Nick Comper’s younger brother, Adrian, was for a period his business partner.
In 1984 he wrote the following account. It was originally written in instalments for the model airplane club magazine in Erie, Pennsylvania called the Flying Aces. He entitled the articles:
“LIVING IN THE EARLY DAYS OF AVIATION”
OUR FIRST FLIGHT – WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM CARUSO
That week, many years ago, the southern counties of England happened to be both sunny and warm. So the newspapers advertising the non-competitive flying meetings at Hendon aerodrome, just on the northern outskirts of London, that particular weekend in the summer of 1912 belied the conventional warning: “weather and circumstances permitting”.
Two young brothers, one sixteen and the other twelve years of age, arrived at the Aerodrome in a chauffered automobile hired for the occasion by a wealthy master at the school they attended near their home in the south side of London.
A large and mixed crowd arrived by bus or bicycle, and some walking a few miles – all with the idea of seeing an aeroplane close to. Most carried folding stools or chairs, bought their entrance tickets, and then made themselves comfortable on the field just behind the long row of open “boxes”, each separated by a low wire fence and containing four comfortable outdoor chairs.
The box area had its own entrance and parking space for the occupants of their motor cars, none of which were later than 1912 vintage. The ladies climbed down from these well kept vehicles gathering up their flowing skirts in the latest fashion, and managing their brightly coloured hats and parasols. Their men were in grey cut-a-ways with grey top hats just as they dressed for the Royal Ascot races.
The schoolmaster benefactor, also so dressed, had previously suggested that the two boys be in their Sunday best! They were Nick and Adrian Comper.
Once in the box, nothing obstructed their view of a row mainly of monoplanes, but a few biplanes among them, scattered around close by. Nick was the aeroplane fan, and excitedly pointed out the different makes – the French Nieports, Bleriot, Antoinette monopanes; the English Blackburn, Bristol, Avro, and the Martinsyde monoplanes. Nick identified the biplanes as Henry Farman, Maurice Farman, Sopwith and Voisin. The engines that powered these machines were the Gnome and LeRone and Clerget Rotary engine, Anzari radial, and a Farman preference – the Renault air cooled V-8.
Some machines were in nearby hangars with mechanics tinkering with the engines, resulting in the not unpleasant smell of castor oil, the then choice of lubricants.
Then came the moment when an aeronaut, his cap back to front, climbed into one of the monoplanes and mechanics turned the propellor. Eventually came a burst of blue smoke and the noise of several open exhausts as the engine took hold. With the engine giving bursts of energy and mechanics holding each wingtip, the machine taxied to a take-off position on the grass covered field. Slowly the pilot (a daredevil superman in the eyes of the crowd) a few hundred feet up, banked sharply, and equally so to the left. After a few figures of eight, he did a fly-past in front of the boxes at low altitude with his arms held over his head to show off his aeroplanes inherent stability, and this feat while covering the ground at about 50 m.p.h..
Soon the two Farmans were readied, and two or three people were seen lining up at a small booth situated between the line of boxes it separated. A big sign told of passenger flights – 3 guineas (a guinea being one one pound and one shilling – then about $16, and in 1912 $16 was real money!).
MODEL PLANES AND CALLOUSED FINGERS
Circa 1912 was a turning point in British aviation. The Royal Corps of Engineers, although with a half dozen or so aeroplanes and pilots, were responsible for the aerial observation during troop manoeuvres. But in 1912 the War Office reluctantly granted £320,000 ($1.6 million) for the development of an air arm to which King George V invested the title “Royal Flying Corps”.
The new Corps, serving both the army and navy, started a Central Flying School at Uphaven on Salisbury Plains. It boasted 25 aeroplanes in which some 90 miltary and 40 naval officers were taught to fly.
Next in that crucial year came the military trials and the nation received a shock – only one British entry passed the simple tests. That entry was the Cody “Cathedral” (a monster looking like one!), designed, built in England, and flown by the famed “Colonel” Sam Cody, the Anglo-American ex-cowboy from Fort Worth, Texas. King George V sent a congratulatory telegram addressed to Colonel Cody; and Cody, whose fictitious title he had earlier conferred upon himself, thereafter claimed the King himself confirmed his appointment! At anyrate, when he was later killed in an aeroplane accident, he was buried with full military honours. Incidently, the Imperial German Air Force was only on paper at that time.
None of this, however, had touched the two boys at Hendon who were watching enviously the few in line who were risking a paid flight as a paying passenger. They noticed that their amiable host was conversing with great enthusiasm with one of the occupants of the adjacent box, a rather rotund foreigner, also impeccably attired with a grey top hat, the famed Italian opera singer, Enrico Caruso, a legend to this day. Caruso, a skilled caricaturist, was penning one of our schoolmaster on the back of his programme. Our host was pleased, he turned to us impulsively and said “how would you both like to fly?”. And at the ticket booth, out came his wallet.
It should be noted that almost seventy years ago boys seldom got a ride in a motor car. Home radio was years away. Television – forget it! Bikes, if you were lucky to have one, superseded the usual mode of transport – walking.
So, with aeroplaanes having superseded trains and passenger liners, no young man today can possibly conceive the effect that heart-stopping question “how would you like to fly?” had on the two young kids. They moved from their box to the ticket booth like zombies; and, almost overwhelmed with excitement, they were ushered each to a waiting Farman to the security of a little wicker seat just behind, and almost touching the pilot. One was in a Henry Farman, the other in a Maurice Farman.
My pilot was a Frenchman, Louis Noel, and I often wondered what became of him during World War I, which broke out two years later.
There were two aircraft magazines – “The Aeroplane” and “Flight” and both exist today. After our flight at Hendon, 600 feet high in the sky and a breathless 50 m.p.h. for maybe five minutes, the brothers subscribed to both journals. Most of the contents were the naval and military progressive movements, and the new emerging aircrafts and seaplanes. They became household words, few of which are forgotten by the writer after these many years.
After their flying at London’s Hendon Aerodrome, Nick, three years older than Adrian, the youngest of six children, became highly active in the relatively new pastime of putting together crude little balsa wood and wax paper structures which, though hardly representing any particular aeroplane, nevertheless flew under power. We bought strips of balsa wood, fine wire, glue and waxed paper with which to fashion wings of about one foot span and a tail and rudder separated by a fuselage consisting of a single length of balsa of sufficient sturdy cross section to resist bending when the “engine” was readied prior to flight.
The “engine” was a series of rubber strands procurable in a few enterprising shops catering to this new fad and which also offered ready made balsa propellers and bottles of soapy goo to lubricate the rubber as, by means of a finger twisting the propeller, the “engine” was powered up.
