Legendary test pilot Alex Henshaw on flying the Lancaster

The Vickers-Armstrongs plant at Castle Bromwich turned out 305 Lancasters during World War Two. In a feature first published in Aeroplane’s September 1983 issue,  test pilot Alex Henshaw recalled flying the first of them — and the machinations leading up to it

A classic Charles E. Brown study of a Castle Bromwich-built Lancaster I airborne on a flight test in March 1945.
A classic Charles E. Brown study of a Castle Bromwich-built Lancaster I airborne on a flight test in March 1945. GETTY

As the target date of 22 October 1943 approached, the advent of the first production Lancaster from the Castle Bromwich works created a swelling atmosphere of excitement and expectancy among the staff. I am sure that it also stirred varying emotions in certain individuals from both Vickers-Armstrongs and the old Nuffield Group.

Nobody who was aware of the trauma existing between Supermarine and Nuffield, which had built up to a climax in the early months of 1940, could fail to appreciate the significance. On the one side, there was a highly successful and skilled aviation team capable of producing the finest aircraft in small numbers on an often limited budget; on the other, a huge factory complex accustomed to churning out motor cars in vast numbers, and the only positive knowledge that most of the workforce had about aircraft was that they did not always keep their wheels on the ground. Backed by politicians, seemingly unlimited finance, and national publicity on an unprecedented scale, the huge industrial complex of Castle Bromwich on the outskirts of Birmingham was designed to achieve a production output of aircraft previously undreamed-of in this country.

In fairness to the Nuffield Group, it was unfortunate that the first machine chosen by the Air Ministry for it to build should be the Spitfire, probably the most difficult of all aircraft to put into mass production. The normal car production methods needed fundamental adaptation to prepare them for aeroplanes, and the problems were compounded by the introduction of frequent airframe modifications each time the assembly line started moving.

The crew for the maiden flight of Castle Bromwich’s first Lancaster, HK535, including Alex Henshaw second from left and Flt Lt Václav ‘Venda’ Jicha at right. The Czech-born Jicha was tragically to lose his life in February 1945, after the Anson he was flying crashed en route south from Kinloss; he survived the accident, but froze to death before rescuers could reach him.
The crew for the maiden flight of Castle Bromwich’s first Lancaster, HK535, including Alex Henshaw second from left and Flt Lt Václav ‘Venda’ Jicha at right. The Czech-born Jicha was tragically to lose his life in February 1945, after the Anson he was flying crashed en route south from Kinloss; he survived the accident, but froze to death before rescuers could reach him. KEY COLLECTION

As the Lancaster production schedule moved closer to the first flight trials, I was growing uneasy because of my unintentional involvement — as I will explain — in a situation that could rebound with the most serious consequences. Castle Bromwich in 1940 was a small grass airfield completely surrounded by obstructions of one sort or another. On the west side, from which the aircraft were towed, was the vast factory complex. Adjoining it were Dunlop and other industrial sites with their steam, smoke and dust indicating their productivity. To the south, nestling under a high ridge, was the British Industries Fair site and the railway serving it. Northwards lay a steep gradient covered with a conglomeration of factory and residential housing which did little to encourage landings or take-offs, but which remained unobtrusive to snare the imprudent aviator. Some distance to the east were the huge Hams Hall steam towers, and in between these concrete monsters and the airfield was a black marsh of sewerage beds which exuded waves of sickening stench.

It would be difficult to imagine a worse place from which to undertake the thousands of sorties necessary in testing fighter aircraft. True, we had managed so far without too much difficulty — no-one had yet landed on a factory roof, nor had anyone plunged into the shit. Would I be as lucky with the Lancaster? I mused that to begin with, there were four engines which could cut on take-off, as opposed to one on the Spitfire. The airfield was also surrounded by a birdcage of balloon cables, and the prospect of dodging these with a large bomber was even less inviting than with a tiny single-seater.

Nobody had consulted me about the problems of flying the Lancaster from Castle Bromwich, but then one day I was surprised by B. W. A. Dickson, the new and outstanding managing director, coming over to my office on the airfield. He was accompanied by Wg Cdr Becker, the RAF overseer, works manager Bernard Cook, a Ministry of Aircraft Production representative, and the director and works manager of a large contracting company. Apparently, someone somewhere had decided something should be done to improve the grass airfield from which we were to fly heavy bombers. In no time at all my office was littered with plans and specifications of runways, perimeter tracks, parking bays and a multitude of other schemes.

