leader Orlebar. It seems to me, in retrospect, that the selection of the six officers destined to win the Schneider Trophy outright was made not only on account of their brilliant airmanship, but also on their personality and sense of humour! No doubt the few NCOs and airmen in the flight were selected on these merits also, but most of the maintenance was done by engineers from the manufacturers of the airframes, engines and components. Nevertheless, these and their Italian counterparts appeared to enjoy the atmosphere which prevailed at Calshot at that time. The Italians from Macchi on Lake Varese were slightly bewildered at first, but soon made close friends at Calshot which continued even after the war.
We, the Pilot Officers on the Flying Boat Course, were three or four years junior to those in the High Speed Flight. We admired their skill and we giggled at their pranks but we took no active part in them. I will record a few anecdotes.
First the High Speed Pole – the aquatic sports at Calshot were a serious annual event and one of the races was the pole race. Each Flight detailed eight stalwart men to propel one telegraph pole and having lined-up the swimmers with their poles on the slipway, under starter’s orders the race began. The object was to push or paddle the pole round a buoy about 100 yards and back to the slip-way. Of course the High Speed Flight had their own High Speed Pole! This had been kept under a tarpaulin just where the sentry paced up and down in front of the High Speed hangar. None of us knew what was under the tarpaulin until the big day came. All the four other competitors were there with naked poles and the High Speed Flight also with their pole still under the tarpaulin. The starter shouted “ready”, “steady”, and fired his pistol. Then the High Speed Flight discarded secrecy and revealed all. A bracket held a small propeller and further back was a second bracket to which a length of bungie was secured. Probably the bungie came from the same stock as from which I had acquired mine for my Austin Whippet. The propeller seemed to be well primed and the bungie knotted into contortions like so many sparrows’ kneecaps. We could all be certain that the High Speed Pole would take a bold leap forward on entering the water, and with the acknowledged physique of the crew, would win the race. Sad to relate, whoever wound the propeller did so anti-clockwise instead of clockwise, and on entering the water the High Speed Pole shot backwards onto the slipway. They finished last in the race, if at all.
Next, there was the .22 pistol. Its charge was a blank cartridge, its bullet was a masticated chewing gum pellet, and its target was the bottom of someone senior, pompous and fat. Having decided on the victim, the object was to induce him to bend over and then, “ping”. There were plenty of potential targets about, but one of the planning principles was that nobody should know “who done it”. So, one day, a potential victim arrived in the Flight Commander’s office and a half-crown was there on the floor in front of the desk. The pilots were studying a chart of Southampton Water, the CO was at his desk the victim bent down to pick up the half-crown saying “someone has been throwing his money about”. “Ping” went the pistol, “Ouch” went the victim, “Lovely weather we are having” said the pilots now looking with even more interest at the chart of Southampton Water than ever before.
There was to be a guest night and a sing-song around the piano in the Officers’ Mess. The music was selected from popular tunes of the day. The score was there for the pianist to play. The lyric was in very small print. The victim, who was enjoying his part in the singing, bent down lower and lower to read the words. He presented a fabulous target, so, “ping”! The carpet on which he had been standing was pulled away so he rolled over still rubbing was his behind. Naturally the High Speed Flight was full of sympathy for the the victim and offered him another drink ….
During my evenings and weekends I was at work on my Austin Whippet, I was visited several times by Dick Atcherley (“Batchy”), who was always interested in light aeroplanes and was a prominent member of the High Speed Flight. He offered to take me into Southampton in his car – the very car his colleagues had given him as a birthday joke. It was a Bean, but he called it his “Has Been”, so off we went. About half-way to Southampton the car refused to turn right, although to turn left presented no problem. There seemed to be no future in continuing, so we both got out to diagnose the problem. It was soon apparent that the front axle had become detached from a spring. Dick thereupon gave the off-side wheel several sharp kicks, to even things up, and dived into his tool chest, from which he produced a large coil of copper wire. He then wired the axle to the spring and off we went. It seems that·in his fertile mind, a coil of copper wire was the solution to many engineering problems. He told me on the way back that he intended to enter the “Has-Been” for the London-Exeter Trial, copper wire and all, but whether he did, I do not know ….
