Sir Alan Cobham: The Flying Legend Who Brought Aviation to the Masses 1526738406, 9781526738400

Flying in the years between the two world wars was the preserve of the powerful and the wealthy, or so it was until Sir

2,003 136 91MB

English Pages 0 [262] Year 2018

Report DMCA / Copyright

DOWNLOAD FILE

Polecaj historie

Sir Alan Cobham: The Flying Legend Who Brought Aviation to the Masses
 1526738406, 9781526738400

Citation preview

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 1

8/31/2018 10:08:36 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 2

8/31/2018 10:08:36 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM FLYING LEGEND WHO BROUGHT AVIATION TO THE MASSES

COLIN CRUDDAS

TAH TM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 3

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

First published in Great Britain in 2018 by FRONTLINE BOOKS An imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd Yorkshire – Philadelphia Copyright © Colin Cruddas ISBN 978 1 52673 840 0 The right of Colin Cruddas to be identified as Author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission from the Publisher in writing. Typeset in India by Vman Infotech Private Limited Printed and bound by TJ International Pen & Sword Books Ltd incorporates the imprints of Pen & Sword Archaeology, Atlas, Aviation, Battleground, Discovery, Family History, History, Maritime, Military, Naval, Politics, Social History, Transport, True Crime, Claymore Press, Frontline Books, Praetorian Press, Seaforth Publishing and White Owl For a complete list of Pen & Sword titles please contact PEN & SWORD BOOKS LTD 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, S70 2AS, England E-mail: [email protected] Website: www.pen-and-sword.co.uk Or PEN AND SWORD BOOKS 1950 Lawrence Rd, Havertown, PA 19083, USA E-mail: [email protected] Website: www.penandswordbooks.com

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 4

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

To Lady Cobham and daughter Camilla

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 5

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 6

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

Contents

Foreword by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight, KCB, AFC, FRAeS

ix xiii

Introduction Sir Alan Cobham’s major route proving flights in the pre-war ­period

xv

Chapter One

Early Days

1

Chapter Two

A Call To Arms

7

Chapter Three

Berkshire and Beyond

25

Chapter Four

New Horizons

59

Chapter Five

Cape Town Calling

71

Chapter Six

Antipodean Adventure

83

Chapter Seven

Forging the African Dream

99

Chapter Eight

Cobham Comes to Town

109

Chapter Nine

A Time of Transition

129

Chapter Ten

The Struggle for Success

143

Chapter Eleven

The Turbulent Years

153

Chapter Twelve

A False Dawn

165

Chapter Thirteen

The Breakthrough

177

Chapter Fourteen

A Life Well Lived

195

Postscript

197

Appendix

201

Index

203

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 7

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 8

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

Foreword By Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight KCB, AFC, FRAeS

T

he name and fame of Sir Alan Cobham may have slipped from the public memory of many outside the early world of aviation. For a few of the denizens of that fascinating period, he remains a figure of almost legendary significance, but the full story of his extraordinary life has largely escaped the attention of the media. That omission has now been rectified by the publication of Colin Cruddas’ diligently researched biography. Eminently well qualified for the task, the author was, for many years, official archivist of the international aerospace company that today trades under the name of Cobham plc. He has brought to this work an enthusiasm and professionalism that he is able uniquely to impart. This is the story of a quite remarkable man – a man very much of his time but, in every sense, ‘a man for all seasons’ and a true aviation pioneer. His life was one of constant action. His interest in the world beyond a stereotypically ‘ordinary’ upbringing and the first hint of innate entrepreneurial skills was evident from his earliest days as the only son of a middle-class South London family. So was his fascination with the exciting new world of aviation in the first decade of the twentieth century. However, his first love was for the countryside; and his first real job, working on the farm of a near-relative. Thus it was that the outbreak of the First World War saw him joining the Army, not as an aviator, but as a member of the Veterinary Corps. His time in France, where he became a valuable and experienced horseman, is well covered in this excellent biography, but it was through a series of apparently unconnected events (and more than a hint of ‘Cobham luck’) that he found himself, before the war’s end, a pilot instructor in the Royal Flying Corps and subsequently the Royal Air Force. The hazardous – sometimes almost farcical – nature of those still early days in aviation provided Cobham with the skills and experience that were to prove essential for his future success.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 9

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Over the course of the next twenty years, Cobham was to rise from the ranks of literally thousands of ex-military pilots eking out modest livings in the highly competitive world of commercial flying, to become an internationally acclaimed hero. His determination to succeed in whatever endeavour he undertook was legendary, and his path to success was never less than challenging. Some of his exploits in those early days almost beggar belief, and these are meticulously chronicled by the author. Whether it be attempts at aerial photography and survey, mail delivery, charter flying, the exploration and opening up of routes to the far corners of the then Empire, air-racing or a Municipal Aerodrome Campaign to make the country truly air-minded – all are described in immense and absorbing detail. So too, and at some length, are the thrills and spills of his National Aviation Displays, colloquially and affectionately known as ‘Cobham’s Flying Circus’ (an appellation which infuriated their founder, who clearly saw it as demeaning the serious intent of the enterprise). The fact remains that, by 1939, some 75 per cent of Britain’s young men volunteering for aircrew duties claimed that their first experience of flying had been with ‘the Circus’. In every possible way and at every possible opportunity, Alan Cobham sought to promote the cause of aviation and, specifically, British aviation. Whatever the role, he proved to be a hard task-master, possessed of almost unimaginable stamina and sheer determination, who would not ask anyone to do a job he could not do himself. In the course of his long career he became famous the world over, in the company of contemporary luminaries from Charles Lindbergh to Malcolm Campbell, Geoffrey de Havilland to Neville Shute. He did, of course, make enemies – particularly in the massed ranks of bureaucracy and, understandably, among those of his competitors who were unable to match what many dismissed as his constant attentionseeking. However, that was all part and parcel of his self-imposed mission in life. Among the very many episodes in an action packed life, some stand out as being truly extraordinary. They include the saga of a young Royal Flying Corps pilot who, having been passed to Cobham for confidence rebuilding, failed to enter the rear cockpit of a DH.9 as it taxied away following a ‘prop swing’. Once in flight but unable to communicate with his pupil by means of the standard Gosport tube, Cobham turned to see eight fingers clinging precariously to the edge of the cockpit. It took considerable skill to bring the aircraft, pilot and pupil safely back to earth – and great equanimity to accept the heartfelt apology of the young man who, nevertheless, was keen to go up again.

x

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 10

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

Foreword

The story of Cobham’s epic flights to and from Australia in 1926 is one of endless frustrations, disaster and eventual triumph. The major disaster struck when his float-equipped DH.50, flying low in a Mesopotamian sandstorm, was shot at by a startled marsh-Arab, leaving his faithful engineer and friend, Arthur Elliott, fatally wounded. Urged on by his sponsors, and surprisingly by his wife at home in the UK, Cobham elected to continue the flight, with Sergeant Arthur Ward, loaned by the RAF, as a replacement for the unfortunate Elliott, and they duly arrived in Melbourne to be ecstatically greeted by a crowd variously estimated to be between 60,000 and 200,000. That figure was multiplied five-fold to witness the little floatplane’s arrival back in the UK for a landing on the Thames, opposite Parliament, for a formal welcome – his exploits almost immediately to be recognized by a summons to Buckingham Palace and investiture as a Knight Commander of the British Empire. These are just two of the stories that have the power to amaze, and they help enliven the pages of this excellent book. Among the many others that the author describes in fascinating detail are the highlights – and occasional lowlights – of the ‘Flying Circus’, the many early attempts to develop a safe and reliable technique of in-flight refuelling – some of them in the highest traditions of Heath Robinson – the on/off contract to convert no less than 1,200 Lancaster and Lincoln bombers for air-to-air refuelling support of ‘Tiger Force’ operations over Japan in 1945, and the eventual success of those techniques in delivering to military arms across the globe a unique enhancement of operational capability. In the process, Cobham founded the hugely successful international aerospace group that today proudly bears his name. Alan Cobham – once rather aptly described as a ‘visionary opportunist’ – was a true fighter for the cause of aviation; a man of prodigious enthusiasm and organizational skills; and with a drive and energy that would have defeated many a lesser man. There were times when it must have seemed sensible to quit the scene and retire to a life of carefree hedonism in the Caribbean. It is to his credit that he was able to combine that happy prospect with the many more serious tasks he had set himself. It is both an inspiration and a pleasure to read this excellent account of his life and times.

xi

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 11

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 12

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

Introduction

I

joined Flight Refuelling Ltd, or ‘Flights’ as it was always locally referred to, as an engineering manager in 1979, and therefore never met Sir Alan, who had, most inconveniently, died six years previously. In the light of what, in later years, as custodian of the FRL/Cobham archive, I discovered about this awe-inspiring man, his prior passing continues to be a major source of personal regret. I have delivered many talks on the life and times of this remarkable pioneering aviator, and have usually opened my presentations by enquiring of the audience, ‘If asked by some opinion-canvassing cavalier in the local high street, which three names associated with aviation immediately come to mind?’ In almost every case, their mini-lists included Amy Johnson, Charles Lindbergh, Sir Frank Whittle, Douglas Bader, Guy Gibson et al, or (perish the thought) even Richard Branson, but hardly ever that of Sir Alan Cobham. This I found surprising, for whilst the achievements of the candidates quoted above were truly headline-catching and marvellous in their own right, they were, nevertheless, mainly singular events undertaken within otherwise less spectacular careers. Sir Alan Cobham was altogether different, spanning as he did successful periods in commercial route proving, touring air displays and, perhaps more lastingly, his determined and successful development of air-refuelling, now an essential feature in almost all of today’s major air operations. Alan Cobham was, in the inter-war years, an international household name second-to-none, and over that period he undoubtedly contributed more to the advancement of British civil aviation than any other contemporary figure. This book is not intended to be a definitive ‘crossed Ts and dotted Is’ account of his activities, nor does it probe too deeply into technical detail, but for anyone wishing to enquire more fully into Cobham’s unique personality, and his will to overcome bureaucratic difficulties, it might, I hope, provide a useful and inspiring starting point. What this book does

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 13

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

not do is to cover the range of company activities that carried on after Sir Alan’s death. They form a story in their own right. Having taken on this task, I must thank Lady Nadine Cobham for granting permission to access the Cobham archive, which now resides at the Royal Air Force Museum. My thanks and deep appreciation also go to Cobham plc for the use of company material, and to Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight for providing his highly valued comments and erudite Foreword. I have frequently called upon other long-established experts, notably Brian Gardner (air-refuelling historian), Mike Phipp (airline operations historian) and Harry and Aimee Alexander (Poole Flying Boat Celebration), for their views, photographic support and criticisms. My thanks also go to Daniel Albon, who transferred my archival efforts at Cobham plc to today’s more professionally recorded collection at the RAF Museum. I must also acknowledge the many ex- Flight Refuelling employees who, led by the late Ron Roberts, contributed to my previous writings on Sir Alan and have therefore, perhaps unwittingly, again refreshed my memory whilst researching this book. I have welcomed the expert advice of The Aviation Historian’s editor Nick Stroud and managing editor Mick Oakey. My commissioning editor Martin Mace and copy-editor Tony Walton have given the ‘kiss of life’ to this project, which, for various reasons, has had to lie dormant for far too long, and I’m most grateful for that. It’s comforting to have the good guys on one’s side! I hope that you, dear reader, will find the end result both informative and entertaining. I have tried, mainly with success, to track down the true sources of the material used here and to apportion due credit. Illustration material has been drawn from the Cobham or author’s own collection unless stated otherwise. However, I am aware that failure to recognize true ownership can be a very sensitive issue, and I can only offer sincere apologies for any toes I have inadvertently trodden on. My own have been bruised on more than one occasion! Colin Cruddas Bridlington, 2018

xiv

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 14

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

Sir Alan Cobham’s major route proving flights in the pre-war ­period

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 15

8/31/2018 10:08:37 PM

London to India and Burma, 1924–25 Sir Alan Cobham.indd 16

8/31/2018 10:08:38 PM

London to South Africa (Cape Town), 1925–26 Sir Alan Cobham.indd 17

8/31/2018 10:08:38 PM

Rochester to Australia (Melbourne),  1926 Sir Alan Cobham.indd 18

8/31/2018 10:08:38 PM

Air Display tour of South Africa, 1932–33

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 19

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 20

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

Chapter One

Early Days

I

t was in the late Victorian years that British influence in world affairs reached its peak and, though largely unnoticed by the general public, started its slow decline. There was, however, a great deal of jingoistic flag-waving still to come, not least by an adventuresome young man, who, as civil aviation slowly began to take root after the First World War, set out to prove that the aeroplane could dramatically shorten the links connecting the Empire. The name of this visionary, soon to be emblazoned across the globe, was Alan John Cobham. Born on 6 May 1894, he shared the year of his arrival with several well-known individuals, including Edward VIII, Jack Benny, Dashiell Hammett, Rudolph Hess and Nikita Khrushchev. Young ‘AJ’, the first child of Fred and Lizzie Cobham, was followed four years later by a sister, Vera, who suffered from poor health throughout her life, dying at the early age of 23. The family was then living at 4 Hetley Terrace (now 78 Denman Road), in the south-east London borough of Camberwell. It was here that Fred’s employment as a ‘Town Traveller’ (or ‘Buyer’ in modern day parlance) in the drapery trade enabled them to enjoy a typically comfortable middle-class life. Annual holidays at coastal resorts such as Eastbourne, Margate, Sheringham and Folkestone were to provide many fond childhood memories in later years. However, in addition to those happy times spent at the seaside, Cobham would often later recall wonderful days at Brockbury Hall, an impressive farmhouse owned by his father’s cousin, Donald Birchley, at Colwall in the Malvern Hills. It was there that he developed a lifelong love of the countryside. Cobden Hall, a rambling old country house at Saxham, some 12 miles from Bury St Edmunds, was also a favourite holiday location, where, on one occasion, aged 5, he went with a favourite uncle to see the Barnum and Bailey travelling circus. He was enthralled by the extravagant grand parade through the streets and at seeing a man inside a cage surrounded

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 1

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

by several lions. In later life, he opined that perhaps the showmanship he displayed in his own career might well have had its seeds sown within that memorable experience. The start of the new century was not kind to young Cobham, for he contracted diphtheria and suffered the agony of a severely swollen sore throat. His condition was not improved by a cut knee that began to turn gangrenous. Diphtheria was then a life-endangering condition, and for days it was touch and go as to whether he would survive, but a spell of recuperation at Eastbourne was said to have greatly assisted his recovery. At this time, and with both children in questionable health, the family’s finances were threatened when changes in fashion led to ladies wearing simpler garments. This, in turn, had a large effect on Fred Cobham’s more fancifully embroidered clothing business. It was also discovered that young Cobham’s private school education had been sadly neglected, and in 1903, aged 9, he was transferred to a local Council School where, with the aid of a keen and understanding teacher, he developed a particular passion for geography. This, he proudly claimed, enabled him to commit to memory not only the country’s main coastal and internal features, but the types and locations of all the major industrial and agricultural centres. Little could he have realized the importance this was to play in his adult life. A year later, he entered a vastly different educational environment. Despite the reduced family income, he was enrolled at Wilson’s Grammar School in Camberwell, which, founded in 1612, boasted a prestigious academic record. (The school relocated to the former site of Croydon Airport in 1975.) Though initially overawed by a teaching staff wearing mortar boards and long gowns, he found that, with but one exception, all of his mentors were kindly disposed. The odd man out was the mathematics teacher, Mr Wiggett, who, it was rumoured, had been brought into this world with the express purpose of terrifying all students within his care. He was, nevertheless, recognized as dedicated to his profession and commanded respect, if only through fear. Cobham soon realized that he was never going to excel in physical pursuits, and the only sport in which he claimed any prowess was wrestling. He had discovered this when, after being subjected to a period of bullying, he literally took matters into his own hands and threw his tormentor over his shoulder. Though perhaps an act born of desperation, this useful asset nevertheless gained him the instant respect of his classmates, and he was the first to concede that, although he quite enjoyed traditional ball games, he took greater pleasure in the admiration resulting from his wrestling conquests.

2

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 2

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

Early Days

His parents’ decision, in 1906, to move to a new address at 59 Baldry Gardens in Streatham fortunately did not affect his daily travelling to school, though he now came from a different direction. Whilst happy enough when engaged in the round of normal studies, it became evident over the next three years that he was ambivalent toward academic subjects and would not be suited to carrying on into the sixth form, nor attempting to enter university. The moment for a big decision had arrived. Greatly impressed by both a book he had read about sheep farming in Australia and a subsequent discussion with a school colleague who had an uncle living in that country, he announced his intention to leave school and become a sheep farmer ‘down under’. His views were greeted with ridicule by all within the family but his father, who vehemently declared at dinner one evening that, ‘If the boy wants to be a farmer, he can be, and every one of you can shut up.’ A long silence ensued whilst all began to seriously consider the implications of a 15-year-old boy embarking on what they considered to be a badly thought-out venture, but which appeared to have the head of the household’s approval. Family differences duly simmered down, but although the idea of farming was shelved, at least for the time being, Cobham’s firm determination to leave formal education behind and enter the adult world of business had intensified. His enthusiasm was also greatly increased when he was offered a threeyear apprenticeship with Hitchcock Williams in St Paul’s Churchyard. This was a company within his father’s line of business, and he gained valuable experience as he worked his way through some twenty departments. At the age of 17, and with five men already working under him, his dedication to learning his craft was rewarded by being put in charge of the Made-up Garments Department. This required a quick response to orders sent in by the company’s travellers, and no excuses were tolerated for late delivery of the finished goods. After the deduction of two weeks’ holiday pay, his annual salary of £10 resulted in a final return of four shillings (20 pence) per week. Cobham enjoyed a short period of ‘living in’ within a large house owned by the company in Paternoster Row, but the arrangement ended when he became what would now be called a commuter. This required him to catch the workmen’s tram from Streatham at seven o’clock every morning, which, crawling along at 6mph, eventually reached Blackfriars. The return fare was just two pence, but he reasoned that the agonizingly slow journey really warranted the tram company paying him.

3

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 3

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

In addition to playing occasional games of tennis, Cobham, along with an enthusiastic neighbour called Robinson, had started to construct large kites which they flew from Streatham Common. This didn’t always go down too well, for on one occasion a kite having a wingspan of over 8ft dived suddenly from some 200ft and, after scattering terrified spectators, knocked the tall silk hats off two gentlemen proceeding to church, or so the story goes. Whilst the facts may have become slightly embellished over the years, this event may well have had an influence on the groundstrafing techniques employed in future conflicts! At this time, although the Wright Brothers had made the first flight by a manned, controlled, heavier-than-air machine that flew under its own power in December 1903, aeronautical work in Europe had been largely conducted in France and, to a lesser extent, Germany. Powered flight in Britain did not take place officially until October 1908, when Samuel Franklin Cowdery (later changed to Cody) designed, constructed and flew his British Army Aeroplane No. 1 at Farnborough. In the general absence of powered flight in the new Edwardian period, those who could afford to take to the skies did so in balloons and, less frequently, in gliders. Nonetheless, public awareness of propeller-driven machines was rapidly gathering pace and anything that managed to get off the ground was guaranteed to attract a large crowd. At Crystal Palace, young Cobham’s wish to undertake an airship flight was frustratingly vetoed by his father, who maintained that anyone with common sense would stay ‘where God had intended, with feet firmly on the ground’. In 1910, a Good Friday aviation meet at Brooklands helped to consolidate his growing interest in flying machines. By now he felt the need to touch as well as see these magical creations and, despite the barriers restraining the crowds, he was determined to try. Along with his friend Laurie Stocks, he cunningly contrived to wear blue overalls not dissimilar to those worn by the contestants’ mechanics, and, after climbing fences behind the exhibitors’ enclosures, they were able to mingle inconspicuously with the ground support personnel milling round the aircraft. Not staying too long at any given spot proved to be a wise move, for amidst this hive of activity nobody queried their unauthorized presence. Cobham was particularly impressed by Gustav Hamel, one of the small elite band of demonstration pilots, who was testing his engine’s performance by means of a very large spring balance positioned between his aircraft and a stake in the ground. One can, perhaps, imagine full power being selected in the rudimentary cockpit and a mechanic, his cap turned round to avoid it disappearing in the blast of the slipstream, struggling to read with accuracy the pounds of thrust being developed.

4

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 4

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

Early Days

Also in 1910, a prize was offered in Paris for the best ‘aviette’, or man-powered machine, and the Cobham-Stocks team set out to win it. Some progress was made, with bemused parental support, but, other aerodynamic considerations apart, the energy available from the enormous crude propeller fell miserably short of what was required. Preliminary calculations by Stocks had shown a need for some three-and-a-half horsepower for their winged bicycle, but the later realization that a man pedalling flat out would, over a short period, generate far less than one horsepower left an unbridgeable shortfall in the propulsion department. All was not lost, however, as their joint enthusiasm carried over into a more studious investigation of the camber required for a wing to have any chance of generating lift. This resulted in Cobham constructing a jig which employed a garden fork and two blocks of wood. After inserting a number of spruce ribs, the whole lot was immersed in hot water. The following day, after cutting the string holding the structure together, he was delighted to see that, by good luck rather than scientific analysis, all the ribs had attained the same degree of curvature. It is not recorded whether this initial success encouraged Cobham’s further research into structural manufacture. Although clearly moving forward in the Hitchcock Williams organization, and no longer obsessed with the thought of moving to Australia, his love of the countryside and of a farmer’s life continued to exert a strong pull. An invitation from Donald Birchley to join him at Brockbury Hall threw his thoughts into further turmoil. On the face of it, the prospect of an open-air life was most attractive, but both parents expressed deep concern that with them being unable to provide any financial support and with the farm’s main production of hops often proving uncertain, it wasn’t such a good idea. Now 18, and deeply in the throes of indecision, he set off on a cycling holiday around the Isle of Wight, where, it seems, he experienced his first serious romantic encounter. Sitting on the beach one day, he was surprised to hear a voice ask, ‘Why don’t you come and talk to me?’ Looking up, he saw a beautiful dark-haired girl, who he soon discovered to be French, was called Yvonne and in her early twenties. One chance meeting led to several others, during which he admitted to having ‘embraces of a kind I had never experienced before’. However, it came as quite a shock when, as the holiday affair ended, she told him that she was soon to marry someone considerably older. Having, one might assume, crossed the sexual threshold, he returned home now ‘a man of the world’ and with his mind made up to bid the City farewell and join Birchley. His new employer was, by all accounts, a self-styled country gentleman farmer, albeit not a very successful one. He constantly lived beyond his

5

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 5

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

means while enjoying the traditional country pursuits of hunting and shooting, which meant that Cobham’s pay days, as he ironically described them, were rather more miss than hit affairs. The work, however, was congenial enough, being mainly concerned with the welfare of the farm’s horses and sheep rearing. Whilst this allowed him to acquire certain basic veterinary skills, it nevertheless soon became evident that he would never amass sufficient capital to become independent. Birchley, however, had a simple solution to this problem – marriage to a wealthy landowner’s daughter! Cobham could see the logic, indeed the attraction, of this suggestion, but despite many contrived arrangements, his lack of social confidence and insufficient funds meant the plan remained unfulfilled. He couldn’t escape the hard fact that working on a farm was one thing, but being a farmer was something else. At the end of 1913, he returned home to find his father in serious business trouble. He then wrote to Donald Birchley to explain why, in light of this, he could no longer continue working at Brockbury. Fortunately, he was able to take up the offer of a job with Hicks and Smith, a lingerie company located in the City. To his surprise, things went so well that in June 1914 Mr Smith, a partner in the company, informed him that he was to become the firm’s main representative in London’s West End. However, the threat of war rapidly building up over the continent would soon put such personal advancements to one side. Within a few weeks, Europe’s established order was changed forever with the outbreak of the Great War on 4 August 1914.

6

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 6

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

Chapter Two

A Call To Arms

B

ritain and Germany had, within the Edwardian period, been engaged in an arms race. The Royal Navy, long regarded as the country’s main line of defence, had, from 1911, gradually expanded its battleship fleet to match that of Germany. A correspondingly large increase in the number of German military divisions also indicated that the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, long envious of British dominance in world trade, was out to make trouble should a suitable provocation occur. Though formal political differences between both countries had existed for some time, they had not yet brought about a direct confrontation. During the summer of 1914, the British public’s outlook matched the summer’s blue skies, for there was little general inkling of the catastrophe about to engulf the nation. This largely untroubled state of affairs came to an abrupt end, however, on 28 June, with the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie by a Serb Nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. The following month saw intense political and military activity as the European states, bound by treaties, agreements and grossly inflated royal and political egos, aligned themselves into opposing power blocs. The royal heads of Britain, Germany and Russia each had a common ancestry in Queen Victoria – King George V and the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, were grandsons of Queen Victoria, and Tsar Nicholas II was married to the queen’s granddaughter, Alexandra. But any expectations that their familial links would have caused them to wish to prevent the escalation of a relatively minor event into total war soon dissolved. The Kaiser seized the chance to exercise Germany’s military might. Upon the declaration of war, a wave of patriotic fervour swept through every town and city in the country. Countless young men, though not all, besieged local recruiting centres, frantically keen to do their bit. Cobham, thinking that his knowledge of horses would stand him in good stead, tried to join a cavalry regiment, but his application was turned down,

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 7

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

as was his attempt to enlist in the Honourable Artillery Company. His failure to make an impact on the recruiting authorities caused him some momentary disappointment, but this was quickly dispelled following a casual conversation with a recruiting sergeant he met purely by chance on the top deck of a London tram. Having again described his experience with animals, the sergeant told him that he was exactly the kind of man the Army Veterinary Corps was looking for, and, what was more, he could arrange a ‘special enlistment’ at four shillings (20p) a day. This was big money indeed, as an ordinary private was paid only one shilling (5p) a day. Getting off the tram together in Brixton, the two men walked to the Recruiting Depot newly set up in the Town Hall, whereupon Cobham, having yet again described his background, this time to the officer-incharge, successfully underwent a quick medical and signed on the dotted line. Just ten days had elapsed since hostilities began. This impetuous action shocked his parents, but was generously regarded by his employer, who congratulated him on having made the right decision and, promising to re-employ him on his return from duty, presented him with a gift of twenty-five gold sovereigns. Two days later, after having received orders to report to Aldershot in Hampshire, he walked into what he later recalled as ‘administrative chaos’. The emergency mobilization of so many young men had totally overwhelmed the recruiting system. Like almost everyone else, Cobham found himself unexpected and unwanted. However, he was soon ordered to go to Woolwich, where, despite having received neither induction training nor uniform, he was given clerical duties working alongside several others who, in his own words, ‘were of a type I had not previously encountered, and although clearly possessing similar knowledge to my own, were of vulgar mind and speech’. Coupled with the need to sleep on the concrete floor of the office for several nights before being issued with a harsh mattress, colloquially referred to as a ‘biscuit’, the hard realities of Army life were fast imposing themselves. In due course, wooden barrack huts which had served as temporary accommodation at the time of the Crimean War, and had later been condemned, provided a marginal improvement in sleeping conditions. After just three weeks, and now equipped with a uniform, though still completely untrained, Cobham was asked by a young Veterinary Officer, Lieutenant Hannay, if he would like to accompany him to France as his orderly. Greatly surprised, he eagerly agreed, and with no time for embarkation leave, his mother swiftly travelled down to Woolwich to see him off. A ‘life of much movement’, as Cobham frequently described it, had now truly begun. This seemingly ad hoc way of travelling to war

8

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 8

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

A Call To Arms

might bring to mind an image of Don Quixote and his faithful Sancho Panza setting forth to tilt at windmills, but the officer in question here had no such aggressive intentions, his primary concern being that of looking after horses. After a Channel crossing from Southampton, followed by a train journey, the new troop contingent finally arrived in Rouen, where it was housed in a vast railway shed with a straw-covered floor that rendered sleep virtually impossible. The following morning, Lieutenant Hannay received instructions to join, with immediate effect, the HQ of 45 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. Cobham was then given two horses and told to proceed to Bourg, some 20 miles away. After convincing a senior officer that his map-reading skills were in good order, he mounted the horse that was to become his own and set off, leading his officer’s charger. He was soon joined by another man performing a similar task. The sounds of bombardment, though distant at first, increased as they got nearer to the front line, as did the nervousness of his travelling companion, who rather naively explained that he had joined the Army to look after animals, not to be shot at. He wasn’t the only one so inclined, for with many of the recruits having recently left rural employment, their strong feelings for animal welfare was hardly surprising. The Regimental Sergeant Major, shaking his head at Cobham’s lack of training, was at a further loss to understand how he had managed to arrive in France. After asking if he had been issued with any firearms, Cobham showed him an ancient Scott-Webley revolver he had purchased from a shop in the Strand before leaving England. The Regimental Sergeant Major was even more astonished when he saw the kind of bullets Cobham had brought with him. These turned out to be the ‘dum dum’ type outlawed by international agreement, and he ordered their immediate burial. He went on to explain that had Cobham been caught by the Germans with those items in his possession, he would have been summarily shot. Although the war had barely begun, it was already producing a number of ‘veterans’ who, given an opportunity, welcomed the chance to impress new arrivals with horror stories, real or imagined, of life in the front line. ‘Shoot him before he shoots you’ was the popular advice handed to those who had just turned up, giving the impression that everyone was engaged in hand-to-hand mortal combat each waking moment. If that wasn’t enough to stir young imaginations, the sound of not-too-distant shelling from both sides certainly was. At this time, British troops were positioned to the left of French forces for what became a large outflanking movement to the north-east that determined the line of the Western Front. During

9

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 9

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

the early weeks, the six artillery batteries within Cobham’s brigade had to remain particularly mobile, firing from many positions to give the enemy the impression of greater strength than it actually possessed. To do this successfully, it was necessary to move at night over distances of up to 20 miles along unfamiliar country lanes. An early winter also ensured a high degree of discomfort for all that would only be exceeded by that of the ‘poor bloody infantry’, which had to endure the seemingly endless trench warfare over the next four years. Cobham freely admitted that, though generally fit and used to riding horses, he was simply not in good enough physical condition for such situations, bareback riding proving particularly troublesome. He found it difficult at times to avoid falling asleep during the nightly transitions, and the only way to revitalize his senses and circulation was to dismount and walk for a spell before remounting, a task that in the dark and whilst on the move brought its own difficulties. He was very aware that had he ‘nodded off’ and fallen from his horse, the gun crew immediately behind would have been upon him in a second, causing injury and inevitable confusion along the column. The harsh practicalities of life in this strange, hostile environment soon became apparent. He was called upon by Lieutenant Hannay to despatch two horses that were maimed and disease-ridden. He was shown the point on their foreheads to hold the gun, but was not instructed on how to dispose of them afterwards. Taking another driver with him, Cobham found the two horses to be in a truly sorry condition. He managed to coax one up to the edge of a nearby shell crater whilst his assistant stood by with a long stout pole. Following the shot, the poor beast quivered for a moment then, guided by the pole, fell into the shell hole. It was then a simple matter to repeat the procedure for the second horse, thus bringing to an end the lives of but two of the estimated one million animals that didn’t return home after the hellish years of war ended. Cobham found that this unpleasant experience had somehow secured him a reputation, for not only did he now know how to shoot horses, but he had established an economical method of disposal that saved time and physical effort. He stated that although he was called upon to perform this melancholy duty many times during the war, there was not always a convenient crater nearby to accommodate the labour-saving method of burial. Until October 1914, the town of Ypres in western Belgium, though close to fierce fighting, had escaped severe damage. Cobham, however, hoping to enjoy a rare moment of relaxation whilst waiting for Lieutenant Hannay, had just sat down to partake of a coffee and cognac and was

10

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 10

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

A Call To Arms

admiring the astounding beauty of the medieval Cloth Hall directly opposite, when a German shell completely demolished its spire. This was one of the opening shots of what, during the next two months, would become known as the First Battle of Ypres. Within this period, the whole area was subjected to constant shelling as it had become the last point of Allied resistance preventing the German advance toward the Channel ports of Boulogne and Calais. Later reports said that one could see across the rubble from one side of the town to the other without obstruction, and Cobham considered himself fortunate that day to have escaped with his life. His experiences were proving to be mixed, for his memoirs recorded 45 Brigade HQ being shared with an Irish Guards battalion at Hooge chateau, just days after the owners had fled and the caretaker shot after being judged to be a German spy. This magnificent building had the capacity to house officers in the main rooms and the noncommissioned ranks in the kitchen quarters. Such class distinction was entirely within the expectations of the day in both military and civilian social circles, but in this case, being of the ‘lower caste’ proved to be highly advantageous. A Guards corporal explained to Cobham that there simply had to be ample booze secreted somewhere in the house. Exploration of the cellars proved him to be right, for they discovered row upon row of every kind of wine in great quantity. Despite the corporal’s disappointment that whisky was not in evidence, champagne was seized upon and copious amounts transferred to both the NCOs’ quarters and that of the orderlies. Somewhat surprisingly, the officers remained unaware of this pillaging, which carried on for several days before the order came to move on. Having saddled up the horses, the column was making its way from the chateau when a scream and a whistle overhead announced the arrival of a ‘Jack Johnson’ (a German shell, which emitted black clouds of smoke and was named after a famous American negro boxer). Tragically, it scored a direct hit on the billiard room where an 8.00 am conference was being held for senior staff officers of I Army Corps which had just taken over from the Irish Guards. Very few survived the explosion. The winter conditions of 1914‑15 and the First Battle of Ypres had brought the earlier movement of forces to a virtual standstill and a zigzag of opposing trenches that eventually stretched from Nieuport on the Belgian North Sea coast to Alsace on the Swiss border, a distance of some 400 miles. (According to official sources, the intricate connection of frontline, support and reserve trenches dug by Allied and German forces had, by the end of the war, amounted to some 25,000 miles.)

11

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 11

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Having reported to the horse depot at Gournay-en-Bray near Beauvais, Cobham, as Orderly for the Veterinary Officer, was detailed to do clerical work, but this time with an unofficial difference. Many of his colleagues were illiterate, and in some cases possessed criminal records, but because of his ability to read and write, he was quickly elected to become ‘letter-writer-in-chief’, with instructions from a burly companion not to make the contents too ‘posh’ or ‘sissy’ when addressing them to wives or girlfriends. Fortunately, this odd posting did not last long, and as 1915 got underway he was sent to a farm and instructed to look after 150 horses in various states of health. In sharp contrast to life at Hooge chateau, conditions were, as he described them, ‘freezing cold, muddy and the work laborious’, with nothing but a tot of rum and a hot stew each evening to keep up morale. It was, however, preferable to life in the firing line, and Cobham’s good luck continued when, in April 1915, he was sent even further west to do similar work at Gaillefontaine in Normandy. Joining a party of ten that was called upon to care for a constantly changing population of 300‑500 horses, he found that little equipment was available and the ability to innovate in great demand. A typical example of this involved six men having to collect sixty horses from a railhead some 12km away, each man then having to lead ten horses to the depot by means of only head-ropes, no other harness equipment being to hand. Though a difficult and tiring task, they somehow managed the long journey back with the full complement of animals, some markedly more spirited than others, intact. Gaillefontaine proved to be a very ‘cushy’ posting indeed, and the full horrors of war seemed remote. Food was plentiful and the cook was an old sailor who knew how to make the best of the simple rations. Each day began at 5.30 am with a pint of hot milk for every man, into which had been added a couple of eggs and a strong tot of rum. After this it was time to give the horses their first feed. A ‘proper’ breakfast was then laid on, which usually consisted of several thick rashers of bacon accompanied by four or five eggs and as much tea as required. Other meals during the day were equally substantial. With the spring weather gradually improving, an outdoor existence free from shot and shell, and even a general lack of military discipline, it seemed that Army life simply couldn’t be better. On the rare occasions when an officer did inspect the depot, it was invariably reported as being the best convalescent centre of the lot. Aged 21, Cobham thrived on the hard physical work and ample food, and his fitness improved considerably. Now able to run and ride all day, he became skilful enough to vault on to any horse and ride it bareback, holding on if it bucked or slipping off safely if it reared.

12

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 12

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

A Call To Arms

This Wild West way of life continued until August 1915 when he was posted to Rouen, but his stay there was cut short when he developed a skin complaint that necessitated a visit to Woolwich for treatment. On his return to France in January 1916, Cobham was sent to one of the Army’s major veterinary hospitals at Forges-les-Eaux where, after training, he became a Staff Veterinary Sergeant, fully qualified to go up the line with an artillery battery and bearing complete responsibility for the horses. In the three months spent on lectures and practical work, he reckoned that he learned as much from his Irish tutor, Captain Reilly Reynolds, as a student at home would probably gain in three years. He was amazed to see how quickly many horses, sick or terribly wounded, would recover when given a basic treatment of hydrogen peroxide and perchloride of mercury, though surgery was all too often the only solution. Now judged to be sufficiently qualified, Cobham was despatched to the Fifth Battery, Royal Field Artillery, but after a short stay, he managed a transfer to a large horse depot at Boulogne, where he could put his newly acquired training to the fullest use. Here he was sometimes required to do emergency surgery, which would normally have been performed by a Veterinary Officer. On one occasion he had to operate on a horse which was close to death from suffocation. With the animal virtually unable to breathe, Cobham’s only option was, by the light of a hurricane lamp, to cut through the skin and windpipe, leaving a small hole into which a tube could be inserted. This did the trick and the wound was stitched up. Never having done this before, and pleased with his success, he was surprised the following day when it was pointed out that the method he had used was now outdated. The new technique was demonstrated soon afterwards when another horse with the same affliction was brought in for treatment. In this case the cure consisted of using a small tubular saw called a trephine to drill a small hole in the horse’s forehead. Upon removing a small disc of bone, the trapped mucus and catarrh shot out, whereupon the wound was disinfected and dressed. Both horses fully recovered but the first, which Cobham had tracheotomised, remained a ‘whistler’ for the rest of its days. Soon after this, he was again sent up the line to join some Corps artillery units. Veterinary sergeants were greatly in demand, and their scarcity resulted in workloads being unavoidably high. As proof of this, Cobham had to look after several other miscellaneous units as well as his own, and at one time he had full veterinary responsibility for nearly 1,500 horses. This was all very well, but the extra responsibility wasn’t matched by a corresponding increase in authority. Unsurprisingly, certain Veterinary Officers did not take kindly to having their diagnoses sometimes queried

13

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 13

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

by a very young sergeant, even though his hands-on field experience often outweighed theirs. Cobham claimed, for example, that he could recognize a horse suffering from tetanus at 50 yards. He knew that the behaviour of an animal with this disease was highly distinctive, but to an officer unfamiliar with the symptoms, his instant assessment of the condition tended to undermine the senior man’s authority and even border on insubordination. By the end of 1917, Cobham considered his chances of surviving the war were improving, although the prospects of meaningful post-war employment were far from reassuring. He knew that his pre-war job at Hitchcock Williams had been held open pending his return, and though feeling a strong obligation to repay the firm’s kindness, he was now a changed man and the tough competition in the ‘rag trade’ held no appeal. He realized that he had made a big mistake in having left school so early, with no formal qualifications that could have eased his way into a professional veterinary career, and the conclusions he had once reached regarding the restricted prospects for a farm worker still applied. It seemed as if the early years of manhood had been simply wasted away, as indeed they had for so many thousands of young men. After being in France for over three years, he returned home unable to shake off the doubt and uncertainty surrounding his future. There might be something, somewhere, that might suit his amateur horse-doctor status, but when compared to what had been a free-wheeling open-air existence, the outlook was far from encouraging. Nevertheless, he was already starting to mix more positive thoughts into his considerations. His early days in France had been dominated by horse-drawn transport and the sight of, for example, a BE.2c biplane stuttering along toward the enemy lines on a reconnaissance mission had been a relative novelty. However, as the war progressed, the introduction of mechanized ground transport and of more capable aircraft, whose roles now extended beyond reconnaissance to include fighter escort, bombing and ground strafing, brought the realization that the days of the horse were probably coming to an end. Clearly, the new types of aircraft such as the SE.5, Bristol F2.B, Sopwith Camel and Pup, along with the DH.4, now constantly overhead, were far more sophisticated than those which had captivated him at Brooklands. He pondered that if such technical advancements could take place in so short a time, what could be achieved in, say, the next twenty years? The growth potential of aviation became firmly fixed in his mind, but the problem remained of how to get into it, for he had nothing to offer except an intuitive determination. In theory, the answer lay on his doorstep – a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps – but this tantalizing thought

14

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 14

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

A Call To Arms

was quickly dampened when his lack of extended education threw up a major stumbling block. Even if that could be overcome, the transfer of a much-needed Veterinary Sergeant was hardly going to be met with enthusiasm within the Army. There was also the fact that although the mortality rate among pilots and observers was frighteningly high, there was no shortage of eminently qualified young men having just left sources of higher education, willing to fill the gaps. The prospect of flying seems to have overshadowed the possibility of taking up a ground position in the RFC, for nowhere in Cobham’s writings does he mention a willingness for alternative ground-based mechanical training. It had to be flying or nothing. During a five-day home leave – only the second he had had in over three years – he shared his latest thoughts with his mother and father, who, aware that the end of the war was not yet in sight, were still anxious about their son’s safety. This time it was his father who expressed caution in tempting providence after his mother suggested a meeting with Mr Grose, a neighbour and retired civil servant, whose views, nevertheless, still carried much weight at the War Office. Cobham seized the chance the following evening and the talking went on well into the night, ending in a suggestion that, although a mere sergeant, he present himself next morning in the imposing portals of the War Office in Whitehall. When eventually ushered into a vast high-ceilinged room, it was to find Mr Grose chairing a meeting of high-ranking officers. Calling the assembly to attention, he introduced a very nervous Cobham as a soldierhero who had served ‘over there’ since the opening Battle of Mons. He was then invited to tell his own story, which he ended by stating his wish to join the RFC., Mr Grose finally added that, in his view, the young man had earned the right to do so and hoped that all present would agree. To Cobham’s barely disguised astonishment, they all did so and wished him the best of luck. However, on returning to his unit, he had to face the indignant fury of his colonel, who accused him of going behind his back, letting the side down and depriving the Army of a much-needed skill. His displeasure, once in full flow, was indeed fearsome. Who did Cobham think he was, he raged, the Prince of Ruritania? Who had he seen and what extraordinary influence had been exerted to earn him the right to sidestep the inflexible chain of command? There was little the miscreant could say in return. The facts were the facts, but coincidental circumstances had certainly played an unusual part. He was eventually dismissed, leaving an apoplectic colonel in his wake. Having weathered the storm, Cobham’s feeling of guilt did not last long and, sensing that he had reached a major

15

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 15

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

milestone in his life, he reported to the Royal Flying Corps Cadet Depot at Hastings. His silent gratitude to Mr Grose knew no bounds. Military life at Hastings proved to be unlike anything Cobham had experienced so far. Not only was he appreciably older than his fellow cadets, all newly recruited from school or university, but the three stripes on his sleeve denoting the rank of sergeant, along with the four marking his length of service, naturally set him apart from the rest. Whilst his presence was puzzling to his classmates, it was even more so to the instructors, who were highly rank- and seniority-conscious. To add further to the confusion, Cobham’s lack of formal parade-ground training had many of the staff scratching their heads wondering how best to instruct an ‘old sweat’ in saluting and basic drill procedures. Though coping well enough with the physical demands, he found the classwork called for a level of concentration far beyond that required from his fellow students, but after six weeks of ‘square-bashing’ and not a little help, he passed out with comfortably high marks. After this period of basic indoctrination, he was sent to Denham in Buckinghamshire for a six-week technical training course covering such subjects as the theory of flight, engine and airframe maintenance, Kings Regulations and whatever else the authorities deemed necessary to produce a complete and compliant airman. Still aware of his educational shortcomings, he used every spare moment to bury himself in text book study. Every moment, that is, apart from those he spent escorting Phyllis, an attractive blonde who worked in the canteen, on her long walk home to Denham, three nights a week. Though never naturally inclined toward sporting activities, he did engage in cross-country running, even managing to win second place in a 7-mile event. He felt more at home organizing a concert party which, in the event, was so favourably received that he was requested by the Station Adjutant to arrange another. This was all very flattering, but he was determined that nothing must impinge on his studies and to his credit, he again ended the course with very high marks. Having now satisfied the educational requirements, he was posted in May 1918 to Manston in Kent, home to both the Operational War Flight Command and the Handley Page Training School. Here, a genial Canadian, Lieutenant Holly, took charge of half-a-dozen men, including Cobham, for ab initio flying instruction. The training aircraft was the Airco DH. 6, a biplane powered by a 90hp engine. This machine, of which 2,282 were built, was specially designed to reduce the risk of spinning, a condition that, not yet fully mastered, had accounted for the lives of many trainee and even experienced pilots.

16

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 16

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

A Call To Arms

Holly was determined to be the first instructor to send a pupil from the new intake off solo. Even so, Cobham required ‘a fair amount of time’ – six hours of dual instruction – before he was sent off alone, on 1 June 1918. As all pilots will testify, the first solo flight is a defining experience, and one never to be forgotten. This occasion, however, proved to be the start of something extra special, for it marked the qualified entry into the world of flying for the man destined to become Britain’s greatest aviator in the inter-war period. Cobham recorded that gazing down from 1,000ft at the Isle of Thanet, he sensed that his moment of fulfilment had come. Filled with pride at having achieved his goal, he looked forward to a post-war path strewn with opportunities, but realized that many lives were still to be lost in the fighting yet to come. Inevitably, a high number of fatalities would occur in training pilots for the Western Front. Other lives were to be lost by young men, who, having just received their cherished wings, overestimated their ability and paid the ultimate price. Such a fate nearly befell Alan Cobham when, filled with confidence and keen to impress a certain young lady, he arranged one holiday weekend to fly over the seafront at Margate. After waggling his wings to confirm his identity, he put his DH.6 into a steep dive before sharply pulling up and over into a loop. Following this with two similar manoeuvres, and no doubt anticipating the warm adulation he hoped his lady companion would later bestow, he rounded off his performance with a final aerobatic flourish. Upon landing, and acknowledging the congratulations on a ‘fine show’ from his friends, his pleasure was rudely interrupted when the Regimental Sergeant Major standing by the aircraft called for his immediate attention. ‘Mr Cobham, you are very lucky to be alive – just look at this,’ he said, pointing to the engine, which was normally held in place on four lugs positioned on two horizontal wooden bearers. Each one now pointed upwards at an angle of 45 degrees, having been levered into that position by the extra gravitational (‘g’) forces incurred by his forceful display. It had been a close-run thing, for had the lugs fractured – and they very nearly had – the engine would simply have fallen out. The consequences of this happening over a densely packed crowd can be imagined. He escaped an official reprimand, possibly because there was no printed warning that looping the DH.6 was forbidden. His antics, however, introduced a new flight limitation, for later that afternoon a large noticeboard appeared carrying the words ‘DH.6 BACKWARD STAGGER – ON NO ACCOUNT WILL THESE AIRCRAFT BE LOOPED. BY ORDER OF THE COMMANDING OFFICER’. The ‘Backward Stagger’ referred to was a later version of the original straight-winged DH.6 that allowed greater manoeuvrability.

17

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 17

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

His training period included another incident that could have had severe consequences. This time flying a DH.9, a far more powerful aircraft than the DH.6, his engine cut out completely at 300ft. Keeping the nose down to maintain his speed above stalling, Cobham put into practice ‘Golden Flying Rule Number One’ for such a situation, i.e. never try to turn back to the aerodrome. Had he attempted to do so, the wings on the inboard side of his turning circle would certainly have lost lift and caused him to side-slip into the ground. Relieved to see a large cabbage field straight ahead, his ‘dead-stick’ landing was faultless and he was soon joined by his instructor, who commented that he had probably killed the engine by selecting too rich a mixture. Cobham silently disagreed with this theory, as there wasn’t a mixture control fitted to this type of aircraft, only a throttle. Nevertheless, he was at a loss to offer a better explanation when the engine started again at the first touch. Judged to have been the victim of a rogue engine failure, he took off again, only to have a repeat performance at much the same altitude. His good luck seemed to be holding when he spotted a cornfield which appeared to offer good landing prospects, but on this occasion he was not so fortunate. Just before touching down, he failed to clear some fences, causing the undercarriage to become entangled in barbed wire, thus pitching the aircraft onto its nose and burying the propeller into the soft ground. With both incidents being loosely ascribed to petrol failure and not to pilot error, Cobham was told to get back into the air immediately and carry out a miscellany of loops, rolls and ‘touch and go’ landings to ensure that his confidence hadn’t been undermined. As yet to be described, it would take far more than a couple of ‘shaky do’s’ to disturb his innate confidence. When offered the chance to become an instructor, he gladly agreed, taking the view that any subject is best learned by teaching it. The training aircraft most widely used from 1917 onwards was the ubiquitous Avro 504K, by then equipped with the Gosport Speaking Tube. This device, invented by Major Robert Smith-Barry at the Gosport-based School of Special Flying, enabled an instructor to communicate with a pupil without having to rely on written messages or hand waving, and was used for many years. With 100 hours and thirty-eight minutes in his log-book, Alan Cobham ceased to be a cadet or, indeed, a non-commissioned officer. He had now become a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps and, to his immense satisfaction, a fully qualified flying instructor. The RFC had been formed on 13 May 1912 when it was realized, albeit with strong misgivings in certain military quarters, that aircraft might

18

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 18

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

A Call To Arms

well serve as useful observation platforms for both the Army and Royal Navy. Accordingly, its personnel consisted of air-minded officers drawn from both services and who continued to wear the uniforms and retain the ranks held in their old units. Service rivalries ran deep, however, and, just prior to the war, a separate Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was formed and split off from the RFC, although the combined Central Flying School continued to operate at Upavon in Wiltshire. As the war continued, the importance of the RFC had been clearly demonstrated; so much so, that a strong case for it to become an independent service rather than remain an extension of the Army finally received official approval. Under its new title of the Royal Air Force (RAF), the organization came into being on 1 April 1918. Nevertheless, it was some time before uniformity of dress was achieved, and in many cases existing khaki and dark blue uniforms had to be worn out before new light blue ones were issued. Cobham stated that he was very disappointed when eventually told to discard the popular and distinctive double-breasted ‘maternity jacket’ and adopt the new RAF uniform instead. He wasn’t the only one to dislike the design being offered, for John Slessor (later to become Marshal of the Royal Air Force) acidly remarked that ‘the nasty pale blue cloth covered with a lot of gold, brought irresistibly to mind a vision of the gentleman who stands outside the cinema’. Within a year the colour of the cloth, said to have been originally intended for the Imperial Russian Cavalry prior to its disbandment, and bought cheaply, was discarded and replaced by the blue-grey colour still in use today. Cobham’s first task as an instructor was to restore confidence in pilots who had crashed and lost their nerve or will to fly. As he had repeatedly experienced at first-hand, engine failures were a relatively common occurrence and it made sense to concentrate on teaching students how to cope with a forced landing. Student abilities varied considerably, and called for much patience and firm guidance from the instructors. On the other hand, the freedom enjoyed by the instructing staff allowed them to frequently make the acquaintance of local ladies after informally landing at some convenient country home or park. In September 1918, the flying school was ordered to move to Narborough near King’s Lynn in Norfolk. This required each instructor to lead a formation of pupils across unfamiliar country, trusting that none got lost en route, but what sounded a simple enough task provided its fair share of adventures. Cobham himself had never ventured beyond Kent’s boundaries, and his confidence was not improved when the compass needles in each of the aircraft refused to point consistently in any

19

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 19

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

direction, let alone indicate north. Relying on map reading and hoping for clear weather, he took off, followed by a loose gaggle of six pupils, arriving, as planned, for a refuelling stop at Marks Tey, a fighter station in Essex. Trouble ensued, however, when Cobham had to undertake a forced landing and the six pilots who had been told to ‘stick close’ ignored his frantic arm-waving telling them to circle whilst his mechanic sorted out the problem, following him down. The difficulty now facing the flight was that the wind direction left no option but to take off over a line of tall trees. Being lightly loaded, the pupils managed this successfully, but Cobham was carrying a mechanic and tools weighing over 100lb. This extra weight caused a tense moment as he approached the trees, but he staggered over at minimum flying speed before climbing slowly to join the others circling overhead in mist and rain which accompanied them the rest of the way to Narborough. This experience presumably heightened the pupils’ confidence, and it certainly pleased Cobham when it was learned that his was the only flight to arrive. Lieutenant Holly had crashed at Yarmouth, and the remainder of the school’s aircraft were spread all over the countryside. It took a week for the unit to reform itself after this inauspicious start. Cobham was required to be as much a psychologist as a flying instructor when trying to assess many of the hard cases that turned up for training. All had seen front-line action and been mentally and/or physically scarred by it. Not all had wanted to resume as pilots, but had been directed to do so by the authorities, who considered that the cost of their earlier training and previous combat experience did not warrant a release from flying. This human recycling process proved difficult, encompassing as it did a mixture of genuinely slow learners, ‘tough nuts’ out to exploit the situation and those who had become hopeless cases. At times it caused embarrassment when pupils, senior in rank to an instructor, were subjected to an unfavourable report. Every instructor had to hone his awareness in order to safeguard his own life and that of his pupil should the latter make an unexpected and potentially disastrous decision. Cobham experienced such a situation one day when sitting behind a very good pupil in a DH.9. Having carried out a perfect series of vertical banks at around 4,000ft, the pupil accidentally applied too much rudder, causing the aircraft to enter a full-power vertical spin. Shouting ‘leave it to me’, Cobham grasped both sides of the fuselage, and with his right leg on the rudder bar exerted all the force he could to slow down the rate of spin. The rudimentary controls in the rear cockpit included an emergency control column which, again, required all the strength he could muster to recover from the dive. Whether the

20

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 20

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

A Call To Arms

wing structure was strong enough to withstand the excessive ‘g’ forces was not a question he dared to ask himself at the time. To his immense relief, the wings stayed in place, thus avoiding a very unfortunate, albeit spectacular, end. Each instructor had similar tales to tell, but Cobham capped most in recalling the following, in which the pupil had a particularly frightening experience. This young man, though very good in most respects, seemed unable to prevent his engine cutting out when landing. This necessitated him having to jump out of the rear cockpit and swing the prop to restart the engine for another take-off. After re-entering the cockpit, he would shout ‘Right!’, whereupon Cobham would take off before handing over the controls once in the air. This somewhat unorthodox routine worked very well until the day when, having become airborne, Cobham’s instructions down the Gosport Tube received no answer. Looking over his shoulder, he was shocked to find the rear cockpit empty, and a quick look at the ground also revealed no sign of the missing pupil. Mystified, he glanced again over his shoulder, and this time saw eight bloodless fingers clinging precariously to the side of the rear cockpit. The lad had shouted ‘Right!’ too soon, and was now hanging on for dear life, several hundred feet above the ground. Thinking quickly, Cobham executed a banked turn, allowing the pupil’s weight to rest on the side of the fuselage. He continued to spiral down against the normal direction of the circuit, before flattening out in a nearstalled approach and landing in soft grass. Even at this late stage severe injury could have resulted, but after the pupil fell onto the ground, the tail assembly and skid passed over him without the expected decapitation. Having stopped the aircraft, Cobham ran back, expecting the worst, only to find a young man totally uninjured and, what was more, highly apologetic for having caused all the fuss. As was customary following any such confidence-sapping events, Cobham immediately took him up again, whereupon he made a good landing, managed to keep the engine running, having acquired a tale on which to dine out for the rest of his life. The Gosport School of Special Flying was established to instil consistent teaching standards among instructors, many of whom had assumed an individual style not always thought to be in the best interests of the students. Cobham, already recognized as having excellent flying skills, was sent on a Gosport course to become familiar with the new methods. It was whilst attending this course that the end of the war was announced. As at every military establishment, this provided the excuse for riotous behaviour, which at Narborough, according to Cobham,

21

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 21

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

‘swung continuously between an undisciplined rugby match and a fullscale pitched battle, with more chance of sustaining lasting injury than being in the front-line’. A slight exaggeration perhaps, but understandable in the circumstances. (The author’s mind is more sympathetically inclined toward the thousands of grieving families whose wartime loss must have been truly unbearable. The author’s own grandfather, for example, having served, like Cobham, from the earliest days of the war, was killed along with several others when a German shell blew up their dug-out in the trenches, just eleven days before peace was finally declared. He was one of three brothers who all lost their lives on the Western Front, leaving a devastating gap in the family and little cause for celebration at the war’s end.) The sudden gaining of freedom and resulting eruption of wild spirits was allowed, for a short time, to go unchecked. A fighter squadron at nearby Marham had the colossal impudence to bomb the Narborough lads with sacks of flour. Going one better was a matter of honour, and was accomplished by a retaliatory raid with sacks containing not flour but soot. Even the commanding officer, in what was said to be an unprecedented event, took to the skies in exuberant mood on Armistice Day. The universal jubilation was, however, short-lived. A widespread lack of trust still existed within political circles as to French intentions and whether the will for peace was strong enough to remain permanently in place. British relationships with its recent ally were thus to remain far from ‘cordiale’ for years after the war ended. Reflecting this, life at service stations quickly reverted to normal and the standard training schedules resumed. As the end of the war approached, service personnel were naturally turning their thoughts to life in ‘civvy street’ and all the uncertainties and readjustments this would bring. Cobham, however, had by then determined that aviation held the key to the future and that he was going to be part of it. He reasoned, correctly, that with so many other officers of greater standing and experience well ahead in the queue for service retention, he could not see himself, a mere Second Lieutenant, being invited to join the future elite. Accordingly, in February 1919, he became just one of 22,000 other young pilots about to leave the Royal Air Force. Not all wanted to continue flying, but an optimistic small number, that included Cobham, hoped that careers in aviation, as yet ill-defined, would soon become a strong possibility. At that time, a few embryonic airlines were offering services to the continent, but these were unreliable, fares were prohibitively expensive and the public was suspicious of a means of transport more readily associated with the delivery of high explosives. Civil aviation clearly needed a much

22

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 22

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

A Call To Arms

longer runway to get off the ground. It was also disappointing to find that, despite the lingering mistrust of continental powers, all the major manufacturing companies that had produced vast numbers of aircraft throughout the war were now facing cancellation of contracts and laying-off staff. New test pilots were definitely not on the companies’ current agenda.

23

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 23

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 24

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

Chapter Three

Berkshire and Beyond

C

obham’s first attempts at gaining employment were centred on firms having anything to do with aviation and which were located within a 50-mile radius of his home in Streatham. His technique involved repeatedly visiting those which showed even a glimmer of interest, and his trying to strike a balance between being seen to be keen and not, as he put it, a plain ‘bloody nuisance’. Although, in most cases, he quickly attracted the latter description, his perseverance was rewarded when he was offered a job as a pilot with the British Aerial Transport Company (BAT), based in Willesden. Though basically an aircraft manufacturing firm which depended heavily on the Dutch designer Frederick Koolhoven and its chief draughtsman Robert Noorduyn, it entertained hopes of entering the pleasure flight business, with its four BAT F.K.26 biplane transports each capable of carrying four passengers. It was Cobham’s task to visit East Coast resorts and pick out suitable fields for landing. This appeared to be going well, but after just one month Lord Waring, a director of the famous furniture firm Waring and Gillow and a founder member of BAT, decided to withdraw his financial interest and the company ceased operations. It was soon after the closure that Cobham, searching through a copy of the Aerial Gazette and Register, noted that two brothers, Frederick John Vernon (Fred) and John Duncan Vernon (Jack) Holmes, were intending to give ‘joy rides’ in the Berkshire area. Fred, the elder of the two, had served in the RFC and RAF as a ground mechanic and fitter, while Jack had been a pilot with19 Squadron before being shot down and taken prisoner in 1917. Despite Jack’s rusty flying skills, both brothers were ‘raring to go’ and, what was more, they were looking for a second pilot. With so many to choose from, Cobham rated his chances of success to be decidedly slim, but a hastily arranged visit to the Holmes family residence at East Hannnay near Wantage in Berkshire paid dividends and a deal was struck. Pooling their resources, they agreed to purchase a war surplus Avro 504K aircraft, a Ford car, a supply of petrol and, with a cash reserve of £200, to venture

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 25

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

forth as the Berkshire Aviation Company. Yew Tree Farm, close to where the Holmes’ lived, was to provide a maintenance facility, and testing was also to be carried out at The Common, a field at nearby Lyford village. Cobham somehow persuaded the Air Ministry that his instructing experience entitled him to a pilot’s ‘B’, or commercial, licence, and Fred, perhaps more justifiably, was granted ‘A’ and ‘C’ licences, which qualified him to work on both airframes and engines. The aircraft itself, G-EACL, was selected by Cobham from the government-owned Aircraft Disposal Unit at Waddon near Croydon. He then flew it to the Avro works at Hamble where, within hours, it was converted from a two to a three-seater at a cost of £40. One of the hurdles that had to be overcome was getting permission from farmers to use their fields, as this usually met with some opposition. After arriving by train at some unfamiliar place, any enquiry as to where there might be a large field suitable for flying was often met with an uncomprehending stare, but after finally meeting up with a landowner, the mention of the word ‘aeroplane’ would most likely bring forth longwinded memories in gory detail of crashes that had happened nearby during the war. After making little progress in the bargaining process, Cobham, though he hated doing it, would appeal to their better natures with, ‘We’ve just left the RAF after doing our bit “over there”, won’t you please help us to get started?’ This blatant emotional blackmail invariably won the day, but it all took time, money and strong persuasive powers. More difficult to overcome was the Air Ministry’s insistence that any fields or landing grounds that were intended for operations involving passengers would require inspection and licensing in advance. Cobham, again the team’s nominated spokesman, argued that such a requirement would impose large amounts of paperwork that would drown the ministry’s resources. His undoubted negotiating skills, hinting that the future of British aviation hinged on the success of this new venture, cleverly resulted in a working arrangement that proved beneficial not only to Berkshire Aviation, but to other small operators hoping to make a similar living. Soon after, bowing to the tide of landing-ground applications, a special Air Ministry department was created to handle the paperwork and form proper procedures. Word soon reached the Berkshire team that a number of enterprising ex-service pilots, thought to be about fifty, had also adopted the idea of flying passengers for fun. Of more concern, however, was the discovery that, with the wartime restrictions on civil flying about to be lifted, several of the big manufacturing companies were going to set up large teams of people and aircraft to do the same thing. Vickers and Handley Page

26

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 26

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

were prime examples of this, as was A.V. Roe, which formed an off-shoot company, the Avro Transport Company (ATC), to conduct this new line of business in both the northern and southern halves of the country. Employing many of the leading pilots of the day and mainly using Avro 504K and L (seaplane ) variants, ATC’s widespread operations were controlled by Captain Duncan Davis in the south and Major G.P.L. Henderson in the north, where such aerial attractions were to prove immensely popular with industrial holidaymakers during the annual Wakes Weeks. To further illustrate the size of ATC’s involvement, joy-riding centres were also located on the Isle of Man and at Windermere in the Lake District. However, the company’s seemingly unstoppable success suffered a serious setback in mid-August 1919 when severe storm conditions caused much damage to many of its aircraft, optimistically held down with sandbags on the beach at Southport. Such were the uncertainties of weather-dependent ventures. Upon the lifting of restrictions on civil flying on 1 May 1919, Berkshire Aviation got off to a promising start with a tour of eight towns and villages within easy reach of home. Passenger reactions varied: the first two young girls were more than thrilled by their experience, but the second, a pair of spinsters, were less enthralled and, having complained that the aircraft was difficult to get into, made it clear that they hadn’t enjoyed their flight at all. They, along with a lady who later became Cobham’s wife, proved to be almost a total exception, for the 5,000 people eventually piloted by Cobham in 1919 were invariably keen to express their appreciation for their unique adventure, as well as admiration for the pilot. The opening venue was at Thatcham, near Newbury in Berkshire, on 27 May, when good weather brought healthy queues of customers eager to fly and the encouraging sound of half-crowns and shillings topping up the coffers. This early success soon led to an expansion of the team to include a mechanic named Blanshard and a rigger called Ritchie. Fred Holmes’ wife, Joan, also took care of fabric repairs as Berkshire Aviation began to roam across the country, appearing at thirty-four locations before the end of the year. The biggest problems to be overcome, apart from trying to find ladies’ hats that had been blown off in the slipstream, were poor engine reliability and inadequate facilities for maintaining the aircraft when away from the home base. The need to keep the machine in the air each day called for great improvisation and a willingness on everyone’s part to work however many hours were required. At Aylesbury, for example, it proved necessary to work throughout the night by the light of paraffin flares and electric torches to remove, overhaul and reinstall the 110hp Le Rhone engine, using the branch of a tree as a hoisting derrick.

27

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 27

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

The weather continued to be good throughout the summer, and little time or revenue was lost due to bad flying conditions. Engine failures, however, were all too frequent, the resultant forced landings sometimes meaning also having to pay farmers for damage to their crops. At Northampton on 21 July 1919, and following on the heels of a similar incident at Leighton Buzzard a few days previously, a misfiring engine brought G-EACL down into a hayfield, where it overturned. Fortunately no-one was injured and the two lady passengers, Miss Davies and Miss O’Callaghan, having sympathized with Cobham’s bad luck, even expressed their wish to fly again, which they subsequently did. Looking at Berkshire Aviation’s seemingly wrecked sole source of income, Cobham’s immediate reaction was one of deep concern regarding the future. However, more rational considerations soon took over, and he realized that with the recent takings of between £500 and 600 and the prospect of a sizeable sum from the insurance company, it should be possible to purchase a second aircraft. No written evidence exists suggesting the team had any doubts about carrying on in what might be thought to be a hazardous and expensive business. Cobham caught the first available train to London and then travelled on to Croydon for an overnight stay and another visit to the Aircraft Disposal Company, where he was able to acquire a replacement Avro 504K, D93039 (later G-EAIB), which, although allegedly promised to another customer, quickly became available at the sight of ready cash. The deal even included a £50 discount. Avro’s people at Hamble again accomplished a quick turn-around, completing the three-seat conversion in time for Cobham to return to Northampton the following morning. Fred Holmes had an official inspector on hand to certify the machine, and within less than forty-eight hours of the mishap, Berkshire Aviation was re-equipped and ready to move on. Dark clouds do sometimes have silver linings, and so it proved on this occasion, when the insurance assessor, faced with the choice of an unappealing wade across a muddy river or a 10-mile detour to assess the damage, decided to accept Fred Holmes at his word that G-EACL was a complete write-off. Compensation of £500, less £50 for salvageable spares, was agreed on the spot. However, when the aircraft was later turned over, the only damage was found to be a fractured front skid, a broken propeller and one or two minor items that were easily repairable. With a settlement reached in good faith and everyone satisfied with the financial outcome, why rock the boat? The aircraft was repaired by a local firm and, three

28

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 28

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

weeks later, flown back to Yew Tree Farm, where it was discreetly stored away as a valuable source of spares. The press kept a close eye on flying activities throughout the country for even minor misadventures, which, given a large dose of sensationalism, always made for exciting copy. At Leicester, headlines in the local paper proclaiming ‘COBHAM CRASHES’ were based on one gentleman’s wildly exaggerated report of the aircraft in which his wife was a passenger gently nosing into a hedge following a forced landing. In trying to promote civil aviation, the Berkshire Aviation team felt that this kind of reporting was both inaccurate and unfair, and forcibly expressed their views to the editor. It does not appear to have had any long-term impact, however, judging by the number of similar complaints levelled at today’s over-enthusiastic coverage of mishaps. Although soon travelling further afield than originally planned, the team’s ‘logistic support’ was a model of efficiency, with flights being conducted on a semi-regular basis to drop bundles of laundry onto the lawn of the Holmes family home for mother’s attention. Moving around the country naturally required overnight accommodation, which in itself often provided its own unintentional amusement. Jack Holmes recounted his staying for several nights at a small establishment in Somerset where, after answering a knock on his door late each evening, he would not find anyone there, but a cup of hot chocolate always placed outside. The mystery was solved on the last night when he discovered his benefactor to be an elderly lady. She explained that having been told what he did, she was sure he was going to kill himself and she didn’t want to recall afterwards what he looked like. Berkshire Aviation’s movements around the country were not unlike those of other touring entertainers who appeared on stage in the variety theatres and music halls of towns and cities. It therefore wasn’t long before friendships sprang up and word was passed around as to which were the best places to stay or to eat, and which to avoid at all costs. It was obvious that in providing aerial entertainment, which now included Jack Holmes’ ‘wing-walking’ stunt, Berkshire Aviation was not just in business, it was in show business. It certainly felt like it when an old lady made a somewhat comic exit from the cockpit after her flight. Well pleased with the experience, and keen to bestow her thanks to Cobham, she slipped, both feet going through the wing root fabric, and with her skirt round her waist she straddled the rear spar. Fred Holmes gallantly came to her rescue, but it took much hugging and tugging to set her free. The importance of advance advertising was a lesson quickly learned, and it became common practice to plaster each town with posters and then

29

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 29

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

drive noisily around announcing the forthcoming event. Relationships with the press were greatly improved when free flights were traded for free publicity, or as prizes for competitions sponsored by the papers. If a show featuring well-known entertainers was appearing at the local theatre, it made for good publicity to invite the cast down to the flying field. At Chesterfield, the famous Scottish comedian Will Fyffe and a bevy of chorus beauties ensured an exceptional attendance, and it was Fyffe who urged Berkshire Aviation to extend its tour as far north as Edinburgh. He also added, with a canny wink, that the best time would be at Christmas, as that was the only period the Scots could be persuaded to part with their money! It says much for the hardiness of both pilot and passengers who were willing to endure the cold December air, even for a short ten-minute flight, in the Avro’s draughty open-cockpit. A rival outfit was also operating at Edinburgh, but not doing too well. The reason for this was discovered to be its pilot’s insistence on giving value for money by including aerobatics and violent manoeuvres. In most cases, people simply wanted to be able to say that they had ‘been up’, and Berkshire Aviation provided this with straight, steady flying and without any of the fancy stuff which reintroduced folk to their last meal. On occasion, Berkshire Aviation did experiment with new ideas, and it was at Newcastle that Cobham tried passenger-flying at night. Seeing the city lights from above clearly had its attractions, but was soon judged to be too risky as, landing by the light of a single flare, which might go out, or having an engine failure that required an emergency landing could invite disastrous consequences. An event that had serious repercussions of a different, indeed lifechanging kind, occurred when they visited Middlesbrough during the last week of November 1919. It was here that a particularly good revue, Joy Bells, was showing at the Empire Theatre and Cobham decided to bring the cast over for the usual free flights. It was during the course of this that he became totally captivated by the leading lady, Miss Gladys Lloyd. After taking her up for what he hoped would be an enjoyable first experience, he discovered later that not only had she felt ill throughout the flight, but she had already flown from Southport beach in an Avro Transport Company machine piloted by the impressively named Joseph Carey Crabtree Taylor. Though failing to make an initial impression, Cobham was determined to win over the lady and when Miss Lloyd’s company moved some 40 miles or so up the coast to Newcastle, he insisted on Fred Holmes driving him there each evening so that he could be with her. Within a week he proposed marriage, and although she accepted, it was not until 30 June 1922 that the

30

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 30

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

ceremony took place at St Giles’ Church in Bloomsbury. Thus began the forty-year relationship between ‘the Airman and the Actress’, a title which adorned a popular society article covering the wedding. With hindsight, the fact that Cobham and Jack Holmes carried so many people without serious mishap throughout 1919 is remarkable. The many forced landings could easily have had more serious results, but good fortune had remained on their side. Consider for a moment the experience of a Mr Walton who, many years later and by then Principal of St Helen’s Technical College, informed Cobham that as a young boy he had been in a large crowd when he had flown so low that, although only 3ft tall, his cap had been removed by the undercarriage and, carrying a long greasy mark, had been a treasured memento for many years. Although this letter remains in the Cobham archive, its precise details are, in the author’s mind, seriously exaggerated, for if this alleged incident could single out such a small boy, what about the adults, presumably chosen by fate to escape mass decapitation, all packed in close by? Despite such lurid tales, there were many genuinely close encounters that somehow favoured the brave and ended well, allowing the year to end on an optimistic note. The New Year brought continuous bad weather that extended beyond Easter, and when compared with the previous year’s success, 1920 seemed to possess all the ingredients for a financial disaster. Promises of cash support were not upheld, but Berkshire Aviation, convinced that better conditions would eventually prevail, went ahead with the purchase of two more Avro 504Ks, G-EASF (D5858) and G-EAKX (H2600), to form a splinter team advertised as ‘Cobham and Holmes Aviation’ which provided simultaneous displays at different locations. More staff were recruited, including the son of Peru’s Minister for the Interior, Harold Gomez-Cornejo, as pilot and ‘wing-walker’, and Oscar Philip Jones who later, as Captain O.P. Jones, would become one of Imperial Airways’ best-known captains. Gomez-Cornejo’s stay was, however, short and he departed in mid-1920 to join the Oxfordshire Aviation Company then performing at Newport. Jones’ early joy-riding flights provided some adventuresome moments, including the almost obligatory forced landing. This proved to be nothing too serious, requiring merely the sealing of a cracked fuel pipe with insulation tape to rectify the fault. More bizarre was his decision, later in the year, to drop a floral tribute from the air during the unveiling ceremony of a cenotaph at Stoke-on-Trent by Field Marshal Sir William Robertson. Though a praiseworthy gesture, the proceedings were rudely interrupted when the package fell onto the back of a policeman’s horse, causing, as reported in the local press, ‘a bit of a rumpus’. A prosecution

31

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 31

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

for low-flying and disturbing the peace soon followed, but some positive publicity resulted when police Inspector Adlem was persuaded to serve the summons in flight, which he did, with the attached endorsement ‘served personally in mid-air on 24th November 1920’. Earlier that year, Berkshire Aviation appeared to be facing bankruptcy, and although certain sympathetic creditors were willing to defer their claims, Cobham had considered the writing to be clearly on the wall. Absorbing his share of assets and debts, it was with misgivings that he resigned from the company in May. Such, however, are the twists of fate, for Cobham’s action soon led to an illustrious pioneering career, and Berkshire Aviation also managed to survive its financial predicament, staying in business until it was taken over by Northern Air Transport Ltd in 1929. Based in Manchester, and billed as the ‘Great Air Pageant’, its team of aerial performers included several who would, in the Thirties, form part of the future Sir Alan Cobham’s National Aviation Day Displays. Much was to take place before then, however, and following his departure from Berkshire Aviation, Cobham first tried his hand with an engineering firm in Birmingham that quickly went broke. He then joined a film studio at Shepperton, where the complete lack of organization caused him such frustration that he soon reverted to doing what he had always excelled at, selling ladies’ clothing in the ‘rag trade’. It was at this time that he learned another of life’s lessons. Having entered into conversation with a stranger whilst on a train journey, he poured out his hard luck story and his concern for the future. To his great surprise, the recipient, an artist, responded with great enthusiasm, saying, ‘What enormous great luck … How fortunate you are’. Perplexed, Cobham naturally asked him how he arrived at such a conclusion. The stranger then explained how, being a young man of 26, he stood a much better chance of overcoming adversity and misfortune, and had time on his side for recovery, than at a later stage in life when such circumstances might prove a crushing and irreversible blow. This philosophical gem was reinforced by his fiancée Gladys, who prophesized that within a couple of years he would be fully occupied in his true vocation. His belief that the aeroplane contained the promise of a golden future for air travel never wavered, but the success of Count Zeppelin’s airships in repeated flights across the Atlantic was at this time gaining much commercial support for lighter-than-air transport. Notwithstanding this, and despite his setbacks, Cobham was now well and truly bitten by the aviation bug and renewed his efforts to get back into the infant industry. Although he hadn’t had a steady relationship with a girl before declaring his love for Miss Lloyd, he had for several years been on

32

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 32

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

‘friendly terms’ with a lady, Kinsie MacNichol, who, being ten years older, provided tea and sympathy, sometimes acting as a confidant and worldly adviser. It was in this capacity that she told Cobham of the requirement for a pilot at the Aircraft Manufacturing Company (Airco), where she worked as an accountant. Founded in 1912 by entrepreneur George Holt Thomas to build French-designed Farman biplanes, Airco went on to construct thousands of machines throughout the First World War. Following the post-war contract cancellations, the company gave attention to aerial commercial photography and it was Cobham’s good fortune that, with the firm’s previous pilot recently sacked for manipulation of personal expenses, his application was accepted. As with Mr Grose influencing his transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, so had Kinsie MacNichol’s timely recommendation to her colleagues at Airco secured a prime opening for Cobham. Both instances were, he declared, adequate proof of the old adage ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know that counts’. He might have added that being in the right place at the right time and having unbounded self-confidence also helps. The Airco Aerial Photography Department required him to fly a DH.9 on a steady course, allowing MacLennan, a photographer as new to the work as Cobham was, standing up in the rear cockpit, to take vertical overlapping pictures. These were later used to make survey maps. It was thus possible to cover large areas of the country that would normally have taken considerably more time using conventional ground-surveying methods. More often it was oblique photography that was required, wherein pictures were taken of public buildings, castles, cathedrals, large country houses and estates or industrial sites. The latter could often pose problems when, behind an imposing frontage if seen at ground level, other buildings, usually out of sight, were frequently unattractive and detracted from the desired impression. Careful positioning of the aircraft was therefore necessary to achieve the most favourable effect. In those pre-Google land-mapping days, this type of commercial photography was just getting underway, and apart from the uses mentioned above, it also provided, albeit unintentionally, an aid to crime detection. In one case, a series of robberies from a factory had baffled local police, but aerial pictures of the site revealed a footpath running through long grass, undetectable on the ground, that led from a factory boundary wall to the back window of a building. Now aware of the point of entry, the police had only to wait for the next break-in. This took place three nights later, whereupon the burglar was quickly apprehended. On another occasion, photographs taken for an entirely different reason showed the Borough Surveyor of Wolverhampton the extent to which unauthorized outbuildings,

33

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 33

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

extensions, garages and the like had been erected. He immediately called for a full-scale aerial exercise covering the city to be put in place. Had the population been aware of the source of the information put into the City Council’s hands, it is likely that Cobham and his partner would have encountered some retaliatory rough justice. In some respects, the job demanded strong stamina and a willingness to keep on the move, similar to that required with Berkshire Aviation. Although individual sorties were carried out, it was more usual to plan a mini-tour taking in a number of assignments over a several-day period. This naturally required a close working relationship, and a technique was developed which, using a home-made sighting device, permitted the pilot to accurately position the aircraft. MacLennan also had to place strong faith in his companion, for forced landings were still a fairly common occurrence and, apart from the obvious risk to life and limb, there was the need to safeguard the expensive cameras carried in the aircraft. After each day’s filming, it was necessary to find a suitable field in which to land, along with its owner, secure the aircraft to the ground with pickets and place covers over the cockpits and engine. Then, often wet and cold and carrying the minimum personal kit for an overnight stay, along with the camera and exposed plates, the next task was to find a cheap lodging. Prices varied, but MacLennan, who from some previous employment, had gained an encyclopaedic knowledge of such establishments, usually managed to get booked in somewhere for under five shillings, breakfast included. The main aim each evening, however, was to get to the nearest railway station and despatch the photographic plates by passenger train to London, yet still leave time for the daily servicing of the aircraft and engine. The system worked so well that the company’s flying costs tumbled from £12 per hour to £4, and by exercising strict economy where personal expenses were concerned, the operation was deemed to be highly successful. Cobham, very mindful that his own employment had only resulted from the extravagant expenses incurred by his predecessor, insisted on using buses and trams, and never resorted to taxis. Though the photographic work was showing a healthy profit, Airco was sinking further into financial trouble, and was facing liquidation by the end of 1920. Paradoxically, because the photographic work was bringing in good money, the department was asked, at least for the time being, to continue working. However, it was not long before the few people who formed the team came up with the idea of creating their own company, with Cobham as pilot and General Manager. He was not enamoured of this idea, much preferring to be taken over as a going concern by a

34

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 34

8/31/2018 10:08:39 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

bigger firm that was likely to survive the crisis created by th cancellation of wartime contracts. Accordingly, he approached General Caddell, the managing director of Vickers at Weybridge, who, impressed by the proposal, asked for a detailed business plan. The following day, Cobham began to inform his colleagues enthusiastically on the progress made the previous day, only to be cut short and told that it was too late as the department had been sold by Airco to a firm called Aerofilms and everyone was under notice. The selling of the parent company, Airco, to the Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA), though naturally having a severe effect on many of its workforce, provided the motivation for Geoffrey de Havilland to register his own company on 25 September 1920. He had joined Airco in June 1914 as chief designer, later producing wartime machines ranging from the DH.1 to the DH.9A. Confident of his own abilities, he now enlisted his brother-in-law, F.T. Hearle, as works manager, with W.E. Nixon as company secretary and accountant, F.E.N. St Barbe in charge of sales and business affairs and Charles Walker, a graduate physicist, looking after the detailed technical work. Though hard-hit by recent losses, George Holt Thomas promised £10,000 to back their efforts, thus assisting the de Havilland Aircraft Company to lease a field from two ex-RFC pilots, Warren and Smiles, at Stag Lane in Edgware. When the year’s lease expired, the owners issued an ultimatum that de Havilland would either have to move elsewhere or purchase the site outright, which it did for £20,000. De Havilland’s intention to concentrate on civil designs was a bold move, considering that a market for such aircraft barely existed at the time, but a steady supply of small orders kept the firm ticking over. Taking on more high-quality design staff, and the timely arrival of Alan Butler – who injected much-needed capital into the firm – also helped de Havilland to expand. By the end of 1921, the organization also included an aerial garage and, most importantly as far as Alan Cobham was concerned, the de Havilland Aeroplane Hire Service. Geoffrey de Havilland, aware of Cobham’s previous flying experience, invited him to become its chief pilot and general manager, whereupon he ferried the Armstrong Siddeley Puma-engined DH.9s used by Airco from Hendon to nearby Stag Lane to form the nucleus of the new off-shoot service. In truth, the employment of Cobham had been the subject of some intensive bargaining. De Havilland had agreed to service the aircraft, leaving the pilot to do the flying and photography for customers such as Aerofilms, at a flat rate of £4 per hour, from which he had to meet all his own expenses regarding fuel, oil, lodging and insurance etc. He found out later that, unknown to him at the time, Aerofilms had only agreed to place its work with de Havilland if Alan

35

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 35

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Cobham was the pilot. Had Cobham known this, he would certainly have stuck to his original demand for £5 per hour, but the deal had been struck. He was now teamed up with an Aerofilms photographer named Russell, and as both were familiar with the work, planning each day’s programme became a relatively straightforward business. Cobham’s skill in cost-paring came into play in linking perhaps thirty or forty sites to be visited within a single flight, and using low engine power to conserve petrol. This often meant getting dangerously close to stalling speed, whilst trying at the same time to manage maps of varying scale in a draughty cockpit. It was not a job for the faint-hearted. The familiar post-landing routine previously used at Airco was a demanding and, at times, hard way to make a living, but the alternative of not making a living always provided the incentive needed to soldier on. Of one thing Cobham was certain: despite not knowing the amounts charged by de Havilland to Aerofilms and other companies, the parent organization ended up making a very healthy profit. Cobham, however, had little reason to complain, for he was now said to be being paid more than Geoffrey de Havilland. The tasks undertaken were not limited to photographic work, as witnessed when Aerofilms agreed to help the police control traffic jams on the roads leading to Epsom Downs on Derby Day in 1921. The intention was to take up the local chief of police, who would relay instructions to the ground by radio. The flight, however, involved a good deal of sudden twists and turns, which rendered the unfortunate officer incapable of performing the task, and it was left to Russell, the photographer, to do the job, whilst taking pictures at the same time. King George V later summoned the officer to congratulate him for having done such a splendid job: no-one revealed the true story. Not everyone who flew in the rear cockpit was as efficient as Russell, who proved to be an unfortunate loss when he eventually left Aerofilms to join one of the largest firms that carried out similar work in the United States. Cobham’s staff increased when Hubert Broad arrived on 7 October 1921 in his own Sopwith Camel, G-EAWN, joined later by Wally Hope, Charles Barnard, F.J Ortweiler, R.J. Keyes and Bill Hatchett. His fleet of aircraft consisted of nine machines, which were progressively modified into DH.9B and 9C four-seaters; these were eventually supplemented by two DH.16s, G-EALM and ’PT, originally owned by the short-lived Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd in 1919‑20. Cobham and Bill Hatchett had taken on the delivery of late-edition newspapers to certain eastern and southern areas. Hatchett’s ‘paper round’ meant landing at Whitstable, Margate and Dover, but Cobham, aided by an assistant, opted to remain airborne and drop bundles at prearranged

36

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 36

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

points in Southend, Clacton, Lowestoft, Yarmouth and Norwich. At least that was the intention, but on the first outing the young man in the back tossed out the bundle at Southend along with all the others intended for the remaining towns. The London Star newspaper, which was sponsoring this advertising venture, was understandably not amused. When taken to task by Cobham, the assistant in question was at a total loss to explain his strange behaviour, which fortunately had not resulted in serious injury or damage. On occasions, aerial taxi-work provided a new challenge. This was well illustrated when an American on holiday in London, learning that his father was seriously ill, raced down to Southampton only to find that he was too late as his ship had just left, en route to Cherbourg to pick up more passengers before crossing the Atlantic. Cobham was hastily contacted to see if he could fly this passenger to France in time for him to board the liner. Agreeing to do so meant leaving Stag Lane, and, in order to comply with Customs Regulations, landing at Lympne and Boulogne. After flying through driving rain, it was with relief that he finally alighted on the racecourse at Cherbourg, leaving the American to be reunited with his ship just minutes before it was due to leave. Quite a feat in the circumstances. A few days after this, Cobham was asked to help a seaman in distress, though in a manner that called for career-saving rather than life-saving skills. The captain of a ship, berthed in Antwerp, had taken an unauthorized opportunity to visit his sick wife in London, only to receive the news on arrival that he was required to return to sea earlier than planned. Not wishing to have his absence discovered, he had tried, unsuccessfully, to catch the last boat-train. A porter, it seems, had then facetiously suggested that the only way he would reach Antwerp that night would be to fly there. A telephone call to Cobham saved the day, an emergency dash across the Channel ensuring that by half-past-six that evening, the deeply grateful captain was back in command, with his employers none the wiser. By this time, Cobham’s long-held convictions about the future of aviation were becoming firmly established. The British newspapers were now always keen to include current photographic coverage of domestic and foreign events, and he fuelled their expectations by undertaking to fly to any destination at any time to beat whatever competition was in the offing. With the best pilots of the day now entering the field, there was much personal rivalry in delivering photographic or cine film coverage to papers such as The Times, Daily Mail or Daily Sketch. In 1921, the ceremonial opening of Parliament in Belfast by the king provided a classic example of the pilots’ race to be first past the post. By leaving Stag

37

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 37

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Lane long before daybreak, Cobham was able to deliver special editions of The Times for the people of Belfast to read on the actual day, instead of twenty-four hours later, before returning home with photographs of the ceremony for the next day’s English editions. Bill Hatchett accompanied him in another aircraft so that Pathé film could be shown in cinemas the same evening. Two well-known competitors, Captain F.L. Barnard and Captain Hearne, were aiming to supply the Daily Mail and Daily Sketch with similar material. Reputations were clearly at stake. A setback occurred when Hatchett’s machine ran out of fuel near Towcester, forcing him to land in a field, with Cobham alongside to take over the Pathé film. It was immediately obvious that the ploughed soft soil would prevent a take-off, so Cobham had to track down the farmer for permission to remove two gate posts and summon the help of some farm labourers to move his aircraft into the next field. He was not best pleased to have the added mortification of seeing Barnard pass overhead in his very fast DH.4A, but The Times still got its scoop ahead of the Daily Mail. Cobham had done his homework well, for landing at Cricklewood, unlike Barnard who chose Croydon – which was much further away from Fleet Street – gave him a distinct advantage when it came to threading his way across London. He had pulled a similar fast one in Ireland, saving valuable time by landing in a small field at Balmoral, much closer to Belfast than the aerodrome at Aldergrove 18 miles away that was used by the rival pilots. Cobham had by now gained a wide experience of the English countryside and the relative positions of towns and cities. He claimed, with justification, that he could find most places by dead reckoning, and was able, despite the lack of an artificial horizon indicator, to fly safely in cloud and bad weather conditions. He proved this when, on one occasion with R.E. Bishop (later de Havilland’s chief designer) as passenger, he flew north to Leeds to cover a Test Match. From north London onwards, the ground was obscured by thick fog which blotted out any familiar landmarks. To Bishop’s great surprise, Cobham unerringly arrived over a Leeds that was bathed in sunshine and, showing little concern, modestly remarked that when properly rigged and trimmed, the DH.9 practically flew itself. Captain de Havilland would also take employees for flights, convinced that gaining air experience would enable them to do a better job. On one occasion, he offered the chance to fly to his chief draughtsman, Mr Cross, who admitted to being very nervous at the prospect. Notwithstanding this, he realized that a refusal would hardly invite the boss’s respect. After a spell of sightseeing, De Havilland pointed downwards and

38

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 38

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

shouted, ‘That’s Edgware Church’, whereupon his employee, by then feeling the strain, very agitatedly replied, ‘Bugger Edgware Church – keep your eyes ahead and look where you’re going!’ In the spring of 1921, de Havilland’s business manager, Francis St Barbe, received a telephone call from a young man called Alan Butler. Whilst recovering from an appendicitis operation, Butler, obviously a very wealthy man, decided that it would be a good idea to own an aeroplane designed and built to his own specification. With nothing on the market that he considered suitable, and having had good reports about the promising little firm at Stag Lane, he thought St Barbe might be interested. It further transpired that he had already learned to fly with the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s school at Filton, but had come away feeling that he had been subjected to many more hours of expensive dual instruction than had been necessary. It seems that one day, frustrated at the lack of progress, he had marched into the Bristol managing director’s office and, leaving no room for reply, told him in no uncertain manner what he thought of the ‘bloody firm’, before slamming the door and vowing never to visit Filton again. Butler had gone on to explain that he was well-accustomed to being squeezed for every penny that people thought they could get away with, and looked forward to dealing with a company that had business integrity. What he wanted was a two-seat dual-control biplane with a Rolls-Royce Falcon engine to replace the ageing Bristol Type 29 Tourer he had acquired in 1920. The reaction at de Havilland was that pursuing the enquiry was a waste of time, for at an estimated cost of £3,000, the whole thing would be far too expensive. When St Barbe relayed this to Butler, it made little impact and he seemed to regard the price to be of little consequence. His main concern was that of getting a comfortable machine for touring, with a long-range and plenty of room for luggage. Despite further warnings of the likely cost, Butler was determined to go ahead and insisted on visiting Stag Lane to meet the team. After amicable discussions with Geoffrey de Havilland, he added, almost as an afterthought, ‘You don’t want any extra capital do you? I’ve been thinking about making an investment in an aircraft company.’ When he further mentioned his willingness to put £50,000 at the firm’s disposal, there was a stunned silence until de Havilland replied that it wasn’t really necessary to impart quite that much. Company Sscretary Nixon then suggested that a figure of £7,500 would be greatly appreciated, and that if £5,000 of it could be made available immediately it would be very useful. Butler, as good as his word, wrote out a cheque for £5,000 on the spot, thus providing the company with a welcome financial lifeline. The aeroplane eventually

39

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 39

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

supplied to him was the DH.37 which, first test-flown in June 1922, he named Sylvia after his sister. The varied nature of the work Cobham was now carrying out often had to be done at very short notice. Though agreeable, it frequently led to a fragmented social life, with arrangements all too often having to be cancelled or rescheduled. He recounted the occasion in the summer of 1921 when Gladys, being a good friend of one of the directors of the Metropole Hotel in London’s Northumberland Avenue, was invited to attend its grand post-war reopening. Cobham, now recognized as her intended husband, was also on the guest list for what was clearly to be a ‘white tie and tails’ social event, with the Prince of Wales as guest of honour. The fun was scheduled to start at 9.00 pm. Cobham started the day by leaving home at 5.30 am to inform two other pilots of their duties, then, having returned, he determined to keep the day simple and anticipate the evening’s promised pleasures. Complications arose, however, when at 2.30 pm he was told that a couple of Dutch businessmen had to be flown to Amsterdam and that he was the only pilot available. Applying a combination of mad dash and caution, he got them there by 5.30 pm, but his thoughts of a leisurely flight back were interrupted when a senior officer of the Dutch airline K.L.M. asked him to deliver two churns of milk to Rotterdam during his return. Having a good relationship with the airline, he could hardly refuse, so after explaining his need for minimum delay, his arrival in Rotterdam was urgently attended to and the green flag waved, clearing his departure for Croydon, where he landed at just after 8.00 pm. After rushing through Customs, he was fortunate to get a lift to his flat in Central London, where, after tearing off his clothes and washing like a madman, he donned his ‘boiled shirt’ and, having cooled down in the taxi, entered the Metropole just fifteen minutes late. Gladys, it seems, was not amused, and later confessed to having deep misgivings as to whether this was a man whose energy she could cope with. In his autobiography, A Time To Fly, Cobham commented, when describing this event, that the American composer George Gershwin conducted the band whilst playing his new composition, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. This, however, must be subject to question, as the very first public performance of this work did not take place until 12 February 1924, when bandleader Paul Whiteman accompanied Gershwin at the Aeolian Hall in New York City. (But one mustn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story!) The varied pattern of engagements continued to provide welcome cash for de Havilland. Piloting the famous jockey Steve Donoghue to take part in races at Deauville led to Cobham becoming the guest of wealthy

40

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 40

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

financier Jeff D. Cohen and experiencing a taste of life at the very top of the social tree. Then there was the instance of an American who wanted to be flown to Paris and, not knowing the city, insisted that Cobham help him trawl the American bars in a search for his missing girlfriend. Returning to their hotel rather the worse for wear, they found she had been there all the time. Interesting though the Paris venture had been, Cobham felt more empathy with another foreign excursion that cropped up soon afterwards. In August 1921, Lucien Sharpe, a rich American who lived in Paris, was visiting London and saw a notice in a Piccadilly travel bureau window announcing ‘Hire an aeroplane to take you anywhere’. After returning to Paris, he arranged via a Mr Fox, the manager of the Air Express Company in the Rue Royale, for the Hire Service at Stag Lane to provide an aeroplane and aerial chauffeur to transport him to all the major capitals in Europe. Though delighted to receive the assignment, Cobham had firstly to obtain all the maps and visas necessary for such a journey, and also details of all the aerodromes in Europe, such as they existed, from the Air Ministry. This was a time-consuming task in itself before it was possible to meet up with Mr Sharpe in Paris. His immediate impression was one of concern, for this 40-ish, white-haired, rosy-cheeked man was of ample proportions, weighing, in his estimation, close to 300lb. Having already equipped himself with a leather flying suit, his appearance was described by Cobham as ‘spectacular’. Sharpe’s requirements were simple: good food, excellent wine and to revisit all the cities he had been privileged to see in his youth. The DH.9C chosen for the tour, G-EAYT, Atalanta, had a two-seat compartment behind the pilot which contained Fox, who wanted to see something of European air transport, and a single-seat cabin in front, and it was in this that Sharpe examined his multitude of maps and picked out points of interest as they crossed over eleven countries. Commencing at Brussels, what turned out to be a three-week tour included Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Rostock, Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna, Prague and Venice, before arriving in Brescia where they narrowly avoided a motoring disaster. After an evening meal hosted by some excitable Italian officers, it was decided that the party would travel to a cafe some distance away. Having piled into two fast cars, a hair-raising race then took place, with Sharpe in the first car and Cobham in the one behind. After some miles, Cobham noticed a strange white shape in the darkness ahead. Jamming on the brakes, the driver stopped with the end of a pine log protruding from a woodcutter’s cart, just inches from the windscreen. The driver of the first car had swerved violently to avoid the cart and catapulted Sharpe

41

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 41

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

into a ditch. Remarkably, he had survived and, showing great presence of mind, had taken off his jacket and trousers to expose an adequate area of whiteness to warn the oncoming car. It was then onward to Milan, Monte Carlo, Nice, Antibes, St Tropez and St Raphael, all of which, it seemed, were deserted, for though heavily populated by the English in winter, the Riviera was not considered the place to be in the uncomfortably hot summer months. The tour covered over 5,000 miles, and the price of £700 requested for de Havilland’s man and machine was regarded by Sharpe as very moderate. Cobham estimated that his hotel and car expenses probably added up to a similar figure. For many people, this staminasapping venture would have lasted a lifetime, but, as will be seen, it had merely whetted the big man’s appetite for aerial travel. In September 1921, the Hire Service was tasked to deliver three DH.9Cs to the Cia Espagnola del Trafico Aero in Spain, where they were to provide air-mail assistance between Seville and Larache in Spanish Morocco. On the first flight, bad weather caused a precautionary landing halfway between San Sebastian and Madrid. However, the relief on landing safely was soon overtaken by concern as curious villagers swarmed over the aircraft and, as Cobham described it, ‘played funny games with the propeller’. The timely appearance of the village priest, who issued a gentle command, was fortunately enough to ensure the crowd’s withdrawal to a safe distance. Thankful too for the priest’s offer to accommodate him overnight, Cobham gave him a fifty-franc note which the priest, upon changing it and realizing its value, protested was too much. Letters were exchanged, which alternated between Cobham’s insistence on giving and the priest’s resistance to taking the money, until he eventually gave in, at the same time assuring the benefactor that he would be remembered constantly in the villagers’ prayers. Delivery of the second machine by Cobham and Hatchett required a forced landing, but the third, flown by F.J. Ortweiler, arrived without mishap. With the company now ready for business, a grand inauguration ceremony with a magnificent champagne lunch was laid on for all the local dignitaries. What could possibly go wrong under the perfect blue skies? It didn’t take long to find out, for after a visiting bishop had blessed each aircraft, an over-zealous Spanish pilot, who had decided to give his girlfriend a flight, lost control of his aircraft after swinging the propeller. Unable to get back into the cockpit, the best he could do was to catch a wing-tip and limit the movement to a series of ever-increasing circles whilst the dignitaries ran for their lives. Finally evading his grasp, the machine surged forward, hit an obstruction and tipped onto its nose, breaking the propeller and stopping the engine, but not the captive passenger’s screaming. As the excitement subsided,

42

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 42

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

everyone gathered in the hangar, keen to do full justice to the sumptuous feast spread out before them. At this point, another local pilot decided to take off from directly in front of the hangar, thereby raising an enormous dust storm which quickly settled over the guests and food. Even the ready-filled champagne glasses appeared to contain gritty brown soup. It was not the most auspicious of opening occasions. Following this, in December 1921, Cobham was called upon by Sharpe for a second aerial venture, this time one that would allow him to study the Roman occupation of African coastal areas in Morocco, Libya and Algeria. Needless to say, this brought its share of problems and crises. Engine unreliability proved troublesome, and it was decided, after repeated stoppages, that Cobham would return to de Havilland for further investigations. What made the situation more inexplicable was the fact that on the journey to Stag Lane, the flight remained trouble-free. When the problem still failed to be reproduced, a decision was made to take a replacement aircraft, known to be in first-class condition. This machine behaved perfectly on the outward flight, but it also exhibited the same troublesome behaviour after its arrival in Spain, and it was deduced that the cause of the trouble was the use of low-grade fuel. His personal recollections of this North African tour suggest a continual succession of exotic experiences, centred on elaborate feasts served by beautiful veiled slave-girls who would later be ‘placed at their disposal’. Sharpe’s attitude to all this, in light of his general antipathy towards sport and women, appears to have been one of some disdain, but today’s more relaxed standards might well allow for a lack of similar constraint on Cobham’s part! The details of this tour are not fully recorded within these pages, but one or two escapades are worthy of mention. Sharpe’s determination to collect souvenirs, such as heavy iron antiquities, chinaware, swords, daggers and rock specimens, which he had somehow loaded into the aircraft, nearly caused a serious problem on take-off. It warranted a firm lecture by Cobham on the dangers of excessive weight where aeroplanes are concerned, and an insistence that the unauthorized load, bordering on 1,000lb, be sent on to the US by surface transport, before Sharpe began to ‘see the light’. The uncertainties presented by uneven landing and take-off surfaces, poor refuelling facilities and the interminable documentation requirements in locations totally unused to aircraft arrivals must have caused an immense drain on Cobham’s stamina and patience. After flying to Batna in Algeria, both men were nearly shot by Zouaves sent to guard the aircraft overnight. A gale had sprung up and Cobham decided that it would be wise to inspect the picketing of the aircraft,

43

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 43

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

but having forgotten the password, he found himself on the wrong end of several rifles. A French officer fortunately relieved the situation, but pointed out that he had been very lucky, for being peacetime, the guards would have normally been all too pleased to have something they could justifiably shoot at. It must have been difficult at times for Sharpe and Cobham, each having such different temperaments and requirements, to see eye-to-eye on their social engagements. Flying from Rabat to Fez in French Morocco, they had delivered a young Berber prince they had picked up on their travels. By way of gratitude, and as was the local custom, his father immediately ordered a grand Moorish feast for his guests-of-honour. Surprisingly, and against all Moorish rules, champagne was in plentiful supply, and with Cobham and Sharpe both dressed in silken robes for the occasion, each was presented with his own slave-girl who, ringed, bangled and exotically perfumed, washed their hands with rose-water between the many courses and ‘attended to their every need’. Cobham admitted that he was especially taken with the ravishingly beautiful girl attending Sharpe, and that as the evening wore on, their continual exchange of glances could only lead to one thing. Unfortunately, the blissful ending that Cobham had in mind was not to be. When the host declared that provision had been made for both men to stay overnight, with every personal wish provided for, Sharpe replied that they had already reserved hotel accommodation and that was where they intended to stay. Despite Cobham’s desperate appeal, Sharpe, a devout member of the Plymouth Brethren Sect, would not be moved. Had there been an airline flight to Paris then available, Cobham would surely have frog-marched Sharpe on to it. The journey continued uneventfully until the return flight from Tunis to mainland Europe. Cobham had been secretly concerned about the long sea-crossing in the single-engined aircraft and had packed every conceivable space with empty petrol cans to assist flotation, should they be forced to ditch. The main threat to safety turned out to be the severe turbulence encountered when, after crossing the Straits of Messina from Sicily, they approached the Italian coast. This proved to be so violent that a four-gallon oil container weighing 40lb resting on the baggage seat next to Cobham rose up and fell, as if on a trampoline, before finally breaking the seat. Cobham decided rightly that flying through the lightning-streaked blue-black clouds to reach Naples that evening would be extremely dangerous, so he landed on a beach where the inhabitants of a nearby village came to their assistance. A break in the weather later allowed him to continue, but after experiencing strong up-and-down draughts when

44

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 44

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

flying through the smoke of Mount Etna, they were relieved to arrive safely and spend several relaxing days before travelling on to Rome. Sharpe, indefatigable as ever, wanted to continue to Florence, which they did, and then to Venice, where their astonishing run of good luck finally ran out. Dense fog at ground level prevented any sight of land, and it was only Cobham’s dead reckoning that told him he must be close to the Italian Air Force base at the entrance to the Lido. However, after a fleeting sight of the hangars, and whilst banking to land, a wing-tip caught the water and brought the aircraft down into some 50ft of water. Sharpe, it seems, was undismayed, and complimented Cobham on what he described as a ‘magnificent achievement’. There was little time to dwell on the compliment, for it was necessary to transfer the contents of the cabins – maps, charts and luggage – onto the top wing before a boat turned up to transport it all ashore. The aircraft, now a danger to shipping, was hauled out of the water the following day, but was judged to be a complete writeoff and only the engine was salvaged. De Havilland, upon hearing of the mishap, wanted to send out a replacement aircraft, but Sharpe declined the offer and elected to travel back to Paris by train. Geoffrey de Havilland’s intention to concentrate on civil machines led to a succession of designs, the first of which, the DH.34 ten-seater airliner, powered by a single 450hp Napier Lion engine, was produced for Daimler Airways and Instone Airlines. The first flight of the prototype, G-EBBQ, took place on Sunday, 26 March 1922, thus according Alan Cobham the distinction of making his initial ‘first flight’. His briefing from Charles Walker was typically short and informal. The ‘unstick speed’ would, he forecast, be about 65mph, and the stalling speed would have to be determined by experiment. After 300 yards, and being lightly loaded, the aircraft ‘climbed like a rocket’, and following a twenty-minute familiarity flight, he landed and had a short chat with de Havilland, who then repeated the exercise. Following what could hardly be termed a comprehensive flight test programme, Cobham was asked to take up Daimler Airways’ general manager, George Woods Humphery, and a couple of his staff, who later expressed great satisfaction at the aircraft’s comfort and pleasant handling. Several more short excursions were then undertaken, effectively giving joy-rides in a prototype aircraft having no Certificate of Airworthiness, on the day it was first flown and after only two flights by the company’s qualified pilots. Although obviously keen to impress a customer, by so doing, de Havilland and Cobham had certainly put their personal and company’s reputations at high risk. Officialdom must surely have been made aware of this transgression of the rules, but as formal procedures were still evolving, perhaps a word

45

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 45

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

or two in high places had persuaded those in charge to ‘turn a blind eye’ on this occasion. On Derby Day, 31 May 1922, Cobham took part in a complex operation involving several Hire Service aircraft. The intention was for packages of film showing the race to be dropped that same evening at prearranged points near major cities across the country. All went well until, over Aberdeen, the assistant in the back seat failed to throw out the package with sufficient force to clear the tailplane. Cobham turned and, looking over his shoulder, noted the little parachute spinning and fluttering in the slipstream. Checking again a moment or two later, he noted that it had disappeared. He landed full of apprehension that it might have caused damage, or worse, injury, and did not look forward to confronting the wildly gesticulating figure standing up in the car racing towards him. His fears proved to be groundless, for he was bombarded with congratulations at having flown all the way to Aberdeen and dropped the film with such amazing accuracy right into the backyard of the cinema awaiting its delivery. He was asked how he had he done it? Cobham wished he knew! What he did know, however, and had realized for some time, was that pilots, with their varied personalities, brought different skills to the game. He knew, for example, that he himself was not a natural aerobatic performer and rarely, if ever, carried out such manoeuvres. Where he did excel was in being able to land successfully in difficult situations. This was a crucial skill that many otherwise capable colleagues always found hard to master. The reader may well be tempted to ask whether this specialized ability was really surprising in view of his large number of forced landings, or was his exceptional spatial co-ordination a gift bestowed at birth? In Cobham’s view, it all came down to working within one’s own personal limitations. He wisely added that the really clever bit was knowing early enough in life what they are. The de Havilland Aeroplane Hire Service found the pace of competition hotting up as other outfits got into their stride during 1921‑22. The need for an urgent transporting of films and photographs often provided stories which were as reportable as the news scoops themselves. At times, great secrecy was employed to steal a march on the opposition, such as that used by the Daily Mirror when sending Cobham to Belgrade with strict instructions to keep a low profile. The plan was to keep alongside the paper’s photographers covering the wedding of King Alexander of Yugoslavia to Princess Marie of Romania on 8 June1922, and when the job was done, to make a hasty return to England. To enable a quick getaway, he landed his DH.9B on a military parade ground close to the city, rather than at the aerodrome most frequently used, some 60 miles away. All

