Please note:- All the images on these pages have a Copright. I would like to thank the Sunday Mercury and with a special thankyou to Adam Fradgley( Photo Editor)Adam_Fradgley@mm.co.uk
Alex Henshaw Flying passion started at the age of 19 in Skegness.
He was the son of a wealthy family in Lincolnshire, carving a name for himself in the King's Cup races against legendary pilots like Geoffrey de Haviland.
Alex won a trophy in 1938 and within a year won a solo record to Cape Town departing from Gravesend in a record time of 39hrs 23min flying south 39hrs 36min return journey. This was acheived in Aerial Mew Gull of which the record still stands to this day.
With the outbreak of World War Two just around the corner he felt that a job at fighter command was his destiny. An application form was sent, but no reply was ever returned.
With a job at Vickers at Weybridge not being up to his expectations, his notice was submitted and he left."I wanted to join a unit by the name of Special Duty Flight, which basically meant you get into a reconnaissance plane take a photo of a target, come back, get into another more suitable plane and bomb the hell out of it ".
Along came the Wellingtons
When Jeffrey Quill at Super marine offered Alex a job,to further his flying capabilities this proved too much to resist.
In 1940 he arrived at Castle Bromwich as the Chief test pilot. He and his wife moved to Streetly to live in a rented house near Sutton Coldfield before moving to Hampton-on-Arden. This is were his son was later born and they named him Alex.
Many people only remember him as a test pilot for Spitfire's but he flew many other Aircraft at his beloved factory including Hurricane, Wellinghton and the Lancaster that was also built there (305 were built here) The Lancaster flying was close to his heart. Alex was the only man known to Victory roll a Lancaster with ground crew and fellow pilots by his side to verify this task of sheer brilliance.
After the war emotionally and physically drained, Alex up and left to make a career in the Aircraft industry for Miles in South Africa. Two years later he returned to take over the family farming business. With Alex now 91 and taking the controls of a Spitfire in his mind could he turn our heads once again?
How would you feel if you were shopping in your local town centre and, a plane flew down the highstreet?
Many people looked up into the sky to see a Spitfire flying the length of Broad Street, flipping upside down rolling then banking over the Civic Hall. This was not something to be proud of and Alex knew this. He was once asked if a painting could be commisioned of this Famous flypast and a definate "No" was the reply.
Those people that saw this act of sheer control said if the demonstration was a battle display we could not loose air supremecy.
When the Lord Mayor of Birmingham launched his Spitfire week, he approached Alex Dunbar the MD of the Factory to put on a little display. He in turn asked Alex but, he replied he was worried about the local's and the danger if anything went wrong. This was cleared and the show went ahead. People later found out that this act of stupidity and defiance was to teach the Mayor and Dunbar a lesson.
He carried out all the manoveres and running out of height after a series of vertical rolls lined up for his run down the Highstreet. Proceding to do this ended up in the inverted position above the civic hall. The people ran for cover as the ear shattering noise brought the city to a standstill. Admiration for the man was high, but the police were not impressed.
After landing the police arrived to take Alex down the station to give a statment to be taken. His reply to this was "I am not going anywere, the Mayor gave me the all clear and that was good enough for me "
The demonstration took the city of Birmingham to new heights.The city and other fund raising organizations raised a furthe £6000 to put towards the building of four Spitfires.
The Daredevil Flyer
Alex Henshaw was one of the many great Spitfire test pilots during this time of hardship. With his career at Castle Bromwich lasting from 1940-1946. He once said " I am so surprised that my tour of duty at Castle Bromwich lasted so long, due to the fact I didn't expect to survive that long ".
Alex Henshaw was the Chief Test pilot at the shadow factory, flying over 3000 planes during his time there. He had a team of 25 pilots all flew a total of 12,767 aircraft of all types in approx. 37,023 test flights totalling 9,116 hrs and 10 min There were two pilots killed and a total of 127-130 forced landings, of which Alex had plenty.
Henshaw survived a very significant engine failure but overcame this with confidence.
