Two Minute Read, WWII

Alex Henshaw – The Unsung Test Pilot of World War II

Throughout the Second World War, stories of unsung heroes often get lost in the shadow of the conflict’s broader strokes. One such hero is Alex Henshaw, a man who took to the skies not in battle, but in the test pilot’s seat.

His role may not have involved dogfights over contested territories, but his contributions to the British war effort were just as pivotal.

This article seeks to shed light on Henshaw’s remarkable life as a test pilot during WWII, an often-overlooked chapter of aviation history.

Background and the Call of the Skies

Born on November 7, 1912, in Peterborough, England, Alexander Adolphus Dumfries Henshaw demonstrated an affinity for flight from an early age. Inspired by the exploits of World War I pilots, he pursued his passion and learned to fly at the age of 17.

Before becoming a pivotal figure as a test pilot during World War II, Alex Henshaw was a highly accomplished air racer who made significant contributions to the world of aviation.

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Henshaw’s passion for flying was evident from his youth. After learning to fly, he purchased his first plane, a de Havilland Gipsy Moth, in 1932. He subsequently purchased a Comper Swift, a single-seat sporting aircraft that would help him make his name in air racing.

An example of the Gipsy Moth that Henshaw flew.
An example of the Gipsy Moth. Photo credit – TSRL CC BY-SA 3.0.

His first significant achievement in air racing came in 1933 when he finished fifth in the prestigious King’s Cup Race, a national air racing event in the UK. Over the following years, Henshaw would participate in multiple races and air rallies, often finishing among the top competitors.

However, it was the Percival Mew Gull aircraft that would solidify his position in aviation history. In 1938, Henshaw purchased a Mew Gull, and with it, he achieved remarkable success.

He won the King’s Cup Race in 1938, setting a new record by completing the course at an average speed of over 236 mph.

Henshaw’s most significant achievement came in February 1939 when he decided to attempt the long-distance flight record from the UK to Cape Town, South Africa. The record had been set by his contemporary, Chubbie Miller, in 1936, but Henshaw was determined to break it.

He won the King's Cup air race in 1938 using this exact Mew Gull.
Henshaw won the King’s Cup air race in 1938 using this exact Mew Gull. Photo credit – Alan Wilson CC By-SA 2.0.

After a series of practice flights, Henshaw embarked on his journey from Gravesend, Kent, on February 5, 1939.

Despite facing numerous challenges, including dangerous weather conditions and mechanical issues, Henshaw managed to reach Cape Town in a record time of 39 hours 23 minutes, smashing the previous record by over 31 hours.

Not content with this achievement, Henshaw decided to attempt the return journey record as well. He left Cape Town on February 9, 1939, and landed back in Gravesend in just 39 hours and 36 minutes, setting another record.

His combined time for the round trip, 4 days, 10 hours, and 6 minutes, remained unbeaten until the jet age.

Henshaw’s successful record attempt made headlines worldwide and cemented his status as one of the leading aviators of his time. His skills, determination, and daring showcased in his air racing career would serve him well in his next role as a test pilot during World War II.

Transition to Test Pilot

The outbreak of World War II brought an end to Henshaw’s air racing career, but it marked the beginning of a new chapter as a test pilot.

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In 1940, he was appointed Chief Test Pilot at Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory (CBAF) near Birmingham, the primary manufacturing plant for the Supermarine Spitfire, one of Britain’s most iconic fighters.

Spitfire Mk IIA P7350 – The oldest airworthy Spitfire in the world built at the Castle Bromwich Factory.
Spitfire Mk IIA P7350 – The oldest airworthy Spitfire in the world built at the Castle Bromwich Factory.

Henshaw was responsible for testing Spitfires fresh off the production line, assessing their performance, and identifying any manufacturing defects before they were dispatched to operational units.

His thorough, precise work in this capacity was critical in ensuring that these aircraft were fit for duty, ultimately playing a pivotal role in the war effort.

The Crucial Role of the Test Pilot

Henshaw’s work was far from easy or safe. Testing aircraft meant pushing them to their limits, often resulting in dangerous situations. Over the course of the war, Henshaw tested more than 3,000 Spitfires and Seafires (naval version of the Spitfire), flying an average of 10 sorties each day.

The intensity of his testing schedule was a testament to his dedication and resilience.

Additionally, Henshaw also had to take part in “dope testing,” a process that involved applying cellulose-based paint to the aircraft to tighten and weatherproof the fabric surfaces.

It is estimated Henshaw flew around 10% of all Spitfires ever built.
It is estimated Henshaw flew around 10% of all Spitfires ever built. Photo credit – Airwolfhound CC BY-SA 2.0.

The process was hazardous due to the highly flammable nature of the material. Despite the risks, Henshaw, always a man to lead by example, insisted on being directly involved.

Legacy and Post-War Life

Henshaw’s work contributed significantly to the efficiency and safety of the Spitfire fleet. His feedback was invaluable for fine-tuning the manufacturing process, leading to the improved performance of the aircraft. His efforts undoubtedly saved the lives of many pilots who eventually flew these aircraft into battle.

After the war, Henshaw returned to his pre-war business interests.

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He later penned a memoir, “Sigh for a Merlin,” which detailed his experiences as a test pilot. (An excellent read – we highly recommend it!)

Sigh for a Merlin is an excellent  account of Henshaw's time as a test pilot.
Sigh for a Merlin is an excellent account of Henshaw’s time as a test pilot.

However, his contributions during the war remained relatively unsung until later years. In recognition of his services, he was awarded an MBE in 1943, and in 2003, he was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by the French government.

Alex Henshaw passed away in 2007, but his legacy lives on. His unflinching dedication to his work as a test pilot played a crucial role in Britain’s WWII efforts. As we remember the heroes of World War II, let’s also remember the test pilots like Alex Henshaw, who made victory possible with their bravery and dedication behind the scenes.

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