46

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 46

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

the subterfuge came to nought, however, when, upon entering the hotel dining-room along with the Grant brothers, then the best-known reporters on Fleet Street, he was instantly recognized and word was quickly passed around that Cobham had arrived for the Mirror. The other pressmen immediately started to arrange the hiring of their own aircraft but, by the time it arrived, the bird had flown. His foresight in landing just a couple of miles from the city, thus avoiding the long journey from Belgrade over extremely bad roads, had made all the difference. The final stage of the flight, from Strasbourg to London, contained a surprise element when the old enemy, dense fog, prevented him flying any further than Maubeuge in northern France. Landing in the dark, moonless conditions proved tricky and dangerous, but he got down with nothing worse than a burst tyre. Cobham’s unscheduled happenings always seemed to bring out hordes of local inhabitants, who, in many cases, had never seen an aeroplane before, and so it was in this case. Nevertheless, they provided sufficient combined lifting power for him to change the wheel. After a short sleep, he was off at dawn, map-reading his way westwards and, at one point, passing over the precise location of his battery’s horse-lines in 1916. The fog persisted for the rest of his return flight, and even caused him to divert from Croydon to Penshurst in Kent. The various delays resulted in a 9.00 am arrival at the Daily Mirror offices, seven hours later than planned, but still well in advance of his rivals. The story of Cobham’s adventures soon leaked out and the Mirror made sure that it made the headlines as an additional story. Cobham was now gathering fame, and in the French press he was referred to as ‘le roi des taxi-pilots’, a title he knew to be over-generous in light of the good luck he had enjoyed. June continued to be a very demanding month. Following the Serbian royal wedding, Cobham had the little matter of his own forthcoming marriage to attend to. Determined that his special day and honeymoon period would not be threatened by company commitments, he had carefully allocated his staff workloads to leave himself free for the event, but, true to form, things did not go quite as planned and he soon found himself back in the front line. On 20 June, the battlecruiser HMS Renown was due to arrive at Plymouth at the end of an eight-month cruise in the East with the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) on board. The press was highly desirous of getting pictures taken from the air showing his brother, the Duke of York, climbing the gang-plank to greet his return. Four aircraft were hired by different newspapers to carry out the task; although all the pilots worked for the de Havilland Hire Service, on this occasion they were in direct

47

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 47

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

competition, each having a loyalty to their particular paper. Cobham arrived at Stag Lane at 8.30 pm expecting a straightforward assignment, but the Daily Mirror asked him to stand by for a return flight to Plymouth after the special edition had been printed. Having slept fitfully in an armchair, he was in the air again at 2.30 am, but after touching down at 5.00 am was greatly annoyed to find that the driver of the pick-up car had overslept, thus losing a critical time advantage. His urgent necessity to get back to Stag Lane left him little choice but to leave the final delivery in the hands of the locals who had caused the problem. Somehow it all worked out. At this stage, there was still time for Cobham to gather his wits and make last-minute preparations for the big day, but events were again conspiring to upset his arrangements. The British media was calling for action reports on the unrest in Ireland and pictures of the riots that had now broken out in Dublin. Cobham detailed four pilots to represent the various papers and, though flying as a four-man formation across the Irish Sea for safety reasons, they were again honour-bound to work independently following their arrival. Satisfied that all was in order and that he could now look forward without concern to the marriage day, it came as a rude shock to receive a late telephone call from The Times also wanting material to be collected from Dublin as a matter of great urgency. Being the only pilot available left him with no alternative but to go, return and hope for the best. After returning to England, appalling weather conditions prevented his landing anywhere near London, but The Times had great influence and arranged for him to travel in a special single-coach train from Crewe to Euston, where he duly arrived at 3.30 am. By the time he had dictated his story, delivered the photographs and returned to his flat in Bloomsbury, he was desperately in need of some sleep. A newsboy, standing near the gate, and keen to show him the latest headlines proclaiming ‘Full pictures of Dublin Riots – Air pilot’s dramatic dash in the Times Special Edition’ received a curt, ‘No thanks, I know all about it’. Perhaps he did, but the rest of the country didn’t, and it hung on every word in the papers. His long-awaited marriage finally took place the next day, 30 June 1922, at St Giles’ Church in Holborn, followed by a reception at the Princes Restaurant in Piccadilly, then one of the best venues in London. It was there, during the ceaseless engulfment of Cobham and his bride, that a representative of The Times was finally able to present him with a suitably inscribed gold cigarette-case for his efforts in covering the Dublin riots. Whilst that appreciation no doubt gave him much pleasure, his arrival at Dover to find he had left his wallet and passport behind certainly did not. Mrs Cobham quelled the panic by assuming the rescue role her husband

48

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 48

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

had performed so often in the past for distressed passengers. She phoned an aunt and explained their predicament, whereupon the items were put on board a train and recovered the following morning. This careless act meant the slightly-less-than-happy couple having to spend their first night of married life in a dreary nearby hotel, the Lord Nelson, using the cigarette-case as security and attempting, not very successfully, to seek some humour in the situation. The next morning, on the first boat to Ostend, Cobham made another discomforting discovery. Having flown thousands of miles, often in violent weather conditions, he had never experienced air-sickness, but on crossing the Channel he was as miserably sea-sick as it was possible to be. The hotel they had chosen turned out to be a big disappointment, but whilst Cobham spent time discussing some details with a de Havilland agent, his resourceful bride made a tour of other establishments on the sea front and reserved a beautiful suite in Ostend’s best hotel. The return to a partly furnished flat above some shops on the Golders Green Road was, as Cobham described it, most depressing, with himself almost in tears at not being able to provide something better for his new wife. Refusing to share his melancholy mood, she said it was marvellous and could be greatly improved in no time at all. Within a couple of days, she licked things into shape and, to their surprise, they found that Major Jack Savage, who had worked alongside Cobham at British Aerial Transport and was now conducting sky-writing experiments at Hendon, lived just three doors away. With friends on the doorstep, so to speak, the newlyweds felt far less isolated in their new surroundings. Late in August, the Air Ministry hired the usual combination of pilot and aircraft to take the Director of Civil Aviation, Air Vice Marshal Sir Sefton Brancker, to the first French glider contests at Clermont-Ferrand. Brancker, it might be added, was a highly colourful character who had risen to the rank of major general by the end of the war. A man of immense energy, he had served in India, South Africa and Germany (he spoke fluent German) and was a firm believer in mixing a good deal of romantic pleasure with business. Blindness in one eye required him to wear a monocle, and on one occasion he honoured losing a wager in the officers’ mess by eating it. He also added lustre to his reputation when, in Calcutta, he rode an elephant through the streets at midnight. Before they set off, Brancker told Cobham that he wished to lunch with an old friend who happened to be the Commanding Officer of the RAF fighter station at Biggin Hill. Convivial though it turned out to be, no allowance had been made for such a long lunch-break, and the extended farewells did little to ease Cobham’s confidence that Brancker could be delivered in time for an

49

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 49

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

important dinner engagement later that evening. After landing at Lympne and St Inglevert to clear customs, and now running distinctly late, the discovery of a burst tyre just prior to take-off did little to improve both men’s tempers. Brancker’s emphatic and unkind remarks led Cobham to avoid normal taxiing and to take-off and subsequently land on one wheel. As with aviation in general at that time, the glider trials attracted a number of eccentric individuals, including a ‘flapping-wing’ expert who was still building his machine as it was carried to the top of a 1,000ft hill for launching. Speaking to no-one and continually tinkering away, he remained in isolation until everyone else had packed up and gone home. One youth had made a doubtful-looking contraption out of bamboo, string, glue and odd handkerchiefs, which, vaguely suggesting wings, he attached to himself. When it was found that he intended to hurl himself from the hillside, the authorities stepped in to prevent a potentially nasty accident. However, the young man was more determined than at first thought, and during a lull in the programme he achieved his end, leaping over the steepest part of the sloping hillside and, to everyone’s amazement, landing without injury. Cobham later remarked that if any one passenger could be regarded as a guarantor of bad luck for a pilot, it had to be Sir Sefton Brancker. Most aeroplanes on which he travelled failed to finish a journey without mishap, and the visit to France proved to be no exception. A cracked engine cylinder block occurred on take-off during the homeward journey, leaving Cobham with a problem and the French authorities having to supply another aircraft to fly Brancker to Paris. This machine also soon had to force-land, leaving him to travel by train to Paris. This farcical series of events continued, for having finally caught a daily service flight to London, engine trouble over the Channel meant that the aircraft had to be landed at Lympne, rather than Croydon. Should this be thought unusual, consider a previous attempt by Brancker to tour round Europe. The first aeroplane he boarded refused to start and the second experienced a broken engine crankshaft. Determined not to be outdone, he boarded a third at Cologne which had trouble before it reached Calais, and the fourth nearly ran out of fuel before it landed at Croydon. There was, however, more misadventure to come, as will be seen, when Cobham accompanied ‘Jonah’ Brancker on future flights. During the winter of 1922‑23, and in addition to other hired-aircraft adventures, Cobham gave thought to undertaking a round-the-world flight. Failure to obtain reliable sponsorship eventually put paid to this ambitious project, but supporters within de Havilland suggested that he again contact Lucien Sharpe, then still resident in Paris. Though unwilling

50

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 50

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

to underwrite a long-distance solo flight, Sharpe suggested they should combine forces to explore the Middle East countries. This wasn’t quite what Cobham originally had in mind, but de Havilland, seeing it as a ‘cash-cow’ order, was more than pleased at the offer. One major difference to the previous tours was the decision to take along an experienced ground engineer, Bill Woodhams, who, later in life, went on to become managing director of Sir W.G. Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft Ltd. Leaving Stag Lane on 23 February 1923, in a DH.9B, G-EAAC, Cobham flew to Paris, picked up Sharpe, then headed for what he intended to be a non-stop flight to Marseilles. All went well until, an hour away from their destination, Cobham had to land at Montelimar owing to an intermittent fuel supply. Their affluent passenger, totally unaware of the technical difficulties, made light of the situation by booking into an excellent hotel and, with his two companions, running up an enormous bill for a sumptuous dinner that evening. It had also become his habit to ask the waiters to steam the labels off the wine bottles, of which there were always a great many, and for Cobham to paste them into an album with pertinent comments added for future reference. It also didn’t take long for Sharpe to indulge his passion for collecting, for the next day, after leaving Cobham and Woodhams to sort out the fuel system problem, he ventured into town to purchase vast quantities of nougat, for which the area has always had a world-famous reputation. Following an uneventful flight to Brindisi, on the Gulf of Taranto, their arrival at one of the two aerodromes suggested by the Air Ministry caused real trouble. Despite it being the one recommended, Cobham found on landing that it was virtually a bog, the wheels digging in, causing the nose to pitch over and the propeller to break up. Soon surrounded by a horde of arm-waving Italian soldiers, it took the arrival of an officer to organize a ‘push party’ of some fifty men to extricate the machine and manhandle it to a hangar. The officer then expressed his wish that the incident would not be reported, as it would ‘threaten the honour of the aerodrome’. Though failing entirely to see that such an assurance would prevent other pilots from experiencing a similar problem, Cobham made a half-hearted promise to comply. Meanwhile, telegrams to de Havilland managed to get a replacement propeller sent over within three days. Having been told that they had landed on the wrong part of the aerodrome, the machine was pushed to another area of supposedly firmer ground, but which actually provided little improvement. The officer in charge then helpfully suggested that they would have to wait for two or three months for the aerodrome to dry out. Aghast at the thought, Cobham sought another course of action, and after pacing out a nearby field, thought it sufficiently

51

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 51

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

large enough for a ‘fingers crossed’ light-weight departure. To start with, however, the aircraft required further manoeuvring over slimy mud and water, this time for half a mile or so, over planks which, once the wheels had passed across, were moved back to the front of the aircraft and the procedure repeated. His estimation of the take-off distance proved correct, but it had required both Woodhams and Sharpe, with baggage, to transfer to Istres, a large military aerodrome not too far away. Can one possibly imagine the bureaucratic difficulties that would be encountered today in organizing such a transition? Once reunited, the trio flew on to Athens, with Sharpe in his individual cabin surrounded by a mass of information showing the political boundaries of ancient Greece and pointing out to Cobham sites of historical significance below via the speaking tube. The next major objective was the coast of Libya, but both Cobham and Woodhams had doubts about reaching it in one hop across the Mediterranean in the event of a strong headwind. Accordingly, Woodhams went ahead by boat to find and wire back details of a suitable landing area on the island of Crete. The British Consul and his wife, unused to aerial visitations, made quite a fuss of their arrival, and what was meant to be a simple refuelling stop ran into a three-day round of lavish social engagements. Forever aware of the risk of engine failure, Cobham had arranged with the naval authorities in Athens to send wireless messages to all ships to keep a lookout for his aircraft flying the 300 miles between Athens and Sollum in Egypt. This they did for three days, but owing to some confusion over the dates, failed to do so on the actual day of the crossing. In the event, the flight progressed smoothly, though not without constant anxiety on Cobham’s part. The rest of the tour, which extended to Cairo and the main centres of religious interest – Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Damascus and the Dead Sea – also included a flight up the Nile as far as the Aswan Dam before returning to Cairo to commence the homeward journey. Apart from minor snags, which Woodhams had little difficulty in resolving, both the aircraft and its Puma engine performed well during what turned out to be a 12,000-mile round trip. One event, however, very nearly brought about their downfall. Having travelled along the North African coast, carefully avoiding areas controlled by hostile Arabs by flying parallel to the shore, but well out to sea, Cobham headed for Constantine in Algeria. Flying conditions were not good, with a strong westerly headwind at 4,000ft reducing the aircraft’s groundspeed to some 45mph. Up-and-down draughts were later said by Cobham to be as bad as any he encountered in his entire career. Attempting to reduce the level of turbulence, he dropped to 1,000ft, but in so doing he entered increasingly

52

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 52

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

mountainous country. He soon found himself in a narrowing gorge and, though applying full power, unable to climb. Seeing an escarpment ahead, which he knew he couldn’t clear, he flew as close as possible to the righthand side of what had now become a three-sided canyon, and pulled the tightest vertical bank of his life to head back the way they had come. Woodhams reckoned that the wheels of the undercarriage ran along the opposite cliff face: a good story, no doubt, when told in true fisherman’s style with arms positioned accordingly. When reminiscing, Cobham and Woodhams always referred to it as the ‘Wall of Death’ manoeuvre. Left with no option but to take a long and circuitous route over rocky wastes, it was at least possible to avoid similar threats to survival until, at long last, Constantine came into view. Sharpe’s insatiable appetite for historical sites continued, with visits to Oran, Fez, Marrakesh and Casablanca before returning to Europe, where Cobham put down at Seville. After sampling Granada and finally Madrid, Sharpe decided to carry on for a further tour of Spain with a group of new-found friends; as the aircraft could not accommodate them all, Cobham and Woodhams returned to Stag Lane on 1 May. This had proved to be the longest aerial taxi tour on record at that time, and all the more remarkable for having had no forward support organization and overcoming language and bureaucratic difficulties in many countries. Cobham saw the achievement as a pioneering step forward that presaged the inevitable use of aircraft for worldwide travel. The Royal Aero Club, too, regarded his arduous flight as being the most meritorious of the year, announcing him the winner of the prestigious Britannia Trophy. He was to win this award on two more occasions, in 1924 and 1925, following pioneering long-distance flights to India and South Africa. On the day of his return, Cobham was told to hold himself in readiness for a special flight to Rome, where the King George V and Queen Mary were paying a royal visit. Thirty-six hours later, and much to the annoyance of his wife, he was on his way, amidst the now usual secrecy, to collect pictures for the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. Not surprisingly, in light of the pressures of his recent tour, he experienced continuous drowsiness, had great difficulty in concentrating whilst flying over the Alps and decided to stay overnight in Turin. Refreshed after a good night’s sleep, he flew on to Rome, and with mission accomplished, returned to London via Paris. Soon after this, the attempted assassination of the Bulgarian president, Stamboliyski, brought a call from the London office of an American newspaper for a hire aircraft, and again it fell to Cobham to bring the reporter’s pictures back. This, however, was a flight with a difference, as he took his wife along as a passenger. The usual mix of flat tyres, broken

53

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 53

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

undercarriage struts and engine valve springs etc, which he had long since learned to take in his stride, gave her a practical insight into the difficulties attached to long-distance flying at that time. Perhaps of more interest here, however, was his realization after climbing the tower of Strasbourg’s cathedral that he was subject to vertigo. All had gone well until, having reached the top of the winding staircase, the guide pointed out that extra height could be gained by climbing out of a window and continuing upwards around a circular dome, using the metal staples that projected a few inches from the dome’s surface for hand and footholds. Rejecting this offer to commit suicide, he was amazed to find that Gladys was willing to give it a go, but he firmly insisted that it simply wasn’t worth the risk. The sequel to this was that on each subsequent anniversary, the pair always contrived to climb a tower, mountain or hill of some description. Cobham’s Hire Service fleet had flown more than 1,500 charter hours by the end of 1923, but, largely due to the transmission of news and pictures by cable and radio starting to take hold, the demand for hired aircraft was lessening. All the DH.9 variants were then transferred to the de Havilland School of Flying, with the proviso that they could be returned for charter work if required. The Hire Service was then without any aircraft of its own until the first three DH.50s – G-EBFN, ’FO and ’FP – were delivered the following year. The King’s Cup Air Race had been established in 1922 by George V to inspire the development of the light aeroplane movement in Great Britain. Starting at Hendon on 8 September that year, the contestants flew north to Glasgow and, after an overnight stop, returned the following day, having covered a total distance of 810 miles. Of the twenty-one entrants, only eleven finished the course, one of whom was Alan Cobham flying a DH.9C, G-EBAW, entered by Geoffrey de Havilland, achieving a creditable third place. However, it seems he regarded the handicapping system as unfair and the ability of the handicappers themselves as open to question. He may have had good reason to feel aggrieved, as F.P.Raynham, flying a Martinsyde F.6, was placed second after having landed twice to obtain directions following navigational errors, whereas Cobham had never deviated from his planned route by more than a few yards. Cobham improved on his performance in 1923. His mount this time was a DH.9 entered by the vaudeville performer George Robey, who, for this event, had funded a replacement of the standard Puma engine with a more powerful Napier Lion. History, however, was about to repeat itself: still dogged by the shortcomings of the handicapping system, Cobham had to settle for second place when Frank Courtney was declared the winner,

54

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 54

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

despite, like Raynham the previous year, having had to land twice to find out where he was. Company prestige was a paramount consideration, and Harry Vane, Napier’s managing director, incandescent with rage, demanded that the race be re-run, but his plea was flatly refused. Cobham was to make future appearances in the King’s Cup, as we will see. Hubert Broad conducted the first flight of the DH.50 at Stag Lane on 30 July 1923. Designed as a replacement for the DH.9C operated by the Hire Service, it could carry four passengers and featured a host of technical improvements, but above all it possessed delightful handling qualities. Confidant that they had a winner, de Havilland despatched Cobham with the prototype, G-EBFN, to the International Aeronautical Exhibition about to take place in Sweden. Two competitions were to be held. The first involved a judgement of punctuality and required each pilot to forecast his time of departure and estimated arrival time. Due to the newness of the machine, for this was only its second flight, Cobham was unable to make a precise assessment of his arrival time and did not feature in the top rankings. In the second competition, however, flying between Gothenburg and Copenhagen over a several-day period, de Havilland’s man and machine proved to be a worthy combination, gathering 999 points out of a possible 1,000 to win the first prize of £800 and a gold cup for the maximum load carried, at the greatest speed, for the minimum fuel consumption in the greatest comfort. The single point lost was due to being ninety seconds late in starting one morning! His keenest competitor was an apparently charming but earnest young German named Hermann Goering, flying a Junkers J-10. This was a low-wing, single-engine, allmetal machine affectionately referred to as the ‘Tin Donkey’, which Cobham thought, nevertheless, to be well in advance of contemporary British designs. He had taken with him the company’s technical expert, C.C. Walker, who sensed that the judges were most impressed by the Junkers’ unique corrugated aluminium skin. He therefore developed a strongly argued case for the use of robust wooden structural members, such as in the DH.50’s construction. ‘No thin perishable materials are used in de Havilland machines,’ he proclaimed, thereby retrieving the structural high ground. Britain’s leading aviation industrialists, in most cases accompanied by their wives, travelled by sea to Gothenburg. The voyage provided an ideal opportunity for new introductions, and Gladys Cobham, seemingly unattached, was approached by a personable young man who, clearly hoping to make a favourable impression, paid her compliments and supplied her with drinks. Conversation duly turned to aviation, and she mentioned that she thought Geoffrey de Havilland was the best designer

55

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 55

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

that Britain had produced. Her companion tended to agree, but said that he couldn’t stand that Alan Cobham who worked for him, adding for good measure, ‘Cobham here, and Cobham there, I’m heartily sick of the sound of him.’ It wasn’t until disembarking the next day that they bumped into each other again, allowing him to present his business card, which revealed him to be Rex Pierson, Vickers’ chief designer. Gladys replied, no doubt relishing the moment, that she didn’t have a card but that her name was Mrs Cobham! Apparently Pierson, embarrassed at having made a social gaffe, avoided Cobham for a long time afterwards, but they eventually became good friends. The five-day ‘reliability and endurance’ test had certainly put the DH.50 through its paces, but with the flying starting at 7.30 am and ending at 7.00 pm, followed by a gala dinner and dancing until the early hours, Cobham’s own stamina was put to the test, yet he wasn’t found to be lacking. Following the successful revival of gliding just after the war, designers in England, France and Germany turned their thoughts to fitting their creations with small economical engines that would allow cross-country flights. Although frequently referred to as motor-gliders, this was a description that attracted much criticism. The purists rightly claimed that, by definition, the fitting of an engine elevated the glider into the light aeroplane category. However, even today, reference works vary in describing the competition events, sponsored by the Daily Mail and held at Lympne in early October 1923, as either motor-glider or light aeroplane contests. In parallel with the arrival of the DH.50, the company designed and built its first light aeroplane, the DH.53, for entry in the Lympne trials. Two were constructed and, at that time unregistered, christened Humming Bird – entered by Geoffrey de Havilland and flown by Hubert Broad – and Sylvia II – owned by Alan Butler and flown by Major Hemming. Unsurprisingly, the latter was more often referred to as the Hemming Bird. Fitted with 750cc Douglas motorcycle engines, it was optimistically hoped that the type would be in the vanguard of a drive to promote private light aircraft ownership throughout the country. In the event, the week of 8‑15 October produced typically disagreeable autumnal English weather which prevented most of the twenty-three entrants from demonstrating their capabilities. However, both de Havilland machines did well in the economy event, recording petrol consumption levels of 50‑60mpg. Further opportunities soon beckoned, for after acquiring new registrations – Humming Bird now officially becoming G-EBHX, and Sylvia II G-EBHZ – sales manager Francis St Barbe told Cobham that

56

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 56

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Berkshire and Beyond

he wanted him to take G-EBHX to the Brussels Aero and Automobile Exhibition, to see ‘if he could sell a few’. Accordingly, with Humming Bird now replaced by l’Oiseau Mouche on the side of the fuselage, and fitted with a more powerful 26hp Blackburne Tomtit twin cylinder engine, Cobham set off from Stag Lane on 8 December and, after stops at Croydon and Lympne, flew the 150 miles to the Belgian capital in just over four hours and at a fuel cost of 10 shillings (50p). He considered that virtually all the machines that were entered at the exhibition were a waste of time and effort, for the design features required to win any one of the height, speed or load-carrying competitions automatically precluded a machine being able to perform well in the other categories. The limitations of the DH.53 itself quickly came to light on the attempted flight back to England. Soon after take-off, Cobham noticed that the occupants of the cars waving to him seemed to remain the same. In other words, the westerly wind he was facing was reducing his actual speed over the ground to almost zero. He encountered less resistance after dropping from 1,000ft to 200ft and appeared to be making slight progress until, although in perfectly clear conditions, he became engulfed in what he first thought to be dense cloud. This thinned out fairly quickly and led to the discovery that he had been overtaken by a train and had no chance of making the French coast, let alone that of England. After landing in a snow-covered field, he cabled de Havilland for a colleague to travel over and help dismantle the aircraft for it to be transported by sea to Dover. In a subsequent discussion with Geoffrey de Havilland, he was asked for his general impressions of the aircraft. His reply amounted to, ‘Nice to fly but utterly useless.’ When asked to explain, he elaborated by saying that its slow speed would prevent it getting anywhere, it had no range to speak of and it was a single-seater, which no-one would want to fly in circles round an aerodrome. De Havilland then enquired what his idea of a light aircraft for the young sportsman should be. He answered by outlining a specification for a two-seat machine that had a range of 350 miles, plenty of room for baggage, a minimum cruising speed of 80mph and the ability to operate from small landing fields. All this resulted in the prototype DH.60 Moth, G-EBKT, powered by a 60hp Cirrus engine, being designed, built and flown for the first time by Geoffrey de Havilland on 22 February 1925. Soon after this, Cobham made the headlines once again when, on 29 May, he flew this machine from Croydon to Zurich and back in one day. This basic design was to become the parent of many variants that formed the mainstay of numerous flying clubs in Britain and throughout the world during the inter-war period.

57

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 57

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Despite Cobham’s general condemnation of the DH.53, it is of interest to note that a total of fifteen were built, including eight which were delivered to the RAF for communications and cheap practice flying, though with a permitted military load of just 7lb. Two of these were used in experiments with the R33 airship to determine the feasibility of fighters being launched and re-engaged from a special trapeze frame under the airship’s hull. On the second test flight, turbulence caused the aircraft’s propeller to foul a supporting wire at the moment of reattachment, causing severe vibration and a forced landing. One further flight achieved a successful release and re-engagement, but the trials were not continued.

58

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 58

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Chapter Four

New Horizons

T

he year 1924 proved to be an especially momentous one for British aviation and for Alan Cobham, who continued to build on his reputation by winning the King’s Cup Air Race on 12 August and then by flying to Africa in a day shortly afterwards. Entered in the Air Race by Lord Wakefield, and piloting DH.50, G-EBFN, he flew with other land plane entrants from Martlesham Heath, near Norwich. This was the first (and only) time the race had been opened up to include seaplanes, which took off from nearby Felixstowe. Richard Fairey had been instrumental in changing the traditional nature of the course for, as he had no suitable land plane available, he thought his company’s Fairey III D, N9777, seaplane could win in the hands of chief test pilot Norman MacMillan. In the event, the race, which ended at Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire, saw the Fairey machine disqualified when MacMillan forgot to fly over the pier, with Cobham declared the victor by the Royal Aero Club’s handicapping officials. The story goes that the result left Fairey in a towering rage and accusing the organizers of being a bunch of ‘incompetent bloody fools’. De Havilland’s Charles Walker didn’t improve his temper when he suggested, ‘Richard, dear Richard, stop making such a damn fool of yourself.’ As Cobham fairly pointed out, mention of Africa in those days conjured up scenes of dense jungle and hostile natives in most imaginations, so the flight was promoted as a risk-defying adventure to the ‘Dark Continent’, thousands of miles away. In truth, the objective was to reach Tangier, the nearest point in Africa, which posed none of the imagined threats, but would serve as a good publicity stunt for de Havilland and the Shell petroleum company, which was providing the fuel. The real problem was the limited September daylight, for with no night-flying aids, to fit a 1,250-mile trip into thirteen hours between dawn and dusk meant flying at 100mph when the DH.50’s top speed was only 5mph higher.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 59

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

The immediate post-war period had seen brave attempts by Handley Page Transport, Instone Air Lines, Daimler Airways and Air Transport and Travel to start up passenger-carrying operations to the Continent, mainly using converted HP.0/400 and Vickers Vimy bombers. Each company was highly reliant on a government subsidy which, allocated in 1921 for cross-Channel services, amounted in total to £600.000. Change was in the air, however: at the third Air Conference promoted by the Air Ministry in 1923, Sir Herbert Hambling of Parrs Bank pointed out that with the subsidy shortly due to run out, he hoped that consideration would be given to his plan for an Imperial air company. This led, in 1924, to the creation of an Imperial Air Transport company, whose first task was to acquire the non-profitable firms mentioned above, along with the British Marine Air Navigation Co Ltd owned by the Supermarine Aviation Works. This went some way to easing the government-backed airline competition provided by the French, but political funding in this country was still subject to much heated debate. The fledgling airline had first to overcome the thorny subject of its pilots’ pay grievances. Having absorbed the four smaller operations, it arrogantly assumed that it had an undisputed whip hand where terms of employment were concerned, which would allow it simply to cancel the contracts previously in place and impose those of its own that were far less attractive. The pilots were incensed and downed tools pending better conditions. To reinforce their stance, the British Federation of Civilian Air Pilots was formed, which soon had the backing of the Trades Union Congress and thus gained a hearing with the Socialist Secretary for Air, Lord Thomson. Thirty-three pilots became members, not all of whom were Imperial Airways employees, and one of these was Alan Cobham. The dispute caused much embittered feeling, and it is questionable whether the creation of the union helped or hindered the situation. Credit for resolving the problem was rightly given to Major Herbert George Brackley, who, within days of being appointed the airline’s air superintendent, worked out a welcome solution. The ‘aeroplane versus the airship’ argument was very much to the fore, as was the intention to increase the front-line strength of the Royal Air Force in the financial year 1924‑25. These considerations coincided with a worsening of the country’s economic situation, with over one-and-aquarter million unemployed, and the enormous war debt of £980 million to the USA sitting firmly on the nation’s shoulders. Forever the optimist, the monocled Sir Sefton Brancker, then a supporter of the airship as the way forward for air travel, stated his wish to visit India. One intention was to assess the feasibility of erecting a mooring site halfway along the intended route at Alexandria and another at the final arrival point,

60

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 60

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

New Horizons

with Dehli, Calcutta and Karachi being the likely contenders. Thoughts of eventually extending the service to Australia were also in his mind. Provisional dates for the establishment of airship services to both the Far East and, encouraged by the successful two-way crossing of the Atlantic by the R34 airship in 1919, to Canada and the USA were set for 1928‑29. Plans were then drawn up for the construction of two airships, the R100 to be built by the Vickers-owned Airship Guarantee Company at Howden in East Yorkshire, and the R101 at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington in Bedfordshire. The first obstacle to be overcome was the cost of the air vice marshal’s mission. It had been officially assumed that he would travel by sea, but when Cobham heard of this, he diplomatically suggested to him that it was inconceivable for a venture concerned with the future of air travel not to be conducted by air. He even proposed to Brancker’s superior, Lord Thomson, that the de Havilland Hire Service would provide an aircraft and pilot for £1,450. The Minister countered this by stating that P&O could provide a first-class service for £750, but agreed that this could contribute to the air fare if the outstanding amount could be raised from other sources. Cobham regarded this as a personal challenge and began immediately to approach every aviation firm for a donation or support in kind. With the target painstakingly achieved, he set about planning what would inevitably be a difficult flight, one that would require the accompaniment of a ground engineer. His first choice would have been Woodhams, his companion on the Lucien Sharpe flight around the Middle East, but he had left de Havilland to join the Armstrong Whitworth Company. It was therefore fortunate that a young Arthur Elliott, an ex-RAF Halton ‘Brat’ (a term respectfully applied to anyone who had received the college’s highest level of technical training), had already proved his worth at de Havilland. When approached by Cobham and told he was to fly to India, he coolly replied, without looking up from the work he was doing, ‘When do we start?’ As to be expected for a flight of this nature, the procurement of adequate maps from Stanfords, the official cartographic suppliers, and of airfield information, such as it existed, from the Air Ministry’s Gwydr House headquarters in Whitehall, required appreciable effort. At a late stage in the planning, Brancker indicated that he wanted to investigate the possibilities of operating a winter route to India running through Northern Europe, over Asia Minor to Persia (Iran), before continuing to Beluchistan and finally on to Karachi. Research into the customs and traditions of some of these countries suggested a safer, more accessible route lay via Italy, Greece, Alexandretta in modern-day Turkey, Baghdad and along the

61

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 61

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Persian Gulf. It was, however, Brancker’s choice of the Northern Europe route that won the day. Cobham’s determined approach to companies to make a financial contribution to Brancker’s flight had brought forward but a few willing to make subscriptions, but, as he acidly pointed out, the industry turned out in great numbers to see his departure from Stag Lane on 20 November 1924. The final swinging of G-EBFO’s compass caused an irritating delay, but this faded into total amazement when Brancker turned up late, accompanied by a Romanian general, to whom he had promised a lift to Paris! Already fully laden with equipment and spares, Cobham was not best pleased to be encumbered with more excess weight and baggage, but with his esteemed customer calling the shots, he set off for Paris, almost 1,000lb overweight, in dark and murky conditions. Weather conditions failed to improve, and after passing Poix and noticing two or three aircraft in a small field, one of which clearly belonging to Imperial Airways, he sensibly decided to cut short his flight to Le Bourget. By good fortune, a French Army staff car was passing through and able to transport Brancker and his companion into Paris, leaving Cobham and Elliott to converse with the other stranded aircrew. One of these was Captain Ray Hinchliffe of Imperial Airways and, as pilots do, they spent a convivial evening putting the aviation world to rights. Hinchliffe was already well known on the Continental air routes, not least for wearing a distinctive eye patch that, covering a wartime injury, necessitated him having to occupy the right-hand seat on the flight deck. Having clocked up some 9,000 hours flying as chief pilot for KLM and later Instone Airlines and Imperial, he had no shortage of tales to tell. He related to Cobham how on one occasion, when returning across the North Sea, he had spotted another KLM aircraft burning on the water. Flying at maximum speed to Manston on the Kent coast, he quickly arranged for the coastguards at Deal, Dover and Ramsgate to be alerted. It later transpired that a White Russian pilot named Smirnoff had experienced engine failure, but fortunately the low-tide conditions allowed him to land safely on the Goodwin Sands. He naturally thought that his predicament would have been noticed, but when no boat appeared and the tide began to turn, some of his five passengers were understandably starting to panic. It was then that Smirnoff had the bright idea of setting fire to the aircraft, and it was this that caught Hinchliffe’s attention. It was not a minute too soon, for when the rescue boat finally arrived, the passengers were knee-deep in water. Hinchliffe was later to lose his life when he and Lord Inchcape’s daughter, the Hon. Elsie Mackay, disappeared on an ill-fated attempt to cross the Atlantic on 13 March 1928.

62

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 62

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

New Horizons

After Brancker attended to business matters at the French Ministry of Aviation the following day, an overnight stay in Paris presented the opportunity to visit the Folies Bergère, which was certainly a novel experience for Elliott. Flying on to Cologne, Cobham recorded that he was uncertain whether his paying passenger had business or social matters to attend to during the evening, but no matter, for his disappearance gave him the opportunity to see Puccini’s La Boheme at the city’s Opera House. Sefton Brancker was an exceptionally well-connected man in post-war aviation circles, as shown when they arrived at Berlin’s Staaken airport, though it was Cobham who received the first recognition when workers applauded his successful night landing using only the light of illuminated railway signal posts for visual reference. Brancker was soon taken over by a welcoming party consisting of the German Air Minister, the Director of Civil Aviation, the managing director of Aero Lloyd (the forerunner of Lufthansa) and the British Ambassador and his wife. Invited to a private party at a magnificent house, Brancker and Cobham enjoyed a marvellous meal, but when it came time to leave, they were more than surprised to find they had to pass down a long corridor in which all the domestic staff – cooks, butlers, maids and so on – were lined up with hands outstretched waiting to be tipped. Neither man had experienced this unusual custom before; after fumbling unsuccessfully for some appropriate currency, they were rescued by the British Attaché, who diplomatically ‘arranged matters’. The German officials showed great interest in the DH.50, which enabled Cobham, in turn, to seek a more thorough examination of the Junkers all-metal corrugated-skin monoplane which had competed against him at Gothenburg. Though offering good strength and stiffness to weight advantages, it incurred a high drag penalty and this unique method of construction was never adopted by any other manufacturer. British embassies in all the major capitals along the route had been informed that Brancker’s mission (the first official flight of this magnitude) was to be given high profile treatment. In Warsaw, lavish receptions were held at the Franco- Romanian Company, Deutsche Aero Lloyd and the Polish military headquarters, where Cobham was puzzled when the meal ended with the serving of soup. The journey continued, but deteriorating weather forced an unscheduled stop at what fortunately proved to be an excellent new aerodrome at Lublin. With no pre-arranged reception committee, the aviators were quickly taken in hand by an assortment of Russian, Polish, Austrian and German officers, who all now formed part of the new polyglot Polish Army. A meal was served in bitingly cold conditions, the only warmth

63

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 63

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

available being afforded by immensely thick overcoats which barely allowed arm movements and copious amounts of raw spirits. Elliott, meanwhile, was sustained by a dear old lady who provided oceans of tea and several apples. Relieved to be departing the next morning, Cobham landed at Lemberg (now Lvov), beyond which, according to local reports, dense fog threatened further progress for hundreds of miles to the east. Brancker, who had business in Bucharest, elected to carry on by train, leaving his crew to service the aircraft and catch up with him as soon as conditions improved. Elliott, worried about the Puma’s ignition system, requested a cable be sent to de Havillands for two magnetos to be despatched on the Orient Express to Constantinople, thus underlining the constant concern regarding engine reliability. Eventually getting off on 1 December, heavy cloud over the Carpathian mountains, along with snow, forced a landing well short of Bucharest. On his approach, Cobham noted that the fields were cultivated in strips some 30ft wide and 500ft long, albeit sloping sideways. With no means of determining the wind direction, he decided to fire off a smoke flare. What he failed to do, however, was to warn Elliott beforehand, and the sudden explosion caused him to think that the engine had blown up. Cobham then managed to pull off a lopsided landing, fortunately without overstressing the undercarriage. After tramping, with minimum baggage, some 4 miles to a village in the fastfading light, they entered the local post office, to find themselves instantly recognized by the crush of people inside, for their intended flight to India had already made headlines in the national newspapers. The postmaster then ushered everyone out of the premises as, with international guests to take care of, he was now too busy to attend to them. Cobham’s explanation, in bad French, that he needed to contact Bucharest met with a frenzied putting in and pulling out of plugs on the telephone exchange board. Amid gesticulations, despairing hand wringing, bells ringing and feverish winding of handles, contact was finally made with Brancker at the British Embassy. It was then agreed that the aerodrome at Bucharest, although already under 5ft of snow, would have its main runway cleared for Cobham’s arrival. Before that, however, the matter of taking off from heavy waterlogged ground had to be overcome. It took exceptional piloting skill to do so on a strip 15 yards wide and with wings overlapping ploughed land on either side, before ’FO could claw its way into the air and head for Bucharest, 60 miles distant. Nevertheless, the ordeal was not yet over, for viewing the ‘prepared landing area’ revealed a virtual tunnel between banks of snow that gave a clearance of but 10ft either side of the wing-tips. Cobham’s

64

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 64

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

New Horizons

professionalism soon took over and having safely arrived, he was congratulated by Brancker on a magnificent effort. With business completed, take-off for Constantinople took place the following day, Cobham having to negotiate the snow tunnel yet again. However, within an hour the weather conditions had greatly improved and, following the shore of the Black Sea toward the Bosporus, they flew into the setting sun before landing at the aerodrome at San Stefano. Guided by British Embassy officials, it was a joy to see the sights of the city, but Elliott was more relieved to receive the two magnetos requested from de Havilland. Their arrival prompted Cobham to think that the reliability of air transportation, which he was so determined to promote, had a long way to go before it could match the transcontinental regularity of the railways. This conclusion was immediately reinforced when, due to leave, it was discovered that a water leak in ’FO’s engine cylinder block was causing a major cooling problem. That this should happen before leaving Constantinople was, nevertheless, fortunate, as a replacement could be delivered without necessitating further transportation into the hinterland. Brancker, meanwhile, travelled on to Ankara for meetings which left him with the impression that the Turks were essentially pro-British, but that the city was ‘infested with Continental agents’ likely to impede progress. The next stop was Konia in Anatolia, where the accommodation was said by Cobham to have been disastrous. It seems that an old Turkish posting house had been taken over by a French couple and converted into a hotel. While the front part, lived in by the proprietors, appeared acceptable, the rear section, used by the clientele, had received scant attention. As to be expected, Brancker was allocated the so-called ‘palatial suite’, while Cobham and Elliott were placed in less luxurious quarters. It wasn’t long before Cobham was convinced he had contracted a liver complaint, for large black spots had begun to appear before his eyes, and Elliott remarked that he too was having the same problem. After dismissing the possible effects of eating and drinking the local fare, a close examination of the walls, lit by two candles, showed the spots to be moving. The whole room was covered in lice and bugs, even the beds. Seeking Brancker’s inspection brought his laughing comment that this was due to the ancient Turkish camel-drivers who, leading as many as fifty camels and themselves riddled with bugs, used to stay at such places. Once a place was infected, it seems that it could never be properly cleansed. Understandingly, he agreed to share his room, but it meant his crew having to spend the night sleeping on the floor. To reach Alexandretta on the Mediterranean coast, it was necessary to cross the Taurus range of mountains. In doing so, Cobham experienced

65

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 65

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

a situation almost identical to that he had when flying into a narrow, steep-sided canyon with Lucien Sharpe and Bert Woodhams. On that occasion he had escaped by executing the tightest vertical bank he ever performed, but this time, flying through what could be likened to a three-sided box, topped off with dark heavy cloud, he simply had to carry on, following the never-ending twists and turns. This continued for an hour and a half before the ravine began to widen out, the mountains fell away and the town of Adana appeared through pouring rain in the distance. As the tour progressed, Brancker’s title gradually increased in prominence, and, much to Cobham’s amusement, had expanded to that of ‘His Excellency’ after landing in Alexandretta (then in Syria, but renamed Iskenderun when taken over by Turkey in 1939). Following their arrival in Baghdad, Brancker became engaged in discussions regarding Iraq’s willingness to participate in a British civil air route to India. The use of Baghdad’s Ramadi aerodrome was seen to be an important stepping-stone within the overall plan, and would relieve the RAF of its task of delivering mail from Cairo to Iraq. With no outstanding landmarks for guidance, the lumbering RAF biplanes followed a trench that had been ploughed across the entire width of the desert and was easily discernible from the air. It was intended that this primitive form of navigation would no longer be required when the proposed civil undertaking got underway. Christmas Day was spent at Basra, but after taking off for Bushire in Iran, firstly carburettor trouble required a return, and after a second attempt, excessive vibration brought yet another turn-about. This was due to a cracked spare propeller, so the original one had to be refitted and a request made for a replacement to be sent by sea to Karachi. At each of two stops between Basra and Bushire, as well as at Bushire itself, the DH.50 had to be manhandled by groups of helpers onto firmer ground for departure. This ritual had become a regular feature of any Cobham farewell. On 30 December, one month and ten days after leaving England, the trio touched down in Karachi. Elliott and Cobham were particularly pleased and relieved to be told that they could help themselves to a large store of DH.9 spares that had been sent over during the war, and which, fortuitously, included some brand new propellers. Brancker, restless as ever, set off for Bombay (modern Mumbai) by ship and on to Delhi by train, leaving the aircraft’s repair in Elliott’s hands, and Cobham with a mountain of correspondence that needed attending to. As at all the stopover locations, he was very much aware of the value of personal

66

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 66

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

New Horizons

publicity and took good care to send a cable reporting progress to Douglas Crawford, the Editor of the Daily Mail. The first stage of the flight to Delhi was a five-hour stint to Jodhpur, where the first sight to catch their eyes was the great rock fortress built on top of a 1,000ft escarpment by the Maharaja’s ancestors. The Maharaja’s palace was also captivating beyond belief, with polo grounds and a private aerodrome. There was no question of willing hands being required for the departure ritual on this occasion. When they met again with Brancker on 9 January, they found him feeling unwell, but nevertheless now wishing to get to Calcutta, where he was admitted to hospital with severe chest pains and serious coughing. It was at this point, with Brancker receiving treatment, that Cobham was requested by their military hosts to undertake a photographic mission over the Himalayan mountains. For this purpose, a temporary flying base had been arranged on the racecourse at Jalpaiguri some 20 miles away. Imagining this to be a quiet backwater, it came as a great surprise to him, and to Elliott, to find themselves surrounded by a vast number of natives who had never seen an aeroplane before. They were also concerned at the ferocity of the Gurkha troops who tried to keep the crowd in check by using heavy leather belts. After establishing some sort of order, elephants were brought in and, with a few quiet words and a gentle prod with a small stick by their mahouts, they formed a protective shield around the aircraft. The photographic mission was not a success. The photographer proved unable to cope with the cold and thin air at 16,000ft, and despite the careful positioning of the aircraft, virtually all the pictures taken were of no value. Brancker, by now having sufficiently recovered from what was said to be pleurisy and pneumonia, decided that he wanted to travel on to Rangoon in Burma to see an old friend. Acting on medical advice, he did this by boat, the journey coinciding with yet another delay whilst a cracked cylinder block was removed and a replacement sent from Karachi. Rangoon was the extreme point of their travels, and the homeward leg began on 8 February with a return trip to India. Their flight back to England was not without its anxious moments, the worst of which occurred when flying toward Paris. Snowstorms forced a return to Prague, and the following day another attempt ended in a forced landing on a steep snow-covered incline. Having ordered his passengers to sit on their luggage as far back in the cabin as possible, Cobham almost managed to take-off, but wallowing along at just above stalling speed, the aircraft refused to climb and soon sank back into 3ft of snow. The ensuing silence was broken when Brancker, having raised the lid of the cabin, adjusted his monocle and exclaimed, ‘Damn it Cobham, we shall never get off from here.’ His pilot,

67

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 67

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

equally irate, snapped back, ‘Bloody hell, I know that’, which, considering the constant stress he was under, seems remarkably restrained. Their predicament was resolved when local villagers, assisted by members of the German Air Force, dismantled the aircraft and transported it to Stuttgart for reassembly. The rest of the journey to Croydon presented no further difficulties, and they landed to an ecstatic welcome on 17 March 1925. Sir Charles Wakefield, who had provided significant sponsorship for the venture, later hosted a memorable dinner party at London’s Connaught Rooms to celebrate Sir Sefton Brancker’s successful mission and safe return. As Cobham wryly commented in his memoirs, ‘Elliott and myself were also invited!’ What had this four-month journey achieved? In the years immediately following the war, the government’s policy regarding aviation – both civil and military – was, to say the least, fragmented. This was hardly surprising, considering the state of the national coffers, the reduced need for service machines and men and the fragility of the limited number of air transportation companies vying for trade to the Continent. The first to start up in 1919, Air Transport and Travel, had already gone to the wall. The few remaining companies were asked what inducements would keep them committed to cross-Channel operations. Little of substance resulted, and it was generally agreed that there was no prospect of airline profitability for years to come whilst facing stiff subsidized competition from the French. Nevertheless, a compromise was reached in which three companies, each receiving appropriately scaled subsidies, were allocated separate routes, and a fourth was granted a service to the Channel Islands. Money, however, was still being lost and, with relatively few British travellers visiting the Continent by air, much debate raged as to whether the taxpayer was, in effect, funding the fares of well-heeled Americans and other foreigners. Where, it was asked, lay the benefit to the British public, and wouldn’t it make more sense to redirect money toward consolidating long-distance air links with the Commonwealth countries? Sir Sefton Brancker argued strongly for a ‘national company’ supported by the state that could provide an air-mail service throughout the Empire. He was, however, thinking of the scheme then being put forward by a certain Commander Burney (later Sir Dennistoun Burney), whose idea was to introduce a fleet of airships, which, he claimed, would reach India in four days. With a gross lift of 150 tons, and the weight of the vessel being in the order of 90 tons, this allowed for 60 tons of disposable load. After making further provision for ballast, crew, stores and so forth, it meant that perhaps as little as 10 tons might be available for passengers and freight. Although several airships had already been lost in dramatic circumstances by 1924,

68

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 68

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

New Horizons

and the commercial pay-off judged by some as unlikely to meet Burney’s optimistic expectations, his proposal was received with enthusiasm by an impressive list of influential political and commercial supporters. It was against this background that Brancker’s visit to India was planned. Further to finding suitable locations for airship mooring masts, it was also a mission requirement to establish the cost of purchasing land on which to build the masts. His primary purpose, however, was to establish if the countries to be overflown would be amenable to the setting up of a civil air route between Britain and its Empire outposts in the Near and Far East. Limitations likely to be imposed by disruptive weather conditions and the limited navigational aids then available were also key items that needed investigation. It had, therefore, been the government’s expectation that, if a service was deemed to be feasible, it would employ lighter-than-air vessels. The problem facing Brancker and Cobham was that, despite the mishaps they had encountered, both were convinced that if suitable funding could be put into airframe and engine development, it would be aircraft that would lead the way, not airships.