And whose tender young finger became gradually calloused before turning the little powered up structure over to his elder brother for final flight adjustments? You’ve guessed it! And who, if the flight was distance-successful, had to run to retrieve it? You’ve guessed it again – me. And thus this close and happy relationship remained over the ensuing years when Nick was acclaimed as a designer in many respects a little ahead of his time.
THE de HAVILLAND YEARS
Came 1914 and a shocked Europe at war. There was no question but what the seventeen year old Nick would do (but with reluctant parental permission). To quote from “Aeroplane Monthly” of August 1978:
“Nick and Adrian’s aerial baptism occured in a Farman at Hendon. Both became apprentices with the technical departmentof the Aircraft Manufacturing Company at Hendon under Geoffrey de Havilland (Nick in 1914, Adrian in 1917), and in 1915 Nick Comper joined the Royal Flying Corps. He underwent pilot training at Castle Browmwich and after a short while on DH-2s with No, 57 Squadron, was posted to France with No. 9 Squadron, flying B.E.2cs. It was during this period as a 2nd lieutenant his potential as a designer showed irself. He completely re-rigged his aircraft and successfully squeezed a few extra knots out of it. As a result, his C.O. promptly pinched it for his own use!”
The BE2 and later the squadron’s RE8s were reconnaissance aircraft with the observer and his mounted Lewis gun in front of the pilot. Observers were generally infantry or gunnery officers from the front lines transferred to the RFC. Most were later sent home for training as pilots.
The turnover was rapid, and pilot and observer were given short leaves together with often little time for one or both to reach home if outside London. Consequently two would stay with Nick on various leaves at our London home where were our two sisters. Both observers later became pilots and survived the war, immediately after which I acquired two RAF bothers-in-law! One became C.O. RAF, Egypt, at the outbreak of World War II.
My term in the technical department of AIRCO under Geoffrey de Havilland from 1917 to May 1920 was interrupted by passing my physical for entry into the RAF in late 1918 when but a week or so later World War I ended and with it my hopes! But at anyrate I returned to my company and there saw the start of Civil Aviation, having resumed my job as a junior draftsman in de Havilland’s technical department until the aircraft manufacturing company went out of business. Later I got a junior job in Vicker’s Aviation wind-channel department.
BERTRAND (BC) HUCKS LOOPS THE LOOP
Sir Geoffrey de Havilland at that time 36 years old, was a modest, kindly and considerate man as were his principal aides – Charles S Walker, his stress mathematician to whom I reported, and his brother-in-law, Frank Hearle, manager of the Experimental Department where all prototypes were built. I had been at the Aircraft Manufacturing Company, where de Havilland was chief designer, for only a month or two after my seventeenth birthday when Walker drove me a short distance to the aerodrome. Once there, the chief test pilot B.C. Hucks – my idol, the famed aerobatic stuntman and first Englishman to loop the loop – was told that I would be recording the time of take-off under various loads. This simple procedure would be done by leaning over the side of the gunner’s cockpit, and with stop watch in hand, noting on a small clipboard the time it took from gunning the engine to the wheels leaving the grass. Then back to the tarmac fronting the sheds, mechanics would drop a 50 lb. sand bag at my feet, and off we’d go again.
The process was repeated until the last run, heavily laden and in a shifting wind, Hucks sluggishly cleared the top of the sheds which brushed by a few feet beneath us. How dumb I must have been to think that exciting! Thus by practical experiment the “useful load” of the aircraft was established. Ground instruments had, of course, measured the lengths of the take-offs.
So there I was, all dressed up in a big leather coat, helmet and goggles (unlike my first paid-for-flight in a Henry Farman, five years previously) with a mechanic helping me into the first de Havilland 4s gunner’s cockpit directly behind the pilot – none other than my long-time pre-war stunt hero – and off we went with the awesome power and noise of the mighty engine ahead of us, and I intent on doing my job for my salary of $5 a week.
But before landing, Hucks started stunting! Loops, rolls, spins – the works, including the new Immelan turn. Centrifugal force kept me tightly on the gunner’s seat. It was wonderful to see the earth flashing around in every direction but when first experiencing what I later learned was the Immelman turn, I seemingly floated in mid-air and had to grab onto the sides to prevent myself falling out. Whether a safety belt was attached to the seat I do not recall. If there was one, nobody told me about it!
In retrospect, I think Huck’s sudden and violent display of aerobatics was first to test the aerodynamics of the deH4 (it eased out of a spin beautifully), and also its structural fitness. There were no parachutes, except for observation balloons, in those days to help out if the wings or tail disintegrated and secondly with a touch of humour, he wondered how that seventeen year old 6 feet tall string bean in the back seat could take it. I couldn’t get enough of it. Having since those days crossed the Atlantic by boat in all weathers thirteen times without getting seasick, I presume I had a cast-iron stomach.
Outside of my baptism in aerobatics, four extraordinary incidents caused by wartime pressures occurred while I was assigned to my simple test duties, timing the climb to each multiple of 1,000 feet, for instance. On the deH9 tests with the famed General Sir Sefton Branker of the Air Ministry on the tarmac watching with other bigwigs, nothing happened but noise when Hucks gunned for take-off. The aircraft stood still, bucking a bit as the tailskid dug into the grass. The engine was the new BHP 200 HP six-in-line with righthand drive.
Our propeller designer (remembered for his white waistcoat worn winter and summer) was under the impression it was lefthand drive and calculated the propeller accordingly. So there was no test flight that morning much to my chagrin.
While I was occupied as an observer on test flights at London’s Hendon Aerodrome, elder brother Nick was with No. 9 Squadron, RFC, in France piloting BE2s on reconnaisance missions. His squadron was soon to be equipped with RE8s. Two of his observers (officers transferred from infantry regiments) were soon to become pilots and, as was previously mentioned, married our sisters thus swelling the family interest in flying.
No. 9 Squadron’s function, sometimes with fighter escort, mostly not, was over the lines spotting troop movements, new trenches and gun emplacements and other intelligence work, besides monitoring the direction of British and French shell fire, which involved advising by wireless in Morse code whether their range was short of target. The observer, manning the Lewis Scarff mounted machine gun, eyed the sky for German fighters, either alone or in formation – a difficult task when flying home always in a westerly direction where enemy aircraft, virtually impossible to see against the sun, lurked for an easy kill. Because of censorship, Nick was generally unaware of Adrian’s time spent in the air.
MAKING DESIGN ERRORS UNDER PRESSURE
Back at Hendon Aerodrome in north London, the various de Havilland war-planes were being flight tested and a senior engineer from the drawing office took over my job as the demand for more sophisticated test data became essential for design improvement. But there was still a place for me, particularly on first flights of new types and also current production aircraft but with alternative makes of engine.
