Obituary: Harald Penrose

Harald Penrose was one of the British aviation industry's most respected test pilots.

His appointment in 1931 as chief test pilot at Westland Aircraft began a 22-year labour of love: he made the initial test flights on all the subsequent Westland types, notably the extraordinary pterodactyl series of tail-less monoplanes designed by Captain Geoffrey Hill, the Houston- Westland PV3 which flew over Everest in April 1933 and the Lysander army co- operation aircraft. A disastrous in-flight structural failure of the P7 monoplane allowed Penrose the dubious privilege of becoming the first pilot to bale out of an enclosed-cockpit aeroplane, though he was forced to make his exit via a side window when suction forces jammed the sliding roof.

Born in Hereford in 1904, when man was making his first faltering essays into the skies, Penrose became enamoured with flight at the age of five, after his father showed him a picture of the monoplane in which Bleriot had just flown the Channel. Two years later, the infant was lifted aloft - albeit only a few feet - beneath a Cody-type kite in his local park.

Several encounters with flying machines in the pre-war years fired a youthful ambition to become a pilot, but not until the end of the First World War did Penrose enjoy his first flight, in a war-surplus Avro 504K in which the pioneer aviator Alan Cobham was giving joyrides from a field at Reading.

Following a four-year aeronautical course at the Northampton Engineering College of London University, Penrose joined Westland Aircraft at Yeovil, Somerset, in September 1926. By the New Year he was overseeing the construction of the Wigeon III light monoplane, and was the first to fly in it as a passenger after its maiden flight.

Obtaining a commission in the Reserve of Air Force Officers (RAFO) in 1927, Penrose learnt to fly in a Bristol Type 73 at the Bristol Flying School, soloing after six hours dual and moving on to a Jupiter-engined advance trainer variant of the First World War Bristol Fighter. He returned to Westland gazetted as Pilot Officer RAFO, obtained his private pilot's A-Licence the same year and made his first flights for Westland in the Wigeon.

In March 1928 he was authorised to fly a number of the company's new machines - much to his surprise, as he had fewer than 100 hours' total piloting experience. He was also acting as a test-flight observer, and later that year was made manager of Westland's new civil aircraft department, overseeing the development of the W.IV and Wessex trimotors. In October he qualified for his commercial pilot's B-Licence.

In 1930 Penrose began flying the Wapiti general-purpose military two- seater and the following year he was entrusted with taking a Variant to South America and demonstrating it in both landplane and seaplane forms.

Shortly after his return, in May 1931, Captain Louis Paget, Westland's pilot in charge, suffered serious injuries in a crash, and Penrose was asked to fulfil his duties - with no increase in wages. After all, he later recalled: "It just seemed wonderful that Westland was letting me have extensive free flying which I would otherwise have been unable to afford." With the news that Paget was permanently crippled, Penrose was appointed chief test pilot.

Amid his busy professional life, Penrose also found time to build and fly his self-designed sailplane, Pegasus, in 1935.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, production testing intensified and the Lysander, with its exceptional short-field capabilities, became renowned for its role in flying Special Operations Executive agents in and out of French fields in the dead of night. The new Whirlwind twin- engine fighter, first flown by Penrose in October 1938, proved a disappointment, and the extraordinary tandem-wing version of the Lysander, which he looped on its maiden flight in July 1944, was a one-off experiment.

Penrose also carried out the production tests of other manufacturers' aircraft build under licence by his company; Spitfires, Seafires, Barracudas and Lend-Lease Curtiss Mohawk and Tomahawk fighters allocated to Westland for assembly and test-flying. The company's last wartime design, the Welkin high-altitude fighter, proved a troublesome mount for Penrose and his fellow pilots.

By far the most notorious aeroplane flown by Penrose, however, was the turbo-prop powered Wyvern naval fighter, which suffered from being a new air frame married to new and under-developed engines. First flown in December 1946, this big single-seater underwent protracted development during which three test pilots lost their lives. Only quick and instinctive reactions kept Penrose from being numbered among the victims when the Wyvern he was returning to Yeovil suffered a failed aileron linkage and turned over on its back.

After six years of Wyvern flying, Penrose was appointed Sales Manager of Westland Aircraft Ltd, responsible for the Westland, Bristol and Saunders-Roe helicopter group. By then he had amassed some 5,000 hours on no fewer than 250 different types of aircraft ranging from rotorcraft to modern jets. He continued to fly for pleasure (he would probably have said that flying was always a pleasure), acquiring a diminutive Currie Wot byplane after his retirement in 1967 and sampling other types whenever the opportunity arose.

Apart from his aeronautical talents, Penrose was a keen ornithologist, a naval architect (he designed 36 boats and yachts), and designed the house at Nether Compton, Dorset, in which he lived for 50 years. He also wrote a number of books, being gifted with a fluidity and elegant prose style rare in aviation writers. His outstanding autobiographical works were I Flew with the Birds (1949), No Echo in the Sky (1958), Airymouse (1967), Cloud Cuckooland (1981), and Adventure with Fate (1984). Other titles were Architect of Wings (1985), a biography of the Avro designer Roy Chadwick, Wings across the World (1980), a history of British Airways, and an impressive five-volume history of British aviation.

Penrose was made a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1936 and in 1993, when his tally had risen to 5,500 hours on 309 types, he was presented with Honorary Fellowship of the US Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

Harald James Penrose, pilot: born 12 April 1904; OBE 1946; married 1929 Norn Bailey (died 1986; one son, one daughter); died 31 August 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat