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Sir Allan Cobham

by Frank Tibbo

 The International Encyclopedia of Aviation states that Alan Cobham (1894 -1973): "gained early renown for a number of long distance flights, including a 8,047m (5,000 mile) circuit of Europe in 1921, London to Cape Town and return in 1926 and a 37,015m (23,000 mile) flight around Africa in 1927." There is no mention of the fact that he pioneered in-flight refuelling. The National Air and Space Museum, a large 500 page hard-cover American publication does not even mention his name, but the Chronicle of Aviation, a 1,000 page hard-cover book features more than 20 articles about the man whose name was put on a street by the Gander Town Council on April 30, 1975. The first time Cobham's name appears in the Chronicle of Aviation is on July 14, 1923 when he participated in the Kings Cup air race - he didn't win.

Allan Cobham, like many other famous aviators, fought on the ground before he got in the air. During World War I, he spent three years with the Royal Field Artillery before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot. After the war Cobham purchased a war-surplus Avro 504K and formed Berkshire Aviation Tours. Poor weather has been the bane of many a flying business and Cobham's was one of the first (1920) to be permanently grounded by pea-soup fog. Various flying jobs in the next few years kept 'bread on the table' and enabled him to build an excellent reputation.

In 1925, Sir William Sefton Brancker was Great Britain's director-general of aviation. He was a fellow who, despite being eccentric, aristocratic and one of those characters who wore a monocle, was a visionary. Previous to this appointment he had been the general manager of Britain's pioneering airline, Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd. Brancker wanted Great Britain to be among the forerunners - preferably the forerunner of establishing long-distance airline routes. In particular, he wanted air connections throughout the vast British Empire.

When Brancker embarked on a 18,000-mile survey from Great Britain to Burma, he picked Alan Cobham to fly the single-engine de Havilland D.H.50 biplane.

In November 1925, Cobham, accompanied by mechanic A.B. Elliott and a photographer, flew from London to Capetown. Painted on both sides of his D.H.50 was "Imperial Airways Air Route Survey." He arrived back in London after flying 17,000 miles and making 45 stops. He proved that airline service from London to the southern tip of Africa was feasible. The Guinness Book of AIRCRAFT Record and Facts lists Alan Cobham as the first to make an aeroplane flight between London and Cape Town.

Cobham was not happy with, what he considered to be, aviation-lethargy on the part of the government. He looked for a way to engender enthusiasm in the members of the House of Commons. A friend suggested he land an aircraft in the Thames near the Houses of Parliament and deliver a petition concerning aviation. But Cobham got an even better idea.

Later, he said, "I had a brain wave. What if I terminated one of my long-distance flights in that manner, [on the Thames near the Houses of Parliament] when the eyes of the world - and the press above all - were already on me? What if I flew to Australia with such a return in view?" He attached a set of floats on his D.H.50 and off he went. It was June 30, 1926 -  after ensuring that the press were aware of his intentions - when he and his mechanic lifted off Medway River.

The route over Bagdad proved fatal to his mechanic, Elliott. The RAF had recently dropped a few bombs on some Arabs and when they saw the British plane they decided to have a crack at it. When one of the bullets killed Elliott, Cobham was so distraught that he told London that he was giving up. Enter Sir William Brancker again. Brancker persuaded Cobham to ship Elliott's body home, and to carry on with a mechanic that would be supplied by the R.A.F.

Australia was waiting and gave them a reception like they had never received before. As brother Tulk used to say, (in his Too Foolish To Talk About column) the people were as thick as caplin.

Cobham had told the press that, on his return to London, he would land on the Thames - and when. He was bold enough to tell them, not only the day, Oct. 1, but also the appointed hour - and minute - quite a gamble. It is amazing, even at today's standards, that he landed exactly on time. His plan was, after touching down on the River Thames at Westminister, to deliver a petition regarding aviation to the Houses of Parliament. There was no need. The press had followed his every move and daily reports were eagerly gobbled up by the public. The whole works, every Member of Parliament, were out on the banks of the Thames (this time thicker than caplin) to witness the historic moment. His name, already known to all of Great Britain, was thereafter associated with aviation greatness. After that it was Sir Alan Cobham - he was knighted for his long-distance flying feats.

