Memories of Longbridge by
Austin Test Pilot Geoffrey Alington.
© Google Earth
Areas of Longbridge Aircraft Production
It was incredible to find out that, when war was declared, the Austin factory was blacked out, 120 acres of roof obscured, and the whole area beautifully camouflaged, including the aerodrome, all in three days working furiously. I discovered that there were deep underground shelters to house 15,000 people and that there were also two tunnels, where Bristol Pegasus and Mercury aero engines were assembled.
The Fairey Battle bombers were coming off the production line like shelled peas. But unfortunately the aeroplane was a death trap, for it had a nasty habit of bursting into flames when shot up and it lacked the fire power to defend itself, so it was soon developed into a trainer and a target tower.
In January 1940 there were, apart from Captain Stack (main tester), three other test pilots, Maxwell Williams, an ex-British Airways pilot, who was tall, dark and thin, while the second one was Flight Lieutenant Clennell, who was shorter and of a broader build. The third one was Ian McNichol, whom I was to replace if my face fitted, for I soon realised that Ian was not beloved by the other two, although I found him much the nicest. I put it down to the strains of test flying and got on with the job, but I am sure it was due to the different ways that they unwound at the end of the day. Some test pilots I have known drank heavily, others unwound by exercise, and I always did the latter, apart from an occasional heavy party with one of the Squadrons when I went down to deal with a wayward or rogue aircraft. I knew I could not fly and concentrate one hundred per cent the next day, and I was a perfectionist over my flying and test flying, so I exercised my dog instead !
What a winter that was! Snow and freezing temperatures day and night so that the ground crew exhausted themselves by winding the starting handles of the Fairey Battles. Having taken off from Longbridge we would fly them to RAF. Castle Bromwich which we were using at that time and test them from there. Production at Longbridge continued uninterrupted by the weather so that the moment there was a break, the aircraft had to be flown away. The flight shed foreman at Longbridge was Bert Maynard, a quiet, efficient and very likeable man. I soon found out that there was a truly wonderful spirit of co-operation throughout the flight shed, set by his example. I felt at ease with them all and had confidence that they would do their utmost to produce the safest possible aircraft for us to fly. The ground crews were always known as 'the lads'. My 'Brum' lads were a fine lot. They certainly earned their money that winter, day after day pushing the Battles onto the lift, then pushing them off again when the aerodrome level was reached: Tom Tovey, a red head, what was left of it, Harry Palmer and others shovelling the snow and ice away to make a safe place for the wheel chocks: sweeping the snow off the other Battles awaiting to be test flown and taken to Castle Bromwich where there was already a ground crew waiting.
View from Lowhill Lane showing Fairey Battles ready for delivery.
Bert Maynard often used to come up in the back seat of the Battle during a test flight. On one such occasion I was doing a dive to maximum speed which was, if I remember correctly, 350 miles per hour, and I had started just below the cloud base which was 5000 feet. With my eyes inside the cockpit watching the instrument I waited for the maximum speed to come up. When it did I started winding back on the elevator trimmer to bring the nose up out of the steep drive and, glancing up, was amazed to find the ground much closer than I had expected. It is strange how, after seeing this, my mind took everything in slow motion. I realised that I must pull out very hard from the dive, or I would hit the ground, but not too hard as the aeroplane would "mush" into it and I would hit the ground anyway. Both of us had plenty of time to notice a man pedalling along a lane on his bicycle straight ahead of the aircraft. I saw him look up, and then he slowly appeared to push down on the handlebars and fly gracefully off the bicycle into the ditch - and then we were climbing again. I suppose we must have cleared him by 20 feet. On landing we could not help laughing about the incident, but at the same time felt extremely sorry for the bicyclist. If I could have located him, I would have apologised and explained that I was not deliberately 'shooting him' up!
One day during this cold spell when all England froze I did eleven test flights including a delivery to Castle Bromwich, which meant that, for me alone, the lads at Castle Bromwich had cleared the snow off seven Battles dispersed round the aerodrome, and then prepared them for flight. How many aircraft they prepared to fly for the other test pilots I do not know. I was always worried, that the man winding the engine starter would slip under those slippery conditions and fall into the revolving propeller. Luckily this never happened, neither were we then disturbed, by day or night, by German bombing.
