Nick Comper

 

Nick Comper was one of Britain’s most brilliant and influential aeronautical engineers of the early 1930s.  He is best known for the design and manufacture of the “Comper Swift” light aircraft.   The Swift enjoyed considerable success in the many flying competitions of the era, most notably the Kings Cup air race.  In 1931 the plane broke the world record time for a flight from the UK to Australia.  The aircraft was exported all over the world and several of them survive to the present day.  Comper is regarded as one of the country’s pioneers in the development of commercial light aircraft.

Born in April 1897 he was the son of the celebrated church architect, Sir Ninian Comper and grandson of John Comper, a highly prominent clergyman in the Scottish Episcopal Church.  Nick was brought up with his five brothers and sisters in Beulah Hill, Upper Norwood in London.

He was educated at Dulwich College, where he was a pupil from September 1911 until July 1914.   Nick at de HavillandAt the outbreak of the first World War, Comper, at the age of seventeen, joined the aircraft manufacturer, de Havilland, to study aeronautics.  He was working as a draughtsman for The Aircraft Manufacturing Company , who built Henry and Mauraice Farman’s airplanes and seaplanes in Hendon in London, when he was released by them to sign up with the Royal Flying Corps in April 1916 as a second lieutenant, special reserve.  As a pilot he was stationed in France and there he undertook dangerous reconnaisance missions throughout the rest of the war.  He left behind him a record of events in a series of letters written to his mother.  After the war he remained in what in 1918 had become the RAF.  In 1920 he spent a year at Jesus College, Cambridge University, reading aerodynamics.  From there he was stationed at Felixstowe to study and fly seaplanes and flying boats, then came the assignment as an engineering instructor at the Cranwell Academy, training cadets at the engineering laboratory.  One of his pupils there was Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine.

RAF Years

While at Cranwell he and some staff and pupils formed the Cranwell Light Aeroplane Club (in 1923) and they produced four aircraft in what they named the “CLA” class (Cranwell Light Aeroplane).  One of them, a so-called “parasol monoplane”, won the International reliability trials at Lympne near Folkstone and the following year in the plane’s successor, the CLA-3, was second overall in the speed trials at the same event.  By then it had became evident that to pursue his gifts as an aeronautical engineer he would need to leave the RAF and enter the business world.

In March 1929 when Comper left the Royal Air Force he formed the Comper Aircraft Company and set up a manufacturing plant to build the Comper Swift, an aircraft he had designed and whose origins were in the work he’s done at Cranwell.  The plant was based at Hooton Aerodrome in Cheshire. The Prototype Swift (registered G-AARX) first made a public showing at Brooklands on 17 May 1930. The aircraft was a small but graceful single-seat braced high-wing monoplane of wooden construction and was powered by a 40 hp (30 kW) A.B.C Scorpion piston engine. After successful tests, seven more aircraft were built in 1930 powered by a 50 hp Salmson A.D.9 radial engine. Trials with Pobjoy P radial engine for use in air racing resulted in all the subsequent aircraft being powered by the Pobjoy R. The last three aircraft (sometimes called the Gipsy Swift) were fitted with de Havilland Gipsy engines – two with 120 hp (89 kW) Gipsy Major III and one with a 130hp (97 kW) Gipsy Major.   Postwar, surviving Swifts continued to compete successfully in UK air races into the mid 1950′s.  In fact, probably no other aircraft built in such small numbers has ever broken so many records and won so many prizes.  Amongst these achievements one of the most outstanding was Charles Butler’s record 9 days 2 hours flight to Darwin, Australia in October 1931.

Swifts were entered in all the major air races of the period, competing in every King’s Cup Air race from 1930 to 1937.  In the 1933 race no fewer than seven Swifts were entered.  They won four of the qualifying heats and the G-ABW flown by Flight Lieutenant ECT Edwards took second place overall.  In the 1930s the Kings Cup Air Race drew considerable national attention.  The results would be published on the front pages of the national newspapers and the pilots became famous figures in their own right.  As a pilot himself, Comper loved to race his own Swifts and one year was placed sixth in the Kings Cup Air Race.

