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The Cape Records Flight, February 1939

Between February 5th and February 9th 1939, Alex Henshaw, flying a modified Percival P6 Mew Gull registration number G-AEXF, set a number of records for solo flight between Gravesend London and Wingfield Cape Town, which still stand in 1999 - sixty years later.

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Cape Records Flight preparations at Essex Aero.

In 1980 Air Commodore Clouston commented that "Henshaw's flight to the Cape and back is probably the most outstanding solo flight ever made." This view has recently been corroborated by air historians, who now conclude that the Cape Flight is on a par with three of the most outstanding flights ever made, but that as a solo flight it is in a class of its own.

Unfortunately the World's attention in 1939 was on more serious matters, and Henshaw's achievement has as a consequence been largely overlooked.

The Cape Records Flight was exceptional in several respects. Henshaw's preparations were meticulous, and included a full-scale survey flight with his father in 1938 to assess both the East and West Coast routes. At the same time, Jack Cross of Essex Aero was involved in preparing the aircraft to achieve almost unprecedented levels of performance and reliability. Henshaw himself gives Cross full credit for achieving both these goals, thereby making his attempt on the records possible in the first place. The pilot too was prepared for the flight by a rigorous program of exercise, and in his book Hensaw mentions that for the month prior to departure his home resembled a training camp for a professional boxer.

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Refuelling at Mossamedes   (from The Flight of the Mew Gull)

During the flight, the demands on pilot and aircraft were enormous. More than sixty hours over a period of only a hundred and three hours was spent airborne, travelling at an average speed close to 208 mph - and this just a few short years after the Mew Gull had become the first non-military aircraft to exceed 200 mph. Although Henshaw was never in the air for more than six and three quarter hours at a stretch, he had to take off ten times in all, with a fuel overload that resulted in serious instability, and under conditions when he was fatigued and stressed to the limit. Four of these takeoffs were at night and two were without lights. Also, one landing was made in the dark with the aid of nothing more than a large bonfire. To compound his difficulties, the aircraft suffered from very poor forward visibility, especially while landing. On one occasion when taking off at night from Gao, Henshaw had to rely entirely on his gyro compass, as the line of kerosene lanterns which had been provided were entirely inadequate and invisible from the cockpit.

The standard of navigation achieved by Henshaw was awesome. He had to make his way over trackless stretches of desert and jungle, under conditions which included haze, storms, fog and darkness in various combinations. Landmarks were scarce and maps well-endowed with large blank spaces, leaving little or nor margin for error. The tiny Mew Gull, with a cockpit only about two feet wide and a centre of gravity dangerously far to the rear under full fuel load conditions, was immensely cramped and uncomfortable as well as being demanding to fly. In the interests of economy the aircraft was not fitted with a turn and bank indicator for the flight, and Henshaw relied heavily on the gyro compass, artificial horizon, and stopwatch/chronometer.

A comparison with Charles Lindbergh's crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 - one of the most famous solo flights of all time - serves to confirm that the Flight of the Mew Gull represents a unique and extraordinary achievement in terms of airmanship and human endurance.

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Alex Henshaw with Col. George Fisher at Wingfield     (The Flight of the Mew Gull)

In addition to the known difficulties and dangers involved in the flight, Henshaw also encountered a number of unexpected situations. These included, amongst others, a trench dug across the middle of the runway at Libreville and about which he had been given no prior warning, and a massive thunderstorm through which he flew at night for five terrifying hours. He was also almost overcome by fumes from the petrol tank breather. While coming in to land at Mossamedes, his left index finger became impaled on the barbed canopy catch, and he was forced to rip it free to avoid crashing. In spite of this, he arrived at Wingfield after 39 hours and 23 minutes - just two minutes ahead of schedule, and taking 39 hours and 3 minutes off the previous record.

The Mew Gull's navigational instruments

This illustration shows the navigational equipment used by Alex Henshaw during his epic flight.

1999 is the sixtieth anniversary of The Cape Records Flight. The solo records which were set up then and which still hold, are possibly the longest standing in the field of aviation. What makes this occasion unique is the fact that the man, the machine and the records themselves all endure to this day. The event is being celebrated in England in a number of ways, including an anniversary flight by the fully restored Mew Gull G-AEXF. A South African celebration has been planned for the period 25-28 November, centering on the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at Wingfield.

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An exhausted Alex Henshaw is lifted from the Mew Gull by Jack Cross at the end of his epic flight      (From the Flight of the Mew Gull)

Although the return flight from Cape Town to London was in some ways less taxing than the outbound leg, it was fraught with difficulties of its own. Henshaw was struck by a recurrence of the Malaria which he had contracted on the survey flight the previous year. Perhaps because of this, he did not immediately recognise Gao, and overflew it by some distance before turning back. Much of the final stage was over dense fog, and had this extended as far as London, it would have made landing at Gravesend almost impossible. Miraculously however, the fog ended at the English Channel, and Henshaw was able to land safely - albeit in a state of total exhaustion.

During the Second World War Alex Henshaw was Chief Test Pilot at Castle Bromwich, one of the largest factories in Britain producing Spitfires and Lancaster bombers. He was cited for heroism during rescue operations in floods which occurred in Britain in 1953. In 1997 he received the inaugural Jeffrey Quill Award from Prince Philip for his services to Aviation.

The statistics for the flight which are appended below were taken from Mr Henshaw's book, "The Flight of the Mew Gull". 

LONDON TO CAPE TOWN:

Total elapsed time:

39hrs 23 mins.
Time Airborne: 30.28 hours.
Distance: 6377 miles.
Average speed: 209.44 mph.

This was the fastest time for any aircraft or crew from England to Cape Town. It reduced the existing solo record by 39 hours and 3 minutes. Click here for full flight details.

CAPE TOWN TO LONDON

Total elapsed time: 39hrs 36 mins.
Time Airborne: 30.51 hours.
Distance: 6377 miles.
Average speed: 206.40 mph.

This was in 1939 the fastest time for any aircraft or crew from Cape Town to England. It reduced the existing solo record by 66 hours and 42 mins. Not only were all Cape Town-and-return records broken but also for every stage en route and remain so in the solo classification to this day. The England-Cape Town-England (12,754 miles) is still in 1999 an all-time record. Click here for full flight details.

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Alex Henshaw photographed in 1998 at Old Warden, with the Kings Cup which he won in 1938. Behind him is the Percival Mew Gull G-AEXF in which he competed for the King’s Cup, and in which he flew from London to Cape Town and back in 1939, setting up records which still stand.

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