Paddy Hopkirk, Michael Turner and Hillier Simmons

Coachlines - May 2018

30.05.18 Chris Mann

Alex Henshaw – a flying legend

Having attended last year’s presentation by the Master, Tony Edwards, on Spitfire designer R J Mitchell, I was delighted to learn that he was to repeat this at the RAF Club in March, combined with an illustrated lecture on the renowned test pilot Alex Henshaw, writes Liveryman Chris Mann.

At the core of his two-part talk was a selection of video interviews with some of those directly involved in the Spitfire story, including survivors of ‘the few’ such as Geoffrey Wellum and the late Tony Iveson who, uniquely, not only flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain but later transferred to Bomber Command, piloting a Lancaster in 617 Squadron’s legendary ‘Tirpitz’ raid.

After his pre-supper section on RJ Mitchell, Tony moved on to the life and career of Spitfire test pilot Alex Henshaw MBE, describing how Henshaw – a self-described ‘manure salesman’ – learned to fly in 1932 at the age of just 20 and was bought a de Havilland Gypsy Moth by his wealthy father who deemed it a safer option for his young son than a motorbike!

Alex Henshaw soon made a name for himself in the then hugely popular sport of air-racing. In the 1933 King’s Cup Air Race he won the Siddeley Trophy in his Comper Swift and, in 1938, Henshaw became a national celebrity by flying his Percival Mew-Gull to Cape Town and back in the record time of four days, 10 hours and 16 minutes, a feat not bettered until 2009! Recounting his epic adventure in one of Tony’s video clips, Alex described his battles with tropical storms, hazardous landings at remote bush airstrips and overcoming extreme exhaustion.

In 1939, with war looming, Alex Henshaw volunteered to join the RAF but, whilst his application was being processed, was asked by Supermarine’s chief test pilot Jeffrey Quill to join the company as a test pilot. Henshaw accepted and, after a spell at Supermarine’s Southampton factory, was relocated to its facility in Castle Bromwich where he became chief production test pilot for Spitfires and Lancasters.

It was dangerous work which tested even Henshaw’s superb flying skills, Alex recalling various engine failures and crash-landings, including one occasion when he brought down his crippled Spitfire between two rows of houses shearing off the wings, the nose of the aircraft lodged in the sitting room of a bemused and frightened householder! On another occasion the engine of his Spitfire exploded, the blast throwing him out of the aircraft and damaging his parachute… his life literally, hanging by a thread as he floated back to earth.

Ron Miller

Ron Miller

Other recollections included a city-centre aerobatic display put on to stimulate donations to the Lord Mayor of Birmingham’s Spitfire Fund, which included a low-level inverted pass down the city’s main street. On another occasion Henshaw barrel-rolled a Lancaster, whilst a demonstration for Winston Churchill nearly ended in disaster when he managed to pull his Spitfire out of a low-level loop with just inches to spare. Along with the wonderful video clips, Tony illustrated significant moments from Henshaw’s career with paintings by the eminent aviation artist Michael Turner, commissioned by Alex himself for his book Alex Henshaw, A Flying Legend. Michael Turner was a guest at the lecture and, having known Alex for many years, was able to join Tony in responding to the many questions raised by an enthusiastic audience.

The icing on the cake came when octogenarian WWII veteran Ron Miller, who had been an RAF fitter, described life on a WWII airbase and explained how he and his colleagues went about fitting the cameras and film-magazines to Spitfires stripped of their armaments and armour plating to extend their range for reconnaissance sorties.

Alex Henshaw lived to the grand old age of 94, retaining his love of flying and the RAF, donating his extensive archive to the RAF Museum. In 2006, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the first flight of the Spitfire, Henshaw took the controls of a two-seater Spitfire over Southampton, only insurance restrictions precluding him from landing the plane.

Alex Henshaw played a vital role in a remarkable era, his story brought to life by Tony Edwards’ encyclopaedic knowledge and presentational skills. Tony’s vision in creating his unique video archive has allowed history to be recounted, not by dry academics but by the people who were there.