Aviation interests and experiences came my way at an early age. Perhaps the first time when I was conscious of the limitless possibilities of freedom that beckoned in the upper atmosphere was one afternoon walking home from school, when I heard the engines of the airship R101, and looked up to see it setting out on what was to be a fateful journey to destruction. Gleaming in the sunlight, graceful and ponderous, it somehow symbolised the vast dimensions of sky and cloud, at the same time making them seem attainable. Imagining myself to be on board was easy. Various members of my family were in contact with aviation activity during the 1930s. My father flew Cierva autogyros (an early precursor of the helicopter) as a hobby, and had sometimes landed in a field close to my school, on one occasion to whisk me off on a flight — vertical take-offs were rather spectacular in those days. Based at Hanworth airfield off the Great West Road, (west London) where de Havilland Moths and Klemm monoplanes flew with increasing frequency, the London Aeroplane Club was the meeting place for many personalities, including Amy Johnson, Jim Mollison, and Reggie Marsh, who was a test pilot and instructor associated with the gyroplanes. There was my uncle, Roy, who spent his career with de Havilland, for many years as an instructor in the Technical School, and my uncle Leslie, who was a Royal Flying Corps (RFC), pilot in the First World War. He had flown continuously from 1915 onwards, and possessed three albums of photographs, all studies of crashed aircraft, mainly in treetops.
While at school near Felixstowe, Suffolk, on the east coast of England, I would cycle to watch the flying at Martlesham Heath, where various experimental aircraft could be seen, including the early version of the Handley Page Hampden, a twin-engined monoplane bomber, known as ‘the flying suitcase’ because of its shape. By the mouth of the River Deben, across from the first radio location (radar) station at Bawdsey, lay some derelict wooden flying boat hulls, cast away from the base near Felixstowe. We would climb all over these, imagining many scenarios. One afternoon we witnessed a separation of the Mayo composite aircraft, with the lower flying boat Maia breaking away from the seaplane Mercury. This may have been an historic event, and it certainly left a group of schoolboys with much to discuss. First flight My first flight was in a de Havilland Fox Moth on a five shilling pleasure flip, taking off from Croydon, then the premier civil airfield for London. Parked close to the control tower were a couple of Handley Page HP.42 four-engined biplanes belonging to Imperial Airways.
A second visit to Croydon was as an airline passenger, on a family holiday to Knokke-le-Zoute on the Belgian coast near Zeebrugge. The competitor to Imperial Airways was the original British Airways, and we flew in a four-engined de Havilland biplane belonging to that airline, crossing the Channel at low-level. This was very exciting, and perhaps was a deciding incentive steering me to an aviation career. During the early 1930s aviation was still the subject of intense curiosity and publicity. The era of record-breaking flights was peaking with such events as the England to Australia race, the flight over Mount Everest, and many long distance solo attempts. The pioneering efforts across continents, even the Pacific Ocean, of Pan American Airways and Imperial Airways, using large flying boats, had caught the public attention. Lufthansa and Air France had pioneered air mail routes to South America, and the epitaph of the airships had yet to be written. My first job at Hawker When the Second World War started, my father joined the RAF as an administration officer, and was soon shipped overseas. I saw little of him until the end of the conflict as he spent his war in India and Burma, involved with many forward airfield operations. Eventually he became the personal assistant to the Inspector General of the RAF who, at that time, I think was Air Marshal ‘Ugly’ Barratt. My mother died when I was eleven, from a dubious disease then euphemistically called pneumonia, which today would be called lung cancer, brought on by chain-smoking. My father remarried, but the enforced separation of five years caused that to break up. The domestic situation was rather difficult, and my support was divided between grandparents and other relatives. Funds ran out to keep me at school, and I was encouraged to enter some sort of employment. This resulted in a job as a junior draughtsman-cum-office boy, with the Hawker design office.
