The Gloster-Whittle E28/39 “Pioneers”
The 15th May 2021 will mark the eightieth anniversary of the first flight at RAF Cranwell of a British jet propelled aeroplane. This paper is a brief description of that aeroplane and its almost identical twin, the experimental Gloster-Whittle E28/39 “Pioneers”. Although not actually constructed in Warwickshire, the two “Pioneers” had several associations with the county. Power Jets Ltd for example, the supplier of their engines, had its administrative and design headquarters situated at Brownsover Hall on the outskirts of Rugby, and Frank Whittle himself also resided in the town. Additionally, both aircraft were test flown on numerous occasions during the Second World War from Shenington airfield (Edge Hill), on the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire border, and were therefore no strangers to Warwickshire skies.
On the 12th April 1937, Flt. Lt Frank Whittle ran the world’s first operational gas turbine turbojet engine at the British Thomson-Houston works at Rugby. It was an auspicious occasion that has been described in numerous accounts, including a brief WIAS paper commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the event. Almost from that first run it was apparent that this radically new propulsion system was a practical possibility for aircraft. Unfortunately for Whittle, Power Jets and perhaps the country as a whole, it took a long time for the Air Ministry and other government agencies to accept this proposition and thus formulate a specification for an experimental jet aeroplane to prove the principle and take the project forward with vigour.
One of the issues to be decided was how to test Whittle’s new engine, the W1, in a suitable airframe. This engine differed significantly to its predecessor the WU (Whittle Unit) and instead of having just one large combustion chamber it has ten smaller units positioned around the core of the engine. Quite early on it was decided that the engine was not going to be tested in an existing adapted airframe. Therefore, a new experimental machine would have to be designed and manufactured. From a survey of designs from across the industry it was decided that a Gloster Aircraft proposal for a fighter to specification F18/37 looked the most promising. The Gloster design was for a twin boom and tailplane arrangement, with the pilot seated ahead of a conventional piston engine driving a pusher type propeller. It was also a layout that Whittle initially favoured for a jet propelled aircraft as it kept the jet pipe relatively short. The de Havilland Aircraft Company subsequently employed a similar twin boom layout on their successful Vampire jet aircraft.
In April 1939, Whittle visited Gloster Aircraft to meet with their chief designer, George Carter, and his team. Gloster’s chief test pilot, PEG “Gerry” (or Jerry) Sayer and Whittle were already well acquainted, but it did also provide an opportunity for Whittle to meet Michael Daunt, Sayer’s assistant. Whittle and Carter hit it off immediately and this was subsequently reflected in the successful outcome of the project. Eventually, at the request of the Air Ministry, Gloster Aircraft was asked to design an experimental aeroplane to accommodate Whittle’s gas turbine. As it turned out Gloster’s proposal for specification F18/37 was not accepted and ultimately Hawker Aircraft won the design competition with a more conventional aircraft, in what was to become the Napier Sabre powered Typhoon. Ironically, Gloster Aircraft actually built many of the Hawker Typhoons!
To familiarize himself with the new engine George Carter, in September 1939, visited Power Jets at Lutterworth. It was Carter’s first sight of a gas turbine turbojet and in his written comments he was not overly complementary describing it as, “….a quaint sort of contraption – rather on the rough and ready side – and by no means the kind of thing to inspire confidence as a prospective power installation”. However, when Carter reported back to Gloster Aircraft he also commented that despite its unpromising appearance, so much had been achieved by Power Jets with the very limited resources available to them and “….it was not difficult to foresee immense possibilities for future development”. He was absolutely right!
Carter and Whittle corresponded extensively on the design of the new experimental aircraft, although unfortunately not all of their letters have survived. Quite early on the twin boom arrangement proposed for specification F18/37 was discarded. This was because of the unknown consequences of jet efflux passing over the tailplane and elevator control surfaces. Also, a highly original tail-first Canard arrangement proposed by Carter was rejected as being too radical. Eventually two alternative but much more conservative layouts were tabled for consideration. Both proposed a mid-wing arrangement with the pilot seated well forward of the wing leading edge, with the engine in the fuselage centre section; air being ducted in at the centre front of the machine. They differed in their respective arrangements with regard to the jet tail pipe; one having the pipe right through the fuselage with the efflux exiting aft of the tail, and the other a much shorter one necessitating a reduced cross-section to the rear fuselage and empennage.
