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© 2007-2010 The Spitfire Society and respective copyright holders.
Reg. Charity No: 299033


The Spitfire Society Interview

Alex Henshaw MBE

Forward by Peter Wesson

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.

"Well, that's 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.

The Lancaster.  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 bomber?

"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."

Was this manoeuvre part of your regular test‑programme?

"No, not 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."

Have you 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."

Alex had 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 about you!’

Well it 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!"

From then 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.

"My attitude 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."

On that 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 particularly admire?

"Yes, the 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."

And finally, is there any particular aircraft type that you would like to have flown but never did?

"Yes.  Best 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 © The Spitfire Society

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