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The Tremendous Roar of a Merlin - Hawker Hurricane

It was May 1936 that the Hawker High-Speed Monoplane was named for immortality as the Hawker Hurricane. In this article from the May/ June 2017 Brooklands Bulletin Tony Hutchings take a look back at the inception of the aircraft at Brooklands.

1935had been quite a year and it wasn’t over quite yet. George V was on the throne and Stanley Baldwin had taken over from Ramsay MacDonald in ‘Number10’. Franklin D Roosevelt occupied the White House and the Italians were trying to occupy Abyssinia. Nearer to home Freddie Dixon had won the British Racing Drivers Club British Empire Trophy race in July driving his Riley, whilst the following month Gwenda Stewart achieved the ladies’ Outer Circuit lap record in her Derby-Miller at 135.95mph. In October John Cobb also took an Outer Circuit record at 143.44mph in the Napier- Railton, a record never to be beaten.  

Conversations in the Clubhouse dining room might have centred on Campbell’s new Land Speed Record of 301mph, William Lyons’ introduction of the Jaguar SS100 competition two-seater or the fact that W O Bentley had joined the Lagonda company in Staines. Then there were the expectations regarding new Track records, as attempts on existing records were a familiar sight at the end of the racing season. No doubt forecasts were made of who might make the best time on the Mountain Circuit, a record held since the previous October by Whitney Straight in his Maserati who achieved a speed of 82.05mph to take the Class D record.  

One person with his sight on this particular record was Richard Shuttleworth. He had competed at Brooklands since 1931, driving everything from an Austin Seven to Alfa Romeos. He was also as good a pilot as he was a racing driver, gaining his A licence at Brooklands in 1932. In 1935 he competed in his supercharged 2.3-litre Bugatti and the P3 monoposto Alfa. After the racing season had finished Richard returned to the Mountain Circuit on Wednesday 6th November 1935 to have another try for the lap record. Driving the P3 he covered the 1.17 miles in 51.33 seconds, taking the record by the narrowest of margins at 82.06mph, for which he was awarded the Daily Telegraph Trophy.

Anyone standing in the Paddock or around the Mountain Circuit would have been thrilled by the sound of the supercharged, eight cylinder 2.9-litre Alfa as Richard put his foot down and the engine produced its full 255bhp.  

Another exciting sound may well have caught people’s attention, coming from the Byfleet end of Brooklands – the revolutionary Rolls-Royce 12- cylinder PV12 engine was being tested over on the airfield. This power unit, later to be known as the ‘Merlin’ engine, was about to pull the ‘High Speed Monoplane’ prototype, later to be known as the Hawker ‘Hurricane’ into the sky.  

However, to begin at the beginning and set the scene for this momentous event some background details regarding Sopwith’s and Hawker’s history might be appropriate. Thomas Sopwith opened his flying school at Brooklands on 1st February 1912. Together with his mechanic Fred Sigrist and the Australian pilot Harry Hawker he formed the Sopwith Aviation Company in the same year, with works in Kingston-upon-Thames. The difficulties the aviation industry faced at the end of World War I resulted in the liquidation of the company in September 1920. Almost immediately a new organisation was planned that would build motorcycles, motor cars, engines and aircraft. On 15th November 1920 the H G Hawker Engineering Co Ltd, with works in Kingston-upon-Thames, was formed. Final assembly and flight testing took place at Brooklands, utilising the former Sopwith flying school sheds. Harry Hawker was killed aged 32 after crashing a Nieuport Goshawk near Hendon on 12th July 1921. November 1923 saw the appointment of Sydney Camm as Senior Draughtsman, two years later he was promoted to Chief Designer. In 1933 the success of Hawker’s aeronautical projects led to Tommy Sopwith creating a public company – Hawker Aircraft Ltd. This was followed in 1934 with the acquisition of the Gloster Aircraft Company, followed by Armstrong Siddeley Motors and Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft, A V Roe and Air Services Training in 1935. As orders for aircraft increased, a new factory and aerodrome was constructed at Parlaunt Farm, Langley near Slough. It opened just before World War II began at which stage the company was known as Hawker Siddeley Aircraft Ltd.  