Several design meetings took place, including one at the MAP at Harrogate in November 1939. Eventually, late in 1939, the Air Ministry formalised a specification for the aeroplane and this resulted in the designation 28/39, with the prefix “E” for Experimental. The specification was issued to Gloster Aircraft on 13th February 1940. It called for an Experimental Aeroplane to Operational Requirement OR77. It was to be a single-seat, single-engine aeroplane designed for research work in connection with the Whittle Jet Propulsion Engine. Particular attention was given in the specification to the installation of the power unit and it ancillaries, and this attracted the note “….to be carried out to the satisfaction of Power Jets Ltd”.
Other design considerations mentioned in the specification were the undercarriage and armament. Provision was to be made for four Browning machine guns (calibre unspecified, but presumably 0.303”) with 500 rounds per gun. It transpired that these weapons were never actually installed in either of the two prototype machines. A Corrigendum issued in June 1940 and subsequently in December 1940, increased the military load and called for the provision of a TR9F radio, but stipulated the deletion of the armament. The deletion had been agreed when Carter realised that due to the marginal power output of the W1 engine, the additional weight of four machine guns, plus ammunition, would have rendered the aircraft seriously underpowered. This was unfortunate as the Pioneers could have provided useful information on early jet powered gun firing trials.
Two machines were ordered, the allocated serial numbers being respectively, W4041 and W4046. A suffix “/G” was subsequently applied to both numbers to indicate that the aeroplanes had to be guarded at all times whilst on the ground. The contract price was £18,500 for each machine, with another £7,000 for an additional set of high speed wings. The full scale mock-up price was agreed at £960. They were variously known as the E28/39, E28, Gloster-Whittle or sometimes as “Pioneers”, although the latter name was never an official title. Occasionally, the rather derogatory nickname of “Squirt” was used! In official service recognition manuals the aircraft were codenamed “Weaver” and allocated the Experimental Aircraft No 137. Whilst engaged in later flight trials at Shenington airfield (Edge Hill) they were code named Tourist 1 and Tourist 2.
At the National Physical Laboratory, where Dr W F Hilton was heading high speed wind tunnel research initially into the transonic airflow through the W1 engine and later also over the E28’s wings, the code initials GW (for Gloster-Whittle) were adopted for the secret project. However, a number of staff not “in the know” took this to mean the Great Western (Railway), by which Dr Hilton and his colleague Mr Lock travelled when they visited Gloster Aircraft to explain their research findings! Years later the distinguished Dr Hilton was engaged by Sir WG Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft Limited, Coventry, to undertake research work into advanced space vehicle projects.
Very close cooperation existed between Gloster Aircraft and Power Jets on the design of the E28/39, and this not only involved Carter and Whittle, but a number of their subordinates. Chief test pilot, Gerry Sayer, spent many hours in the Gloster design office going over various aspects of the aircraft’s design, no doubt expressing the pilot’s point of view. Thus it was probably no accident that the E28/39 was the first British aircraft to have built-in photographic flight recording equipment, with push button control. Eventually this design work crystallized into a single seat, low wing monoplane, with a centrally positioned jet engine and extended jet tail pipe. Also fairly novel for the time was the tricycle type undercarriage, manufactured by Dowty Limited at Cheltenham. The tricycle arrangement ensured that the jet efflux remained more or less parallel with the ground line. In contrast early prototypes of the German jet propelled Me 262 fighter had tailwheel (bicycle) type undercarriages, and consequently jet efflux scorching became a notable feature of several German experimental airfields. These markings were clearly discernible on aerial reconnaissance photographs when British photographic interpreters started to look for them!
Eventually working drawings of the E28/39 were supplied to the experimental department, situated in No 3 Hangar at Gloster’s Brockworth factory. Work on the first prototype, W4041, began probably in the spring of 1940, and by July assembly of the fuselage frames had been completed. A series of progress photographs, taken throughout the construction of the two prototypes, show that by August 1940 the monocoque fuselage structure of W 4041was well advanced in its main assembly jig. Further illustrations show similar progress being made on other major components for both machines.
