Alex Henshaw M.B.E. - 1912 - 2007.

To anyone with an interest in aviation history the name Alex Henshaw will recall those exciting pre-World War II days, to many the golden age of aviation. Private aviators were vying with the R.A.F. to take on new feats of daring, and records were tumbling. Alex Henshaw takes his place among the famous private aviators of the time - Francis Chichester, Jean Batten, Amy & Jim Mollison, Arthur Clouston & Mrs Kirby Green, Charles Scott & Tom Black.

As a boy he had been inspired by some of the great pioneering flights of the nineteen twenties and by the age of 19, with the generous encouragement of his father, he bought his first plane, a Gipsy Moth. His competitive nature soon had him entering air races and successes started to come. Faster and more competitive aircraft followed and by 1937 he had acquired the then current state of the art high-speed single-engined monoplane, a Percival Mew Gull. A year later, aged twenty-five, Alex won the prestigious King's Cup air race with the Mew Gull, 20 laps of a triangular course of 50 miles each lap around marker pylons.
But Alex Henshaw is chiefly remembered for a great feat of navigation and endurance, his solo return flight to Cape Town South Africa in 1939. Piloting his specially prepared Mew Gull he set a time/speed record for the return trip that incredibly still stands today. There have been faster flights but not solo in single-engined aircraft.
The pre-war years were relatively carefree days for flying, with few rules and regulations. Alex remembers once loading his private plane with guns and ammunition and flying to Hungary for a shooting holiday with friends. International restrictions and bureaucracy would make that impossible now.

The coming of World War II saw Alex offering his considerable flying skills to help the war effort. After receiving a discouraging response to his application to become a fighter pilot with the R.A.F., he joined Supermarine. He was moved to their new Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich and became their chief test pilot, flight testing machines before they were handed over to the R.A.F. Inevitably accidents occurred, but Alex seemed to have a charmed life. On one occasion his Spitfire's engine failed while he was test flying over the built-up area of outer Birmingham, he crash landed between rows of houses but walked away from his wrecked machine with less than serious injuries. He also had a reputation for pulling off amazing stunts with Spitfires when demonstrating their capabilities, sometimes getting criticised by the authorities for, in their view, taking unnecessary risks. Once he flew inverted down one of Birmingham's main streets to add sparkle to the Mayor's Spitfire appeal launch. This caused a police investigation but charges were never proceeded with.
During the six years of the war Alex Henshaw had the responsibility for testing the vast output of Castle Bromwich. During the period 37,000 tests flights took place, 127 accidents occurred and four pilots were killed. Many of the test flights were made personally by Alex.
He also had experience of many other aircraft types including Wellington and Lancaster bombers as well as Walrus and Sea Otter amphibious flying boats, but his real love was the Spitfire, a magnificent thoroughbred machine he recalls.

When the war ended he resumed private flying as a hobby and worked in South Africa for two years as a Technical Director of Miles Aircraft before returning to this country. He took over the running of the family farming and holiday business from his elderly father, which had been left in shambles owing to the war. Alex had the job of re-construction along six miles of Lincolnshire coast, which included an 18 hole golf course. Today a residential estate in Sandilands bears the name Henshaw for the main avenue, and all the roads, closes and streets are named after the various aircraft he flew.

Up to the time of his death in February 2007 Alex lived in a charming cottage in Fordham Road Newmarket, surrounded by paintings, photographs, trophies, awards and other mementoes of a brilliant flying career. Among them was a photograph of him chatting to a cigar smoking Winston Churchill.
Alex suffered a great loss when his wife Barbara died in 1995, ending a partnership lasting 58 years. "She was everything to me", he recalled, "wife, best friend, and mentor".

Alex lived in Newmarket for 22 years and considered it a delightful town (it was where he used to meet Barbara, the Countess de Chateaubrun) but admitted that he hadn't much interest in horseracing. He wrote three books, 'The Flight of the Mew Gull', 'Sigh for a Merlin' and 'Wings over the great Divide' top sellers in their time. His memories inevitably returned to the great pioneering days of the nineteen thirties when unfettered by today's restrictive legislation young adventurers could push the limits of endurance of men and machines. Surely it was this spirit that saved our country from defeat in the crucial aerial battles of World War II. We will remember him as the great survivor, not only of the years but of many daring adventures during a long and exciting life.

Picture right: May 2003. Alex Henshaw at 90, with Ben and Purdy prior to his visit to St James' Palace to be presented with the Air League of Great Britain's highest award by the Duke of Edinburgh.

R.H.V. February 2007

P.S. 23rd. March 2005. Alex, aged 92, took over the controls of a dual seat Spitfire flying from Duxford. "It brought all the memories flooding back", he said. "Those young men went into combat with only five or six hours flying experience in it. If it had not been for the Spitfire, Britain would not have survived. It has been such a privilege flying one again today."

March 5th 2006. 93 year old Alex once again piloted a Spitfire, during a flight of the legendary aircraft over the old Supermarine Works at Southampton to mark the 70th anniversary of the first Spitfire taking to the air. His co-pilot afterwards revealed that Alex was competent at the controls and could have landed the plane had it not been for prohibitive insurance conditions. Alex said that 'it was no different to operating a car' but it was his last flight in a Spitfire and 'a wonderful experience'.

March 2009. See our correspondence page 6 for information on a new book and memorabilia about Alex Henshaw, now on show at the RAF Museum Hendon.

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