Airspeed – The people

Airspeed would not have survived in hostile market conditions with so little money and yet produced often radical designs if not for the efforts of the people associated with it. Some played major roles, others lesser ones (but still were often remarkable individuals). Here we look at some of the people involved.

Please note: some individuals, particularly those with significant roles in de Havilland history, have not been included here (or are mentioned very briefly).


Alfred Hessell Tiltman – after graduating in engineering from London University, he served as an apprentice with Daimler Co from 1910-11. Afterwards he spent three years in Canada engaged in design work on the Quebec Bridge. From 1914-16 he worked on structural steel design for Sir Edward Wood & Co. He joined Geoffrey de Havilland at Airco in 1916. When the de Havilland Aircraft Company was formed at Stag Lane in 1921 he was invited to join. Working as an assistant designer he was involved with a number of early DH designs (including the DH.60 and DH.66). He left DHAC and joined Vickers' Airship Guarantee Company (as chief designer after Barnes Wallis's move to the Vickers Aviation), working with his friend and former DH colleague Nevil Shute Norway, on the R.100. Following the crash of the rival R.101 in 1930 and the loss of interest in airships, it closed down and they set up Airspeed in 1931. He led on aircraft design and was responsible for many of their successful designs up to and including the AS.51 Horsa glider – famously used at D-Day and Arnhem. He fell out with Nevil Shute Norway and offered to resign. However, it was Norway who left in 1938. Airspeed was effectively taken over by DHAC in 1940 and Hessell Tiltman, who attended meetings at their Hatfield HQ, felt that they were seen as upstarts. He stayed on for a couple of more years. After leaving Airspeed in 1942 (the last of the original directors to do so) he co-founded another company, Tiltman Langley Ltd where he spent six years as technical director and chairman. He died, aged 84, in 1975.


Nevil Shute Norway (better known as the author Nevil Shute) – aircraft were a part of N S Norway's childhood as his family lived in Ealing under what was the 'flightpath' between Hendon and Brooklands aerodromes. By the time he had reached 13 he had built several model planes. His elder brother Fred died of wounds in France in 1915, while he was exposed to the fighting during the 1916 Dublin Uprising and served as a stretcher bearer. In 1918 he tried to get a commission in the British Army but was turned down due to his stammer. He then spent nine months training as an Air Gunner with the RFC (later RAF) before failing his final medical. He spent the rest of the war on guard duty with the Suffolk Regiment in Britain. In December 1918 he was sent as a clerk to a demob centre near Folkestone where he found an abandoned Sopwith Camel which he familiarised himself with. He was accepted to study engineering at Balliol College, Oxford. During this time, having got an introduction to C C Walker at Airco at Hendon, he went in person (his earlier letter having gone unanswered) and offered his services free of charge during the vacations. He was employed without pay as a junior assistant in the design office and on wind tunnel research. It was around the time Airco was closing down and Walker and Geoffrey de Havilland were planning to start their own company. He worked with Geoffrey de Havilland on the DH.18. By the 1921 Easter break the de Havilland Aircraft Company had been formed and moved to Stag Lane. Norway graduated in 1922 and was hired as a junior stress and performance calculator in 1923. He learnt to fly that year but only qualified as a pilot on an Avro 548 at Stag Lane on 4 March 1924. He wrote in the evenings but his first two books were not accepted for publication. He left DHAC in the autumn of 1924 and joined Barnes Wallis at Vickers' Airship Guarantee Company as chief calculator. Here he worked on the R.100 airship. His third novel, Marazan, was published in 1926 (worried about undermining his position as an aeronautical engineer, he published under his forenames only). Appointed deputy chief engineer in 1929, he flew on the R.100 during its maiden trip to Canada in July 1930 – and met W F 'Bill' Shaylor in Montreal. However, the R.101 crash (built by a different organisation) in October ended Britain's interest in airship development. Norway teamed up with Hessell Tiltman to launch their own company, Airspeed. Although they were joint managing directors he concentrated on the business side. However, he made the maiden flight in the AS.1 Tern glider from Sherburn-in-Elmet Aerodrome in 1931. In 1938, after falling out with Hessell Tiltman and with his career as an author taking off, he left the company. He worked on secret weapons for the Navy during WWII, and emigrated to Australia in 1945. He remained estranged from Hessell Tiltman, and died in Australia in 1960.