In the late summer of 1940 there was growing concern over possible German air raids against aircraft factories, particularly those associated with airfields. This anxiety arose after the destruction of both the Vickers-Supermarine Woolston and nearby Itchen works on the 26th.September 1940. These attacks, together with those on other works, forced the Air Ministry/MAP into a policy of speedy dispersal. Therefore instructions were given for Gloster Aircraft to move its activities to other locations as soon as possible. The company eventually dispersed to over forty different sites, including manor houses, hotels, garages, farms and even nissen-hutted orchards! In great secrecy and under the cover of darkness the two E28’s were moved to Regent Motors, a large garage in Cheltenham Spa. Part of the garage workshop area was partitioned off and construction of both prototypes continued there. An armed guard was stationed there day and night.
During the construction of the prototype airframes, chief test pilot Gerry Sayer visited Power Jets at Lutterworth on several occasions to see the Whittle W1 in operation and familiarize himself with the controls. Jet engine controls differed considerably from those used for piston engines and a sensitive touch was required especially for throttle movements. This was probably time well spent, as Sayer could accustom himself with the jet engine’s characteristics well before he climbed into the Pioneer’s cockpit.
Eventually the first prototype was sufficiently complete for it to be removed from Regent Motors and returned to Brockworth for final assembly in No 3 Hangar. The author of this paper is unsure whether a trial engine installation was carried out Regent Motors prior to the aircraft being returned to Brockworth. However, it does seem very likely that this was the case. Engine installation probably occurred in November 1940. An illustrative plaque that was formerly displayed in the showrooms of Regent Motors showed a jet engine actually being installed in an E28/39 airframe. Regent Motors premises were eventually demolished in more recent years to make way for Cheltenham’s Regent Shopping Arcade.
For purely trial installation purposes Power Jets supplied a Whittle W1X engine, which was not an airworthy unit as it was cobbled together from degraded components. Yet another W1X engine was tested at Lutterworth for ground running and taxiing trials. The flight engine was to be a fully airworthy W1unit which had been given a 25 hour special category test. Robert Feilden, a member of the Power Jets team, was responsible for the installation of the taxiing engine in the airframe of W4041. He had got the job by virtue of picking one of the three straws proffered by Whittle! His colleague Geoffrey Bone picked the straw for installing the flight engine. Due to the excellent cooperation between Gloster and Power Jets, the engine installations went almost without a hitch. A last minute requirement from the Air Ministry for the fitting of a shield over the combustion chambers was accomplished on 5th April 1941, the day before the ground running trials began.
The first ground run of W4041 took test place in a hangar at Brockworth at 6.25 pm on Sunday 6th April 1941. Beforehand special precautions had been taken to remove any loose objects from the floor, benches, etc. The aircraft was securely chocked and .an external hand-pumped cooling water supply, passing through radiators, was connected to the Whittle W1X engine. To start the gas turbine, a trolley-mounted magneto ignition Austin Seven engine, connected to a flexible drive, was utilised. A pumped fuel supply for engine starting was also connected. With all the external services fully coupled, Mr Dan Walker of Power Jets in the cockpit, the works fire brigade in readiness and the local Home Guard securing the hanger and airfield, the signal was given to commence the run. The Austin Seven engine was started and the drive gear engaged. The gas turbine started to rotate and at the requisite revolutions the fuel and ignition were energised. When ignition took place the flexible drive and fuel supply were disconnected. An initial jet run of 10 minutes was made. Thirty seven minutes later the process was repeated for a further11 minutes. All went well!
The following day, 7th April, further adjustments were made to W4041in preparation for the initial taxiing trials. Members of the Power Jets/Gloster team then pushed the aircraft to the far side of the Brockworth airfield for official Air Ministry photographs to be taken. The aircraft was in an unpainted finish, with only primer on the fabric covered control surfaces. Four photographs were taken, front and rear elevations, a three-quarter front view from the starboard side and a side elevation from the port side. These were the first outdoor photographs to be taken of the completed aircraft. The E28 was then pushed to a safe part of the airfield and an engine run was commenced at 7.20pm for a duration of 5 minutes. Again Dan Walker had been in the cockpit. He then vacated the aircraft, permitting Gloster’s Gerry Sayer, in full flying kit to occupy the cockpit. Sayer then undertook a limited amount of taxiing trials using the maximum permitted engine speed of 13,000 revolutions. Due to the fall of darkness the first taxiing trials were terminated and the machine was returned to its hangar at about 8.25pm.
