Air Show

The mingled aroma of fried onions, candy floss, suntan lotion, and avgas can mean only one thing. Tally-Ho Corner’s very first air show is underway! I recommend you deploy your camping chairs and/or picnic blankets swiftly as the flying machine set to open the display is just seconds away from gracing RAF Fordmadoxford with its presence.

The theme of today’s event (all THC air shows have a theme) is ‘1921’. With help from FSX* we’ll be turning the clock back 7300 rotations to a year when most – but not all aerodynes – were biplanes, the world air speed record stood at around 200 mph, and airlines and airliners were novelties.

* and X-Plane 11 now and again

1921 also happens to be the year when bombers bested a battleship for the first time. The battleship in question was the SMS Ostfriesland, a Battle of Jutland survivor ceded to the United States Navy at the end of WWI. Pummelled by direct hits and near misses during a bombing demonstration organised by ardent air power advocate Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell, the 22,000 ton dreadnought slipped beneath the Atlantic swell on July 21. Her assassins were Martin NBS-1s like the one currently executing a stately right to left pass.

More influential abroad than in the USA, the Ostfriesland’s demise failed to convince the USN to change tack. By 1925, the outspoken Mitchell had been sidelined by opponents within the Army and Navy. The broadside he unleashed after the loss of the USS Shenandoah, led to a headline-grabbing court-martial.

At the time of his death in 1936, although Mitchell was almost forgotten, his ideas had finally been embraced in his homeland. The name bestowed on the next aircraft to display – a B-25 – was a posthumous nod to his contribution to military aviation.

While Mitchell was showing the world what a bomber could do to a high value naval target, an equally evangelical Italian general was describing what bombers could and would do to the world’s cities in future conflicts. In ‘Il Dominio dell’Aria‘ (The Command of the Air), first published in 1921, Giulio Douhet argued that airforces not armies or navies would win tomorrow’s wars. Aerial bombardment of industry, transport and communications infrastructure, government buildings, and residential areas would destroy both a nation’s ability to fight and its appetite for conflict.

It would take another world war to reveal the strengths and weaknesses in Douhet’s theories. The next aircraft to parade for your perusal is one of the types employed by Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris in his attempt “to produce in Germany… a state of devastation in which surrender is inevitable”.

A Flare Path flair point made of astrodome plexiglass to those of you who correctly identified the above as a Handley-Page Halifax. Our example is ‘Friday the 13th’, the Hercules-engined 158 Squadron Halifax ‘III’ that completed more combat sorties than any other RAF ‘heavy’ – 128! Earlier versions of the Halifax sported distinctive triangular fins, but these were abandoned after AAEE test pilots, investigating a series of unexplained crashes, realised that the fins could, under under certain conditions, stall then lock hard over.

Because of an FSX blindspot and a little something called aerodynamics, 1921’s most extraordinary aerodyne won’t be appearing in today’s air pageant. Gianni Caproni pictured his colossal nine-winged Ca.60 Transaero criss-crossing the Atlantic with 100 fare-paying passengers aboard. However, Fate had other plans for the ungainly flying boat. The prototype crashed during its second take-off from Lake Maggiore and, facing a huge repair bill, Italy’s foremost aeronautical engineer reluctantly abandoned the project.

^ The Ca.60 and its creator appear in The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki’s fictionalised biopic about Zero designer, Jiro Horikoshi

Caproni’s appetite for experimentation and interest in gargantuan flying machines was dulled by the Transaero failure, but not completely eliminated. In 1929 the Milanese company produced the Ca.90, the largest aircraft in the world at that time, and in the 1930s, with the help of Secondo Campini, they began work on what was destined to become Italy’s first jet aircraft – the Caproni Campini N.1.

The N.1, an example of which is bending the buttercups on Fordmadoxford’s southern perimeter at this very moment, featured a motorjet, a form of propulsion that was to the Me 262’s and Gloster Meteor’s turbojet what the crossbow was to the rifle. Thanks to an FSX model with toggleable transparency, as the N.1 passes you should be able to make out its conventional 900 hp liquid-cooled piston aero engine driving the nose-mounted compressor that feeds the combustion chamber – where fuel is injected and ignited – near the tail.