My previous experiences told of wartime pressures manifesting itself – our propeller expert mistakenly designing one for anti-clockwise drive when the engine’s propeller shaft actually turned clockwise! The next awkward error came when the first deH9A powered by a BNP Atlantic V8 was to be tested. The large radiator, fronting the full depth and width of the fuselage was equipped with wooden slats which the pilot could open or close as indicated by the water temperature gauge. I was in the gunner’s cockpit while B. C. Hucks, with the engine ticking over, was readying for take off – moving ailerons, elevators, rudder and, of course, the the new radiator shutters when splinters of varnished wood were suddenly hurled north, south, east and west in a vertical direction, fortunately without injury to any of the harassed distinguished first plight spectators. So no flight that day.
Some harassed draughtsman (the entire Engineering Department headed by de Havilland consisted of 72 men!) had miscalculated the distance available bewteen the surface of the radiator and the rear of the propeller blades while designing the slat-opening system; the resultant slats failed to clear the propeller when fully opened.
For readers aghast at such stupidities, remember that early this century the infant aircraft industry was overburdened by demands for new designs overnight – a new era had arrived, war in the skies.
When testing the deH9, the 9A’s predecessor, the engine refused to start. Some overworked mechanic emptied the standard 2-gallon cans into the petrol tank unaware that some empty cans were often filled with water for radiators. An off wind must have dispersed the usual tell-tale petrol fumes. At any rate, no test that day.
Finally, another kind of situation. The deH10, a twin engine biplane, had completed tests, so de Havilland was allowed to fly it. The gunner’s seat was in the nose ahead of the pilot situated just in front of the wings. Behind the wings was the second gunner cockpit with dual controls. de Havilland occupied it and I went along for the ride in front, Hucks piloting. Up we went to a questionable 18,000 feet or so (no oxygen, of course) and quickly spiralled down over the aerodrome until with nothing but plywood and some stringers in front of me we suddenly pulled up just before nosing into the ground! Once back at the sheds with the engines off, Hucks turned to de Havilland “I thought you were flying it” he shouted. “No”, yelled de Havilland “I thought you were!”. Luckily for the three of us Hucks had grabbed the controls at the crucial moment.
The deH10A (the potential Berlin bomber) was ready for production when at 11:00 am on 11th November, 1018 when sirens shrieked and church bells heralded the end of World War I. Adrian helped his fellow workers go crazy, got a bus home across Londo, and collapsed with the flu – the edpidemic that took the life of his idol. B.C. Hucks, who months previously relaxed and breathed oxygen before flying.
AT CRANWELL, WHERE IT ALL STARTED
Nick, finally arriving safely home form France, wore the new RAF uniform, the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service having become one in 1917. He was detailed along with a few other officers to Cambridge University to take a course in aeronautical engineering. From there he was stationed at Felixstowe to study and fly seaplanes and flying boats, then came the assignement as an engineering instructor at the Cranwell Academy for training cadets.
While there, Nick conned his fellow officers into funding what was said to be first light aeroplane club in England – the Cranwell Light Aeroplane Club – the membership dues being sufficient to purchase a small 20hp Bristol Cherub aeroengine and necessary materials to build a small aircraft. A team, headed by a rotund Flight Sergeant (who later became foreman of the Comper Aircraft Company) and the station’s mechanics volunteered the labour in their off-duty time and weekend leaves.
They made the wood parts and metal fittings, covered wings and fuselage with linen and dope. Standard aeroplane parts, mainly turnbuckles, were purchased as required. All in all, these enthusiastic workers built the first three different types of light planes to Nick’s designs – the CLA 2,3,and 4. The CLA 1 got no further than the drawing board. Adrian motorbiked to Cranwell to lend a helping hand on weekends.
Nick’s designs tended to be somewhat ahead of the times. Why not sit two people side by side? But could the little Bristol engine of but 20-25 hp lift such an enterprise and overcome the drag of such a wide fuselage? Nick’s answer was a bi-plane with a high lift wing section and a completely covered fuselage. The tailplane and rudder were of pleasing contours and in spite of the wide fuselage having to taper so rapidly to the small two cylinder engined nose, the overall appearance of the CLA 2 on the drawing board was distinctly commendable. It was ready for flight in late 1924 – well over half a century ago, still in the era of pioneering in the field of aviation. The entire RAF Cranwell personnel eagerly anticipated watching the first flight of Flight Lieutenant Comper’s first aeroplane. But Nick and a few others in the know decided otherwise and set off just before dawn on Sunday. Unknown to Nick, the station’s ambulance and fire engine were hidden behind the shed, manned and ready to go.
Nick and Adrian drove to the aerodrome while the station slept, the latter wondering what was going on in his brother’s mind. In those days no governmental agencies allotted “Certificates of Airworthiness” before a prototype could leave the ground. Further, the AID (Aviation Inspection Department) was in its infancy and unknown to Cranwell. Nick’s stress and aerodynamic calculations went unchecked. Would the CLA 2 leave the ground, and, if so, would it be stable or nose over or roll upside down or what?
Came the magic word “contact”. Moving the joystick and rudder to check controls, Nick let the engine warm up. Then with a wave of his hand, and throttle opened, the machine bumped over the grass and took off barely missing the trees at the end of the field and disappeared behind them. Suddenly there came an engine spluttering and then silence. Out rushed the ambulance and fire engine, we in our cars following. There behind the trees rested an undamaged CLA 2 with a grinning Nick standing by. A faulty engine? No, he had ran out of fuel! To reduce the risk of fire on the first flight the engine mechanic rationed the petrol put in the tank. Unknown to him, other mechanics gave the Bristol Cherub a final test run the night before. That plus Nick warming up the engine for a while did it!
COMPER COMPETES IN THE HONEYMOON EXPRESS
In late 1924 the Royal Aero Club (Nick and Adrian were members) sponsored the International Light Aeroplane trials at Lympne near Folkstone. Nick took a week’s leave and entered his CLA-2. At that time Adrian, a visiting American girl friend, his brother-in-law (also RAF Cranwell) and other friends attended the week long meeting.
Nick, flying his CLA-2 solo, was piling up hours over the course, though trailing behind the other entrants. At midweek the brothers received a luncheon invitation from the Under-Secretary for Air, Sir Phillip Sassoon, a batchelor of extreme wealth and cousin of Siegfried. One of his estates was nearby. An open-top cream coloured Rolls Royce with chauffeur in the same coloured uniform fetched them. That luncheon is worth relating since the opulence of those days in England had by taxation and war ceased to exist. Other guests included Sir Samuel Hoare, the Minister for Air, to whom they were introduced. He congratulated Nick, remarking that it was the first time a serving RAF officer had flown in civilian aeroplane trials.
I had remarked on the hand painted celestial scenes covering the entire piano – Sir Phillip replied he had commissioned a famous French artist for the work.