On the 8th April, after further adjustments had been made to the throttle control permitting engine revolutions to be increased to 15,000 rpm, more taxiing trials were undertaken. Whittle himself for the first time took the controls on one of these taxiing runs. Sayer then took over and attempted a straight run, but the aircraft failed to “unstick” even with a fairly large angular elevator movement. Additional adjustments to the throttle produced an extra 1,000 revolutions and with the engine now running at 16,000 rpm three straight runs were then made. The E28 became airborne on each of these occasions, for distances varying between 100-200 yards. So Britain’s first jet propelled aeroplane had left the ground and had technically “flown”, although most history books largely discount these “extended hops” as flights. It is highly probable that Whittle did a concluding taxi run on that day, finally bringing the aircraft back to Brockworth’s No 3 Hangar. Gerry Sayer clearly thought they were jet powered “flights” that he had made at Brockworth on the 8th April, and referred to them as such. It had been an important day for British aviation.
In the Gloster experimental shop a detailed structural inspection of all major components and flying controls was carried out. The engine was removed and returned to Power Jets for eventual replacement with a flight engine. Likewise, the undercarriage components were removed and returned to Dowty’s for examination. After disassembly, the E28 was transported in great secrecy to another Gloster dispersal site – Crabtree’s Garage in Cheltenham. Here reassembly took place and a flight certified W1 flight engine was installed. The undercarriage was reinstalled, but opportunity was also taken to incorporate a new longer nose wheel leg. This necessitated lengthened undercarriage doors and modifications to the “up lock” mechanism.
At Crabtree’s the aircraft was also given its first coat of paint; dark green and dark earth in an unknown camouflage pattern for the upper surfaces and yellow applied to the under surfaces. Large A 1 type roundels appeared on either side of the fuselage together with 30” type B red and blue roundels on the upper wing surfaces and type A red, white and blue roundels on the wing under surfaces. A none-standard size flash in red, white and blue appeared on the fin. The serial number W4041/G in 8” high black letters was painted on either side the fuselage, aft of the roundel. Although a prototype aircraft, the usual encircled “P” designation does not seem to have been applied, at least initially.
With W4041 re assembled and a flight engine installed it was now necessary to find a suitable location to fly the aircraft. Brockworth was not really suitable as it had a grass airfield and also situated rather too near to the city of Gloucester. It should be remembered this was an extremely secret aeroplane and the more the remote the airfield and flying area the better. Eventually RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire was selected. It possessed a long concrete runway and it was fairly isolated. It may also have appealed to Whittle for other reasons more associated with his early RAF service career and happier times – although he probably had little input into where the machine was to be actually first test flown.
On 4th May1941, in great secrecy, W4041 was transported on two fully sheeted Queen Mary low loaders to RAF Cranwell. As well as transporting the E28, the low loaders had to carry fuel for the aircraft, there being no supplies of paraffin available at Cranwell. Upon arrival at Cranwell a dispersal hangar was allocated to the E28, although this had to be cleared of aircraft before the new arrival could be ensconced. This tends to suggest that Cranwell was not exactly prepared for the new hush-hush aircraft!
Over the next few days the E28 was re assembled in its Cranwell hangar and readied for flight. Particular attention was paid to the overall surface finish of the aircraft, Gloster’s paint shop manager personally superintending the final touches to the new machine.
On 14th May, Gerry Sayer arrived at Cranwell to perform taxiing trials with the E28, now fitted with its new W1 flight certified engine and slightly lengthened nose-wheel undercarriage. Sayer expressed his satisfaction with both. He taxied the machine for 25 minutes. The next day was scheduled for the first flight.