At the end of February 1940 we started using Worcester aerodrome, which was north of the town called Perdiswell, instead of Castle Bromwich. This was a very small grass airfield next to Perdiswell Hall to the east of the Droitwich Road. It was was used by the Royal Air Force and the Austin Aircraft Division. For a short period during 1940, the airfield was covered in a grid pattern of old cars and agricultural equipment to prevent its use by enemy aircraft should their have been an invasion attempt. Later in that year the obstacles were removed to allow Tiger Moth aircraft of the RAF No 2 Elementary Flying Training School (No 2 EFTS) to operate there, firstly training instructors to teach others to fly, and then later giving elementary pilot training to men who, if successful, would go onto more advanced training. After the airfield was relinquished by the RAF in 1945, the barrack buildings were used to accommodate German prisoners of war until 1947. When they left the airfield was returned to the City Council.
Our Army Anti Aircraft (AA) gunners recognition was at that time extremely poor, so our instructions were to fly as low as possible to Worcester after take-off from Longbridge. We test pilots enjoyed these flights, though I very much doubt if the inhabitants on our route shared our fun for the Battle was a noisy creature. We need not have worried about our AA. guns for at this period they had had no practice at enemy aircraft and all the pilots came to the same conclusion when we discussed our chances of being hit.
We doubted if they could hit a tethered balloon, let alone a Fairey Battle hedge-hopping at 200 mph. At Worcester we had a small ground party. These crews travelled there each day ahead of the aircraft to be ready to undertake the test pilot's immediate instructions as to faults to be corrected. If they included a faulty operation of the undercarriage lights, there was a small hangar that we used for this type of work; otherwise small faults were corrected on the aerodrome out in the open. Once the aircraft was passed by the test pilot as satisfactory it was then parked out on the perimeter of the aerodrome until it was collected by the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).
Maxwell Williams was at this time acting chief test pilot as Captain Stack was still recovering from his serious accident, that happened while coming into land at Longbridge on the 25 July 1939. He was off flying but was walking about with two sticks. He was determined to fly again, though I do think he was secretly worried that he would never again test fly. He was full of guts, continually joking about his legs, but still in pain. Loving flying for flying's sake, I could feel for him and understood his unspoken thoughts: his dread, perhaps, of never again being able to obtain the complete satisfaction of the surge of power of an engine on take-off, of climbing up through rain into a cloud so thick and dark that one had to concentrate hard on the blind flying instruments to even see them: of suddenly bursting forth into dazzling brilliant sunshine with endless white cloud stretching below: of the exhilaration of pulling the nose of the aircraft up and round the horizon in a barrel roll: of the perfectly executed side-slipping turn to be followed by a gentle three point landing: of the joy of just being airborne. Sitting in his office alone at Longbridge, being grounded, he must have brooded over his incapacity, the more so as he saw and heard us flying. Captain Stack certainly had my sympathy.
Test Pilot Geoffrey Alington next to a Fairey Battle
Day after day the Battles continued to roll out. We used to return to Longbridge by a works car from Worcester aerodrome. It was about 20 miles and one day so busy were we that I did four journeys by car, making four initial test flights and four other test flights in between. When I first arrived up at Longbridge I stayed at a hotel in Bromsgrove, but I decided to find somewhere in the country. Driving south from Bromsgrove, I saw a small notice at the entrance to a very narrow overgrown lane which stated 'Grafton Manor, Accommodation'. At arriving at the Manor which was run be Murray-Willises I decided the accommodation was just right.
Each day's routine was the replica of the previous one. I used to arrive each morning at Longbridge at 9 am. As I arrived the small sliding door, which gave access to the hangar from the road, would open as if by magic and allow my Morgan 4/4 to enter. I always tried to be at work exactly at 9, but whether it was my timing or the noise of my car speeding down the road, I never did find out, but Bert Maynard had that door slid open by the time I had driven across the pavement and started up the small ramp towards it. Then I would fly until all the aircraft were cleared or the flight shed had finished for the day. On one occasion when, due to bad weather there was a build up of aircraft from the factory waiting round the aerodrome for test, we were sent an ATA. pilot to help us. We were still operating from Castle Bromwich at this time, and taking a Battle across there he got lost and wandered all over the Midlands towns around Birmingham, in the usual Birmingham smog, causing great concern to our AA. people, for I understand, that at one time they thought he was an enemy aircraft!
