A flight with the Mew Gull

Posted on: 13th Jul 2009

My father hardly spoke of his experiences as an RAF fighter pilot in the 1940’s. One of his rare anecdotes concerned Alex Henshaw, the air race pilot who forged his fame in the 1930’s. Whilst leading 65 Squadron against flak barges on the River Waal in Holland on 9th September 1944, Dad’s Mustang lll was hit and on fire, forcing him to bale out. He was posted as ‘missing in action’. With the help of the local Dutch resistance, he managed to evade capture and returned to his squadron 11 days later only to find, not surprisingly, that someone else was in charge and he was destined for a desk job. He did not relish this kind of rest so managed to wangle a demotion to Flight Lieutenant with a posting as a Spitfire test pilot working under Alex Henshaw at Castle Bromwich. The story he recounted was about G forces and the example he used was a flight as co-pilot in a Lancaster with Alex Henshaw doing an air test. Dad stood between the pilots seats as AH flew the four-engined bomber around a barrel roll. What fun! The flight appears in his logbook on 24th November ’44. I was lucky enough to meet AH at Duxford in 1993 when the Old Flying Machine Company was celebrating the 50th birthday of their Mk IX Spitfire MH434. 434 was built at Castle Bromwich and AH had done the first flight so, naturally, he was the guest of honour. By then I’d read Alex’s ‘Sigh for a Merlin’ and ‘Flight of the Mew Gull’ so it was a special privilege to have lunch with him a few times over the next few years and to hear some of the stories which did not make it into print. He was a remarkable aviator. In preparation for the photo shoot we did last week with the MX2 and Alex’s Mew Gull G-AEXF, I dug out my copy of ‘Flight of the Mew Gull’ and refreshed my memory on the February 1939 London – Cape Town – London flight. How I wish I had actually seen the Mew Gull and been more au fait with the flight when we had those lunches together! As an aviation accomplishment it is extraordinary but what makes it very special is the added feat of physical endurance. Those who have read the book will know what I mean even if they have not seen AEXF. It is tiny ... not much bigger than an MX and far less comfortable. How on earth did he sit in that cramped cockpit with little forward vision and go to Cape Town in 39hrs and 23 mins? ... 30.5 hrs were airborne with 4 refuel stops in Oran, Gao, Libreville and Mossamedes. No satellite navigation, no VOR or ADF beacons, no radio. Just maps, a precise watch (must have been a Breitling!) and a very accurate P Type compass with which to reset the vacuum driven directional gyro which would have required re-setting every 10 or 15 minutes. Oh, and amazing skill; and courage of course .. courage in spades. The main reason for his success was that, before he left London he determined that he would never turn back; no matter what. So, he gets to Cape Town in just under 40 hours having endured sufficient stress and doubt to last a lifetime. He then spends 27 hrs in Cape Town getting some rest and refreshment and having the aircraft checked over. Then he does it again! Another 39hrs and 23 mins of northbound torture to be lifted from the cockpit as something of a bloody mess in London. If you read the book, I am sure you will conclude, as I did, that he really should have died several times during those 4 days in 1939. Alex Henshaw’s record breaking flight stood for 70 years. In May this year it was broken by South African pilot ‘Chalkie’ Stobbart whose incredible achievement took nearly 19 hrs off the time by flying higher (better groundspeed) having three fuel stops and less time on the ground at each stop. I’d love to meet Chalkie and be able to compare some of his experiences with Alex Henshaw’s.Flight of the Mew Gull is still in print. ISBN 978-1-84037-021-8