HIGH-PERFORMANCE FIGHTER

Air Ministry Specification F7/30 was issued in 1930 calling for a high-performance fighter aircraft with four machine guns and a maximum speed of 250mph. Sydney Camm produced drawings that resulted in the Hawker PV3, an orthodox biplane based on the existing Hawker Fury. Although flight tested at Brooklands in 1934, the design was compromised by the likes of Reginald Mitchell’s monoplane configuration as seen in his Schneider Trophy Supermarine aircraft. However, by 1933 Camm was thinking along similar lines, his drawings revealing what might have been considered as a Fury monoplane. By May 1934 detailed plans were being drawn up in the Kingston Experimental Drawing Office, which also included the new 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce PV12 engine. A scale model was being tested at the National Physical Laboratory wind tunnel in Teddington. On 21st February 1935 Hawker’s received a contract for ‘...one high-speed monoplane K5083 to a design known as F36/34 single-seat fighter.’ 

‘In the short space of two years, the entire scope of interceptor fighter design had undergone a fundamental change – probably one of the most radical advances achieved in the history of aviation.’ Hawker Aircraft since 1920 by F Mason, Putnam 1991 

By 22nd October 1935 the aeroplane had been completed at the Hawker works in the new Experimental building on the south side of Canbury Road in Kingston. It was then taken by lorry to Brooklands for final assembly and engine ground runs at the Hawker flight sheds. Visitors to Brooklands would have been used to the sight and sound of Hawker aircraft. Wooden sheds had been constructed alongside the Byfleet Banking in 1909-10, with three bays occupied by Sopwith in the years before, during and after World War I. From the earliest days aircraft were manufactured in Kingston and transported in sub-assembly form, the planes then being erected at Brooklands and test-flown.  

The likes of Hawker Hind, Hart and Fury in the sky above the circuit would have been familiar to the motor racing spectators. As a result of increased orders in the mid-1930s for Hawker biplane aircraft, additional production floor space at Brooklands was urgently required. The existing assembly shops and flight sheds were part of a group of three buildings located behind the Control Office building and the Aero Clubhouse. Originally built by the RFC in the latter part of World War I, the 30,000sq ft hangar with Belfast truss roof was no longer adequate. In January 1934 Boulton & Paul drew up plans for a new erection shop for the Hawker Siddeley Group. This would replace the wooden sheds built alongside the Byfleet Banking in the early days of flying. This new building would cover an area of some 46,000sq ft and provided space for five rows of Hurricane fuselage assembly lines as well as a fabric and dope shop. The building came in to use in May 1935.  

READY

At this time work on the Hawker prototype F36/34 was underway, its designer Sydney Camm in overall charge. After the wings had been attached to the centre section of the fuselage and a Watts two-bladed propeller fixed to the front of the Rolls-Royce Merlin C engine, everything was ready for the running tests. The aircraft was given a coat of silver paint with RAF roundels on the wings and fuselage, which also carried the serial number K5083. 

By the time Camm’s new monoplane prototype was approaching its first flight there were three pilots engaged in flight testing for the Hawker company at Brooklands – ‘George’ Bulman, Philip Lucas and John Hindmarsh. ‘Johnny’ Hindmarsh had another connection with Brooklands – as a racing driver. He was somewhat unique as he only took part in long-distance events for sports cars, such as the Junior Car Club’s Double 12 races in 1930 and 1931, driving a Talbot, and the BRDC 500 Mile Races from 1930 to 1932 (Talbot) and in 1934 (Singer). Although not placed in any of these events, his appearances at Le Mans were more successful. In the 1930 24-hour race he drove a Talbot into fourth place, retired in 1931 (Talbot) and 1934 (Singer) but came first the following year driving a Lagonda with Louis Fontes. Hindmarsh, who lived in Cobham, was married in September 1931 to another racing driver with a Brooklands history – Violet Cordery. After flying army co-operation aircraft for the RAF, in February 1935 he joined Hawker’s as a production test pilot. On 6th September 1938, whilst testing a Hurricane (L1652) he crashed to his death on St George’s Hill, Weybridge.  

