Nick English: From Gravesend to Cape Town
Alex Henshaw, who died nearly two years ago, at the age of 94, was someone quite special. He was a truly magnificent test pilot whose name will forever be associated with the Second World Wars most famous aircraft, the Spitfire. For the five or six year period between 1940 and 1945, he test flew an incredible 2,360 individual Spitfires, amounting to more than 10 per cent of the total build quite an astonishing feat.
Together with the very special Jeffrey Quill (who was responsible for much of the development of the Spitfire), Henshaw was very instrumental in the Spitfires progress. It was, however, his flying exploits during the 1930s that really allows him to be mentioned in the same breath as Charles Lindbergh, Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart and, a favourite of mine and my brothers, Sir Francis Chichester.
It was one day in February 1939 when Henshaw, then a wealthy 26-year-old, intrepid aviator with an adventurous spirit, landed at Waltham aerodrome, near Gravesend, in his De Havilland powered Percival Mew Gull a small, single seat, piston monoplane. He had just returned from a record-breaking 12,754-mile solo flight from Gravesend to Cape Town and back. Henshaws flight to the Cape and back is certainly one of the most outstanding solo flights ever made.
The flight had been planned for some time. A year before, he and his father had carried out survey flights of both the eastern and western routes to Cape Town but these had demonstrated how difficult and dangerous the record attempt was going to be. He took off from Gravesend in his Mew Gull at 0335 GMT on Sunday, February 5th. After flying across the Sahara, he encountered significant problems with sand at Gao, then ran into severe equatorial storms over the Congo and thick fog at Mossamedes in Namibia but, having flown 6,377 miles in just under forty hours, he reached Cape Town and gained the world record. All of this was done with just a compass, a map and a watch as navigational aids.
During the flight, the demands on him and the aircraft were incredible. More than sixty hours over a period of only a hundred and three hours were spent airborne, traveling at an average speed close to 208 mph. Although Henshaw was never in the air for more than six and three-quarter hours at a stretch, he had to take off ten times in all, with a fuel overload that resulted in serious instability and under conditions when he was fatigued and stressed to the limit. Several of these takeoffs were at night and a number without lights. What is even more incredible is that he ate virtually nothing whilst in the air and flew whilst suffering from Malaria on the return leg.
He began this return leg just twenty-seven hours later, landing in Gravesend thirty-nine hours and twenty-three minutes after that. By this time, he was so exhausted he had to be lifted out of the cockpit but he had successfully completed one of the greatest long-distance flights of all time.
Moving forward a few years, when I was in my late teens, I was lucky enough to be taught formation flying for the first time in a 1940s Harvard by a selection of incredibly proficient RAF pilots. One of these pilots was a chap called Steve Nouj Noujaim, who became a good friend and flying mentor. Steve was quite different from the majority of RAF pilots I flew with during this training partly because of his energy levels, I seem to remember but also because of his ability to pick up speeding tickets in his TVR. He was a well seasoned jet jock who was also just getting into serious warbird flying when we first met. Having flown thousands of hours in aircraft like the F4 Phantom, the Lightning, Hawker Hunter and Hawk he then started to amass a rather impressive number of hours in Spitfires, Corsairs, Mustangs, Sea Furys and other iconic WWII aircraft.
What was also quite special about Nouj, for me, was the fact that he also built, from scratch, the same type of aircraft my father built back in 1994 (just before his death in a plane crash in 1995) an RV4 (Noujs is a close variant the RV7). Whilst my father built his to nip in and out of a Norfolk farm strip and pick up the odd case of wine from France, Nouj built his with one aim in mind to beat Henshaws record which still stands from 1939. My brother and I still fly our fathers RV4 to this day and have had many a fun trip in it perhaps down to San Sebastian and back or even the odd trip here and there to Belle Isle off Brittany but the thought of flying an aircraft like this down to Cape Town and back in the time Nouj is trying to achieve makes the mind boggle and my back-side to positively ache (more than 3 hours in an aircraft like this makes your bottom go numb, as for 40 odd hours …!).
Nouj, who was lucky enough to have met Alex Henshaw, was told by the great man himself that a new record would only count (quite rightly) if it could be completed in a single-engined aircraft with less than a 200 hp engine. It has to be a level playing field, otherwise the idea of doing the trip in a WWII Mustang with drop tanks would be quite appealing (albeit with a 2000 hp engine!). This 200 hp powered aircraft is exactly what Nouj has painstakingly built over the last seven years. It is early next year that he aims to shave a few hours off this long-standing and immensely impressive record. Whilst he will have a few modern additions to the navigation aids used by Henshaw, the feat (if achieved) will be something quite special which is why the record has stood for close to 70 years. The Bremont Watch Company will naturally be timing the escapade and we only wish we had been around 70 years ago to witness this rather special and intrepid Englishman write his name in the aviation history books.