In a huge dining room was a long table with some thirty place settings, each with a silver cigarette container and another for matches. Behind each chair were well grroomed men in simple white tunics and medal ribbons ready to serve the meal – all ex-service men from World War I, including the chauffeurs of the five Rolls Royces I later saw lined up to take the guests home.
After luncheon, our host asked if the church architect, Ninian Comper, was any relation. “My father, Sir”, and in turn asked if Sir Edward Lutyens had designed this magnificent manor. “Yes”, he said, “let me show you around”. There came room after room beautifully furnished including the master bedroom with glass door handles with small diamonds where, the previous year Prince Albert and Elizabeth, later George VI and the present popular Queen Mother, spent their honeymoon.
At last we reached, on the ground floor, a simple and small suite, modestly furnished and its all white bedroom resembling a hospital room. “This” said Sir Phillip, “is where I live”. This told me more about the sterling character of this barely middle-aged man than anything I have since read about him.
Nick flew for the rest of that afternoon piling up a few more hours. By the weekend the prizes were announced, Nick winning the Reliability prize. In the formal dress dinner in the hotel ballroom that Saturday night, a great fuss was made of him during the prize giving. Press reporters crowded this RAF officer and much publicity ensued. The CLA-2, the only light plane seating two side-by-side, was dubbed the “Honeymoon Express”.
The Air Ministry became concerned about the propriety of a serving officer competing in an international air meeting. Suggesions that Nick be given the Air Force Cross were properly turned down. But when soon the Honeymoon Express ceased to be news, he was privately and officially congratulated by Air Chief Marshall, Sir Hugh Trenchard, for a job well done.
On that memorable prize giving evening at Folkstone, Adrian with Frances, his American girl friend from Massachusetts, left the after-dinner dancing at midnight and strolled along the Esplanade under the full moon that separated Saturday from Sunday that warm summer night. To the accompaniment of waves at high tide breaking in a calm sea, it was then that they became engaged to be married.
THE CLA-3 WINS THE INTERNATIONAL SPEED TRIALS
After the success of the CLA-2 at the 1924 International Trials, Nick Comper designed his first monoplane. Designated the CLA-3, and with a Bristol Cherub of only 32 hp at full throttle, it nevertheless won the International Speed Trials at 87 mph. Careful detailed design after reviewing the choice of aerodynamic options – wing sections, ratio of wing span to chord, etc, were responsible for an extremely high performance aircraft in relation to limited horsepower. The experience with it eventually led to preliminary layouts for the “Swift”.
The following year the CLA-4, a tandem two-seater biplane with a top wing in span and chord smaller than the lower wing to favour visibility, was built. Meanwhile, a colleague of Nick’s at Cranwell Cadet College, P.R. Pobjoy, Education Officer of the Apprentice wing, had designed and had built a light aeroplane engine of his own design. This was a seven cylinder radial, weighing only 100 lbs, yet delivering a hefty 65 hp. It purred like a sewing machine and demonstrated many marked advances in the field of radial engines. Alas, there was only one experimenmtal model available and this Pobjoy entrusted to Nick for a flight versus test bench performance. So a second CLA-4 was built with the nose modified for housing the Pobjoy P.
THE HOOTON ADVENTURE BEGINS
Nick had been urged to leave the restrictions of his time his RAF duties entailed and instead form his own aircraft manufacturing company. So during 1928 Adrian helped in raising capital and the Comper Aircraft Company with Nick as managing director came into being early in 1929, some fifteen years since joining the original Royal Flying Corps.
Shortly after raising capital with others for Nick’s company, Adrian got heavily involved in the same task for Pobjoy who, after Nick left, he too wanted out of the RAF.
For his part in it Adrian almost gave up, for Pobjoy insisted on absolute control to the point of out-voting his board of directors made up of shareholders. Consequently would-be investors were almost impossible to find; but his superb product won the day, so the Pobjoy Aeroengine Company set up shop in a large disused World War I hangar next to Comper’s at Hooton Aerodrome across the Mersey from Liverpool. Adrian was a director of both companies.
At Hooton. long before the advent of the Pobjoy engine becoming available, the production of the “Swifts” was beginning to take shape with the two cylinder opposed ABC Scorpion engine. The first flight showed the performance predictions were comfortably met and sales were started. But the cry was for more horsepower. That meant more cylinders and in the twenties the choice was limited. However, Swifts became available with the more popular Salmson AD9, a 9 cylinder radial of some 70 hp.
THE SEARCH FOR AMERICAN INVESTMENT
In early 1929 Leslie Irving, the American parachute manufacturer, arrived in England with his family to establish and head a factory near London. A clause in his British Government contract called for his residing in England while equipping the entire Royal Air Force with the famous Irvin parachutes (for symetry in the logo, the “g” in his name was omitted).
Living in London at that time, Adrian and his American wife became friends with the Irvings and Nick had become interested in the American Velie radial engine of some 80 hpmanufactured by the Vetie Motor Car Company of Moline, Illinois, USA.
Readying the Pobjoy engine factory next door to the Comper Aircraft Company at Hooton across the Mersey from Liverpool and tooling for production was underway, but availability of the engine was still far away. Meanwhile Nick Comper was sorely in need of more hp and engine reliability for the Swift than the 35 hp 2-cylinder ABC engine.
And so with letters of introduction from Leslie Irving, Adrian set out for the Detroit Aero Show to meet Mr Velie, while on a periodic visit to his wife’s family, thus at no expense to the under-capitalised Comper Co.. On arriving at the Cadillac Hotel in Detroit, Adrian was greeted by Mr Luscombe, the manufacturer of the Monocoupe airplane, with the news that Velie had just died and that Sam Lambert (of the Listerine family) would take over.
After two days at the aero show with Sam, a genuine and kindly man, they set off by train to the Velie Motor Car Co. in Moline, Illinois.
At that time there existed a difference in philosophy – the British aeroengine designers strove for low weight hp. The Americans, in their genius, sought a solid reliable easily maintained and comparatively inexpensive engine as their answer: an additional few square feet to the wing surface will compensate for the somewhat additional weight. At the Moline plant everything justified seeking the exclusive rights for the sale of Velies in the United Kingdom.
So Sam flew Adrian in a Velie powered two seater to St Louis. Sam was met at the airport by admiring friends who congratulated him on his first cross country flight! He had arranged a meeting with John A. Love, chairman of Allied Aviation , Inc., at his home; there he and Adrian found they had much in common. So Love called a meeting of his board at which Sam and Adrian were present. Allied Aviation was about to merge with Dewoityne, a French aeroplane company, and Love suggested a “mutuality of interests” with the Comper Aircraft Co.. A very brief letter of intent was drawn up and a month or two later Adrian greeted Love in London and introduced him to one or two influential people in aviation circles including the noted founder and editor of “The Aeroplane”, C.G.Grey, who considered Nick to be a designer ahead of his time and who enthusiastically supported sound working arrangements between British and American firms as a means of bringing much needed capital into the newer companies struggling to get on their feet.
