Aviation – Pioneers and Test Pilots

From the groundbreaking and innovative designs of the de Havilland Aircraft Company to the unconquerable spirit shown by lesser known names like John Tranum, Hatfield has been a stage for man's conquest of the atmosphere and space itself. Below is just a small section of people connected with Hatfield – in truth, just about everyone famous in aviation in the 1930s visited Hatfield. But only if they lived long enough – fame for an aviator in the Thirties could last only a few weeks before they met untimely deaths.


Geoffrey de Havilland (referred to as Capt de Havilland, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland or Geoffrey de Havilland Senior to distinguish him from his test pilot son) – an early British aviation pioneer who built and flew his own aircraft. Briefly saw active service with the Royal Flying Corps in WWI, before it was quickly realised he was far more valuable as an aircraft designer. In May 1914 joined Airco as a designer and produced some of the most successful designs of the war including the DH.4 and DH.9. Later set up the de Havilland Aircraft Company at Stag Lane. Their Moth range of aircraft was hugely successful post-WWI but the growing demand for housing meant the company had to look for another site. Having bought the land and established some basic facilities in Hatfield the company moved across some of its flying operations almost immediately in 1930. A purpose-built office and factory were built here in 1934 and Stag Lane ceased to be used for flying although the company retained some factory production there. Before WWII, the DH.82 Tiger Moth became the RAF's main primary training aircraft, and production was moved to Hatfield. During WWII the DH.98 Mosquito (designed by R E Bishop) became one of outstanding aircraft of the war. While the DH.100 Vampire became Britain's second production jet fighter, and the latest in a series of famous aircraft. Post-war the company pioneered civilian jet flight with the DH.106 Comet. However, advancing the boundaries of science and progress comes at a cost. A number of aircraft were lost – and the company lost its lead discovering the cause. Later the company was absorbed by Hawker Siddeley and they in turn by British Aerospace. Sir Geoffrey received a knighthood and many honours for his pioneering work and achievements but he paid a colossal personal price – two of his three sons were killed during test flights, and he believed it was largely due to these tragedies that his wife died early.


Geoffrey Raoul de Havilland (usually referred to as Geoffrey de Havilland Junior / Jnr / Jr) – eldest son of Geoffrey de Havilland. First flew with his parents when he was only eight weeks old. Educated at Stowe School he later joined de Havillands as an apprentice at Stag Lane in 1928. He learnt to fly at the RAF Reserve School before moving to South Africa. Returned to England in 1932 and became a flying instructor at Hatfield. He later became a test pilot for de Havillands – becoming the firm's Chief Test Pilot after Robert 'Bob' Waight was killed in 1937. In this role he took some of de Havilland's most famous designs on their maiden flights – including the DH.98 Mosquito and DH.100 Vampire jet fighter. In 1939, he won the London-Isle of Man Air Race, starting from Hatfield, in the Hatfield designed-and-built TK.2 (G-ADNO). He was awarded an OBE in 1945. On 27 September 1946 he took off from Hatfield in the jet powered DH.108 to practise for an attempt to break the world speed record. It was the last time he was seen alive – the aircraft disintegrated over the Thames estuary, and his body was recovered days later.


Lady Mary Bailey (nee Westenra) – one of the earliest female aviators whose exploits inspired other women, like Amy Johnson. Daughter of the fifth Baron Rossmore, she married South African magnate and politician Sir Abe Bailey. Formally trained as a pilot with the London Aeroplane Club (at Stag Lane), she qualified in January 1926. She was the first woman to fly across the Irish Sea. Being hit on the head by the propeller of her plane failed to diminish her love for flying and in July 1927 broke the women's altitude record in a light aircraft – with Mrs Geoffrey de Havilland as her passenger (he also took his wife along when he set a world altitude record the following year).  However, Lady Bailey is best known for her solo flight to South Africa and back in 1928 (the outward journey was particularly eventful – with a crash that required her husband to buy her a new plane, and a hold up due to the British Governor-General of Sudan refusing to allow her permission to fly across Sudan without another pilot flying as escort). Her exploits earned her the trophy as the Champion Air Woman of the World in 1928, and the Britannia Trophy from the Royal Aero Club in 1930. That same year she was made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE). She also took part in the King's Cup Air Races – including the first held at Hatfield in 1933.


Roland Beamont – World War II fighter ace, wartime production test pilot at Hawker where he tested Hurricanes and later the Tempest, and PoW. Postwar, he briefly worked for Gloster on the Meteor before joining de Havillands in 1946 and flew Vampires (flying one at the 1946 SBAC Show at Radlett). However, he is best known for his work at English Electric (joined in 1947) where he made the maiden flights of the Canberra, Lightning and TSR2.


Alan Cobham – Sir Alan John Cobham was a pilot, showman and entrepreneur without equal and one of aviation's greatest.

