The stuff of Legend
‘Aviation Legend’ is a often misused term, it gets everywhere; across the pages of magazines that should know better and maybe preserve the title for the deserving few. Traditional heroes are chiseled and shaped by war and propaganda into a figures that not many of their contemporaries would recognize.
You couldn’t wander the display circuit in the seventies without stumbling across the odd one here and there. In this way I met Douglas Bader and Ginger Lacy. Douglas briefly and Ginger for a couple of hours sat in a circle on the grass next to our aircraft. Douglas was instantly recognizable from Kenneth More’s portrayal of him in the film Reach for the sky. He had lost none of his charismatic, pugnacious character to time and had something approaching God-like status amongst the eminent company that surrounded us at Biggin Hill during the UK’s premier ‘Air Day’.
Ginger was a gent with a twinkle in his eye and a passion for flying that he had maintained through the war and beyond. He was teaching people to fly at his own flying club on the windswept coast of Northern England at he tender age of sixty one. He inspired great respect and affection, even after the shortest meeting.
There are memorable moments in the display world where the sheer artistry of a performance defines the true master. I remember watching Ray Hannah practice his display sequence at Booker late one summer evening in a Spitfire Mk IX, – it was exquisite to the point of terrifying. I would have given him 2 points for his consideration for the preservation of a treasure, but 100 for his virtuoso performance.
He left no margin for error, but displayed that thoroughbred in a breathtaking way, I have never seen the like since and nor am I likely to.
Neil Williams was very different, an ETPS graduate test pilot and another man completely in love with flight, and with aerobatics in particular. Watching him four point roll the Yak 11 was to witness absolute fluid mastery in the art of dancing in the sky with an aeroplane. His crisp but flowing roll retained pin point accuracy without losing a brushstroke of perfection. That single manouver has always occupied the same place in my memory; as with Ray, seen during practice at Booker during a Spring evening with hardly a soul about.
Well before this time, Neil had a remarkable in flight emergency whilst flying a Zlin during practice. During a maneuver the main spar had failed at a connection point; he had managed to catch the wing as it folded by rolling away from it to the inverted. He returned to the airfield inverted to roll erect seconds before landing. The wing folded as he rolled upright and the subsequent arrival was spectacular. The aircraft was a write off but he climbed out unhurt.
I never bumped into Alex Henshaw in the flesh, but I met him through his writing about a chapter in his exceptional life. ‘Sigh for a Merlin’ will be a title recognized instantly by Spitfire enthusiasts all over the World. The book tells the story of the production test flying of the Spitfire from Castle Bromwich, a place that no-one would choose to site an airfield for that purpose. Its primary asset was its proximity to the Spitfire’s production lines, its secondary, the power station cooling towers nearby. They formed a primitive beacon in the form of a bump in the cloud deck visible from the clear blue sky above. He used this reliable feature to remain oriented above the cloud deck and to aid his letdowns through the ‘clag’ to minima that would raise our hair today. And he did this sometimes twenty times a day in inclement weather to keep the supply lines rolling to the squadrons. This book is an aviation ‘must read’ if you have any interest in the triumph of will over adversity in aviation and war.
So where am I going with this? I never saw him fly, never met him and now never will. He died peacefully at his home on the 22nd Feb 2007 at the grand old age of 94 after staying up all night to look after Purdy, his sick Labrador.
We need to perform a little alchemy here to build a picture of Mr Henshaw. You must visualize a man driven by the knowledge that his work was absolutely vital to the success of a war effort. He technical expertise was demonstrably exceptional; according to contemporaries his displays took his aircraft to the limits of its capabilities and the audience to the edge of their seat, metaphorically and literally. He broke the rules with panache retaining complete mastery of his machine right to the very edge of what was possible.
Take the raw talent and skill of all of the men above, the courage and the passion that made them what they were and you come close to creating a picture of Alex Henshaw. That he could be a difficult man is known and alluded to in his obituary and many accounts of him but… as they say in the annals of history, “Come the moment, come the man.” What a moment and what a man. A flier with very few peers and a largely unsung legend.
You might want to read his obituary written in todays Daily Telegraph.
NB: I have omitted all ranks and titles for clarity. No disrespect is intended.