On returning from the Detroit Aero Show in the Spring of 1923, Adrian from the one room Comper Aircraft office in London was busy on Nick’s requests to deal with sales agents for the Swift and to help in finding new capital.
After the visit of John Love, chairman of Allied Aviation, Inc., of St Louis, a hectic summer was spent in pushing sales at the Flying Club meetings by ace pilot Snaith – a master demonstrator of the Swift’s remarkable close-to-the-ground aerobatic capabilities.
Other sales promotions included, by Nick, a Swift on stage for the escape of the matinee idol in a popular London musical comedy; and, by Adrian, a Swift in the famous Selfridge’s store window in busy Oxford Street – a pedestrian traffic stopper at the time, remember, when peacetime aviation was just taking off. The future for the sale of small privately owned planes never looked better. Selfridge’s ordered four Swifts for resale.
THE GREAT DEPRESSION CHANGES EVERYTHING
But then came the autumn of 1929. the Hatry scandal (a British financier) shook then London Stock Exchange. Shortly after, John Love cabled Adrian to forget any plans for a merger – a few days later came the Wall Street Crash. That a man, while seeing his conglomerate crumbling to financial ruin, was thoughtful enough to take time off to warn his potential foreign partners was typical of John Love, a fine gentleman and businessman.
The months preceeding the New Year were months of upheaval – 1930 saw Adrian, his American wife and their two babies back in the United States to help cope, but unsuccessfully, with family financial disaster. His brother’s company along with other new and small aircraft maunfacturers faced a disturbed economy in England.
Thus for Adrian, years in the aircraft industry as an engineering draftsman and later in aircraft sales, came to an end in favour, through a totally unexpected route, of a career of designing and manufacturing (Comper Manufacturing Co. of Pittsfield, Mass) surgical and medical equipment.
BUTLER TO THE RESCUE
On leaving the country, on what was then thought to be only a short leave of absence, Adrian, back in England to settle affairs, was at the factory when a standard Swift with one of the first production Pobjoy engines was being readied for C.A. Butler’s record-breaking promotional flight to Australia. The Swift’s short run and slow take off and landing speed made it a logical vehicle for ranchers in Australia and elsewhere in the colonies to oversee their vast acreage of cattle, sheep and crops as proven by foreign orders.
Butler’s epic flight brought to light that the Swift, powered by the 75 hp Pobjoy engine, was the most remarkable aerodynamic and structurally designed small single-seater evr built. It is unlikely that this will ever be disputed – it follows from the statistics Britian’s magazine “Flight” had to say:
“We point out that machine and engine were absolutely standard, apart from the fitting of extra tankage. The latter consisted of one fourteen and a half gallon and one twenty seven and a half gallon tanks, which brought the load carried up to about the equivalent of two passengers in addition to the pilot; the cruising range was 1,025 miles. With the petrol carried were one and a half gallons of drinking water plus five gallons of oil bringing the gross weight of the Swift to 1,160 lbs. In spite of this it took off in a run of 125 yards in eight seconds. For the 10,425 mile trip, Butler averaged 1,000 a day.”
The Atlantic now separated Adrian from the Comper Aircraft Company while the effects of the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 quickly led to shutdown of factory after factory.
FINDING A SUCCESSOR FOR THE SWIFT
In England, particularly, among those with investments or direct business interests in the United States, the effects of the Great Depression was showing. The market in the British Isles for private aircraft was hard hit. Swift sales were declining and Nick, an enthusiastic participant at various European Air Races and Meetings, thought a specialised racer would revive sales – hence the “Streak”.
In contrast to the high untapered wing of the Swift, the Streak was a low wing tapered cantilever monoplane, the wing and ailerons being plywood covered. The undercarriage was retractable and fitted with brakes. The fuel tanks (1050 miles range – some of the races were long range) were equipped with jettison valves in case of forced landing. Powered with a special de Havilland 150 hp Gipsy engine, on its first flight wing-flutter occurred when high speed was reached. Nick quickly throttled back and force landed. A nasty experience but the trouble was soon rectified and the beautifully balanced aircraft was a joy to fly.
Many Swift parts were incorporated in the few Streaks built, but the early thirties saw the demise of single seaters for everyday transportation – private owners were denying themselves such luxuries like the Streak that barred participation by golf partners, wife or girl friend.
Among the two-seater, including the ever popular de Havilland Moth, the pilot and passenger were entirely separated one behind the other in open cockpits. In spite of this, however, sales for two seater were holding their own. And so, early in 1934 the Comper Kite made its appearance as the result of a taking a Streak, substituting a 90 hp radial Pobjoy for the Gipsy six-cylinder in-line engine and adding an extra cockpit for a passenger, one behind the other like the competition. The new attractively cowled and completely covered Pobjoy Niagara gave the Kite a top speed of 155 mph versus the Streak’s Gipsy powered 180 mph. The front passengers cockpit was designed to be coverable to add speed as a single seater for racing purposes.
Prior to the Streak and Kite, however, Nick and the company’s directors looked back to 1925 and the prize winning CLA-2 the side-by-side two-seater powered by but 35 hp (Bristol Cherub). They decided that with the standard and reliable 130 hp de Havilland Gipsy an updated model had unlimited prospects. Thus the first “Mouse” was born and flew for the first time in the autumn of 1933 a few months before the Streak and Kites.
GOODBYE HOOTON HELLO HESTON
The delay in getting the three-seater Mouse (the cabin with transparent sliding roof and windows sat two in front with the additional passenger sitting comfortable behind) in production was necessitated by building a new factory at Heston Airport near London with modern production facilities.
Nick Comper wrote about his “really hot design” for a 2-3 seater (the Mouse) in a letter dated 19th December 1930 and some production blueprints were ready in early 1931. A glance at the accompanying General Arrangement drawing shows the innovative method of folding the wings, a retractable undercarriage and the sliding cabin top strong enough to be opened in flight allowing the pilot to put his head right outside in case of necessity.
Consider the period in civil aviation, 1930-31, when these advanced specifications started implementation!
The advent of the Mouse was timely since it was evident that the sale of only single-seaters could not possibly support the company financially and the looming depression was no help.
The meagre works at Hooton, however, lacked facilities for manufacture of a sophisticated multi-seat touring aircraft. Work on the Mouse was therefore delayed until the new factory at Heston airport was ready for production.
Consequently it was not until September 1933 that the maiden flight was made with the low-wing tandem two-seater Kite following a year later.
Moving the works from Hooton to Heston was completed in March 1933 and by early September Nick donned a business suit and bowler hat, sat in the pilot’s seat, slid the cabin top closed and the Mouse took off.
