The Wartime Diary of a de Havilland Engineer – Part 6

DW motorbike

Dick on his motorbike

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 sixth 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.

A Day to Remember

Sunday 8th August started as a normal working day for us in the Experimental Flight Test at de Havilland’s, Hatfield. W4050, the prototype Mosquito was got ready for flight and we waited to see who was going to fly it. It had been fitted with a number of stub exhausts, all made from different materials, and the pilots were told to fly around at low level and at high speed so that it could be seen which exhausts blew apart and which survived. This naturally appealed to the pilots and the aircraft was in great demand!

Eventually, John de H(avilland) arrived in the afternoon to fly it and I went up with him. After only about 15 minutes or so we dropped down even lower, flying down an avenue of trees which led to a lovely old building at the end. John said “Do you know where we are?”, and when I replied “No”, said “We are near Buckingham and this is Stowe, where I went to school.” He zoomed over the school saying “This will get them out” and then flew around the countryside for a few minutes. By the time we came back the whole school was out, standing on the steps of the main entrance and waving. We flew down the avenue of trees again, low over the school, and climbed away with a series of rolls. I remember that I was quite concerned for the safety of one lad who was jumping up and down, fully clothed, on the high board of an empty swimming pool!

John de Havilland

John de Havilland

Flying back to Hatfield, once again, we were so low, that looking out at the passing tree tops etc I forgot that we were flying and had a shock when we suddenly went over the edge of a deep quarry! Landing back at Hatfield, John left the aircraft outside the pilot’s office at the Ellenbrook end of the airfield and I walked back to the Experimental.

About an hour later the telephone rang; it was John’s brother Geoffrey saying “I can’t get this boiler to start.” He called aeroplanes “boilers” as he was a model steam engine enthusiast. “Get a tractor” he said, “and take it back, it’s useless.”

I got hold of an engine fitter – Tom Carter – and we walked over to the pilot’s office. We didn’t take a tractor as we knew what the trouble was. W4050 had recently been fitted with Stromberg carburetors, which needed extra priming when starting the engines. As we got to the aircraft, which was parked just outside the pilot’s office, all the pilots were looking out of the window wondering where the tractor was. I got in, Tom got on the priming pump, and we started one engine and then the other, but as Tom started to get into the plane with me Geoffrey jumped out of the window, and across the flower beds, shouting “Keep her going,” He then got into the observer’s seat and strapped himself in!

As all the pilots were cheering and waving at seeing Geoffrey in the passenger seat I thought that I had better go along with the joke and taxied the aircraft past their window and down to the Manor Road end of the airfield where I swung it round ready for take-off and put the brakes on. I then turned to Geoffrey ready to change places but he said something like “No, you’re the one who knows what he’s doing, it’s all yours, off you go.”

I must say that for a split second I was tempted to try my luck. Geoffrey surely knew that I couldn’t fly, but I had no way of knowing whether he was joking or not. However, I declined. We changed places and took off. We roared along at low level trying to blast the stub exhausts off and a few minutes later I found myself looking down on a familiar avenue of trees. At this point Geoffrey asked if I knew where we were, and I replied “Stowe”, which seemed to surprise him until I explained that I had already been here with John earlier that afternoon. He said “We will have to stop doing this, but now that we are here I’ll give them another show.” He then went through the same routine as John had earlier, zooming low over the school to get them out, and returning to give them a display of aerobatics.

Mosquito at Hatfield

Mosquito at Hatfield

I then thought that we would be returning to Hatfield, but Geoffrey asked “do you know where the chap lives who brings me eggs each week?” I said “Yes, he lives on a farm about a mile north of Hitchin.” When we reached the area, I couldn’t locate the farm, so I asked Geoffrey to go back to the town centre and take the Bedford road out which he did. I then got him to make a left turn onto the farm track and we flew low over the farm. We spent a few minutes flying round the adjacent fields and woods and then came back over the farm, by which time the “egg supplier” and his wife were standing on top of a dung heap in the farmyard waving at us.

On the way back to Hatfield we were passing over Welwyn Garden City when we saw a Mosquito below us circling over the town centre. Geoffrey said “It’s John”, and immediately dived on to his tail, whereupon John went into a tight turn. As their turn got tighter and tighter, Geoffrey said “Let me know when you black out.” When I eventually said “Now” he seemed rather disappointed saying “I thought that I should have lasted longer than you but I didn’t.”

Quite a number of the exhausts were blown apart during these low level tests and eventually what had become a “jolly” for the pilots came to an end and more serious testing was resumed. I have never stopped wondering whether Geoffrey really would have allowed me to attempt a take-off. And if he had, what would have been the outcome. I will never know.”

The final installment 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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3 thoughts on “The Wartime Diary of a de Havilland Engineer – Part 6

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

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