One of the great
pleasures for me of working on the Eastern Region's Committee is
that one is frequently in contact with people who built, flew,
serviced, armed or in Alex Henshaw's case, tested the Spitfire.
Over the last few years I was privileged to get to know Alex
quite well and it was typical of his generous nature that he
readily agreed to the following interview, which was conducted
at his beautiful home in Cambridgeshire in March 2006. Alex
Henshaw's passion for All Things Aviation never wavered, shining
like a beacon from him, and a particular aspect of this passion
was (second only, of course, to his beloved racing craft, the
Percival Mew Gull!) the Supermarine Spitfire. It was natural
progression then, that Alex became a vice-president of our
Society, a post which he was pleased to hold and into which he
poured great amounts of his time and goodwill.
Alex Henshaw was
a legend in his own lifetime and also a great supporter of the
Spitfire Society, and of the Eastern Region in particular. When
he died in February 2007 we lost a very dear friend.
P.W. April 2007
From Gull to Camel
I began by
asking Alex what his three favourite aircraft types might be.
more difficult to answer than it would at first seem. It’s
rather like asking me which was your favourite car, and I always
reply to that 'well, what do you want? Do you want speed, do you
want road holding or do you want comfort?'
My first three favourite aircraft: first and
foremost has to be the Mew Gull. It's the only aircraft ever to
have won the Kings Cup at a speed that's never been exceeded by
a British winning aircraft; it's the only aircraft in the World
to have broken long distance World Records that still remain
unbroken; and it's an aircraft with which I shared so many close
calls: Over the Sahara, in the Congo tropical storms at night,
and of course the fogs over Mossamedes. It's an aircraft that
will forever live as close to my heart as is possible.
The next one is the Spitfire. The Spitfire is
immortal. It doesn't need any words from me to explain what is
so superb about the Spitfire, it's there for all to see and in
some cases to experience.
I've always thought that had the Americans in the early stages
of the War carried out and quantified the qualities of the
Lancaster then, if they'd have had any sense, they'd have
scrubbed the B‑17 and put the Lancaster into production over
there: It was such a fine aircraft.
So I think it
must be those three that would take first place in my book."
Few people can ever have 'rolled' a Lancaster
other than Alex Henshaw; what was it like to roll the mighty
"Well to start
with, the Lancaster was really like flying a very large Moth;
the responses were good, it was a thoroughbred aircraft in its
own class. Now rolling the Lancaster, it wasn't a trick but it
was something that I'd learnt over the years, in the first
instance from the Spitfire. We used to dive the Lancaster on
test to 370 mph, indicated, then when you pulled out you were at
a very awkward high pitched angle, and so to get back to normal
flying conditions you would either do a turn or you'd do a
pitching move, neither of which were particularly elegant. And
so on one of these I thought well, after diving and pulling up,
I've got just about the right speed to do a roll. But I was
aware that if I stalled on top of the roll it wouldn't do me or
the aircraft any good , and moreover, if I over‑stressed it, it
wouldn't do the aircraft any good at all!
So I put my
glove on the top of the Instrument panel coving and as I pulled
up we started to get into negative 'G'. As the glove started to
float then I pulled on a slightly positive 'G', and in fact I
got into a situation where I was operating precisely between
positive and negative 'G'. It was so accurate that on one
instance I had my number one fighter pilot up with me, a man
called Venda Jicha, and he was in the well of the aircraft
taking down the various figures for the engine temperatures and
pressures and what‑have‑you, and I beckoned to him that I was
going to roll the aircraft and he didn't really understand what
I meant. I pulled it up and I shall never forget the look on his
face as we were completely inverted and he was looking at what
he thought was the sky but it was the ground!
Well the look
on his face will live with me to the end of my days. And yet
his feet only gently left the ground. Do you remember those
ping‑pong balls that they used to put on columns of water? Well
that's exactly what the glove was doing, it was gently riding
up, and as long as I kept it like that, I had full power, the
power‑to‑weight ratio at that weight was first-class and I
didn't over‑stress the engine because the glove would have told
me if I was putting on too much positive or too much negative.
