Saturday, March 22, 2008

Sydney Albert 'Bill' Thorn 1901-1947

L-R, Bill Thorn, Sam Brown and Geoffrey Tyson

Sydney Albert 'Bill' Thorne was known to the whole industry,has had a very varied career, having been a time-serving soldier in the Guards, an officer in the Royal Air Force, a flying instructor, and a major in the Home Guard.His first recollection of things aeronautical is being taken by his mother, at the tender age of nine, to watch some very early flying at Wormwood Scrubs in 1910. This experience created in him somewhat of an obsession for flying and, during his holidays from Hurstpierpoint College in the years of the 1914-18 war, he spent most of his days, with a packet of sandwiches, sitting on the edge of Shoreham airfield watching the Avro 504s and Maurice Farmans perform. His most interesting day was a famous occasion on which no fewer than thirteen machines were piled up. Here he made his first flight. Having by much hero worship persuaded a major of the R.F.C. to come home to tea, he also persuaded him to take him for an unofficial flight in an Avro 504—and was very scared for his trouble.

The end of the Great War saw him in a factory near Brighton, making submarine parts, but by his eighteenth birthday in August, 1919, he was out of a job. Added to this his father had died and his mother was not very well provided for. Without telling anyone of his intentions, and with the munificent sum of 15s in his pocket, he came to London to join the Army. Having taken the oath, he picked his regiment at random and decided on the Coldstream Guards. Even the recruiting sergeant—once he had the body in the bag—called him an adjectival fool. Not because he had joined the Guards, before realizing that he wasn't the normal type which joined the Army in those days, and knowing at the same time of the intention of the authorities to get the Guards regiment back to pre-1914 standards. The next six months, which he spent at the Guards depot at Caterham, would have broken most people's hearts. As a recruit he had to address even the ordinary guardsmen in the prescribed manner, "Yes, trained soldier," or "No, trained soldier." Living conditions were both rigorous and primitive. In 1922, having served his three years with the Colours, he came of age and inherited some money. This he invested in a poultry farm in Surrey. With his brothers he slaved for the next three years until, like thousands of similar projects at that time, the farm failed.

Making yet another start in 1925, he took a short-service commission as a pilot in the R.A.F. and was posted for training to No. 5 F.T.S. at Sealand. His ab initio instructor was none other than Jim Cordes (later chief test pilot for many years of Handley Page, Ltd.), and his CO.was Wing Cdr. Philip Babington, M.C., who retired as Air Marshal Sir Philip Babington, K.C.B.
The primary type was the Avro 504 with rotary Monosoupape engine, but Bill did not,at this stage, prove a very apt pupil. He took 16 hours to go solo and was very nearly turned down. It was not until he got on to Sopwith Snipes under Eddie Fulford that he made up for his earlier backwardness.After qualifying he was posted to No. 17 Squadron at Hawkinge, which was then equipped with Hawker Woodcocks—the first night fighter, designed as such, to go into service. When the Central Flying School left Upavon for Wittering, No. 3 moved in, and it was whilst he, as a junior officer, was ferrying one of the Woodcocks that he had his first forced landing. Arriving in the region of Guildford, the weather clamped down both fore and aft, and Bill put the Woodcock down on Cranleigh School rugger ground. Weaving in and out of the various posts as he slowed up, he was unfortunate enough to hit his starboard main planes on the last pair of goal-posts. The portion from above the crossbar whistled down and, just missing the cockpit, stood quivering in the ground. In a matter of seconds, of course,that football ground was a milling mass of schoolboys, and the Woodcock suffered more damage from them than from the forced landing. The Woodcock also gave him an unhappy few minutes one very dark night when he was flying at 1,500ft over Southampton. His engine cut dead and, as he had been trained to do, he looked out for an unlighted area in which to land. As he selected the place, the inevitable thought came into his mind, "Is it open? " "Is it woodland? " At 500ft he lit one of his Holt wing-tip flares and turned to make his final approach into what, in the dim light, appeared to be parkland. As he fired his second Holt flare at 300ft, to light his actual landing, the Jupiter picked up arid functioned again as if nothing had happened. Presumably a stoppage in the fuel system. It was also whilst flying Woodcocks in 1927 that he had a rare experience. Lindbergh had just flown the Atlantic to Paris and then come on to England, and his aircraft was dismantled for the return passage. As Lindbergh wanted to go to Paris again on his way back, the Air Ministry put a brand new Woodcock (Bill Thorn's) at his disposal. Thorn went by train and boat to Paris to fly it back. When Lindbergh arrived at Le Bourget the enthusiastic crowd broke all the barriers, and he had to open-up and do an extra-quick hop to the hangars on the far side of the airfield, where the Woodcock was hurriedly housed and the doors closed a split second before the crowd arrived.The arrangements for Bill's departure included, first of all, an "aerobatic display by him, and then a journey to the French coast escorted by a formation of French fighters. All would have been well had not Bill lost his maps during a slow roll in his display, and then tried to make the Frenchmen take the lead in order to get a bearing. Their native courtesy precluded them from doing any such thing, and it is easy to imagine them all waffling about the sky in a semi-stalled condition doing an " after-you-Claude " act. Finally Thorn pointed his Woodcock roughly in the direction of England and took the lead.