He reported the event that evening to his eldest brother, Sebastian, who then wrote to Adrian:
“The maiden flight was perfectly successful – took off beautifully and has a low landing speed of about 40 mph and pulls up exceptionally quickly after touching the ground.
The only trouble experienced was due to the fact that some well-meaning friend had put a spray of white heather for luck on the instrument board. NIck thought that he had removed this before starting but apparently a small piece remained caught, and blew into his eye just after taking off, making that eye useless and painful and in consequence it was some time before he could land.
General particulars are to be released to the Press next week”
Thus the hazards of first flights are not always aerodynamic or mechanical imperfections.
MEANWHILE THE SWIFT WAS BREAKING RECORDS
So, great things were expected of the Mouse as the most advanced and comfortable aircraft of its time for the private owner, especially since the Comper Aircraft was already nationally known in public as well as aviation circles through the exploits of the Swifts – the record-breaking flights to Australia, a noteworthy flight to South Africa, flights to India etc., all in such a tiny single-seater of great beauty!
Then about a year before the Mouse flew, publicity for Comper in the British Press was at its height – the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) Gipsy engined Swift winning second place at an average speed of 156 mph in the handiucap King’s Cup race of 1932 piloted by Flight Lieutenant E. H. Fielden, nicknamed Mouse, and after whom the Mouse was named.
Out of a field of 42 entries, 8 were Swifts – two Gipsy powered, the rest Pobjoy. Nick in a Pobjoy Swift came in sixth, two others 16th and 28th, while the other Gipsy Swift finished 11th. The three others Pobjoy powered, suffered respectively disqualification, failure to cross the finishing line and a forced landing.
THE MOUSE’S SUPERIOR DESIGN FEATURES
The accompanying plan, side and front elevations not only showed then (50 years ago) novel space saving method of wing folding but the clean lines and overall design of a small private aircraft that could well come off the drawing board today.
Nick Comper’s objective was to squeeze maximum speed from whatever short run to a full stop, plus only a short runfor take-off. Flying fields and their facilities were scarce in England; so, in visiting friends, reasonably sized fields would suffice. These performance qualifications also minimised the risk of damage to crops or property in the event of a forced landing when the reliability of aeroengines was not as it is today.
In keeping with these ideals the Mouse powered with the 130 hp de Havilland Gipsy Major engine had a cruising speed of some 130 mph. The landing speed was 40 mph with a very short run after touchdown – the low slung undercarriage placed the wing so close to the ground that the turbulence created thereby effectively slowed the aircraft down.
Another of Nick’s philosophies was to provide owners with obvious travel conveniences – the Swift’s custom suitcase and locker and storage for golf clubs had been well received. The Mouse went further: the luggage locker held three ample sized suitcases supplied with the machine and two lockers in the wing roots for tools and log book etc.. The two front seats were each slidable for leg room (the Mouse could be flown from either side). The rear seat, upholstered right across the fuselage gave room for a child as a third passenger besides the pilot; behind it was a rack for light packages, hats and so on.
The sliding cabin top, designed strong enough to be opened during flight, gave the pilot the option of putting his head outside for take offs and landing when visibility was poor.
Apparently only three of this advanced aeroplane were built. A fully cantilevered and tapered wing where no two ribs were alike in length and depth plus tapered front and rear spars involved two different jigs for the right and left wings and different sized jigs for each rib. Unless a pre-estimated sales volume was assured sufficient to amortise the cost of the jigs and tools, the constructing cost of cantilevered and tapered wings would be prohibitive.
Aside from this, the sales price of the Mouse would have to be in the high brackets in the private owner category reflecting, as it must do, the manufacturing cost of folding the wings, the sliding canopy and retractible undercarriage. It was therefore likely to be priced out of the depressed market existing in England at that time (the early thirties). Further, in the scramble for business, the Mouse, setting a new standard, was bound to invite the large and well established companies to rear their ugly heads when economic conditions improved.
Unfortunately for the Comper Aircraft Company, the Mouse took to the air at precisely the wrong time.
During 1933 the advent of the Mouse, Adrian, after the financial struggles of the Great Depression separated him from his brother, Nick, was already at the instigation of others established in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, designing and manufacturing (of all things unrelated to aircraft!) surgical operating tables and allied hospital equipment – a field that surprisingly had for him an intense appeal. Thus, without direct activity in Nick’s company, this story must continue from facts elicited from family correspondence from England and the printed media.
Moving the Comper factory from Hooton to the new plant built for the company at London’s Heston Airport must have had its slender capital stretched to the limit. Further, once settled at Heston, extra costs resulting from inadequate labour-saving fixtures and jigs and the resultant time lost in completing a readying the first two or three Mouse for trials doomed this sophisicated newcomer long before expected sales could, as hoped, save the company from disaster.
With new blood on the board Nick had already lost managerial control. Then, before the Mouse had its chance in the market place, the new managing director who had succeeded him, forced Nick and his supporters on the board to resign. Thus in 1934 the Comper Aircraft Company ceased to exist; subsequently the new board formed a company with another design staff and some years later it too went out of business.
Nick, 37 years old and with all he had accomplished in the eleven years since, at the age of 26, he flew he flew his first design, the CLA-2 in 1923, did not lose heart as will be seen later.
WHY THE COMPER AIRCRAFT COMPANY FAILED
At this point it may not be inappropriate to reason why so many so many firms with promising futures fail. Generally, and this includes Comper, its the same old tale – so anxious to get started that the fundamental business guidelines are brushed aside. Instead this happens:
1) Optimistically starting the venture with inadquate capital.
2) No long-range planning from the outset; no market research
3) Over-optimism in timing actual delivery to customers, thus delaying by then the much needed income from sales.
4) Of the utmost importance, trying to meet the string of unanticipated money problems without an experienced and tough financial man on the board of directors who demanded regular and formal board meetings.
When the Comper company started in 1929, the Swift (among its design attributes was simplicity of construction) was an immediate success. Its appearance, outstanding performance and manoeuvreability attracted unusual attention at air meetings and races all over England. especially in view of the fact that it was powered by only the 40 hp delivered at full throttle by its horizontally opposed two-cylinder ABC engine. Later, when fitted with the 65 hp Salmson radial, or the Pobjoy giving 70 hp amd in an alternative model 80 or the 90 hp geared Pobjoy, sales rapidly expanded. Then came the Swifts with the D.H. Gipsy engines, the Gipsy Major Special of 146 hp giving a top speed of 185 mph.
The fuselage consisted of three separate sections bolted together – engine and bulkhead section, wing and coskpit section and rear fusleage section with elevator and rudder. Consequently, owners could quickly change type of engine, the only adjustments between the wing and cockpit section being throttle control, petrol and oil feeds.