69

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 69

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 70

8/31/2018 10:08:40 PM

Chapter Five

Cape Town Calling

G

overnment funding remained elusive, but the pioneering spirit was far from quenched. Alan Cobham’s notes indicate that he was attracted to the thought of flying to and from the extreme point of Africa, i.e. Cape Town, even when returning from India. Forever the visionary opportunist, he saw the potential for an airline that would link major points along a north-south route and also allow feeder line services to branch out across the continent. The newly formed Imperial Airways, though fully engaged in establishing its European connections and those necessary to provide services to destinations east of Suez, was, nevertheless, still amenable to regarding the venture as an official survey flight. So far, the basic route-proving had been carried out by the Royal Air Force, but whilst the findings had obviously proved useful to Imperial, they were principally obtained for military purposes. These explorations had been carried out in Egypt and beyond at the war’s end by three separate teams, each consisting of six RAF officers and a number of other ranks, led by Majors Savory and MacLaren and Brigadier General Bourton. What they determined with certainty was that Cairo had to be the common dividing point for all flights to the east or south. Each party was allocated a specific zone: Cairo to Nimule in the northern sector, Nimule to Abercorn in the central sector and Abercorn to Cape Town in the southern area. The administrative and physical difficulties were formidable, but, by harnessing local labour, some 25,000 tons of spoil were removed by bare hands, often from giant ant-hills that, baked rockhard by the sun, were 25ft high and up to 45ft in diameter. With virtually nothing by way of mechanized machinery to assist the task, forty-three primitive landing sites were cleared within a year. Several attempts were made to win the Daily Mail’s offer of £10,000 for the first person(s) to reach the Cape, but all had failed until two South African Air Force officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre van Ryneveld and Flight Lieutenant Quintin Brand, claimed the prize on 20 March 1920. Their achievement was,

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 71

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

however, regarded by many as a qualified success, for due to crashes, they required two Vickers Vimys and a DH.9 to complete the forty-five day ordeal. Following this immediate post-war burst of service and record-setting activity, little effort had been put into establishing a civil aviation toe-hold in Africa. The scene was set, therefore, for Cobham to make a spectacular return flight that, given guaranteed media coverage, would provide enormous prestige both for himself and de Havilland. The timing of this was crucial, for Cobham had received advance warning that the press was already installing equipment that could receive pictures by wire, which would soon undermine its need for the de Havilland Hire Service. Further to this, Imperial Airways, though de Havilland’s biggest customer, had expressed displeasure at the supplier of its aircraft competing for passenger traffic. To offset these threats, the company decided to expand its own flying school activities and the production of Moths for the many other flying clubs springing up around the country, Arrangements for Cobham’s new venture began very shortly after his return from India. Again, much depended on gaining the support of industry which, influenced by the flight to and from Rangoon, was more willing to co-operate than before. De Havilland agreed to extend the loan of its DH.50, G-EBFO, which, to cope with Africa’s hot and high altitudes was to have its 240hp Puma engine replaced by a 385hp Jaguar loaned by Sir John Siddeley, thus becoming a DH.50J. Oil and petrol were promised by Castrol’s chairman, Sir Charles Wakefield, and British Petroleum, and nineteen other suppliers enabled six complete sets of spares and consumables to be positioned at Cairo, Khartoum, Kisumu, Abercorn, Johannesburg and Cape Town. The arrangement correspondence by sea was a tedious several-week affair that, at times, involved people who had no idea what an aeroplane even looked like. As a result, the setting up of the spares and supply bases proved a very complicated and drawn-out operation that sorely taxed Cobham’s patience. By now, he had become an old hand at preflight planning and a familiar face at the Air Ministry’s headquarters in Whitehall, where he invariably sought the advice of Freddie Tymms and Collins, his assistant, then in charge of the Map Department. It was at such a meeting that the ‘big idea’ was born when Collins suggested what a prestige booster it would be if, for example, a flying boat could take off, perhaps from the Short’s factory on the River Medway, and land on the Thames in front of the Houses of Parliament. This, he added, would allow a petition championing air travel to be delivered to a Government dragging its heels on civil aviation policy. Cobham’s first thoughts were

72

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 72

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Cape Town Calling

more concerned with the likelihood of being arrested, and that such a stunt might merit but a few column-inches of short-lived publicity in the press. Yet while Tymms was still busily engaged in searching for a particular map, his fertile brain expanded the concept into a flight that took off and landed as proposed, but via Australia! Brimming over with excitement at the prospect, the three men agreed to keep the idea highly secret until after the flight to and from South Africa. Each could foresee that, subject to that current project being successfully completed, the world’s media would clamour for exclusive coverage. Cobham later claimed that, from that moment, he became a fervent propagandist, dedicated to the establishment of safe air travel that would link the world’s populations. He also naively thought that such long-range air transportation would enhance world peace, whereas others, notably high-ranking military officers such as Lord Trenchard, were already more aware of its potential contribution to war situations. Determined to extract the maximum publicity from his imminent flight, which Cobham grandiosely referred to as the ‘Empire League Imperial Airways Survey’, he persuaded Colonel Bromhead, head of the Gaumont Film Company, to provide a cine photographer. Basil Emmott, taking along a selection of hand-held cameras, a heavy ungainly tripod and 25,000ft of film, then joined Cobham and Arthur Elliott as part of the team. All this bulky equipment, along with a wide selection of spares, rifles, cooking utensils and emergency food and water supplies, left little room in the central cabin for Cobham’s companions. Though well aware of his marital obligations, for the Indian venture had absorbed some five months of their life together, and not withstanding that their first-born son, Geoffrey, was delivered in July 1925, Cobham was determined that nothing would prevent his African venture. Fortunately, his wife was entirely supportive of his efforts to link the Empire countries. On 16 November 1925, a wet day with limited visibility entirely reminiscent of the one which saw the departure for India, G-EBFO lifted off from Stag Lane for Croydon, where Custom formalities were duly carried out. Weather forecasting was then very much a tentative business and the onward flights to Paris, Dijon and Pisa were, contrary to official predictions, shrouded in mist and exceedingly bumpy. More pleasant conditions attended the next leg along the length of Italy to the aerodrome at Grottagllie, near Taranto. Here, the welcoming party was accompanied by a waiter supporting a tray which contained the ingredients for every conceivable cocktail. A succession of Brandy Flips ensured their arrival was warmly received. At Athens, however, trouble reared its ever-present head. Engines at that time required a frequent overhaul, and it was

73

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 73

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

with great dismay that Elliott discovered metal particles in the Jaguar’s oil filter. Closer inspection of all the pistons showed them to be rapidly disintegrating and unsuitable for coping with low-grade fuel. Further flight was out of the question and Cobham was left to ponder how to get what was going to be a lengthy delay in cable form to England without adversely impacting on Armstrong Siddeley’s reputation. He decided to send a separate cable to Sir John Siddeley’s private address, requesting a new set of low-compression pistons and advice as to including a lubricating additive such as Benzole in the fuel. Although the cable arrived late on Saturday evening, Sir John called for several senior managers to attend a conference at 10.00 am the following day. This resulted in a special call being put out through pubs and cinemas for a working party to be formed immediately. In the meantime, the story was circulated in Athens that Cobham was staying with the Commandant of the Greek Naval Air Force and having unscheduled talks with certain members of the Greek government. By the following Tuesday night, a set of fourteen new pistons was on its way to Athens, accompanied by a bowler-hatted company representative. By Friday morning, the engine had been reassembled, the aircraft test flown and the government talks completed. It had been hoped that the subterfuge had been diplomatically concealed, but word had leaked out to the press, which resulted in the Evening News carrying the story that ‘As usual, Cobham was putting out a fake story to cover up engine problems’. This, it was thought, was the work of a reporter who, looking to make mischief, acted on the words of other pilots, envious of the constant publicity afforded to Cobham. Upon reading the newspaper article, Sir John rushed down to Fleet Street and confronted the paper’s owner, Lord Rothermere, who apologized profusely and promptly ordered the reporter’s dismissal; which, considering his story was essentially true, might be regarded as more than hard luck. The addition of the fuel lubricant Benzole proved the key ingredient to success. The problem now was how to make supplies available at all the projected ports of call down the length of Africa. Having arrived in Cairo, urgent discussions with the RAF at Heliopolis and a local shipping agent seemed to solve the difficult task of transportation from the various east coast ports to the proposed landing fields, but the question of getting it to the ports still remained. The shipping agent explained that if a ship’s captain could be persuaded to take several hundred gallons of Benzole, which fortunately was non-flammable, as deck cargo and unload it at ports that were not necessarily on his list, all would then be in order. Cobham’s famed good luck did not let him down, for the agent discovered that a vessel was due at Cairo within a few days and that its captain was

74

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 74

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Cape Town Calling

amenable, providing the necessary paperwork was in place. Shipping documents for each consignment that had to be dropped off, along with letters to each of the port agents instructing them how to proceed once it was unloaded, amounted to a sizeable task, but the Benzole was delivered, once on shore, either by rail or on the heads of local natives to the landing grounds. The weather conditions on departure from England had been wet and cold, but the arrival in Cairo provided sweltering temperatures in the cabin for Emmott and Elliott, who were still wearing thick winter clothing. The first attempts at capturing Egypt’s treasures on film consisted of placing the aircraft in what Cobham considered to be the most advantageous positions, then shouting instructions to commence filming. Unfortunately, these did not line up with either Emmott’s view or that of Elliott, also trying to take still pictures. This all caused intense frustration and, after seeing Emmott sitting back having given up, Cobham landed and a fullscale row broke out. It took until the following day for tempers to calm down, thus allowing their collective and somewhat cooler heads to work out a better technique. As is well known, the sloping sides of the Pyramids, which once were covered by a glistening limestone casing, are now exposed to form steps that are typically some 6ft in height. Cobham and Elliott managed to coerce two athletic young boys to race to the top and back down again, with £2 for the winner and £1 for the loser. This might still be considered a reasonable challenge today, though for somewhat higher payment, but Cobham also delivered an Imperial boot to the backside of ‘his man’ as a starting aid. From then on, things went according to plan and good film footage was recorded of the architectural antiquities at Karnak, Thebes, Luxor and on to Aswan, Wadi Halfa and Atbara, where Cobham enjoyed the luxury of landing on the largest natural aerodrome he had ever seen: hard, flat, natural desert that extended for miles in every direction. After spending a happy Christmas at Khartoum in the exceedingly pleasant surroundings of Government House, he had a strong pang of conscience upon learning later that, due to some misunderstanding, his wife had had quite the opposite experience, having been left with only six-monthold Geoffrey for company over the holiday period, in far from warm conditions. It was while flying the next stage to Malakal that Cobham began to consider the tremendous advantages of an air route through Sudan. The existing form of transport was by paddle steamer, which, travelling at 4 knots if lucky, took days, if not weeks, to cover distances that could be flown in just hours. His pioneering thoughts would not, however, be

75

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 75

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

realized until Imperial Airways commenced a service on 20 March 1931. Throughout his various journeys, Cobham’s often unexpected arrivals had invariably attracted hordes of eager folk, consumed with curiosity, and forever keen to touch his strange contraption. At Malakal, things proved very different, for the local Shilluk natives showed no interest in the machine, apparently considering it to be ‘just one of the things mad white men do’. However, what they had considered to be truly miraculous was the supply of water through a pipe with a tap on the end of it. Their wonderment was simply a matter of technical priorities. The stay at Malakal, while awaiting the delivery of Benzole, proved to be quite eventful. Cobham had the idea of filming the Shilluk natives performing a ritual guarding of the aeroplane and warding off an ‘attack’ by a neighbouring tribe. This met with great enthusiasm, but upon assembling the warriors, he had to get the message across that their dress code, normally non-existent, would require some modification for British cinema audiences. A colonial official did the necessary translation, and after great attention was given to fanciful hair styles and minimal loin coverings, Emmott was in his element, filming away as the performance gathered intensity. What did prove unnerving, however, was the grand climax as, with spears lowered, the ranks of beautifully proportioned men charged toward Cobham and Elliott standing alongside G-EBFO. Wondering how on earth they could stop the charge in time to prevent their imminent demise, it took the calm assurance of the Governor to prevent a fast-arising panic, but stop they did with a warlike roar, and spear tips just inches away from two very anxious faces. As is traditional in such matters, a bull was purchased as recompense for the display, and was joyously feasted upon that night. The next leg southwards to Mongalla required flying over the great Sud area, a vast featureless swamp in southern Sudan, one decidedly inhospitable to flyers. With few other distractions on hand, it proved great sport to drop down to 20ft or so and stampede a large herd of water buck, then circle round and chase them in the opposite direction, Emmott all the while turning the handle of his camera. After landing, it was decided that the aeroplane was getting travel stained and in need of a good wash. What better than to engage a bevy of Mongalla’s beauties to take on the task? Cobham reported that in the time and effort taken to instruct them as to what was required, it would have been far quicker, but less pleasurable, to have done the job themselves, but at least it provided more photographic opportunities for Emmott. It was immensely hot at Mongalla, the searing sun scorching the aircraft and making its surfaces unbearable to touch until sundown when

76

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 76

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Cape Town Calling

temperatures began to cool. What was surprising was that the machine seemed impervious to the extreme conditions, with its performance in no way affected, although with Mongalla being only 1,000ft above sea level, the real test of the engine was yet to start at their next location, Jinja in Uganda, a few miles north of the Equator and 4,000ft above the sea. This difference in altitude nearly caused an accident. Cobham’s arrival had brought thousands of gaily dressed natives from all over Uganda, who lined both sides of the landing strip. The excitement was too much for a number, who broke through the rope cordon and started dancing on the prepared area just as ’FO appeared over a banana grove, ready to touch down. Seeing this, Cobham decided to do what he had been accustomed to doing in European conditions and, aiming to land short, throttled back his engine. Momentarily forgetting that the thinner air conditions required a higher approach speed, his aircraft dropped like a stone from the last 10ft or so, and it was only the robustness of the undercarriage that enabled a dignified landing run, rather than a crumpled airframe with all the attendant complications of repair. The total lack of understanding regarding aviation matters throughout Africa provided a fund of stories which Cobham later used to good effect on his many lecture tours. One in particular concerned a lady who, having asked the usual round of questions, said that she had often wondered how aviators managed to sleep at night. Having explained that it was usually at a rest house or, if lucky, at a private residence, the good lady, looking rather bewildered, said, ‘Oh, so you do come down when it gets dark then?’ It was then onward to Kisumu on the Ugandan border with Kenya, where Cobham’s earlier thoughts of an airline connection between London and Nairobi began to re-emerge, although flying through Africa, he concluded, would always require having to take account of the rainy belt which moves from 1,000 miles north of the Equator to 1,000 miles south, depending on seasonal changes. The torrential rains would, naturally, cause soft ground conditions that would be hazardous for landing and prohibitive for take-off, but this was ‘just another challenge that had to be overcome’. The flight to Tabora in the heart of Tanganyika was over dense forest areas which extended for hundreds of miles in all directions, not a cheering sight should an engine failure occur. However, having successfully attracted good fortune in the air, once on the ground, ‘FO sank axle-deep in mud, where it required many hands to lift it out and on to firmer ground. The southern journey proceeded without serious incident, although anxious moments resulted when Cobham drifted into the mist

77

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 77

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

and spray over the Victoria Falls. Water vapour entered the carburettor, causing the engine to falter, pick- up, then falter again before regaining its usual steady note. Though he and Elliott were all too aware of the danger they were in, Emmott remained blissfully engaged in winding his camera handle and didn’t notice anything unusual. At Bulawayo, two attempts to take-off in the hot and high conditions nearly resulted in disaster. Accordingly, to lighten the load, Emmott, along with his heavy equipment, was sent on by train to Pretoria where, joined by his companions, they were officially welcomed by Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, the founding commander of the South African Air Force. Travelling on to Johannesburg, some 30 miles distant, escorted by a flight of South African Air Force DH.9s, Cobham landed to find himself in constant demand for civic appearances which amounted to five or six a day. Such was the interest in his progress that two secretaries were required to handle the vast amount of hero-worshipping fan mail. Similar demands greeted him at Kimberley, Bloemfontain, Beaufort West and Cape Town. When originally planning his trip, he had estimated twenty-one days to arrive at the Cape. It had, in fact, required ninety-four, the large disparity being mainly due to awaiting deliveries of Benzole at the various staging posts. Had he not exercised much self-imposed discipline regarding social activities, the time taken would, he averred, have been much greater, for as the following short extract from his private notes reveal, his strong disposition towards the opposite sex was frequently reciprocated: ‘Being entertained so lavishly by everyone, it was only natural, I suppose, that I should become captivated by a beautiful young girl, tall and dark with eyes as blue as they can be. She was sympathetic and affectionate and her name was Victoria. I can remember how tolerant and understanding she was, when, smothered with appointments and engagements she was always willing to wait in the background.’ Today’s reader may well make allowances for the temptations put in the path of a public figure, and Cobham had by now achieved massive celebrity status, but whether Gladys, had she known the full extent of such temptations, been prepared to turn a blind eye to such goings on must remain a matter for conjecture. Elliott, too, had not proved immune to female charms, for, after falling ill in Johannesburg with a chest infection, he apparently responded to extra treatment in the arms of a ‘sweet and charming’ nurse, with whom he carried on a correspondence long after his discharge from hospital.

78

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 78

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Cape Town Calling

Public interest reached its peak in Cape Town, where Cobham was overwhelmed by the sea of well-wishers and officials who greeted his arrival. He recalled a meeting with the Governor-General of the Union of South Africa, the Earl of Athlone, who wanted to hear all the details of the journey and requested him to take a personal letter to King George V. It later occurred to him that had he taken a sackful of other letters on the homeward leg on what amounted to the first airmail service between Cape Town and London, a small fortune could have been made out of such ‘covers’. Cobham was also introduced to Captain Strong, Master of the steamship Windsor Castle, and when it was discovered that both were due to depart for England on the same day, wagers were struck as to who would arrive first. The sea journey of 5,300 miles entailed steaming at 12 knots or so, day and night, whereas the DH.50J, cruising at 110mph, would have to land at twenty-six different locations in covering 8,000 miles during daylight hours. Cobham was also at greater risk from unpredictable weather conditions and aircraft serviceability. It seems a great deal of money was placed by Strong’s passengers on the outcome of the race, but the main participants agreed that the loser would only stand the winner a good lunch in a leading London restaurant. During the short stay in Cape Town, Cobham, though wearied to the point of exhaustion by the relentless calls for public appearances, realized that he had stumbled upon what today would be called a niche market. Whilst willing to take the leading role in the promotion of civil flying, he astutely recognized the opportunity to consolidate his own reputation and, not surprisingly, his bank balance. It then became the main theme of his numerous after-dinner speeches that he did not regard the public adulation as being directly accorded to him, but toward what he represented; the future of civil aviation. He laid great stress on his flight not having been a stunt, nor, in any sense, heroic. However, not all agreed with his self-effacing rhetoric and optimistic predictions for aerial transport to and from the mother country. Indeed, it was to be some ten years before Imperial Airways established a regular flying-boat service to South Africa, which, even then, was very much confined to those privileged in society and colonial officials. The age of mass affordable travel was still three decades away. Cobham’s foremost objective, as both aeroplane and ship embarked for England on 26 February 1925, both carrying a letter from the Earl of Athlone to King George V, was to show that long-distance travel by air was achievable and would become progressively reliable. While that may have remained questionable, what he did demonstrate was that, set against considerable logistic difficulties, sheer guts and determination, allied to a remarkably reliable airframe and engine combination, had

79

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 79

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

made the first England-South Africa-England round trip possible. It was a truly incredible feat when one looks at contemporary film and pictures of the tram and horse-drawn transport still prevalent in Britain during the early post-war years. Cobham’s homeward journey, retracing the steps of his outward flight, was inevitably full of incident, the main obstruction to progress being incessant torrential rain. His main concern, however, was that upon reaching N‘dola it was necessary to carry on, for the Murffit family, whose daughter Victoria had proved such a willing companion on the outward flight and who, with Madam Butterfly-like devotion, had eagerly awaited her hero’s return, again expected to provide overnight accommodation. Despite their obvious disappointment, Cobham, having explained how vital it was to save every hour he could, decided to continue the journey north without further delay. This turned out to be hazardous, with severe sandstorms rising to 12,000ft causing great difficulty. After leaving Khartoum, it became difficult to follow the dim shadow that he assumed to be the Nile, and he experienced deep consternation when he saw that it wasn’t the lifeline he was dependent upon. To turn left or right to pick up the waterway required an instinctive decision, but his innate sense of direction was reinforced when he saw a wadi with funnel-like dimensions, indicating that water, presumably from the Nile, had once flowed from it. The appearance of further small features, a bush, a small outcrop of rock and more bushes, enabled him to gain a firmer orientation and a more positive horizon. Following the loops and twists of the Nile still proved difficult in the sand-laden gloom, but with huge relief he eventually saw Wadi Halfa lying ahead in brilliant sunshine. In light of the race with the Windsor Castle, there was little time for anything other than a quick refuelling and a long cooling drink and the flight continued to Aswan, where overnight accommodation was provided at the Rapides Hotel. Although out of season and closed, there were one or two native caretakers who, fortunately, were very willing to rustle up a meal. After flying for several hours in baking heat, Cobham, beyond caring, ate little and once under his mosquito net fell into a deep sleep. The next day, the 480 miles to Cairo were covered in four-and-a-half hours, thus completing the first Cape-Cairo flight. It had taken nine days. Each of the three-man crew had become totally fatigued by the unrelenting high temperatures, constantly in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, in particular Arthur Elliott, who had not fully recovered from a bout of malaria which had confined him to bed for several days in Cape Town. Hopes of getting away quickly from Cairo were dashed by a south-westerly gale which prohibited take-off for the RAF base at

80

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 80

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Cape Town Calling

Sollum. Conditions were kinder the next day and they reached Sollum without mishap, but bad luck occurred when taxiing out for take-off when ‘FO’s tail skid got caught up in a stubborn rock and suffered fairly serious damage, thus thwarting the plan to arrive at Athens that night. Cobham’s frustration was not eased when more severe gales blew in that would make it impossible to reach the Greek mainland given the aircraft’s fuel capacity. To make matters worse, it was forecast that the adverse winds might continue for several days. Not for the first time on the journey, an appreciable amount of weight had to be off-loaded to make way for extra fuel to be stacked in the cabin. Emmott’s photographic equipment was the obvious choice, and was shipped back to Cairo for onward transmission by sea to England. When finally in the air, both Elliott and Emmott had their work cut out in trying to fill the aircraft’s tanks from the ten 4-gallon cans stowed in such a confined space and reeking of petrol vapour. It hardly seems necessary to mention the danger of explosion attached to such a task, when smoking was a habit almost the world over. Poor visibility over the eastern Mediterranean did not ease Cobham’s navigational difficulties, forcing him to rely almost entirely on compass bearings, with little means of establishing wind strength or direction. Nevertheless, having finally determined his position along the Greek coastline, all seemed to be going well until a severe downdraught caused a sudden loss of height and the cabin occupants and equipment to be momentarily glued to the roof. Amidst all this physical discomfort, Cobham was also subject to negative ‘g’ forces wanting to extrude him from the open cockpit, and it flashed through his mind that the fuel would also be restricted on its gravity feed to the engine. In other words, conditions were ripe for a likely engine cut-out. This situation, frightening though it was to any passenger, was an almost guaranteed feature of the kind of flying undertaken by Cobham. Witness the not dissimilar conditions experienced when piloting the American Lucien Sharpe on his various travels through the Middle East. Despite the shambles which resulted in the passenger cabin, no serious damage was incurred and the passage across the Alps was later carried out in air that was crystal clear and turbulence-free. Eventually approaching the English coast, Cobham found himself surrounded by a welcoming posse of a dozen aircraft, one of which was a Moth piloted by Geoffrey de Havilland and carrying Gladys as his passenger. Their arrival at Croydon on 13 March was nothing short of chaotic. No formal press interviews had been arranged, so Cobham, after bidding a short and swift farewell to Elliott and Emmott, was faced with trying to answer questions from every angle. Having weathered this media barrage, the Secretary of the Royal Aero Club, Reginald Perrin, informed the freshly minted national

81

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 81

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

hero that ‘He’ wanted to see him. This was quickly translated to mean that Cobham was now summoned to Buckingham Palace for an audience with George V. Though he was ushered inside the palace, Gladys was left to ponder their new-found celebrity status from inside the car. But after an hour regaling the king of his adventures, and discussing the message from the Earl of Athlone, the monarch requested that Gladys be brought forth straight away, whereupon more discussion took place regarding the impact of her husband’s achievements on family life. It is perhaps hardly probable that the long weeks of domestic loneliness were brought to the fore, whilst the hero of the hour was being courted and wooed by the Empire’s willing beauties, longing for a romantic distraction, but this was an age of social and sexual deference, and personal concerns had to be diplomatically concealed. Cobham’s emotionally charged day was far from over, for he was then requested, or perhaps more accurately instructed, to give an unscripted address to the nation at the British Broadcasting Corporation’s station at Alexandra Palace. Meanwhile, the telegram he was most looking forward to receiving arrived to say ‘Hearty congratulations on your splendid success. From owners and all on board Windsor Castle, Captain Strong.’ Considering the large bets said to have been placed on the steamer winning the race, ‘Hearty’ might not have been the term used by all on board! True to his word, Strong extended naval courtesies by inviting his victorious competitor to a magnificent lunch in a London restaurant. Nonetheless, both men were well aware that, at that stage and for the foreseeable future, the luxurious form of travel provided by the ocean liner, where speed was of little importance, would far outweigh transportation by air. Although Cobham’s faith remained undiminished, his report to Imperial Airways pointing out the feasibility of a route through Africa failed to make an immediate impact for the airline. Though mindful of his recommendations, the airline already had its hands full establishing its air-mail service to India. South Africa would have to wait. Emmott’s filming was heavily edited, but, entitled With Cobham to the Cape, it met with great success after opening at London’s Marble Arch Gaumont cinema. Cobham was more than delighted with its popular reception, for it netted him a sizeable return of £8,000. Along with being awarded the Air Force Cross (rarely given to a non-service pilot) and, amongst other awards, Gold Medals from both the Royal Aero Club and the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, 1926 had proved to be quite a year.

82

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 82

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Chapter Six

Antipodean Adventure

C

obham’s flight to South Africa, though clearly demanding, had still allowed much time for him to dwell on what had already become his next obsessive aim; a round-trip flight to Australia, which would culminate in a landing before the Houses of Parliament. The fact that he had despatched spares to ports on the East African coast had proved to be overly cautious, so on his return from the Cape, he had redirected all unused crates to locations along his new projected route. Such was his confidence that support would be forthcoming, that he did this without having yet confided his ambitious plan to his employers or, even more importantly, those he assumed would provide financial backing. Audaciously, he had undertaken confidential discussions with Short Bros at Rochester regarding the design and production of floats for fitment to G-EBFO. It was therefore perhaps now with a little uncertainty that he arranged a meeting with Geoffrey de Havilland the day after his homecoming from South Africa to secure his approval. After a short board meeting, it was agreed that the DH.50J would continue to be put at his disposal, and, as he had anticipated, the rest of his list of contributors – headed by Lord Wakefield – were all keen to take part. With so much administrative work to be done, the company provided two secretaries, one to concentrate on answering correspondence regarding South Africa, the other to assist in the forward planning for Australia, etc. They were barely enough. Elliott was given the task of chasing all the equipment necessary for the trip. The addition of floats was considered necessary because of the large distances to be covered over water, but they increased the aircraft’s overall weight which, in turn, had a large impact on the fuel required and, hence, the range. The complications continued to multiply, with the route in many areas being determined by the availability of suitable water areas on which to land and take off. It should be noted that Cobham had never before piloted a floatplane, which required a good degree of skill in

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 83

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

gauging current strengths and directions, height above water during the approach to landing and mastering unfamiliar mooring techniques. All this was going to require valuable time, which – aiming for a programme that, it was hoped, provided the most favourable weather conditions – had to begin by the end of June, which was just three months away. It was his intention, once having landed on the Australian mainland at Darwin, to exchange the floats for a normal undercarriage. This he arranged to be carried out by a working party of sailors from a Royal Australian Navy ship, HMAS Geranium, before flying down the eastern side of the continent to Melbourne. He then planned to replace the floats at Darwin on his return journey. One can well imagine the strain he was under as the days ticked by to departure, not forgetting that also placed upon Gladys, who was expecting their second child. He was clearly in a position, if he was to take full advantage of his celebrity and hence maximize his income, to take this golden opportunity before other aspiring flyers beat him to it. So far, only Ross and Keith Smith in a Vickers Vimy had, in 1919, flown home to Australia, followed by Roy Parer and John MacIntosh in what became a six-month hair-raising odyssey that unfortunately has to be denied a fuller description here. Cobham’s sole motive now was to continue his propagandist mission, promoting the viability and safety of air travel (especially in the Armstrong Siddeley-powered de Havilland aircraft) in a round trip which he also knew would firmly secure his own future. His only regret at this stage was that, because of the need to store extra fuel, it would not be possible to accommodate a photographer. It was little short of a miracle that, taking into account of all his domestic and public arrangements, within two weeks of his return from South Africa, he had rounded up all the available information regarding geographical, navigational and likely weather conditions, planned a route and instructed all who needed to know about the intended venture. He was immensely fortunate in having Lord Wakefield and the petrol companies as his chief sponsors, willing to provide the oil and fuel, as the cost of these, if purchased privately, would have been almost prohibitively expensive. As expected, the biggest challenge facing Cobham before departure was to gain sufficient seaplane piloting experience. Short’s test pilot, John Lankester Parker, took the training in hand, and with his general familiarity of the DH.50J, Cobham’s confidence soon grew to the point where he could manage the transition. It was left to Elliott to take care of the mooring up with the buoys, bobbing up and down, while standing unsupported on one of the floats. This proved too difficult until a special pair of ribbed-sole shoes was conjured up, but even then, the prospect of having to leave a

84

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 84

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Antipodean Adventure

floundering flight engineer behind as the aircraft drifted helplessly by was ever present. Unsurprisingly, all this organizing began to take its toll. The stress was not assisted by having to take one of his secretaries home each night in the sidecar of his motorcycle, from Stag Lane to New Cross, traversing Hendon, Hampstead, the West End, Westminster Bridge, Walworth and Camberwell, before setting off back to Stag Lane to work until the small hours. This required a two-hour diversion he could well have done without, but the General Strike affecting the country left him little option. Providing that he could leave by 30 June, he calculated that the weather conditions throughout Europe to the Near East and the Persian Gulf, and indeed on beyond the Equator to Australia, ought to be at their most favourable. The only large area of uncertainty lay over India and Burma, where monsoon rains were likely, but which, in the event, did not provide a problem. By the day of his departure, Cobham, on his own admission, had worked himself into a depressive state, which he recognized, but trusted would evaporate once he got into his swing. His wife was not so easily convinced, but the momentum was now unstoppable and events would have to take their course. On 29 June, Cobham said goodbye to Gladys and, with Elliott, motored down to Rochester, staying overnight at The Bull hotel, where, having ensured everything was in place for a 6.00 am take-off, both retired for an early night. Rising at 4.30 am, a good breakfast heralded what was to be a 1,200 mile flight to Naples via a refuelling stop at Marseilles. Arriving at the River Medway, they were greatly surprised to be met by Gladys, who had travelled down with Freddie Tymms and Collins, Cobham’s original conspirators at the Air Ministry, waiting on the jetty for a last farewell. The water was dead calm, not the slightly choppy surface he had hoped for to assist his take-off. Despite still being relatively inexperienced, having made only four previous floatplane flights, he managed it safely and, without troubling to do a circuit, headed out over the Kent coast and crossed the Channel at 3,500ft. Flying down the Rhône valley, he made a landing after six-and-a-half hours at the seaplane base at Marignane on the shore of the Berre Lake. His earlier flights through the Mediterranean had always been along the Riviera coast by way of Genoa and Spezia to Pisa, where, if a northerly wind was blowing off the Alps, severe local turbulence could be expected. This time he intended to fly a straight course over the Straits of Bonifacio, between Corsica and Sardinia, then straight across the sea to the Italian coast. He made it with little daylight left and found his touch-down point on the mainland side of the small island of Nisida, little more than

85

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 85

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

a giant rock towering out of the water some 300 yards from the mainland, and on top of which had once been built a prison. Cobham had been warned when in London of telegraph wires which stretched from this top point to the mainland, but in the gathering darkness he missed them by just a few feet. Helped by their Italian hosts, refuelling was eventually completed by the light of oil lamps and a speeding pinnace took them to a pier restaurant below Naples. Cobham, however, could not shake off the depression, which seemed to be increasing rather than easing, and the thought of rising again before dawn failed to stimulate his usual spirit of adventure. Elliott, by contrast, was entirely cheerful, which added to what Cobham described as an intense feeling of foreboding. Cobham’s condition had not improved by the morning, and it was well past the appointed hour before he was dressed and down at the quayside. There he could only lie on the stone wall and vomit several times into the harbour. Though he was clearly feeling very ill, he realised the need to move quickly to avoid threatening sea conditions that would prevent take-off. The next destination was Phaleron Bay which, in ancient times, was the main port of Athens. Upon their arrival, Cobham, by now requiring urgent medical attention, handed the entire operation over to Elliott. The general manager of the Blackburn Aeroplane Company in Greece kindly acted as their host and summoned a doctor, who advised immediate rest. Fortunately, within a day, his health and outlook had improved and, despite tricky sea conditions, they pressed on to the island of Leros some 40 miles from Asia Minor. By now, both men were starting to feel less anxious, mainly due to the constant availability of landing space on the water. However, they also knew that the sea and inland waters could play treacherous tricks: they could not afford to become complacent. Cobham found that whenever he was in the company of Italian flying men, the never-ending flow of wine and conversation, no matter how enthusiastic and well-intentioned, was always draining and conflicting with his desire to get on his way. It was never an easy matter to diplomatically engineer a gracious and appreciative departure. When visiting Alexandretta two years previously with Sir Sefton Brancker, the approach conditions had been excessively bumpy and on a couple of occasions both he and Elliott had banged their heads severely on the cabin roof. This time, however, conditions were calm and the waters perfect to land on, but they didn’t appear quite so favourable the following morning, when, in the less dense atmospheric conditions, the fixed pitch metal propeller failed on each of three attempts to provide the required thrust for take-off. It was decided to taxi back to the beach and fit the

86

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 86

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Antipodean Adventure

spare wooden propeller possessing slightly coarser pitch, though this would increase fuel consumption and lower cruising speed. Fortunately, this proved successful and a course was set eastward to the Euphrates, where a turn would be made at Ramadi toward the Tigris Tiver and Baghdad. Eventually landing on the river, a strong current made for difficult mooring; although a barge manned by a single native tried to assist, a series of misunderstandings caused the floatplane to swing round in circles, causing much vocal vexation. Though simply wishing to be helpful, Cobham realized that the local population had probably never seen an aircraft on the ground before, and had even less knowledge as to how to moor such a machine. Yet in spite of heavily bumping its rudder on a river vessel, ‘FO survived without damage. The following day, though experiencing a recurrence of his sickness, Cobham made a great effort to get airborne and into the cooling air before the sun made its blistering early morning attack. Bushire, the next objective, lay 500 miles away to the south and he expected that, as the aircraft climbed, the ambient air temperature would correspondingly fall. However, the oil temperature gauge reading crept steadily upward – 80, 85 then 95 degrees – causing great worry until, at 4,000ft, it fell back to give a normal indication. This strange phenomenon had been caused by an excessively hot bank of air peculiar to the region, which varies its height at different times of the day. After again picking up the Euphrates, sandstorms began to loom ahead, which meant flying just a few feet above the river bank in order to follow its winding path. It was while struggling through this brown murk en route to Basra that a violent explosion seemed to erupt in the cabin. Cobham was concerned that a fire had broken out, but Elliott replied in a very feeble voice that a fuel pipe had burst. Voice communication proving impossible, Cobham pushed a sheet of paper through to Elliott, who presently returned it saying that he had been badly hit in the arm and was bleeding ‘a pot of blood’. Though faced with the need for immediate action, Cobham was unable to make a clearcut decision. If he landed to try to assist Elliott, then he would be faced with the aircraft drifting out of control with the engine shut down. That would require him to restart it single-handed and re-enter the cockpit, with temperatures in excess of 120 degrees making every surface capable of causing severe burns. He then reasoned that with Elliott obviously needing proper medical attention, he had to carry on for the 100 or so miles to Basra, hoping that Elliott could hold out for another hour. Fortunately the weather cleared, allowing them to fly at a higher and safer altitude. The next problem lay in finding a clear area on the river free from the mass of shipping and other obstructions. With the engine running it

87

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 87

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

was only possible to go forward, and with it off, drifting aimlessly would certainly result in damage and more delay. Luckily, a small strip of mudbank came into view, and Cobham was able to open up the power to drive the floats onto the mud, whereupon he found Elliott in a dreadful state, suffering from massive loss of blood and the extreme heat. Elliott said he was sure he had a hole in his side and that he was breathing through that. A fast-gathering group of natives stood by, either unable or unwilling to help until Cobham virtually frog-marched one up to the cabin to assist in extricating Elliott. Always meticulous in attending to his duties, Elliott reminded Cobham to turn off the oil supply. At this point most of the natives had run away and Cobham was reminded of a story told to him by Fairey Aviation test pilot Norman MacMillan, who, along with a companion, had crashed on an attempted round-the-world flight, and had for several days been stranded on a raft in the Bay of Bengal. At some point, when it was clear that they were starving, burnt to the bone and close to dying, a native dhow had pulled alongside but gave them no help whatsoever. It was later explained that in many parts of the East, natives believe that approaching death in whatever circumstances is the will of God and not to be interfered with. Cobham, however, was not of a mind to subscribe to that. He was in a blind fury when, having shouted for help near a small hut settlement, all the doors were shut in his face. At this juncture, two launches arrived with white crews who had seen the landing and at last provided help. They entered the first hut and, ignoring the occupant, lifted out a rush-made bed and placed Elliott on it with cushions from the aircraft. Leaving firm instructions that the aeroplane had to be guarded, both launches then sped down the river to a bungalow belonging to the Burmah Oil Company, the suppliers of Cobham’s petrol. After what seemed an interminable period, doctors arrived to dress Elliott’s wounds before he was driven off to hospital. It was then arranged to tow ‘FO to the RAF‘s inland water transport dock and to moor it there for investigation. At dinner that evening, discussion naturally centred on the accident and how a pipe which simply allowed fuel to pass from one tank to another, under no pressure, could possibly have exploded. Enquiries at the hospital revealed that Elliott was thought to be doing well, and Cobham retired for the night, reassured that things might have been worse. At breakfast the next morning, the engineering officer asked if any natives had been seen where the accident had taken place, but Cobham had not been aware of any. It was the officer’s theory that there had been, visible or not, and that the aeroplane had been shot at. An examination showed his reasoning to be entirely correct, for a hole in the cabin side

88

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 88

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Antipodean Adventure

revealed the point of a bullet’s entry before it passed through a despatch box, damaged the fuel pipe and then hit Elliott’s arm. Having shattered the bone, the bullet had re-entered his side and travelled through both lobes of his left lung before coming to rest in his right armpit. Accounts prepared at the time do vary, however, as to the precise order and extent of the wound. Nevertheless, in piecing the evidence together, Cobham realized that the explosion he originally thought had occurred within the aeroplane, had, in fact, been the noise of a gun being fired just feet below ‘FO. Amazingly, the bullet had travelled between the floats, missing the lower wing’s trailing edge and a couple of flying wires before creating the devastating results in the cabin. Though clearly unsettled by the whole affair and reluctant to continue the flight, he was assured by Elliott, who, still in a weak but seemingly stable condition, urged him to go on to Australia without him. Cobham replied that he would do no such thing and that he would await his recovery. Events then took a rapid turn for the worse when, just prior to retiring for the second night, a barely decipherable telephone call from the hospital informed Cobham that Elliott had suffered a sudden relapse and had died moments before. Determined to bring the culprit to justice, the RAF Headquarters staff hurriedly arranged for a flight of four aircraft to search for swamp Arab settlements in the general area suggested by Cobham. To his surprise, Cobham identified the area without too much difficulty, and his pilot purposely circled it to ‘draw the devil’s fire’, which, he added, would effectively seal the marksman’s guilt. Cobham rather doubted the wisdom behind this approach, but his fears proved groundless for the tribesmen were having none of that and not a rifle was raised. The investigation was handed over to the area’s political officer, who promptly ordered all the local tribal chiefs to be arrested and locked up until they identified the man who had fired the gun. The immediate effect was farcical, as each chief, seeking his own freedom, named his own man, but more probing enquiries narrowed the crime down to an individual who, after a trial, was sentenced to death by hanging in the market square. This was looked forward to with great anticipation by many of the villagers, a number of whom rented out their houses overlooking the square for the occasion. The political officer, mounting the scaffold, issued a stinging rebuke to the assembly for their callous attitude and told them there would be no hanging after all and they could all go home. The prisoner in question was later shown to be a simple hunter who, on the fateful day, had been taking aim at a gazelle when he was startled by Cobham’s sudden and noisy appearance, and had instinctively jerked his gun upwards and pulled the

89

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 89

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

trigger. The police were satisfied that he had not intentionally shot at the aircraft, and he was released within nine months. Two days after his death, Arthur Elliott was buried at Basra with full military honours, ten aircraft mechanics acting as pall-bearers and a great many civic dignitaries following the coffin. Cobham’s initial reaction, on top of the general depression he had experienced throughout the flight, was to return home, beaten by circumstance for the first time in his life. However, influential opinion in England quickly combined to convince him that he should go on to Australia as a tribute to Elliott. Cables from his wife, Sir John Siddeley, Sir Sefton Brancker and the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Samuel Hoare, showed united support for continuing the flight. It could hardly pass notice that although this personal tragedy in no way affected the general safety of aviation, it would certainly direct more public attention toward Cobham’s propaganda campaign. This raised the question of finding a suitable replacement for Elliott, but the station commander at Basra firmly recommended Sergeant R.W. Ward of 84 Squadron, who, though not as experienced as Elliott, was keen and willing to go. On 14 July, after allowing Ward just a few days to overhaul and become familiar with ‘FO, Basra was left behind with all its unhappy associations. The next ports of call were Bushire on the Persian Gulf and Bandar Abbas, where heavy tidal conditions threatened to cause damage to the floats. Two nights later, a message arrived to say that calmer seas lay just beyond the pounding surf and that a dawn take-off ought to be possible. Thankful to be on the move again, Cobham later recalled that there was nothing in their way to prevent a clear run. The only other craft in sight was the launch belonging to the British Consul, riding at anchor in the semidarkness, several hundred yards away. The departure drill required ‘FO to be towed out by a native crew, who, predictably, failed to understand the instructions spelled out carefully by Cobham. Speechless with rage and frustration, he couldn’t prevent ‘FO being towed toward the launch, a wing-tip and the tailplane making heavy contact. In some despair, he ordered, as best he could, a return to the beach for Ward to work on the damage. An improvised wing strut, formed from a spare Handley Page item left years before, saved the day and, with minor fairings and skinpatching completed, the tortuous journey continued. At Karachi, the RAF’s station commander, an old seaplane pilot from the First World War, had gone to great lengths to explain to the ground crew who would attend to Cobham’s arrival that, based on his own experience, a landing on water was a stressful business and that normal gentlemanly behaviour and language might have to be put temporarily to one side.

90

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 90

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Antipodean Adventure

This, he added, was all part of the berthing procedure which often proved difficult, but once on shore he was sure that good manners would reassert themselves. Sure enough, having performed a good landing, contact with the assisting boat did not get off to a satisfactory start. The first attempt to throw a coiled rope fell short, and after a slow and deliberate recoiling, another unsuccessful attempt was made, as indeed was a third. Cobham, perched on one float with Ward on the other, were far from pleased and well fulfilled the salty exhortations predicted by the commanding officer. Both men were initially puzzled by the general laughter emanating from the ranks of airmen watching this performance from the mooring jetty, but it was later revealed that the ‘helpful’ individual who had endured the tirade was no other than the senior officer himself. The flight proceeded across India to Rangoon in Burma, where six valve springs on the Jaguar engine were found to need replacement. Fortunately, no further problems presented themselves during the remaining hops to Australia, and the arrival at Darwin on 5 August, thirty-six days after leaving England, was rapturously celebrated throughout the Empire. Cobham’s mileage had so far amounted to 10,352 statute miles, his time in the air to 126 hours and ten minutes, and his average daily mileage and speed to be 288 miles and 82mph. Though ever mindful of Elliott’s sad demise, Australia’s welcome, which started at Darwin with the crew of HMAS Geranium exchanging G-EBFO’s floats for a conventional wheeled undercarriage, extended to each of the stop-over locations en-route to Melbourne. Cobham did, however, recall a bizarre departure from the usual pattern of adulation at Newcastle Waters. After landing for fuel, he was met with a stony silence, but after enquiring as to who was in charge, one articulate soul mouthed the word ‘postmaster’ and jerked his thumb toward a nearby car. After having been asked twice if accommodation could be provided for the night, he also used his thumb as an invitation to get into the car, whereupon he drove to a hut that contained a tub of milky looking fluid and a sodden towel. After taking a studied breath, he enquired via a single syllable, ‘Wash?’ The evening meal was equally memorable, Cobham and Ward being seated on planks facing a table that contained plates and three large Tate & Lyle sugar boxes. At a silent signal from the postmaster, the boxes were lifted to reveal large quantities of meat and rice. It also prompted the start of a fierce contest between the locals and swarms of flies that fought determinedly for first place in the queue. No doubt due to long practice at warding off the invaders, the locals appeared to win the nightly battle. The ever-solicitous postmaster enquired after his guests’ welfare by asking, ‘More?’ Cobham was left to ponder ruefully on this outback

91

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 91

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

economy of words and its contrast to the unrelenting demand for speeches everywhere else. Ironically, it formed a period of blessed relief. Upon their arrival at Darwin, one of the first to extend the hand of welcome had been Colonel Brinsmead, an Englishman who had emigrated to Australia and now held the post of Director of Civil Aviation. His journey to the Northern Territories to meet Cobham was the equivalent of Sir Sefton Brancker having to travel from London to some point 500 miles beyond Istanbul. Brinsmead quickly made it clear that he wanted Cobham, in all his forthcoming main city appearances, to fervently preach the need for aviation awareness and development in the country, and this Cobham promised to do. Compared to progress in Europe, very little had been achieved in the southern hemisphere, although new airlines, most notably the Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Service (QANTAS), were making good headway. Flying over the vast featureless areas of scrub, with very little else apart from telegraph wires, which could easily be missed, created a sense of absolute isolation, very similar to that he had experienced on the journey down Central Africa. The comforting difference was, that, whereas African conditions often offered limited opportunities for landing or take-off, the barren trackless surfaces stretching below in every direction would be ideal should an emergency landing be required. With few maps covering such areas then available, Cobham realized that both Brinsmead’s flight north and his own flight south could still be regarded as pioneering ventures. A major civic welcome greeted the flyers at Sydney, although an escorting flight of Australian Air Force machines detailed to form on him at Richmond, failed to locate ‘FO and finally arrived at Mascot aerodrome somewhat later than he did. The moment he touched the ground, the large and excited crowd, estimated to be well in excess of 60,000, burst through the police cordon and engulfed the aircraft, which was still running along though with the engine shut down. Such was the demand for appearances and speeches that Cobham and Ward had to spend the next four days on separate assignments; whilst this was no great hardship to Cobham, Ward, totally unused to public speaking, found it a harrowing chore. At Melbourne, the end location of the mission, the number of people that awaited him was far greater than that at Sydney, with various local sources reporting that up to 200,000 spectators had engulfed Essendon airport and all the approach roads. It had been planned that ‘FO would roll up and stop alongside a raised platform, where Cobham would ‘say a few words’, but the heaving, pushing mass soon put paid to that idea. It took a great effort by several policemen to usher him and Ward toward a barely open hangar door and,

92

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 92

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Antipodean Adventure

once inside, lock them in a small room until what felt dangerously like a lynch mob had cooled down. In but a few moments, however, they had become prisoners, with frantic onlookers peering in through the barred windows, some even dancing on the corrugated iron roof. A Keystone Cops-style departure, with both men disguised in a police car with the crowd pushing it, then quickly transferring into another, finally enabled them to leave the airfield. Two weeks later, after he had coped with an enormous pile of correspondence, Cobham began the return trip to Darwin via Adelaide, Oodnadatta and Alice Springs, where the receptions were far more formal and contained, and a second visit to Newcastle Waters, where he presented the postmaster with a large ham. As the yearly camel provision train was already six months late, it was gratefully, but silently, received. Cobham was hoping to establish some form of record on what was to be the first flight from Australia to England, but this would have entailed two long hops a day which, after being airborne from dawn till sunset, would have put too much overhaul and servicing work on Ward during the remaining daytime. Sir John Siddeley then suggested that C.H. Capel, Armstrong Siddeley’s resident engineer, could, if required, accompany the flight to share the maintenance work. Cobham took little persuading to accept the offer. The continuance of survey work off the northern coast by HMAS Geranium had been withheld pending Cobham’s arrival at Darwin, where the naval team refitted the floats for the long journey home. Good weather attended the start of the westward flight, but severe storms delayed their arrival in Singapore and at Phuket. Monsoon conditions continued to limit progress all the way to Rangoon and beyond to Akyab, and it became evident that setting any sort of record time to England was out of the question. Good times were kept up over the remaining stages, and on 1 October 1926, after three circuits over the Short’s factory at Rochester, an estimated million onlookers cheered wildly as ‘FO swept over the Thames toward Hammersmith Bridge before turning and coming in again low over Westminster Bridge, to settle on the river before the Houses of Parliament at 2.26 pm. Cobham later related that Capel, staggered at the sight of so many people lining the river banks, exclaimed, ‘There must have been a bloody accident!’ In a blaze of publicity, Cobham, travel-stained and – despite a quick flick with a comb – still looking decidedly untidy, raced up the Palace Landing Stairs to a welcoming hug from Gladys. It was, however, only a matter of seconds before the assembled dignitaries, led by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Mr Whitely, took over proceedings. He reiterated

93

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 93

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

the details of Cobham’s achievement, which, spread over 320 flying hours and covering 28,000 miles, had indicated what the future held in store. He stressed the sheer determination, planning and dangers faced by this gallant pioneer in proving that long-distance air travel was the next major step forward in transportation. It was then home for the Cobhams to their flat in Buckland Crescent, Hampstead. Within three days, the hero of the hour received a royal summons to Buckingham Palace, whereupon, mission well accomplished, he received a knighthood from King George V, and later the Gold Medal of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Though initially doubtful as to what his next move should be, he found himself under constant pressure to undertake a lecture tour of the British Isles. This, however, was soon overtaken by a far more attractive similar offer from the United States, to which his wife was also invited. It was then suggested by de Havillands that he could, at the same time, deliver a DH Moth to a customer in Newark. The idea then grew that the Moth, if taken over as deck cargo on the SS Homeric, and fitted with floats, could be lowered onto the sea off Ellis Island and flown to some point on the Hudson River while carrying a small amount of mail, justifying a claim to be the first delivered by air from Europe to the USA. Things did not go quite as planned. Passengers on the ship were surprised when it stopped and the Moth was lowered overboard with the Cobhams seated in the cockpits. With miles of open sea ahead, the Moth charged forward but refused to rise. Gladys, by now several months pregnant, was somehow persuaded to climb into a pitching dinghy and return to the ship, and Cobham, confident that the reduced load would now allow a take-off, tried again. This attempt also failed, and he had to suffer the ignominy of taxiing all the way to Battle Point before a barge took him in tow. Not the riotous flag-waving arrival he had hoped for. It was natural that he should have felt some embarrassment, having become used to constant praise and success, but the event did not impact adversely on his lecture tour. He discovered his fund of anecdotes proved so popular that one agent wanted to promote him as a stand-up comedian. It was also very flattering that whilst on board the Homeric, he had been approached by a celebrated artist, Frank Salisbury, who, aware of his exploits, earnestly requested that he be allowed to paint his portrait while in New York. Somehow, amidst the whirl of engagements, a series of sittings took place and the result was later displayed in London’s National Portrait Gallery. Following his return from Australia and subsequent rise in social status, it was thought by many that Cobham should become a de Havilland director. It simply didn’t seem appropriate that a knight of the realm

94

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 94

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Antipodean Adventure

should act any longer in a middle-management capacity. Certain of the company’s executives, however, did not see it that way and refused his request to join the board. Tensions that had been growing for some time now began to surface, and two items of disagreement that he felt strongly about soon hastened his decision to leave the company. Firstly, the Moth’s lack of performance as a floatplane had already been anticipated and he was bitterly angry at not having been informed of this shortcoming by either de Havilland or Short Bros. Secondly, within a month of landing on the Thames, G-EBFO had been sold by de Havilland’s commercial director to an Australian air-taxi firm for £500. In Cobham’s view this historic aircraft, which had completed the first circumnavigation of the Mediterranean and the first all-round flights to three different continents, should have been presented to the Science Museum in Kensington. He never forgave de Havillands for what he regarded as an act of highly insensitive negligence. Whilst in New York, Cobham met for the first time Charles Lindbergh, who was then planning his epic flight across the Atlantic, at the ‘Club of the Quiet Birdmen’. Both aviators had been approached by a wealthy American financier, 28-year-old Charles Levine, who was desperately keen to offer the use of his own Wright Bellanca WB-2 aircraft, Miss Columbia, for the Atlantic flight, providing he could go along as a passenger-cumstandby pilot, or even to sell the aircraft, providing he could choose the crew. Such a proposition was not something Cobham was prepared to contemplate, and neither was Lindbergh, who, more concerned with every cubic inch of space being occupied with fuel rather than an extra body, was already in discussions with the Ryan Company in San Diego regarding a specialist design. Levine, however, was nothing if not determined, and just days after Lindbergh’s triumphant arrival in Paris on 27 May 1927, he did indeed become the first transatlantic passenger, flying with Clarence Chamberlin to within 100 miles of Berlin. Lindbergh, a true ‘innocent abroad’, was pleased to meet up again with Cobham once he had gained the sanctuary of the American Embassy, for not only was he a fellow pilot who had also experienced overwhelming public adoration, but he also spoke English amidst the tide of excitable French well-wishers. Cobham’s discussions with Levine showed the businessman to be willing to take substantial financial risks as well as those associated with flying. Having outlined his ambition to start an airline service in Africa, Cobham was surprised to hear that Levine wished to ‘get in on it’ and was prepared to make £20,000 available straightaway. He was, of course delighted that such immediate funding might be given, but regarded it with caution, explaining that he needed time to sort out his thoughts and

95

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 95

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

ambitions and was not minded to rush into any hasty arrangements. He later discovered that Levine, who had made his fortune buying surplus ammunition after the war and melting down the brass shell cases, was widely known as the ‘Flying Junkman’, and an unstable character, quite incapable of trustworthy behaviour. Cobham realized that his caution had served him well, and that he had narrowly avoided a potentially embarrassing financial situation. The lecture tour, which extended over four months, covered many large cities in America and Canada. In a Winnipeg hotel, a second unique business proposition was put forward by a young man named Goldman. Upon hearing of his African flight and plans for an airline, Goldman explained to Cobham that he too had worked as a mining engineer in South Africa and was convinced that he knew where diamonds could be picked up in quantity. His father, however, being solely interested in gold mine developments in Canada, would not support his return to Africa. Young Mr Goldman therefore suggested that he and Cobham form a partnership and, with maps that he would provide, it would simply be a matter of locating the precise area on the Orange River and staking a joint claim with the South African government. Cobham agreed to seriously consider the proposal, which, along with Levine’s promised £20,000, would provide substantial capital for starting his African airline. Priorities dictated that, after fulfilling his contractual commitments in the US and Canada, he had to rejoin Gladys, who, having returned to England earlier, had cabled him to announce the arrival on 22 February of a second son, Michael. Soon after arriving at their new address in Frognal Lane, Hampstead, he was quickly whisked off on yet another six-week tour of talks and appearances at which his film, With Cobham to the Cape, was frequently featured. It was this, along with his taking a ‘starring role’ in a romantic adventure film, The Flight Commander, which soon brought his relationship with de Havilland to a head. The making of the film, with Maurice Elvey as producer, proved difficult, for although it centred on Chinese troops bombing helpless civilians, with Cobham flying to the rescue, it quickly became evident that the English countryside around Stag Lane, when viewed from the air, bore no resemblance to China. Though he protested that audiences would be less than impressed, the film’s makers overrode his criticism and carried on. Gladys was far from pleased that he was, in her opinion, besmirching his reputation, and implored him to have nothing to do with it, but he was too committed; a fee of £2,500 helped to ease the pain.

96

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 96

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Antipodean Adventure

It was clear that his useful purpose with de Havilland had now run its course, and in May 1927 he resigned to start Alan Cobham Aviation Ltd, sharing premises with Malcolm Campbell, then busy designing racing cars, at 150 New Bond Street in London. To assist in this new venture as aviation consultants, aerodrome experts and air route surveyors, Lieutenant Colonel Warwick Wright, a well-known figure in the motoring world, and a legal professional, E.A. Merkel, became co-directors. Two assistants were also taken on: Charles Ward, an ex-William Beardmore Company test pilot, to manage the office, and 17-year-old Leslie Castlemain to undertake general secretarial duties. Yet another beginning was about to unfold!.

97

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 97

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Alan Cobham’s parents, Fred and Lizzie Cobham (née Burrows), who were married in 1888.

Master Cobham, aged twelve, and younger sister Vera, strike a sombre pose.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 1

21/09/2018 23:36

Sir Alan Cobham’s birthplace at No 4 Hetley Terrace, Camberwell, later became 78 Denman Road which now displays an English Heritage commemorative plaque.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 2

21/09/2018 23:36

Private Cobham, Army Veterinary Corps, August 1914.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 3

21/09/2018 23:36

Cobham’s knowledge of horse ailments led, in 1916, to his becoming a Staff Veterinary Sergeant.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 4

21/09/2018 23:36

The BE.2c reconnaissance biplane was an early indicator of the war moving into the air.

‘Pride cometh before a fall’, a lesson learned by Cobham when, in trying to impress a girl, his aerobatics stretched the DH.6 to its structural limits.

The DH.9 was a distinct improvement on the DH.4. Shown here is the actual machine used by Cobham for travelling between the ‘Flying Circus’ venues.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 5

21/09/2018 23:36

Alan Cobham, newly promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in 1918.

Cobham’s first post-war flying appointment was with the British Aerial Transport Company, seeking suitable landing grounds for pleasure flights. F-1655 was one of nine BAT Bantams built by the company.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 6

21/09/2018 23:36

Alan Cobham, Jack and Fred Holmes, were founder members of the Berkshire Aviation Company.

This Berkshire Aviation Avro 504K’s sagging fabric would have caused today’s airworthiness authorities some serious consternation.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 7

21/09/2018 23:36

Berkshire Aviation’s main rival, the Avro Transport Company, threatened to dominate the post-war joy-riding business, operating from fixed locations throughout the country that included, for a short period, Lake Windermere where two Avro 504L seaplanes were based.

Cobham (in cockpit) and the Holmes brothers (in front of engine) with passengers at Reading in June 1919. The Avro 504K, D9248 was later registered as G-EACL.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 8

21/09/2018 23:36

Oscar Jones (wielding hammer), along with Fred Holmes and his wife, undertake engine cylinder maintenance work at Barrow-in-Furness. In later life Jones became a senior captain with Imperial Airways.

Avro 504K, G-EAIB, took over from G-EACL following the latter’s crash at Northampton on 21 July 1919.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 9

21/09/2018 23:36

Managed by Cobham, de Havilland’s Aeroplane Hire Service rarely failed to live up to its advertising claims.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 10

21/09/2018 23:36

The King’s Cup Air race of 1923 saw Cobham (left) flying a DH.9 entered by the vaudeville star, George Robey, shown here with his wife, son-in-law, and daughter Eileen, after whom the aircraft was named.

Lucien Sharpe, a wealthy American permanently devoted to travel, proved to be a tight fit in the DH.9C’s passenger cabin.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 11

21/09/2018 23:36

Two de Havilland aircraft forever associated with Alan Cobham, the DH.50, G-EBFO, and the DH.53 Hummimg Bird, G-EBHX.

A jubilant Cobham displays the King’s Cup, which he won at his third attempt in 1924.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 12

21/09/2018 23:36

Cobham ‘winds up’ the DH.53’s 697 cc motor cycle engine prior to setting off for the Brussels Aero Exhibition in 1924.

The first DH.60 Moth, G-EBKT, was conceived in the wake of the unsuccessful DH.53.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 13

21/09/2018 23:36

Brancker, Cobham, Elliott and an unidentified Romanian officer, just prior to their departure to India.