Three of the 305 Lancasters produced at Castle Bromwich share ramp space with a multitude of Spitfire IXs.
Three of the 305 Lancasters produced at Castle Bromwich share ramp space with a multitude of Spitfire IXs. GETTY

The improvement discussions were mainly between Becker, Dickson and the contractors and as it was really not my province, I kept in the background and said very little. There came a stage when the basic outline was agreed; Cook was taking notes from the contractors when Dickson turned to me and said, “You know, Alex, it seems an awful shame to spend all this money on an aerodrome which will not be used once the war is over”. I replied softly, “I agree, it is shameful, but it is so easy to spend money when it is not your own. If it were left to me, I would put down only a short runway where the ground has been made up, with a narrow taxi-track to connect us to the flight apron, similar to one we now use for the Spitfires”. “Do you mean to say that you could complete the Lancaster with just that?”, he asked.

For years I had seen the pathetic waste of our limited resources, and without considering the consequences I reaffirmed more vigorously what I felt. I was aware instantly that I had not won a popularity contest. Dickson spoke out in a firm clear voice and said, “Henshaw says that most of this is a waste of time and money; he assures me that the present Lancaster contract could be completed with one short runway and a connecting track to the flight shed”. For a moment there was silence and then the arguments against such a pruned scheme began.

Becker ventured that to end a runway in the middle of a grass field would create a quagmire as machines ran off the end in wet weather. The contractors warned that on the made-up ground, a narrow track would invite disaster if the heavy Lancaster ran one wheel off the edge. Dickson, however, had the same outlook on expenditure as I did, and used my views and assessments to the full.

For the weeks and months to come I was to remind myself how imprudent, if not stupid, I had been. The airfield construction work had nothing to do with me, and anything to improve what we already had was bound to make my life that little bit easier. Now in a moment of unguarded discussion I began to realise to what extent I had really committed the managing director and, very much more deeply, myself. Certainly there would be a saving of a great deal of money, time, labour and equipment, but it was not my money, or at least not much of it, and if in the end it turned out to be a ghastly mistake, then I would know all about it soon enough. In my more depressed moments, I imagined all the headlines: “Factory churns out bombers which cannot be flown!”

The Lancaster had also given me a great deal of food for thought. In 1943 we were at last getting to grips with Germany, but the Far East was so tough that bombers and fighters were going to be needed in very large numbers and very quickly. With this on my mind, I thought the Lancaster might prove to be a more difficult machine to test in bad weather than the Spitfire. Without radio or other navigational aids and after climbs, dives and full-throttle level runs, dead reckoning could be a very sketchy affair; I was thankful for the agility of the Spitfire when evading trouble in fog, mist or extremely low cloud conditions. I realised, however, that there was one distinct advantage with the Lancaster — all our machines were fitted with beam landing equipment.

I immediately applied for a RAF beam landing course at Watchfield. After about a week I thought the course justified my precautions and when finally a landing was made at night, in poor, blacked-out conditions, it did much to boost my morale against being caught out during a difficult test flight.

I was so involved with the continuous stream of Spitfire IXs and XVIs, and the problems concerned with so many pilots at the dispersal factories at Desford, Cosford and South Marston, that the first production Lancaster I (HK535) was on the tarmac, buzzing with flight shed staff already preparing it for flight trials, before I was even aware of the little ceremony being enacted while the huge machine was towed across the busy highway dividing us from the factory. As the engines were being run up after final inspection, a small crowd of departmental heads had gathered on the apron. The scene was quite similar to that at the roll-out of the first Spitfire.

There was, however, one striking difference: the complete change in the demeanour of the group as I waved from the elevated cockpit. Vickers-Armstrongs at Castle Bromwich had matured and grown up. Gone was the weary, frustrated air of dejection. A quiet professional attitude of confidence prevailed.

Three-and-a-half years earlier, Castle Bromwich had been a sick joke in aviation circles. Today it was the showpiece of a nation at war, proudly presented to scores of political and military missions of Allied and neutral countries throughout the world. Our men and women in the factory were coping with a continual grind every day, after nights of death and destruction. They responded magnificently to pressures and dangers which at times exceeded those of their loved ones and in the services.

