Roy Whitehead joined Hawkers 57 years ago on 1st September, 1947; the day that Camm's first jet, the P.1040, made its first flight. Aged 16, straight from Wimbledon Tech. where he had completed a two year Secondary School course in Engineering, he became a junior technical assistant in the Experimental Research Office, an offshoot of the Canbury Park Road Experimental Department. Below, Roy recalls those early post-war days at Hawkers.
Memories of 42 Years at Hawkers
In early 1948 Leylands were beginning to relinquish their 20 year occupation of the old Sopwith/ Hawker factory on the Richmond Road at Ham. It had been leased to them some time after the 1914-1918 war when the need for fighter aircraft diminished. The old building with its plain frontage and curved rooflined was, in 1948, still decorated in its random green, black and grey Second World War camouflage. When Hawkers started to re-occupy the site the Experimental Department was among the first to move in.
For a while Leylands were very much in evidence and their machine shop with its overhead shafting and noisily flapping belts driving the lathes and other machinery was quite a sight. They were still finishing off a number of huge tank transporters. Once they had left, other departments from various Hawker factories gradually moved in. For quite a while Gloster Meteor rear fuselages were being built where many Sopwith aircraft had been built during World War
I can remember seeing a film, made in the 1950s, which recorded the building of the new office block with that much missed, beautiful and elegant frontage. Included in that film were a few shots from 1948. One showed the prototype Sea Hawk, VP413, trundling down Tudor Drive on its way from Canbury Park Road to the Richmond Road factory. There it was, early on a Sunday morning when there was very little traffic about, proudly being pushed on its own undercarriage around the back streets of Kingston by some of the men from the Experimental Department.
Leylands left behind a vast quantity of scrap metal in the space between the rear of the factory and the fence alongside the river path. It was in a clearing in this area that the first engine run of at least one of the prototypes was carried out. We were not provided with ear defenders in those days and the occasion did nothing to help Hawkers' relations with the neighbouring residents a hundred yards or so away in Dukes Avenue.
Later some of us were roped in for a few days to help man the massive Abbey Test Rig at our airfield at Langley near Slough. The bare airframe of a Sea Hawk was in the rig undergoing structural testing. There were probably about twenty of us, each allocated to a capstan on top of the rig. The capstans were connected by means of a mass of rods and spreaders to the wings and fuselage, the latter being firmly attached to the base of the rig. We were told how many quarter turns to make, and when. We were also informed that we weren't applying loads to the airframe; oh no, we were just taking up slack! Quite rightly, none of us believed a word of that statement. After some time gradually applying the load there was an almighty bang and the whole rig seemed to jump a few inches. This, we were told, was because the airframe had failed at, I think, 110% of the design failure load. This seemed to please the stressmen present as it had not broken at a loading below 100%, their calculated limit.
As we looked down at the now crippled airframe below us we could just see the lower legs of the head of the Stress Office, Henry 'Roche' Rochefort, almost disappearing into the port jet pipe fairing. He had gone in head first with a torch to inspect the damage inside. I remember my boss, 'Jumbo' Betteridge, telling me that he had visited 'Roch' at his home and they had gone into the workshop, at the bottom of the garden, that he had designed and built himself. Typical of the keen stressman that 'Roche' was, the design of the roof structure was very much over-the-top and it looked as though it would resist everything that the weather might throw at it, including a tornado, and possibly even an avalanche.