In 1925, social demarcation was very clearly evident. Seen here at a reception to celebrate Brancker’s safe return from India are: unknown, Lord Beaulieu, Sir Sefton Brancker, Alan Cobham, Arthur Elliott, Sir Victor Sassoon and unknown. All are clad in white tie and tails, except Elliott, whose black tie suggests a somewhat humbler position in society.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 14

21/09/2018 23:36

Following his return to England, Cobham was in constant demand for lectures and personal appearances.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 15

21/09/2018 23:36

Cobham’s adventures were vividly described in many popular articles such as this.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 16

21/09/2018 23:36

It proved exceedingly difficult to accommodate Elliott, Gaumont’s cameraman, Basil Emmott and his bulky equipment, along with a wide variety of airframe and engine spares in G-EBFO’s passenger compartment.

Viewing Victoria Falls – ‘The Smoke that Thunders’ – provided Emmott with a unique cine film opportunity. Engrossed in filming, he little realised the danger when the ever-present spray caused the engine to cut out momentarily.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 17

21/09/2018 23:36

Emmott’s filming was eventually edited to become ‘With Cobham To The Cape’

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 18

21/09/2018 23:36

Ecstatic crowds greet Cobham at Croydon after his return from South Africa.

DH.50 G-EBFO was fitted with the more powerful 385 hp Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar engine before Cobham’s flight to Africa. It is shown here on display at Selfridge’s London store following its return.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 19

21/09/2018 23:36

Soon to set off for Australia, Cobham and Elliott had little time to master the tricky art of tying up to mooring buoys.

A relieved Mrs Cobham receives news of her husband’s safe arrival in Australia.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 20

21/09/2018 23:36

Seemingly oblivious to the danger posed by the whirling propeller, the crowd at Melbourne’s Essendon Airport was determined to tear off parts of the aircraft for souveneirs. Charles Lindbergh experienced the same thing the following year when, arriving in Paris after crossing the Atlantic, his aircraft was virtually shredded by trophy hunters.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 21

21/09/2018 23:36

One of the many highlights of Cobham’s career – his landing on the Thames on 1 October 1926.

Cobham recounts his journey to a mixed gathering which, headed by the Minister for Air, Sir Samuel Hoare, included King Abdullah of Jordan and Japan’s Crown Prince Hirohito. Mrs Cobham, caught at an awkward moment by the camera, appears to be overcome by fatigue!

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 22

21/09/2018 23:36

Cobham’s travel-stained DH.50 being towed through London’s streets.

Passengers watch as Cobham supervises the lowering of the DH. Moth, complete with Lady Cobham, from the SS Homeric.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 23

21/09/2018 23:36

Not a pretty sight! Cobham’s Short Singapore flying-boat was seriously damaged by stormy seas at Malta.

Home at last. Lady Cobham prepares to disembark at Plymouth after the gruelling six-month circumnavigation of Africa.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 24

21/09/2018 23:36

Cobham adopted the mantra ‘Make The Skyways Britain’s Highways’ in his bid to promote civil aviation.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 25

21/09/2018 23:36

The DH.61 Giant Moth G-AEEV ‘Youth of Britain’ in which Cobham carried 50,000 passengers, including 10,000 schoolchildren, during his Municipal Aerodrome Campaign to encourage ‘airmindedness’, in 1929.

Two Airspeed Ferry ten-seat airliners, G-ABSI and G-ABSJ, were the main passenger-carrying workhorses during the air display tours.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 26

21/09/2018 23:36

Typical material used to advertise Cobham’s air displays in the 1930s.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 27

21/09/2018 23:36

The Handley Page Clive’s cabin windows allowed passengers to view the parachutist’s dramatic departure.

Unsupported ‘wing-walking’ was officially deemed to be dangerous and prohibited after 1933.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 28

21/09/2018 23:36

A Handley Page Harrow tanker supplies fuel to an Imperial Airways ‘C’ Class flying-boat over the Solent prior to the pre-war transatlantic trials.

The two Handley Page Harrows used for flight refuelling trials in Newfoundland remained there to be used for further snow trials, before being transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 29

21/09/2018 23:36

Sir Alan and AVM Donald Bennett prior to leaving for Bermuda in Lancaster G-AHJV on 28 May 1947.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 30

21/09/2018 23:36

Flight Refuelling Ltd and British South American Airways joined forces to prove the viability of an air-refuelled non-stop service across the South Atlantic.

Air-refuelling trials with a first generation jet fighter were carried out at FRL’s Tarrant Rushton airfield in Dorset. Shown here, the company’s Lancaster tanker passes fuel to a Gloster Meteor III, EE397, over Poole harbour.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 31

21/09/2018 23:36

The two Handley Page Harrows used for flight refuelling trials in Newfoundland remained there to be used for further snow trials, before being transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 32

21/09/2018 23:36

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 98

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Chapter Seven

Forging the African Dream

N

ow operating under his own flag, Cobham set about organizing the resources necessary to create an airline in Africa. He realized that although his previous long-range flights had been carried out largely to stimulate interest in aviation, another venture would be necessary, devoted to route-proving, the locating of suitable aerodrome sites, the compilation of local weather conditions and securing the agreement of several central African states. Within four weeks of the new company being formed, Cobham and Ward had established a proposed route which ensured landing only in British territory. Armed with this, the forever tricky question of reliable funding was addressed with, as always, Sir Charles Wakefield the first to be approached. In parallel with these considerations came the choice and securing of the most suitable kind of aircraft. During his many discussions with Shorts, he had discovered that a Singapore Mk 1 flying-boat was just completing trials at Felixstowe and there were no Air Ministry plans for its further use. Seizing the opportunity, Cobham made an immediate approach to the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Samuel Hoare, respectfully suggesting that, to further advance the future of British aviation, he be permitted to borrow the aircraft for his African route-proving. Shorts and Rolls Royce were equally enthused, since the flight would allow continuous highprofile advertising for both the Singapore and the Condor engine. Hoare’s approval, which required Cobham insuring the Singapore for £30,000, was a massive breakthrough and all was falling neatly into place when it was discovered that the Blackburn Aeroplane Company in East Yorkshire was also considering setting up an African airline. In 1924, a director of the company, Captain Anthony ‘Tony’ Gladstone, formed an extension of the main company’s subsidiary, North Sea Aerial and General Transport Company, to explore commercial possibilities in eastern and central Africa. The linking of Khartoum in the Sudan with Kisumu in Kenya was a prime aim and, given the board’s approval,

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 99

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

preliminary design work was commenced at Brough for a flying-boat capable of carrying eight passengers. Designated the C.A.3, it was to be powered by three Bristol Jupiter IV engines, each capable of 420hp. This, however, would take some time to build and test, whereas Cobham’s flight preparations were rapidly taking shape. After discussing their common activities, Cobham and Robert Blackburn agreed to amalgamate their interests in the summer of 1927. Cobham’s crew selection was somewhat unusual. His choice of F.V. Worrall, then a Blackburn employee as co-pilot, F. Green and C.F. Conway as engineers and S.R. Bonnett as Gaumont’s cinematographer was straightforward enough, but the addition of his wife as general secretary was surprising, considering the limited space available for mixed accommodation. He recorded that with such a large part of their five-year married life having been spent away from home, Gladys, though now with two small children to care for, had insisted that she take a useful role in the expedition, and duly became a crew member. As with the seaplane familiarization for the flight to Australia, Cobham was faced with mastering the handling techniques for a type of aircraft he had never flown before, and where skill in negotiating movements on the water was as demanding as those required in the air. Mindful of both companies’ hopes for the future, Cobham left the River Medway on 17 November 1927 in Singapore G-EBUP. After a short shake-down flight and touch-down at Hamble, near Southampton, they immediately encountered the problems forever present with mooring. Although an official motor launch could be seen making its way to take them in tow, another yacht crew took it upon themselves to cut across its bow, clumsily failed to throw a mooring line, got stuck on a mudbank in the process and prevented the official launch doing its job. Cobham, unwilling to give credit for what might have been a genuine attempt to help, let forth a barrage of invective which earned Gladys’ strong disapproval, though by the time of their return, after many similar incidents involving natives unschooled in such tricky nautical matters, she had learned to make large allowances for undiplomatic slips of the tongue. Gales and unsettled weather prevented the departure scheduled for the following day, but the stoppage at least allowed the load of spares and baggage to be stowed in proper fashion. Bordeaux, Marseilles and Corsica came and went, though not without both pilots finding the Singapore’s controls heavy to handle in constantly rough air conditions. Such minor discomforts paled, however, when they reached Malta, where further storms severely damaged the aircraft and caused a delay of several weeks. Despite his aim to show that flying timetables could be met, and that

100

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 100

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Forging the African Dream

aviation was now on a reliable footing, events at Malta seemed determined to prove the opposite. Aware that any failure, for whatever reason, would erode potential customer confidence, Cobham suffered the mortification of seeing two floats, a lower wing and an elevator torn off by strong seas. It was two weeks before replacement parts arrived from Shorts, but after having had great support from the RAF team at Kalafrana, ‘UP was damaged again on 10 January when the starboard float was lost due to constant pounding by the waves. It took great courage by the service handling party to prevent total capsizing of the aircraft, before hauling it to safety and fitting a float that had been repaired after the earlier onslaught. Sadly, an airman died in the effort to save the aircraft, and though in no way held officially responsible, Cobham was dogged by unfair blame for many years. Finally, on 21 January 1928, after an eight-week delay, calm and sunny conditions allowed the long-awaited departure for Egypt. The story goes that the pilots of the three aircraft escorting Cobham on his way were told to ‘shoot the bugger down’ if he showed any sign of returning. Rather bizarrely, the crew complement increased at Malta when Lady Cobham was presented with a pair of canaries, whose cage was positioned between the wing struts. The journey continued on to Benghazi and, via Tobruk, to Aboukir near Alexandria, where the real possibilities of starting an African airline were judged to begin. Their arrival in Egypt coincided with a plague outbreak which, the authorities decided, required all new arrivals to be taken into quarantine, as if they were the ones likely to infect the country rather than the other way round. Suitable amounts of bribery were sufficient to ensure their release and Cobham was able to hold a longawaited discussion with Blackburn’s Captain Gladstone, who was already operating an experimental seaplane service in north-east Africa for the Colonial Office. This, it turned out, had started out with a float-equipped DH.50J, G-EBOP, named Pelican, which, having struck submerged wreckage on its first flight, had to be taken to the nearest Blackburn repair shop, in this instance the Greek National Aircraft Factory in Athens. The Air Ministry then loaned the company a Fairey III D seaplane to continue the venture, but its contribution was also short-lived when, after failing to get airborne from Lake Victoria, it was damaged beyond repair in the subsequent salvage operation. Pelican was later ferried from Athens to Khartoum and left on the resumed service to Kisumu, where misfortune struck yet again when, on 17 October 1927, landing after a test flight, it was completely wrecked, bringing the whole project to an end. Within this series of African flight mishaps, perhaps the most bizarre was the accident later experienced by co-pilot Worrall, who, enthusiastically standing up in ‘UP’s cockpit, swung his arm round to point out a herd of

101

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 101

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

elephants below. For such an experienced airman, this was a particularly careless thing to do as the whirling propeller caused a badly smashed finger which required urgent hospital attention. Cobham dispassionately remarked later that not only was he fortunate not to have lost his hand, he could have severely damaged the propeller. The crew then had the great misfortune to lose engineer Green when he was struck down by a mystery illness at Luderitz in German South West Africa. Though gamely struggling on in great pain in a fuselage bunk, it became obvious that he was in no state to continue the journey. At Banana Creek, at the mouth of the Congo River, he was transferred to a steamer which took him up-river to Boma, where a surgeon was able to perform a life-saving operation. While flying east from Abidjan on the Gold Coast to Freetown in Sierra Leone, severe vibration warned of a serious problem. After descending onto a lagoon, a quick inspection showed the port engine’s crankcase to be practically broken in two. It was by sheer good fortune that the landing took place near a rudimentary trading station called Fresco, where a local man took Cobham to a nearby ship that was loading timber and which enabled him to send a message to Freetown notifying waiting officials of their plight. He and Gladys were then taken in a 40ft-long canoe, paddled by sixteen natives, through narrow forest channels and swamps to Grand Bassam, where a cable was sent requesting a replacement Condor engine. Although the Cobhams were taken in hand and provided with accommodation, there was little they could do to remain in touch with the three remaining crew members, stranded some 120 miles away. It required great resourcefulness to transport the bulky, crated engine back to Fresco, then to unload and install it, with spectator-filled native boats forever bumping into the aircraft and threatening to upset what was a fine balancing act. It was just a month after the touch-down, on 15 February 1928, that the Singapore left Fresco on the next homeward leg. Choosing to avoid following 1,000 miles of inhospitable coastline after rounding Gambia, Cobham headed for Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, where landing and take-off in the constricted shipping channels proved a hazardous business. After calling at Casablanca, Gibraltar, Barcelona and Bordeaux, G-EBUP finally put down on British waters at Plymouth on 31 May. However, his mission was not yet finished, for he rightly foresaw that with the press extolling his achievement, it would make good business sense to continue around British coastal locations, enabling as many people as possible to see and touch the Singapore. This extended ambition ran into immediate trouble, however, when, over the New Forest, Conway informed Cobham that the upper wing was about to come off. Though causing an instant panic, the fear proved

102

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 102

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Forging the African Dream

groundless, the problem being contained to some fabric covering the wing root that had torn and was flapping noisily in the slipstream. Whilst this caused undue alarm, real anxiety arose when the starboard engine began to jump about on its mountings, threatening to shake the Singapore to pieces. Throttling back the faulty Condor, Cobham was able to stretch what was virtually a gliding approach far enough to land safely at Calshot in Hampshire, where a phone call to Rolls-Royce had another replacement motor on its way the same night. Faced with a similar situation to that when in Athens on his previous African flight, when he had protected the reputation of Sir John Siddeley’s company, he now attempted to cover up for Rolls-Royce by claiming that the Cellon dope used to protect the skin fabric had become embrittled by the extremes of sun, wind and sea-water. The firm’s founder and managing director, Alexander Wallace Barr, was naturally concerned to think that his company’s product had caused a major incident, but his feelings turned to fury when he later learned that his company was being made a scapegoat for a Rolls-Royce failure. Cobham’s round-Britain tour – which included visits to Hull, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Greenock, Belfast, Liverpool and Southampton – concluded where it had started at Rochester on 11 June, by which time Lady Cobham and co-pilot Worrall were feeling the delayed effects of malaria and were immediately confined to bed. Within days of his arrival, it was back to the wearying task of attempting to sway politicians and business leaders that Cobham-Blackburn Air Lines, officially formed on 24 April 1928, could provide a presence in Africa that would not only be viable, but was essential. His highly detailed postjourney reports were most favourably received, not only by Shorts and Rolls-Royce regarding the aircraft’s general performance, but by the Air Ministry, Sir Samuel Hoare, Sir Sefton Brancker and Imperial Airways, all of whom considered a ‘Through Africa Air Route’ to be a wonderful idea. His suggestion that arrangements could be put in place with shipping lines for reservations and ticketing met with the approval of the Union Castle Company’s general manager, who strongly favoured the setting up of a Union Castle Aviation Company, but it received no support whatsoever from the chairman, Lord Kilsant, who refused to discuss the matter. Lord Inchcape, then chairman of P&O, was equally disinclined to consider the idea that his shipping line might care to form an aviation department for passengers who desired faster travel. Perhaps the prime example of bureaucratic ‘closed-shop’ thinking was provided by Lord Birkenhead. Responding to a speech by Cobham at a luncheon given in his honour by the Cabinet, he stated his strong disagreement with the need for speedy air transport. He went on to

103

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 103

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

say that, as things stood, he could send off a despatch to India in the blessed certainty that he wouldn’t be bothered by a reply for six or seven weeks – for which he was duly thankful! It is not recorded whether his disassociation with progress was delivered tongue-in-cheek or not, but having worked hard at delivering a well-presented case for air transport, Cobham felt mystified and hugely insulted at receiving such a dismissive and flippant reply. It seemed that despite the exhortations of aviation proponents such as Sir Sefton Brancker and Sir Samuel Hoare, Britain’s top-level industrial and commercial company heads were little concerned with such changes. But changes were, indeed, about to take place. Both Cobham and Gladstone had been assured throughout the Twenties that Imperial Airways’ primary concern was the establishment of air routes to India and beyond. Although the airline had stated its willingness to carry passengers to Africa – i.e., Cairo or Alexandria – it had stated clearly that it had no wish to establish routes linking the central states, which, it avowed, would be best left to private enterprise. It therefore came as a surprise and bitter disappointment when Imperial’s chairman, Sir Eric Geddes, and its managing director, George Woods Humphery, announced that they now intended to ‘exercise their rights’ to operate throughout Africa. Cobham and Gladstone protested vigorously that they had worked hard to secure agreements with the African countries and had amassed considerable data regarding route-proving and local conditions, but to no avail. One is left to wonder how, in light of the influential positions held by Hoare and Brancker, they could possibly have remained unaware of this Machiavellian dealing, or if indeed they were in possession of the facts, why they didn’t apprise Cobham and Gladstone and reach an earlier understanding? The government-backed airline proved too strong, and in December 1928, after months of negotiation, Cobham-Blackburn Air Lines was taken over, along with the company’s share in the Rhodesian Aviation Company. The price paid was £24,750 in cash, plus 25,000 ordinary shares of £1, and the operations and rights were transferred to Imperial Airways (South Africa) the following June. Cobham’s dream of running an African airline was over, but his determination to shake up a largely apathetic British establishment was given added momentum by what he considered to be an act of political and commercial betrayal. In early 1929, thoroughly wedded to the promotion of the ‘third dimension’, and determined to make ‘Britain’s skyways Britain’s highways’, Cobham decided to tour the United Kingdom, giving pleasure flights to the public, as well as town and city officials. The main aim of what he called his ‘Municipal Aerodrome Campaign’ was to convince local

104

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 104

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Forging the African Dream

councillors that the ‘age of the air’ had arrived and, if they didn’t want to be left behind, they need look no further than Alan Cobham Aviation Ltd for advice regarding the best location for an aerodrome. For this purpose he purchased a ten-seater DH.61 Giant Moth, G-AAEV, the second to be built, which he named Youth of Britain. On 15 May, after a restraining cord had been ceremoniously severed by Sir Charles Wakefield at Stag Lane, he set off with a small support team to travel the length and breadth of the country, carrying almost 50,000 passengers, 10,000 of whom were schoolchildren, paid for by a supposedly anonymous donor (Sir Charles Wakefield). This proved to be a gruelling 21-week crusade which required Cobham to arrive at a new location each day at about 11.00 am, carry out ‘official’ flights for dignitaries and schoolchildren before lunch, then provide seven-minute joyrides until nine in the evening. These were invariably conducted from rough fields that put a constant strain on the aircraft’s undercarriage. At Ronaldsway, on the Isle of Man, a deep rut resulted in damage that forced a three-day delay and an immediate departure that left behind 66 very disappointed schoolchildren, but after some 5,000 flights, apart from a pilot-induced accident at Rhyl that required it to be returned to de Havilland for repair, Youth of Britain still matched its pilot for reliability and durability. Most of the influential people approached on Cobham’s tour of 110 towns and cities, though professing keenness at the prospect of air transport, preferred to retain the status quo and, despite a colossal party later thrown by Lord Wakefield for 300 mayors and their town clerks, his message fell on largely stony ground. Although a handful of aerodromes, most notably those at Liverpool (Speke), Yeadon (Leeds/ Bradford) and Bournemouth, were eventually constructed on sites he originally recommended, the ‘Municipal Aerodrome Campaign’ failed to produce what he had hoped would be a wide network of aerodromes across the British Isles. It was of mild consolation that he was able to sell ‘EV for a sum in excess of the £3,000 he paid for it in the first place. The story has an interesting sequel. Whilst the takeover of the African routes was still being negotiated, it was decided that a special survey flight should be carried out over the proposed routes by the parties concerned. Captain Charles Wolley Dod was chosen to represent Imperial Airways, with Tony Gladstone to act on behalf of Cobham-Blackburn Air Lines and Freddie Tymms to look after the Air Ministry’s interests. Cobham suggested that Youth of Britain would be the ideal machine to undertake the task, with himself as pilot, but while George Woods Humphery agreed to the choice of aircraft, he vetoed the idea of Cobham as pilot as he didn’t think he and Wolley Dod would ‘get on’. However, in light of his familiarity with Africa, he was asked to ferry the aircraft to Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia

105

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 105

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

and to hand it over to the Imperial-led survey party. After a relatively uneventful trip, he found Wolley Dod to be a high-handed individual, disdainful of any advice and determined to find everything wrong with the aircraft. No wonder, he thought, that Woods Humphery had foreseen a clash of personalities as likely to occur. Having delivered the machine safely, he travelled by train from Bulawayo to Cape Town and boarded the Arundel Castle for his return to England. Just before sailing, however, he learned that Wolley Dodd had managed to crash on take-off at Broken Hill on 19 January 1930, just days after ‘EV was put in his possession. Although there was no injury or loss of life, the aircraft was completely destroyed. There was nothing Cobham could do to assist the situation and he arrived home on 10 February, whereupon he and Gladys embarked on a search for a new house, which they eventually found at Little Park Hill near Bletchingley, close to Reigate and overlooking the South Downs. In less than a year following his return, on 28 February 1931, Imperial Airways opened its first African service with a rail and air transport link between London and Kisumu on Lake Victoria. Soon after, on 5 May, tragedy occurred when both Captain Gladstone and entrepreneurial record-breaking aviator Glen Kidston were killed when journeying to discuss the purchase of Major Alastair Miller’s Union Airways, their Puss Moth, ZS-ACC, breaking up in mid-air over the Drakensberg Mountains. Although Cobham’s airline aspirations were now grounded, at least for the time being, his involvement in African aviation affairs had not yet come to a standstill. On 22 July 1931, he took off yet again from the River Medway on another survey flight. This time it was to explore the suitability of the Nile and the central African lakes, in particular Lake Kivu in the Belgian Congo, for seaplane operations. The exploration was at the behest of the Air Ministry, but the information gathered was also to be made available to the Belgian government, which wanted to improve communications with its colony. Not for the first time, he was to be in charge of an aircraft of which he had no previous piloting experience. This was the Short S11 Valetta, G-AAJY, powered by three Bristol Jupiter XIF engines and fitted with a pair of floats, which, at nearly 40ft in length were the largest ever built. A specific requirement was to evaluate the handling qualities of a large floatplane on narrow inland waters for comparison with those of the Short Calcutta flying-boat, then already in service with Imperial Airways. Flying with a five-man crew – Messrs Bell of Shorts and Spencer from Bristols as airframe and engine mechanics, Parish of Marconi as radio operator and Gaumont’s Bonnett and Russell taking care of the cine and

106

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 106

8/31/2018 10:08:41 PM

Forging the African Dream

stills photography – Cobham quickly determined the improvements over the handling of the Singapore and concluded that his findings would similarly apply to the Calcutta. The experimental nature of Cobham’s survey flights almost guaranteed an ‘event’, and this latest venture proved to be no exception. Although the round trip of 12,300 miles brought its share of dust storms and high winds to cause the usual momentary alarms, he recalled one flight in particular which nearly proved disastrous. This involved him unavoidably having to provide a lift northwards from Khartoum for the imperious Captain Wolley Dod, who had earlier incurred his displeasure when delivering the Youth of Britain to Rhodesia. During the flight, Wolley Dod asked if he could take control of the Valetta’s approach to and landing at Cairo. Having agreed to this, much against his better judgement, Cobham noted that the aircraft was flying perilously close to its stalling speed. Immediately regaining control, he opened up the throttles and put the nose down to regain a safety margin, horrified to think that a senior Imperial Airways captain could commit such a basic error. If Cobham had ever considered his initial impression of the captain’s ability to have been unduly harsh, this latest incident removed every shred of doubt. His appraisal report commented most favourably on the Valetta’s manoeuvrability on the water. This, he pointed out, was due in great measure to his insistence on having steerable rudders fitted at the rear of each float, which allowed great precision when approaching mooring buoys in fast-flowing river conditions. The Valetta used for this survey was the only one of its kind to be built and its life as a seaplane was limited to the five weeks it spent in Cobham’s care. It was, however, later fitted with a wheeled undercarriage and sent for airworthiness trials at Martlesham Heath, but was considered unsuitable for commercial service. After a further period of radio testing and research for the Air Ministry, it was sent, in late 1933, to RAF Locking in Somerset for use as a ground instructional airframe. The Valetta and the Calcutta were eventually judged to be of equal merit, albeit each having its own characteristics. The Calcutta could transport a higher payload, had a longer range and better deep-water handling, but this was offset by the Valetta’s better climb performance, faster top speed and superior steering in river situations. In the event, it was the flyingboat and the landplane that were to provide the way forward for future air transportation, and the seaplane was largely consigned to passengercarrying history.

107

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 107

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 108

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

Chapter Eight

Cobham Comes to Town

I

n 1931, Alan Cobham Aviation Ltd moved from the shared premises in New Bond Street to more prestigious accommodation at Grand Buildings in Trafalgar Square. Here, having gained the unique distinction of flying down and around Africa by conventional landplane, flying-boat and seaplane, Cobham turned his propagandist attention once more to the home front. Despite the hard times plaguing the country, interest in private club flying had, with the advent of sporting machines produced by de Havilland, Avro, Blackburn and Desoutter, taken root in the mid to late Twenties. An organization, National Flying Services Ltd (NFS), had been formed by the Rt Hon Freddie Guest in November 1928, with headquarters at Hanworth Air Park, just west of London, in an attempt to link together all the air parks, country and flying clubs, air garages and such throughout the country. Rather akin to the Automobile Association, its aims were admirable and it was not surprising that Sir Alan was co-opted onto the NFS board in 1929. Many flying clubs, however, wished to retain their individuality and did not relish what they regarded as a ‘communistic’ form of regimentation and possibly an unfavourable re-allocation of subsidies. Much discussion also took place at both local and government level as to whether taxpayers’ money should be allocated to this enterprise, for whilst it might provide a strong reserve of qualified pilots should warlike conditions arise, it was also seen as favouring an elitist few when the general population was suffering badly in the economic depression. NFS appeared to make some progress, but its finances were not well managed and when the government withdrew its support it fell into receivership in June 1933, although it continued to function until October the following year. The late Twenties had seen the emergence of new names in aviation’s record books – Bert Hinkler, Charles Kingsford Smith, Lady Heath, Lady Bailey, Amy Johnson, Alex Henshaw and Jim Mollison, to name but a few – dedicated to record-breaking and self glory, and their efforts were

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 109

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

to continue throughout the pre-war period. Cobham, however, showed little interest in this aspect of aviation, his main aim remaining directed toward convincing anyone who would listen that commercial flying had now become a safe and reliable means of transport, devoid of stunts and bravado. Ironically perhaps, his next attempt to prove the point relied to a large degree on those very ingredients, packaged within a show businessstyle appeal. He had by this time become a household name, which he used to great effect to promote what he called his National Aviation Day (later Display) tours of the British Isles. This was a title he insisted on using in the display’s advertising, although the media and public alike soon came to call it ‘Cobham’s Flying Circus’. He regarded this description as unprofessional, undermining the serious message he was trying to convey. Furthermore, he warned his staff that anyone he heard using it would be subject to instant dismissal. The National Aviation Day (NAD) was not, however, the first travelling air show to roam across the country. The front-runner of any significance was C.D. Barnard’s Air Tours Ltd, which visited 118 locations between 1 April and 11 October 1931, with four aircraft including a Fokker F. VIIA, G-EBTS, airliner, purchased from the Duchess of Bedford,and renamed The Spider. Other barnstorming outfits, such as Captain Phillips’ Cornwall Aviation Company, also sprang up around this time, but none came close to the highly ambitious and well-organized ventures set up by Cobham over the period 1932‑35. In addition to other directorships, he was invited to join the board of the fledgling Airspeed Company, which had taken up a shared tenancy with the Universal Tyre Company of a disused bus garage in York. Two of its founder members, Nevil Shute Norway and Hessell Tiltman, were ex-colleagues from his days at de Havilland. Although he had initial reservations about joining the company – which at that time could only afford to concentrate on its Tern glider design – Cobham was encouraged by their proven design capabilities, along with those of Barnes Wallis, the recently defunct Airship Guarantee Company’s renowned designer of the R.100 airship. It therefore came about that, when determining the number and types of aircraft required for his 1932 tour, he recognized the need for a nine or ten-seat passenger-carrying machine that would be easy to build and maintain. His placing of an order worth £10,400 for two AS.4 airliners, each powered by three 120hp DH Gipsy engines, proved to be the salvation of the company, as lack of investment had become a serious problem. On one occasion, Norway, with fingers firmly crossed, brazenly demanded ‘Wages please’ from an unsuspecting bank clerk (and got them), knowing full well that there was temporarily insufficient cash in the company account

110

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 110

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

Cobham Comes to Town

to cover the transaction. This was a testing period for the company as, due to the lack of a local aerodrome, flight testing had to be carried out by the Yorkshire Aeroplane Club at Sherburn in Elmet. However, after talks with several municipal authorities, an approach to Portsmouth City Council for them to build a factory adjacent to the local aerodrome and rent it to Airspeed proved successful, and a move to the south coast was scheduled to take place in March 1933. Notwithstanding this disturbance, Cobham, having long considered the advantages in range and payload that could be gained by transferring fuel from one aircraft to another while in flight, had preliminary discussions with Norway and Tiltman in December 1931 regarding the design of a suitable receiver machine. Airspeed had already begun investigating the market for a short-range six-passenger domestic airliner and proposed that with the AS.4s now well underway, their latest design study, given small modifications, would suit Cobham’s airrefuelling requirements. This resulted in the birth of the AS.5 Courier, with a first order being placed by Cobham in April 1932, with the stipulation that it would only be accepted if delivered by 1 April 1933. His attention, however, was by now almost entirely given over to the NAD tour’s requirements list, which covered not only the provision of aircraft that could provide safe and steady or more exciting flights, aerobatic and gliding demonstrations and novelty acts, but the acquiring of skilled pilots, parachutists and support personnel, the latter being required to live a nomadic tented existence from the start of April to mid-October. Maintaining a touch of class distinction, Sir Alan and Hugh Johnson, newly appointed as senior pilot, intended to share a caravan, which was to be towed behind a double-decker bus, purchased for £25 and now partitioned to provide a bathroom, kitchen and cocktail bar. The pilots opted to use local hotels, and lesser mortals were to be bedded down in tents or, in certain cases, the larger aircraft and various trucks. It was discovered later in the tour that the aircraft’s sleeping accommodation extended beyond that permitted for certain employees, for Cobham’s personal charisma and that of his flying team had soon attracted a strong female following. It fell to his secretary, Frances Cameron, to inform her invariably preoccupied boss that the same girls who turned up at successive venues were not aviation enthusiasts as such, but were being transported in a Handley Page W.10 ‘concubine carrier’ as a ‘morale booster’ to keep the boys happy – an arrangement to which, it seems, Cobham was prepared to turn a semi-blind eye. Though an ungainly design, the AS.4s, now named ‘Ferry’, proved to be the air shows’ workhorses, G-ABSI Youth of Britain II and G-ABSJ Youth of Britain III carrying 92,000 passengers in the 1932 season alone. Their big

111

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 111

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

advantage lay in the ground handler being able to extricate ten people and shoehorn in a similar number through opposing doors within, it was claimed, ten seconds, before it trundled off to complete another wide circuit before landing, often, it was said, with wheels still spinning. After one such flight, general manager Dallas Eskell enquired if the passengers had enjoyed the experience, whereupon one lady forcibly replied that she had not, as it was far too bumpy. Eskell, quick as a flash, replied that it was unfortunately unavoidable due to her having been placed over a wheel!. For those with more cash to spare and wishing for a longer flight, a twenty-two seat Handley Page Clive airliner, G-ABYX, firstly named Youth of Australia and later Astra, and two Handley Page W.10 airliners – G-EBMM City of Melbourne and G-EBMR City of Pretoria – were obtained from Imperial Airways. These, however, could only be used for flights with paying passengers when longer grass strips were available, or, it might be added, on the ground when, in the circumstances already described, the ‘concubine contingent’ received their wages. The original touring complement consisted of seventeen pilots, two parachutists and one wing-walker, along with a miscellany of maintenance engineers and ground attendants that included,laundry, cleaning, catering and screening staff, led by Dallas Eskell, newly recruited from Imperial Airways. They had assembled alongside the half-a-dozen aircraft directly registered to Cobham at Hanworth Air Park on 12 April 1932. During the course of the display season, a variety of machines became attached, by prior arrangement, to the core fleet, the most prominent being the four Avro 504Ks operated by Captain Phillips’ Cornwall Aviation Company. These were allowed to offer joy-rides in competition with Cobham’s own aircraft, for which privilege a sizeable percentage of their ‘take’ was passed over to Cobham. Though hundreds of larger-than-life posters were pasted on billboards around the country inviting the public to ‘Fly With Cobham’, he rarely took part in the display’s flying or ground events programme, which he entrusted to Hugh Johnson and Dallas Eskell. Once assured that everything was in order, he would often take off in his DH.9, G-AACR, for the next day’s location, which was usually within 60 or 70 miles of the last one – no distance by today’s standards, but in the pre-motorway days of the Thirties, one that often presented a challenging mix of congested town centres and ill-defined country lanes for the ground support convoy. The first display at Luton was a dismal, wet affair, as were most of those held throughout April, and with gate receipts falling well short of the £300 needed each day to break even, a successful tour looked far from certain. At Walthamstow, however, the weather improved, as did Cobham’s spirit, and the rest of the tour went ahead more or less as

112

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 112

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

Cobham Comes to Town

planned. In true Cobham style, he had insisted before the tour commenced that meticulous attention be given to every administrative detail by Ward, Castlemain and Edwin Rossiter, an ex-press officer from the Air Ministry, recently appointed to give particular attention to publicity. One aspect of this meant determining whether a proposed date for a venue conflicted with that of any other visiting attraction, such as Bertram Mills Circus or, more crucially, a rival air display. If such an outfit had appeared a few weeks previously in the planned location, or even in a nearby vicinity, Cobham considered it enough to have potentially damaged the expected crowd numbers, and insisted on dates and venues being rearranged. The constant changing of the itinerary was a source of major disagreement between Cobham, whose approach was little different from that used to promote his Municipal Aerodrome Campaign, and Dallas Eskell, whose publicity ideas, based on those of Imperial Airways, he thought provided a more up-to-date and sophisticated touch. It was agreed, however, that to gain maximum impact, the display aircraft would appear in formation and provide a grand parade by circling the town or city awaiting their arrival. Always impatient and in a hurry to be elsewhere, Cobham nevertheless was adamant that his pilots and ground engineers looked smart at all times. Hugh Johnson had suggested that uniforms based on the old Royal Flying Corps ‘maternity’ jacket be adopted, but these soon proved to be hot and uncomfortable and were exchanged for tailored white overalls sporting a full golden brevet for the pilots and black overalls, with a half brevet for the ground engineers. Five or six weeks before a display date, Rossiter would inform the town’s authorities and local newspaper editors of the forthcoming event. With three weeks to go, a first advance of two or three men would descend on nearby locations to co-ordinate publicity with main stores and places of entertainment. Ten days ahead, a second contingent would turn up to check that all pertinent arrangements were in place, and with one week remaining, banner staff would arrive to fix streamers and post bills on hoardings etc. It was then the ‘night ahead’ man’s job to make sure that all was in place for the convoy of support vehicles’ arrival the following morning. One of these was the refuelling truck, which, sponsored by National Benzole, was frequently used during a hectic flying programme by the airliner pilot for ‘personal defuelling’. Due to the lack of any nearby toilets, it became the truck driver’s task to park alongside the airliner whilst passengers were being changed over, thus allowing Hugh Johnson to leave his aircraft, engines still ticking over, and then quickly climb up into the cab to discharge the morning’s coffee intake through a gap in the floor. There was no time for niceties when there was money to be made!

113

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 113

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Finally, in the run-up to a display, the ‘arrower’, often assisted by Cobham’s young sons Geoffrey and Michael, had the task of attaching arrow signs to trees, telephone poles or lamp-posts, pointing the way to the landing ground. The only out-sourced staff were local people employed to take the gate money. This rather surprising financial delegation didn’t last long, however, for the older men initially provided by the Corps of Commissioners proved quite incapable under the onrush of people of separating the entrance money from their own. Others employed to ‘take the money’ saw it as an open invitation to do exactly that, before disappearing with amounts of cash well in excess of a legally earned day’s pay. It should be explained that Cobham harboured an intense dislike of what he dismissively referred to as the ‘hedge guests’ or the ‘Aberdeen grandstand’; viewers who invariably congregated on the nearest high ground to watch the flying without paying an entrance fee. To make things as difficult as possible, tall hessian screens were erected around the flying enclosure, but these were not always an adequate deterrent, as will be seen. As with his joy-riding activities with Berkshire Aviation in 1919, it was still necessary to overcome hide-bound official bureaucracy before approval was given to use any space for a landing ground. Witness the following instruction presented to Cobham just prior to a display at Melton Mowbray: ‘To National Aviation Day Ltd, Melton Mowbray Aerodrome Licence 2530 hereby extended to cover Handley Page W.10 subject to reduction of maximum permissible weight to 11,500lb and Airspeed Ferry subject to reduction of maximum permissible weight to 5,100lb. No flying with these types when wind between W-by-S and NNW or W-by-West and NE-by-North or between E-by-North SSE or S-by-East and SW-by-W. 20 ft trees in SW corner of site to be felled before flying with these types commences. These limitations have been notified to Police.’ Presumably some compromise was reached, as the show took place at Chestnut Farm on 10 May 1932. Tall, debonair Charles Turner Hughes (‘Toc H’ to his friends) was a star attraction whose aerobatic record on the tour, flying a Tiger Moth, G-ABUL, specially modified for inverted flight, included no less than 2,190 rolls, 567 stunts, 522 upward rolls, forty inverted ‘falling leaves’ and five inverted loops. During this same period he made 3,380 landings and spent 170 hours inverted. However, at Newcastle, during a momentary lack of

114

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 114

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

Cobham Comes to Town

concentration during the propeller-swinging start-up of a DH.9, he caused ground engineer Percy Allison and his companion to suffer several broken bones between them, putting both men out of commission for the next six weeks. Allison, a young but strong-minded ground engineer, soon proved to be a valuable asset, but readily admitted that his personal relationship with Cobham could never be described as ‘easy’. With so many different types of aircraft carrying out large numbers of short flights, and all having to taxi up to several miles over rough ground each day, the maintenance and servicing requirements proved very demanding, often calling for improvization skills and great patience, especially when dealing with a boss determined to exert his authority. It was in such a situation that Allison had a ‘strong exchange of views’ when, after explaining the need to repair cracked exhaust pipes on the Airspeed Ferry’s engines, he found that Cobham considered the work to be an unnecessary waste of time. Allison later recorded that his illustrious leader then stormed off and avoided him for several days. He added that, although nominally sacked on more than one occasion, by keeping a low profile until the boss’s attention was distracted by other more pressing matters, he managed to remain in his employ for the next forty years. Another unfortunate episode occurred when Captain Fielden, although strongly advised by Allison not to do so, elected to take off a heavily loaded Ferry, down-hill and down-wind. His failure to get off the ground resulted in appreciable damage to the aeroplane, but fortunately none to himself or the passengers. Unfazed by this, Dallas Eskell demonstrated his showmanship capabilities by hurrying to the scene, and after forming the passengers into an attentive group, told them that another aircraft was immediately available for them to continue their flight. Only one bowlerhatted gentleman demurred, saying ‘not bloody likely’ before scurrying off into the crowd. There had been several instances when Fielden’s flying had been unfavourably commented on by the other pilots, and his prompt dismissal and replacement as chief pilot by Hugh Johnson was, they thought, well overdue. Few, if any, escaped Cobham’s withering wrath if a person proved to be careless, but he met his match on one occasion when he berated the vastly experienced Captain Phillips for landing across the path of another machine. Although on this occasion his strong comments were entirely warranted, Phillips’ staff, loyal to a man, demanded that Cobham withdraw his comments – which he reluctantly did. Not so fortunate was Charles Turner Hughes, the pilot of Comper Swift G-ABPY, who, having started its engine, could not manage to re-enter the cockpit before the aircraft started to run away. A ground engineer held on to a wing-tip, causing it to buzz round like an angry bee, and the pilot, as

115

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 115

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

reported at the time, attempted ‘all the while to enter the mad circle like a child trying to enter a skipping game’. A potentially dangerous outcome was only avoided when the Swift ran into a loud-speaker pole. Needless to say, although this impromptu dramatic performance caused the crowd great amusement, it failed to impress an infuriated Cobham. Although the use of the word ‘Circus’ was taboo, it was the only description that could be applied to some events. On one comic occasion, an aircraft, having completed its aerobatic routine, ground-looped after landing, causing it to demolish a tent and to run into several official cars parked nearby. The spectators, having noted the ‘special surprise item’ billed in the programme, thought this was it and wildly applauded the spectacular finish. Not all the flying accidents produced such an entertaining ending. On 5 October, an experienced Cornwall Aviation Pilot, Captain E.D. Crundall, despite warnings from Cobham to carry out his manoeuvres at a minimum of 300ft, came to grief when conducting one spin too many, causing the death of a passenger. Fortunately there was only one press representative attending the show that day and, being a good friend of Cobham’s PR man Edwin Rossiter, the matter was largely brushed over. The formal inquest delivered a verdict of ‘accidental death’ and, apart from commenting on an incorrect action by the pilot, recorded that instructions concerning the use of seat-belts were ‘too vague’. Although these were provided, passengers were not obliged to wear them, nor indeed were encouraged to do so as they slowed down the customer turn-round time. Whilst the powered flight joy-riding aircraft provided the much-needed income, the seemingly unnatural antics of the Cierva C.19 autogiro, C-ABGB, in the hands of A.C. Rawson, was an item on the programme that always proved popular, as was the precise flying and spot landing performances of ‘Jimmy’ Lowe-Wylde in his BAC VII two-seat glider during the early part of the tour. Cobham soon learned that many of his customers had what he called a ‘bullring’mentality’ and that should a crash or similar disaster occur, they would go home happy at having had a good day’s entertainment. To this end, and to prevent people from drifting away too soon, he shrewdly kept Martin Hearn’s wing-walking act and the parachute descents by Ivor Price for the grand finale. Sadly, as will be seen, such gory expectations were fulfilled on more than one occasion. Ex-Ford Motor Company pilot Hugh Johnson was the first to make Cobham aware of spare airfield facilities at Ford Junction airfield, near Littlehampton in Sussex. It was pure coincidence that it was named after the nearby village, and not the Ford Motor Company which had

116

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 116

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

Cobham Comes to Town

previously operated tri-motor airliners from it, and which then became Cobham’s landlord. This meant that in addition to having an impressive headquarters address in London, he now had an ideal location where his aircraft could be stored and maintained during the winter months. Furthermore, it allowed him to take up residence within some 3 miles of the airfield, which meant he could arrive at work on his steeplechaser, Caractacus, and the horse could roam in a nearby field until it was time to return home. Johnson’s notes reveal that soon after having joined Cobham, he was asked if he would ‘stand in’ as his pilot for the flying scenes in a film called The King’s Cup, then being shot at Hanworth. After being requested to purposely carry out several bad landings, with the odd crash mixed in, he concluded that, although it sat outside his immediate job specification, life with his new chief promised to be far from dull. This was shown to be true when, after nearly 200 performances given throughout England, Scotland and Wales, before finishing on 16 October, it was announced that a scaleddown version of the display was to sail within days for South Africa for a four-month tour involving some seventy performances, starting on 1 December in Cape Town. The administrative burden had fallen largely upon Edwin Rossiter, who became immersed in the shipping requirements for the packaging and crating of the aircraft and equipment. His task was further complicated by the addition of a fleet of heavy transport vehicles provided by Leyland Motors, which complemented the saloon cars provided by the Armstrong Siddeley Company. Both vehicle suppliers had agreed to deliver their charges in a creamy white finish that Cobham considered most likely to retain a consistently smart appearance in Africa’s demanding conditions. Once this was all in place, Rossiter faced the daunting effort of organizing the split tour of the UK already proposed by Cobham for 1933. Meanwhile, Leslie Castlemain and chief inspector Dick Goodban had been despatched earlier to South Africa to carry out a general reconnaissance and secure the advance co-operation of town and village elders regarding the staging of displays. Their enquiries met with little opposition, and the wide, flat expanses of territory offered perfect landing and take-off conditions, once they had been cleared of rocks and debris by local convict labour. South African rules and regulations regarding the transportation of goods around the country required all such movements to be undertaken by the state-owned railway company. It was only after a determined effort by young Castlemain that an Act was passed allowing special dispensation for Cobham to move his retinue, under its own steam, from one location to another. Whilst this was a well-earned reward for his efforts, his good intentions in organizing a welcoming flight to greet the

117

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 117

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

liner carrying Cobham and his pilots as it approached Cape Town was not so favourably received, the ‘Old Man’ uncharitably commenting that it was ‘a bloody waste of petrol’. A major obstacle to be overcome in South Africa was the suddenness and ferocity of rainstorms that could instantly flood or destroy the primitive roads linking the tour locations. Nevertheless, upon his arrival, Cobham set about producing a mandate, which, printed in both English and Afrikaans, underlined the future importance of the aeroplane in improving long-distance communications. This was a message heartily endorsed by the country’s own flying hero, Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, and the tour’s main sponsors, Imperial Airways, Armstrong Siddeley and Leyland Motors, each of which were naturally keen to enhance their own trading prospects. The aircraft complement consisted of a DH.66 airliner, G-ABMT, City of Cape Town, which was purchased from and later sold back to Imperial Airways, three Avro Tutors, G-AARZ, G-ABZP and G-ABZR, along with the ever-fascinating Cierva C.19 autogiro. Also featured for the first few performances was an Armstrong Whitworth AW.16, G-ABKF, which, painted in a dazzling red finish and billed as the ‘Red Devil’, provided spectacular aerobatic manoeuvres, until one day an engine seizure was caused by pilot Turner Hughes having neglected to replenish the oil tank. With no replacements available, the aircraft and its pilot were sent home with little in the way of fond farewells from Cobham, leaving Cecil Bebb to fill the aerobatic slot in the programme. The autogiro also proved to be troublesome, for if started up on anything less than a perfectly flat surface, rotor instability would quickly assert itself, the machine shaking violently and threatening to tear itself apart. It was then up to the pilot and passenger to crouch down as low as possible in their cockpits and hope for the best. Fortunately, complete structural disintegration occurred on only two occasions in the four years of autogiro operation on the NAD tours, the first of which, the so-called ‘Dance of Death’, took place on 13 February 1933 at Cape Town. Desperate to keep this novel type of aircraft in the display, it was fortuitous that a local owner was prepared to sell his own machine, G-ABFZ, to Cobham, and in light of this somewhat unnerving characteristic, that Rawson was willing to continue flying it. Soon afterwards, one of the Tutors suffered damage when the pilot, Ogden, misjudged his take-off and deposited it at the bottom of a ravine, luckily without injuring himself. Hugh Johnson recounted the instant terror he felt when, flying the DH.66 over a valley surrounded by hills, he encountered a sudden downdraught that caused passengers and loose objects to hit the cabin

118

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 118

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

Cobham Comes to Town

roof, puncturing the fabric inner lining, before a counteracting updraught forced all on board hard onto the floor. Amazingly, no-one was seriously hurt, although Johnson received a nasty gash over his eye when a Very light pistol flew upwards out of its holster. After landing, Cobham, dabbing the wound with antiseptic, offered tea and sympathy, whilst enquiring, ‘You are going to carry on aren’t you, old man?’ Having discovered that no-one had yet looked down from an aeroplane on the lights of Cape Town, it fell to Johnson to undertake night flights. After each evening’s meal, and while still wearing his dinner jacket, he dutifully proceeded to take several passenger loads, despite his consternation at the local airport having but a single searchlight to aid night landings. More demands were placed on his piloting skills when, at Robertson, a small township in Western Cape Province, he was faced with having to take off from a golf course fairway that merged with another running at right angles to it. This required a full-power charge followed by throttling back on one engine and applying full rudder when so instructed, by a man waving a green flag, to carry on down the second fairway. ‘Little did the passengers know the risks they were paying good money for,’ he commented. The tour proved full of incidents. Parachutist Ivor Price more than once failed to take full account of the less dense air at high altitudes, and was fortunate to survive heavy landings in which he was knocked unconscious. Dallas Eskell’s relationship with Cobham was sorely tested when, on one occasion, he positioned the display crowd line such that all would be staring into a blazing sun. Only a last-minute blistering insistence by Cobham that a change be made to the public enclosure saved the day, but it was not an easy task considering the difficulty attached to repositioning the unwieldy hessian screens. At that time, the separation of whites, blacks and coloureds was strictly enforced in South Africa, and the provision of special ‘whites only’ performances proved to be the only way to satisfy local authorities. As previously mentioned, the inevitable non-paying viewers were anathema to Cobham, who noted that in South Africa the offenders were always white-skinned. The far less privileged black and coloured population always stood patiently in line to pay their money. As in Britain, the tour had attracted a strong female following, as a direct result of which it ended on a tragic note. At Pietermaritzburg, it had been arranged that several socialite ladies would ‘entertain the boys’, which led to Tutor pilot Harold Lawson becoming romantically involved with one of them, despite being attached to another at home. The situation became more complicated when the display’s announcer, Ross, challenged

119

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 119

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Lawson for her affections. This, it was later determined, led Lawson to declare that he intended to ‘end the tour with a bang’, which he most certainly did when, on 17 February 1933, he dived his aircraft precisely into the white circle marking the centre of Cape Town’s Wynberg airport, taking Ross’s life along with his own. February had already provided a personal sadness for Cobham when he received news that his father had died. Needing to return home, he left the tour management in the care of Gladys and Dallas Eskell. It was shortly after Cobham left for England that Eskell developed a mysterious migraine condition which, getting progressively worse, also demanded his immediate repatriation. He was accompanied by Leslie Castlemain, who on one occasion had to summon assistance to prevent his deeply depressed colleague from jumping overboard. Fortunately, by the time the ship reached Madeira, Eskell’s health had greatly improved, and he went on to make a full and robust recovery in time for the 1933 display season. The four-month venture was not a financial success. Although 13,593 passengers had produced £8,000 in flying receipts, the final figures showed a loss of £6,000. Though this was clearly a big disappointment, Cobham showed a brave face to the world, declaring that his display had shown the young men of South Africa that the way forward lay in the air and had encouraged them to fly. Judging by the number of South African aircrew who volunteered to serve in the Second World War, he was probably right. Prior to leaving for South Africa in November 1932, Cobham had not only laid out his plans for the 1933 display season, but, as already stated, had also started to consider the implications of a flight refuelled non-stop flight to Australia. Both projects were highly dependent on detailed route and publicity planning undertaken by Captain Ward and Edwin Rossiter at the London office. However, the absconding of the NAD secretary, Henry Barker, to join Jimmy McEwan King – whose firm, Galbraith King and Company, had looked after the display’s printing requirements – to form the British Hospitals Air Pageant (BHAP),dominated his thinking. The organizational expertise the pair had gained in 1932 was thus now to be transferred into a competitive camp, whose business aims and methods Cobham soon suspected to be downright fraudulent. His doubts were later confirmed when BHAP’s accounts revealed that only a minute proportion of its turnover was made available to hospitals. Nevertheless, to counter what he at first perceived as a threat, he decided to run two separate tours concurrently, on the eastern and western sides of the UK, with the former managed by himself and the other by Dallas Eskell. Starting in the south, both were to move progressively northwards, aiming to serve a total of 350 locations. Miraculously, all arrangements fell into place, with new flying

120

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 120

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

Cobham Comes to Town

and ground staff recruited and additional aircraft purchased, overhauled and freshly certificated in time for both touring teams to commence business by mid-April 1933. In parallel with attending to the tour details, Cobham was also giving increasing thought to a problem that had frequently presented itself during his earlier long-distance flights: how best to obtain longer range and greater payloads for the same basic aircraft configuration? This was a question that had teased even the earliest designers and had resulted in several record-breaking attempts involving the passing of fuel, oil and other consumables from one aircraft to another while in flight. Cobham had already carried out preliminary experiments in 1930 and 1931 with a DH.60G Moth, G-ABAF, piloted by himself, supplying fuel to a DH.9, G-AACR, flown by Squadron Leader Bill Helmore, which convinced him that a worthwhile demonstration of this latest ‘performance enhancer’ needed to be carried out. The first passing of fluids in the air done in this country had involved the transfer of water between two Bristol F2B Fighters, and was carried out by the Royal Aircraft Establishment as early as 1924. More recently, the public had witnessed an air-refuelling operation during the Royal Air Force Display at Hendon in 1931, and, virtually in parallel with Cobham’s latest thinking, the Hon. Mrs Victor Bruce had also devised the novel procedure of standing up in an opening in front of the cockpit of her Saunders Roe Windhover flying-boat, G-ABJP, and catching a cord stretched between a Bristol Fighter tanker and an auxiliary aircraft, usually a Gipsy Moth. Once caught, the cord was cut and the half attached to the tanker used to pull down a hose, thus allowing a transfer of fuel to take place. Commercially impracticable though it may have been, on her third attempt to establish a world endurance record, and after fifty-four hours in the air, the redoubtable lady’s efforts were only brought to an end when a faulty oil-feed system forced her to land in Portsmouth harbour. With increasing interest being shown both in this country and America, where it was already an indispensable aid to record-breaking flights of several hundred hours, rather than for serious commercial purposes, Cobham realised that if he was to contribute to progress, there was little time to lose. Being so preoccupied with the immediate NAD tour, it came almost as a surprise when the Airspeed Courier, G-ABXN, the first British production aircraft to feature a retractable undercarriage, was delivered to Ford. Although he had ordered the machine a year previously and had insisted upon a strict contract deadline, its late arrival was overlooked, since Cobham’s own plans for the flight to Australia had become seriously delayed. The Air Member for Supply and Organization, Air Vice-Marshal