The weather initially on 15th May was not good and it wasn’t until the early evening that Sayer elected to perform the first official flight. The actual flight time was 17 minutes and the engine and aircraft performed almost flawlessly. Apart from Sayer, those also in attendance were Frank Whittle, and from Gloster Aircraft, George Carter, Frank Mc Kenna (General Manager) and Michael Daunt (Senior Assistant Test Pilot). Additionally, Power Jets and Glosters both fielded significant numbers of key personnel. The MAP was represented by overseer Wg Cdr Leslie Crocker and by Resident Technical Officers (RTO’s) Messrs Yardley and Tobin, attached respectively to Gloster Aircraft and Power Jets. Aircraft Inspection Directorate (AID) personnel were also present. Not to be outdone, the Commanding Officer of Cranwell, Air Cdre Probyn, also witnessed the flight.
When the E28 was finally brought to a standstill at the conclusion of the flight, Whittle and Carter both ran over to congratulate Sayer, seated in the cockpit. This was the crowning achievement for the three men, a great milestone in aviation history! No official photographers were present on that historic day and the only photographs taken, together with a short cine clip, were made privately by the Gloster personnel present. Previous repeated requests to the MAP to officially record the event went of deaf ears! This petty act of stubbornness encapsulates their whole attitude to the jet project.
Most notable were the absences of senior and middle ranking officials from the Air Ministry and MAP. The one person who should have been there as part of his official technical brief was George Bulman, the head of engine development and production at the MAP. However, Bulman was essentially a piston engine man and was decidedly prejudiced against the turbojet. He had assisted considerably in the piston aero engine reaching its apogee and this historic flight at Cranwell had, at a stroke, condemned it to virtual obsolescence. Bulman’s attitude, together with others, played no small part in retarding the progress of the turbojet in this country and it was not until 1943 that he was “reigned in” by Sir Wilfred Freeman, his boss at the MAP. Unfortunately, by this time his malign influence had done its worst. Needless to say Bulman was not revered at Power Jets.
On the evening of the 15th May there was a celebration in the Sergeant’s Mess at Cranwell, with many of the Power Jets and Gloster Aircraft personnel present. Whittle apparently only stayed for a short time. Privately, however, Whittle must have been absolutely elated with the events of the day, which had culminated in the total vindication of all his work on the aviation gas turbine. A new power source had dawned for the aeroplane.
Between the 15th and 27th May seventeen flights were made with the E28 at Cranwell. Sayer was the pilot on all these occasions, although his assistant Michael Daunt was in attendance. The engine performed splendidly throughout, during which time the cowlings hardly came off except for routine servicing. A borescope was introduced at one stage into the combustion chambers to check if the ignition jets had started to carbon up; they were found to be perfectly clean. This was an amazing performance for a radically new propulsion system. All the flights at Cranwell were made with the low-speed aerofoil section wings.
After the successful Cranwell flights had been completed, W4041 was disassembled and returned to Crabtree’s Garage at Cheltenham. The slow speed high lift aerofoil wings were removed and replaced with the high speed aerofoil section equivalents. The engine was also removed and returned to Power Jets for examination and modification to W1A standards. No other British Jet aircraft, including the E28 W4041, would fly again for nearly nine months. Whilst this moratorium on jet flying was taking place Gloster Aircraft was erecting a purpose designed experimental establishment at Bentham, at the foot of Crickley Hill, about 2 miles away from the main Brockworth factory. Bentham was sited such that an enemy air attack would be rendered extremely difficult. Bentham was subsequently highly camouflaged, being made to look like an English village with a “Church” and other typical features. It is highly likely that a team based at the Leamington Spa Central Camouflage Unit was involved in this deception.
Meanwhile W4041 remained at Crabtree’s Garage until January 1942, when it taken to Bentham complete with its high speed wings and new Whittle W1A engine. At Bentham an opportunity was taken to demonstrate to staff the power of the gas turbine turbojet; a run being made inside a hangar with the jet pipe protruding through nearly closed doors. Several people are said to have fainted, but this is probably just a good story lacking firm evidence.
In late January 1942 W4041was transported to Shenington (Edge Hill) airfield, on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border, a satellite for No. 21 OTU (Operational Training Unit) at Moreton-in-Marsh. The reasons for selecting Shenington were really twofold; it was relatively secluded, although other aircraft did operate from the airfield, and it was approximately half-way between Gloster Aircraft and Power Jets at Lutterworth and therefore convenient for both parties.