A demonstration of what the plane could do was put to the test when he showed the front line pilots how versatile the aircraft really was. "I was not happy at first, due to some of the less experienced pilots may copy me, bringing about tragic results. This is not me being boastful merely a fact". Looking back at him now at the age of 90 it is hard to comprehend that he was a civilian doing his bit for the war effort. The daredevil he was from his early days, led him towards his appointment at Castle Bromwich. He was a record-breaker and a race winner with the ability to fly machines in all condition's come rain or shine.
His job at Castle Bromwich was just that a Test pilot, every Spitfire that came out of the factory was tested to the limit. With a series of rolls, loops, climbs and banks, the man and machine had to become one. It was also his roll to act as a troubleshooter finding the faults before the RAF pilots did. There are many if not hundreds that owe their life to this man.
He has a vivid memory of the day he came up to Birmingham from Southampton to test fly the first production Spitfire from the Factory
"My wife and I drove up during the night and arrived at 3.30am the plane was not ready and it was like Keystone Cops, with people running around putting thing's on them somebody came along and took them of again. I was conscious of the wariness between the civilians and the RAF and all the people to build their first Aircraft. I took it up and basically showed off, after the landing the atmosphere had changed. Everybody shaking hands after seeing finally the plane fly. These people at the factory had put everything into this project and now they were all united"
With the staff at the Factory trying to find a hero to fly this machine Alex Henshaw came along. The Factory being manned by skilled craftsmen and women, were used to working on cars and it was difficult for them to adapt, to planes.
June 1940 was a good year for the factory in the respect that from the first test flight to the end of the month a total of 10 Spitfires were built. It doesnt sound like many but it took the company one year to produce one plane, following all the complications. Henshaws's job was now in full swing.
" When I first arrived at the Factory there was only one man, by the name of Eric Holden. This man had everything to do with aircraft, from flying clubs to inspection. All the staff were excellent in adapting to there new jobs, so much so that production was up to 320 aircraft a month".
He was not too sure whether having a Spitfire factory on the outskirts of Birmingham, or even Castle Bromwich would work. In respect he was right. What could a grass strip, pylons, factories, houses and a sewage works have to offer the fastest plane in the world. "I used the cooling towers of Hams Hall to navigate back to the Airfield, come rain or shine the steam from the towers was un-mistakable".
With a strict routine, the longest day that Alex worked was from 03.15 hrs until midnight the same day. The way he talks of the emergency landings and the near death situations cannot be understood fully. But all that mattered was the Spitfires at the end of the day. All 11,694 of them with the Factory being a priceless weapon.
The day his time was up or so he thought
On the way back from Cosford in July 1942 without warning the engine on EP615 cut out. When he looked down below all he could see was the vast area of houses ( WILLENHALL ) and no where to land. His thoughts of Barbara his wife were with him to the end of his ordeal.
During his landing on a cabbage patch between two houses he thought he had got away with it. The starbaoard wing dug , in threw him into a tree with the wing coming off. The other wing followed and then the destruction of a families kitchen followed. Climbing out of the plane battered and bruised with his wife was still promenent in his mind . Looking for any injuries of which there were none, a cup of tea was thrust into his hand. Taking a sip of the tea he relised that brandy was present." I am so sorry but I dont drink alcohol" said Alex "not a problem"and the man disappeared into what was his kitchen and made him another.
On returning back home that evening and whilst in the bath his wife saw the cuts and bruises." Dont worry I had to put a Spit down rather quickly but my harness was too loose"
Cause of the failure
The cause of the failure was traced to a skew gear failure. The skew gear meshed with the magneto, a failure of this kind resulted in a total engine stop, causing the ignition to stop.
Everytime he took a plane into the air the thought of a crash landing was always at the front of his mind. No matter where he was crash landing sites were mapped and approache's lined up. The thought of giving up flying without finding the cause of the failure was failure in itself, so continue he did.
In all during the test flights a total of 11 skew gear failures were noted, the fault was down to hardening process during manufacture.
Click here for book availibility:-Sigh for a merlin ISBN 0947554831
The flight of the Mew Gull ISBN 1840370211
Both of these books ( above )by Alex Henshaw were available the last time I checked.