That distant sewing-machine thrum you can hear is the sound of an approaching Curtiss JN. Barnstorming displays were big in the States in the 1920s, and the war-surplus ‘Jenny’ was a favourite mount of the daredevil pilots who put on the shows. Daredevil pilots like Bessie Coleman.

The first African-American woman and the first Native American* to hold a pilot’s licence, Coleman gained that licence in France in 1921. The same prejudices that sent her to Europe for her initial lessons, caused her to return there the following year for further tuition. Keen to become a professional stunt flier, she spent two months acquiring the necessary aerobatic skills. Trips to Amsterdam to meet the legendary Anthony Fokker, and Germany where she had the opportunity to fly new Dornier and LFG types, capped off the trip.

* Coleman had Cherokee grandparents

Coleman’s first air show appearance was at Curtiss Field, Long Island at an event honouring the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment of WWI. A short but glittering career as a barnstormer followed. Tragically, her plan to open a flying school for black pilots never came to fruition. ‘Queen Bess’ died on April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida, when the Jenny she was piloting spun into the ground. The apparent cause of the accident was an unnoticed wrench. The mechanic’s tool had jammed the flight controls.

Caudron, the French company that tutored Coleman, didn’t just train female aviators, it employed them. A fearless pilot called Adrienne Bolland had been delivering and demonstrating their products since 1919. Dispatched to Argentina, in 1921 Bolland achieved an unlikely feat, crossing the Andes without maps or local knowledge, in a fragile G.3 that relied on a feeble 80 horsepower Le Rhône engine for propulsion.

According to the aviatrix, the four-hour adventure might have ended in disaster had a mysterious Brazilian not visited her in her Buenos Aires hotel room on the night before the flight. The woman who claimed never to have seen an aeroplane before, told Bolland to turn left towards a steep mountain face that resembled an overturned chair, on reaching an oyster-shaped lake. The flier encountered the lake, followed the advice, and was lifted over the peak by a powerful invisible updraft.

“I felt like I wasn’t even moving forward. It was so cold that I thought I was crying tears of blood, it hurt so much. Then the passage widened out, the wind died down and my airplane became steadier. I had crossed the Andes. In the distance, I saw the sea as if it were in a dream… Make whatever you will of it. I still don’t believe in the occult sciences. But you have to admit that it takes some effort to not believe!”

It could be argued that Japanese preparation for the attack on Pearl Harbour began in 1921. The heavily laden Sopwith Cuckoo that’s hauling itself into the air in front of my commentary position at present is a reference to the Sempill Mission – the British aeronaval mission that arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun a century ago, give or take a month or two. Equipped with over a hundred aircraft of twenty different types including the Cuckoo, and ready to share plans of the latest Royal Navy aircraft carriers with the IJN, the mission’s goal was to train Japanese naval aviators as well as secure lucrative arms contracts for UK PLC.

The head of the mission, Captain William Forbes-Sempill, plainly enjoyed the eighteen months he spent in Japan. An ex-RFC, RNAS and RAF airman with little respect for the Official Secrets Act, he spent the next twenty years aiding the Japanese Navy in a more clandestine fashion. As early as 1925, MI5 knew the heavily-in-debt Sempill was spying for the Japanese in return for cash. The treacherous aristocrat retained his freedom and his influential position because his father was aide-de-camp to King George V, and the British didn’t want Tokyo to know that they’d cracked their diplomatic codes.

^ The loose-lipped Lord never lost his love for aviation. In 1934/35 he made a round-trip to Australia in a Puss Moth like this one.

Astonishingly, Sempill, a known spy and Nazi sympathiser, was given a position in the Admiralty at the start of WW2. It took the momentous events of December 7, 1941 to finally bring him down. Shortly after the Day of Infamy, secret documents were found in his office and he was discovered making phone calls to the Japanese embassy. Anyone else would probably have finished up slumped against a pockmarked wall or dangling from a gibbet in the Tower of London. ‘Captain the Master of Sempill’, however, was allowed to quietly retire.