It was something that was very effective."
manoeuvre part of your regular test‑programme?
always, just depending, but always the crew and passengers were
absolutely bewildered, they didn't know what the hell was going
on; they were sitting there and yet they were upside down! But
I've certainly done it dozens of times, and I'd always ask
someone if I'm taking them aloft would they like to roll, and in
most cases they said no, but those that did, they just sat there
and they didn't know what on earth was going on."
ever heard of anyone else rolling the Lanc?
"I've heard of
a number of test pilots doing it. There was a test pilot next
door, in fact two people with Lancasters, they wrote to the Air
Ministry asking permission to loop the aircraft. Well a loop,
you see, is so simple it isn't even worth considering, and
anyway, I don't ask permission from anyone if I fly; I'm not
over‑stressing the aircraft, my job is to fly that aircraft and
to prove whether it's worthy and suitable for battle, and that's
what I was doing."
mentioned his number‑one fighter pilot Venda Jicha, so I asked
him to tell us a little about him.
"He was a
very patriotic person. Being a Czech he differed in many ways
from the upbringing that we had had as British people: A very
difficult person, he only respected one thing and that was
success. I first met him at Cosford, which was a dispersal unit
of Castle Bromwich. I was testing a Mk.IX when I suddenly
realised that there was another Spitfire forming on me and
getting so close that you couldn't have put a matchbox between
the wings, which irritated me because I was doing a job of work,
and I thought ‘One of these days when I have the time I'll set
happened some weeks after this. You see, the idea was that
you'd 'attack' each other and it was a question of who could get
on each other's tail. I never found this to be any great problem
normally, but I suddenly realised that this fellow was going to
take some handling. So what I did, he was on my tail, or
getting on my tail, and I wouldn't allow an angle where he could
get his guns to bear and I pulled up into a vertical climb. I
extended the climb so that the aircraft stalled and I slipped
back on my tail, then I pitched forward and as I pitched forward
the prop stopped. I was only at around two‑thousand feet and I
did a vertical dive to start the engine again, and it didn't
pick up until I was almost at ground‑level. I swept between some
trees, turned round expecting to see Venda Jicha and he wasn't
there, and I thought 'Where the Hell's he gone?' Anyway, I went
back to base, the aircraft was cleared, and I went home. Some
weeks later I came to Castle Bromwich and he came over, I said
"What happened to you when we had that dust‑up?'' he said "Oh, I
was scared, I saw you dive, I thought you'd crashed into the
ground and I cleared off!"
on Venda clearly held Alex in high esteem and asked to work at
Castle Bromwich, which Alex arranged. But Venda's 'difficult'
personality came with him, as Alex recalls:
"I was in
hospital and I had to hand over to Wing Commander Lowdell, he
was my number one at that time, and when I came back I said "How
are things George?" he said "Oh, everything’s all right, Chief,
but you'll have to get rid of Venda Jicha.'' I said "Really? But
he's a bloody good pilot," he said "Yes, he's a good pilot, but
he's very difficult." So I said I'd sort it out. Well I sensed
the atmosphere straight away, he (Flt. Lt. Jicha) tapped on the
office door one morning and came in. Lowdell and myself were
there (and the weather wasn't all that good) and in a sneering
manner said "No flying today, I suppose," and straight away I
cottoned on because Lowdell, being from the Royal Air Force,
stuck to the rules and regulations and if he thought the weather
wasn't good he grounded all his pilots.
was different: I used to brief all my pilots very carefully,
told them what their job was, and I said to them "Now the
weather here is always bad, particularly in the winter, but
don't, because you see experienced pilots like myself go off in
bad weather, think you've got to do the same. I shall expect
you to fly whenever you can, but I don't expect you to take any
risks, because if you crash that aircraft you've not only
crashed the aircraft but you've given what virtually amounts to
a free aircraft to the Enemy. And so I let every man fly to his
own standards, and that's the way that it went. Then it just
fell into my lap.
There was a
day when I got up in the morning, I was feeling on form, it was
raining cats and dogs and there was a hell of a wind blowing,
the cloud scudding across the treetops. When I got to the flight
sheds Jim Hastings, my senior Ground Staff said facetiously
"Lovely day for flying, Chief," and told me we had half a dozen
Spitfires waiting. I said "Well, bring one out will you? No,
bring two out. We'll need three or four men on each wing
because the wind's so strong," and I thought well, we'll see
what this man's made of.