He returned back again to the ATA. fairly smartly. The time had come for me, to return to the ATA., for I had only been posted to the Government Shadow Factory at Longbridge for three months. Although Captain Stack tried very hard to obtain an extension of this period, D'erlanger, the Commanding Officer of the Air Transport Auxiliary, wanted me back. Captain Stack was determined to obtain my release from the ATA. which he said he would do, through the Ministry of Aircraft Production, as they were very short of trained test pilots. I had enjoyed every moment of my time at Longbridge. When I said good-bye to all my friends I very much hoped that I would be back again soon, for I was more interested in test flying than delivering aircraft, vital though the latter was to releasing RAF. pilots for operational duties.
Thumbing through my log-book I noticed that in those three months test flying Battles I flew 60 new aircraft out of Longbridge on initial test flights, and undertook a further 90 test flights, with no damage or accident. I had now flown 45 different types of aeroplane, including 7 different types of twin engines, all useful experience.
On the 9th of April 1940, I with many regrets, left the Murray-Willises at Grafton Manor for a week's leave. We headed south in the Morgan 4/4 to stay with my mother at Folkestone, where she was in a hotel. My open four seater was a fast car for those days, the more so for I had a specially tuned engine in her. Her exhaust note had a healthy growl in it like a Merlin engine, and she could and did, show a clear pair of heels to most cars.
Return to Ferrying RAF. Aircraft.
After my three months away from the ATA., test flying in the Midlands, I found that the Air Transport Auxiliary had now taken over White Waltham aerodrome as their main base, and it was there I went instead of back to the RAF.'s No 2 Ferry Pilot's Pool at Filton, Bristol.
The other interesting event that had occurred was that now there were women pilots - the start of Women's Lib. perhaps? They were to score full marks, for they eventually flew all the same aircraft types that the men pilots flew, from single engine fighters, through twins to four engine bombers and jet fighters. By now the RAF. were used to seeing our dark blue uniform and we were accepted by them. They gave us all the help we required. To begin with this was far from the case, for at the Ferry Pool at RAF. Filton where we were first attached, we were made to feel far from 'at home', and when we landed at various RAF. aerodromes and had to train home because our taxi aircraft could not pick us up, and would have to argue like mad to get railway warrants. Also, I fear, it rather hurt some of the officers, that we could just climb into any type of aircraft and fly it away, even if we had never seen the type before, while, due to the way the Service operated, they had to be instructed and approved on each type before they could fly it solo. In the end they ceased to become amazed at seeing a slip of a young girl climbing out of a four engine Lancaster or Stirling bomber.
In June 1940, seeing that there was a Battle from Worcester to be flown to Jurby in the Isle of Man I asked Tony Taylor if he could put my name down for that one, as I wished to see my friends from the Austin Motor Company at Worcester aerodrome again. Arriving at Worcester in the Anson, and being greeted by the test pilots there they informed me that Captain Stack was doing battle with the Ministry of Aircraft Production trying hard to obtain my release from the ATA. as they wanted me as a permanent test pilot with them.
Unknown to me Captain Stack's efforts, through the Ministry of Aircraft Production bringing pressure to bear on the ATA. on my behalf, were actually achieving some progress for I was suddenly informed in August 1940 that I was to be released from the ATA., and that I should report to the Government Shadow Factory at Longbridge, Birmingham on August 12th, which I did.
Return to Longbridge, Birmingham,
Luckily the Willises at Grafton Manor, Bromsgrove, were happy to have me back again, so I immediately settled in with them, as their house was conveniently close to the Longbridge works.