121

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 121

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Sir Hugh Dowding, mindful of air refuelling’s possibilities for service use, agreed to provide aircraft for tanker support, but suggested India as a less expensive alternative that would still serve to prove Cobham’s point. The ever-dependable Lord Wakefield offered £5,000 toward purchasing the Courier, along with a further £5,000 for incidental expenses. Sir John Siddeley promised the loan of a geared Lynx radial engine, and with Airspeed also undertaking to modify the NAD’s Handley Page W.10s for tanker duties, the main elements for the non-stop flight to India were now fitting neatly into place. However, even Cobham was limited to a twenty-four hour day and all further action had to be suspended as the 1933 display tours got underway on 14 and 15 April at Dagenham and Southend. All went well until Cobham’s team arrived at Middleton Park in Leeds for a two-day stay on 11 June. It was here that two young boys, 12-yearold Fred Smith and Leslie Taylor, aged 8, defying repeated warnings, rode their bicycles under the Handley Page Clive airliner as it came in to land. Both were killed outright. The subsequent Court of Inquiry cleared Hugh Johnson of any blame but, despite a local furore, Sir Alan Cobham avoided further local slingshots when the inscription on the boys’ joint headstone ascribed the accident to an airliner belonging to ‘Sir Richard Cobham’. The end of the month saw the No. 1 display in Ireland for an intensive six-week programme, starting in Dublin. Such a venture was not without risk, firstly that of engine failure while crossing the Irish Sea. An apprentice flying with Jack Holmes in the back cockpit of an Avro 504K, and barely discernible under a pile of spare equipment, was puzzled when, almost as an afterthought, he was given an inflated bicycle tyre inner tube and advised, above the roar of the engine, that it ‘might come in handy’ if forced down. Cobham also pointed out the strong possibility of disruption, or worse, from anti-British political factions convinced that the tour was a government-backed reconnaissance exercise prior to a fullscale bombing attack. Seeing slogans urging the boycotting of the display next to Cobham’s own advertising led many of his personnel to wonder if, faced with such hostility, it was wise to continue. Reassuring his team that it was, he nevertheless issued stern warnings to all his staff about the dangers of introducing politics or religion into any conversations in pubs or other similar establishments. At the very outset, a gang of vociferous women in Dublin’s Phoenix Park made it abundantly clear that Cobham’s own programme sellers were not required, as they, by tradition, had the sole selling rights. They also demanded that the stocks of programmes be handed over at a nominal price. Failure to do so would, it was promised, invite rapid

122

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 122

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

Cobham Comes to Town

serious consequences. With discretion proving the better part of valour, this minor difficulty was soon resolved and the show got off to a rousing start. All went well until, following Martin Hearn’s ‘wing-walking’ performance, the show’s new announcer, ‘Death’ Bulmore (so called because of his pasty, cadaverous appearance), called for a volunteer from the crowd to ‘try his hand’. No-one was willing to take up the offer until a strange-looking apparition in a comic suit weaved his way forward, determined to ‘have a go’. After having great trouble even getting into the aeroplane, he was given exaggerated instructions as to what to do, amidst much cheering and clapping. After a bumpy, seemingly hazardous takeoff and one or two low passes over the crowd, he appeared again, this time with his legs frantically waving about below the fuselage, only to drop as the aeroplane pulled away. What had happened was that, with the aircraft briefly out of sight, Hearn had substituted a rubber dummy, as might have been guessed by the height it bounced after hitting the ground, but it was realistic enough to have a priest run out to administer the last rites and a highly pregnant lady go into premature labour in the back of a car. Cobham considered that perhaps this particular stunt wasn’t in good taste after all, and wisely deleted it from future displays. It was during 1933 that, following other potentially dangerous incidents with different outfits, ‘wing-walking’ was officially banned in the UK. It is perhaps surprising that the authorities had not ordered a restriction earlier, for in 1929 Edwin Rossiter, then working at the Air Ministry, had issued Notice to Airmen No. 41, which stated: ‘The attention of all concerned is directed to the structural damage which may be caused through demonstrations of ‘wing-walking’ being carried out during flight on light aeroplanes such as the de Havilland Moth, Avro Avian, Blackburn Bluebird, Simmonds Spartan etc. ‘If the practice of ‘wing-walking’ on the type of aircraft referred to above is pursued, it will be necessary for the Air Ministry to prohibit it under Article 9 (4) of the Air Navigation (Consolidation) Order, 1923.’ It is interesting to note that the caution exercised by the Air Ministry was probably influenced by the many injuries and fatalities that occurred in America, where ‘barnstorming’ stunts were much more dangerous than those carried out in the UK. Common sense finally asserted itself only after the passing of the United States Air Commerce Act in 1926, that required American pilots

123

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 123

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

to be licensed and to be shown as ‘proficient’, aircraft to be registered and deemed airworthy, and ‘wing-walkers’ and ‘plane change artistes’ to wear parachutes, which many ‘old-timers’ considered unacceptable. However, with no official limitations yet in place, it was Hearn who became the central figure in an alarming incident at Uxbridge that had all the makings of a tragic ending. Having rigged up a trapeze frame which could be lowered some 60ft below the fuselage of the Handley Page Clive airliner, his idea was to swing backwards and forwards, in a large arc, minus of course a parachute. Not that one would have been of much use had he fallen at that low altitude. Cobham, however, only agreed to the stunt providing he had a belt hidden round his waist with strong wires running up his sleeves and connected to the trapeze crossbar. When the time came to wind him in, the cable attached to the top of the trapeze slipped off the windlass drum and jammed itself in the winding handle cogs, leaving him suspended in the air. Fortunately, some ropes had been taken on board before that very flight, and after tying one to a heavy spanner to prevent it flaying about in the slipstream, it was secured to the aircraft and lowered to the stranded Hearn. The crew, including Cobham, assisted by some passengers (for the airliner never flew empty), then hauled him up to safety. What made the rescue act more dramatic was the fact that the aircraft was flying with minimum fuel in the tanks, and Johnson later said that ‘had this rescue act gone on any longer, all would have perished in a blaze of glory’, although it was hardly likely that those on board would have considered ‘glory’ an appropriate epitaph. The undertaking of the tours required total flexibility and a willingness to close ranks when necessary. Such was the case when Turner Hughes, who had certainly blotted his copybook with the AW.16 in South Africa, tendered his resignation to become a test pilot for Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft mid-way through the Irish programme. Though this meant his undoubted skills would be sorely missed, it gave Geoffrey Tyson the opportunity to become Cobham’s chief aerobatic pilot, in addition to flying his DH.83 Fox Moth, G-ABWF, on passenger-carrying duties. However, while carrying out such a flight, he was struck from below by a DH.60G Moth, EI-AAI, piloted by Captain William Elliott, chief instructor of the local Irish Aero Club. Elliott’s unauthorized presence resulted in the Fox Moth’s undercarriage being torn off, and Elliott and his passenger, William Ower, both losing their lives. Tyson managed to land safely, but was blamed by an anti-British section of the crowd, who, carrying lighted torches, later advanced on the Cobham encampment bent on violence. This was only prevented by the local police, who performed with great courage and determination, but in light of the political sensitivity, no mention of the

124

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 124

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

Cobham Comes to Town

incident appeared in the leading press. At more friendly venues, Johnson recalled that the Guinness tent proved a great incentive in encouraging the crowds, which always contained a high proportion of priests, to fly. ‘Get nearer to God’ was a familiar inducement and, as the evenings wore on, many would-be aviators had to be forcibly persuaded that sitting on the undercarriage axle was not perhaps the best way to go about it. As in Cape Town, the offer of night flights provided the opportunity to swell the coffers, and the waiting queues meant that Johnson was continually implored by Cobham to ‘just take up another load or two’, often until well beyond midnight. By this time, the ever-persevering Johnson’s ability to concentrate on landing, aided only by the lights of the National Benzole refuelling truck, was understandably wavering. Surprisingly, the trials and tribulations that attended the tour did not affect Cobham’s decision to return two months later, on 11 September, for a three-week ‘curtain call’ visit. This, however, brought its own sadness when, just one day before returning to England, the crash of an Aerofilms Spartan three-seater, G-ABZH, at Colpe Farm, Drogheda, took the life of its pilot, Captain K. Rose. Aerofilms had become an essential part of the touring retinue and had even, as on this occasion, taken to providing passenger flights. Unsurprisingly, this event did not encourage Aerofilms to support the display tours so robustly in future years. Both the No. 1 and No. 2 tours featured a dozen aircraft, made up of a mix of Avro 504s, DH Moths and Tiger Moths, HP airliners, autogiros and a Blackburn Lincock ‘fighter’, used for demonstrating ‘radio-controlled’ aerobatics. These were flown by Geoffrey Tyson and Cecil Bebb. Hugh Johnson was the mainstay airliner pilot and, in addition to a retaining fee, received a commission based on the number of passengers flown. This encouraged him to advance the throttles of the open exhaust engines when taxiing close to the announcer’s microphone. This exceptionally noisy intrusion encouraged the announcer to concentrate his efforts on filling Johnson’s aircraft full of passengers before the other pilots received their quota. It was Johnson who caused parachutist Harry Ward, ‘The Yorkshire Birdman’, serious problems during a display at Weymouth on 23 August 1933. The customary procedure was for Ward to stand on a small platform fixed between the HP Clive’s top and bottom wings as it climbed to a prearranged height for his descent. After being pulled off the wing to float gracefully down, Johnson would circle around him, allowing the passengers to witness his progress. On this day, things did not go according to plan, for having manoeuvred the airliner too close, the turbulence produced by the Jupiter engines resulted in Ward’s parachute being turned

125

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 125

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

inside out into, as he described it, ‘an untidy bundle of laundry’. Arriving on the ground much faster than usual, Ward suffered a broken ankle, dislocated hip and severe concussion. Apart from the physical damage, he was most concerned about the hospital expenses and loss of future earnings, for it was impossible in those days to take out any insurance for such high-risk occupations. When he appealed to Cobham about the likely cost of hospitalization, he was told that he should have made proper provision for such mishaps from his generous £16 per week retainer and the £2 per jump allowance. However, irrepressible as ever, when he left the hospital after a month’s stay, he directed the bill to NAD’s London headquarters and heard no more about it. When told by the medical staff that he would never jump again, his feisty response was, ‘we’ll damn well see about that’, one typical of the determined breed of aerial performers on the airshow circuit. Ward did go on to feature with other ‘flying circus’ troupes and to help in creating the RAF’s Parachute Training School at Ringway, Manchester, during the Second World War. He finally passed away in 2000 aged 97. While both No. 1 and No. 2 tours were progressing up the country, Cobham and Eskell made nightly contact to compare their respective daily takings. Not wishing for the amounts to be overheard, they devised a simple code that a farthing (one quarter of a penny) would represent £25. In those pre-decimal coinage days, sixpence (twenty-four farthings), for example, equated to £600. Whilst the amounts were usually of this order, after a two-day period of exceptional weather, and ideally situated between three large Yorkshire metropolises – Barnsley, Huddersfield and Sheffield – Eskell could barely contain his excitement when he reported takings which added up to two shillings, fivepence and three farthings – just £25 short of £3,000. Despite this being a massive increase on the average gate money, Eskell apologized to Cobham for having missed his target, but still expecting fulsome praise for a grand effort, understandably felt somewhat miffed when the sole reply was, ‘By God, we need it!’ In June 1933 at Cambridge, heads turned when a slim, attractive brunette clad in white overalls stepped out of a visiting DH Moth. Cobham, instantly drawn to any beautiful woman, immediately recognized her to be Jean Batten, who would shortly achieve worldwide fame as New Zealand’s ‘Queen of the Air’ following her record-breaking flights to and from Australasia. Her purpose in dropping in to see Cobham was to enquire if she could join the tour, but whilst he was very keen for her to do so, his senior pilots, Johnson and Tyson, were firmly against the idea. Their reasoning was that, although well able to cope with long-distance flying, she had little experience of operating out of short fields, which,

126

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 126

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

Cobham Comes to Town

coupled with the rigours of display touring, might well put extra pressure on the other pilots. It was therefore with the greatest regret that her request was refused. Cobham later recalled her playfully saying, many years afterwards, ‘You know Alan, you were the only man who ever turned me down!’ Though regarded as a prime opportunist who rarely missed a trick, her omission must have been one that he found difficult to believe he had assented to. Mention has already been made of the hessian screens which, it was hoped, would frustrate the non-paying public determined to see the display. Youngsters on occasions cut holes in the screens and poked their heads through, only to soon feel a sharp crack across the backside from a cane-wielding attendant. To show he meant business, Cobham employed two young lads who, each mounted on a motorbike, were told to aim at the crowd on any nearby high ground and to make them scatter. This measure seemed to have had some success, but at Alton in Hampshire on 24 April 1933 it nearly had disastrous consequences. Terry Brien was fast approaching the line of unwelcome guests when, instead of moving sharply out of his way, they threw themselves flat on the ground. At the same time his motorbike was hit by the wheel of a low-flying Avro 504K flown by ‘Jock’ Mackay who, unaware of Brien below, was also attempting to scatter the group. Brien, concentrating on his task, hadn’t heard Mackay’s approach due to the loud noise of his own engine, and one can imagine his shock at seeing the whirling propeller and undercarriage skid suddenly appearing over his shoulder, either of which would have precipitated a speedy but decidedly messy end. After regaining his wits and composure, Brien reported back to Cobham, who initially attributed the loss of the headlight and brake control lever to carelessness, but soon realized that a shocking accident had been so narrowly averted. Although display competition had dulled the attendance figures, the 1933 season was judged to have been a success. A total of 306 towns were visited, and of the 800,000 people who paid to see the shows, almost a quarter went on to have a flight. Twenty-two pilots took part in the tours, along with 100 ground staff, and although there had been a few close calls, apart from the deaths of the two boys at Leeds, not a single flying passenger had been harmed in any way. It was with great pride that, as a grand finale, Cobham arranged for all the aircraft from both No. 1 and No. 2 tours to meet up over his London offices before heading for the winter base in Sussex. After bringing the season to a close, Cobham decided to revert to a single tour in 1934, but one that would visit more towns. In preparation for this, he despatched three of his senior pilots – Tyson, Bebb and Parkinson

127

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 127

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

– to carry out a thorough aerial survey looking for more suitable landing sites. This cost-effective move considerably reduced the onerous winter task his teams had previously experienced when negotiating with difficult landowners. With the proposed 1934 touring arrangements in Rossiter’s safe hands, the sight of the Airspeed Courier in the hangar at Ford now forced Cobham to face his self-delayed task of flying non-stop to India. This was easier said than done, for he had, among many other distractions, seriously considered joining Sir Malcolm Campbell on an expedition into the Kalahari Desert on a hunt for gold. Campbell’s exhortations had proved hard to resist, but difficulties with the South African authorities led to Cobham’s unwillingness to participate and the project soon faded. Thoughts of India, however, grew stronger!

128

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 128

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

Chapter Nine

A Time of Transition

P

utting aside for a moment further description of the 1934 and 1935 display tours, Cobham’s attention had returned to the problem that had plagued aircraft designers since the early days of flight: how to overcome the simple fact that the heavier an aircraft’s take-off weight, the longer the distance required for it to become airborne and the greater the power necessary to sustain it in flight. He reasoned that if an aircraft’s weight could be minimized by carrying the least amount of fuel for taxiing and take-off, but which could be topped up once in flight, the power requirement, and hence engine size, could be reduced and the payload or range capability greatly increased. This possibility brought other major advantages. With, theoretically, little or no need to land or provide bases for refuelling en route, the time and costs saved would be enormous. Such a capability seemed to provide potential benefits for both commercial and military users. At this stage, likely difficulties such as ensuring that a tanker and receiver could rendezvous at night, or in cloudy and turbulent conditions, or what to do should a technical fault delay the tanker’s arrival, were considered to be operational problems that could be sorted out in due course; of paramount necessity was the need to establish the principle of air-refuelling. One might perhaps add, before someone else did! The Courier had required little modification for it to act as a refuelling receiver. A hatch behind the crew’s seats, when opened in flight, allowed an operator to stand, half in and half out of the aircraft, ready to catch a weight suspended on the end of a cord hauling line trailed by the tanker. This in turn enabled a hose with a trigger-controlled nozzle on the end to be pulled down and inserted into a pipe leading to the tanks. That part of the procedure was relatively simple, some 200 gallons flowing under gravity usually being taken on-board within five minutes. The difficult bit was firstly making sure that while manoeuvring the Courier into position behind and below the tanker, the weighted cord did not foul the propeller. Of equal concern was the possibility of the weight suddenly

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 129

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

swinging round to engage with the operator’s head. One can do no better than to quote the words of Geoffrey Tyson, who, along with display pilots Bremridge and Johnson, had taken part in the early assessment trials. He said: ‘Making the original contact with the tanker involved a certain amount of juggling in the Courier both for the pilot and the “refuellee” – mostly for the pilot. He could make or mar the operation. But the “refuellee” had to be hardy and appropriately dressed, for he stood with the upper-half of his body exposed to the slipstream with a curved handle walking stick in his hand, ready to catch whatever came his way. From the belly of the W.10 tanker, was trailed a heavy picture cord and on it a small football filled with lead shot. I say “small” for it wasn’t a man-sized ball, it was the kind one gives to small boys at Christmas when they’re not old enough to stub their toes on the big ones. Small diameter cord ensured low drag as did the high solidity of the ball, so, all in all, a fairly steep angle of trail was obtained – a kind of quarter elliptical arc. The Courier was a single-engined aircraft so there were two ways of bringing the football to the walking stick, either to get the port wing-tip about six feet above the ball and shunt left or, line up directly behind and to bring the ball up behind the propeller and then pull up slightly. I preferred the latter because it is easier to fly accurately looking straight ahead, than with a crick in the neck and eyeballs off centre; one then seems to get an extra dimension, though in fact there isn’t. ‘With practice, and in stable air conditions, it wasn’t too difficult to bring the ball over the prop disc, [and] one could then drop it onto the cabin roof and roll it back. But in bumpy conditions it was a different matter, the bowed line would change shape, always at the critical moment when you were about to run the prop underneath. The football would then belie its appearance of a child’s toy and become a lethal weapon. If one was trying the wing approach method it would thud onto the wing, if the direct approach was chosen it would suddenly run down the propeller disc a bare foot or two in front of it, causing an involuntary jerking back of the throttle to get out of the danger zone. It was then a repeat of the “cat and mouse” game to reposition ourselves. Above, the tanker pilot would be getting tired of trying to fly to plus or minus six inches of his allotted height and muttering “Why the hell doesn’t he get a move on?” In the Courier it was “Why the hell doesn’t he keep still?”

130

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 130

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

A Time of Transition

‘Plainly the solid object (in some cases a paint tin full of old nails etc. or a motor horn rubber bulb full of lead shot) had to be replaced by something less likely to cause damage – particularly to the propeller.’ Sir Alan made vivid mention of one occasion when, attempting the wing-tip approach, the hauling line carrying the weighted end became entangled in the gap between the port outer wing structure and the end of the aileron, causing him to spin precariously out of control. Faced with impending disaster directly over Chichester Cathedral, he reportedly apologized to Helmore, acting as ‘refuellee’, for what was about to become a terrible end, Helmore saying in return, ‘Not to worry old boy, we had a good time didn’t we?’ All was not lost, however, for Helmore had noticed that if, contrary to the normal corrective action, the aileron movement was increased, the gap in which the cable was trapped would open up. Shouting his discovery to Cobham, the problem was quickly overcome. Both men admitted to having been severely shaken by the experience and, upon landing, it was a very subdued pair who retired for the debriefing session. It had been a very close-run thing. At one of the customary round-the-table chats, it was decided that something was needed that would disintegrate on touching the propeller – a container of water for instance. Hugh Johnson, whose mind might not have been entirely on the immediate problem, produced a condom and suggested that it might prove to be the answer. A car was despatched post-haste to the local chemist, and subsequent flight tests at low level over the Ford airfield showed the water-filled samples streaming behind the Fox Moth, stretched to bursting, which they eventually did, but the point was made and within a week Dunlop provided heavierduty rubber bags. Apparently some ladies had turned up to witness the testing, after which everyone adjourned to the Beach Hotel in Littlehampton to celebrate the birth of the water bag method of making contact. Thereafter, the dangling spheroids were approached with gay abandon, a couple of test bursts on the propeller having confirmed that it remained damage-free. The tanker problem was partially solved, when, released from the 1934 display tours, both HP W10s had tall cylindrical tanks installed by Airspeed (now fully transferred to Portsmouth) in the passenger compartments and windlasses fitted to lower and raise the refuelling hose. For the flight to India, one of these, G-EBMM, was to refuel the lightly loaded Courier over the Isle of Wight and the other, G-EBMR, used to provide the same service over Malta. True to his word, Dowding agreed to provide a Victoria

131

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 131

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

transport at Aboukir in Egypt and a Valencia bomber at Shaibah in the Persian Gulf for temporary tanking duties, the conversion work being supervised by company engineer Percy Allison. The Courier, with Cobham as pilot and Bill Helmore as co-pilot, left Portsmouth at 6.35 am on 22 September 1934 and, dutifully refuelled within five minutes, set course for Marseilles. The weather was largely overcast but non-threatening until at Avignon, when they flew into clear blue skies. As the Courier was not equipped with radio, an arrangement had been made for a report to be sent from the airport at Marseilles to Malta informing them of Cobham’s progress. Accordingly, a low, slow pass in front of the control tower was assumed to have triggered off the message. This, however, did not happen, and Hugh Johnson was left to guess their probable time of arrival. His assumption of 4.00 pm proved to be entirely correct, and once the Courier was spotted in the distance he was immediately in the air ready to pass fuel as planned. The operation went as anticipated but following the disconnection, Cobham found the engine refusing to respond to his throttle movements. Moving the lever fully forward or back had no effect whatsoever. Fortunately, having just turned, the Courier was pointing toward Malta away to the west, with Kalafrana Bay clearly visible as a landmark he remembered well from his visit in the Singapore. Now, faced with a long glide from 3,000ft, he aimed for the RAF aerodrome at Hal Far. Although he no longer had engine control, it did manage to provide some thrust, ticking over at 1,000 rpm for a good part of the way before cutting out completely. Malta is a rocky place, and the locals had, over the ages, collected the large stones from cultivated areas and used them to build a network of surrounding walls some 3‑4ft high. Cobham knew that lowering the Courier’s undercarriage would increase the drag and lower the airspeed further toward the stalling level. He also realized that should he misjudge his glide, a stone wall would soon put paid to further progress, and with the large load of fuel just taken on board a conflagration would certainly result. He later reckoned that his clearance over the aerodrome’s boundary wall was no more than 3ft before he scraped along the ground with the two-bladed propeller in the vertical position, which did it no good at all. Both hurriedly exited the cabin in case the rough landing had caused fuel to escape, but fortunately none had. A number of airmen soon came running up and, having regained his composure, Cobham asked them to release the engine cowling. Everything appeared to be spotless, but the throttle linkage connecting the cockpit lever to the carburettor was hanging in two halves. These would normally be connected by a cotter pin held in place by a split pin.

132

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 132

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

A Time of Transition

It was all too apparent after examining the cotter pin, which had some fluff in the hole the split pin should have gone through, that it had never been locked in place and had slowly vibrated itself loose. Cobham rightly considered this to be an almost criminal oversight. The machine had been passed by Airspeed’s works inspection and the Air Ministry’s Aircraft Inspection Department (AID), neither of which had noticed the assembler’s oversight. Whilst lucky to have managed a safe forcedlanding, the fact that they had survived some ten hours in the air, at times over mountainous country and stretches of water that would have imperilled their chances of survival, led him to think amidst his anger that it must have been the continuous throttle movements during the actual refuelling operation that finally shook the cotter pin out of position. The vertical position of the propeller seemed to provide a symbolic exclamation mark at the end of the whole sorry mishap, for had it ended in the horizontal plane it would have been possible to lift the aircraft, lower the undercarriage and fly it back to England. Carrying on to India was not an option, as the whole point of the exercise was to fly to Karachi non-stop and it was now necessary to await the delivery of a replacement. All this misfortune, however, paled into relative insignificance when word was received, just a half an hour after landing, that G-EBMM, which had refuelled them over the Isle of Wight, had crashed near Halton on its way back to the air display at Coventry, killing the pilot, H.C. Bremridge, and four other crew members. The failure of a bolt had resulted in the tailplane distorting and the aircraft entering a loop from the top of which, still inverted, it spun into the ground. This disaster required Cobham and Helmore to return home immediately by ship and rail, leaving Johnson to dispose of the remaining HP.W10, which had come to the end of its useful life, and to fly the Courier back to Ford after repair. This he started to do, but there was one more twist of fate waiting. After arriving in Rome, he parked the Courier as instructed next to the control tower whilst he went to organize fuelling details before proceeding to Pisa. When attending to this, he heard a crash and, on turning round, saw that an Italian Air Force training aircraft had landed right on top of the Courier. After arranging for the badly damaged aircraft to be shipped home, Johnson also returned by train. It was unsurprising that after all the planning, expense and loss of life incurred, Cobham experienced a deep depression, but this dire situation did not dilute his enthusiasm for air-refuelling. However, it called for a great deal of cleverly orchestrated public relations work to convince the media that the succession of accidents were in no way associated with what he had set out to prove. Yet there were detractors who lost little

133

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 133

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

time in voicing their doubts, and he could not deny that the events of 22 September had a serious adverse effect on the acceptance of air-refuelling. There was no suggestion of trying to repeat the exercise. The cost of repairing the Courier would have been prohibitive and the tanker working party could not remain at Basra indefinitely. After meetings with his major sponsors and Sir Hugh Dowding, all of whom expressed sympathetic understanding of the reason for the failed venture, the project was finally abandoned. The battered Courier was eventually repaired and later used by the Portsmouth, Southsea and Isle of Wight Aviation Company Ltd, of which Sir Alan was chairman. On the outbreak of war it was impressed into RAF use before finally being scrapped at White Waltham in September 1940. It can reasonably be said that Cobham didn’t always experience the best of luck regarding the Courier as a type, for on one landing in G-ACLT he forgot to lower the still-novel ‘Retractor’ undercarriage. Unfazed, he brazenly declared that his action had been taken quite deliberately in order to determine how the machine would survive a ‘wheels-up’ touch-down. Though undoubtedly a good try at damage containment, his explanation was regarded as ‘tongue in cheek’ and fooled nobody. As an Airspeed board member, Sir Alan naturally had a strong obligation to support the company’s products. Although he wasn’t a flying participant in the MacRobertson England to Australia Air Race in 1934, he entered a Courier, G-ACVF, flown by Squadron Leader David Stodart, who at 52 years of age was the oldest pilot in the race, which finished in sixth place and was placed fourth on handicap. Following the Courier’s limited commercial success (fifteen were built), the company, now integrated with the Tyneside shipbuilding firm Swan Hunter and retitled Airspeed (1934) Ltd, embarked on the twin-engined Envoy, which owed much to its less-than-illustrious forebear. Nevertheless, Cobham and Johnson visited Spain where, prior to the outbreak of the civil war, interest was shown in a variant that could carry weapons; in January 1935, India, G-ACVJ, was delivered as a demonstrator to the firm’s agent, R.K. Dundas. It had, even in the early years at Airspeed, become apparent that the respective design and technical analysis talents of Hessell Tiltman and Nevil Shute Norway were incompatible, which ultimately led, in 1938, to Norway being ‘invited’ to leave the company, which he did to become a very successful novelist: two of his books, Round The Bend and Marazan, featuring characters based on Cobham and the ‘Flying Circus’. Tiltman then became the company’s managing director. Despite the diverse claims on Cobham’s time, the 1934 display tour, now renamed the National Aviation Day Displays Ltd, had set off on 14

134

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 134

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

A Time of Transition

April travelling round the country, this time in vehicles provided by Ford. Though involving fewer aircraft, a number of new locations were visited which, while continuing to attract sizeable crowds, were not as large as in previous years. A fresh addition to the programme was ‘The Three Aces’ synchronized aerobatic team, led by Cecil Bebb or Geoffrey Tyson. The formation consisted of three Avro 640 Cadets distinctively painted red (G-ACLU), white (G-ACPB) and blue (G-ACOZ), and in addition to their combined team performance, they now provided pylon-racing for passengers seeking an extra thrill. Geoffrey Tyson enhanced his growing reputation by demonstrating precision flying at its best, picking up a white handkerchief with a hook mounted on the wing-tip of his Tiger Moth, G-ACEZ, twice each day, seven days a week. This apparently made a firm impression on the young lads of West Chillington in Sussex (and no doubt everywhere else), for they fixed spikes to the pedals of their bicycles and became a thorough local nuisance in trying to emulate Tyson’s feat. He rounded off his appearances by ‘threading the needle’, a nail-biting stunt which required him to fly between two poles barely a wing-span apart, and underneath a rope festooned with flags, only a few feet above the ground. Having done this, he immediately carried out a loop, at the bottom of which, with wheels almost touching the ground, he passed under the rope again. On one occasion his wheels did touch the ground, compressing the undercarriage slightly, whereupon Cobham prevented him from repeating the stunt until a more powerful machine could be provided to tighten the loop. Though prices varied, the normal cost of a seat in one of the aircraft participating in the opening Grand Formation Flight was ten shillings (50p), as indeed it was for any of the other set events listed on the programme. The main exceptions were the £1 charged for a fully aerobatic experience in the Mongoose-powered Avro 504N, G-ACOK, flown by Captain Phillips, and the five shilling (25p) four-minute joy-hops, of which Phillips reckoned to complete twelve per hour at peak periods. The big variable for any flying display is, of course, the weather. Accurate forecasting was still a thing of the future for aviators in the mid-Thirties, and conditions could change dramatically even over the relatively short distances between the display venues. Such was the case on 24 May 1934, when the NAD aircraft approaching Scarborough encountered a dreaded sea-fret rolling in across the coast, almost totally obscuring the ground below. This caused a succession of hurried landings on the fortunately still visible beach. However, when a clearing patch of sky later allowed the cavalcade to move off and land on the racecourse, as originally intended, one of the HP.W10s struck a ground support lorry and continued over a

135

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 135

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

ditch, losing the undercarriage and one of its lower wings in the process. A repair team was hastily summoned from Imperial Airways, but when Sir Alan later flew over to inspect the restored machine, his patience and composure were sorely tried when his own propeller was smashed on landing. One of the daredevil stunt pilots who enthralled the crowd was ‘Jock’ Mackay, flying in his Avro 504N, G-ACRS. Dressed up as a country yokel or a mad professor, he would stagger from the ranks of spectators to answer the announcer’s call for flying lesson volunteers. With the engine already running, he would then awkwardly clamber into the cockpit, only to fall out on the opposite side. After finally getting back on-board, he would fully advance the throttle and race more or less forward, leaving the hapless ‘instructor’ enveloped in the slipstream shouting, ‘Stop that man!’ After getting airborne in a series of gyrating leaps and bounds, he would jettison the ‘joy-stick’ (a dummy provided for the purpose), then treat the spectators to a display of ‘stickless flying’. His pièce de résistance entailed climbing out onto the lower wing with the proper control column held in place by a length of ‘bungee’ elastic cord. However, on 30 June 1934, at Cove near Farnborough, his luck deserted him, for having got his leg somehow entangled in the unusual control arrangement, his low-flying machine plunged into the ground. He died soon afterwards, but found sufficient breath and presence of mind to describe what had happened and to place the blame entirely upon himself. On a happier note, a few weeks later, on 25 July, Tyson and Cobham decided to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Louis Bleriot’s crossing of the English Channel. This, however, was to be a flight with a difference, for, although intending to fly over the same strip of water, Tyson, piloting a Tiger Moth, G-ACEZ, was going to do it inverted. When rehearsing the operation during the two preceding days, Tyson had found it difficult to maintain a proper orientation, and therefore asked Cobham to shepherd him in the right direction during the twenty-minute flight. Upon landing, everyone was aghast at Tyson’s appearance, for the whites of his eyes had turned bright scarlet. Fortunately, no permanent harm was done and they returned to normal within forty-eight hours. His penchant for inverted flight nearly got him into trouble soon after this trans-Channel venture when, at an altitude of 600ft, the pin securing his safety harness worked loose and, no longer under firm control, the Tiger Moth entered a steep dive. By gripping the instrument panel with one hand and the control column with the other, he managed to recover a normal attitude at just above tree-top level.

136

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 136

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

A Time of Transition

After visiting 157 locations, ending at Romford on 30 September, the touring team finally arrived back at Ford, thoroughly depressed at having lost their colleagues in the break-up of G-EBMM a week earlier. Upon his return, Cobham had a great many details to attend to, not least the postcrash investigation and the time spent visiting relatives of the deceased. He had, nevertheless, a business to run; in addition to setting up a winter maintenance schedule for his hard-worked aircraft, he announced his intention to carry out one final tour of the UK in 1935. What he decided not to do was to consider any further taking the NAD to India. At the beginning of 1934, it had occurred to him that he might, with a larger and more spectacular display, follow in the footsteps of C.D. Barnard, who had taken his airshow to the sub-continent in 1933. A small reconnaissance team that included Lady Cobham, Leslie Castlemain and Percy Allison was despatched to investigate the suitability of locations etc. Upon their return, a monumental report was prepared, but the overriding conclusion was that proper crowd control would be virtually impossible, as would the taking of any gate money. At Barnard’s displays, vast amounts of debris and litter had caused problems and local administrative officials were not enthused at the prospect of further visits. With thoughts of India finally cast aside, Cobham was now able to direct his energies toward the forthcoming British tour and its, hopefully, profitable closure, securing a way forward for air-refuelling and, undeterred by his previous experience with Cobham-Blackburn Air Lines, creating a new airline. Although the setting up of the NAD tours had acquired its own momentum, with many of the locations having become firm favourites, it was always recognized that new venues needed to be found and extra novelty acts and performances added to the programme. By 1935, this was proving to be far from easy. The country had been well exposed to other itinerant displays that invariably included well-known aviation celebrities – perhaps the most famous being the Mollisons, both of whom made occasional non-flying appearances on the NAD tours. Considering the reasons voiced by Hugh Johnson and Geoffrey Tyson as to why they did not want Jean Batten to become one of the touring pilots, it may be have been Amy Johnson’s joint shareholding in Airspeed that influenced Sir Alan to offer her a flying position on the 1935 tour. This time, however, it was his turn to be rebuffed, as her list of commitments simply wouldn’t allow it. Other factors that had a big impact on the future viability of the NAD were the expansion of the Royal Air Force Reserve and a resurgence of the aircraft industry after a decade or more of relative inactivity.

137

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 137

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

With the government starting to feel unease at the political changes in Europe, new aircraft type requirements were now filtering through to the manufacturing companies, which then had to search for extra staff. Anyone who could claim to have been employed by Cobham, in whatever capacity, was immediately offered what many regarded to have been a thing of the past – steady employment. Ground support personnel willing to tread the nomadic trail were increasingly hard to find. Fortunately, most of the key pilots remained loyal to their demanding boss and were joined by others, keen to add a period with the ‘Flying Circus’ onto their career resumes. Flight Lieutenant Leonard Carruthers, an ex-graduate from the RAF’s prestigious Central Flying School, was one whose new appointment called for flying skills which contrasted strongly with those used in the RAF. He soon proved his worth, completing fifty-two flights on his first day, forty-seven on the following day and eighty-two at the Speke display shortly afterwards. Commencing on 12 April 1935 at Fareham in Hampshire, the tour progressed steadily through the Midlands before departing on a threeweek round of appearances in Ireland, billed as the ‘Irish Aero Club – Cobham Tour’. A special performance was staged at Phoenix Park in Dublin on 12 May to commemorate Irish Aviation Day. Although all the usual joy-riding and aerobatic events were on hand, it was, perhaps surprisingly, ‘glider girl’ Joan Meakin’s graceful demonstrations in her Wolf sailplane, now christened Irish Independent, that most impressed the public and the media. Certainly a novel feature was her voice being relayed to the crowd as she described her manoeuvres by radio-telephone. Of interest was the initiative shown by Cobham’s chief rigger and repair specialist Bill Hartman, who had returned from Ireland to Ford to pick up some spares. Soon after his departure, it was discovered that excessive heat from the HP Clive’s engines had scorched the back of the two propellers, and replacements were urgently needed. A cable was sent to Hartman, who quickly replied, confirming that he had tracked down two four-bladed propellers and was returning with them by rail. Upon arriving at Paddington with the items in a lorry, he faced railway staff astounded that he should think it possible to transport them on a passenger train. No doubt with tongue firmly in cheek, he produced his ground engineer’s licence and explained that he always travelled with a spare pair, along with his toolbox, when called to an emergency. It needed little further persuasion for the station-master to order an extra open wagon to be hitched onto the back of the Fishguard Mail Express. After arriving in Ireland, he was handed a message directing him to Tralee, and, by now an old hand at bluffing his way out of trouble, he successfully

138

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 138

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

A Time of Transition

repeated his outrageous explanation and met up with Cobham, complete with ‘personal baggage’, just twenty-four hours after receiving the call for assistance. Shortly after the tour’s return to the mainland, tragedy struck when, on 30 May, 27-year-old parachutist Ivor Price fell to his death at Woodford aerodrome. A veteran of over 800 descents, he was always meticulous in paying personal attention to the preparation of his equipment. It was his standard practice, whilst packing, to keep the Russell Lobe parachute shroud lines close to the canopy by tying them together with a handkerchief. On this occasion, possibly distracted by watching schoolchildren, he neglected to remove the handkerchief, which prevented the canopy’s deployment. On this day he had jumped in tandem with Miss Naomi Heron-Maxwell, who could only watch in horror as her companion, desperately trying to claw his way up the lines to release the knot, met his end. The show was brought to an immediate and sombre end and the crowd, stunned into silence, departed to the playing of the National Anthem. The resilience called for in being part of a travelling troupe now came to the fore, with Miss Heron-Maxwell bravely performing her regular routine at Retford the following day. Following the display at Gravesend on 30 June, Cobham’s team again split into the No. 1 and No. 2 tour format employed in 1933. Whilst sheer bad luck could never be safeguarded against, Cobham had, throughout all his tours, continually warned his aerial performers against overconfidence and carelessness. Ivor Price’s accident on the No. 1 tour had been hard to categorize, perhaps falling somewhere between bad luck and carelessness, but when on 30 July, also on No. 1 tour, glider pilot George Collins was killed when trying an outside loop, or ‘bunt’, in his Grunau Baby, it could only be put down to reckless pilot error or, as Cobham described it, ‘plain bloody stupidity’. Collins, impressed by Tyson’s demonstrations of this manoeuvre in powered aircraft, had stated that it would be a showstopper if he did the same thing in his glider. Tyson had warned him that it required a good reserve of power to execute the outside loop correctly and that the glider was not sufficiently strong to stand such unusual loads on the wing. Ignoring this advice, Collins paid the ultimate price when, with a hideous crack, one wing detached itself, leaving no one in doubt as to the inevitable outcome. The No. 2 tour also failed to escape serious misfortune. Frederick Marsland, a New Zealander who replaced Price, was not a regular ‘jumper’, but a jack-of-all-trades whose constant catchphrase ‘Take a chance, boy, take a chance!’ seemed to sum up a carefree approach to life. Sadly, in taking his own advice he too experienced a parachute

139

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 139

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

malfunction at Hook aerodrome alongside the Kingston bypass on 4 September. After being pulled off the wing, he fell, enshrouded in silk, and sustained injuries which led to his death in hospital a few weeks later on 23 October. As already mentioned, the restrictions placed on ‘barnstorming’ style displays in this country during the Twenties and Thirties, though far exceeding those that applied in the immediate post-war period in America, bore little resemblance to those in place today. Consequently, sufficient scope remained for courageous and adventurous pilots to engage in performances that had small margins of safety. Geoffrey Tyson would frequently make inverted passes over the crowd at 20ft, which might now be considered just a little dangerous. However, he did make a concession to safety by raising his altitude to 50ft when flying the length of Carlisle’s High Street, doing slow-rolls all the way. His performance resulted in a court hearing at which he explained that this was the usual way to announce a Cobham display and that no-one had complained before. Impressed, the judge imposed only a nominal fine. The number and nature of the accidents recorded do not make for pleasant reading, but especial mention must be made of the disaster that took place on 7 September 1935, just three weeks before the end of the display season, for it cast the darkest cloud over Cobham’s hopes for popularizing aviation. Leonard Carruthers, flying the Westland Wessex airliner, G-ADFZ, was waiting at midday over Blackpool town centre for the other grand parade aircraft to take their usual positions alongside. Suddenly, and without any warning, his machine was struck from below by an Avro 504N, G-ACOD, piloted by Captain Hugh Stewart. Carruthers was able to coax the badly damaged Wessex back to the aerodrome at Squires Gate, but the Avro was sliced in half and Stewart and his passengers, young sisters Lillian and Doris Barnes, all died, one of the girls being thrown out of the aircraft in full view of the horrified holidaymakers thronging the sea-front. The accident naturally brought a torrent of media comment, but not all of it was condemning, as witnessed by the following editorial comment in the next day’s Daily Express: ‘It is the sea which has made Britain great. It is the air which will maintain our greatness. To hold our place we must be predominant in the air, just as we have dominated the sea for generations. That is where Cobham’s Air Circus comes in. Its value as a national institution is that it is teaching people to be air-minded. He is

140

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 140

8/31/2018 10:08:42 PM

A Time of Transition

giving innumerable individuals their first aerial venture and after his instruction many of them will become regular passengers with the great airline companies. ‘Now Cobham has suffered the first passenger loss [sic] since he embarked on his circus. If an omnibus company has a casualty we hear no criticism; no suggestion that the omnibus company should be closed down and go out of business. How much more valuable is Cobham’s air display team than any omnibus line running on the ground.’ Such were Express owner Lord Beaverbrook’s impassioned comments which, though clearly meant to be supportive, were considered by other press commentators to be insensitive, and in light of the accident having happened only the day before, of no value in consoling the deceased’s relatives. There was little opportunity for Cobham to redress the situation before he sold his organization to another famous aviator, CWA Scott, but without the right to use the Cobham name. Although Scott’s newly formed ‘Flying for All’ display attended sixty-four venues in 1936, mainly in Ireland and the south of England, he too, like Cobham, found that the public’s interest had moved on and was now better served by larger spectacular shows such as the Royal Air Force Exhibitions at Hendon. Cobham was frequently asked what he thought had been achieved in undertaking a four-year seasonal display period. He invariably responded by recounting that some three million people had paid to see his shows and that probably the same number had witnessed them gratis. In so doing he had provided an enormous amount of fun and pleasure in what, for many, had been hard and difficult times. His records showed that 990,000 adventurers took to the skies for a thrill that they would, in most cases, remember fondly for the rest of their lives. Whilst expressing great regret at the accidents that had occurred, he pointed out that in light of the laws then governing the business as it evolved, it was perhaps remarkable that in all the shows as well as his own, the rate of mishaps was not considerably higher. However, he took the greatest pride in the fact that, when asked if they had ever flown before, 75 per cent of the young men volunteering for wartime aircrew duties replied: ‘Yes, with Sir Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus!’

141

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 141

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 142

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

Chapter Ten

The Struggle for Success

T

he closing months of 1934 and those throughout 1935 put an enormous strain on Cobham and his organisation. The ill-starred twin tours that brought the National Aviation Day Display to an end reflected a change in the public mood, and Cobham astutely, or so he thought, rekindled his ambition to own and run his own airline. To this end he formed Cobham Air Routes Ltd in May 1935 to carry passengers between Croydon and Guernsey, with intermediate stops at Portsmouth, Southampton and Bournemouth. He also had hopes of extending his services to the Isles of Scilly and to Dublin, Liverpool and London. This time, however, it was Railway Air Services Ltd (RAS), a rival company already operating between Jersey and the mainland, that became a thorn in his side. A report prepared by RAS’s Superintendent, Wing Commander Measures, made life difficult by damning Sir Alan’s choice of the privately owned L’Eree airfield, used by the Guernsey Aero Club, of which he was a member, as unsuitable for airline operations. The report also severely criticized the Air Ministry for granting even a restricted licence for such a small landing area. As if this wasn’t enough, the lack of passengers, which might indicate inadequate customer research, immediately threatened success. The continued political unrest in Ireland certainly didn’t help the airline’s intended expansion. But it was the loss of one of its Westland Wessex airliners, G-ADEW, off the Dorset coast whilst heading for Bournemouth on the evening of 3 July 1935, and the death of its pilot, W.H. Ogden, in spite of the rescue of the sole passenger, a Mr Grainger, that proved to be the last straw. Within weeks, Cobham’s airline, which can be said to have barely got off the ground, was sold to Olley Air Services. (Ironically, in 1973, the Guernsey Post Office issued a 3d stamp showing G-ADEW as representing the three Wessex aircraft used by Cobham Air Routes, to commemorate fifty years of commercial flying to the island.) Cobham then turned his restless energy toward the refuelling of aircraft in flight, the Articles of Association for a brand new company, Flight

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 143

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Refuelling Ltd (FRL), having been already registered on 29 October 1934. Whilst this unambiguous title left no doubt as to the company’s raison d’être, it was in later years a choice that both Sir Alan and his successor, Sir Michael Cobham, came to regard as limiting customer perception of its wider range of products. Having sold off the NAD assets, Cobham initially retained just five staff members, Hugh Johnson being the first to be officially appointed as an FRL employee, with others encouraged to return by the end of the year. The first problem to be addressed was to determine which user organization would derive the most benefit from, and indeed would hopefully contribute to, the development of air-refuelling. Imperial Airways was the obvious civil operator, for it was now wedded to the growing need to provide a mail and passenger-carrying service across the Atlantic. Cobham, however, faced strong competition, for the airline’s technical general nanager, Major Robert Mayo, had already submitted and received approval for a scheme that would enable heavier loads to be carried over longer distances. His proposal involved using a Short S.20 flying-boat, Maia, as a lower component to carry aloft a Short S.21 seaplane, Mercury, already fully topped up with fuel and carrying a decent mail payload. Upon reaching an appropriate height and speed, Mercury would separate from Maia and proceed on its way. One example of this composite combination was built to serve as a ‘proof of concept’ demonstrator, and throughout the middle and late Thirties it showed its potential and might claim to have taken a small step in the direction of satellite launching, but as a means of achieving commercial success its limitations were soon revealed. To enable the carrying of a worthwhile number of passengers, much larger upper and lower components would have been required. The economics of such an arrangement, requiring the parent flying-boat to spend most of its time on the water, would also have given the company’s accountant much to think about. Another possibility considered in the late Thirties was the establishing of seadromes, spaced at intervals across the Atlantic. It was intended that these would serve as bases for tankers and provide meteorological data, but the high cost involved and the vulnerability of such structures to attack from the air or sea did not weigh in their favour. Another scheme under consideration by Imperial was that of using a steam-driven catapult to launch a machine into the air, thereby relieving it, in theory at least, of the need to carry the fuel and to incorporate engines powerful enough for a conventional take-off. The size and likely cost of the catapult would no doubt have been daunting, but so too would the price to be paid for additional flying-boats to carry the

144

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 144

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

The Struggle for Success

pick-a-back seaplanes. Imperial’s managing director, George Woods Humphery, was in a quandary as to which horse to back, and gave initial encouragement to all three proposals. Cobham, however, convinced he was on the right track with air-refuelling, was able to persuade Imperial’s top management to enter, in January 1936, into a partnership for governing the new company, FRL, albeit conceding a majority shareholding of 60 per cent. The aims of the enterprise were simple – to develop contact techniques whereby fuel and other consumables could be transferred from one aircraft to another in flight, and to devise appropriate equipment to enable such transfers to safely take place. Following on from his declared mission to sell aviation as a serious means of transport, and not to regard it as a stunt, his intention now was to receive official approval for air-refuelling for commercial and military use and not simply to assist in the establishment of endurance records. Cobham was well aware that experimental work on air-refuelling had already been undertaken at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough (and in other countries) since 1930. By mid-1936, various methods of contact had been investigated, using a range of aircraft and schemes proposed by RAE staff and a serving RAF officer, Flight Lieutenant Richard Atcherley, who had observed and been influenced by methods employed to set endurance records in the USA. Atcherley was posted away from Farnborough in mid-1937, by which time several patents had been taken out protecting the work undertaken at RAE, and which would soon bring the methods used at Ford into legal contention. Nonetheless, Cobham, having already secured Imperial’s interest in air-refuelling, had also enlisted the Air Ministry’s support for possible military use, and in 1936 two obsolete Vickers Virginias, J 7711 and K 2668, were made available for trials work. These had to be flown from Hawkinge in Kent to Ford, but disaster nearly struck when, about to take off, Cobham neglected to release the brakes, causing the aircraft to pitch over to a dangerous degree before, after a rapid throttling back, it fortunately righted itself. More excitement attended the actual take-off run as the Virginia was fitted with an unusual throttle control which was common to both engines. Individual power settings required it to be moved to either left or right, and with neither he nor Cobham having had previous experience on this type of machine, co-pilot Percy Allison noted that some fancy power management was going to be necessary if the hangars and administration block, looming directly ahead, were to be avoided. With both of his hands locked over Cobham’s but in conflict over the power settings, it was miraculous that they managed to get safely airborne. However, after emitting joint sighs

145

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 145

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

of relief, Cobham, voice raised against the wind, made it abundantly clear that it was his job to ‘fly the bloody aeroplane-and Allison’s to take care of everything else!’. Hugh Johnson, flying the other machine, had no such problems, and with Cobham gaining more familiarity with the Virginia’s controls, both pilots practised forming on each other before Ford hove into view. The early flight trials were, due to financial necessity, of very short duration and never exceeded fifteen minutes. After take-off, a quick coupling was usually followed by an equally quick landing in which the tanker’s operator was still winding in the refuelling hose as the aircraft was about to touch-down. The contact method employed by Cobham was essentially based on that used to refuel the Courier during his ill-fated flight to India; a cord or cable with a water-filled balloon attached to the end, having to be caught by the receiver’s operator, before a fuel hose could be pulled down. Having open-air gun cockpits at both the front and back of the Virginia’s fuselage enabled Percy Allison to conduct whatever gymnastics were necessary to complete the connection. One of the major problems to be solved was that of achieving a fuel-tight coupling. However, a brainstorming session threw up the suggestion of a ball-shaped nozzle attached to the end of the fuel hose that could engage with a spherical receptacle fitted in the receiver. Providing a shoulder behind the ball allowed four hydraulically operated levers to engage and lock the connected parts in place. With time being in short supply, suppliers’ quotations stating two months or more for casting and delivering the coupling components were quite unacceptable. Allison then set about producing these on-site by creating a huge fire in a 50-gallon oil drum, in which aluminium crank-cases and other old bits of metal were melted down. Although the results were crude, local machinists were skilful enough to turn these into finished items that, with a rubber ring seal, admirably fitted the bill. Later development allowed the hydraulic arms to release automatically if an excessive load (800lb) was caused by an emergency breakaway manoeuvre. Other aircraft, including the Fairey Hendon and Handley Page Heyford, also featured in the trials work and several methods of making contact were tried with varying success. One which showed initial promise was the ‘wing-tip’ approach, which called for the receiving aircraft’s wing leading edge to run up against the steel hauling cable deployed by the tanker. Then, banking away, the cable slid down the wing until it reached the tip, causing a grapnel device to be released

146

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 146

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

The Struggle for Success

which engaged with a weighted pawl on the end of the cable. However, all was far from plain sailing, for in order to exploit the commercial applications of the Farnborough/Atcherley patents, a new holding company, Interair Ltd, created on 6 August 1936, lost little time in taking out a legal injunction against Sir Alan for patent infringement. Such a situation could not be allowed to continue, and the Air Ministry, caught in the middle of the dispute, called for a comprehensive evaluation report of both the Cobham and Atcherley (Interair) methods, along with an airborne demonstration. The outcome of this was that, after comparative demonstrations were held on 31 August 1937, the RAE submitted a report to the Air Ministry stating that they had suspended work on air-refuelling and awaited further instructions. It was then decided that, fortunately for Cobham, Flight Refuelling Ltd, being fully engaged on this type of specialized work, would be better placed to undertake production and to do the job more cheaply. Accordingly, the aircraft used at Farnborough, a Vickers B.19/27 and a Boulton Paul Overstrand, were transferred to FRL which, having also secured rights to the Interair patents, assumed full responsibility for air-refuelling’s future development. Throughout the Thirties, Imperial Airways and the Air Ministry’s technical requirements for longer-range machines had proceeded somewhat spasmodically, along with, as already seen, radically different methods of achieving the desired aims. Military specifications for aircraft that were to follow those already just entering service, such as the Whitley, Hampden and Wellington, were now calling for facilities to accommodate air-refuelling, but even when the Short Stirling and Handley Page Halifax prototypes appeared in 1939/40 none of these aircraft had been fitted with refuelling equipment. Cobham’s concentration had remained focused on providing the means for Imperial Airways to conquer the Atlantic, and faster aircraft were eventually supplied by the Air Ministry for trials, i.e., the Armstrong Whitworth AW.23 (essentially the Whitley bomber prototype) and four Handley Page Harrows, no longer regarded as suitable for bombing operations, respectively receiving civil registrations G-AFRX, ’RG, ’RH, ’RL and ’RM. Nevertheless, Imperial Airways, having reviewed its shareholding with Flight Refuelling Ltd, concluded that the task of supplying fuel in the air would best be carried out by a totally separate tanker company. This led to talks between Woods Humphery and representatives of the Asiatic Petroleum Company Ltd (later Shell Petroleum Company), and in June 1937 an amicable exchange of the 60/40 per cent prime shareholding saw Imperial withdraw its financial

147

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 147

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

interest, although Sir John Salmond remained as chairman and Sir Alan as managing director. The order placed by Imperial in 1935 for twenty-eight Short S.23 ‘C’ Class flying-boats, not only to carry passengers but also to implement the Empire Air Mail Scheme of transporting 2,000 tons of mail a year, was a watershed decision. What it also produced was an aircraft which, if suitably equipped with means for air-refuelling, could carry a significant number of passengers across the Atlantic. Flight Refuelling Ltd had, by the end of 1937, a team of trained designers such as Edward Tripp, Marcus Langley, Harry Smith and Peter Proctor, who set about modifying the fuel system management and distribution of the third example of the first production batch of aircraft, G-ADUV, Cambria, for receiver proving and airworthiness trials at Rochester and Felixstowe. The AW.23, flown by Johnson and Tyson, provided the tanker services. More testing followed in January 1938, with Imperial’s Captain A.S. Wilcockson undertaking seventeen flights in Cambria, many in extremely bad weather conditions that required the refuelling to take place at no more than 75ft above the Solent. Frequent combinations of blinding rain, reduced visibility and excessively bumpy conditions required flying skills of a high order to maintain contact and pass fuel, but the tests were successfully completed. Encouraged by this, FRL issued a guarantee of ‘a service in any part of the world that could deliver 1,000 gallons of fuel in ten minutes at speeds with existing equipment ranging from 110 to 125 mph’. This led to an agreement with Imperial Airways to operate a series of sixteen mail-carrying Atlantic crossings (eight each way) the following year, for which purpose two S.30 flying boats – G-AFCU, Cabot, and G-AFCV, Caribou – were structurally modified to allow an increase in all-up weight in flight from 46,000 to 53,000lb. The starting point for the first westbound flight on 5 August 1939 was at Foynes, a small village on the south bank of the River Shannon a few miles west of Rineanna, where FRL had based one of its Harrow tankers. Another Harrow was retained at Ford, now shared with the Fleet Air Arm, for other development work and to act as a spare for the Rineanna aircraft. The two remaining Harrows were despatched to Gander in Newfoundland to refuel the flying-boats on the eastward return flights. Up until the transatlantic flights took place, the wing-tip and crossover methods of contact had been employed. The latter, however, carried a high degree of risk in less than favourable weather conditions, relying as it did on the tanker aircraft, positioned above and to one side of the receiver, crossing over so that the pawl and grapnel-equipped hauling lines deployed by both aircraft became engaged. During this manoeuvre, neither aircraft

148

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 148

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

The Struggle for Success

was in direct sight of the other, leaving both sets of crews nervously aware of possible collision. It was, therefore, a major step forward when tests showed that a cable could be fired from the tanker, which arced in front and across the cable trailed by the receiver, much like the method once employed by coastguards standing on high cliffs to make contact with ships stranded on the rocks below. To prove the system could work, Sir Alan and Hugh Johnson visited the lighthouse at Selsey Bill and borrowed a Greener gun which had been designed in 1880, and even used by the cavalry. Once proven, a gun was obtained from the British Small Arms Co (BSA) that could fire a 15in steel rod with a grapnel on the end, taking with it 300ft of steel cable. The first time it was tried in the air, Cobham’s long-time assistant Charlie Craig, standing up in the rear cockpit of one of the corrosion-ridden Virginias, was nearly thrown overboard by the recoil. Though originally called the ‘gun method’, the title brought unwanted complications, implying that some form of armament was to be carried in civil aircraft. Accordingly, now renamed the ‘ejector’ or ‘looped hose’ method, this was the contacting technique perfected just in time for the Atlantic crossings before the outbreak of war and the closing in of the Newfoundland winter brought the trial series to an end. The refuelling base set up at Gander’s Hatties Camp by Hugh Johnson and another specially recruited pilot, Flight Lieutenant Atkinson, was constructed under very difficult circumstances. Their first priority was the erection of an office and stores area from scratch, with both pilots’ wives assisting with the setting up of a stock recording system. Living accommodation was extremely scarce and the travelling distances such that both men had to leave their rented rooms just after dawn before finally arriving back at 10.30 pm. The Johnsons soon found this situation untenable and, after a short while, took up residence for the next three months in a railway box-car hired from the Newfoundland Railway Company. As may be imagined, these domestic arrangements were not the best, and with the other team members living in small shacks with a communal bath-house and cook-house, morale was at times decidedly low. The transporting of the two Harrows from Quebec to Gander had called for improvising skills of a high order, as the frozen river conditions delayed the aircraft being ferried firstly to Montreal and then to the Fairchild Flying Field. The availability of special cranes for finally unloading the aircraft was also hindered by a mountain of red-tape, and it was even necessary for the FRL team to locate and acquire suitable timbers before a ramp could be made that enabled the machines to be hauled up to the edge of the Fairchild airfield. Working in the open, they were then finally assembled, tested and flown to Gander in mid-May. Even then, trouble remained close by,

149

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 149

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

for a perished washer in a system connection allowed 100 gallons of fuel to discharge into the fuselage, causing pilot Atkinson to return to Quebec with petrol fumes almost overcoming him and his crew. Nevertheless, a job had to be done and when the trials finally got underway, each eastbound flight, apart from one which due to a strong following wind did not require air-refuelling, took some 950 gallons on board during a typically fifteen minute period in contact. Following the trials, Johnson was prevailed upon to transfer to the Royal Canadian Air Force, which also took over both the Harrow aircraft for performance tests from snowbound airfields, and he remained there until requested to return to England later in the war. The transatlantic crossings had been carried out in agreement with Pan American Airways (PAA), which, following a gentleman’s agreement, had delayed its own inaugural crossing in order to create a simultaneous achievement. The Martin 130 and Vought Sikorsky 42 flying-boats employed for this were more advanced, both in terms of technical performance and passenger comfort, than the Short Bros ‘C’ Class counterpart, allowing the flights between New York and Foynes to be carried out in each direction, without the need for air-refuelling. This leapfrog in design by the Americans posed a severe threat to the need for air-refuelling, as indeed had the unrefuelled flight by a Lufthansa Focke Wulf Condor from Berlin to New York in May 1938. However, the money already invested in Cobham’s civil venture had created enough momentum to see how things worked out, for there had also been great interest shown by the French Compagnie Air France-Transatlantique, which wished to operate Latecoere 522 flying-boats across the southern Atlantic route and Farman F 2234 landplanes over the northern route via Ireland and Newfoundland. By early 1940, talks were well advanced between the British and French teams regarding the provision of equipment and crew training etc, but the German invasion of France soon brought negotiations to an end, with Percy Allison and designer Harry Smith escaping back to England by the skin of their teeth. When an empty Imperial Airways Lockheed 12 airliner arrived at Bordeaux on its way to London, Smith enquired if they could hitch a ride home, but the captain, unwilling to flout orders, refused – fatuously wishing him ‘good luck’. Back in Paris, they found the British Embassy deserted, but Thomas Cook’s representative suggested sailing from Le Harve. They eventually arrived to find an air-raid in progress, but were relieved to spot a blue RNVR flag on the far side of the harbour. Fortunately, the Royal Navy proved to be more co-operative than Imperial Airways, and after an all-night wait for some fifty priests travelling from Switzerland, the vintage craft – aided, according to Smith, by continuous

150

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 150

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

The Struggle for Success

prayers – finally set sail for England. He added that the crew chief in charge of the Farmans was later shot by French resistance fighters for having delivered their refuelling equipment into German hands. Faced with wartime conditions and the closing down of civil airline operations, Cobham and his team were called upon to review the work situation, which now looked decidedly threadbare.

