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Copyright 1999


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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.

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.

A comparison with one of the most famous solo flights of all time, Charles Lindbergh's Atlantic crossing, helps to put the Cape Records into perspective:-

Lindbergh’s flight involved only one takeoff on maximum load, and this was while the pilot was fresh and mentally prepared. Henshaw had to take off ten times in all, with a fuel overload that resulted in serious instability, and under conditions when the pilot may have been tired and stressed to the limit. Unlike Lindbergh, 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. Lindbergh did on the other hand have to

 

Lindbergh’s flight involved only one takeoff on maximum load, and this was while the pilot was fresh and mentally prepared. Henshaw had to take off ten times in all, with a fuel overload that resulted in serious instability, and under conditions when the pilot may have been tired and stressed to the limit. Unlike Lindbergh, 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. Lindbergh had a tolerance of hundreds of miles in his accuracy of navigation without serious danger, since his landfall was in Europe. He was in fact an hour early and twenty miles off course on his dead-reckoning due to a tail wind. Henshaw had little or no margin for error. Had he missed a desert or jungle strip by a mile or less, there were no valid fixing points, and his chances of recovery were minimal. It is true that Lindbergh's flight took place twelve years earlier, but navigational techniques had not changed greatly in the interim. Although Lindbergh's aircraft - The Spirit of St Louis - was less sophisticated and probably less reliable than the Mew Gull, it was purpose-built for the flight, while the tiny Mew Gull, with a cockpit only about two feet wide, most emphatically was not. Lindbergh had one other tremendous advantage in that he had the opportunity to rehearse the exercise several times over the USA, something which was not possible with the Cape Records flight.

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In addition to the known difficulties and dangers involved, 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. In spite of this, he arrived at Wingfield after 39 hours and 23 minutes - just two minutes ahead of schedule, and 39 hours and 3 minutes quicker than the previous record.

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.

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.

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.

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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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