The Alex Henshaw Spitfire
Alex flew more Spitfires than any other person and worked closely with the factories and all the test pilots involved with the Spitfire. He was also very enthusiastic about the MK26B when he invited Mike O'sullivan from Supermarine, to his home. We feel he should be the name that pays tribute to all those who worked in the factories and test flew the Spitfires.
"Henshaw, the last of the great amateurs, who under stimulus of war then became a very great professional". Jeffrey Quill test pilot in charge of Spitfire development.
Alexander Adolphus Dumfries Henshaw, MBE born 7th November 1912 died 24th February 2007, aged 94.
Henshaw was born in Peterborough, the eldest son of a wealthy Lincolnshire family. He was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Stratford-on-Avon, and Lincoln School. He was awarded the Royal Humane Society Medal for saving the life of a boy from the River Witham.
Henshaw took to motorcycles, and then learned to fly at the Skegness and East Lincolnshire Aero Club in 1932, funded by his father, who bought him a de Havilland Gipsy Moth. Henshaw received his private pilot's licence no. 4572, on 6th June 1932. He made a name for himself in the 1930s in air racing, competing against legendary pilots like Geoffrey de Havilland. Aged only 20, he competed in the Blue Riband of air racing, the Kings Cup, in 1933, in a Comper Swift winning the Siddeley Trophy. He also flew a Leopard Moth and an Arrow Active which caught fire while he was performing aerobatics.
Henshaw then turned his attention to long distance flying. After reconnaissance of the eastern and western routes in 1938, he set off from Gravesend at 0335 GMT on Sunday 5th February 1939 to fly his Mew Gull to Cape Town and back. landing at Wingfield Aerodrome Cape Town after flying 6,377 miles in 40 hours. He spent 28 hours in Cape Town, and retraced his route back to the UK, landing on 9th February after a flight of 39 hours, 36 minutes. He completed the whole 12,754-mile round trip in 4 days, 10 hours and 16 minutes, breaking the record for each leg and setting a solo record for the round trip. By the end, he was so tired that he had to be lifted out of the cockpit.
The Cape record stood for more than 70 years
He considered enlisting in the Royal Air Force at the start of the Second World War, but he instead became a test pilot for Vickers Armstrong. He subsequently took the rank of sergeant pilot to fly a fully armed Spitfire to defend the factory, if needed, although he was never called upon to fly in combat. Henshaw started with Wellingtons and Walruses at Weybridge. He did not enjoy the work, and was on the point of leaving when Jeffrey Quill invited him to test Spitfires in Southampton.
In June 1940, Henshaw moved to the Castle Bromwich factory in Birmingham, which had been taken over by Vickers after poor production results by the Nuffield group. He was soon appointed to the post of Chief Test Pilot, leading a team of 25 others. The factory built over half of the total output of Spitfires ever made, and 350 Lancaster heavy bombers; Henshaw tested both types of aircraft. Production/acceptance test flying was essential, ensuring that faults were detected before aircraft were delivered to the front line, but it was potentially dangerous: two of his team were killed testing new aircraft. Henshaw survived many forced landings and a catastrophic crash in Wednesfield near Wolverhampton on 18th July 1942 which destroyed his aircraft.
It is estimated that Henshaw flew 10% of all Spitfires and Seafires, testing up to 20 aircraft a day in often foggy conditions. He would also demonstrate the Spitfire to visiting dignitaries, such as Winston Churchill, and once flying the length of Broad Street in Birmingham at low level. He is the only pilot known to have performed a barrel roll in a Lancaster bomber, a feat that was considered by some to be reckless or impossible due to the aircraft's size and relatively modest performance. He flew this manoeuvre on several occasions with other members of his flight test team on board, including Peter Ayerst and Czech pilot Vaclav 'Venda' Jicha. (Venda was a pre-war aerobatic pilot, fighter ace, Battle of Britain pilot and previous member of No. 124 ("Baroda") Squadron RAF.)
Henshaw was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his wartime service.
After the war Henshaw became a director of Miles Aircraft in South Africa, a job which entailed visiting potential customers in the region and making demonstration flights. But the company folded and he returned to England in 1948. Although still only in his mid 30s, he never again flew as pilot in command of an aircraft. Instead he took charge of his family's farming and holiday business interests in Lincolnshire. He was awarded the Queen's Commendation for Brave Conduct for his rescue work in the 1953 floods.
The Air League awarded Henshaw the Jeffrey Quill Medal in 1997. In 2002 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and in 2003 he became a Companion of the Air League. In 2005, Henshaw donated his papers and mementoes to the RAF Museum, funding a curator to catalogue his collection. In his later years he was invited to make several flights in a two seater Spitfire, occasionally handling the controls. The last of these came on 5th March 2006 when, at the age of 93, he took part in a flypast at Southampton Airport to mark the 70th anniversary of the first flight of the prototype.
Henshaw married Barbara in 1940, she was the widow of Guy, Count of Chateaubrun. Barbara Henshaw died in 1996. Alex Henshaw died at home in Newmarket on 24th February 2007. He was survived by their only child, Alexander Henshaw Jr.