But by March 1933 the Comper Aircraft Company was struggling and left Hooton, transferring production to Heston, where it was thought more modern production facilities would help production of the Mouse, the Kite and the Streak.  Heston at the time was the hub of light aviation activity.  The company strategy didn’t work, in spite of the many frantic changes to its board of directors in the final months and it proved to have been the company’s last desperate throw of the dice.   By August 1934 Nick had lost control of his own company. It folded and was liquidated.

The company’s move from Hooton to Heston roughly coincided with the failure of his marriage to Phyllis with whom he had his only child, Naomi.   The divorce ended up in the courts and was very messy.  In those days divorce was heavily frowned upon.  Comper was a colourful character and larger than life with a fondness of practical jokes and good company.  He may not have been the most successful of businessmen but he inspired much loyalty from his employees.  He was a dog lover.  He acquired his own dog during the first world war war and in later life was often seen with his Fox Terrier.  He loved to write children’s stories for his daughter.

Of the planes he designed and built, only the Swift had any financial success.  His other work. though technically brilliant and high performance, proved uncommercial.  The Great Depression was a hard time for many who had businesses such as his.  He could have sheltered from the storm by accepting one of the offers of work made to him by the big aircraft manufacturers but preferred to struggle on alone.  He turned to consultancy in an effort to achieve financial survival and he persuaded Robert Blackburn, head of the Blackburn Aircraft Company, to appoint him technical advisor and chief designer of a project to build a helicopter designed by Oskar Asboth.  Comper had some expertise in this field as in 1932 he had worked with Juan de la Cierva, the Spanish rotary wing aircraft pioneer, on a single seat touring autogiro, the Comper C25, using a Swift airframe.  The project was not a success nor were his next moves.

He went to central London where he set up another consultancy in the Strand with a friend called Francis Walker, a location which proved to be far beyond both their financial means. He’d known Walker because he had been one of his pilots.  In the previous year Walker had narrowly escaped death in a crash of the Gipsy Swift while competing in the King’s Cup air race.

Nick Comper had long operated in the highest circles and had attracted several backers.  Among them it’s thought was Lord Ronald Graham (who was the second son of the 6th Duke of Montrose).   More committed was Lord Patrick Crichton Stuart (son of the 4th Marquess of Bute) .  Both found themselves much the poorer as a result.

Comper worked from home on “the Scamp”, a reconnaisance aircraft, and it was built by students at Brooklands but not completed.  Restlessly, in December 1936 he formed Comper Aeroplanes Limited and set about designing two airliners he named the “Dominion” and “Commerce”, which was where his heart now lay.  It seems, the Scamp project was only a means to an end.

His last years had been spent in desperate attempts to maintain his professional credibility, efforts which were hampered further by the opposition of hostile ex-associates and business partners.

His chaotic affairs were brought to an abrupt climax in June 1939, when Comper died, at the age of 42, in tragi-comic circumstances.  So dire were his finances that his electricity and gas had been cut off.  One day Nick decided to distract himself by paying a visit to see the work in progress on the Scamp and he stopped on his way at a pub in Hythe.  He decided it would be a good idea to let off fireworks inside the pub but was ordered by the publican to go outside.  Once there, he bent down to set off a firework when a passer-by asked what he was doing.  He is reported to have replied “I am going to blow up the Town Hall.  I am an IRA man”.  This proved to be his last practical joke.  The man knocked him down and he fell and hit his head on a curb and Comper suffered a brain haemorrhage as a result.  His last words in hospital were said to have been “I didn’t know prisons had such comfortable beds”.

After he died, a young woman of 22, by the name of Molly, came forward and said she and Nick Comper were engaged to be married.  His daughter, Naomi, thought this was credible.

His death revealed just how calamitous his personal affairs had become.  His executor (his brother Sebastian) was able to pay his creditors only about 6p in the pound.  He was bankrupt.

Two days before her death in 2007 his daughter, Naomi, disclosed that she believed her father was an alcoholic.  This may or may not have been true, but without doubt the last years of his life had been in a sorry state.  Yet, if only he had lived a few months longer his career might well have been rescued by the second world war and its imperative appetite for the services of aeronautical engineers.

The development of technical innovation in Britain is strewn with the names of brilliant and eccentric individuals who were never able to gain the support their work merited from the establishment to further their inventions.  Even Barnes Wallis, Frank Whittle, Neville Norway and Christopher Cockerall all suffered in the face of British industrial inertia.  Had Nick Comper received the financial backing he deserved his could have been a very different story.