The following morning I received a great welcome from Captain Stack and the other test pilots as well as from all the men, who genuinely appeared pleased to have my face amongst them once again. I certainly was pleased to be back and started test flying again immediately in earnest. I well remember that very first day, while landing a Battle at Worcester, after a test flight, although fully locked down, the port undercarriage collapsed. Gradually the wing dropped as the aircraft lost speed, then scraped the ground. The aircraft made an uncontrolled turn to the left and rocked slowly to a halt. I was worried that it would tip onto it's nose and damage the engine but only one blade of the propeller was damaged. The cause of the trouble was found to be a faulty ring casting on the undercarriage, so all the other Battles coming off the production line were suspect and the ring castings had to be changed.
We were still undertaking this mad dash at tree-top height from Longbridge to Worcester to avoid being shot at by our own guns and we would take the foreman of the Worcester working party on these flights occasionally. At that time it was a Mr Bate. He never complained, in fact I think he enjoyed these trips for they saved him the drive by car. I often flew him back to Longbridge in a Battle at the end of the day too.
The Austin Motor Company were now having a new works built at Elmdon, not on the aerodrome, but on the east side of the railway line. As I would be flying from both aerodromes, I rented a small cottage at Wythall, quite close to the Balloon Centre, and almost midway between the two aerodromes. The cottage was about 200 years old but had been well modernised, had a minute garden and also a garage. I soon had it furnished by visiting various antique shops round about, particularly in Solihull, the nearest large town.
All Birmingham was now surrounded by a balloon barrage, particularly round the works and aerodrome at Longbridge; so we had to be extremely careful of our route if the balloons were up and hidden in the clouds. It was impossible to take avoiding action in time if a wire was seen ahead.
At Wythall, on the route to Elmdon, there was the added hazard of balloons from the RAF. Balloon Centre situated there. Living so close to the Centre I was often in the Mess joining their various parties and returning the compliment by having many of the officers to my cottage.
On September 19th 1940 1 took the first Fairey Battle over from Longbridge to Elmdon. I found that they had erected a wooden hut for the convenience of the test pilots while the main office block and hangars were being finished. The aerodrome itself was entirely a grass landing area with the longest run of 1,000 yards. It was a very poorly chosen site for an aerodrome, the land was extremely boggy and hard to drain. It was sited between the main Birmingham to Coventry road on one side and the Birmingham to Coventry railway line on the other, effectively stopping expansion in that direction. It was right in a dip and appeared to attract all the fog and mist, added to which the prevailing wind blew all the smoke and smog from the great industrial area of Birmingham over the aerodrome. Taking off to the south east, to stop expansion that way, was the Coventry road again with Bickenhill Church steeple sticking up to catch the unwary fog-bound pilot. To the north west it could only be expanded over even more boggy land towards the houses of Sheldon and Marston Green, whose development would obviously creep closer and closer to the aerodrome.
The Royal Air Force had stationed No.14. Elementary Flying Training School on the aerodrome. They were equipped with Tiger Moths; how many, I do not know, but when we were test flying there appeared to be at least 50 milling round. We had to keep a very wary eye on them all because our speeds were almost three times theirs. Later on during the war their presence was to become a positive danger to themselves and to us. It was bad policy to have slow training aircraft and fast aircraft under test operating from the same aerodrome, the more so when we had a runway which we had to use, irrespective of the wind direction, with no radio control.
One morning when driving into the factory, I noticed ahead of me also turning in, a damaged Hurricane fuselage on an RAF. low loader transport, the first of many to be repaired before our Longbridge Hurricane production line rolled off its first of 300. This Hurricane must have had an argument with a balloon cable for there were many feet of it still entwined round its damaged propeller.