The two brothers, Nick and Adrian, enjoyed the confidence of Charles C. Grey, the founder and outspoken edotor of “The Aeroplane”. In later years, Nick became a firm friend, occasionally vacationing with Charles and his wife. His relationship with the editor and founder of “Flight”, Stanley Spooner, was in comparison more remote. “Flight’s editorial in the November 1931 issue is, therefore, more telling:
The other great flight of the week has been that of Mt Butler in a Comper Swift with a Pobjoy engine. The point of this flight (England-Australia) is the success of the Swift and the Pobjoy would have been just as striking if it had not broken any record. Some people were once inclined to regard the “Swift” as a pretty little toy.
We offer our hearty congratulations to Flight Lieutenant Nicholas Comper on the success of the “Swift”. He first proved his merit as a designer in the Lympne competitions with his series of CLA machines. He was then an officer of the Royal Air Force (having flown with the earlier Royal Flying Corps in Wporld War I), and he staked his future when he gave up his commission and became a professional designer. Not a few aircraft designing companies have, alas, gone into liquidation since the war and the prospects of a new one must always be speculative. Now his little machine has proved itself a world-tourer and Comper prospects have now risen. We sincerely trust that further and very complete success awaits him. He thoroughly deserves all he gets.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
In this same issue appears an article entitled “A Commercial Swift?”:
Carrying fuel and oil for a range of 400 miles at a cruising speed of 112 mph the Swift has a disposal load of 225 lbs – enough for carrying 10,000 airmail letters. The cost, including maintenance of airframe and engine, complete overhaul, replacement of worn parts each 400 hours, but excluding insurance and pilot’s salary, is the extraordinary low figure of 0.824 of a penny – considerably less than a penny.
Further, the cost of flying the Swift for three and a half hours (cruising its 400 mile range at 112 mph), including engine and airframe maintenance, was 0.824 of a penny a mile. At the then rate of exchange $7.50 covered the 400 mile trip. But to this must be added the pilot’s wages and insurance; nevertheless, the Swift’s standard disposable load, topping the weight of an obese pilot and the ability to get in and out of a sizeable field, rated it the cheapest form of fast transportation.
Since a thousand mile radius from London about covers Europe, most of the Balkan States and southern Norway, Sweden and Denmark, the British Post Office would probably have established one postage rate. The governments of South Africa, Australia and Canada could use the Swift to great advantage within their vast borders through a network of routes covering countless towns and farming communities remote from their trunk routes, setting up postal zone rates. Thus new fields of rapid communication would result.
Production of four or five Swifts a day would get the ball rolling – no great problem since it was specifically designed to be built in sections bolted together for ease of repair and shipment to foreign buyers; and Pobjoy’s works, next door to Comper, was essentially an assembly plant the component parts of the engine being farmed out to automobile manufacturers and high-grade machine shops.
In 1931, over a half century ago, when this novel airmail proposal first appeared in public print, I was no longer associated with Nick’s company. The Great Depression had reared its ugly way into Britain and both brothers on opposite sides of the Atlantic were so up to their necks in keeping their enterprises floating that correspondence faded. So one can only guess why the opportunity to grasp such a logical programme did not mature. It could have changed the course, at least temporary, of many in aviation at that time.
Commenting further on the subject of “Flight’s” fifty year old article on an Airmail Swift tempts one to ponder why it came to nought.
In aviation circles Comper and Pobjoy had proven the sturdiness and reliability of airframe and engine under the most gruelling conditions. Both were men of vision; yet did they give top priority to the pursuit of the concept? If they contacted the Post Office and got nowhere, did they seek a lobbying agency used to dealing with government departments such as the Postal department?
Obviously the express Royal mail trains with onboard sorting of mail en route adequately served the railway-studded British Isles. But what of the advantages to the Post Office of supporting cheap airmail services from England to the European capitals, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Balkan States – all as previously mentioned but some thousand miles or so away. If these representations were made by professionals and if the Post Office departent expressed lack of interest, did the Comper and Pobjoy companies enlist their local member of Parliament in bringing the matter up in the House, in which case the newspapers would have made much of it as they did each time the “little” Swift broke some record or attracted, as it did, the approbation of the then young and highly popular Prince of Wales.
Finally, were vigorous contacts made with the then British Empire’s principal Colonial Offices in London – India, Canada, Australasia, South Africa? These countries, as previously emphasised, had vast distances to cover within their borders. Airmail Swifts operating from strategic points on railway trunk routes could take over mail for countless small towns and farming communities served only by roads and buses.
Remember, these were the conditions existing half a century ago, and since then all these questions remain unanswered although in England a general apathy caused by the depression and in government circles, the spectre of war by Hitler, may have stunted the usual helpful governmental response to an enterprising concept.
APPEASEMENT ALSO CONTRIBUTED TO A FAILURE TO ENCOURAGE AIRCRAFT DESIGN
In England in 1931 it was seen that the economic climate stunted the growth of private ownership of aircraft. This was soon to be aggravated by a political climate.
I believe it is not inappropriate here to record a little known fact – in 1932 Winston Churchill with some of his family were on holiday and while in Munich, the birthplace of Naziism, he discovered Hitler was daily gaining thousands of recruits. In the hotel a lively young German introduced himself and talked with great enthusiasm about his friend the Fuhrer. Churchill invited him to dinner during which his guest insisted the two should meet since Hitler was then in the city. And so a meeting was arranged.
However, Churchill had sternly asked his guest why Hitler was so violent against the Jews. The young German must have disclosed this to his chief for Hitler promptly and uncermoniously cancelled the meeting and thus was lost the chance of his ever coming face to face with the man who brought his downfall and suicide.
Soon Churchill, in Parliament, was the only voice heard warning England of Hitler’s massive rearming. He was convinced of Germany’s war aims and that the next war would largely be decided in the air. The Government was satified that Germany neither had or could have an air force since she was forbidden to build military aircraft under the Versailles Treaty. Thus she was neither able or likely to disturb the peace England was enjoying since Germany had been defeated in World War I.
Churchill knew better but once again being out of governmental office he had no access to government figures or lack of them. He therefore set up an intelligence service of his own – close comrades in the War Department and Foreign Office, friendly press correspondents covering Germany, antI-Hitler Germans. His home in Chartwell became a little Foreign Office of his own.
Early in 1934 he warned Parliament that England was only the fifth air power in Europe while Germany would shortly have an illegal one far exceeding the British. (In fact in March 1935 Hitler openly stated that his airforce had achieved parity with the British.) Eight months later Churchill warned that by 1937 Germany’s air force would double the British. All this came true except then when War was declared in 1939 England was completely outnumbered in fighters, bombers, reconnaisance, trainers and all other types of military aircraft.
