Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Airplane That Saved the World

What the RAF’s World War II Spitfire can teach us about nurturing innovation and radical ideas.

The following is excerpted from Tim Harford’s new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure.


So who’s the best pilot?

What makes a good pilot? Why did some survive and others did not?

A quick zip through Google turns up plenty of definitions:

“A GOOD PILOT has knowledge of one’s own abilities and limitation; knowledge of the aircraft limitations; good flying skills which are acquired through experience and a willingness to maintain a high degree of proficiency. They are a constant risk evaluator, not a constant risk taker; they stay focused and aware and do not permit complacency.”

“A superior pilot is one who uses superior judgment to avoid situations that require the use of superior skill.”

“A good pilot is always learning from their mistakes, always trying to get back on altitude, heading, correcting, correcting, and correcting. In reality perfection only lasts a few seconds in between corrections.”

Pilots need the following characteristics (this list is supplied courtesy of the Alberta Provincial Government):

  • good spatial perception
  • good motor co-ordination
  • good judgment and the ability to make decisions and act quickly
  • leadership qualities
  • the ability to work well with others in a team in a fast paced, dynamic environment
All the definitions seem to centre on making good judgments and maintaining a humility that enables them to learn from their mistakes.
I can’t seem to put my finger on anything more specific than that. I have known a handful of pilots and I’m trying to think if there is something definable that is common to them all. I suppose the first point is that not all pilots are really good pilots. If I think of the most talented flyers, there is a peculiar combination of complete confidence (perhaps coming across as brisk or cool) tied up with utter caution-a thoughtful, diligent and careful manner.
There has to be a final edge to it. I was reading a news article, which interviewed a flying instructor and asked him why he didn’t prefer to earn a fortune flying trans-atlantic commercial flights. The author asked him whether he got tired of the daily routine: he just beamed out at the lively airfield and asked with incredulity “How could you?”
Did the best pilots who flew during the war love flying? Or did they just have better skills? Or more luck? It’s probably all of those things.

The True and Beautiful—The Sky
Sometimes gentle, sometimes capricious, sometimes awful, never the same for two months together; almost human in its passions, almost spiritual in its tenderness, almost Divine in its infinity.
—Bayard Ruskin

Memorial marks bravery of Second World War Canadian pilots

A memorial has been unveiled at the site where a Vickers Wellington bomber crashed 67 years ago killing all five Canadian aircrew.


Marshal of the RAF, Lord Tedder, credited one man in particular for winning the Battle of Britain: Sir Keith Park.

Park was a New Zealander, drawn to Europe by the First World War. He served in Gallipoli and on the Western Front from 1915-1916. He saw warfare at its grimy, fearful worst as a lowly infantry man. He also forged the leadership skills that he would call on in the coming decade.

He recalled his Anzac Commander, Sir William Birdwood and tried to follow many of his precepts: attention to detail, regular tours of inspection, indifference to personal danger and the ability to relax without cheapening authority.

He transfered to the fledgling Royal Flying Corps and was a highly accomplished pilot, ending the war as an ace.

He spent the inter-war years as a diplomat and served as a flight commander on No. 25 Squadron from 1919 to 1920 before taking up duties as a squadron commander at the School of Technical Training.

As commander of 11 Group during the Battle of Britain, he was responsible for the air defence of London and South-East England. He combined his thorough understanding of aerial warfare with inspired tactical decisions.

Terry Smith, chairman of the Sir Keith Park Memorial Campaign, writes: “While Sir Hugh Dowding controlled the Battle from day to day, it was Keith Park who controlled it hour by hour”.

Air Vice-Marshal ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, one of the top Allied air aces of the war, said: “He was the only man who could have lost the war in a day or even an afternoon”.

Wave after wave of German bombing sorties met with stubborn resistance from the fighter squadrons under Park’s command and, by mid-September, it was clear that Britain’s defences had held and Hitler was forced to abandon the planned invasion of Britain. Prime Minister Winston Churchill said “never… was so much owed by so many to so few”. It was Keith Park who led “the Few”.

Preparing a defence

“If ever any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I don’t believe that it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgment and his skill, did to save not only this country but the world.”

Marshal of the Royal Air Force
Lord Tedder, GCB, KCB, CB
February 1947

Letter from Sergeant David Denchfield

A letter, written by Sergeant David Denchfield of 610 (County of Chester) Squadron, is the heart of Westhampnett at War.

