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The Spitfire

May 31, 2011 in Uncategorized

Aviation in the 1930’s was to the world what Formula 1 is today…and more. The aviators of the time were a combo of Michael Schumacher, David Beckham, Richie McCaw and George Clooney. Most famous of them all, and argueably the most gifted airman of his generation was Briton Alex Henshaw ( 1912-2007). Henshaw won the “World Cup” of air races, the Kings Cup and was the youngest pilot to do so. His greatest achievement came in 1939 when he bettered the speed record for the London to Cape Town dash, at the time considered to be the greatest test in aviation endurance. He smashed the outward, inward and all round time by the proverbial country mile.

Then came what can only be described as irony singular to the British: Alex applied to join the Royal Air Force when WWII broke out. In what was the most farcical act of elitist snobbery, the RAF turned him down. He was an amateur pilot with only an A licence and according to the RAF such pilots were more trouble than worth it.

Fortunately for Britain, the Allied forces, and probably all of us today the Vickers Armstrong plant producing the Battle of Britain winning Spitfire recognised his worth. Henshaw was invited to become the chief test pilot for the newly developed Spitfire fighter aircraft. In this capacity he tested more than 2000 Spitfires and contributed to the British war effort  in an incaculable fashion.

Not surprisingly, after the war he moved to South Africa as a demonstration pilot. Although he returned to the UK, he never received the much deserved Knighthood and ever regretted not testing his skills against the best the Luftwaffe had to offer.

I have a small personal connection to this story. My great uncle Lionel Haworth (1912-2000) was born on a farm in the Northern Cape from a British father and an Afrikaner mother. He qualified as an engineer at UCT and went to England in 1934 where he ended up being the chief designer for the Rolls Royce aircraft engines from 1964 to 1977 working amongst others on the Concorde engine. His best achievement though was the simple but successfull turboprop engine that powered the Vickers Viscount and 11 other aircraft. Vickers also was the idea behind the Spitfire. Uncle Lionel received an O.B.E. in 1958. Not bad for a boy from Upington.

Uncle Lionel, the tall bloke on the left with collegues form Rolls Royce at the Bristol Industrial Museum.

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