In 1927, as a flying officer, he was offered a posting to the R.A.E. at Farnborough as a test pilot, and served there for the next two years, flying such aircraft as the Bristol Berkeley, Vickers Venture, Westland Yeovil and Gloster Goldfinch.

The Fairey Fox, the Curtiss D.12 engine of which was the first type ever allowed by the Air Ministry to have its carburettor placed between the cylinder banks, caught fire whilst he was flying it, but fortunately the flames subsided before any serious trouble occurred. On the prototype Bulldog, at 4,000ft, he went into a spin which altered its characteristics, immediately becoming flat and staying so until a burst of engine and stick movement together jerked it out at less than 1, oooft. After landing, his story was politely disbelieved, and he looked even sillier when, later, he tried to reproduce it in the air and failed. His vindication came six months afterwards,when Poppy Popie had it happen to him at Martlesham.

At the R.A.E. there was a light plane club—of which George Bulman was the original pilot and chairman and Thorn in 1929 flew the club's Avian Q.N. to many of the week-end meetings held at that time. It was at one of these meetings that he met Capt. T. Neville Stack,R.F.C. (now a Commander in the Royal Navy with two sons 111 the R.A.F.) who was the chief test pilot of Aircraft Disposals Company (the company responsible for selling the surplus aircraft left over after the 1914-18 war and the forerunner of Cirrus Engines). Stack told Thorn that he was leaving A.D.C., and Bill took over in his place, and remained there until the company ceased to operate.For a short while after this he became an instructor at Shoreham, where F. G. Miles—now the head of the big Miles Aircraft concern—ran a small flying school, built a couple of aircraft of his own design, taught his wife to fly, and lived in a caravan on the airfield.The next two years or so he spent as sales manager and instructor with Brooklands Aviation, Ltd., running the Northampton Club for some part of this time. Later he joined Birkett and Brian Allen. As a charter pilot in those days he had a number of exciting trips, of which two are outstanding. The first was a Puss Moth charter to Belgium with an eccentric but rich man as his passenger. He gave Bill £180 to spend on himself for the first evening and then, when most people were going to bed, told Thorn that they must start at once for Cairo. When Bill told him you couldn't start just like that, he started a fight in the bar. This was exceedingly foolish because among Thorn's many accomplishments he had won the Wakefield Officers' Middleweight Championship,the Officers' Open Championship, and the Officers'Open Light-Heavyweight Championship. On his passenger's recumbent form the bartender expended most of a siphon of soda water to bring him round.
Later, on the way home, "whilst circling Calais before setting out across the Channel, this passenger (in the back seat) put his arms round Bill's neck and tried to throttle him. The Puss Moth was left to its own devices while Thorn turned round and laid his passenger out a second time.Another Puss Moth charter gave him the closest shave he had had in 21 years' flying. He had flown a couple to the Channel Islands and landed on the beach at St. Aubins at low tide. Aircraft cannot be left on the beach with the water coming in, so despite the lateness of the hour and the absence of any night-flying equipment or other aids, he started back for England. In failing light the bad weather-forced him down to within 50ft of the water,and there was no alternative but to climb up through the muck and go on by dead reckoning.By the time he surmised he was over the coast it was quite dark and his descent through thick cloud with no blind-flying panel was no small feat of pilotage. Spotting a line of lights, he circled them, only to find it was a liner going up Channel. Turning north for ten minutes, a coast town showed up, but Bill was unable to identify it, and he went on in the hope of being able to pick up the lights of London reflected in the cloud base. In this, however,he was defeated by fog, and back again he went to the coast town—-.still unidentified. Petrol had now become low and a landing had to be made with no Holt flares nor landing lights to help him. No selection of area was possible, just a straight blind flop into an abyss.