Austin Built Hurricane MkIIIB AP936
Captain Stack, at this time was still chief test pilot. Much to his chagrin he still walked with the aid of sticks. He was not nearly fit enough for test flying, so Maxwell Williams was acting chief test pilot, with Flight Lieut. Clennell and myself as the other test pilots. When on 8th of October, 1940 this first repaired Hurricane L1973 was ready for its initial test flight from Longbridge I naturally thought that 'Max' would fly it, but Captain Stack insisted, much to my embarrassment though disguised inward pleasure, that as I had flown Hurricanes before, I should test fly it. With the ATA. I had delivered quite a few Hurricanes, and had flown them for ten and a half hours, the last time being exactly five months previously, so I felt quite at home climbing into the cockpit. It was truly a historic moment for the Company as the last single seater they built for the Royal Flying Corps, the SE5a., was in 1917. The Austin Motor Company then obtained an order for 650 aircraft. the largest order placed with any company. Many of these went to Russia. Longbridge aerodrome, from a test flying point of view, or to express it better, from a test pilot's view point, was the worst aerodrome in England, with maximum runway lengths of 400 yards, and houses or factory buildings practically surrounding it. Should the engine fail after take-off... One would dismiss the thought, which would disappear as one concentrated on the aircraft, though the danger was always there, as it was also when landing back on, as poor Captain Stack found out! I used to think of the poor people living just on the end of the runways, with the roar of engines being ground tested all day, and then a sudden louder roar as an aircraft took-off just over their houses. It was more frightening for them than for us as we had other things to think about. I do not recall any complaints at all. Hurricane L1973 was a Mk I with a Rotol propeller and Rolls Royce Merlin III engine. It had a top speed at 18,900 feet of 340 miles per hour and would climb to 10,000 feet in three and three quarter minutes and to 20,000 feet in 9 minutes. It had a maximum diving speed of 390 miles per hour and was armed with eight .303 Browning machine guns in the wings, four each side. It was, of course, slower in maximum speed and rate of climb than the Spitfire, our other main single seat fighter, but it was a beautiful aircraft to fly, with no vices, and very strong. It gave the pilot a feeling of confidence.
Now, for a while, we had quite a mixed bag of Battle types coming off the production line, interspersed with the occasional repaired Hurricane. We had a contract to build 100 Battle trainers, which were dual control two seaters. They were prefixed with the letter 'R' before their service numbers Then we had a contract for 300 target towing Battles whose service numbers were prefixed with a 'V', but only 66 were built before the contract was cancelled. To add to the confusion in the lettering, a vast number of Longbridge built Battles were prefixed with the letter 'L', 836 of them, from L4935 to L5797. 100 of these, L5598 to L 5797 were built as target towers. Confusion became worse when they produced a further 100 Battles, R3922 to R4052, that mostly went to the Empire Training Scheme.
Longbridge had in fact been visited before this raid by a sole Heinkel 111, in daylight, in the afternoon of November 13th. Luckily he did very little damage. Unfortunately six people were killed but this visit in no way stopped production at the factory. Neither the hangars at Elmdon or the new factory which had been built to the east of the aerodrome on the far side of the railway line had been hit although the Germans had taken aerial photographs of this new factory late in the evening of November 27th. This building had been put up to assemble the Stirling bombers which were soon to start coming out of the Longbridge Factory.
On another occasion I remember flying a repaired Hurricane from Longbridge and after a few test flight, passing it out as satisfactory. Through an administration muddle, Hawkers were informed that it was ready instead of the Air Transport Auxiliary, and one of their test pilots arrived to test fly it. Although I told him what had happened he insisted on flying it, so I informed him that on no account must he try and land short of a newly filled in drainage ditch, as it was too soft to take the weight of the Hurricane.
Hurricanes were a delight to fly and we had very few troubles with them on test flights. As far as I can recall we only had two engine failures, and they both happened to me, but each time the Hurricane managed to scramble into Elmdon safely with a dead engine.
At the side of the Hurricane cockpit there are two strengthened duralumin panels which are attached to the fuselage longerons (stiffener) and girders. In the dive at maximum speed the wind had got under this large panel, which must have been fitted badly, and ripped it off, fittings and all, rolling it up as one opens a sardine tin. It had broken one of the longerons as well, and while it did so pieces had flown off and ripped nearly all the fabric off the left elevator. The airframe vibration was of course due to the large rolled up panel, still attached to it by its last remaining vertical attachments. AI'516 was the first production Hurricane MkIlB to be fitted with 12 machine guns instead of the earlier "s which had 8. Scanning my log book I note that I flew her from Elmdon on the 9th of January 1941 so one of the other test pilots must have flown her initially from Longbridge. The Hurricane Mkll was fitted with the Rolls Royce Merlin XX engine which had a two-stage supercharger. This improved the rate of climb, 10,000 feet in 3 minutes 12 seconds, and the Service Ceiling (when the rate of climb is down to 100 feet per minute) by 2,000 feet to 36,000 feet. For the production planners at Longbridge the war period must have been a nightmare, for they were still producing Battles, with all the tools and jigs that they required. At the same time they were training men for the Hurricane production line and getting all the tools and jigs that were necessary for their Hurricane production set up also. Added to all this they were tooling up for making the large four engine Stirling bomber.