Although in 1935 Churchill was spitefully excluded from all Government Office, he was that year appointed to a minor position – a seat on the newly formed Air Defence Research Committee. His work there was mainly responsible for the air battle of Britain saving England from invasion.
Thus it will be seen that in the early thirties, the time of Churchill’s visit to Munich, the economic situation in England, which discouraged private ownership of aircraft, was aggravated by a growing spectre of war which, alas, was taken seriously by but a few far-seeing men and women in the British Isles and discounted by an incompetent Government later to adopt a policy of appeasement.
THE MOUSE THAT WAS NEVER TO ROAR
So it was that the economic and political climate led to the cessation of many small and struggling private aircraft enterprises.
It was well into the troubled thirties that Nick awaited completion of his first multi-seater aircraft – the Mouse; a machine with many design features ahead of its time. When the day arrived for test flights and the resultant modifications were completed the Mouse was ready for a vanishing market.
The economic outlook was such that the influential circles, for instance bankers and other sources of venture capital, were beginning to heed Churchill’s warning of war in his speeches in Parliament.
But Churchill’ s command of the situation was particularly effective at private dinner parties with carefully selected prominent and influential guests, where he told forcibly of the latest from Germany the intelligence he had set up at Chartwell, his country home, was receiving each day.
In this climate Nick found that sustaining capital to put the Mouse into production was nowhere to be found for a small near bankrupt firm catering only to a dwindling market of wealthy sportsmen in an era when the novelty of owning a private aeroplane was “the ultra fashionable thing”. And so the company folded and all its hopes for the future with it.
Even today, as this is written, I still believe that had the right man been found to steer the airmail Swift through successful negotiations with the mail departments of the governments of Britain and the Dominions, a different story would have been written. The large potential sales of an airmail Swift would have financed production of alternative models of the Mouse – passenger, fast short distance freighter and, unlike the rural delivery airmail Swift, a fast inter-city mail carrier.
With full tanks and pilot the Mouse had an available payload of a comfortable 600 lbs, the covered passenger compartment providing a convenient hold. Powered by the most economical and reliable engine of its day, take offs and landings took but a short run.
All this was not to be, however, for lack of engaging a skilled professional promoter.
NOT BORN TO WORK IN HARNESS
It must be remembered that we are talking of the state of aviation in the 1930s – fifty years ago when I was a young man in his thirties. So what of Nick, some three to four years older and then among the roster of the unemployed.
It must be remembered that while still in the Royal Air Force with his amateur built CLA biplanes and monoplanes, two of them prizewinners at commercial air meetings, Nick had not gone unnoticed as an innovative designer by the country’s aircraft manufacturers. Incidentally, although the materials and engines were purchased through contributions from the private purses of some junior officers of the Cranwell RAF College (where Nick was an engineering instructor) and the labour of construction was volunteereed by rank and file in off duty hours, there came considerable consternation at the Air Ministry in London on the subject of service regulations and the particularly vexing nationwide publicity focused on Nick in the sensational press. The situation, however, was soon resolved by private congratulations by the then Air Chief marshall but no medals.
But later in the RAF Nick had found the urge to build more aircraft became more and more pressing and, encouraged by admirers of his innovative design capability, he left the Service in 1926 to head the small company bearing his name.
Nick had many friends. Among them, however, were one or two who pointed out the pitfalls that could plague a small manufacturing company in an already overcrowded aircraft industry with a limited civilian market. Especially vulnerable was a venture lacking a seasoned man on its board of directors or, more important, an experienced supervisor responsible for daily operations. But that was not to be.
In retrospect, I believe his trouble was his love of designing different types of sporting single seaters and himself racing them at international competitions both in England and abroad.
But then at last his staff succeeded in persuading him to turn his creative power to where the real market lay – the two seater. The highly successful but unglamorous de Havilland Moth had literally captured that lucrative market.
As will be seen from the above, Nick was not born to work in harness. Like his father, Sir Ninian Comper, the noted church architect, he worked alone disregarding his peers. I understand that, as what was to be expected, when the company failed some of the larger and well-established aircraft manufacturers sought his services. Nevertheless, he chose to go it alone as a designer for clients who had their own specified requirements, building to be farmed out to a willing aircraft manufacturer. What a venture in an international depression!
THE SCAMP WAS SCUPPERED
The specifications of one client, “The College of Air Training”, resulted in the most un-Comperish aircraft ever created.
But going back to the de Havilland Moth era, the Comper Kite (also passenger and pilot in tandem), a sleek looking monoplane, completely outclassed the Moth in speed and appearance. Both aircraft, equal in horsepower, had the two best known engines for proven reliability – the de Havilland Gipsy and the Pobjoy Radial.
Assuming equality in handling for the amateur pilot, the Comper tradition of low landing speed and short take off, the superior visibility in a low wing monoplane and ease of maintenance compared with rigging a biplane with its struts and wires might well cause the prospective buyer to favour the “new look” rivalling the clumsy biplane. Further, the buyer, though aware of the reputation of the famed and long established de Havillands could already have impressed with the outstanding reputation for performance, quality and safety of the widely known Comper Swift.
The Kite, convertible by optional passenger seat cover to a 160 mph single-seater, was attractive to the two-seater customer for his solo participation in the then popular racing events. All in all, Comper would have attracted a volume of buyers; and though another low wing monoplane – the de Havilland 94 Moth appeared later and sold well, production of ubiquitous Moth biplanes continued to flourish for many years.
A few years ago I met in London Richard T Riding, editor of Britain’s “Aeroplane Monthly”. World War II had obscured light aeroplane activities in the thirties and Riding was reviving it in monthly articles entitled “Ultralights, The Early British Classics”.
Nick, now an independent designer, was engaged by The College of Air Training located at Brookland’s motor racing course, Weybridge, Surrey, and there he designed the “Scamp” for the new requirement of a military observation post. (It was not completed, however, before his death in June 1939, three months prior to World War II.)
I was unaware of this project until Riding recently sent me the photograph and history of this wholly un-Comperish aeroplane! It featured a pod type fuselage with a high braced wing and twin booms to tail and rudder. The engine, a 40 hp Praga B, was located at the rear of the fuselage pod and drove a pusher propeller. The undercarriage was a tricycle arrangement with a very large cover around the main gear.
The Scamp was transferred to Heston Aircraft Company, who termed it the Heston HAC-7 Fly and entered it for the new requirement of an observation post, when it was given the Royal Air Force serial number T1788. The prototype, however, although almost completely finished, was never flown. Drawings, tools and the aeroplane itself went to the Fane Aircraft Company who re-designed the undercarriage and rear fuselage structure.
I recall meeting Captain Gerard Fane in 1929. He greatly admired Nick’s work culminating at that time with the Swift. A Fane Aircraft Company is news to me and presumably no longer exists.