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Birth of Alex Henshaw, Spitfire Test Pilot

1912

Information

Before World War II: 

The son of a wealthy businessman, Alexander Adolphus Dumfries Henshaw (Alex) was born at Peterborough on November 7 1912. He was educated at Lincoln Grammar School. As a boy he was fascinated by flying and by motorcycles. With financial support from his father, who thought aircraft safer than motorcycles, he learned to fly. He began lessons in 1932, at the Skegness and East Lincolnshire Aero Club. A skilled pilot, in 1937 he won the inaugural London-to-Isle of Man air race in atrocious weather. In 1938, flying a Percival Mew Gull, he won the King's Cup Air Race. He flew at an average speed of 236.25 mph, a record that still stands. Early in 1939 Henshaw made a record-breaking solo flight from England to Cape Town and back. However this triumph, overshadowed by the imminence of war, received no public recognition. In the census of that year his occupation was given as a fertiliser manufacturer. Alex was living with his family and his bride-to-be Barbara.

World War II:

When war broke out Alex volunteered for service with the RAF but, while waiting for his application to be processed, was invited instead to join Vickers as a test pilot. Though initially testing Wellington Bombers, he soon moved on to Spitfires and was appointed chief production test pilot for Spitfires and Lancasters. Alex oversaw a team of 25 pilots, and flew more than 2,300 Spitfires, plus other planes, testing up to 20 aircraft a day. It could be dangerous work; Henshaw suffered a number of engine failures, and on one occasion, while flying over a built-up area, crash-landed between two rows of houses. The wings of his aircraft sheared off, and the engine and propeller finished up on someone's kitchen table. Henshaw was left sitting in the small cockpit section with only minor injuries.

Successes:

Once he was asked to put on a show for the Lord Mayor of Birmingham's Spitfire Fund by flying at high speed above the city's main street. The civic dignitaries were furious when he inverted the aircraft, flying upside down over the town hall. On another occasion he barrel-rolled a four-engined Lancaster bomber, the only pilot ever to pull off this feat.
For his services during the war Henshaw was appointed MBE, though there were many who thought he deserved far more. After World War II: After the war Henshaw went to South Africa as a director of Miles Aircraft, but returned to England in 1948 and joined his family's farming and holiday business. He remained in great demand at aviation functions to the end of his life. To mark the 70th anniversary of the first flight of the Spitfire, in March 2006, the 93-year-old Henshaw flew over Southampton in a two-seater Spitfire. In 2005 he donated his papers, art collection, photographs and trophies to the RAF Museum. He wrote three books about his experiences: The Flight of the Mew Gull; Sigh for a Merlin; and Wings over the Great Divide. Alex Henshaw died on February 24 2007, his wife, Barbara (widow of Count de Chateaubrun) whom he married in 1940, predeceased him. He was survived by their son, Alexander Jr.






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Flying Ace of World War I

1891

Information

Noel Keeble was born in Thorpe Road on 6 April 1891. He  was a flying ace of the First World War and is credited with six aerial victories. Keeble joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and in 1915 was assigned to a squadron in No. 1 Wing. They were based at Saint-Pol-sur-Mer, Dunkirk, France. In January 1916 he gained his first victory while flying a Nieuport single-seat plane. He managed to force down a German seaplane.  In October 1916, flying a Sopwith Pup, he destroyed another seaplane. For this he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. His citation read: Distinguished Service Cross. Flt.-Lieut. Noel Keeble, R.N.A.S. For conspicuous gallantry on the 23rd October, 1916, when he attacked four German seaplanes and brought one of them down in a vertical nose-dive into the sea.

Service in the RAF

On 1 April 1918, the Royal Naval Air Service was merged with the Army's Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force. Keeble became part of No. 202 Squadron RAF and flew a two-seat plane. His observer/gunner was Captain Eric Betts who went on to become an Air Vice Marshal in World War 2. He went on to bring down four more planes. His other great achievement, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, was to obtain 1000 valuable photographs of enemy positions behind enemy lines. His citation read: Distinguished Flying Cross.Lieut. (T./Capt.) Noel Keeble, D.S.C. (Sea Patrol). This officer (with an observer) has obtained 1,000 invaluable photographs of enemy positions miles behind the lines, and has brought home extremely important new information during this period. He has destroyed eight enemy machines, including one biplane during the past month. Captain Keeble is a most capable and gallant Flight Commander. Keeble remained in the RAF with the rank of flight lieutenant until August 1934, when he was placed on the retired list. He returned to RAF service during the Second World War and finally returned to the retired list with the rank of Wing Commander on 31 October 1945. Sadly two of his three sons, who had followed him into the RAF died in combat missions during the Second World War. Noel Keeble died in 1963.

References: 

The London Gazette, 11 May 1917 The London Gazette, 20 September 1918 Peterborough & The Great  War project  





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