151

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 151

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 152

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

Chapter Eleven

The Turbulent Years

A

lthough efforts to support the transatlantic crossings had absorbed most of Flight Refuelling Ltd’s technical capacity, work had continued on addressing the Air Ministry’s immediate wartime requirements. Airspeed’s chief designer, Hessell Tiltman, was co-opted in early 1938 to help the company investigate the possibility of refuelling bombers. This led to FRL submitting hypothetical design proposals for comparison with the types then in standard service use. The first proposal submitted in October 1938, the FR 5, had a crew of five or six, a projected cruising speed of 300mph and a range of 2,540 miles when carrying a military load of 4,120lb. This met with little enthusiasm but, undeterred, the company submitted a further proposal for a smaller and faster machine, the FR 7, which had a two-man crew, a top speed of 377mph at 13,500ft and a range – carrying a bomb load of 2,000lb – of 2,900 miles. Though still failing to impress the Air Ministry, the lack of interest appears to be entirely consistent with that accorded to the proposal for a high-performance aircraft submitted by de Havilland. In the latter case, however, a potentially disastrous procurement error was fortunately corrected through the perseverance of Air Vice Marshal Sir Wilfrid Freeman, and resulted in the highly successful Mosquito. Both the FR 5 and FR 7 were to have been refuelled by Harrow tankers but, after Ministry consideration, it was requested that FRL concentrate on modifying the design of new aircraft to accommodate air-refuelling, in particular the RAF’s first four-engined bomber, the Short Stirling. This led to suggestions that the Stirling would take off at night, already connected to a tanker which, after completing a fuel transfer, would land and repeat the procedure. It has, in fairness, to be remembered that the RAF’s early retaliatory raids on Germany were conducted by aircraft operating on an individual basis. The optimism attached to such a scheme, obviously dependent on ideal weather conditions, was, to modern eyes, somewhat overstretched and could never have been used when, by 1942, raids on

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 153

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Germany involved hundreds of aircraft. Nevertheless, night trials were conducted at Boscombe Down, and the beautifully streamlined but structurally fragile de Havilland Albatross airliner was also considered for use as a tanker. Despite this early war activity, Cobham realized he was going to have a battle on his hands to introduce air-refuelling into service use. His memoirs reveal that he was constantly treading the Ministerial corridors to impress on those prepared to listen that he was offering an advanced means of projecting British air power. In later years, he recalled how he repeatedly tried to stress that an easy conversion of the Short Sunderland, the military version of the pre-war ‘C’ Class flying-boat, to accept refuelling in flight would have allowed more hours on station over the ‘Black Pit’ in the North Atlantic, the undefended area out of reach of land-based RAF Coastal Command anti-submarine aircraft that was the scene of so many Allied shipping losses following U-boat attacks. He opined that the official reason given for not adopting it was that given the nation’s limited resources, higher priority had to be given to the immediate demands of all three services. Cobham was, however, understandably dismayed when, on one occasion, he overheard one Air Marshal commenting to another, ‘Oh God, here comes Cobham again with his damned air-refuelling!’ Cobham’s perseverance extended to submitting proposals for increasing the reach of the Fleet Air Arm’s Swordfish and Albacore biplanes, whose fuel and weapon-carrying capacities were mainly dictated by the limited take-off run from a carrier deck. A company designer had already been to sea on HMS Ark Royal in June 1939 to discuss possible ways of installing refuelling equipment, and one of the schemes later put forward included a 120-gallon tank carried in the torpedo crutches under the fuselage, with a hose drum and winch being located in the rear gunner’s cockpit. Cobham requested that two Swordfish aircraft be made available for trials, but they never materialized and it was not until the early Sixties that the company’s equipment was first fitted into Royal Navy aircraft (the Buccaneer, Scimitar and Sea Vixen). Problems rarely come singly, and in late 1939 Cobham found himself engaged in lengthy correspondence with the Admiralty, defending his need to remain at Ford. He suggested that FRL’s capability to undertake the storage, maintenance and repair of Fleet Air Arm aircraft represented an ideally located national asset. Matters came to a head, however, when an Admiralty team, headed by the Fifth Sea Lord, arrived unexpectedly at Ford to carry out a detailed site inspection. Following in their wake, Cobham was astounded to hear that with everything clearly in good order, the Royal Navy would be pleased to take complete and immediate control

154

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 154

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

The Turbulent Years

of the airfield. Flight Refuelling Ltd would, in consequence, be expected to have its premises requisitioned and to find suitable accommodation elsewhere. Payment for any inconvenience caused, let alone the cost incurred by Cobham in having converted certain hangars to suit his needs, were put to one side for later (much later) consideration. Cobham’s protestations were countered by the Admiralty’s assertion that Ford lay within the enemy’s easy radius of action and was vulnerable to air attack. This prophesy was soon realized when, on 16 August 1940, along with other Luftwaffe attacks along the south coast, Ford was heavily bombed, with workshops and two hangers destroyed, twenty-eight people killed and seventy-five wounded. By this time, it was also becoming extremely difficult to obtain permits to carry out experimental flying unless the company concerned belonged to the recognized ‘club’ of major airframe and engine constructors. Coupled with the seeming indifference of certain, though not all, officials in high places to air-refuelling, the immediate need for an airfield was fast receding. Call-up demands for military service were also depleting staff numbers, and the FRL board seriously considered closing down the organization for the duration of the war. The shareholders, however, thought otherwise and decided that it should be kept going for a while longer. Marcus Langley had, fortuitously, cultivated a strong working relationship with the RAE at Farnborough, and it was this association that soon provided the company with a means of survival. Whilst under this depressing shadow, Sir Alan and Lady Cobham travelled to Stroud in Gloucestershire to check out a possible alternative factory site recommended by Geoffrey Tyson. It proved, however, like all the others inspected so far, to be totally inadequate, and in some dismay the Cobhams decided to call off the search for the day. Almost as an afterthought, being relatively close to Malvern, they decided to pay a social call on Sir Alan’s cousin, Francis Birchley. Just before leaving the following day, Cobham met an old friend who, upon hearing of his difficulties, suggested he make a bid for the Morgan Motor Works, then lying half-empty nearby. A quick visit convinced Cobham that he had found a promising solution and, after reaching an agreement with the Morgan family, it took a week’s work to transfer the organization from Sussex to Worcestershire. Once the bombs had begun to fall on FRL’s hangars, Dockeray, one of the skeleton retaining staff, had ridden off as fast as he could on his bicycle, but couldn’t avoid his rear tyre being punctured by a piece of flying shrapnel. This minor event was, however, eclipsed a week later when the raiders reappeared and Dockeray was killed during this second attack. The Harrows and the AW.23, which were due to be flown away

155

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 155

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

the following day, were damaged beyond economical repair, putting a definite stop to FRL’s flying activities from Ford for the foreseeable future. An unfortunate outcome of the works transfer was the cynical and resentful attitude adopted by a number of Ford’s civilian residents. Despite the good relations which had previously existed, such were the tensions and suspicions brought about by the prospect of imminent invasion that Cobham was said by some to have had prior knowledge of the raids and was, they claimed, an enemy agent. He received several harsh and opinionated letters to this effect, and was stung into sending a strong letter to the secretary of the Middleton-on-Sea Sports Club condemning such scurrilous nonsense. More importantly, FRL now had a new Malvern home, in Pickersleigh Road, albeit one in which various offices and store areas had to be marked out in chalk on the floor, materials for such luxury items as partitions being simply not available. What had become clear was that the company, far from being the centre of a world-wide tanker service, as originally envisioned by Shell and Sir Alan, was now a small concern totally devoted to research and development. Fortunately, Shell was still prepared to offer its support and provide a loan account on the condition that it continued to be well managed. The company’s high standing with the RAE was instrumental in the Directorate of Technical Development (DTD) placing more direct work with them for the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP), and one of the earliest tasks undertaken at Malvern was an investigation into methods of wing de-icing. This had become a serious operational problem that demanded urgent attention, as witnessed when it was estimated that on one particular raid, two-thirds of the bomber force was lost due to severe icing conditions. To carry out this work required not only test aircraft but an aerodrome, and it was soon agreed with the Commanding Officer at nearby RAF Pershore that use could be made of its satellite base at Defford. This friendly arrangement did not last long, for following the successful British commando raid on the German radar station at Bruneval in northern France in February 1942, it was thought wise to move the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) then located at Worth Matravers on the Dorset coast to Malvern, thus taking over not only Defford, but almost getting FRL evicted from the Morgan works. Although faced with yet another move, this time Sir Alan had some firm leverage to support his claim for accommodation and, with Air Ministry assistance, three new hangars were constructed at Staverton 23 miles away. Following the initial jostling for space, FRL developed a close working relationship with TRE, whose prototype radar installations in

156

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 156

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

The Turbulent Years

various test aircraft were all carried out in the Staverton flight sheds. With flight facilities again now to hand, discussions took place with the MAP regarding the equipping of an Avro Manchester so that it could receive fuel from a Harrow tanker, but work was not proceeded with. The de-icing work continued, however, with a Fairey Battle being fitted with wing leading edges made of steel which were extensions of the engine exhaust pipes. During late 1941, twelve Wellington bombers from Nos 115 and 214 Squadrons were fitted with a Dunlop system which ejected a fluid having a depressed freezing point over the leading edges, which were also armoured to fend off barrage balloon cables. When these tests proved unsatisfactory, a Whitley bomber was seconded to Staverton for more trials. Many difficulties were encountered before a satisfactory method was evolved. The straight transfer of exhaust gases into leading-edge ducts was found to impede engine performance, and the unwelcome corrosion introduced by leaded fuel so weakened the Whitley’s leading-edge device that, when leaned upon by C.D. Barnard, then assisting Cobham as his personal pilot, the whole section fell off. Nevertheless, it was this work which eventually led to satisfactory heat exchanger systems being fitted as the war progressed to Bomber Command’s bomber force. By 1941, Britain’s aircraft factories were turning out machines at a rate that far exceeded the RAF’s ability to readily absorb them into squadron service. It was therefore necessary to find areas where they could be temporarily stored and kept safe from bombing attack. Lord Beaverbrook, then head of the MAP and aware of Cobham’s pre-war activities, decided that he was the man best suited to finding such locations. As owner of the Daily Express newspaper, Beaverbrook then instructed half a dozen reporters to find Cobham and bring him immediately to his office in Thames House. It was somewhat of a surprise to Cobham when, finally located having breakfast in the Royal Aero Club, he was presented with the demand to meet Beaverbrook. Ushered in to the great man’s palatial office, his brief was quickly defined. Beaverbrook, after stating his requirements, summarized them by saying: ‘Cobham, God bless you – go ahead and find the landing grounds. I am on the run. Goodbye!’ This bizarre presentation left Cobham wondering why the RAF hadn’t been approached, as Lord Trenchard had previously formed a special committee for a similar purpose. He was soon informed that the eccentric Beaverbrook would not countenance any connection with the RAF, regarding it as likely to infiltrate his organization, and firmly refused to seek its help – an incredible assertion in view of the need for service and industrial co-operation in the nation’s hour of need.

157

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 157

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Cobham saw this as a patently absurd restriction and secretly arranged for nine ex-Battle of Britain pilots, along with a young and able surveyor, to assist in the search. A meticulously recorded exercise was then conducted, which covered the whole country. Cobham, however, with his natural penchant for trouble when dealing with officialdom, soon found it. It had been agreed that as the search progressed, the findings would be assessed by a special committee, which unfortunately was chaired by a man who knew nothing about flying and its attendant problems. Largely because the RAF had already claimed the best sites for operational use, it proved difficult to find other areas that were flat, clear of approach hazards and accessible. Nevertheless, many proposals were put forward, only to be constantly rejected by the obdurate chairman. Frustrated and dispirited, Cobham made it clear to Beaverbrook that there was little else he could do and that he would be much better employed back at Malvern. This confrontation led, two days later, to an uproarious meeting of all parties, during which the chairman attempted to prove that Cobham was completely incapable of carrying out the work. Sir Alan was then called upon to defend his credentials, which he did with great vigour before finally describing his opponent as an ‘incompetent bumptious ass’ and walking out. It eventually transpired that enough perfectly useable sites were found as recommended, in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, and honour was finally restored. At this time, the accurate delivery of bombs to targets in Germany was, to say the least, an inexact science. This was largely due to a shortage of good navigational equipment, crews having little experience in longdistance night flying and unreliable aircraft, with the lack of efficient de-icing systems. It is amusing to note, therefore, a proposal put to Cobham by Noel Pemberton-Billing, the founder of the Supermarine Aviation Company, whose eccentricity matched, if not exceeded, that of Beaverbrook. What he had in mind was to form a civil company that would buy up all the old airliners no longer in use, convert them into bombers and charge the RAF so much per ton mile for delivering bombs to the target, hence allowing the squadron crews to concentrate on other things. He claimed that he had been quoted favourable insurance rates, and estimated that the chances of being shot down were ‘not too great’. Cobham was far from impressed and instantly turned down the invitation to join the madcap scheme. Despite such flights of fancy, Pemberton-Billing was an extremely colourful and persuasive character, capable of much original thinking. He had earlier temporarily suspended his interest in aviation to enter politics, becoming MP for East Hertfordshire. Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, in his

158

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 158

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

The Turbulent Years

autobiography Sky Fever, recounts how this genius/polymath had to be forcibly ejected, kicking and screaming, from the House of Commons. He later returned to aviation matters, where his highly inventive mind gave rise to a stream of radical projects. None were successful. FRL’s work remained concentrated on the development of wing and windscreen de-icing, the co-ordination of material standards throughout the aircraft industry and exhaust flame damping, which was said by nightfighter ace John Cunningham to be necessary for successful interceptions. To solve the problem, Professor Ronald Norrish, head of the chemistry department at Cambridge University, was invited to talks at Malvern. He proposed drilling holes in the top side of the exhaust manifold and injecting a prescribed amount of fluid into it whilst in flight. A Hurricane was loaned for the test and Norrish arrived with gallons of his special fluid, which he called ‘Xylene’, leaving everyone trying to guess what this magical brew could be. After demonstrating that it was very effective, Norrish revealed that it was simply 100 octane fuel, the same as that normally used to supply the engine. It had simply been necessary to render the exhaust mixture over-rich. There were times when, according to Cobham, the ways employed to overcome a problem overcame common sense, and he would often fall back on what he called the ‘fire-proof tank folly’. Having been contracted to find out the effect of machine-gun fire on aircraft fuel tanks, a pair of Halifax bomber wings were delivered to Staverton and a sequence of metal tanks installed. These were enveloped in a special rubber compound that, when penetrated by a hot bullet, automatically sealed to close off the hole. It was also agreed that a small tower would be erected on which to mount the guns used in the tests. Cobham went on to say that on returning to Staverton after a period of absence, he was involved in a traffic jam and stuck behind a low-loader vehicle carrying a vast steel structure, escorted by two policemen mounted on motorcycles. At some point, the low-loader pulled into a lay-by to allow the accumulated traffic to pass, and as he overtook it, Cobham was surprised to notice the company’s stressman (who determined the stresses and strains acting upon a structure), Gerritson, in the driver’s cab. Cobham pulled in and asked him what he was doing on the lorry, to which Gerritson replied that he was ‘seeing the tower through to Staverton’. Cobham knew straight away that the size of the monster structure, which had a height of 25ft and base dimensions of 20ft each side, was ridiculous, but it was clearly not possible to discuss the whys and wherefores in the middle of the highway. All that was needed for the task was a light tubular scaffolding braced to the ground by cables and screw pickets. When later demanding more details from the station

159

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 159

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

manager, Cobham was further incensed to hear that four concrete blocks, each a cubic yard in size, had been sunk into the ground on which to stand the tower, and four more of equal dimensions positioned 50ft away from each corner. From rings sunk into the outer blocks, 50-ton strength cables were to be attached to the top of the tower to act as steadying ropes. Having instantly dismissed all the builders, Cobham gave the hapless Gerritson the verbal roasting of his life, before he too was asked, non-too politely, to leave. One of the difficulties facing the aircraft industry throughout the war was the lack of a common understanding regarding the strength and characteristics of materials. Vickers, for example, would allow a far more conservative factor of safety for a specific material than, say, Handley Page. It fell to FRL at Malvern to prepare for testing samples of sheet, bar and tube – whether cast, forged or welded – and the preparation of a material standards manual for use in the various aircraft design offices. Produced in conjunction with certain universities and large companies having appropriate material testing laboratories, this proved to be of enormous benefit to the industry during the war and post-war years. In 1942, the island of Malta, whose survival was critical to British presence in the Mediterranean, was under constant aerial bombardment, thought to be the prelude to invasion. Its loss would have provided a vital link in the chain supplying Rommel’s Afrika Korps. At one critical period, the island’s defence depended solely upon three outdated Gladiator biplanes, and with naval convoys also suffering heavy losses, the delivery of food, fuel and replacement fighter aircraft proved a major problem. One proposal put forward was that single-seat fighters, i.e. Spitfires and Hurricanes, be towed to within the fighter’s ability to reach Malta under its own power, whereupon the towing aircraft would jettison the tow-line and return to base. Cobham was asked by the service chiefs to urgently consider means of achieving a suitable method, providing it did not affect the company’s equally important work on de-icing. The method adopted was to attach the two arms of a ‘Y’-shaped towing bridle to support lugs positioned on each wing of the fighter, leaving sufficient clearance for the propeller. The single length of cable was attached to a wooden drum positioned in the rear cockpit of a Wellington bomber. Whilst this basic arrangement proved satisfactory, the choice of material for the towing cable was not straightforward. It was found that using steel caused the tow to proceed in a series of jerks, whereas nylon stretched and caused ‘catapulting’, as a then 16-year-old Michael Cobham found out on one occasion when, watching the fighter from the rear of the Wellington, he was shocked to see it suddenly zoom overhead as the

160

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 160

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

The Turbulent Years

towing aircraft lost an engine and its speed reduced. Hemp rope was eventually found to offer the best compromise in a method which required both aircraft to take off together, virtually side-by-side, with the tow-line connected and the fighter flying under its own power. Once in flight, the tow-line was gradually paid out to its fullest extent, allowing the fighter to slip into place behind the Wellington and its engine to be shut down. One of the problems encountered was that of restarting the engine after a long tow, and this necessitated the fitting of a jacketed immersion heater around the engine to avoid oil over-cooling. At the time flight testing started, Cobham had only one pilot on his staff, C.D. Barnard, an old rival colleague from the Air Display period, and it was his misfortune to be flying a Spitfire under tow when the connecting rope broke and whiplashed into the propeller before wrapping itself round the cockpit and flying controls. Somehow, Barnard managed to land this tangled mess at Thame aerodrome, only to have a young officer arrive alongside to inform him that he had landed on the wrong runway. The Wellington touched down shortly afterwards with Cobham on-board, and after it was found that no personal injuries had resulted, all involved went to the local cinema that afternoon! The MAP, concerned that testing progress was not up to expectations, authorized Cobham to approach Gloster Aircraft and Rotol Airscrews, also based at Staverton, for additional pilots to assist in the development work. All had reservations about piloting an aircraft with a high wingloading getting caught up in the turbulence caused by the towing aircraft’s propellers. A lot of work had already been done in towing gliders, but these generally possessed a low wing-loading which enabled them to rise quickly above the towing aircraft during take-off. Fortunately their concerns were not realized, and with favourable results being recorded, Air Marshal F.J. Linnell, who was in charge of Aircraft Research and Development, announced that he was satisfied but wished to see other test pilots fly the fighter. Cobham called upon an old friend, Jeffrey Quill, the chief test pilot at Vickers-Supermarine, and Group Captain Wilson of the RAE at Farnborough to prove the simplicity of the system. Both experienced difficulties and could not endorse a recommendation for service use, but Cobham, determined to overcome this setback, requested George Errington, chief test pilot of Airspeed and the man with by far the most experience in towed flight, to come to his aid. Errington did what he was asked and, to Cobham’s delight, turned in a faultless performance. It was, however, all to no avail, for Linnell, after considering the reports of all the participating aircrew, decided that such an operation was beyond the ability of the average squadron pilot and called a halt to the project,

161

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 161

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

which had lasted twelve months. During the trials period, Sir Alan, who had not piloted any kind of aeroplane for some years, took a great interest in the Wellington, which was a much more complicated machine compared with the types he had previously flown. Not to be outdone, he absorbed the necessary instructions and flew solo on one occasion, which he proudly proclaimed to be ‘not bad for a fifty-year-old’. Thame aerodrome was also the location used by FRL for other towed experiments in which a Boulton Paul Defiant, fitted with a hook, engaged a cable stretched between two posts. The cable was attached to a Slingsby glider, and although this combination was not put into operational use in Europe, similar ‘snatch’ take-offs were later used by the Americans in the war in the Far East. In 1942, American service chiefs were desperate to avenge the humiliating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December. One of the ways in which a long-range aerial attack could be mounted was the use of air-refuelling, but the US Army Air Force (USAAF) had little practical experience in this field and asked the British Air Ministry to send a representative to an air-refuelling conference at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. It was pointed out that Hugh Johnson was serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force and that the best approach would be for the Canadian authorities in Ottawa to ensure his presence at the conference. This resulted in Johnson attending a ten-day series of meetings, during which he lectured to the commanding general and his advisers on the ‘looped hose’ system used by Imperial and FRL on the pre-war Atlantic trials. Although the refuelling equipment fitted to the two Harrows in Canada could not be located, Johnson felt sure that the systems installed in the UK-based aircraft might still be available. Arrangements were quickly made for Johnson to fly to England, which he did in a B-24 Liberator bomber, uncomfortably perched on the unyielding spout of an oxygen bottle for five solid hours. The reunion with Cobham led to Marcus Langley being granted a two-week visit and Percy Allison an indefinite stay in the United States. Along with Johnson, they sat on duck boards on the floor of a Golden Hind flying boat from Poole to Shannon. The relief at being transferred to the infinitely more luxurious comfort offered by a Pan American Boeing 314 Clipper for the crossing to Baltimore can well be imagined. Upon the later arrival of the refuelling components, Johnson was appointed project controller in charge of preparing a Liberator as a tanker and a B-17 Flying Fortress as a receiver. He was also awarded the unofficial title of ‘The Expert in the Dangling of Ropes in the Air’. The indispensable Allison supervised the installation work, which was carried out by Pennsylvania Airlines at

162

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 162

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

The Turbulent Years

Washington National Airport. With a retaliatory raid on Tokyo in mind, the aim was to prove that, after flying for 1,000 miles, the Liberator could transfer enough fuel for the B-17, carrying a full war load, to fly a total of 5,800 miles, before, tanking duties completed, it too headed for base. The trials began in April 1943, with USAAF Captain Fred Bretcher now nominated as project pilot, Johnson charged with instructing the crews in refuelling procedure and Allison assuming responsibility for the installation and operation of the equipment. On one flight during the seven-week trial period, Allison had the worst moment in his career when fire broke out in the refuelling operator’s compartment. Worse still was the realization that during the equipment installation, the compartment floor had been extended over the fire extinguisher, rendering access virtually impossible – an oversight that today beggars belief. Apart from telling the trainee operator to inform the pilot, there was little Allison could do except ‘keep an eye on things and pray a lot’. He later remarked that he could never understand how, with the aircraft reeking of 100 Octane fuel, there hadn’t been the biggest bang in creation, but the Liberator landed safely at Wright Field. The trials were one of several schemes evaluated by the Americans for attacking Japan, but prior to this it was a carrierborne force of B-25 Mitchell medium bombers led by Lieutenant Colonel J.H. Doolittle that took off from the USS Hornet to bomb Japan. The time for serious devastation of the Japanese homeland was still to come, but when it finally took place in 1945, it was accomplished by long-range B-29s operating from airstrips on captured islands much nearer to Japan that, with the capability to deliver the atomic bomb, changed the nature of strategic warfare forever.

163

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 163

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 164

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

Chapter Twelve

A False Dawn

A

lthough the air and sea operations in the Pacific were regarded as being essentially within America’s sphere of influence, it was Britain’s intention, once the war in Europe had ceased, to offer increased military support in the Pacific theatre. At a meeting in a Downing Street government building in February 1944, it was explained to representatives from Rolls-Royce, Avro and Messrs Cobham and Langley from FRL, along with RAF and Ministry officials – all sworn to secrecy – how it was to be provided. At this time, US forces were still grimly engaged in capturing islands occupied by Japanese troops prepared to resist to the last man; and (with the work being undertaken on the atomic bomb, the ‘Manhattan Project’, then still a closely guarded secret) an invasion of the Japanese mainland, with a consequent huge loss of life, appeared inevitable. Set against this background, British service chiefs intended to provide a Very Long Range (VLR) bomber force that would assist the US air onslaught on Japan. To Cobham’s undisguised astonishment, it was announced that the VLR, soon to be codenamed ‘Tiger Force’, would rely on air-refuelling, with 600 Lancasters being converted to tankers and 600 Lincoln bombers to receivers, operating from bases in Burma or China some 1,500 miles from the target areas. Following the issue of many analytical reports, and being well aware of all the representations made by Sir Alan over the years, the Air Staff had finally found an application for his brainchild. Cobham could barely believe it. Everyone around the table agreed that the project was technically feasible, but most were concerned that the delivery of the converted aircraft and the provision of fully trained crews within twelve months bordered on the impossible. Such reservations cut little ice with the meeting’s chairman, who insisted that ways had to be found to get round the difficulties, and to present an implementation plan the following week. AV Roe was to assume overall project responsibility but, apart

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 165

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

from approving the installation schemes, they would play no role in the manufacture or installation of the equipment. It seemed to Cobham that the world of material supply had truly opened up, as literally hundreds of subcontractors, located mainly in the Midlands, had been told to give top priority to FRL’s demands. This rapid expansion put the company’s management to a severe test and Hugh Johnson, after being called to resign from the RCAF, was placed in charge of subcontract co-ordination. More staff, money and premises had to be found, and it was thought originally that one airfield, RAF St Athan in South Wales, would suffice. However, it soon became apparent that, to cope with the constant flow of aircraft arrivals, conversions and preparations for despatch to the Far East, two more locations would be required. Those nearby at Rhoose and Llandow were then put at Cobham’s disposal. Aircrew training was to be carried out at a special school at Staverton, where there also appeared on the airfield a feature which became known as ‘Allison’s Tower’. Because the refuelling system was dependent on gravity feed, it was essential to carry out fuel flow tests in a condition representing the difference in distance and height between tanker and receiver. Accordingly, a small tank was positioned on top of a rickety scaffolding structure, 80ft in height and connected via piping to another tank on the ground. When the time came to carry out the tests, there was only one man who could face the climb up eight 10ft ladders. Several tried, including Sir Alan, but all became nervous at the halfway point and had to climb down, leaving the long-suffering Percy Allison to show the way. In December 1944, Michael Cobham left the London School of Economics to join the company as Hugh Johnson’s assistant, although, in view of his previous experience as an ‘arrower’ on the Flying Circus tours, he might have served equally well with Allison in climbing the test rig tower. Early in the spring of 1945, Sir Alan received a telephone call from ‘Tiger Force’ HQ at Bushey, requesting him to join Air Marshal Sir Hugh Lloyd at 11.30 am the following day. On his arrival, he was escorted down numerous corridors to the Air Marshal’s office, cordially welcomed and warmly introduced to several other high-ranking officers. Fully expecting to be asked to report on progress, he was completely unprepared for the blow that followed. It was explained that the Americans had captured an island, complete with airfield, only 400 miles from Japan and it was to be made available for RAF use. As air-refuelling was no longer necessary, the new directive was to complete the sets of equipment already started and to cancel as much as possible. Later that evening, Sir Alan, deeply despondent following this unexpected turn of events, discussed the situation with his

166

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 166

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

A False Dawn

wife, who philosophically commented that the new development had to be seen in the light of shortening the war. He knew she was right, but in addition to his own natural disappointment he realized the sense of anti-climax that would be felt by his employees at not seeing their efforts bear fruit. Moreover, there would have to be a sizeable reduction of the production workforce. The amounts of raw material suddenly halted and redirected to Staverton were, to say the least, impressive. Several cubes of sheet aluminium, 8ft high on a 6ft square base, a pile of refuelling hoses some 20ft high and endless racks containing castings, bars, tubes and chains etc, took up a sizeable floor area in a hangar that had to be made environmentally suitable under the terms of a Ministry storage contract. It is of interest to note here that a report issued by the Bomber Development Unit (BDU) based at RAF Feltwell stated that refuelling trials conducted later in 1945 showed that operational problems would have occurred had ‘Tiger Force’ gone ahead as planned. It noted that squadron pilots had received no instruction in close-formation techniques during their standard flying training, and that successful refuelling placed a high dependence on the tanker aircraft maintaining a specific optimum position relative to the receiver. Unless this could be maintained, retaining sight of the lower aircraft, especially through the heavily framed Lancaster canopy, would, even in good conditions, have proved difficult. Two Lancasters had been supplied to the BDU to carry out trials with the ‘looped hose’ system. One, ND 648, was fitted out as a receiver, and the other, PB 972, was equipped as a tanker, with cargo tanks and a hose drum unit. Both aircraft were operated from late 1944 as standard service aircraft before eventually being purchased by FRL in 1949 and transferred to the civil register as G-33-1 and G-33-2. In the post-war period, Cobham was, as ever, working on a broad front, and it perhaps came as no surprise when again, out of the blue, he was summoned to an immediate meeting with Lord Beaverbrook. Foregoing any of the usual formalities, Beaverbrook laid out maps of London showing the areas which had suffered most from German bombing. These were mainly to the east of the city; and he explained to Cobham that it was not the government’s intention to rebuild on these locations, but to use them for a centrally sited aerodrome. Cobham was not so much requested, as instructed, to make an inspection and report back within a week with suitable plans for such a site. After spending many daytime hours looking over such devastated areas as the Isle of Dogs, Kennington and Barking, he devoted his evenings to poring over 6in ordnance survey maps attempting to mark up possible runways with minimum lengths of

167

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 167

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

2,500 yards. It proved to be a futile exercise, for the project would have entailed disrupting the entire rail communication network connecting London with the south-east and elsewhere. Even the Luftwaffe hadn’t managed to do that. To underline this impracticality, the need for aircraft to take off into the prevailing westerly wind would have meant a significant number thundering over the Houses of Parliament at some 300ft. Within three days, Cobham confronted Beaverbrook and told him that there was no way his scheme could succeed. Instead of thanking him for his efforts and covering his out-of-pocket expenses, ‘The Beaver’ just growled and grumbled and said he would keep all the plans, as he still thought his ideas would prevail. Perhaps they did, for the City of London airport of today is a thriving feature, though not maybe on the scale envisaged by Beaverbrook. After the war ended, it became apparent that the Morgan family wished to start up in business again and naturally wished to reacquire the premises at Malvern. It was an ironic touch that, when faced with uprooting his organization, the Air Ministry suggested that Ford might, once more, become the home for FRL’s operations. After taking a lease on St Nicholas, an erstwhile preparatory school in nearby Littlehampton, in which to house the design and administration staff, work commenced soon after on what was to become the ‘Site A’ factory area a mile or so to the north-east of the Ford airfield, in two small buildings next to the piles of rubble that had once been the company’s pre-war hangars. The move from Malvern was completed in September 1946 but, with such limited resources and winter approaching, it was evident that total works rehabilitation was going to be a difficult, drawn-out affair, especially for those maintaining the aircraft in the open air. At the end of the Second World War, there was a surplus of aircraft waiting to be redirected to the scrap merchants – as indeed had been the case at the end of the First World War. There was, however, one important difference in that there was, at least for the privileged few, now a market for air travel. The types of civil aircraft likely to be required in the postwar period had already been recommended by the Brabazon Committee in 1943; but it was clearly going to be some time before such aircraft could be introduced into service. In the meantime, British airlines had to accept such gap-fillers as the Avro York, which featured a redesigned fuselage but used Lancaster wings, and the Lancastrian, which was simply a Lancaster stripped of all its wartime gun turrets to provide basic passenger accommodation. Cobham, well aware of the situation and still convinced of the need, be it civil or military, for air-refuelling, had purchased several ex-service

168

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 168

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

A False Dawn

Lancasters and prepared to resume his campaign. His first approaches to the three main UK airlines – British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), British European Airways and British South American Airways – met with little success, but a visit to the Ministry of Civil Aviation and a meeting with an old friend, then Director of Aircraft Navigation, resulted in the promise of £100,000 for air-refuelling development. This enabled the conversion of two Lancasters, G-AHJT and G-AHJW, to tanker and receiver configurations in time to appear at the SBAC (Society of British Aircraft Constructors) Exhibition at Radlett. Shortage of time had allowed only the tanker to be stripped down to bare metal using ‘OFFKWIK’, a particularly messy ‘degunking’ fluid which, experience revealed, caused severe stinging and irritation whenever it came into contact with bare skin. One employee had good cause for complaint after having unsuspectingly slithered about in a sitting position on top of a wet wing, clad only in thin overalls which soon became saturated. Cobham’s pleasure at the final polished aluminium result was not reciprocated when his praiseworthy comments failed to secure a bonus for the personal hardship endured beyond the call of duty. The other machine, having to retain its drab wartime camouflage but sporting cream civil registration letters, could not hope to offer serious visual competition to its gleaming stablemate. Along with the increase in FRL’s Lancaster fleet had come several new pilots who included a transatlantic ferry veteran called David Prowse, an exceptional character in every way: physically impressive, charming, wayward and given to raising hell whenever he felt like it – which was all too frequent. Although recognized by colleagues for his undoubted flying skills, he was an extremely difficult man to contain and discipline, regarding life in a manner more in keeping with that of seafaring buccaneers from a bygone age. Set against this background one can sympathize with Ron Roberts who, during the show’s preparation for the flying events, heard a call on the public address system for the company’s Lancasters to be moved to a different location. The problem was that the aircrew members were barely in a state to move themselves, let alone the aircraft, a situation which would have brought mass dismissals had Sir Alan been aware of it. During Roberts’ wartime flying career, he had flown in many types of aircraft as a flight engineer in the Air Transport Auxiliary, and it was this experience which allowed him to become the hero of the hour by moving both aircraft to the required positions. This, he said, was a nerveracking business as the wing-tip clearances as he taxied past several very expensive new prototypes left no margin for error. The fact that he was not licensed (or the company insured) to cover such a situation would have caused an almighty furore had damage resulted, but fortune favoured the

169

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 169

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

brave and the threat of censure – either official or company – was luckily avoided. Following the highly successful public debut of air-refuelling at Radlett, the company was invited to provide a similar demonstration soon afterwards at the Paris Aero Show. The static exhibition was held in the Grand Palais, off the Champs Élysées, and it was proposed to fly both the tanker and receiver in refuelling configuration over the Arc de Triomphe and down toward the Place de la Concorde, where Sir Alan, Lady Cobham and Hugh Johnson had positioned themselves. It surprised Cobham that the French officials had permitted such a low-flying event, especially when the day’s bad weather would normally have precluded flying at all, let alone over such a built-up area. With it proving difficult to see beyond halfway up the Champs Élysées, Cobham fully expected the flight to be cancelled, but his pessimistic speculation was cut short as the roar of eight Merlin engines announced the arrival of Prowse flying the tanker and Jeffery the receiver. Thundering along at just under the 200ft cloud base, and with the refuelling hose arcing below tree-top level, he declared that he had never seen a more terrifying spectacle in his life and was convinced that it would attract a severe official reprimand. He was, however, amazed and relieved to find that the public and media had been thrilled by the display, and he revelled in the praise received. In the immediate post-war period, with civil aviation not yet fully back into its stride, many opportunities presented themselves to any entrepreneur willing to take a financial gamble, despite lacking the necessary commercial expertise. Such was the case when Cobham was invited, yet again, to become involved in airline operations, this time by Captain Ron Ashley, who had flown for him on the National Aviation Day tours and had served more recently with BOAC. He had conceived a scheme whereby he would form a charter company to transport thousands of British Petroleum oil workers who, having been stranded in the Persian Gulf throughout the war, were desperate to return home. There would, of course, be a need to ferry a similar number of replacement personnel to the Gulf. BOAC, he knew from first-hand involvement, couldn’t cope with the problem, which left BP willing to sign a contract with a reliable charter company. He went on to say that if Cobham would put up the money to purchase an Avro York he had in mind, he would look after the operational side, which essentially consisted of flying between London and Kuwait carrying forty-nine passengers on each trip. The price of the machine was £60,000, and, after taking the cost of fuel and general expenses into account, twelve round-trips at the £6,000 BP was willing to pay would write off the setting-up costs.

170

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 170

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

A False Dawn

Enthused by the prospect, Cobham arranged a meeting with Sir Charles Lidbury, chief general manager at the Westminster Bank headquarters, to raise a loan. Once this was approved and it became known that the newly formed Skyways was in business, orders came rolling in, soon making the acquisition of a second York a high priority. During his time in the RAF, Captain Ashley had served as personal pilot to Air Commodore A.C. Critchley, who, carrying influence at BOAC, now promised that the Corporation would act as Skyways agents and offered the full support of its ground services. However, it came as a surprise when Ashley insisted that Critchley be co-opted onto the board. Cobham had strong reservations about this, for with no experience as a pilot, engineer, lawyer or accountant, he was unsure what skills, if any, Critchley could bring to the new enterprise. His misgivings were reinforced when, after being taken aside by Lidbury, he was asked if Cobham knew with whom he was going into business. However, this thinly veiled warning came too late, for Critchley soon embarked on a policy of mindless extravagance yet contributed nothing to further the interests of the company. Matters came to a head when Ashley and Critchley approached Sir Alan with a request that more capital be provided to meet ‘running costs’. Other evidence suggested that, having used Cobham’s name and cash as a lever to launch Skyways, the aim was to force him out of the company. After just a few months, Cobham cut his losses, sold his interests and watched as, over the next five years or so, the enterprise which had started off with such promise simply collapsed due to greed and mismanagement. With FRL’s operations fully transferred to Ford, discussions were held with Air Vice Marshal Don Bennett, who had been become head of the newly formed British South American Airways (BSAA). Still cherishing hopes that FRL, or an offshoot company, might provide a unique tanker refuelling service at points along the major civilian air routes, it was planned that a series of air-refuelled flights would be carried out, with BSAA pilots taking off from Heathrow in Lancaster receivers, provided by FRL, to meet up at a given point over the Channel or France, with the company’s tankers flying from Ford. The tests were then conducted by day and night, regardless of weather conditions, on a twice-weekly basis. The simultaneous arrival of tankers and receivers at the rendezvous locations was the result of the TRE at Malvern having adapted the EurekaRebecca radio system used for ground-to-air communication during the Second World War. Its success may be judged by the fact that its range, now increased to 120 miles, enabled every contact to be made without difficulty, no aircraft arriving on station more than two minutes late. A flight refuelling service appeared to be entirely viable and preparations

171

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 171

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

were made for BSAA’s Lancasters to operate a further series of similar flights between Heathrow and Bermuda, taking on fuel from FRL tankers based on Santa Maria, the most southerly island in the Azores group. Hugh Johnson was chosen to head the twenty-two man FRL team and, seemingly unable to avoid the most uncomfortable means of travel, added to his bizarre list that of travelling in a chartered Avro York, sitting amidst a fuselage full of spares in the driving seat of a Jeep. Prowse and Jeffery were the company’s resident pilots, but the opportunity was taken over the ten-week trial period to train others in tanking techniques. It is not generally known that BSAA’s ‘Stargirl’ stewardesses (one of which was Richard Branson’s mother) were briefly considered for taking on refuelling operator duties in addition to those they normally performed, but this unlikely concept was not long pursued. The inaugural flight left Heathrow on 28 May 1947 with Don Bennett in command, accompanied by Sir Alan and Cecil Latimer-Needham, who had become an indispensible aide, expert in calculating the range capabilities of every aircraft in airline service – whether air-refuelled or not. This was a long-haul flight of 3,500 miles that could, depending on the prevailing headwinds, take up to twenty hours. The main point of the flight was to demonstrate the ease with which a refuelling interception could take place, and this was successfully achieved eight hours after leaving Heathrow. However, soon after this, an electrical malfunction caused the cockpit lighting, radar and radio communications to be lost, and with several hours’ flying still stretching ahead, Bermuda seemed a very long way away. Fortunately, the cloud-free starlit night allowed Bennett to exercise his renowned navigational skills and, using a sextant, he took regular astro-fixes to confirm the aircraft’s position. After a further eight hours’ flying, Bennett announced that Bermuda, a tiny dot in the western Atlantic, should be some 90 miles ahead and that the island’s lights would soon become visible, but apprehension grew when these failed to appear. It became apparent that the whole area was covered by a low bank of cloud, and unable to contact the airport by radio and with barely enough battery power to drive the fuel pumps, it required a firm act of faith to embark upon a blind descent. To their relief, at 200ft the cloud finally thinned to reveal what appeared to be every light on the island shining in welcome. However, once on the ground, Bennett, ever the perfectionist, became furious and frustrated at receiving no instructions for taxiing in to final dispersal. The South Atlantic Trials, as they were officially known, revealed the need for more reliable electrical and radar equipment and for FRL’s radio operators to become better trained in trans-oceanic procedures. However,

172

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 172

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

A False Dawn

a strong case for air-refuelling had been made – but only up to a point. Questions were still being asked as to whether such a service could be provided in more extreme weather conditions, as would be likely over the North Atlantic. There was only one way to find out, and Cobham began to discuss plans for tackling the old enemy – the technical challenge of crossing the Atlantic – this time with BOAC. Firstly, however, it was necessary to recruit someone who had a fuller understanding of civil operations and communications, and a wide search resulted in Squadron Leader C.F. Rawnsley, who had served with great distinction as Group Captain John Cunningham’s navigator and radar operator on many nightfighter sorties, joining the company. In the talks between Cobham and BOAC that gathered pace throughout 1947, it was agreed that the Lancasters would not be adequately equipped to cope with the intense cold on the northern routes to Montreal, either via Gander in Newfoundland or Goose Bay in Labrador. By fortunate coincidence, Trans-Canadian Airlines was about to put up for sale four Lancastrians which incorporated more powerful versions of the Merlin engine, as well as superior crew-heating and de-icing systems. It was also discovered that one of the Lancastrians was already in the UK for demonstration to potential buyers. Cobham, having convinced the Ministry that it would make an ideal tanker, was then authorized to fly to Canada and strike the best deal he could. Work was also put in hand to provide a Liberator II, G-AHYD, allocated by BOAC, with receiver equipment, the installation being carried out by Scottish Aviation at Prestwick. The trials eventually got underway on 4 February 1948 and continued until 29 May 1949, with the Liberator flying one return service a week. Although judged to be technically successful, Cobham’s pilots reported that BOAC’s co-operation frequently failed to match that shown by Don Bennett’s BSAA crews, and relationships were not improved when inexperienced observers in the Liberator commented adversely on FRL’s tanker formating techniques. After the promising results of the Channel and South Atlantic flights, the North Atlantic trials report issued by BOAC was a distinct setback, and, according to Cobham, was largely instigated by the older school of ‘million miler’ pilots who objected to any other aircraft being within an imaginary cubic mile of their own. The total cost of the trials had not exceeded the £100,000 initially allocated by the Ministry, but the money had been provided expressly for air-refuelling development and could not be transferred for other company purposes. This was particularly frustrating, for the general work situation in the factory was fast running down and little could be found to occupy the machine and fitting shops. By the end of 1947, it had proved necessary

173

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 173

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

to shed nearly two-thirds of the administrative and manufacturing workforce. Despite the Drawing Office having produced an improved range of fuel system components, all the aircraft manufacturers appeared to be well satisfied with what equipment already existed. It therefore came as a great relief when the ‘ABC Agreement’ was signed in December 1948, in which America, Britain and Canada abandoned the hazardous ‘over-wing’ method of filling aircraft tanks and all types of new machines, except light aircraft and trainers, had to dispense with ‘over-wing’ filling of individual tanks and incorporate single-point pressure refuelling systems. This naturally had a resounding effect on the company’s order book and, with little direct competition from other suppliers, Flight Refuelling Ltd’s latest equipment found its way onto every new British design. Cobham, nevertheless, had to plan for future success on a broad front, and he acquired a further four Lancasters from the Ministry surplus stockpile at RAF Kemble for £1,000 each, along with a number of Merlin engines at £100 per unit. Whilst the initial return to Ford had allowed continuity of employment, the exceptionally bad winter weather of 1946‑47 and the increase in aircraft maintenance work had shown that more hangar facilities were urgently required. Added to this, the airfield at Ford was now in desperate need of general repairs, as frequent closures required the company to seek temporary shared use of nearby RAF Tangmere. Cobham now found himself on the horns of a real dilemma. Although currently working with the major airlines and mindful of the long-term possibilities, he knew that there was no chance of sharing a civil aerodrome such as Heathrow. As far as military airfields were concerned, applications had to be channelled through the Defence authorities who, at least for the time being, were indifferent to his appeals. The provision of suitable facilities was clearly a problem that was not going to go away, and piloted in the company’s Hornet Moth by his new chief test pilot, Tom Marks, Cobham devoted much time to visiting airfields – including Membury, Welford, Lasham and Dunsfold – before deciding that Tarrant Rushton near Blandford in Dorset, now no longer used by the RAF, would suit his needs. After much haggling with the Ministry over an annual ground rent, which was finally settled at £1,020 for each hangar taken over, a small FRL team was sent to restore the site. The Army, which since the end of the war had carried out vehicle driver training on the base, did not prove to be accommodating co-residents. The four ex-Kemble Lancasters arrived in September 1947 before the hangars had been made ‘vandal-proof’, and any loose equipment, especially aircraft compasses, were regarded as a source of additional income by the

174

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 174

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

A False Dawn

boys in khaki. It was only after Cobham’s protestations to the Air Ministry that the Army was ordered to cease training on the airfield. Just prior to the start of the North Atlantic exercise, Cobham finally decided to close down the Staverton site that still housed the equipment and materials purchased for the ‘Tiger Force’ contract. His works manager was of the opinion that it could all be purchased from the Ministry for a relatively small sum, and that failing its being put to good use, the cost could be offset by selling it for scrap. A favourable deal was concluded in March 1948, but Sir Alan’s ability to raise the few thousand pounds required was severely strained by another drain on his pocket – that of buying back the company into family ownership from Shell. A year previously, Walter Hill, Shell’s aviation manager and representative on FRL’s board since 1937, had indicated that, wishing to move in other directions, his company would be willing to sell its controlling share in Flight Refuelling Ltd for £45,000 – the amount it had originally paid. Now unwilling to let the opportunity slip, Cobham elected to gamble on a successful purchase. It was Hill who, always keen to promote FRL’s interests, was directly responsible for bringing about a big breakthrough in the company’s fortunes when he brought Shell director General Doolittle on a flying visit to Ford. This fortuitous encounter resulted in a conference at which a decision was taken to launch air-refuelling as a USAF service operation.