Click here to go to his entry under Airspeed – The People  



Flight Lieutenant Nicholas Comper – originally learnt his trade at Airco (the forerunner to the de Havilland Aircraft Company) at Stag Lane. Like many of his generation, he joined up for WWI and served in the Royal Flying Corps (later the RAF). He saw active service in France with 9 Squadron. He stayed on in the forces after the war, studied aeronautics, and became an instructor at the RAF College at Cranwell. Here he helped found the Cranwell Light Aeroplane Club and began to make a name for himself as a designer (and test flew some of the CLA aircraft which he designed). Leaving the RAF in 1929, with financial backing from others he set up the Comper Aircraft Company. Their first aircraft, the Comper Swift, was their greatest and only real success. Unfortunately, the company was launched just before The Great Depression and business dried up. Complications in his own personal life may have been a factor which led to him parting company with the firm that bore his name (which was renamed Heston Aircraft Company shortly after the split) in 1934 – the very year he piloted a Comper Streak at the King's Cup Air Race at Hatfield. He set up another company, Comper and Walker Ltd, with an friend from his previous company but it also failed to make money. He then reportedly set up Comper Aeroplanes Ltd in 1936 to work on designs for civil airliners but these failed to get off the drawing board. He was killed in 1939, at the age of 42, when a practical joke ended in tragedy.


John Cunningham – a de Havilland apprentice before the war. He made his name on night-fighters. Flying first the Beaufighter and then the Mosquito, he became a household name. After the war, he became chief test pilot following the death of Geoffrey de Havilland Jr and flew the Comet, Trident and HS125. He was appointed to the board in 1958.


Lettice Curtis – gained her pilot's A licence in 1937 and known to have come to Hatfield to brush up on her general and blind flying for her B licence. Joined the Air Transport Auxiliary and served with Ferry Pool No.5 when it was based at Hatfield during WWII. She later became the first female ATA pilot to qualify to fly four-engined bombers.


Honourable Andrew William Henry Dalrymple – third son of Lord and Lady Stair. Studied at de Havilland Technical School at Hatfield along with R L Porteous and fellow old-Etonian and future business partner Reggie Ward. Dalrymple and Ward set up their own company, Chilton Aircraft, and their first design the DW1 (based on their surnames) was test flown in 1937 by R L Porteous. Accounts vary but at least one claimed the design was conceived and initially developed while they were studying at Hatfield. He gained his pilot's licence in July 1934, and won the Folkestone Aero Trophy Race in August 1939. However, he needed glasses, which prevented him from flying with the RAF during the war, and remained in charge of the business (which became a subcontractor for essential work). In the final years and with the outcome of the war in no doubt, aviation and other companies began to prepare for the post-war world. Chilton Aircraft, using a set of German plans for the Meise sailplane (glider) to develop their own version (the Meise was a pre-war design by Hans Jacobs, which was the only one approved by the Olympic Committee). It was apparently with this in mind that Denys Basil Phillips, an employee who had served in the RAF, salvaged a German Fiesler Storch (Stork) from a dump in Europe, repaired it and flew it back to use as a tug aircraft for the gliders. Tragically, on Christmas Day 1945, Denys Phillips took Andrew Dalrymple for a spin in their new acquisition. The repaired wing failed and both men were killed. Andrew Dalrymple was a talented aeronautical engineer who was 31 when he died.


John Derry – Joined de Havillands in 1947 and became the first British pilot to break the Sound Barrier (in a dive in a DH.108 on 6 September 1948). Tragically killed, along with Anthony 'Tony' Richards and some 30 spectators, when their DH.110 disintegrated in mid-air at the Farnborough Air Show in 1952.


Neville Duke World War II fighter ace who spent a week at No.1 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS), when it was based at Hatfield, in September 1941 as part of his RAF training. He later became chief test pilot for Hawker Aircraft (he did most of the test flying on the Hawker Hunter). A close associate of John Derry he was at Farnborough the day his friend died. In fact, his was the next aircraft to take off (Sir Winston Churchill later wrote to him commending his bravery). He was also one of the display pilots at the Royal Aeronautical Society's '50 Years of Aviation' Garden Party at Hatfield in 1953.


Pat Fillingham distinguished but a very private de Havilland test pilot. Flying a TK.2 established two British 100-kilometre records in 1947. He also won the 1953 King's Cup Air Race flying a de Havilland Chipmunk (very appropriately as he gone to Canada in 1946 to pilot the type on its maiden flight).


Alex Henshaw One of only two pilots entered for all the six King's Cup Air Races held at Hatfield. Won the Siddeley Trophy and the 1938 King's Cup Air Race. Best known for his work as a Supermarine test pilot flying Spitfires (recruited for the role by Jeffrey Quill).


Howard Hughes Millionaire, film director, pilot, aircraft manufacturer...(was played by Leonardo di Caprio in the film The Aviator). Used Hatfield airfield as a base during a visit to Europe in 1973. 


