Airspeed – Key Achievements and 'Firsts'

Airspeed's history may have been brief compared to some British aircraft manufacturers but it was if nothing eventful.


AS.1 Tern glider – the only aircraft that Nevil Shute Norway piloted on its maiden flight. 24 August 1931, with Magersuppe at the controls, established a new British gliding distance record (from Stoupe Brow to Ravenscar and Sacrborough 15m / 24 km in 38 minutes). In October, at the second International British Glider Association meeting near Brighton, it won second place in the Distance competition for the de Havilland Cup and won the Rig and Fly, and Figure of Eight contests (flown by Major H Petre). It also came second in the cross-country Wakefield Trophy contest (flown by Magersuppe).


AS.4 Ferry – first two ordered and used by Alan Cobham for his National Aviation Day and National Aviation Displays as Youth of Britain II (G-ABSI) and Youth of Britain III (later Youth of Africa, G-ABSJ).


AS.5 Courier – First British production aircraft to feature retractable undercarriage. Alan Cobham uses a Courier (G-ABXN) to conduct experimental work in developing air-to-air refuelling techniques for his company Flight Refuelling Ltd. In 1934 he makes a failed attempt to make a non-stop flight to India with Squadron Leader W Helmore. While a Courier chartered by The Baird Television Company is used to check the range of the transmitter at Crystal Palace in 1936.


AS.6 Envoy – First British civil aircraft for which a test-to-destruction wing was made to meet new certification requirements. Envoys also used by R M Ansett to set up airline services in Australia in 1936.

A number of Airspeed Courier and Envoys ended up – often through circuitous routes – in Spain and were used by both sides in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). When the Foreign Office banned the sale of some Couriers a couple of Airspeed workers took matters into their own hands and broke into the hangar where they were stored on 20 August 1936. Evidently believing that they could teach themselves to fly in the air they tried to take off. The resulting crash destroyed G-ACVE and badly injured the culprits. However, the most significant loss was the first AS.6 Envoy (G-ACMT), which crashed on 3 June 1937 killing Nationalist General Emilio Mola and all onboard. His death left the way open for General Franco to take power (foul play has been suggested but not proven). Although General Mola is reported to have ordered random executions in captured cities to instil a climate of fear, his lasting claim to fame appears to be inventing the term 'Fifth Column' – used in a radio broadcast in 1936 when he referred to supporters and sympathisers inside Madrid that would aid his four military columns that were laying siege to the city (although given the length of time that Madrid successfully resisted suggests that this was mainly psychological warfare).


In January 1937 the first of two Airspeed AS.6 Envoys ordered was delivered to China. Flown by F/Lt C H A Colman it is thought to have been the longest delivery flight made.


In 1940 Airspeed's plant is the first British aircraft factory to be bombed by the Germans in WWII (although it appears to have been a 'target of opportunity' as the intended target was the Supermarine works at Southampton).


AS.10 Oxford – First British aircraft to be used by the United States in Europe. Became the RAF's standard twin engine trainer.


AS.51 Horsa – Britain's most successful wartime glider was first used in combat in a failed attempt to launch a commando attack on the Norwegian heavy water plant in November 1942. Their first mass use was as part of the invasion of Sicily. However, they gained their iconic status from their later use in the D-Day landings, Operation Market Garden in Arnhem and the Rhine crossings.


Fireproof Tanks Limited subsidiary – like de Havilland introducing variable pitch propellers under licence, which were used on the majority of British aircraft in WWII, Airspeed also introduced overseas technology that was just as widely used. Cyril Colman and W F Shaylor who attended the 1938 Brussels Air Show were tipped off by the British Air Attache that Jean Bellezanne of Compaigne Industrielle Materiel Aeronautique (CIMA) had developed a process of rubber cladding to make self-sealing fuel tanks. They in turn advised the Airspeed board, and chairman George Wigham Richardson paid CIMA a visit. The end result was a subsidiary company called Fireproof Tanks Limited, with managing director Walter Frederick Locke (who had accompanied C H A Colman on Envoy delivery flight to China). It was established in 1939 with a share capital of £6,000. In a test a 70-gallon tank which contained around 50 gallons of fuel was dropped from a height of 60 feet into a petrol fire, and although the fire burnt around the tank for four minutes the tank did not explode. 1940's ads show a tank hit by 42 .303 inch bullets that had not leaked; another hit by five .303 incendiary bullets and four 0.5 inch ordinary bullets did not leak for 24 hours. During the war FPT processed over a quarter of a million fuel tanks. The number of Allied pilots and crews whose lives were saved as a result of this innovation will probably never be known. In 1966 FPT became part of British Hovercraft Corporation, only to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Westland Group plc in 1979. FPT outlived its Airspeed parent and still exists today as part of GKN Aerospace.


AS.65 Consul – On 1 May 1947, Malayan Airways Limited AS.65 Consul (VR-SCD, originally G-AIKY) took off from Singapore's Kallang Airport on the first of three scheduled flights a week to Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang. It was the starting point for two major south east Asian airlines (in 1963 the airline became Malaysian Airways, then Malaysia-Singapore Airlines in March 1966. It split into Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airline System in 1972). However, according to Malaysian sources the first commercial flight took place on 2 April 1947. VR-SCD is preserved in Singapore.


Redesign of the DH.110 as the Sea Vixen for the Royal Navy (under W A Tamblin, after Airspeed had been absorbed into the DHAC) – Modifications included hydraulic nosewheel steering, power-folding wings and long stroke undercarriage.



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