At Castle Bromwich the situation was unique in the history of aviation. Not only was the factory producing the finest fighting aircraft, but also the best bomber — and, as an additional accolade, both of these classic machines went immediately to the front line and remained there as the best in their class throughout the war.

My own flight team was easy to select: at the time, although I had eight or 10 pilots extremely competent on fighters, I had delayed appointing one with four-engined testing experience until I had assessed the job myself. Wg Cdr George Lowdell, followed by Sqn Ldr Ellis, had been my number one pilot for administration, but it was Flt Lt Venda Jicha who proved to be the most outstanding pilot and a very close friend to me. He had been one of Czechoslovakia’s most outstanding aerobatic pilots of the pre-war period, and by a devious route through the Foreign Legion and the French and British air forces had eventually been posted to Cosford, where I spotted his aggressive but extremely confident manner and the expert execution of his flying. His dream was to become competent and experienced with four-engined bombers, and I had promised to give him every opportunity as he worked with me on the test routine. Tragically, he was killed soon after it in the most distressing circumstances.

My next team member was Eric Holden, the firm’s chief flight shed inspector. He had been in aviation as long as I had, and probably knew more of the technicalities and theory of flight than any other individual in our flight staff; moreover he was a friend to be relied upon and trusted. The last member for the first flight in HK535 was Billy Buckley, who was to act as flight engineer and be responsible to me in reading off vital pressures and temperatures from the large panel which I was unable to see from the pilot’s seat. Billy was also dependable and trustworthy. He had known nothing about aircraft until he joined us in 1940. During those spartan days of the first wartime summer — fortunately hot and dry — our total equipment was a large wooden toolbox placed conveniently out in the airfield so that I could taxi the Spitfire close for adjustments.

With our small flight team at their respective stations, HK535 was taxied carefully along the narrow road to the eastern boundary of the airfield and the controversial runway. As I opened the throttles, Venda took over the levers and kept both throttle and airscrew controls pushed hard against the stops. The initial acceleration of the lightly loaded aircraft was quite good as we moved down a slight slope, which terminated at the end of the runway where it joined the grass of the old airfield. I was able to feel the machine off the ground, and gently eased the lumbering giant over the old pre-war flying club.

I signalled to Venda to reduce engine revs to 2,850rpm but keep the throttles open, at the same time remarking that the starboard landing-wheel was out of balance, and immediately stopped the pulsating throb with the brake lever on the control column. As soon as we straightened out for level flight the port outboard engine appeared to be vibrating, and after trying various power settings I concluded that the airscrew was at fault, which necessitated an immediate return to Castle Bromwich.

This first flight had been a little disappointing. Venda had made a note that all take-off boosts were incorrect, but I told Eric to leave any adjustments until we had checked the boost at rated altitude on the next flight. We did not fly the machine again that day because the oil connector tube sheared while the airscrew was being changed, and this called for a complete change of engine.

The following day, with good weather and an eager team, we took off once more, only to find that a certain degree of vibration persisted in the starboard outer engine. I made a note on my knee-pad for the engine bearer points to be checked as well as the airscrew blade alignment. Nevertheless, on this flight we were able to climb into calm air and check the rigging through a normal speed range. After carefully marking the control column position with a pencil as the machine flew hands-off straight and level, a return to base was made for further adjustments.

One of the initial batch of ‘Lancs’ to roll off the Castle Bromwich line was HK551, here in service with No 115 Squadron at Witchford in 1944.
One of the initial batch of ‘Lancs’ to roll off the Castle Bromwich line was HK551, here in service with No 115 Squadron at Witchford in 1944. A. T. DOUGLAS

Later that week we flew HK535 again, and were puzzled to note that some vibration still existed; however, as it was slight and I was as yet unfamiliar with the aircraft, we decided to proceed with the test programme. All engines were opened to full throttle, and the revs were set at 2,850 for the climb to rated altitude on both blowers.

At around 9,000ft I noticed the port inboard gauge falling while the other three engines maintained full power. With such a large difference in the pressures I doubted if it could be a leaking boost line, faulty gauge or wrongly calibrated rev-counter. In the process of diagnosis I switched over to ‘hot air intake’ to find that all the engines suffered an immediate loss of power except the port inboard, which showed an increase. I turned to Venda and said, “I don’t know how many engine runs and how many company and AID [Aeronautical Inspection Department] inspectors we have had on the machine, and they still cross the bloody hot-air controls.”