Amy Johnson – famously flew to Australia a few months after learning how to fly in 1930. Known to have been a regular visitor to Hatfield when she was Mrs Mollison, and practised for at least one of her record breaking attempts here. At the time of her death in 1941, she was on the strength of Air Transport Auxiliary's Ferry Pool No.5 based at Hatfield.


Robert Kronfeld – world-record holding Austrian glider pilot (although a number of contemporary reports described him as being German). Was invited to tour Britain and gave a number of demonstrations and lectures on gliding (following the formation of the British Gliding Association). He achieved a number of British gliding records but is best known for being the first man to make a double crossing of the English Channel in a single day – Saturday, 20 June 1931. Being of Jewish descent he moved to Britain permanently in the mid-Thirties (and became a British citizen in 1939). He became the managing director of the British Aircraft Company (BAC – not to be confused with British Aircraft Corporation; among the other directors was Lord Sempill, former president of the Royal Aero Club. BAC later changed its name to Kronfeld Limited). BAC produced a glider with a small engine (technically an aeroplane) called the Drone, which had been designed by the company's original founder C H Lowe-Wylde (who had been killed in an accident while demonstrating the Planette – the pre-production Drone – in 1933). In June 1935, Robert Kronfeld demonstrated the Drone at London Aeroplane Club's garden party at Hatfield. He later served as general manager and chief flying instructor of the Oxford University and City Gliding Club. Following the start of WWII, Robert Kronfeld offered his services and was accepted into the RAF in May 1940. Initially, a Pilot Officer he soon rose through the ranks, and was awarded the Air Force Cross in 1943. He is known to have served with No.38 Group which was involved with airborne operations. In July 1943, he made the first flight of the Baynes Bat – a 'carrier-wing', wooden glider capable of carrying tanks (although it was not used in combat). Post-war, with the rank of Squadron Leader, he was engaged as a test pilot and consultant to General Aircraft Limited (GAL), which had been responsible for the Hotspur and Hamilcar gliders used during the war. GAL was experimenting with tailess gliders, thought to have been based on captured German designs. Kronfeld demonstrated one at the SBAC air show at Radlett. Tragically, he was killed, aged 44, while test flying a GAL56/01 on 12 February 1948. Possibly, he sacrificed his life giving his observer time to bail out. He was posthumously awarded the British Silver Medal for Aeronautics by the Royal Aeronautical Society in June that year.


Frederick George Miles – F G Miles founded the firm that bore the family name along with his wife in the early 1930s. He was later joined by his brother George (later briefly Airspeed's chief designer). Out of the 36 aircraft taking part in the King's Cup Air Race at Hatfield in 1935, 13 were Miles designs (won that year by F/Lt 'Tommy' Rose in a Miles Falcon). Frederick Miles flew a Miles Hawk and won a £50 prize for the best performance in the Class A Eliminating Contest. He entered the Miles M.13 Hobby for the 1937 King's Cup Air Race at Hatfield (he was incorrectly reported as having taken part in the 1933 King's Cup Air Race, also held at Hatfield). On race day, problems with the retractable undercarriage meant he did not actually take part. However, he achieved lasting fame with the Miles Magister training aircraft – well over a thousand were used by the RAF.


Ian Chicester-Miles – started his working career as an aerospace engineer with de Havillands at Hatfield in 1947. He worked on DH.106 Comet, DH.108 Swallow and the DH.110. He appears to have specialised in V/STOL (Vertical / Short Take Off Landing). By the 1960s he was at the top of his profession (among his posts at Hatfield, by now with Hawker Siddeley, were chief research engineer and assistant chief project engineer). He was closely involved in the DH.129 (later HS.129) – an attempt at developing a vertical take off passenger jet (it does not appear to have made even the prototype stage, although a leaflet shows it looked remarkably like the BAe146 Whisper Jet except the outer wing pylons had slipper-type jet or rocket packs instead of engines). He is also known to have worked with the German manufacturer Dornier on their attempt at a similar aircraft. He set up his own company, Chicester-Miles Consultants (CMC) – incorporated on 5 January 1978 – and set about developing his own 4-seater private jet. The first prototype of the CMC Leopard, G-BKRL, made its maiden flight in December 1988. However, problems with engine supplies set the whole project back. A second prototype, G-BRNM, with engines from a different manufacturer, made its first flight in April 1997. But they do not appear to have been able to fill the gap. No further Leopards were built, and Chicester-Miles Consultants was dissolved on 10 March 2009. Ian Chicester-Miles died shortly afterwards on 2 June 2009, aged 83.


Jim Mollison record breaking long-distance flight pilot. Married Amy Johnson in 1932. The couple were regular visitors to Hatfield and prepared for some of their joint flights here. Flying the DH.88 Comet Racer Black Magic they took the lead in the 1934 MacRobertson England-Australia Air Race and set a new record time for reaching Karachi. Unfortunately, mechanical problems forced them to retire but the race was won by another DH Comet the red-painted G-ACSS Grosvenor House.

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