1921’s deadliest air accident involved an airship. Designed for long-range reconnaissance missions over the North Sea, the British-built R38 plunged into the Humber Estuary on August 24th after overstressed structural girders failed. Forty-four of the forty-nine aeronauts aboard perished. As Flight Simulator’s splendid army of add-on artisans have yet to fabricate a facsimile of this ill-fated cloud nuzzler, USS Macon, a dirigible that suffered a similar fate off the coast of California in 1935, stands in for the R38 today.

Hang onto your headgear, ladies and gentlemen – it’s time for our whistlestop finale!

Of the various aircraft producers founded in 1921, none would have a more profound influence on the history of aviation than the Douglas Aircraft Company.

The first flying machines to circumnavigate the globe were five Douglas World Cruisers – specially modified versions of the company’s DT-2 torpedo bomber. Demonstrating to their British, Italian, French, Argentinian and Portuguese rivals exactly how such an attempt should be organised and executed, the US Army Air Service team lost two of four DWC’s during their 175-day trip. ‘Seattle’ (all of the aircraft were named after US cities) struck a fog-shrouded mountain in Alaska, and ‘Boston’ sank after making an emergency landing in the North Atlantic, but ‘New Orleans’ and ‘Chicago’, the biplane waggling its wings at us as I speak, made it home in one piece.

Sadly, a mishap means you won’t see an example of Douglas’ most famous creation, airborne today. Our C-47, a Berlin Airlift veteran, had a contretemps with a covey of Cambridgeshire partridges yesterday evening and won’t be flying again until it gets a new pitot tube.

What we can offer you is a five-minute audience with arguably WW2’s finest medium bomber, the Douglas Havoc. One of a handful of types to serve throughout the war, the Havoc’s vice-free handling characteristics won it many friends. British test pilot and writer H. A. Taylor was a firm fan:

“Quite the most pleasant war-time American aeroplane in my experience was the Douglas DB-7 Boston/Havoc. It was stable, handled well and easily, and was almost unique of its kind in that the controls were light, powerful and well-matched in a manner to which we had become accustomed in most British aeroplanes. The DB-7 provided, for many pilots, a first experience of the great advantages of the nose-wheel layout… you just drove it along as if it were a motor-car with wings, instead of weaving clumsily along at a snail’s pace.”

A strong candidate for the worst aircraft Douglas ever made is the monstrosity testing the guy ropes of the Virtual Red Arrows tent at present. The Skyshark, an intended replacement for the doughty Douglas Skyraider, was scuppered by its Allison T40 powerplant, a disappointing turboprop engine driving contra-rotating props. The prototype killed a Navy test pilot and the delays that resulted, along with changes in USN thinking, ultimately doomed the project. Only eight Skysharks ever skyswam.

The honour of closing the first THC air show goes to an experimental aircraft that’s been making the Macon sweat since arriving on Wednesday. Managing to look futuristic despite being almost seventy years old, the X-3 Stiletto was another Douglas machine undermined by problematic propulsion providers. Designed to cruise at Mach 2 but, thanks to weak Westinghouse J46s engines, only able to achieve Mach 1.2, the single example almost came to grief on October 27, 1954 when intrepid test pilot Joseph A. Walker encountered a phenomenon known as roll inertia coupling. Unlike the aviator flying the supersonic sky syringe today, Walker had no ‘reload flight’ hotkey or ‘ignore crashes’ tickbox to fall back on. He cheated death with skill and composure alone.


  1. Very interesting collection of curios.. and RAF Fordmadoxford lovingly recreating the IWM Duxford look, to help welcome visitors

  2. A wonderful companion to the sky and train tours I’ve grown so fond of. How you come across and keep all this history from spilling out of your brain is a skill I’d like to have. Grateful for such enlightening reads.

  3. Absolutely fantastic writing as always, Mr. Stone. Very happy to spend the better part of an afternoon reading your lovely article and then diving down the Wikipedia rabbit hole you’ve set me upon. One request, if possible, where did you acquire that B. Lengert painting of the G.3 heading towards the Andes? It’s lovely, I’d love to find a higher resolution image, but my google-fu is failing me.

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