It may sound easy to a layman, but the thought and pre-planning that goes into developing a production line of aircraft is tremendous, starting of course, with hundreds and hundreds of blue prints which are the drawings from which the men take all their measurements.
Repaired Hurricanes continued to come quickly off the line, interspersed with Battle variants, but it was exactly two months before the next production Hurricane MkIlB flew from Longbridge. 'But in those two months something happened that stirred the whole factory with excitement.
The Short Stirling.
Stirling Kit Production at Longbridge
Excited chatter suddenly spread through the flight-shed at Elmdon and those who were able downed tools or stopped their work to walk outside onto the tarmac apron to gaze across the aerodrome at the newly constructed assembly sheds on the further side of the main railway line. Their gaze was concentrated on the new bridge which had been specially constructed over the railway, and on the wide new road leading to the grass aerodrome, down which they could see a large tractor, dwarfed by a great four engine aircraft that it was slowly towing. Behind the Stirling bomber walked a man steering the twin tail wheels by means of a long metal arm, hooked on temporarily, for this purpose. Eventually the first four engine aircraft that Austin had ever built, service number W7426, crossed the aerodrome and arrived on the apron in front of the flight shed. It gave the Hurricanes an inferiority complex as all attention was now focused on the Stirling, it's 99 foot wing span making the Hurricane's 40 foot one look puny.
The fuselage was 90 feet long and all production fuselages had to be transported from Longbridge by lorry to the assembly factory at Elmdon as well as all the other components, wings, flaps, tail planes etc. The aircraft, following usual Short Brothers design, was built like a battleship. The wings were bolted together with a series of long bolts whose nuts could be seen in the fuselage bomb bays. It was a complicated aircraft for mass production. The wing flaps, bomb doors and undercarriage were operated by electric motors, the latter having a complicated double breaking action to tuck itself into its wheel fairing, and taking almost a minute to do so. The Fowler flaps gave a tremendous amount of lift when extended for they were vast in area. Due to its design the main bomb bay was divided lengthwise into three equal compartments and could only carry bombs of a maximum size of 2,000 lbs; but in each wing there were also three bomb bays, each of which could carry a 1,000 lb. bomb. The maximum bomb load was 16,000 lbs but not with full fuel tanks.
To protect itself from enemy fighters the Stirling had a nose turret with two guns and a mid fuselage upper turret also with two guns. Fitted in the tail was a turret with four guns. Each of these turrets was controlled hydraulically by it's own gunner. The hydraulic pump in the port engine working the nose and upper turret while the starboard inner engine supplied the hydraulic power for the tail turret.
Without going into the details of the Stirling too deeply it may interest the reader to know that there were 7 fuel tanks in each wing and three more auxiliary petrol tanks could be carried in the bomb bays in each wing. The normal number of tanks was 14 holding 2,254 gallons or 20 tanks with a total of 2,692 gallons and the maximum take-off weight was 70,000 lbs.
On the 22nd of February 1941, she was passed by the inspectors as ready for flight. The procedure was for a test pilot to come up from the parent firm, in this case, Short Brothers of Rochester, to fly the first aircraft, and for the daughter firm's test pilot to fly with him to learn the test flying procedure on the aircraft. Short Brothers sent up their test pilot Geoffrey Tyson, whom I had not met before. A grand chap and we got on well together. I think he had done most things in aviation including a spell with Sir Alan Cobham's circus during which he used to put on an extremely good aerobatic show and pick up a handkerchief from the ground with his wing tip as he dipped past it! I had never flown a four engine aircraft before. Sitting in the cockpit 22 feet above the ground made one realise that it might be difficult to judge this height when landing; but I found the Stirling a delightfully easy aeroplane to fly, and one could land it on three points like a Tiger Moth.