Coming up to rated altitude at 10,000ft on the first blower both port and starboard engines were down on boost, and I made a note to check the boost lines for leaks before calibrating or changing rev-counters or rev-generators. As it was pointless to climb any higher to check the second-stage blower readings, I decided to complete the trials as far as we were able. All engines were throttled back and the stall checked with chassis and flaps up, which gave us a normal reading of 93mph indicated air speed. I followed the same procedure with chassis and flaps down, which was satisfactory at 81mph IAS.

We then commenced the rather tedious task of timing all other operations. Each airscrew was feathered in turn, which at that altitude and temperature was acceptable at six seconds. Dropping the chassis at a speed of 110-120mph IAS took 30 seconds, and to retract it took 23 seconds. At approximately the same flying speed the flaps were lowered in 12 seconds and retracted in 13 seconds. Bomb doors were then operated at normal cruising speed, taking six seconds to open and eight seconds to close. The stopwatch timing over, all crew members had a long list of controls and systems to be checked, recorded and ‘snagged’ as required.

As it was useless to make a full-throttle level run at maximum speed until the boost problems had been resolved, I ordered the crew to position themselves for the diving test. At maximum throttle and 3,000rpm on all engines the machine was eased gently into a shallow dive, steepening gradually until it reached 360mph IAS. The stability was good, but I had doubts about the longitudinal stability beyond this speed. The ailerons were remarkably light for a large machine, but as I tested them over various speed ranges and at differing loads it was apparent that they were over-balanced, and could be dangerous in inexperienced hands. The directional stability was good, but as I slowed the machine down and put it through a series of harsh manoeuvres that might be required when taking evasive action, either the rudders became slightly over-balanced or the fins were being shock-stalled. I knew the Halifax had encountered problems in this region, and I made a note to take the matter up with the Avro design office.

Eric, further aft in the machine, had reported over the intercom that the flaps were being forced slightly open as the dive reached its peak, and that the ailerons had excessive up-lift. The flight was therefore terminated and we returned to base for adjustments, and for me to discuss with Avro’s those characteristics with which I was not entirely happy. My discussions with Sam Brown, the chief test pilot, were not altogether convincing, and I suggested that he or one of his assistant test pilots should fly HK535 and check the machine out thoroughly with me.

On 25 October another flight to rated altitude was made. The vibration still persisted and I began to doubt my own judgment. However, the most important consideration was whether we had been able to eliminate over-balancing on the ailerons; I was disturbed to find as the speed built up that the controls — although nicely harmonised — took over unless handled firmly and judiciously. There was no alternative but to return once more.

Understandably, all flight adjustments at this stage were somewhat ponderous and protracted, due to our ground staff’s unfamiliarity with a new aircraft much larger and different in all respects to the Spitfires. After further consultation with Avro it was decided to pack all aileron hinge points and to give them the maximum permissible droop. During this work I was mollified to some extent when the blade alignment on the port outboard airscrew was indeed found to be slightly out. I flew the machine again on 3 November, and concluded that no further work or trials should be carried out until it had been flown by another experienced Lancaster test pilot.

Jimmy Orrell had joined Avro as an assistant test pilot and, since he and his wife Nan were pre-war friends of mine, I took the opportunity of ferrying them over for a visit in one of my communications aircraft. Our first flight on 6 November was of short duration, because the de Havilland representatives who checked the airscrew alignment and basic pitch settings had replaced the port outboard blades incorrectly. We returned to base for investigation once more. The next flight proved to be more satisfactory. There was no vibration, and Orrell thought the ailerons above average; the over-balancing was now within acceptable limits, and occurred only above 300mph IAS.

With all flight work and final adjustments completed, I decided to carry out full performance trials before signing the certificate of clearance. It had been my custom to conduct similar trials on one Spitfire, chosen at random, every month. The trials on the Lancaster would take longer, although I did not expect to go over 30,000ft, compared with 46,000ft on the Spitfires. On this flight we increased our flight team by the addition of Messrs Plant and Readman, inspectors from Vickers-Armstrongs and the AID respectively.

