The Wartime Diary of a de Havilland Engineer – Part 4

Dick at Hatfield

Dick Whittingham at Hatfield

Richard (Dick) Whittingham spent all his working life at de Havilland, starting as an apprentice in 1935 and finishing up as a senior production engineer. This is the fourth extract from Dick’s wartime diaries, adapted by his nephew Roger Coasby, and it gives a personal insight into those exciting days at Hatfield in the early 1940’s.

The High Altitude Mosquitoes

“In September 1942 I was working as a Flight Inspector in the Experimental Flight Hangar at Hatfield when I was asked to attend an urgent meeting in the main workshop. When I arrived I was surprised to see that the prototype pressure cabin Mosquito MP469 had been pushed into the workshop and was standing amongst the benches with a group of workers gathered round it.

After a few moments Fred Plumb, the Manager of the Experimental, arrived, stood on a box by the nose of the aircraft, and started to address us. He said that a German aircraft had started to fly over the country at such an altitude that no R.A.F. aircraft could reach it and that we were going to start right away working night and day to modify the aircraft standing beside us in order that it would be able to intercept the enemy plane and shoot it down. He went on to say that as MP469 was a bomber, the first thing to do would be to cut the nose off and replace it with a fighter nose carrying 4×0.303 machine guns.

At this point he suddenly stopped and said “you are not listening to what I am saying. I said that we are starting straight away – hasn’t anyone got a saw?” He stared down at the assembled workers and a “chippy” shot off, and came back with a rip saw. Fred indicated where he was to cut the nose – just forward of the pressure bulkhead – and the man started sawing. Fred then continued, but it was difficult to hear what he was saying because of the noise of the sawing! He said that in order to lighten the aircraft the pilot’s back armour plate would be removed and a ply substitute fitted. The fuselage fuel tanks and wing outer tanks would be removed and it was hoped that smaller main wheels would be available. In addition, 4-bladed props would be fitted and the wing tips extended.

As he finished talking, there was a crash as the sawn-off nose fell to the floor!

MP469

MP469 after the conversion work

The work took a week to complete and on September 16th 1942 an R.A.F. pilot arrived to take delivery. The R.A.F. was obviously weight conscious as the pilot was not very large and went by the appropriate name of P/O Sparrow!

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the German plane, a J.U.86P, did not return and so was never intercepted.

Four more Mosquitoes were subsequently converted into “high fliers”, and on February 16th 1943 I was fortunate enough to go up in one, DZ417, with George Errington, the Chief Test Pilot of Airspeeds that had been taken over by de Havilland’s the previous year.

When we reached 42000 ft George suddenly reached across me and switched off the pitot heater. Immediately the A.S.I. (air speed indicator) dropped to zero. He pointed at it, and as we were wearing oxygen masks and couldn’t speak to each other looked at me for an explanation. I switched the heater back on again and of course the A.S.I. went back to normal. He stuck his thumb up but a few moments later did the same thing again. In the end I held my hand over the switch so that he couldn’t touch it.. Then he turned to me and motioned that I should take over the flying, whereupon he leaned back in the brilliant sunshine and shut his eyes!

George Errington

Test Pilot George Errington

I had never flown a Mosquito; in fact I had never flown anything, but I made a few tentative movements with the control column to find that there was no response whatsoever. The plane was wallowing about unable to gain any more height. Fortunately the pilot then “woke up”, took over, and we started to descend. The cabin pressure was only one and a half P.S.I. which was not much compared to the 8 P.S.I. we are used to today and it caused a lot of stomach rumblings coming down from such a height, so we took it in easy stages with a few “stops” on the way.

Thinking about it later, there couldn’t have been many people at that time who had reached that height.

It had been a marvellous experience and one which I shall never forget. My abiding memory is how black the sky was looking upwards at that altitude.”

We hope to be looking at the science and engineering of the high altitude Mosquitoes in more depth in a later post.

Part five of Dick Whittingham’s diary will be published next month.

Roger Coasby is a member of the De Havilland Aeronautical Technical School Association. You can find out more about the DHAeTSA, which has over 500 members, on our Affiliates page here.

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  1. Pingback: The Wartime Diaries of Dick Whittingham – a de Havilland Engineer | The People's Mosquito

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