Roy Whitehead may have thrown new light on an old mystery…
In 1950 a P.1052, which was the swept wing version of the P.1040, was converted to become the one and only P.1081. This had a new rear fuselage with a straight-through jet pipe and swept tailplane. It was the forerunner of the Hunter and was yet another aircraft being used to explore the problems and possibilities of high speed flight. On one such test flight by Hawker Chief Test Pilot ‘Wimpy’ Wade, disaster struck.
On April 13th 1951 the P.1081 crashed. During a high Mach number dive ‘Wimpy’ had ejected but unfortunately may have done so too low for his first generation ejector seat to be fully effective and had not separated from it when it struck the ground. He didn’t stand a chance.
The following morning I was called into the office
of JD Stranks, the Chief Experimental Engineer. There ‘Jumbo’
Betteridge and I had the difficult task of unravelling the wire from
the P.1081’s pilot’s voice recorder. The recorder was German, most
probably one of the spoils of war. The fine recording wire was wound on
Bakelite spools which had broken in the crash and the wire was badly
tangled. We did our best to rewind a section of the wire but I never
did hear if there was anything recorded by ‘Wimpy’ that gave any
explanation of what had happened.
Twenty years later I was given a job that required the use of an electric actuator, a device that acts like an hydraulic jack. The very nature of our work in Experimental meant that we became ‘squirrels’ accumulating anything that ‘might come in useful one day.’ Consequently from our glory hole I was able to find an actuator that was ideal for the job; it didn’t matter that it was second hand. Having wired the actuator I found that it would not work so I stripped it down to find out why. I saw that the ram had gone to one end of its travel and jammed. I also saw that the contacts on the limit switch, which should have opened to stop the ram before it reached the end of its travel, had overheated and were welded together. I was able to free the ram, separate and clean the contacts and soon had a working actuator.
May I now stress that the words in italics in the next paragraph can only be regarded as hearsay.
I told my boss, ‘Jumbo’ Betteridge of the problem I had had and he informed me that this particular actuator was the one that had been fitted to the tailplane of the P.1081 and that to his knowledge it had been sent back to the manufacturers after the crash for inspection and had been returned to Hawkers as serviceable. Under the circumstances rather surprising if true. However, our glory hole was the obvious repository for an unwanted actuator and we had been the custodian of this one for a very long time.
It then occurred to me that this actuator could possibly have been the cause of the crash of the P.1081 and I wondered aloud if anyone should be told of the fault that I had found but ’Jumbo’ said that it was far too late for that and it was all in the past, anyway.
In 2001, the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the Hunter prototype, ’Aeroplane’ magazine published a comprehensive article by Roy Braybrook about the Hunter. In the article Roy referred to the ancestry of the Hunter including the P.1081 where he said that the aircraft had a fixed tailplane. I referred to Frank Mason’s book ‘Hawker Aircraft since 1920’ where he mentioned that the fitting of an electric tailplane actuator .I wrote to Roy telling him of the discrepancy between his article and Frank Mason’s book. I also mentioned my experience with the actuator and my suspicion that it might have been the cause of the accident.
Roy made a few enquiries of his own and eventually replied that he had to agree that he was in error in saying that the P.1081 had a fixed tailplane and wrote to the ‘Aeroplane’ editor accordingly who published his letter. Roy also mentioned that there had been quite a few mishaps around that time, with Canberras and other aircraft, with ‘runaway tailplanes’. My evidence of the jammed actuator, if evidence it is, could point to the possibility that ‘Wimpy’ was the victim of such a phenomenon.