Monday, May 12, 2008

Leslie Bryan Greensted MBE 1915-1994

Leslie Bryan Greensted’s career as a test pilot covered a span from the final development of biplane fighters to the introduction of jet fighters and turbine-powered airliners, taking in on the way important development work on the Martin-Baker ejector seat, the progenitor of a series which has saved 6,350 lives in 85 countries to date.

Greensted was born at Herne Bay on 8th December 1915, and his earliest memory was of watching from his parents' bedroom in Herne Bay as a Zeppelin was shot down over Essex. Bryan's father was a master butcher, who sent his son to Rugby School. There Bryan excelled in sport, particularly rugby, hockey, squash and golf. The Herne Bay Golf Club invited him to be its assistant professional.

He was also an excellent draughtsman, winning several prizes for art at Rugby. One of his strong graphic designs was used by the Great Western Railway for a poster. In 1933 he went straight from school to Air Service Training, at Hamble. He had a big sense of fun and a well-founded confidence in his own physical abilities. His father had wanted him to be a butcher, but he turned down his father's offer of an MG sportscar as an inducement, and chose to fly instead. He went solo after seven hours in an Avro Cadet and, after qualifying, spent time in South Africa and Rhodesia on De Havilland aircraft as an instructor before returning to England to prepare pilots for the war with Hitler.

Greensted joined Rotol as Chief Test Pilot, at Staverton, Gloucester, in 1939, being temporarily seconded to Gloster Aircraft in 1940. Test duties included flying Gloster Gauntlets in foul weather to test for airscrew delaminations, and, critically, the development of variable pitch airscrews for Rotol. The airscrew testing was applied to a wide range of aircraft from the biplane Hawker Hart to the monoplane Hawker Tempest, and, most importantly, to the efficient matching of airscrews to Rolls- Royce Merlin 45s and 61s. This work eventually culminated in reversible-pitch propellers for Fleet Air Arm dive-bombers, and in contra-props for Griffon-engined Spitfires.

In 1942 Greensted's involvement with airscrew development was temporarily interrupted by work with Sir Alan Cobham on air-to-air refuelling. In the same year he experimented with Wellingtons towing Hurricanes - abandoned as being beyond the capabilities of most front-line pilots - and engine-detonation testing with Halifaxes over Khartoum.

While still with Rotol, Greensted worked from 1944 with Martin-Baker on the MB5 fighter, which might have replaced the Spitfire had not the prototype's engine failed spectacularly while he was demonstrating the aeroplane to Churchill and the RAF's senior Fighter Command officers at Farnborough.

At the same time Greensted worked with Sir James Martin on the development of the ejector seat, leading to the first live firing of a seat from the turret of a Defiant nightfighter in 1944. The seat missed the plane's tail by one and a half inches.

Greensted's association with Rotol and Martin-Baker lasted until 1946, when he joined the airline Skyways as Chief Pilot. There he flew the greatest number of civilian missions on the Berlin Airlift, for which he was awarded the King's Commendation. His work at Rotol earned him an MBE. He had mixed views about this. 'I am proud of this but the next chap, also an MBE on the Honours List, was The Director of Potatoes and Carrots, Ministry Of Food, which rather put the thing in perspective,' he wrote. He subsequently went on to be Chief Pilot at Hunting Clan, but left after the company's acquisition by British United.

Greensted eventually set up his own air transport consultancy, with Saudi Arabian Airlines as a leading client. His friends included aviation heroes such as Douglas Bader, Jim Mollison, Jeffrey Quill, Dickie Rymer, OP Jones and, most importantly, Eugene Esmond, whom Greensted delivered back to his squadron on the night before Esmond was killed in a Swordfish while attacking the German pocket battleships the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst during their dash up the English Channel.

The post-war period should have seen the end of seat-of-the-pants flying. However, on one memorable flight for Hunting Clan in a Britannia in the 1950s,Greensted had 12 engine failures en route from Singapore to Karachi. That is, all four engines failed three times owing to icing. He remarked that the principal problem was that he and his crew ran out of hands during the emergency.

His crews knew Bryan Greensted as 'Press On Regardless', which he took as a compliment, principally since many continued to keep in touch with him long after his flying career was over. His last flight in command was in Aden in 1963. After 30 years in the air he had amassed 22,000 hours flying time in 80 different types of aircraft.