Sir A J Cobham – Alan John Cobham was born in London in 1894. He become one of the outstanding figures in British aviation, and was knighted at the age of 32 (some consider him to be the Father of British aviation). He had met A Hessell Tiltman and N S Norway during the transition from Airco to the founding and early days of the de Havilland Aircraft Company (DHAC) in the 1920s. By the time Airspeed was founded he was an international aviation celebrity with records, innovations, the Air Force Cross and a knighthood under his belt. Britain's greatest barnstormer set about popularising aviation with his trade mark dynamism. His National Aviation Days (started in 1932) and National Aviation Displays were held the length and breadth of Britain – many youngsters who caught the flying bug at them went on to become 'The Few', the fighter pilots who saved the Battle of Britain, and serve in later campaigns and other branches of the RAF (he later sold his air display company to C W A Scott – who piloted DH.88 Comet, G-ACSS, Grosvenor House to victory). Undoubtedly, his public prestige helped give Airspeed Limited – of which he was one of the founding directors in 1931 – credibility. Without his initial orders for the AS.4 Ferry and AS.5 Courier (and later for the AS.6) it is unlikely to have got off the ground. Apart from display and long distance aviation, he also found to time to carry out pioneering work in air-to-air refuelling and founded a company, Flight Refuelling Limited, in 1934 (initially in association with Airspeed, later with Imperial Airways). He was also involved with inert gas fire prevention systems. He left Airspeed in 1942. During WWII he worked on deicing systems; exhaust dampeners (to make the bombers of the RAF less visible to German nightfighters); heated windshields and the feasibility of using bombers to tow fighters to besieged Malta. Post-war he returned to inflight refuelling and worked on developing the technology with the USAF that is still in use today. He attended the 40th anniversary of the founding of DHAC at Hatfield in 1960. He died, aged 79, in October 1973.


Lord Grimthorpe – Sir Ralph William Ernest Beckett, the 3rd Baron Grimthorpe, was born in 1891 (succeeding to the title in 1917). Educated at Eton and University College, Oxford he served with distinction in both World Wars. In 1919-20 he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Peel (Secretary of State for War). He was a large landowner in Yorkshire; master of the local hounds; owner of a large firm of motorcar agents in London; frequently took part in the Cresta Run, and owned and piloted his own plane when Nevil Shute Norway approached him to take the role of Airspeed's first chairman. He also served as chairman of the Yorkshire Aero Club (which employed Captain H V Worrall as its instructor pilot and later as manager). He was the company's main financial backer for its first three years and on a number of occasions he intervened to keep the cash-strapped company going in its early days during the Depression. He stepped down at the end of 1936. He died in 1963 while on holiday in Monte Carlo at the age of 71.


Lord Ronaldshay (later 3rd Marquess of Zetland) – born Lawrence Aldred Mervyn Dundas on 12 November 1908. Introduced to Airspeed by his uncle, Lord Grimthorpe, and became one of their '£5 per week working shareholders'. His father had a distinguished career and had served as the Governor of Bengal (1917-22), which no doubt influenced his decision to set up a company, R K Dundas Limited, together with Ronald Douglas King (Airspeed's sales manager), to act as Airspeed sales agents in India and Burma (later, they took over as UK sales agents from Aircraft Exchange & Mart). He flew out to India to set up operations in New Delhi. During WWII he served as a temporary Major in the Yorkshire Yeomanry in the Middle East and was mentioned in the despatches (his younger brother, Bruce, was killed on operations with the RAFVR early in the war). He succeeded to the marquessate in 1961. After his death in 1989 he in turn was succeeded by his eldest son.


T E Laing – Thomas Elliot Laing was the son of a Sunderland shipbuilder. Educated at Oxford he served a three-year apprenticeship with Metropolitan Vickers. During WWI he served with the Royal Army Service Corps and then in the Royal Flying Corps, where he flew Bristol fighters and rose to the rank of Captain. Post-war he moved to Canada, he took up fruit farming then eventually started a speedboat passenger service on Lake Okanagan before he used up an inheritance. He moved to the US and worked on the railroads for several years. He returned to aviation as the pilot of a Curtiss JN.4 giving joyrides at barnstorming displays. In the winter he worked in the Ford Aircraft Factory in Detroit installing engines on Trimotors. The following year he became a flight instructor but was injured in a crash while being flown by a woman pupil. As a result of injuries sustained he needed a walking stick and returned to the family home in Scotland. Hearing about Airspeed he offered to arrange an investment in the company providing he was hired as works manager (and was Airspeed's first employee). It's not clear as to the exact date he joined Airspeed. However, on 24 August 1930 he was awarded his pilot's licence (the address given was in Scotland but his profession was listed as 'Aviation'). Although not particularly qualified he proved to be a loyal and conscientious employee. In the summer of 1935, following the Swan Hunter takeover in 1934, H W Denny became works manager and he became the liaison engineer between the works and the drawing office. Later he was placed in charge of a small factory at Langstone Harbour which produced Queen Wasps. Tragically, he was killed during the war when his car hit a railway bridge during a late night drive back to Portsmouth after visiting suppliers. It is thought that he may have been suffering from exhaustion and fell asleep at the wheel [In his autobiography Nevil Shute Norway states that Tom Laing had served the company for 17 years. However, as Airspeed was only formed in 1931 and WWII ended in 1945 there is clearly a mistake somewhere].

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