W4041 undertook at least 14 flights from Shenington between February to November 1942, with Gerry Sayer carrying out all of these up to September of that year. It was whilst at Shenington that W4041 was nearly lost through fire. Only the prompt action of Sgt Cooke of the Gloster work’s police avoided the destruction of the machine, its equipment and the hangar. Several of the Shenington flights had problems, necessitating emergency landings. Sayer’s last flight in W4041, on 27th September 1942, lasted only 7 minutes as low engine oil pressure dictated a forced landing, during which the port wing, aileron and tail skid sustained damage. The aircraft went back to Bentham for repair.
Phillip Edward Gerald Sayer, Gerry or Jerry to everyone, was killed on 21 October 1942 whilst flying a Hawker Typhoon. He had taken off from RAF Acklington, Northumberland, together with Plt Off PN Dobie as his wingman, ostensibly to test a new type of gunsight. Neither of them or their respective aircraft were seen again. It is not precisely known what went wrong, but it is thought they may have collided in cloud, the wreckage falling into the sea. Up to this time Sayer was Britain’s only jet pilot, although Gloster’s Assistant Chief Test Pilot, Michael Daunt, had been well briefed throughout by Sayer.
With W4041 repaired, flight testing recommenced at Shenington (Edge Hill) in early November, with Michael Daunt taking over the mantle of Chief Test Pilot, following the tragic death of Sayer. Four flights in all were made at Shenington, mostly testing a new oil system that had been incorporated in the WIA/3 engine.
After these Shenington flights it was time for W4041 to go on is travels again. The aircraft was despatched by road from Edge Hill to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough, where official testing by service pilots as well as Gloster’s Michael Daunt was to take place. The third pilot to fly the E28 4041 was Gp Capt. HJ “Willie” Wilson, the RAE’s Chief Test Pilot. He was also later to fly in May and June of 1943, at Farnborough, the other E28/39, W4046. Between them Daunt and Wilson made seventeen flights in W4041 at Farnborough before the machine was returned to Bentham for a new more powerful Whittle engine to be fitted.
With its new W2/500/3 engine installed W4041 was transported from Bentham to Brockworth where it flew again from the Gloster’s airfield on 23rd.May 1943. Brockworth by now had a new concrete runway and this was a decided improvement for flying jet aircraft. Additionally, another Gloster pilot, John Grierson, was introduced to the jet flight programme. Seven flights were made by Daunt and Grierson from Brockworth. On one of these flights Grierson attempted to take the E 28 up to 40,000feet, but when the canopy cracked at 36,000 feet he had to abandon the attempt.
Daunt then flew W4041 to Barford St John airfield, approximately 4 miles to the South of Banbury, where further test flights were carried out.
Whilst the aircraft was at Barford St John, Daunt and Grierson were joined by yet another Gloster test pilot, John Crosby -Warren. At six foot eight and a half inches, John Crosby -Warren was probably the tallest of all British test pilots, and it must have been difficult for him to position himself comfortably into the diminutive E28 cockpit. Crosby-Warren flew both Pioneers,W4041 and W4046; the latter from Shenington (Edge Hill), his first in an E28 on 13th March 1943. On 3rd May 1943 Crosby-Warren flew W4046 in a cross-country flight from Edge Hill to RAE Farnborough, where this particular aircraft was to remain for the rest of its short life. He was accompanied on this flight by an escorting Spitfire, and Crosby-Warren had to fly the E28 with a minimum throttle setting to maintain its position behind the piston engined aircraft. John Crosby-Warren was killed on 27th April 1944 in one of the F9/40 prototype Gloster Meteors, DG205/G. The aircraft crashed near Minchinhampton when an external mass balance on a control surface became detached whilst the aircraft was being dived.
On the flysheet of a book he wrote entitled, The Flight Testing of Production Aircraft (1943), John Crosby-Warren made this rather poignant dedication to Gerry Sayer. He stated, “To the Memory of Phillip Edward Gerald Sayer to whom the advancement of Test-Flying in this country owes so much, and for whose kindly and patient training so many of us are grateful.” Crosby-Warren could have been almost writing his own obituary. This passage of course appeared well before the wider public knew anything of the jet aeroplane. It was not until the 6th January 1944 that the jet engine’s existence was officially disclosed to the world.
