Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Frederick Ronald 'Midge' Midgley 1907-1985

Armstrong Whitworth Chief Test Pilot Frederick Ronald
at one time, shared with Harold Penrose, of Westland’s, the distinction of being the only two chief Test pilots in Britain that never served in any of the three Services. Starting his career as an apprentice at Vulcan’s, he later became an automobile draughtsman with the Lea Francis company, which was an associate concern of Vulcans. When, however, the depression of the late 1920s came, he decided to change his career and learn to fly. He was living at Birkenhead at the time, and Hooton was his nearest flying club. This he joined as an ordinary member in August, 1931, and learnt to fly under Geoffrey Clapham, who was the C.F.I., and John Higgins. The club aircraft were Avro Avians, and as a not very brilliant pupil, Midge took 10 hours' dual before going solo. His "A" licence he got after 16hr 35min flying. Having got his "A" licence, the next problem was how to get in the necessary 100 hours' solo flying to qualify for his " B " licence. There was somewhat of a pause while financial resources were investigated. Everything saleable which he possessed—including his car—was realized and, with some monetary aid from his parents, he went to see Duncan Davis, of Brooklands Aviation. Duncan, always an enthusiast himself, and recognizing a kindred spirit,gave young Midgley very generous terms for the complete hundred hours, making possible that which had appeared impossible but a short while previously.
After having put in the required time in the air, he went through the necessary " B " licence flying tests. These were carried out by No. 24 (Communications) Squadron at Northolt. Two cross-country flights had to be completed,the examinee being given a three-legged route and a met. report. He did his own navigation and was accompanied by an official observer, who was not allowed to help in any way. On the second cross-country the observer was liable to pull back the throttle at any moment to simulate engine failure, and the examinee had to bring off a forced landing. Midgley had two of these to do. The only other flying test required was a solo night flight from Croydon to Lympne. This, usually, and certainly in the case of Midgley, was the pilot's first attempt at night flying. Whilst doing it there were some celebrated navigational errors made by people who later became famous pilots.
Armed with his " B " licence he took a job with Bill Ledlie and, in July, 1932, did the first of many charter jobs by taking two passengers from Heston to Le Touquet in a Puss Moth. Headquarters were at Brooklands, and occasionally it was his job to fly Puss Moth G-ABNZ, which belonged to a Cambridge undergraduate, up to Cambridge to bring down its owner, Whitney Straight, for the motor racing then held on the track. Leaving Ledlie after a while, he cast his lot with Maddox Airways, a charter company with a '' press'' connection, and a certain amount of aviation insurance assessing. In addition to specializing on flying for the press, the racing fraternity were also catered for, and owners and jockeys were frequently taken to meetings by landing on gallops or in fields adjacent to the racecourses. Maddox Airways ceased operation in 1934, and Midge joined Olley.

At the outbreak of war all internal lines were nationalized and became National Air Communications. Midgley, still with Olley Air Services, was directed as personal pilot of A. Cdre. F. P. Don, who was then in command of No.2 British Air Mission (Intelligence for the Air Striking Force) in France. The winter of 1939-40 was just about as bad as this last one, and at times flying conditions were awful.On one occasion A. Cdre. Don wanted to get back to London for a vital staff meeting, and conditions deteriorated badly as the Rapide crossed the Channel. Visibility went down to less than 500 yards in continuous snow, and severe icing occurred. Approaching London with the intention of getting into Northolt if possible, two attempts at getting through the Dorking Gap were unsuccessful,but the third try was more fortunate. With visibility now in the region of only 300 yards or so, and no radio on board, it was a question of getting in whenever possible. By chance Midge recognized a well known landmark on the Portsmouth road—tie White Lion at Cobham—and his familiarity with Brooklands, which is just around the corner so to speak, enabled him to land there. George Bulman, who then had his office at Brooklands, saw this arrival under such appalling conditions, and said to Midge later, '' If ever you want to change your job, let me know."

At the end of 1940 he decided he did want to change his job and joined Hawker's team of test pilots at Brooklands. This was at the time when they were producing the Hurricane I’s at a panic rate. Two of Midge's colleagues at the time were Ken Seth Smith, who was later killed whilst testing a Typhoon, and J. C. V. K. (Watty) Watson, who went to the Fleet Air Arm and lost his life while flying a blind-flying instructor. Test pilots of the Hawker group of companies operated to some extent as a pool, and when Eric Greenwood was posted from Armstrong Whitworths to Air Service Training,Midgley was sent up to take his place at Coventry as second test pilot to Charles Turner-Hughes. This was in October, 1941, when Whitley IVs and Vs were still being produced. Later, of course, the factory turned on to Mk. I I Lancasters and Lincolns. In addition to the ordinary test-flying, however, there was also a considerable amount of work to be done for the Armstrong Siddeley aircraft engine side, and for a long while the pilots were busy doing development flying for Hobsons on automatic boost controls on American aircraft, such as the Airacobra, Martlet, Mustang and Lightning.
Another flying job was the testing of the special long-travel undercarriage built to the ideas of John Lloyd, the chief designer of Armstrong Whitworth. Designed for tricycle operation, it was fitted to an A.W. Albemarle, and the extra long travel, backwards and upwards, enabled the aircraft to be flown straight on to—almost straight into—the ground safely. A "semi" edition of this undercarriage was embodied in the AW.52. When Turner-Hughes retired in 1946, Midgley took over from him, with S/L. Franklin, who had joined the company to do all experimental flying.

Midgley had his share of "experiences." On one occasion when diving a Whitley to its limiting speed (240 m.p.h.) and testing, ailerons, the connecting link between the rod and chain in the aileron circuit parted, and the starboard aileron jammed hard up. By reducing speed, and by the judicious use of rudder, elevator and engines, he did a wide circuit which really amounted to crazy flying, and managed to land the Whitley in one piece. It was found that a flaw existed in a batch of links. It is possible that a number of lives might have been lost over Germany at night had this particular link not been tested to destruction. On another occasion as he was bringing a Lane. II from Sywell to Baginton for finishing—a distance of 30 miles, he had trouble with the electrically operated airscrews. Three had to be feathered and he just sneaked in on the fourth which looked like following suit at any moment.

Midgley had 7,500 flying hours to his credit on 64 different types, mostly twins and four-engined aircraft. Of military types tested during the war he passed out 350 Hurricanes, over 600 Whitleys, 120 Mk. II Lancasters, and another 160 other Lancasters and Lincolns. In 1947 he retired , to be succeeded as CTP by Eric Franklin, and he then became Airport Manager of Baginton.