Geoffrey Tyson when landing used to close the throttles on the approach then fold his arms over the control wheel and then pull it into his chest, and the aircraft would sink gently down onto the ground. Geoffrey Tyson flew this first Stirling W7426 for three and a half hours, five test flights, with myself as second pilot learning the test flying procedure before he was satisfied that the first Austin built aircraft was up to the usual standard. He returned to Rochester and I think he liked our first aircraft. A few days later I flew it down to Boscombe Down for Royal Air Force trials, my first solo, in the aircraft. One of the passengers on this flight was the Chief Air Ministry Inspector at Austins, none other than John Petts who had been one of my Instructors at De Havilland Aeronautical Technical School. I had been delighted to find him at Longbridge and to renew our friendship.
The waterlogged condition of Elmdon aerodrome became more and more a worry to us now that we were landing aircraft weighing up to 26 tons, with the wheels just skidding when the brakes were applied. Once the aerodrome became so slippery that I remember a Stirling with the engines just ticking over and the wheels locked, moving slowly away as soon as the wheel chocks were removed, just sliding. I complained bitterly to the Ministry that we should have a runway built. Eventually, after months of delay a Wing Commander from the Ministry flew in a small light aeroplane, a Puss Moth on a day when the ground was frozen so hard that it could not be broken by a pick-axe.
He climbed out and greeted me with 'I do not know what you are complaining about, Alington. I had no difficulty in landing my Puss Moth'. I walked away in disgust. Pilots have to be quick thinkers and decision makers, otherwise they do not survive for long so I was amazed that it had not sunk into this pilot's brain that his Puss Moth weighing at landing, about 1,400 lbs, and touching down at 40 mph, could be compared with an aircraft weighing 42 times as much at its maximum landing weight of 60,000 lbs and touching down at double the Puss Moth's speed. I was appalled that he could make such a remark when the aerodrome was frozen solid to a depth of about three feet.
They would not give us a concrete runway but promised a hardened surface runway, which they said would stand Stirlings landing on it. It would not and started to break up after about 20 landings, a complete waste of money.
When I was first posted to the Austin Motor Company, in January 1940, we were flying our Fairey Battles over to Castle Bromwich aerodrome to test them. It was from there that the ATA. collected them. Morris Motors Ltd built, at Government cost, a special factory there to produce Spitfires, but under Nuffield none were produced so that in May 1940 Vickers took over with Lord Beaverbrook's orders to get production going as soon as possible and complete ten aircraft by the end of June, which they did.
I now found that my friend Alex Henshaw had come up from Southampton, under Jeffrey Quill, to be chief test pilot at Castle Bromwich. Their production of Spitfires soon outstripped our production of Battles and Hurricanes, mainly because we had to tool up and train people to build four different types of aircraft. As far as I can recall at the height of their production they produced a record of 320 Spitfires in one month! We considered ourselves hard working, in a hazardous job, but I should imagine that Alex flew more aircraft under test during the war, than any other test pilot. At one period, I well remember, they passed through a period of many engine failures. Alex had many forced landings and had to bale out of his aircraft. After one particularly shattering event where he finished up in the cockpit, less engine and wings,, on the back door step of a house in Willenhall, I visited him in hospital, to congratulate him knowledgeable on the Hurricane and talked about its performance and armament. That was the last time I ever landed at Castle Bromwich, but it had been a never to be forgotten and inspiring experience to have talked with 'the Grand Old Man' and his very charming wife. I had noticed that when he walked back to the factory, surrounded by various 'top brass' that there was following his every movement at a discreet distance, a workman, whose gaze never left Mr Churchill, who was smoking a cigar, as was his usual habit. Quite suddenly before entering the hangar, Mr Churchill turned slightly and threw the stub away, and then passed quickly into the hangar. To my amazement and amusement, the workman immediately made a dash forward and pounced on the cigar stub and walked off with it in triumph! I imagine that it now holds a place of honour on that workman's sitting room mantelpiece reclining in a small glass case; I should like to think so anyway.