Denchfield describes life at Weshampnett and his crash and capture on 5 February 1941. The letter is too long to quote fully, but a few excerpts offer the atmosphere:

“I was on readiness, when mid-morning the Commanding Officer popped his head into ‘B’ flight to say ‘released from 13:00 to 9:00 tomorrow morning’. As we all gave vent to various sounds of appreciation, he then smiled and said ‘that’s after we get back from St.Omer. Take off at 12:00’.


There followed a fairly basic briefing. We would follow 302 to Rye, climb up through the 10/10th cloud to about 15, 000 ft and join up with the 7 other fighter squadrons, where we would be top but one (having Tangermere’s 65 above us). The whole shooting match would then escort 12 Blenheims to St Omer, where they would cause great alarm and despondency with their 250lb bombs.


We broke into brilliant sunshine and climbed to our angels 15, by which time we were orbiting Rye and waiting for the off. The strange thing was, I could see no aircraft above us. Weirdly the cloud over England ended at the coast in an almost vertical cliff edge, leaving the skies over the Channel and France completely cloudless.  The Channel to the east looked ridiculously narrow and the skies over the snow clad French landscape were broodingly ominous. As usual, the sun glare out of the clear blue made looking to the southeast difficult. God only knows what nasties were moving into its hidey-hole and as we circled Rye for a good 5 minutes at least, we certainly gave them plenty of time to get ready for us. I guess, like me, that the others had their gun sights switched ‘on’, their gun firing buttons turned to ‘fire’ and their hoods slid back for better visibility…and I bet they were sweating cobs too.”

The story continues with an attack that riddles his Spitfire with bullets, mangling the port wingtip and draining the fuel tank. He drops to 6,000 feet, sees the Channel and watches the retreating Blenheims pass overhead, on their way home and “going like the Devil.” He realises that he won’t make it back to England and with the cockpit full of fuel, it’s impossible to put the plane down. He bales out, losing his boot in the process and ends up in a coverless field in France. Within moments, he is confronted by German officers:

“…as I stood up the one with the gun said ‘For you the war is over’ (and I thought they only said that in things like ‘Hotspur’ and ‘Magnet’. We live and learn.)

It was all very friendly and we walked as a small group down to the opening they’d come through…We got into the Ford V8 they’d arrived in and drove, perhaps 400 yard to where the remains of my poor ‘P’ were smoking.

…we drove to the airfield at St Omer [where] a load of about 12 Luftwaffe pilots came to attention in front of me and then saluted. Of course I had to reciprocate. At that time there was a fair degree of mutual respect between us, mirroring WWI.

Anyway, I was treated with extreme courtesy…I was introduced to the pilot who had shot me down, Major Oeseau, who became one of the top scoring pilots before losing his life in 1944. We spoke for a couple of minutes and then I signed his cigarette case for him to have engraved over.”

He then relates his transfer to a Polish POW camp for the remainder of the war and sadly recalls that of his immediate friends, none lasted past September 1941.

Denchfield himself survived. His family returns to France every year to visit the grave of his friend, Billy Raine, who was killed only 5 miles from where his own Spitfire went down.

The book includes a photo of Denchfield in 2009, neatly dressed in a cardigan, walking stick in hand, leaning on the wing of Goodwood’s Harvard. He looks quite tough and like a bit of a trouble maker- somebody’s slightly cantankerous grandfather.

After all that happened, not only does he willingly record it in a letter for publication but happily re-visits the airfield and gets back into a plane. I wonder what makes the difference between a war story that is re-told a thousand times and one that is never spoken.

Westhampnett at War

Westhampnett at War is researched and written by three current pilots who fly out of Goodwood.

It’s an attentively compiled book with good, original sources. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of several pilots’ letters, which I’ll quote in a separate entry.

The authors’ review of the airfield is mainly delivered through descriptions of key squadrons who were based there. This provides detailed information, but perhaps lacks the narrative drive of an account delivered by a professional writer. There were a few instances where I was desperate to grab a red pen and thrash a bit of life into the copy.

As a reference point though, it’s very useful for painting a picture of Goodwood’s transformation from a graceful country estate into a mucky airfield.

I was struck by the level of discomfort that they lived in (camping out in barns in the middle of winter and struggling through mud and snow to attend to their planes).

The list of references and websites give helpful leads for anyone wishing to delve further (particularly into the famous 610 Squadron).

This is an earnestly written book, which is surely driven by keen interest and a wish to ensure that “the contribution made by those who worked and flew from here should never be forgotten” (143).  I admire the effort of the authors and recommend the book- although if possible, read the book first and then visit Goodwood. With a bit of knowledge in hand, the remaining landmarks and existing airfield take on a whole new life.