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Winged Wykehamists

Prompted by Professor Sir Bryan Thwaites’s article (see Winchester’s Quinquenium Mirabile in TS 136), Richard Middleton (Coll, 51-55) recalls the following Thwaites-inspired flying adventures:

Thwaites was my maths don for a time, I suspect when I was in VI Book hoping to get a chemistry scholarship to New College.  Maths at that time seemed fairly straightforward - when my year took GCE O Level I think we all got 100 per cent, apart from someone who lost focus for a moment and had to be satisfied with 98.  However, Thwaites, with his aeronautical experience, suddenly made it relevant.  He announced that we were going to build a wind tunnel, which would provide invaluable opportunities for the RAF cadets to learn about how planes fly.  I have no idea if the wind tunnel ever materialized, but perhaps that was not the point:  what mattered was that we learned to use double differential equations and other abstruse tools, and suddenly understood that maths was not just an academic exercise but highly applicable to the real world.  This stood me in good stead when, at New College after completing my National Service in the Sappers, I switched from chemistry to civil engineering.

Like many other dons, his enthusiasm for extra-curricular activities contributed enormously to his popularity.  He commanded the RAF section of the Corps, and he was determined to get us airborne.  We started with an alarmingly skeletal glider called a Slingsby Grasshopper, which was launched by two teams of boys pulling on bungee cords until the desired tension was attained; the pilot then pulled the release and was catapulted into flight.  We only made short hops on Meads, but in 1954 Thwaites persuaded a real pilot to undertake a launch behind a car, and make several circuits. What alarmed people like me (I suffer from vertigo) was the absence of any fuselage: beyond your feet there was nothing much except fresh air!

From the Grasshopper we progressed to the T-21 Sedbergh two-seat trainer, which we flew at Lasham using winch launches, which gave plenty of altitude (enough to find thermals, if you were lucky), and even permitted some aerobatics such as loops. 

Other aeronautical students of the ‘50s add their recollections and how these activities in some cases influenced their future careers.  Andrew Pritchard (Q 49-52, Coll 52-57) continues:

I recall being launched in a similar glider (maybe the same one) in New Field, pulled by Bryan Thwaites in a jeep, as part of the CCF's RAF contingent activities in around 1954. Once the jeep stopped pulling, the "glider" sank alarmingly fast, but controllably. We also benefitted from an arrangement by which four of the contingent (we had to sign up, parental permission required) were taken to Lasham airfield by taxi after morning school on some Tuesdays for gliding training during the afternoon. Alas, I didn't quite make it to solo flight but others, notably my fellow Collegeman, Anthony Oldfield, were more successful. 


I wonder if this happens still?

Confirmation from Anthony Oldfield (Coll 50-55):

I could have been in one of those photographs, maybe the man in the pilot’s seat. I had two flights, the most successful lasted about ten seconds, and rose two feet above the ground.

 I do not recall the name ‘Grasshopper’, it was always known to us as the Flying Bedstead.

With all [the distractions of flying courses arranged by Dr Thwaites], our flying bedstead lost its appeal, and your photographs could show the one and only time that it flew on Meads.

Warwick Banks (D, 52-55) also claims the pilot seat:

What a surprise to see the Grasshopper glider in Meads again.

As I was in the RAF Section I may well be in the picture, even in the cockpit!   Some of us discovered a much more reliable way of launching this behind James van Sickle’s (K, 51-56) wartime Jeep.  I was the hapless pilot being towed on one occasion when, about 15 feet up in the air, I found myself rapidly approaching Garnier Road.  With no regard for the science of aeronautics and the danger of stalling, I executed a steep left turn and surprisingly landed safely.  I cannot recall any masterly supervision!

I went on to a career in aviation and motor racing, the latter just as dangerous.

Stephen Winkworth (C, 52-56) was clearly influenced by these early gliding experiences:

Though I never had much joy from the Grasshopper I have many recollections of Bryan Thwaites’s other gliding group, who were sent to Lasham to be taught by that doyen of gliding, Derek Piggott.

In fact, in recognition of those happy, far-off days, I recently built a 1/6 scale model of the glider in which we first experienced solo flight: the Slingsby ‘Kadet’.  I gave it the spurious insignia BTDP - 56: Bryan Thwaites Derek Piggott 1956… the year I went solo! A lifetime of interest in practical aerodynamics, including many years paragliding, has ensued.

Not least among the results of those experiences have been many years of renewed friendship with Bryan - whom I looked up while working on the BBC film on pterodactyls which I made with David Attenborough some forty years ago.  There was some aspect of the aerodynamics of those extinct soarers which could best be answered, as I recall, by reference to one of Bryan’s papers for the National Physical Laboratory back in the 1940s.

Peter White (I, 57-63) concludes:

I was amused to see the piece about the A-frame glider in the latest e-mail newsletter. I was in the RAF Section in the early 1960’s and have a fairly clear recollection of the glider’s final hours.

We used to launch it along the surface of Meads with the bungee ropes, but with baffle plates on the wings so it would not get airborne. One day we decided this was rather tame, and took the baffles off. The glider duly ascended about 20 feet heavenwards, but then stalled and crashed to earth, shaking up the intrepid pilot (identity forgotten) and shattering the glider’s main frame. I imagine it was then reduced to firewood for members of staff without central heating.

Membership of the RAF Section was in many respects a soft option, but its educational and disciplinary value was probably minimal. Memories include airsickness following a barrel roll in a Chipmunk flying from Hamble, and extreme discomfort as passenger in an RAF Anson. It did however involve much less marching around.

Many of these articles have been cut down for reasons of space.  Please go to the News Stories section of the Win Coll Soc website to see them in full, along with a much larger gallery of photos.  Bryan Thwaites himself, who inspired these recollections has promised a critique of his former pupils’ writings for TS 138 in November.

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