At the end of 1941 1 took over as chief test pilot from Captain Stack. Tony Hazledine, my assistant from the ATA. had come and left, but I was lucky enough to manage to get an old friend, Douglas Cotton, ex RAF. and also ex ATA. who was now a British Airways test pilot testing American Airacobra Fighters, released, and he joined me to stay until the end of the war. I could not have had a better man, extremely loyal, a good test pilot, conscientious, reliable and a likeable character. Only once did he let me down and he and his crew and an unknown Irishman will never forget it, never ever in their lives.
We were having a runway built and most of the workmen appeared to be Irish. I had noticed that they were continually asking us for lifts on test flights. Much as I would have liked to have given them a flight it was barred and I told Doug Cotton this and well he knew it. One day, when I was away at one of the Squadrons at Marham, just as Doug was about to taxi out in a Stirling for the last test flight of the day, an Irish labourer made signs to him asking for a flight so, as I was away he relented. Now Doug had already flown this Stirling on its initial test flight, and apart from one or two other adjustments he had the aileron control adjusted by dressing up or down the trailing edge of the wing immediately in front of the leading edge of the aileron. Prior to take-off he did his usual cockpit check making certain that the ailerons were free. He did not check the elevator controls, but kept them central because it was an extremely windy day. The Stirling would take-off quite happily if the control column was held in the central position, and away they went, only to find that the moment the aircraft left the ground the nose started to lift higher and higher, and there was nothing Doug Cotton could do about it for the elevators had been locked externally by two pieces of wood joined together by a short length of metal rod, which had been jammed between the gap on one elevator and a fairing on the fuselage!
The Stirling climbed almost vertically, hanging on its four frantically revolving propellers. The flight engineer, white faced, was holding on grimly to stop himself sliding backwards down the fuselages when he received a tap on the shoulder. It was the Irishman, obviously enjoying the flight. 'My! these Stirlings don't half climb! ' he shouted at the top of his voice. The flight engineer was too scared to answer. Meanwhile in the cockpit, they had reached 900 feet by now, Doug had told everyone that he was going to do a stall turn and all must pull like hell on both control columns when he shouted. He kicked on rudder and the big aircraft cart-wheeled over and started its vertical dive. 'NOW, yelled Doug and they all pulled; pulled for their lives to try and break the elevators free. Nothing happened. Doug noticed the little country Police House and thought to himself 'Christ, we are going into that', but what he said was, 'Sorry, chaps, this is it.'
Up to that moment the Stirling had been diving almost vertically and gaining speed every second, but the moment he uttered those words the two control columns suddenly whipped backwards in the hands of all those who were pulling, and the aircraft immediately started to pull out of her dive. But to those in the cockpit it was obvious she would not pull out in time, for there was not sufficient height left, but she would miss the police house and crash into open fields. The aircraft hit the ground, with the wheels still down, going like a scalded cat, at about 10 degrees to the horizontal. Two enormous wheels were flying on their own at 200 feet as they bounced away. Then four propellers came off and were neatly left in the ploughed field, to be followed by four big Bristol Hercules. The fuselage then skidded along the ground, driving between two solid oak gate posts where it left both its wings, to come to a halt, finally, in a grass field. There was dead silence in the aircraft while all sat motionless recovering from their experience, all except one. Once again the Irishman spoke out loudly to the flight engineer: 'My! these test pilots don't half put them through it!'. He had happily thought it was all part of the test. Doug was the first to find his voice after this with a shout of 'You silly B We have crashed ! Everyone get out before it catches fire' which they did immediately for no one was hurt and, having run like mad from the aircraft, they all looked round and then realised that there was only the fuselage left.
I received a message at the Squadron to say that one of the Stirlings had been written-off and that no one had been killed. This I could not believe. I considered that they must have been trying to hide from me the real seriousness of the accident. I jumped into my aircraft. and flew back to Elmdon with my mind full of morbid thoughts. and was mightily relieved to be greeted by Doug's smiling face when I landed. I was not too happy about certain aspects of this test flight when I knew the full details. The Irishman being in the aircraft was of minor consideration compared with who put the external locks on, as we never had used them before, and why were they not noticed in a pre-flight check? It was a mystery that was never solved.
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Copyright Geoffrey Alington