175

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 175

8/31/2018 10:08:43 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 176

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

Chapter Thirteen

The Breakthrough

T

he use of massive bomber fleets had, of course, been largely instrumental in the Allied defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945. World peace, however, was still far from assured, with Soviet forces now posing a new military threat to the western democracies. American service chiefs had concluded that a new, more powerful bomber with twice the range of the existing B-29 would be required to reach the most distant key targets in Russia. When asked how long it would take to produce such a machine, industry representatives said that seven years would be needed to design, develop and commence manufacture of what would eventually become the Convair B-36. This dismaying forecast was, however, overcome when General Doolittle, calling attention to the trials previously carried out at Wright Field in 1942, pointed out that airrefuelling would provide the answer. The British, he added, were already doing it. Thus stirred to action, a USAF B-29 Superfortress, carrying a team of officers led by Colonel Warden, was despatched to Ford in April 1948. The delegation arrived with the expectation that, in the spirit of AngloAmerican co-operation, they would be taught the latest techniques and, armed with all the necessary drawings and samples of equipment, return to the US. Production of ‘looped hose’ equipment would then commence – all at no cost and courtesy of the British government. Sir Alan quickly made it clear that this was not how he saw the case and, with the North Atlantic trials then in progress and having cost millions in private funding, the FRL system was subject to normal commercial safeguards. The colonel and his team, somewhat rebuffed, then withdrew to the American Embassy in London to consider their next move. In the opposing corner, Sir Alan, contemplating the enormous slice of good luck that had resulted in his purchasing the ex-‘Tiger Force’ material only two weeks previously, considered the implications of the prize that, God willing, was about to fall into his lap. The Americans had indicated

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 177

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

an immediate need for three complete sets of equipment, with a rapid follow-up of a further thirty-seven sets. This posed a problem, for the company’s workforce had, of necessity, become seriously depleted. The question now facing Cobham was whether to sell the manufacturing rights to the US government and let production be carried out in the States, or to take the risk of bolstering FRL’s manpower, whatever that might involve in time, cost and the risk of defaulting on deliveries. He sought the advice of his old colleague, de Havilland commercial director Francis St Barbe, a man well used to contracting in the US. St Barbe told him that he should not consider selling the know-how for anything less than a quarter of a million dollars – an appreciable sum in 1948, especially so when set against the company’s continually imperilled financial situation. A week of intense talks eventually led to a contract being signed in the early hours of Good Friday, and an order placed worth one-and-a-quarter million dollars. The contract provided an option for the parts to be made in the US (which was, in fact, never taken up) and technical assistance for the installation of the initial sets. Buoyed up by this, the next several weeks saw FRL’s technical staff, headed by Percy Allison, assisting with the conversion of the B-29 and B-50 fuel systems at Wichita, whilst at Ford, the production of ‘looped hose’ equipment soon got underway. The USAF’s procurement team was constantly amazed at the unfailing early delivery of complete systems, Sir Alan having wisely kept the ready availability of the ex-‘Tiger Force’ stock of parts and assemblies a very closely guarded secret. The initial order was later increased to 100 sets, whereupon it became known in-house as the ‘4711 contract’ – smelling, as it did, as sweet as its namesake, the then famously fragrant brand of eau de Cologne! Boeing subsequently modified ninety-two aircraft to the KB-29M tanker configuration, and seventy-four B-29s, fifty-four B-50As and most of its later B-36 fleet to the ‘looped hose’ receiver standard. With deliveries proceeding so well, Cobham decided, in mid-1948, to cement his good relationship with the USAF by visiting the Wright Field test centre at Dayton in Ohio. Compared with most equipment supply situations, forever plagued with delays and excuses for non-compliance, FRL’s performance had proved to be exceptional, and was accorded due praise and attention. However, at one convivial luncheon, purposely arranged so that he could meet the senior officers associated with the project, Cobham was caught off-guard when General Crawford – the highest-ranking officer present – announced that despite the merits of the ‘looped hose’ system, what he also wanted was an automatic method of air-refuelling single-seat fighters. He stressed the fact that, whereas the present system required dedicated refuelling operators in both the tanker

178

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 178

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

The Breakthrough

and receiver, this could not be a feature of any new proposal as the lone pilot would be fully occupied in controlling his aircraft. Full of wine and confidence, Sir Alan imprudently claimed that ‘his boys’ were at that moment, working on such a system. Fortunately the luncheon was coming to its close and he was able to deflect most of the enquiries for more details, but General Crawford then introduced him to General Carroll who, it transpired, was due to visit England in the coming spring. When pressed to provide a demonstration, Cobham, his bluff called, could only agree that it would, indeed, be a pleasure. The thought of producing air-refuelling equipment for the whole of the USAF was a dazzling prospect, but it was going to call for some innovative thinking before it could become a reality – and time was at a distinct premium. Coinciding with this engineering challenge came the news that the Russians had sealed off all the road and river trade routes into Berlin, and that it had fallen to Hugh Johnson to answer a call from the Foreign Office, asking for the company’s support in an aerial relief operation. In so doing, FRL became the first of twenty-five British private contractors which eventually played a part in what was to be code named Operation Plainfare. It was fortunate that the North Atlantic trials had just been completed; thus releasing both aircraft and crews, and Johnson, having received the request whilst in the process of taking a shower, took the responsibility without a formal contract in place to commit the company to a full-time involvement. Telephoning this news to Cobham, still absorbing his good fortune at the USAF’s extended air-refuelling requirement, brought hard commercial reality into play. The company’s resources, temporarily split between Ford and Tarrant Rushton, required a high degree of administrative control and a rapid upgrade of factory and airfield facilities, not to mention the provision of additional skilled manpower and more aircraft. Clearly, this was not a problem that could be solved overnight. Cobham’s return from the US galvanized the design staff into action regarding the single-seat fighter refuelling problem, whilst the works personnel at Ford remained fully committed to ensuring that the promised ‘looped hose’ delivery schedule was met. In what must have seemed a throwback to wartime conditions, preparations were put in hand at Tarrant Rushton for the immediate conversion of two Lancastrians to carry motor spirit and diesel oil. Captain Prowse worked hard in getting maps and operational details regarding air corridors into Berlin, and information regarding the facilities at the RAF’s Gatow airfield in the city. In other words, all departments within FRL were

179

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 179

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

now at last working together at full capacity. FRL’s first ‘Berlin Airlift’ flight took place on 27 July 1948, but the distance from Tarrant Rushton to Gatow proved too great for everyday operations to be sensibly maintained and, after two days, permission was obtained to set up a small base at Buckeburg, within the British zone of occupation. By the end of August, Johnson was granted further permission for FRL to move to the RAF HQ at Wunstorf, before finally transferring to Fuhlsbuttel in mid-April. It was still necessary, however, to return the aircraft to Tarrant Rushton every fifty flying hours (later seventy-five hours) for maintenance and repair. To meet the company’s commitment, a large number of ex-wartime RAF aircrew had been recruited at short notice. This created several disciplinary problems. Perhaps disenchanted with menial civilian employment, a hard core of veterans, now back in a well-paid flying environment, were determined to exploit the situation, with little or no regard for the cost to the company – or indeed its reputation. One crew, for example, returning to its billet after a night out in Hamburg, came across a workmen’s hut and, seizing oxyacetylene torches, welded all the tram points they could find, causing many of the city’s trams to be trapped in areas from which they could not possibly return the following morning. In fairness, even some of FRL’s permanent aircrew were not beyond what might charitably be described as ‘displaying the old wartime spirit’. On one occasion, David Prowse, whose off-duty behaviour was totally unpredictable, took issue with a fully justified late-night decision by Johnson’s deputy, Major Burton Gyles, to close the bar, by nearly choking him and hanging him out of the window. However, his escapades finally caught up with him when, having commandeered a German steam train and driven it as far as his limited engine-driving experience would allow, Group Captain Winstaff, in charge of RAF Wunstorf, ordered his immediate removal from the Airlift. Johnson wrote out his termination notice and reluctantly handed it to Prowse after he had piloted him back to England that same evening through appalling weather conditions. After safely landing the aircraft at a fog-enshrouded Hurn airport near Bournemouth, it was rather ironic that the man was abruptly dismissed from his employment by his grateful passenger. So ended Prowse’s colourful career at FRL, but not it seems in other areas, for it was alleged that he continued his search for adventure with illicit gun-running in the Middle East. Perhaps the tale most closely associated with FRL’s personnel concerns the night their hotel caught fire. It was customary to house the main contingent in the T-Force Hotel in Bad Nenndorf, an establishment which

180

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 180

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

The Breakthrough

had two bars run by a former German Navy skipper and an ex-Wehrmacht captain. With very little else to do in off-duty hours but drink, some excitement was provided when flames and smoke caused a sudden evacuation. Having bundled their personal gear outside, the FRL crews then assisted by trying to save the furniture, but as soon as they piled it onto the pavement, other German civilians made off with it – clearly a reciprocal demonstration of the ‘wartime spirit’. A further comic touch was added when a bus, with an FRL member standing on top to direct a water hose onto the flames, slowly moved off – resulting in his well-intentioned effort ending in an undignified (but heartily applauded) contact with the ground. The evening’s entertainment could, for obvious reasons, have had more serious results, for it was remarkable that one of the team, after running back into the hotel with a metal bucket full of water, stood in a puddle concealing a live electrical cable, yet lived to tell the tale. Although the aircraft engaged in the Berlin Airlift were frequently harassed by Russian fighters should they stray outside the defined air corridors, the pilot of one FRL Lancastrian, G-AHDP, had no option but to force-land inside the Russian zone, fortunately with no casualties. After thoroughly examining the aircraft, especially the radar installation that had proved so effective on the airline air-refuelling trials, the Russians generously allowed twenty-four hours for its removal. All that could be done was to dismantle and transport the aircraft’s remains to less hostile surroundings, whereupon, needless to say, ’DP never flew again. Given the pressures that attended this enormous provision of aid to the beleaguered capital, it was perhaps hoping for too much to think it could be carried out without tragedy occurring at some point. Indeed, over the fourteen months of intensive flying, seventy-eight American, British and German lives were lost, as well as several aircraft – two of which belonged to FRL. The fate of ’DP has already been mentioned, but the loss of G-AHJW (Jig Willie) was far more serious. In the late afternoon of 22 November 1948, this Lancaster took off from Wunstorf and headed for Tarrant Rushton, carrying two crew members and three captains, all looking forward to some well-earned leave. The light was fast fading as ’JW flew across southern England in otherwise clear visibility, despite occasional patches of haze. However, somewhere over Hampshire, the aircraft went off course and crashed into a hillside near Andover, killing all on board except the radio operator, Vincent Stanley. One theory advanced was that the pilot may have homed on to the radio beacon at Netheravon instead of that at Tarrant Rushton – the two having similar call signs – but the official findings proved inconclusive.

181

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 181

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Despite this distressing event, the company was later awarded the honour of carrying into Berlin the 100,000th ton of motor spirit and domestic heating oil, without which the whole operation would have foundered. The final statistics covering the company’s involvement over the period July 1948 to August 1949 revealed FRL to have been the Airlift’s top civilian performer. Twelve aircraft (nine Lancastrians and three Lancasters) flew 1,714,596 miles (equal to sixty-nine times round the world) during 11,627 hours of flying. They made 4,438 sorties to Berlin and transported 6,975,021 gallons of fuel weighing 27,114 tons. The peak utilization factor per aircraft day was 4.15 sorties – the highest recorded for any type, British or American. All this was a glowing tribute to the Cobham organization in general and to Hugh Johnson in particular. Not for the first time, it was he who had masterminded the detailed planning of an Alan Cobham venture. The company’s involvement in the Airlift ended, however, on a far from satisfactory note. After the Airlift officially ended in August 1949, FRL was asked to continue flying up until Christmas, and was promised that a contract would be issued to cover this extra work ‘within a couple of weeks’. On the strength of this, binding contracts for four months were issued to virtually all of the crews flying for Cobham, the cost of which amounted to some £25,000 per week. The blow fell when, after the twoweek period, the Foreign Office notified the firm that its services would no longer be required and that payments would now cease. This was a devastating financial blow that was only offset by the cash accruing from the ‘4711’ contract. Throughout the winter of 1948‑49, FRL’s designers wrestled with the problem of refuelling single-seat fighters. Several schemes were produced which initially concentrated on adapting the ‘looped hose’ system, but it soon became clear that this was not the way forward. What did hold promise was a method in which a probe containing a fuel nozzle, extended from the receiver aircraft, could engage with a mating receptacle on the end of a fuel hose trailed by the tanker. A number of trial flights were carried out with hoses fitted with different cone-shaped funnels on the end to provide stability and to guide the receiver’s probe nozzle into the fuel valve. A major difficulty with this seemingly simple solution was that although the air loads on the trailed hose and the metal cone kept it in a stable arc, the insertion of the probe forced the hose back, whereupon, its stability lost, it became uncontrollable and quite capable of breaking off the receiver’s nozzle. The answer came one Sunday morning when project engineer Peter Macgregor, reputedly lying in bed, considered the principle of retraction used in spring blinds

182

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 182

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

The Breakthrough

and measuring tapes. Calculations showed that whilst any kind of mechanical spring balance would prove too heavy, a hydraulic solution might well be feasible. A Lancaster was then quickly modified to accept a motor-driven hose drum unit that provided a continual tendency to wind in the hose against the drag load. This meant that when the receiver made successful contact, the hose could make a controlled retraction over several feet without collapsing. The term ‘probe and drogue’ was a simple description of the system which was to gain acceptance by user air forces throughout the world. Whilst the work done on the ‘looped hose’ system allowed the USAF to retain, in the short term, its capability to reach far-distant Soviet targets, there was, from 1948, a strong movement, headed by Strategic Air Command’s General Curtis Le May, for a home-grown method of airrefuelling which would obviate the need for reliance on a foreign supplier. This led to the design and development by the Boeing Airplane Company of the so-called ‘boom system’, which essentially consisted of a long telescopic tube, normally carried in a retracted position under the tanker’s rear fuselage, which could be lowered by an operator and directed into a receptacle on the receiver. Although capable of very high flow rates when supplying large aircraft such as the B-52, it formed a rigid physical link between the two aircraft; this was not favoured by many aircrew, not least because it could only service one receiver at a time. The ‘probe and drogue’ system was much more flexible and, with the development of wing-pod and fuselage-mounted hose drum units, it became common practice for three (and with the US Navy’s ‘Tradewind’ tanker, up to four) aircraft to take on fuel at the same time. Such was the situation when, in 1949, with US inter-service rivalry at its customary high level, much debate took place as to whether the best means of atomic-weapon delivery might be offered by the Air Force’s future intercontinental bomber, the Convair B-36, or US Navy aircraft flying from brand new flush-deck supercarriers such as the USS United States, then about to be built. Seizing the initiative, the USAF undertook a round-the-world record flight with a Boeing B-50A, Lucky Lady II, of the 43rd Air Refuelling Squadron. Taking off from Carswell Air Force Base in Texas on 26 February, Lucky Lady II returned after having flown 23,108 miles in ninety-four hours and one minute. This had required two ‘looped hose’ tankers at each of four refuelling areas over the Azores, Dharan, the Philippines and Hawaii. A further demonstration took place on 7 December, a highly evocative commemorative date for all Americans, when a second B-50 flew over Pearl Harbor at the end of a long-distance flight and dropped a message announcing its undetected arrival. This

183

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 183

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

pointed gesture proved that the USAF could, at least in principle, deliver an atomic weapon wherever it might be required. When, at the Dayton meeting, General Crawford had mentioned the need to refuel single-seat fighters, he had clearly meant jet-fighters, and Cobham was now faced with trying to persuade the RAF that ‘probe and drogue’ refuelling would be of direct benefit, especially in light of the Gloster Meteor’s on-station endurance of a mere thirty minutes. Once again, his plea fell on deaf ears for he was told there was simply no Air Staff requirement for air-refuelling. Long accustomed to meeting walls of resistance, he continued to gain support at the Air Ministry and obtained the loan of a Meteor Mk III, EE 397. Although not the latest Meteor variant, its arrival at Tarrant Rushton was greeted with great enthusiasm. However, when the date for USAF General Carroll’s visit was unexpectedly brought forward to 6 April, there was, with ground and flight tests still to be carried out, real concern that a convincing demonstration could be arranged in time. On Saturday 4 April, Tom Marks, flying the Lancaster tanker, and Pat Hornidge the Meteor receiver, conducted a series of dry contacts which, fortunately, showed the new procedure to work very well. At precisely 10.00 am on the following Monday, the fifteen-man American delegation arrived to see the tanker and receiver, both highly polished in the bright sunshine, positioned alongside a company Lancastrian ready to carry the VIPs aloft. Cobham recalled that although the demonstration went off without a hitch, subsequent flights threw up snags which prevented a successful repeat performance until over a month later. Notwithstanding this, seven separate demonstrations were immediately put in hand for leading representatives of the RAF, the airlines, major aircraft constructors and many foreign officials. The limitations of the Lancaster to operate much beyond 20,000ft were later overcome when Air Marshal Sir Alec Coryton, one of the VIPs who had become intrigued by the new system, offered to provide an Avro Lincoln, RA 657, and a Meteor Mk IV, VZ 389, for more advanced trials work. Almost a year had passed since Sir Alan’s visit to Dayton. On that occasion he had, in conjunction with George Woods Humphery, the ex-managing director of Imperial Airways (then living in the States), formed Flight Refueling [sic] Inc, with offices and a workshop in Danbury, Connecticut. It was intended that after the ‘Americanization’ of engineering drawings and documentation, spares would be manufactured for the ‘looped hose’ systems in use with the USAF. The company, however, soon began to exert its own influence and independence when the US Navy placed orders for

184

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 184

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

The Breakthrough

equipment which allowed fuel to be pumped up from the deck of a ship into a dirigible blimp hovering overhead. In one of his many visits to the US, Sir Alan was called to a meeting with General Putt, now formally installed as the senior officer in charge of the air-refuelling project. After explaining that B-29s were to be converted to ‘probe and drogue’ tankers, the general enquired what sort of a flight development programme would be necessary to prove that bombers and single-seat fighters could be refuelled in the air. Cobham replied that a B-29 single-point tanker (fuselage-mounted hose drum unit), a B-29 receiver, another B-29 three-point tanker (two wing-mounted and one fuselagemounted hose drum units) plus a fighter would be necessary to cover the test configurations. Despite Cobham’s understandably strong reservations about the cost of sending this number of aircraft for conversion to Tarrant Rushton, he was eventually persuaded that it was a small amount in relation to the overall USAF budget. In the event, two EF-84E Thunderjets formed the fighter element, in what became Operation Outing. It was during these discussions that Cobham was made aware of his company achieving a world record for jet aircraft. Word came through that on 7 August 1949, with Tom Marks flying a Lancaster tanker, G-33-2, and test pilot Pat Hornidge the Meteor III, ten refuellings over a triangular course covering Bristol, Devon and Dungeness had resulted in a flight of twelve hours and three minutes. He had, however, a difficult time convincing the Americans that it was a total surprise. Perhaps the most interesting telegram of congratulation received by Hornidge was that which stated, ‘Well done; what a man – ten connections in twelve hours!’ What the Post Office approving authorities thought of it remains unknown. Local interest naturally proved to be intense when the first B-29 arrived at Tarrant Rushton in December 1949. Coach trips were organized from Bournemouth and elsewhere hoping to catch a glimpse of this exotic aircraft, supposedly hidden for security reasons behind high fabric screens. Amusingly, this subterfuge was reminiscent of the equally futile attempts to stop the non-paying pre-war public watching Cobham’s National Aviation Day displays. Security was at that time almost a national obsession with the Americans, as witnessed by the Congressional communist ‘witch-hunt’ investigations instigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy. One can well imagine, therefore, the concern expressed by the newly arrived team’s commanding officer when, somewhat later, a red-coated fox-hunting party rode unchallenged across the airfield. Of far more concern to Cobham was having offered to the USAF a fixed price for converting the six aircraft on the assumption that the level

185

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 185

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

of technology involved would be similar to that of the Lancaster. It thus came as a severe shock to find, too late, that the B-29 was an ‘all electric’ aeroplane – infinitely more complex than the machines normally worked on at Tarrant Rushton. The fighters posed a different problem for, whereas the twin-engined Meteor easily accommodated a nose-mounted probe, the Thunderjet’s air intake, located in the nose, prevented such a similarly straightforward installation. The probe had to be sited on the leading edge of a very thin wing that was already packed with structure and equipment. As one FRL designer described it, ‘Finding a way to run piping through to the wing-tip tanks, almost required a mouse with string tied to its tail, to thread its way to some cheese.’ Nonetheless, progress was made and, after completing the B-29 three-point tanker conversion (thereafter designated the YKB-29T), simultaneous refuelling was successfully demonstrated with three Meteors. The two Thunderjets had earlier returned to the States, piloted by Colonels Ritchie and Schilling, refuelled en route by the company’s Lincoln. However, this first jet-crossing of the Atlantic, code named Fox Able 4 (Fighter Atlantic 4), could only claim to be a qualified success, as bad weather caused Schilling to land at Limestone, Maine, 400 miles short of his intended destination at Mitchell AFB, New York. Ritchie was not so fortunate, for a damaged fuel valve prevented him taking on a full load of fuel. His engine flamed out some 30 miles short of Goose Bay, but he ejected to be safely rescued by a Canadian helicopter crew. Despite the eventual technical success of the conversions, there was no gainsaying the financial overspend of the project and a delay of some eighteen months before the work was completed. Coming so quickly on the heels of the commercial miscalculation over the Berlin Airlift contract, Cobham’s company was yet again facing financial crisis. The only way to avoid liquidation was to sell the manufacturing rights for the system to the US Government for an amount equal to the overspend. This was akin to selling the family silver, and with it, of course, went Cobham’s hopes of making a financial killing in America, with companies including Beech and Douglas now invited to move in on the market. The USAF continued to use KB-29M tankers fitted with ‘looped hose’ systems to good effect in the Korean conflict, but these were later joined by KB-29T tankers equipped with ‘Quickie’ ‘probe and drogue’ systems that were installed at Tarrant Rushton. The early Fifties saw the interest in ‘probe and drogue’ refuelling undergo several fluctuations. Apart from the disappointment at losing a prime position in manufacturing equipment for the USAF – and later the takeover of FR Inc by the Rockefeller Group – the attitudes of the RAF and Royal Navy chiefs were at variance. At this time, it was standard practice

186

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 186

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

The Breakthrough

for Gloster Meteors to undertake constant air patrols along Britain’s east coast, ostensibly to ward off any incoming threat from unfriendly sources. As already noted, the endurance of this first jet-generation aircraft was strictly limited, and after only some thirty minutes ‘on station’ it was time to return to base for refuelling. In light of this, in May 1951, No 245 Squadron, based at Horsham St Faith in Norfolk, had its Meteor F Mk 8s fitted with nose-mounted probes for the evaluation of refuelling techniques and procedures in conjunction with FRL’s Lincoln and Lancaster tankers. However, after an intensive trials period, Fighter Command’s C-in-C, Air Marshal Sir Basil Embry, pronounced that ‘although the value of air refuelling was indisputable, the considerable expense that would be incurred in providing suitable tankers would reduce the numbers of fighters that could be made available’. This decision resulted in all the RAF’s first-generation jets – the Meteor, Vampire and later the Hunter and Swift – being denied the benefit of extended range and endurance. By 1953, however, much consideration was being given by the Air Ministry’s Operational Branch as to whether air-refuelling might have a useful role in future Bomber Command operations. Assessments were made as to what range benefits or penalties would be incurred for the new ‘V’ bombers carrying either large loads of conventional bombs or a single 10,000lb atomic bomb, or for Canberra light-bombers operating in the low-level target-marker role. Cost-effectiveness was naturally a big concern, as was the point at which tanker and receiver equipment could be introduced into the various production lines. Out of all this came the decision in December 1952 to modify three Valiant bombers to receive and deliver fuel for trial purposes. At much the same time (in May 1953), a Canberra B2, WH 734, was delivered to Tarrant Rushton for the installation of a Mk 16 Hose Drum Unit (the type intended for the Valiant). This aircraft became the world’s first jet-tanker. Several Canberras were taken on the company’s strength over the years ahead; but WH 734 was to remain on FRL’s charge for the next thirty years. The first jet-to-jet refuelling, Canberra to Meteor, took place in 1955, by which time a second Canberra had arrived for testing the wing-mounted Mk 20 refuelling pod, designed for use firstly with the Royal Navy’s Sea Vixens and Scimitars, and later its main strike force Buccaneers. Clearly, the gradual acceptance of air-refuelling by the Royal Navy and RAF accelerated equipment development as the decade progressed; but not all of Tarrant Rushton’s efforts were devoted to this activity. Contracts were obtained for the maintenance and repair of Meteors for the British, Israeli and Egyptian air forces, and with over 650 machines received over a five-year period, this lucrative work helped considerably in restoring the

187

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 187

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

company’s finances. However, FRL’s association with the Meteor did not end there. With the growing importance of fighters equipped with guided missile armament, it became necessary to replace the ageing Fairey Firefly target aircraft with a drone possessing higher all-round performance. A test programme was carried out in 1954 at Farnborough to assess the use of the Meteor as a replacement, and a contract was eventually placed for 119 Mk 4s and ninety-two Mk 8s to be converted as unmanned targets. It is of interest to record that this was not the only drone work undertaken by FRL, for in 1952 two Lancasters (out of a projected batch of nineteen) were supplied for drone conversion. Trials soon showed that mainplane deflections and difficulties with Ultra Radio’s modified throttle control box made the aircraft an unsuitable candidate for this kind of work. The second Lancaster was thus spared an undignified end and, after other work which included underwing-mounted rocket-firing trials, it was transferred to Cranfield in 1956 for de-icing tests on a stub wing projecting above the fuselage. However, the aircraft’s last hurrah was yet to come, for, as PA 474, it later became the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s showpiece display aircraft, and as such has continued to thrill the British public well into the twenty-first century. Flying continued unabated when, in November 1952, No. 210 Advanced Flying School (AFS) opened at Tarrant Rushton. It was formed to ease the strain on the RAF’s Flying Training Command, then fully stretched in carrying out extra pilot training to meet the Korean crisis. Word had circulated in official circles that Cobham’s company had become thoroughly conversant with the Meteor and was in possession of a firstclass airfield, entirely suited for training purposes. Sir Alan was, therefore, most pleased to receive a contract to service and maintain the AFS’s Meteors and Vampires, and to provide full living facilities for its staff and pupils. At its peak, the school housed thirty-six aircraft and undertook on average 150 sorties a day before closing in March 1954. He was even more pleased to receive an official commendation for having consistently achieved the highest serviceability (75 per cent) and the best safety record of any AFS operating in the country at that time. It is worth recording the final attempt made by Cobham to interest the civil aviation world in air-refuelling. As the Fifties began, great hopes were placed on de Havilland’s Comet stealing a march on the Americans by becoming the first jet- powered airliner. However, its basic unrefuelled range was insufficient to allow it to cross the Atlantic, and Sir Alan, mindful of earlier unproductive dealings with BOAC, requested the Comet’s designer, R.E. Bishop, to use his influence in calling for the aircraft to be equipped as a receiver. Test flights subsequently took place in late 1950

188

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 188

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

The Breakthrough

and early 1951, with the second Comet prototype, G-ALVG, fitted with a dummy probe, attempting to make contact with a hose trailed behind the company’s Lincoln tanker. The tests were not successful, due largely to the Comet’s poor longitudinal stability at low speed, and the trailed hose, being of a smaller diameter than those usually employed, causing the drogue to swing wildly in all directions. Though the airline’s senior pilots, which included John Cunningham, found contact to be virtually impossible, FRL’s Pat Hornidge showed it could be achieved with several successful attempts, despite his not having previously flown the Comet. Other factors were considered, such as unfavourable passenger reaction to excessive discomfort if refuelling had to be carried out in bad weather, and whether it might be possible to ‘reverse refuel’. This, in theory at least, would have required a hose to be trailed by the Comet, and the tanker, having manoeuvred into position, pumping fuel ‘uphill’. This approach actually led to a Tudor Mk 1, G-AGRI, being loaded with four tons of concrete in lieu of fuel to determine its possible use as a tanker. For a period in the mid-Fifties a number of former BSAA Tudor Mk1s, two more belonging to the Ministry of Supply and three Mk 4s owned by Avro were stored at Tarrant Rushton. Several of these had already been purchased by Aviation Traders in the summer of 1953, but Sir Alan was seriously attracted to taking on some of the remainder to equip an associated company, Flight Charter. His intention was to transport the carcass meat of cattle, bred and fattened in equatorial Africa, some 800 miles to a refrigeration plant in Brazzaville, capital of the Congo. Closer inspection of the contract, however, only allowed for a one-way carriage of freight, and Cobham’s interest waned. The ‘ups and downs’ of flying and related manufacturing work provided periods of uncertainty throughout the Fifties for many companies, including FRL. One such period was fortunately offset when, in 1952, ex-Skyways partner Ron Ashley approached Cobham with an unusual proposal. It transpired that he had managed to obtain a subcontract from Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft (AWA) for the manufacture of rear fuselages for the new Hawker Sea Hawk naval fighter. He had, however, underestimated the resources necessary to go ahead and bizarrely suggested selling the contract to Cobham who, he hoped, would allow him to run the project as an outside agent. It took Cobham very little time to reject this strange offer and to come to an uncomplicated arrangement with AWA, who were all too pleased to find a pair of hands they could trust. A total of 415 fuselage units were produced in the Airframe Construction Shop, along with ninety sets of wing-mounted drop tanks for the ill-fated Supermarine Swift.

189

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 189

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Although heavily committed to the projects already described, the flying programme was further intensified when Vampire Mk T.11s and Mk T.22s were progressively delivered for production flight-testing from the de Havilland factories at Christchurch, Chester and Hatfield, with fifty-eight of these distinctive trainers being put through their paces before delivery to the RAF. Another welcome visitor from Christchurch was the elegant Airspeed Ambassador, sent over for a series of radio, radar and compass-heading checks. Apart from the various work contract demands on Sir Alan’s time, other issues required his unceasing attention. Not the least of these was the difference in management policy he was experiencing with his City partners on the FRL board. In his view, the merchant bankers were too concerned with matters of the moment and unwilling to invest in technical innovations that would safeguard the company’s future. These differences came to a head in 1952 when Robert Benson, Lonsdale and Co’s directors offered to sell their shareholdings for £30,000. This provided a chance for Cobham to regain total control of the company, but in order to raise the capital he was forced to sell a substantial property he owned in the Bahamas. All appeared to be going well, until the point at which he was about to sign the cheque and complete the FRL purchase. At that precise moment, the telephone rang and his secretary informed him that the Bahamian property deal had fallen through. Absolutely stunned by this almost theatrical turn of events, he realized that he now had to make a firm decision. After considering the situation for a couple of minutes, he put on a brave face and, radiating a confidence he certainly didn’t feel, returned to the table and signed the cheque. After a round of quick handshakes, he quickly took his leave and hurried round to see Sir Charles Lidbury at the Westminster Bank. To his great relief, Lidbury took a sympathetic view of the situation and confirmed that the cheque would, indeed, be honoured. As Cobham later admitted, it had been a close-run thing, and had he been forced to deal with anyone else, he could have ended up in a highly embarrassing position. Thus, in July 1952, Sir Alan became the sole shareholder in the company, whereupon he invited his son Michael, newly qualified as a barrister, to join the board as a non-executive director. Michael’s first, self-appointed task was to inform his father that his monopolistic shareholding placed the family in a potentially ruinous position regarding future death duties. Accordingly, a share rearrangement saw Sir Alan retaining 30 per cent, Lady Cobham and Michael each receiving a similar amount and FRL’s financial director, Christopher Tonge, the remaining 10 per cent.

190

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 190

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

The Breakthrough

This proved to be the first step toward making FRL a public company, and in 1954 Cobham took advice on how this could be brought about. It was recommended that he purchase a moribund company, the Manitoba and North West Land Corporation Ltd, which, though having no physical assets, still retained the desired quotation on the British Stock Exchange. After much financial manipulation (which he freely admitted he didn’t understand), he, as chairman, along with other FRL directors, decided to change the company’s name to Flight Refuelling (Holdings) Ltd, thus becoming FRL’s parent company. Michael Cobham recalled that this was one of the last occasions when ‘going public’ by way of such transactions was allowed, as much stricter financial regulations were put in place soon afterwards. Although Michael had joined the company board in 1952, he had remained in Chambers at the Temple, and having shown no inclination to join industry he fully expected to continue as a practising barrister. Cobham senior, however, was determined to have his son join the family firm in which he had such a substantial vested interest, and in 1955 he became FRL’s contracts manager. A year previously, the first signs of trouble appeared regarding the continued use of Tarrant Rushton airfield. In 1953, Cobham had been persuaded by a Poole-based company, Tingtuf, that there were excellent prospects for the manufacture of tufted fabrics. It was hoped that he would advance more capital to purchase the necessary special-purpose machinery. Interested in the idea, he set up a small unit at Tarrant Rushton to develop and manufacture the machines which, he considered, could produce lightweight carpeting for aircraft use. The English Stitchweave Company was formed, with the ever-willing Hugh Johnson as general manager, to gain entry into the textile industry, but after two years of unprofitable operation, it was closed down. Neighbouring farmers, already sensitive to the continuance of flying activities a decade after the end of the war, were convinced that Cobham’s latest venture had marked the start of the site becoming an industrial centre, which would have a serious environmental impact on what was primarily a rural area. Formal objections were raised, which culminated in an action being brought in the High Court against the Air Ministry and FRL. The case, which became known as the ‘Crichel Down affair’, was only resolved when, after much legal wrangling, the Air Ministry bought the land and Flight Refuelling Ltd was allowed to continue after agreeing to limit the size of its workforce to 1,100. Two lease extensions eventually permitted the company to continue its flying activities until 1981, by which time, driven by the urgent need for expansion, its administration, design and manufacturing facilities had long since moved some 5 miles down the road to Wimborne. Transferring

191

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 191

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

these activities to this small Dorset town had been a piecemeal process, with certain departments temporarily residing at nearby locations until the new works and offices (built, incidentally, on a council rubbish tip situated alongside the River Stour) became operational in the early Sixties. This was a testing period for the FRL board, for enquiries from nonaviation sources regarding the control, movement and measurement of fuels had begun to take a disproportionate amount of effort for a design office already fully committed to aircraft projects. This led, in 1960, to the formation of Alan Cobham Engineering Ltd, which then became the second company within the FR (Holdings) group. However, the biggest change for Sir Alan occurred in 1961 following the death of his wife after a protracted illness. Lady Cobham had always been a stabilizing influence when some of the schemes put forward by her hyper-energetic husband needed to be reined in, and such was the affection shown by FRL’s employees, past and present, that many from Ford chartered a special four-coach Pullman train to travel from Sussex to Dorset to attend her funeral. Michael Cobham read the lesson at a memorial service held later in Bournemouth’s St Stephen’s Church, where the music was provided voluntarily by members of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Gladys Cobham was later interred in the churchyard at Tarrant Rushton village. Flight Refuelling Ltd also experienced significant change, becoming progressively organized into several separately accountable divisions, each concentrating on a specific area of engineering application. The most prominent of these were the Aerospace Components, Nuclear and Industrial Electronics Divisions, along with the Military Systems Division which remained closely allied to the Airfield Division at Tarrant Rushton, where tests were being carried out on towed aerial targets then becoming an increasingly important contributor to the company’s product range. Peter Macgregor, who, it will be recalled, had invented the ‘probe and drogue’ system of air-refuelling, had applied his fertile mind to designing what became known as the Rushton winch. This incorporated a clever series of winding capstans, which allowed a target to be towed on the end of a small diameter cable, some 8 miles behind the towing aircraft, thus providing an adequate margin of safety when the attacking aircraft launched its heat-seeking missiles. On one occasion – due, it must be said, to a mechanical failure which allowed the towing cable to run out to its full extent of 48,000ft – an unofficial world record was established for target deployment. FRL’s involvement with the Ministry’s Trials and Ranges Department, the RAF and Royal Navy crew-training establishments, along with that

192

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 192

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

The Breakthrough

of the Indian Air Force, using Meteor and Canberra aircraft, formed a very significant part of its activities throughout the Sixties and Seventies. However, to further elaborate on this and other projects that reached full maturity after Sir Alan relinquished personal control of the company is outside the scope of this book, and is a tale best told elsewhere.

193

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 193

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 194

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

Chapter Fourteen

A Life Well Lived

I

n 1969, following his 75th birthday, and having been elected Life President, Sir Alan Cobham announced his retirement, thus making way for Michael Cobham to take over as chairman of Flight Refuelling (Holdings) Ltd and managing director of Flight Refuelling Ltd. Father and son each controlled FRL for thirty years – though in vastly different styles, dictated not only by their contrasting personalities, but by the changing needs of the business environment. Michael admitted that ‘the old man’, internationally famous and highly conscious of his celebrity status and position of leading propagandist for British aviation, ran the firm largely on an intuitive basis. The son, on the other hand, being more formally trained and of quieter temperament, took a far more businesslike approach in overseeing the company’s growth through acquisitions and joint ventures into that of a diversified aerospace group. That said, both men achieved remarkable individual success within what has always been a challenging and, at times, volatile industry. In 1953, Sir Alan acquired interests in the British Virgin Islands that included the Tortola Shipbuilding Yard; in retirement, he lived there and also in Guernsey, before eventually returning to England. He died aged 79 at his home, ‘Falaise’, on Bournemouth’s Westcliffe, on 21 October 1973, and was laid to rest alongside his wife at Tarrant Rushton. As earlier described, Flight Refuelling Ltd had been formed in 1934 with the express purpose of ‘doing what it said on the tin’. Sir Alan, the pioneering spirit personified, saw its creation as one of a continuing series of challenges that were simply there to be overcome. In so doing, he was proved to be right far more often than he was shown to be wrong, and he never flinched from treading on official toes to make his point. Sir Michael Cobham, as he later became in 1995, also lived to be 79 before he too passed away on 13 April 2006, being buried in the Hampshire village churchyard at Martin, where he and his wife Nadine and daughter Camilla resided for many years.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 195

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 196

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

Postscript

I

n writing this book, I have made frequent recourse to my earlier volumes that involved interviewing some eighty of Sir Alan’s former colleagues, ranging from the company’s first apprentice, Ron Woods, to high-ranking service officers, whose recollections proved invaluable. In Cobhams’ Company (yes, the apostrophe is in the correct place, as rightly insisted upon by Sir Michael) was written to coincide with changing, in 1994, the holding company’s title to Cobham plc. This was seen as not only a fitting recognition of its founder as a truly great name in British aviation but as indicating the very significant extension of the group’s interests, well beyond that of air-refuelling. In talking to so many people, many of whom are now no longer with us, I gained the firm impression that Sir Alan was ‘all things to all men’. He could, for example, be extremely quirky – as witnessed on one occasion when, at Ford, a new employee, Ron Roberts, working on the upper surface of a Lancaster wing, let slip a spanner, which fell noisily to the ground uncomfortably close to Cobham as he was walking by. Convinced that someone had thrown it at him, his invective took a while to calm down, during which time Roberts, wisely deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, compressed himself as flat as he could onto the wing until the danger had passed. Pat Hornidge recalled the time at Tarrant Rushton when the test pilots fell, somewhat unfairly, into his disfavour. The pathway from their hut to the main roadway had, during the winter, become muddy and difficult, so when offered some tarmac left over from another airfield repair and about to be disposed of, they willingly took it and laid a new path themselves, thus making a great improvement – or so they thought until Sir Alan, driving by on his way to London, stopped and, though formally dressed, demanded a spade and dug it all up, making it clear that anything of that sort required his prior permission. Strange behaviour, indeed, from a man renowned for his own outstanding initiative.

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 197

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

During my earlier interviews, many similar stories unfolded which, time having passed, invariably caused a wry smile; a prime example being Sir Alan’s refusal to pay ten shillings to leave his hat in a locker at Heathrow before travelling to the States, declaring the price to be outrageous. He could also be a touch careless about his personal transport arrangements. At the end of a flight debriefing at Ford, he asked Ron Roberts to get his car for him. When asked where it was, he replied, ‘If I bloody well knew that, I’d get it myself!’ It was eventually located with the ignition key still in place. On another occasion, his chauffeur arrived at Bournemouth’s railway station to take him to Tarrant Rushton and asked where he had parked his car. After a few expletives, he realized that he had driven to London, parked his car, did what he had to do, and no doubt preoccupied with a million other thoughts, absent-mindedly returned by train. Fortunately, he never seemed to have this problem with the aircraft he flew. He would invariably buy an economy-class ticket whenever he travelled overseas, knowing that he would immediately be offered an upgrade to first-class. However, such conduct probably owed more to the great man’s business acumen than to a tendency toward miserliness. Offsetting all this were the many instances recalled of his (and Lady Cobham’s) concern for the welfare of his workforce and frequent gestures of charitable generosity This latter virtue, I would add from my own personal experience, is a feature still much in evidence with the Cobham family today. Sir Alan’s wide range of interests included countryside matters and the environment, sailing (though he had a tendency toward sea-sickness and vertigo) and music, which he greatly enjoyed, as illustrated by his chairmanship of the Western Orchestral Society’s management committee and patronage of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, at one time in danger of disbandment due to lack of council funding. Both Southampton and Bournemouth Universities received substantial financial support from Sir Alan and later Sir Michael, and their goodwill is now permanently recognized on the Bournemouth campus by the impressive Cobham lecture hall and the Sir Michael Cobham terrace. Added to this must be the philanthropic funding later provided by Sir Michael to provide Cobham Hall, which houses the Fleet Air Arm Museum’s superb reserve collection of naval aircraft. Sir Alan found time to support – both personally and financially – the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators, joining that illustrious body in 1930 and eventually attaining the position of Grand Master. Following in his footsteps, Sir Michael also served as an Assistant to the Court, which named its London headquarters Cobham House, thus appropriately honouring their efforts, achievements and long-term financial support.

198

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 198

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

Postscript

Though far from exhaustive, the list indicates the high esteem these influential leaders of industry commanded within aviation circles and beyond. Ironically perhaps, for the sixty years that FRL remained in the family, the Cobham name did not appear in the company title. It was only after Sir Michael’s own retirement in 1994 that it came to the forefront as Cobham plc, thus joining a very select number of companies which, though formed in the inter-war period, still embody their founder’s name, such as Dowty, Martin-Baker and Marshall of Cambridge. One has to wonder, in the rapidly changing conglomerate world of aviation, which of these famous names will remain as ‘the last man standing’. In closing this story, two quotations are apposite. The first, accredited to HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, is foreshortened here to read, ‘Many people have exploited a good idea (in this case, air-refuelling), but not many live to see it developed into a lasting success.’ How prescient his observation for, whilst Sir Alan saw his ‘probe and drogue’ system make its indelible mark on military air operations, he did not live long enough to witness its dramatic contribution to British victory in the Falklands campaign in 1982. The second quotation is one of his own: ‘It’s a full time job being Alan Cobham.’ ‘Really?’, it might be asked; no-one would ever have guessed! The Flight Refuelling Ltd company originally set up by Sir Alan Cobham lost its distinctive name in 2009 and now trades as Cobham Mission Services within the parent Cobham plc, whose diverse range of companies are dispersed world-wide. However, reduced defence budgets have dictated that much greater emphasis is now placed in commercial aviation sectors and such fast-developing areas as industrial security, life support and advanced surveillance and communications in land, sea and air environments. This widening of the overall product range is well illustrated by the fact that Cobham plc now has nine manufacturing locations in the USA and five in Europe; a far cry indeed from the original cornerstone company set-up at Ford in 1934. A bronze bust of Sir Alan has resided within the main reception area of Cobham plc’s administrative headquarters in Wimborne for many years. Seeing this, one can well imagine this restless but pragmatic visionary in deep contemplation of his next challenge – and probably the next couple after that. Today, the Cobham organization, retaining as it does a formidable presence in the challenging and fast-moving world of advanced technology, serves as a fitting tribute to those who, in previous years, led by Sir Alan and Sir Michael, designed and manufactured top-class engineering products and provided admirable flying services. Clearly they still do.

199

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 199

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 200

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

Appendix

Cobham’s air routes: 1 2 3 4 5

London to India and Burma, 1924‑25 London to South Africa (Cape Town), 1925‑26 Rochester to Australia (Melbourne), 1926 Circumnavigation of Africa, 1928 Air display tour of South Africa, 1932‑33

Book Jacket sleeve notes Following a forty-year career in some of the leading aerospace design offices in the UK, America and South Africa, Colin Cruddas retired as an engineering manager with Flight Refuelling Ltd due to ill-health in 1992. He then became the archivist and historian for the company and later for Cobham plc. His first book, In Cobhams’ Company, provided the cornerstone for writing or co-authoring a further twelve titles related to aviation.

Published works by the same author In Cobhams’ Company; Sixty Years of Flight Refuelling Ltd (Dovecote Press, 1994) Cobham – The Flying Years (The History Press, 1997) In Dorset’s Skies (The History Press, 2000) In Hampshire’s Skies (The History Press, 2001)

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 201

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

Those Fabulous Flying Years; Joy Riding and Flying Circuses Between the Wars (Air-Britain, 2003) In Wiltshire’s Skies (The History Press, 2004) Highways to the Empire; Long-Distance Flying Between the Wars (Air-Britain, 2006) 100 Years of Advertising in British Aviation (The History Press, 2008) In Somerset’s Skies (Amberley Press, 2010) A View From The Wings (The History Press, 2013)

Collaborative works Faster, Further, Higher; Leading-Edge Technology since 1945 (Putnam Aeronautical Books, 2002) Cobham 75 (Dovecote Press, 2009)

202

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 202

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

Index

A Allison, Percy 115, 137, 145-46, 150, 162-63, 166, 178 Ashley, Captain 170-71 Atcherley, Flight Lieutenant Richard 145, 147 Athlone, Earl of 79, 82 Atkinson, Flight Lieutenant 149

B Bader, Douglas xiii Barker, Henry 120 Barnard, Captain, Charles 36, 38, 137, 157, 161 Barr, Alexander Wallace 103 Batten, Jean 126, 137 Beaverbrook, Lord 141, 157-58, 167-68 Bebb, Cecil 125, 127, 135 Bennett, Air Vice Marshal Don 171-73 Benson, Robert 190 Birchley, Donald 1, 5-6 Birkenhead, Lord 103 Bishop, R.E. 38, 188 Blackburn, Robert 100 Bleriot, Louis 136 Bonnett, S.R. 100 Bourton, Brigadier General 71 Brackley, Major Herbert George 60

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 203

Brancker, Air Vice Marshal Sir Sefton 49-50, 60-69, 86, 90, 92, 103-4 Brand, Flight Lieutenant Quintin 71 Bremridge, H.C. 130, 133 Brinsmead, Colonel 73, 92 Broad, Hubert 36, 55-56 Burney, Sir Dennistoun 68 Burton Gyles, Major 180 Butler, Alan 35, 39, 56, 63

C Caddell, General 35 Campbell, Sir Malcolm x, 97, 128 Capel, C.H. 93 Carroll, General 179, 184 Carruthers, Flight Lieutenant Leonard 138, 140 Castlemain, Leslie 113, 117, 120, 137 Chamberlin, Clarence 95 Cobham, Sir Alan Early family life 1-6 Military service RFC and RAF 7-23 Berkshire Aviation Ltd 26-32, 34, 114 Marriage 6, 30, 47 de Havilland Aeroplane Hire Service 35, 46 Alan Cobham Aviation Ltd 97, 105, 109

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

G

Flight Refuelling Ltd xi, xiii-xiv, 147-48, 153, 155, 171, 174-75, 191-92, 195, 199 Cobham Air Routes 69, 75, 103 A Life Well Lived 195 Cobham, Sir Michael 144, 197-99 Cobham, Sir Richard 122 Conway, C.F. 100, 102 Coryton, Air Marshal Sir Alec 184 Courtney, Frank 54 Cowdery, Samuel Franklin 4 Crabtree Taylor, Joseph Carey 30 Crawford, General 178-79, 184 Critchley, Air Commodore A.C. 171 Crundall, Captain 116 Cunningham, John 173, 189

Geddes, Sir Eric 104 Gibson, Wing Commander Guy xiii Gladstone, Captain Tony 99, 104-6 Goering, Hermann 55 Gomez-Cornejo, Harold 31 Goodban, Dick 117 Guest, Rt Hon Freddie 109

H

D Davis, Captain Duncan 27 de Havilland x, 35-36, 38-39, 45, 54-57, 81, 83, 158 Doolittle, General 163, 175, 177 Dowding, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh 122, 131, 134

E Elliott, Arthur xi, 62-68, 73-76, 78, 80-81, 83-91, 124 Embry, Air Marshal Sir Basil 187 Emmott, Basil 73, 75-76, 78, 81-82 Errington, George 161 Eskell, Dallas 112-13, 115, 119-20, 126

Hambling, Sir Herbert 60 Hannay, Lieutenant 8-10 Hatchett, Bill 36, 38, 42 Hearn, Martin 116, 123-24 Helmore, Squadron Leader Bill 121, 131-33 Hemming, Major 56 Henderson, Major G.P.L. 27 Henshaw, Alex 109 Heron-Maxwell, Naomi 139 Hill, Walter 175 Hinchliffe, Captain Ray 62 Hinkler, Bert 109 Hoare, Sir Samuel 90, 99, 103-4 Holly, Lieutenant 16, 20 Holt Thomas, George 35 Hope, Wally 36 Hornidge, Pat 184, 189, 197 Hughes, Charles Turner 118, 124 Humphery, George Woods 106, 147

I F

Inchcape, Lord 62, 103

Fairey, Sir Richard 59 Fielden, Captain 115 Freeman, Air Vice Marshal Sir Wilfred 153

J Johnson, Amy xiii, 109, 137

204

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 204

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

Index

Johnson, Hugh 111-13, 115-19, 122, 124-26, 130-34, 137, 144, 146, 148-50, 162-63, 166, 170, 172, 179-80, 182 Jones, Captain O.P. 31

K Keyes, R.J. 36 Kilsant, Lord 103 Kingsford Smith, Charles 109 Knight, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael ix, xiv Koolhoven, Frederick 25

L Langley, Marcus 148, 155, 162 Latimer Needham, C H 172 Lawson, Harold 119-20 Le May, General Curtis 183 Lidbury, Sir Charles 171, 190 Lindbergh, Charles x, xiii, 95 Linnell, Air Marshal F.J. 161 Lloyd, Air Marshal Sir Hugh 166 Lowe-Wylde, ‘Jimmy’ 116

N Nelson, Lord 49 Noorduyn, Robert 25 Norrish, Ronald 159

O Ogden, W. 118, 143 Ortweiler, F.J. 36, 42 Ower, William 124

P Parer, Roy 84 Pemberton-Billing, Noel 158 Phillips, Captain Percy 110, 112, 115, 135 Pierson, Rex 56 Price, Ivor 116, 119, 139 Proctor, Peter 148 Prowse, Captain David 169-70, 172, 179-80 Putt, General 185

Q Quill, Jeffrey 161

M Macgregor, Peter 192 MacIntosh, John 84 Mackay, ‘Jock’ 127, 136 MacLaren, Major 71 Macmillan, Norman 59, 88 Marks, Tom 174, 184-85 Marsland, Frederick 139 Mayo, Major Robert 144 McEwan King, Jimmy 120 Measures, Wing Commander 143 Miller, Major Alastair 106 Mollison, Jim 109, 137

R Rawnsley, Squadron Leader C.F. 173 Rawson, A.C. 116, 118 Raynham, F.P. 54-55 Reynolds, Captain Reilly 13 Ritchie, Colonel 27, 186 Roberts, Ron 169, 197-98 Robertson, Field Marshal Sir William 31 Rose, Captain K. 125 Rossiter, Edwin 113, 116-17, 120, 123, 128 Rothermere, Lord 74

205

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 205

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

SIR ALAN COBHAM

S Salisbury, Frank 94 Salmond, MRAF Sir John 148 Savage, Major Jack 49 Savory, Major Kenneth 71 Shute Norway, Neville 110 Siddeley, Sir John 72, 74, 90, 93, 103, 122 Slessor, MRAF Sir John 19 Smith, Harry 148 Smith, Keith 84 Smith-Barry, Major Robert 18 Stanley, Vincent 181 Stewart, Captain Hugh 140 Stodart, Squadron Leader David 134 Strong, Captain 79, 82

T Thomson, Lord Christopher 60-61 Trenchard, MRAF Lord Sir Hugh 73, 157 Tripp, Edward 148

Tymms, Freddie 72-73, 85, 105 Tyson, Geoffrey 124-27, 130, 135-37, 139-40, 148, 155

V van Ryneveld, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Pierre 71, 78, 118 Vane, Harry 55

W Wakefield, Lord Sir Charles Cheers 59, 68, 72, 83-84, 99, 105, 122 Wallis, Barnes 110 Warden, Colonel 177 Warwick Wright, Lieutenant Colonel 97 Whittle, Group Captain Sir Frank xiii Wilcockson, Captain A.S. 148 Wilson, Group Captain ‘Willy’ 161 Winstaff, Group Captain 180 Wolley Dod, Captain Charles 105-7 Worrall, F.V. 100

206

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 206

8/31/2018 10:08:44 PM

tah_



attention If you’re not reading

The Aviation Historian

®

The modern journal of classic aeroplanes and the history of flying

...isn’t it about time you were? The fresh, in-depth quarterly exploring the less-trodden paths of aviation’s past — military and civil, worldwide, from before the Wright Brothers to modern jets and the dawn of spaceflight. Flying history for connoisseurs

What they’re saying: “The best, most interesting and informative magazine available. After TAH, everything else is just a comic.” — subscriber David Squires, Nottingham “Eclectic, authoritative and never less than engrossing.” — historian Matt Willis, Southampton

“Beautifully produced . . . authoritative throughout.” — Pilot magazine “How you have broadened my horizons! The articles are extremely well written, very interesting and so instructive. What quality.” — subscriber Malcolm Graham, The Wirral

“If you can’t find something that piques your interest here, your passion is not what you thought it was!” — Classic Wings magazine

★★★★★  1-year subscription (4 issues) £44 inc p&p in UK  Single issues available 132pp  245mm x 170mm compact format  Square spine 07572 237737 ✍ TAH, PO Box 962, Horsham, West Sussex RH12 9PP  Not oN sale iN NewsageNts: order print and digital issues via our website

%

TAH TM

TM

The world’s fastest-growing aviation magazine. Try it now and find out why.

www.theaviationhistorian.com

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 207 tah_page_4merriambooks.indd 1

8/31/2018 10:08:45 10:57 PM 28/09/2017

Recommended Further Reading

A Time to Fly, Sir Alan Cobham  Shepheard, Walwyn 1978 To The Ends Of The Earth, Sir Alan Cobham, Tempus 2007 Twenty Thousand Miles In A Flying Boat, Sir Alan Cobham, Tempus 2007 

Sir Alan Cobham.indd 208

8/31/2018 10:08:45 PM