At last my Austin Whippet, now painted light green and silver, was ready to fly again, but from where? The spit which connected Calshot Castle to its hangar workshops and slipways, to the living accommodation, was over a mile long. It was only wide enough to take the road and miniature railway. On one side was the sea and on the other mud flats. I noticed a small patch of grass on the mud flats where a farmer had at some time, tried to reclaim the land. It was near the road and had a hard dry surface. I reckoned it would allow 75 yards for take-off. Dick and Red were there to help. We towed and then manhandled the aeroplane to its point of departure. They-waved goodbye and I was airborne with yards to spare. Ten minutes later I landed at Hamble. Here, several problems arose. There was to be a fee for hangarage and I would not be allowed to use Hamble as a base until the Certificate of Airworthiness was renewed. The Club Flying Instructor, Captain Swaffer, said he would like to test my aeroplane, to which I readily agreed. When he was taxiing out for the take-off, the undercarriage collapsed. It seems that the bungie which I had scrounged from scrap at Calshot was defective after all! Captain Swaffer was not amused and told me in no uncertain terms that if the undercarriage had collapsed on take-off, he might have been hurt. Of course, he was right. It became obvious to me that the sooner I took my Austin Whippet away from Hamble, the better it would be for all concerned.
The nearest place to go was the small aircraft engineering firm of FG Miles at Shoreham, near Brighton. I contacted him and he agreed to take my Austin Whippet, examine it, and report on the work needed to be done in order to get a C of A. Consequently, I bought some new bungie and repaired the undercarriage. Then, on a fine weekend, I left Hamble for Shoreham. All went well for about 20 miles, then the engine laboured and lost power. There was no alternative but to land on a convenient field. It was somewhat upsetting to find myself with no money in the bank, only a few shillings in my.pocket, sitting in an immobile aeroplane in a field belonging to some farmer or landlord whom I did not know and now, after a few minutes, surrounded by schoolchildren asking awkward questions. I must have sat there for half an hour in desperation. Then, still in despair, I decided to have a go at getting airborne again. No chocks and no brakes, so I had to be careful in swinging the prop; but she started first time and so I was off. The engine lost power again after another 15 minutes, but by then I was very near Tangmere so was able to put in there. My RAF friends came to my aid and agreed to “fix it” with the CO for me to leave the Austin Whippet there until the following weekend. They also undertook to fit the larger oil pump, which fortunately I had brought with me. They arranged my journey back to Calshot. Next weekend I arrived at Shoreham without incident.
Mr FG Miles was then interested primarily in his prototype Martlet light aeroplane which was already flying. He gave me a very cordial reception and we agreed to keep in touch. Back at Ca!shot, the Flying Boat Course over, I was told that I had been posted to 202 Squadron in Malta. A posting which I have never regretted. Mr Miles wrote to me in Malta and told me the naked truth. Two cylinders of the engine had cracked, due to overheating. The Civil Aviation Authority required that at least two of the steel tubes be sawn through and examined to see whether there was rust within. He also recommended that the fabric on the wings, fuselage and tailplane be renewed. The inevitable had come, and without any funds to ensure its future, I had to bow to it.
On my behalf, Mr. Miles sold the aeroplane, which I believe was the last Austin Whippet still flying, for £15. It was hung outside a cinema in Brighton to advertise “Hell’s Angels” and I assume it went to a scrapyard after that. If only I could have afforded £100 to obtain the C of A and better still if I could have fitted a Genet engine, then in production by Armstrong Siddeley in Coventry, the machine would have been in service for several years longer and may have finished its life in a museum instead of the scrapyard.
I flew it for only a short time, not more than 20 hours, but was impressed by its ability to land and take-off from very restricted places, the ease of handling, and the . feeling of sturdiness in its construction. I never tried aerobatics, but am sure that it would have mastered them with alacrity. In short, it was a most remarkable aeroplane designed and built ten years before its time.
Air Commodore H. M. Pearson, CBE.