I got in the
Spitfire with the men holding the aircraft down and it took off
literally in twenty yards: It was straight up. 17,000 ft. of
cloud, got to the top and was up there for about half an hour,
came down, and there was Venda in my office. I said "Venda, I
thought you were keen to fly?" he said "Oh, what's it like?" I
said "Well, the birds aren't walking at the moment but they're
not far off it." Anyway, he put his parachute on, and I said
"I'll come up with you," so I went alongside him to make sure he
didn't do a scudding circle round underneath the cloud. We went
up into the cloud, I kept with him whilst we went through the
routine, whatever tests we had to do, and we came down. He was
a different man from that day onwards. He would have gone
through hell for me. He was one of my best pilots. A marvellous
man. And he hadn't flown bombers, so I said "If you come up
with me with a Lancaster, Venda, when I think you're fit we'll
go to another airfield, one which is bigger than Castle
Bromwich, you can do your first take‑off and landing there and
if you're o.k. you're part of the team.”
And then the
blow came, I had a telegram from Air Chief Marshall Sir Wilfred
Freeman directing all Chief Test Pilots to remove all foreign
pilots from top‑secret factories. So I had to post the
Norwegian, the American and the Czech. And of course Venda. Oh,
he was bitter, very bitter about it. The Norwegian, he said "Oh,
don't worry about it, Alex, I know how these things work," and
the American said "Well, I shall be glad to get back to my own
unit," but Venda, he took it badly. Anyway, he was posted to
Scotland, he was on the West coast and had to fly with a
Squadron Leader to Edinburgh on the East coast, the weather
wasn't good and they ran into snowstorms. Their Anson struck
the hills just South of Edinburgh. The pilot was killed. Venda
wasn't injured and I should think, knowing Venda, he could see
the lights of Edinburgh and said to himself "Oh, I can get down
there, no doubt about that," and he very foolishly left the
aircraft, and the only thing that I know, they found his body in
six feet of snow uninjured but having died of exposure."
saddest of notes there followed a pause for reflection before I
moved on to my next question, which was 'What was it like to
meet wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill?'
"Oh well of
course that was a highlight then, amongst all the people I've
met over the World, from the highest to the lowest; I suppose
Churchill stands out ‑ how do I put this - the only man in
history first to have saved his own country and then to have
saved the whole free world. For of course, in my opinion, and
doubtless millions of others, without Churchill we would have
surrendered in the first six months of war."
Of the many
aviation legends that you have known, are there any that you
American, Jimmy Doolittle. Then there was Arthur Clouston; he
was the one that broke all the Cape records there and back in
the Comet Racer with Mrs. Kirby‑Green. Oh yes, well he was
outstanding in every sense of the word and of course he set
records with the Comet that at the time it was said would never
be broken, and it was those records of course that the Mew Gull
broke. He was a very close friend and a very good friend of mine
and I admire him tremendously.
Then there are
people like Bill Humble, who I think was one of the best
aerobatic pilots of his era, became Chief Test Pilot of Hawkers
and like myself a civilian. Geoffrey de Havilland of course was
a very formidable aviator in every sense of the word.
And then of
course one of my greatest friends and possibly one of the most
underrated and least rewarded of anyone would be Jeffrey Quill.
There's a lot more to flying than just being able to fly well;
where Jeffrey was so marvellous was that he had a great command
of the English Language. You see, a lot of people are skilled
pilots, they can come down and say "There's something wrong with
the stability of the aircraft," or this, that, and the other.
But Jeffrey was able to analyse the fault and with his command
of the English Language explain to the Boffins - the people that
we worked with at Supermarine - what he thought was the problem
and how he thought it could be cured. Jeffrey Quill, in my
opinion, was outstanding and of course a very, very fine pilot.
A loyal friend and I still have very close contact with his
three daughters. We have a great deal to thank him for. Oh yes.
To get the award he was given was an insult. You see I don't
take notice of awards at all. There are a lot of worthy awards,
but there are so many injustices. When I think of the
contribution, without being disparaging, of Mutt Summers as an
example, compared with that given by Jeffrey Quill with the
Spitfire through all its stages there is no comparison at all."
is there any particular aircraft type that you would like to
have flown but never did?
fighter in the First World War, the Sopwith Camel. Yes, I'd like
to have flown that, I think I could have made use of its rotary
engine to do some 'quick rolls' shall we say!"
Photograph Bert Harman