A Fleeting Peace

Golden-Age Aviation in the British Empire

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Memories of the Aerial Circus

[Forester (Fred) Lindsley, having worked for Airspeed, went to work with Cobham in early 1935. He published some memories in an Australian magazine called 'Western Flyer' in the early 1990s, reproduced by the Brisbane Branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1994. His son put these memories online recently, and I have included some of them here. You can read the full text at https://m.flickr.com/#/photos/63810556@N03/5810910124/]

Part 1

Down to Earth behind the scenes

In the so-called golden age of aviation, the 1930s, when entirely new aircraft appeared in rapid succession, and there was no general public awareness of a major war looming not too many years in the future, touring air displays were a popular spectacle.

Far and away the largest of the European enterprises was Sir Alan Cobham's Air Display which, under its initial title of National Aviation Day, commenced its first tour of Great Britain in 1932. I joined the organisation at the beginning of 1935, when the aircraft were undergoing their winter overhaul at Ford in Sussex.

The following year, 1936, the name was changed to C.W.A. Scott's Air Display, although most of the aircraft and personnel remained unchanged. The business name of the organisation was actually Trafalgar Advertising Ltd (and it was indeed a business) with its headquarters in a small and far from lavish office near Trafalgar Square in the heart of London.

The programmes the public got were very good, varied and slickly produced air displays, twice each day in the afternoon and evening. With British Summer Time it was light until after 10pm, and later still in the northern latitudes. I can remember being able to read a newspaper at midnight, near Thurso at the northern tip of Scotland.

The shows were also seven days per week. 'The Show Goes On' really meant something, because the name of the game was selling joy-riding.

The opening mass formation flight over the local town did not see an engine start up until every available seat for the flight had been sold - excepting the complimentary seat for the local Lord Mayor, beamingly oblivious that the pilot of the 'Giant Airliner' would cheerfully strangle the Mayor with his own heavy gold chain of Office.

 

Tickets were sold in different colours at different prices, the Ringmaster M.C. at the microphone being singularly adept at guaging the optimum starting price for any locality. There were times when the Avro 504s were down to three shillings and sixpence. Towards the conclusion of the evening shows it was customary to reduce prices, the fundamental function of the display being to produce the maximum revenue before the public departed the flying field.

The aircraft loaders retained the public's tickets, for pilots were paid on a retainer plus ticket commission. At the end of the day, any sounds of disharmony could usually be traced to the balancing of money receipts with ticket returns.

Putting the Show on the Road

 

Behind these magnificent men in their flying machines, and notwithstanding the rather unimpressive office which kept tabs on activities (and was the post box for our mail), the whole enterprise was large and complex.

Months ahead there was a reconnaisance party which dealt with local authorities, advance publicity, and farmers. The utilisation of likely fields might be dependent on crops, hay - or the local annual Morris-dancers festival. This sort of thing could see us flying up to 200 miles between displays, and was hell on earth for the road transport people. They had to pack, travel overnight and set up well in advance of the first show. The store truck was always [having] a problem which, on short transits, usually delayed its morning departure. No matter how many likely spare gaskets we had in our tool-boxes, there was often a last-minute something that only the stores truck could supply.

Just prior to D-Day there was the advance party, led by a genial glad-hander named Jerry Hancock, who arranged hotels for the pilots and promised the farmer that he would make a fortune when he sold his paddock as a future airport (which at the time lacked the imposing grandeur of 'International'). Jerry also organised publicity posters, slides at cinemas and supplied photo blocks plus press handouts to local newspapers. Of which there were hundreds. One of my tedious chores (until discovering the art of delegation by flattery) was pasting the names of newspapers on each side of the Wolf sailplane's plywood fuselage, and unsticking these 10 feet long posters every evening.

1932 general

For their own posters, no newspaper ever had any type less than 12 inches high.

On the display day there first arrived the screeners (a party of four, sometimes plus local casual labour) who put up the steel stanchions and incredible lengths of canvas, which prevented people from getting a free look from adjacent roads or public land. We also had two policemen, retired cops of immense solidity, who discouraged kids from tunnelling through hedges, and who established a rapid rapport with the local Constabulary, ensuring that motorists did not get free views by standing on the roofs of parked cars.

The 'loudspeaker van' was the centrepiece of the show, parked just inside the barrier wire by the ticket tent. The driver of this van was one of the hardest worked people on the show. He looked after the loudspeakers, constantly misbehaving microphones, the amplifier, the gramophone records and the charging of a massive array of batteries supplying public address power.

The Business Command Post was the 'Gate Van', almost impregnable and thief-proof because that is where the money was kept. A staff of four gentlemen could be kept extremely busy on a good day, selling entry tickets for people and cars.

Then there was the refuelling wagon with a team of two. In both 1935 and 1936 this was a huge Leyland six-wheel tanker supplied by National Benzol. All engines, vehicle or aircraft, as was frequently mentioned on the loudspeakers, ran on National Benzol. Free, of course. I have the recollection that some of the engines, the Jupiters and the Armstrong Siddeleys I think, had the carburettors jetted for 80-20 petrol benzol mix.

Wings and wheels, on the same gratis basis, were lubricated by Castrol in various grades. To minimise the quantity of reserve oil carried by the stores truck, Castrol in 4 gallon drums was delivered to each display site in vast quantities by the local depot, who also collected unused drums the next morning. These drums were stacked in pyramids, Castrol label to the fore, at the car promotions and at strategic places on the flight line. The public could actually see the superb unction being poured into aircraft in which they soon intended to fly. The Castrol Sales promotion team's confidence in their marketing technique was well justified.

There were also the franchisers, who were many and varied. They paid a fee and were free to make their own profits, transporting and erecting their own tents in their own transport. The major one was the canteen marquee which, by arrangement, had prices for staff more reaasonable than the sliding scale applied to the public. Other franchisers came and went, some only operating in a restricted locality, but the steadies werfe a museum of scale models, programme sellers and vendors of display souvenirs, like brochures.

With the exception of the fuel tanker, all transport in 1935 was supplied by Ford, and in 1936 by Vauxhall/Bedford. In each case those companies, with their local agencies, had an all-model motor show and sales promotion at every show.

More memories: 2 - Keeping Them Flying

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