Soon after the Luftwaffe raids began on London, Hawker had moved its design office from the factory at Kingston upon Thames, a vulnerable site, to a commandeered girls’ school: Claremont, near Esher in Surrey. Sydney Camm, and a distinguished team of design staff, portioned out the classrooms into various sections dealing with project design, stressing, systems, airframes, and aerodynamics. Many draughtsmen and designers had previously been accustomed to visiting the shop floor to check on the implementation of component design, and regretted the necessity of the move, which separated them from the construction activity. My initial function was confined to keeping a vast store of design prints in a systematic order and replenishing the store as needed. I can still smell the ammonia given off by freshly produced prints. This gave me a degree of familiarity with a range of activity that was to serve me very well. I was enrolled in the day release programme set up at a local technical school, together with a couple of other would-be designers. We were expected to qualify for the intermediate examinations on the path towards securing a BSc in aeronautical engineering. During this period I graduated to a seat in one of the section offices, and was given various layout and other less important tasks. We were engaged in design work on the Hurricane, Tornado, and Typhoon. Many projects appeared in response to Air Ministry specifications, including a four-engined bomber, which never did get approval. Claremont was in rather grand and well-landscaped grounds, and during lunch breaks on fine days some of us would gather on the front lawns to launch model aircraft, to serve as an additional extra-mural apprenticeship. The Air Training Corps (ATC) As the war entered its third year the possibility arose of joining the Royal Air Force (RAF). The RAF Volunteer Reserve was a wartime addition to the cadre of permanent peacetime staff and the part-time Auxiliary Air Force. Joining the Air Training Corps, familiarly known as the ATC; a national organisation that had been formed to give young men an initial education and training to fit them for the service, I soon found that my spare time was completely absorbed. We visited many airfields and other establishments such as the apprentice school at Halton. I was fortunate enough to become airborne on several occasions in front line aircraft on their daily air tests. One flight, in a Vickers Wellington, turned into quite an event as we had to divert because of an intruder raid on the home base. We visited Biggin Hill to see how a fighter unit was organised and witnessed the scramble of two squadrons on an interception mission. The noise and smell of the massed start-up is an enduring memory, with Coffmann cartridges blowing smoke across the parked aircraft, as they cranked the engines to life.
After achieving the required proficiency certificates, and the dizzy rank of sergeant, it was time to apply for enlistment. I was in a reserved occupation in the design office, and could, or perhaps should, have stayed there for the duration of the war. Two factors urged otherwise: the strongest was the call to fly, but also my personal situation at home, with the difficulties caused for myself and others. The problem was that I had not yet reached the age of eighteen, the minimum for recruitment. The world’s wars are fought by the very young. I was soon in possession of a letter giving me parental authorization to enlist and a declaration of age advanced by a year. After a month I received a letter from the RAF giving the time and place for an interview and aptitude testing. The night before this event was taken up by a boxing engagement, with our ATC squadron contesting another in the national league. I was categorized in the light heavyweight class, in fact at the bottom end of that weight bracket, against someone at the top end. The three-round amateur bout was painful, with punishment abundantly absorbed, before my loss was announced by the judges. The effects of this pounding were impossible to hide at the interview board next afternoon. My lips were swollen, one eye was blackened, and my nose had achieved a bulbous and inflamed tip. Four officers were ranged behind some tables, as they turned over the paperwork. During the morning all the candidates had been given intelligence testing papers to complete, and had also ‘flown’ a device that tested coordination. This required crossed needles to be kept in position by manipulating a set of controls. When completing the initial application we had been asked which category of air crew we wished to join. I had given first choice as pilot, and second choice as navigator. After asking why I was so bruised, the President of the board informed me that my tests had shown that I was best fitted to be a pilot, but not a navigator. Such an evaluation seemed arbitrary and fallible, for not only did I go on to qualify as an RAF navigator, but also as a civil airline navigator. A medical examination completed the process, which had taken all day. There was one other hurdle, which I had not counted on. Four weeks later I was called in to see the personnel officer at work, who was a kindly and wise man in his mid-fifties.‘We have been asked by the RAF if we will release you from your work here, which is of national importance. I know what your age is, but don’t want to stand in your way. Do you really want to fly, rather than continue here and qualify as an aeronautical engineer?’
I assured him that it was my ambition to fly and that I saw this as the only opportunity available. I was conscious of the risks and on balance had taken the decision with my eyes open. He agreed that he would return the release documents, duly approved, and wished me luck.
Late in 1942 I received the buff manilla envelope marked OHMS (On His Majesty’s Service) containing instructions, together with a travel warrant, to report at the reception centre on 18 January 1943. My flying career was about to begin.
Comets and Concordes by Peter Duffey is published by Burnt Ash Publishing and available from this website.