Thorn is not what one would call a religious man, but as he made his approach he recited the Lord's Prayer out loud. After a short run and a couple of hefty bumps, the Puss Moth stopped and the light of a match showed everything intact. Daylight revealed that he had got down in a field 180 yards long, that he had bounced over one irrigation ditch and stopped two yards before another. Apparently,quite unbeknown to Thorn, there had been a freak wind of 35 m.p.h. above the clouds, and calm conditions at ground level. Had it been a little stronger he would have
been blown off his course so much that he would have missed England completely and run out of fuel over the North Sea. The unidentified town was Eastbourne.
In his A.D.C. days Thorn had met Roy (now Sir Roy)Dobson of Avros, and in 1934, when he wanted a change,he asked if he could come on the test-piloting staff. H. ("Sam") Brown, who was then the chief test pilot, a who did all the first Avro prototype flights up to and including the Lincoln, was away in S. America; J. B. Tompkins was holding the fort. Thorn came in as third dicky to help finish-off the production-testing of the Tutor,Avro 641, Cabin Cadet, Commodore and C.30 Autogiro.
In 1935 he spent much of his time demonstrating Avro aircraft on the Continent, notably in Greece, Denmark and Turkey, and then late in the year, when Tompkins left Avros, he stepped up to assistant chief test pilot. At this time the Avro Anson was being produced. It was one of those aircraft which came out almost perfect right from the beginning. Its only trouble was a tail vibration which tended to build up. It was cured by putting streamline wires from the fin to the tailplane. Over 7,600 Ansons have been produced since then and given wonderful service. Sam Brown did the initial flight tests on the Manchester, Lancaster, York and Lincoln, but an enormous amount of development flying had to be done on these types, and Thorn put in a very large share. On the Manchester he had five forced landings through main tearings failing in Vulture engines. Now, with Jimmy Orrell as second pilot, he is putting Tudor Is and II's through their paces and waiting for some very interesting types which are not yet at the flying stage.In 21 years' flying Bill Thorn has piled up some 5,500 hours' flying, on n o types. He has test-flown and cleared over 3,000 aircraft himself. In the whole of his career he has smashed only one machine. This was a Desoutter with Hermes engine. A flat-spot in the carburation caused him
to undershoot, and he finished up with his face in the valve rockers.

Bill Thorn was killed when the first prototype Avro Tudor II, G-AGSU, crashed at Woodford, on Saturday, August 23rd, killing four of the occupants.Namely, Mr. Roy Chadwick, Chief Technical Director of A. V. Roe, Mr. S. A. Thorn, Chief Test Pilot of the firm. S./L. D. Wilson, chief of Avro's flight test section and and Mr. J. Webster, the wireless operator.