Geoffrey de Havilland, the prominent and famous aircraft manufacturer, consulted Sir Alan with regard to specifications of a planned small touring aircraft. Cobham's advice included a range of 350 miles, cruise speed of 80 mph and a spare seat for a passenger. That aircraft eventually became the famous Gypsy Moth.

Enter Sir William Brancker once more. The Tiger Moth gave him another idea. The visionary Director of Aviation foresaw the need for flying clubs in order to supply the nation with a source of pilots in the event of war. He persuaded the government to subsidize five flying clubs - all equipped with Tiger Moths.

Sir Alan Cobham's name is an integral part of aviation history and the reason why there is a street in Gander named in his honour. Between the two wars, Cobham became a household name in Great Britain. The former air force pilot and barnstormer was called "the air ambassador of the Empire." Besides his record-breaking long-distance flights to Australia and South Africa - in 1926, he became the first person to fly from Europe to Australia and back - he also brought aviation to Britain's masses. Cobham's Air Display flying circuses put on over 12,000 performances and carried nearly one million passengers.

Gander residents will know him better for his pioneering work in aerial refuelling.

Cobham seemed to be alone in his quest to extend the range of aircraft by means of converting aircraft into flying gas-stations. The first flight that made the newspapers was on September 22, 1934. The newspaper item, which was written in Malta, reported that while attempting a nonstop flight from Portsmouth, England, to Karachi, India he was forced to land after the throttle control broke in his Airspeed AS.5 Courier. The aircraft, which had been modified for in-flight refuelling, received fuel four times. Even though the flight only reached Malta before the Courier was forced to land, the concept had proved to be workable and Cobham formed Flight Refuelling Ltd.

On January 20, 1938, a Southampton (England) newspaper reported that an Imperial Airways aircraft had refuelled (980 gallons) in flight. A photograph in the paper showed a Harrow tanker pumping fuel into the flying boat Cambria. It went on to say,     “Sir Alan Cobham, an evangelist for British air power, has taken Imperial Airways one more step down the road of global service to the British Empire. His new firm, Flight Refuelling, has linked up to an Imperial airways "C" class flying boat to an Armstrong Whitworth A.W.23 tanker in flight, enabling the airliner to refuel without interrupting its journey. This is the first in a series of in-flight refuelling experiments which will take place in all weathers to test the system. The aircraft are connected by a flexible hose reeled out from a drum. Sir Alan hopes that "feeder" aircraft can be stationed on Imperial Airways routes to enable long-distance, nonstop flights to become routine."

On May 19 and 21, 1939, two Handley-Page Harrow airplanes, G-AFRH and G-AFRG, arrived at Gander following an agreement between Flight Refuelling and Imperial Airways to operate a series of transatlantic air refuelling trials during 1939. The pilots were Hugh Johnson (a member of Sir Alan Cobham's National Air Display team in the UK) and Fl/Lt Atkinson. These two-engine bombers converted to aerial tankers and operated by Flight Refuelling Ltd. of England were owned by Sir Alan Cobham. They were stationed at Gander to refuel two Imperial Airways Empire S30 flying boats Cabot and Caribou in flight after take off from Botwood for Foynes.  The refuelling usually involved the transfer of some 950 gallons of fuel over a 15-minute period. The flying boats would depart Botwood and would receive the fuel in the vicinity of Gander. The in flight refuelling was necessary because the flying boats could not get off the water with a full load of fuel but had no problem with full tanks once in the air.

In-flight refuelling was carried out until the end of the 1939 flying boat season and the company's contract terminated on May 31, 1940, because it was decided not to use in-flight refuelling for the 1940 season and thereafter.

Incidently Cabot and Caribou were commandeered for troop evacuation from Norway, where both were sunk at their moorings during German air attacks in May 1940. The two Harrows remained at Gander and were taken over by the RCAF.

It was not until 1950, however, that aerial refuelling became widely used by military operations and Cobham's company reaped the benefits of its pioneering work.

Recommended reading: "In Cobham's Company", by Colin Cruddas.

Reference:: Dictionary of Aviation by Anthony Robinson, published by Crescent Books, New York ISBN 0-517-439379; Chronicle of Aviation, JL International Publishing Inc. ISBN 1 872031 307

Gander's Role In Early Aerial Refueling

Contributed by F. Tibbo

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