On the morning of Wednesday 6th November 1935, three years earlier, the prototype, K5083, with ‘George’ Bulman at the controls was ready to venture out on to the Brooklands grass airfield.  

‘...the tarpaulins were removed and the Hawker fighter was taken out of the Brooklands hangar. It was a clear day and the silver plane glistened in the faint, wintry sun. A few of the Hawker staff whistled in appreciation of the sight of the solid but graceful machine, ready for her first flight.Hurricane by Leo McKinstry, Murray 2000 

Sydney Camm had driven over from Kingston to witness this momentous event. It was just 11 months since the issue of the first drawings in the Design Office. One witness, Bob Shaw ’an old Sopwith ‘boy’‘ recalled the sight of the ‘little silver monoplane with its brightly polished cowling panels and huge Watts propeller seemingly turning very slowly... the tremendous roar from the Merlin as Bulman thundered across the aerodrome, tail lifting and off and away, low over the banking of the motor track in no time at all. For more than half-an-hour we waited George’s return and then, there he was turning in, side slipping crab-wise over the road, once more the big propeller turning ever so slowly – as if the engine was no more than ticking over; a burst of throttle as he kicked the aircraft straight, a moment of almost silence as the plane seemed to lose speed quickly, and then the tail dropped a gentle three-pointer. The men all round started cheering and waving as Tommy (Sopwith) and the Old Man (Camm) climbed into the Rolls and set off to welcome ‘George’ back...’The Hawker Hurricane by Francis K Mason, Crecy 1990 

315mph

That ‘tremendous roar from the Merlin’ must certainly have caught the attention of people in and around Brooklands. Modern concepts of secrecy and high security regarding new defence systems seemed not to apply in that era. Eight days after the first take off Flight magazine (14th November 1935) published a report of the day’s events, whilst editions issued on 5th and 12th December carried photographs of K5083. On 6th December the Daily Express also provided a report and pictures for its readership.

Another opportunity to view the aircraft came on 6th June 1936 when K5083 was exhibited at the RAF Pageant at Hendon aerodrome. Brooklands spectators were given a sighting of an early production Hurricane when it was put on display beside the Finishing Straight during a race meeting in August 1938.  

The prototype undertook 10 test flights at Brooklands with a total duration of eight hours in the sky. On 7th February 1936 it was flown to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Martlesham Heath for further assessment, which revealed a top speed of 315mph at 15,000 feet. In May 1936 the Hawker High Speed Monoplane was officially named the ‘Hurricane’. An initial production batch of 600 Hurricane Mk1 aircraft was ordered from the Hawker company on 3rd June 1936. As the threat of war increased and the drive to modernise the RAF grew ever more powerful, Hawker eventually produced 10,381 Hurricanes out of a total of 14,527. On 15th December 1937 No 111 (Fighter) Squadron RAF, commanded by Sq Ldr John Gillan and based at Northolt, received the RAF’s first monoplane fighter.  

Hawker prototypes and most production aircraft were assembled and tested at Brooklands, of which the largest number were Hurricanes. (Figures suggest 3,012 aircraft.) This came to an end in late 1942 and the Hawker presence faded quickly away. Hurricanes continued in production at Langley until July 1944 when the final production Hurricane, given the name ‘Last of the Many’ was flown by ‘George’ Bulman, nine years after he flew the prototype.’  Bert Tagg, Brooklands Society GazetteVol 15 No 3, 1990

Note: The last Hurricane PZ865 is still flying today – with the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. 

The author’s thanks to Denis Corley for his assistance

Event image
Hurricane3.jpg

The final production Hurricane, PZ865, "Last of the Many" being rolled out from the Hawker factory at Langley on 27th July 1944

Hurricane5.jpg

K5083 at Brooklands for some adjustments

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PZ865 , the last Hurricane, in flight                         (BAE Systems)

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Hurricane P3648 crashed on 15th May 1940 at Langley whilst undergoing inverted flight tests with Test Pilot Kenneth Seth Smith at the controls. He was slightly injured but was killed two years later when test flying a Hawker Typhoon, the tail detached and he crashed into a field at Thorpe (between Brooklands and Langley)                     (Thanks to Graham Wilson for photo)