We took off on 16 November. At full throttle and with all engines set at 2,850rpm, I put the machine into its best rate of climb and took readings from all instruments every 1,000ft. The initial rate of climb was 1,670ft per minute at 9lb boost. There was a distinct fall-off in performance at the second blower change-over at 15,000ft, and then as the power surged up again we were climbing at 1,300ft per minute at 18,000ft. The weather was good by Black Country standards, but layers of stratus obscured the ground. I had no navigational aids, but luckily there was a slight disturbance caused by steam from the Hams Hall coolers on the grey-white blanket below, and I hoped to keep this in sight as I concentrated on the work in hand.

We took 28 minutes 30 seconds to reach 29,200ft. At that height the rate of climb had fallen to 250ft per minute, so I signalled to Venda and the rest of the crew that we would start the descent. All systems had functioned perfectly, although I did notice some aileron slackness which gradually disappeared as we continued our work down to 20,000ft. I had experience of this peculiarity years before on a wooden aircraft in the tropics, and in this case I put it down to the extreme cold at altitude and a difference of expansion coefficients in the wing and control cables. Our level speed runs at maximum power and 3,000rpm also proved satisfactory, reaching 278mph on the second at 20,000ft, with all corrections and conversions made except instrument and pilot-head position error.

On landing, the aircraft was inspected carefully inside and out, and six panels in the cockpit were found to be severely cracked. Some further consultation took place over this before I would clear the machine for service use and it was reasonably concluded that the panels in question had been over-tightened on fitting and assembly.

It was intended for the second Castle Bromwich batch to consist of 200 Lancasters, but it was cut to 99 as the war ended. PP682 was one of those, flying with No 218 Squadron.
It was intended for the second Castle Bromwich batch to consist of 200 Lancasters, but it was cut to 99 as the war ended. PP682 was one of those, flying with No 218 Squadron. VIA ANDREW THOMAS

During the first years after the war I often looked back, and could evaluate our successes and judge our failures with better perspective. I have perhaps been harshly critical of Castle Bromwich as an air base from which to test fighters and bombers. The records speak for themselves and no doubt belie this earlier judgement. In approximately five years of war 37,023 test flights were made, most of them on Spitfires ranging from the MkII to the Mk22 and Seafire 46. The Spitfire reached a production of 320 aircraft each week, and the end of the war brought our production of the Lancaster to a halt at 305 machines.

Since five pilots were injured and two killed testing Spitfires, while none were hurt in Lancasters, it might be assumed that the Lancaster was safer to test. I have no doubt that this is true, as far as engine failures are concerned. I used to look at the gaping hole in the Merlin of a Lancaster with nonchalant indifference, whereas I had many times sweated in cold fear — particularly in heavy low cloud over the Black Country — when I prayed for an open space on which to get a silent smoking Spitfire onto the ground. One also has to take into account the sheer difference in numbers of the two types of aircraft that were flown.

I never force-landed a Lancaster away from base, although one dark, wet winter’s evening with two engines out, I came perilously close to it. We had structural failures on the Spitfire but I do not remember one with a Lancaster. There was one occasion when the empennage was damaged during a dive and the crew failed to understand my order to bail out, but this was an isolated incident — the result of the dinghy wrapping itself around the starboard fin and rudder — and had nothing to do with any inherent weakness in the machine.

The dives and climbs to altitudes in excess of 10,000ft in all weathers and without any aids constituted the heart of our work. If they had been eliminated, the job would not have been particularly onerous or demanding. As it was, the steam from the Hams Hall cooling towers was the best friend I ever had in bad weather, and I got to know it far better than any directional beacon I used in later years. During a really bad spell of rain and heavy cloud, several Lancasters completed flight trials without ever being out of cloud or seeing the ground from the moment of take-off. I was never really able to do this with a Spitfire because the test programme called for certain aerobatic sequences which I never found easy to do in cloud.

The pilots had to be selected carefully, and although Castle Bromwich was run as a ‘tight ship’, good comradeship, competence, trustworthiness and dedication were essential. I think I was most fortunate in having a splendid team of young men, of whom I was justly proud.

HK543 was put to use by the A&AEE during July 1945 on bombing trials from Boscombe Down.
HK543 was put to use by the A&AEE during July 1945 on bombing trials from Boscombe Down. CROWN COPYRIGHT