Brian Powell: Elite test pilot involved in pioneering projects during the post-war civil aviation boom


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The Independent Online

Brian Powell was one of the elite handful of test pilots who advanced Britain’s ambitions to lead the world in flight in the first two decades after the Second World War, flying aircraft including the world’s first passenger jet, the Comet. A personal pilot of Lord Beaverbrook in the late 1940s, Powell also flew Winston Churchill and his family.

By the outbreak of war, Powell had taken part in the first glider crossing of the English Channel, and on joining up in 1941 had gained a BSc in engineering and learnt to fly powered aircraft with the London University Air Squadron. He was at once “creamed off” to be an instructor, a role he was kept to, despite his wish to go on combat missions. He served from July 1941 at No 9 EFTS at Ansty in Warwickshire, then, from February 1942, in Africa, being posted to Rhodesia.

He left the RAF in 1946 and joined Westminster Airways, the company set up by four Conservative MPs, including Beaverbrook’s son, the decorated wartime flier Max Aitken. The company flew daily to and from Nuremberg, carrying papers while the war crimes trials went on, and also had much African charter business. 

But the enterprise was to be cut off in its prime by the policy of nationalisation under the Labour government of Clement Attlee. The Civil Aviation Act of 1946 allowed only three at first, then two, state-subsidised civil aviation concerns, BOAC and BEA.

So in July 1947, Powell agreed to work for Beaverbrook, flying Beaverbrook’s specially made Douglas C-47, lined with Canadian maplewood panelling, between Toronto, New York, Miami, Jamaica and London. He rebuked Beaverbrook, and got an apology, at Le Touquet in 1948 after a rough landing, when it transpired that Beaverbrook had interfered with dispositions, having ordered luggage inside to be rearranged, without realising this would upset the aircraft’s stability. 

Beaverbrook’s friend, Churchill, was so impressed with Powell’s organising ability that he insisted that Powell take his place to inspect a guard of honour drawn up to greet him at Biggin Hill on returning from a stay in France in 1949, with Powell as pilot in Beaverbrook’s plane. Powell had prevailed on the authorities, at Churchill’s request, to let the civilian aircraft land at the then-military airfield, it being near Churchill’s Kent home, Chartwell.

Powell then joined Vickers, and tested the Viscount, Varsity and Valetta, before moving to De Havilland to work at Hawarden, Flintshire, where the Comet was being developed.

He flew the Comet prototype to Farnborough, Hampshire, in autumn 1953 to be tested in the water-filled tank that was developed specially to allow controlled pressure changes, as the company explored ways to overcome the hitherto-unknown hazard of metal fatigue that had caused crashes in 1952 and 1953. In these years, Powell forged friendships with other air pioneers including Joseph “Mutt” Summers, Mike Lithgow, Brian Trubshaw and Jock Bryce.

His next post was with Hunting-Clan Air Transport, the independent operation that in 1960 became British United Airways, then the largest private airline in Britain, and with which he was first chief training pilot, then chief test pilot. BUA was the first airline to order the short-haul jet BAC 1-11.

The airline turned to Powell to help find a solution to another problem with this aircraft, the “deep stall” that caused a crash in 1963 during testing, in which Powell’s friend Lithgow and the rest of the crew were killed. BUA sent Powell to work at Wisley Airfield, Surrey, and he and others developed a system of “stick shakers” to warn of risk of stalling. The BAC 1-11 proved to be a success. Powell went on to fly VC10s until after BUA was taken over by British Caledonian, and retired in 1977.

A shadow over Powell’s career was the death in May 1943 on RAF operational duty of his only sibling, his elder brother, Roger. At their last meeting, in 1942, just before Powell was sent to Africa, they had spent the day flying together in a two-seater Tiger Moth. The boys both attended Gresham’s School in Holt, Norfolk, and Powell took the examinations of City and Guilds College, now part of Imperial College, London.

Powell’s first solo flight had been at the age of 15 in a Slingsby Dagling glider, catapulted off a hillside. At 18 he helped with Geoffrey Stephenson’s pioneering glider crossing of the English Channel on 22 April 1939 in a Slingsby Gull, the first to be made starting from a height gained by natural lift. 

Powell was half of the two-person retrieval crew, and took a trailer over to France by Channel steamer. The other was the aviatrix Ann Welch – then Ann Edmonds. Powell appeared pictured with Stephenson and Welch at a Calais hotel in the next day’s British newspapers. Together with Welch – who later flew as a ferry pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary – Powell was interviewed in the first part of the war at the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive, SOE, with a view to covert operations, but heard nothing more.

The son of a soldier who had been a battery sergeant major in the Boer war, Powell was first entranced by flying on a five-shilling joy-ride in an Avro 504 K biplane when he was seven, for which he was allowed to pay half-price: two and sixpence, in accordance with his pocket money.

At school he had excelled at sport, and was to meet his wife, Vanda, also a skilled player, at a squash tournament. They married in 1950 at Cobham, Surrey. She was a descendant of the De Ferranti electrical engineering family. They were to have two sons and two daughters.

Powell sat for many years on the elected council of 15 that directs the Honourable Company of Air Pilots, of which he was made a liveryman in 1959. He was airborne for the last time in his eighties as a passenger in a Boeing 747, piloted from London to Toronto by his son, Adam. His wife, Vanda, and his children survive him.


Brian Alexander Powell, test pilot: born Balham, London 26 August 1921; married 1950 Vanda Naomi Ord (two daughters, two sons); died Guildford, Surrey 23 June 2014.