The second prototype, W4046, did not make its first flight until nearly two years after W4041 had undertaken its first taxiing trials at Brockworth, but when the machine arrived at Farnborough it made considerably more flights than its predecessor, before it was unfortunately lost in an accident. In fact W4046’s active life was very short indeed, a mere five months. On 10th July 1943 Sq Ldr Douglas Davie of the RAE took W4046 up to 37,000 feet when the ailerons jammed in a starboard turn. The aircraft inverted and the engine flamed out. Davie lost control and prepared to vacate the aircraft. Before he could do so the canopy partially broke and he was catapulted from the aircraft, in the process losing his flying helmet, oxygen mask, boots and left glove. Davie realised he had to delay the opening of his parachute until he reached a much lower altitude. He did a free-fall for about 20,000 feet, sucking oxygen from the remaining part of his broken oxygen pipe as he descended. Eventually Davie pulled the ripcord, the parachute opened and he completed his descent and landed at Great Tangley Farm, Wonersh near Guildford. Davie was quite badly injured. His one concern was the aircraft crash site, subsequently found to be Gate Farm Chilworth, desiring it be fully secured from public gaze as soon as possible.
Davie survived this ordeal and subsequently returned to active flying. However, in January 1944 when piloting the Metro – Vick powered Gloster Meteor F9/40 DG204/G, Davie had an engine explode whilst flying over the Farnborough sheds. On this occasion whilst attempting to escape Davie was unfortunately not so lucky, as he was hit by the aircraft’s tail and killed. This particular accident highlighted the necessity for escape systems for jet propelled aircraft, and precipitated the development of ejection seats.
With the loss of E28 W4046, this left just the first prototype Pioneer W4041 for development work. The last flights made with this aircraft were undertaken by the redoubtable Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown, the Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated pilot, whilst he was attached to the RAE at Farnborough. Eric Brown flew W4041 a total of eighteen times at Farnborough, from 9th March 1944 to the concluding and last flight of the machine on 20th February 1945. His skill as both a naval service and test pilot are almost legendary, and he holds the world record for the most numerous different types of aircraft flown by a single person; in total some 487 machines – a record extremely unlikely to be repeated. He was most enthusiastic about his flying experiences with the E28 describing the aeroplane as “……a beautiful looking little craft and delightfully simple The view (from the cockpit) was superb and almost uniquely so for a single-seat aeroplane of that era.” Captain Eric Melrose Brown CBE, DSC, AFC, MA, Hon. FRAeS, RN, died on 21st February 2016, aged 97 years.
Thus ended the flying career of the Gloster Whittle Pioneers. In March 1945, after its last flight at Farnborough, W4041 went back to Bentham for refurbishing and repainting, although apparently not authentically. The aircraft then subsequently went on display in London between June and September 1945. Later it was exhibited at Kings Square in Gloucester and subsequently at the Promenade in Cheltenham. In the Spring of 1946 the aircraft was presented to the Science Museum in London. Apart from one very brief interlude in 1951, when the machine was removed from the museum for a 10th Anniversary Commemoration Dinner, held at the Dorchester Hotel in London on 31st May, the aircraft and its W1 engine, (separately displayed) have remained in the custody of the Science Museum.
The writer of this paper has made his views known in a previous WIAS paper about the generally inadequate display of aircraft and engines in the London Science Museum’s aeronautical section. The E28/39 aeroplane, almost certainly the world’s oldest surviving jet propelled flying machine, and arguably one of the museum’s most valuable items, is very poorly exhibited suspended from the ceiling in a dimly lit area of the aeronautical section. Its Whittle W1 engine fares little better. These exhibits in the writer’s humble opinion deserve serious curatorial attention!
At least two full size replicas of the E28’s exist, both constructed from common sets of fibreglass mouldings. The first built by the Sir Frank Whittle Commemorative Group is dramatically positioned on a road traffic island, appropriately just outside Lutterworth, Leicestershire, the wartime home of Power Jets Ltd. The other, a beautifully constructed example, complete with extended undercarriage and detailed cockpit, is exhibited at the Jet Age Museum, Gloucester. This latter version was made possible by donations from the “Reactionaries”, a group of men and women who worked on the early Whittle jet engines, and a grant from Tewkesbury Borough Council.
The two Gloster E28/39 Pioneers were remarkable aeroplanes, and together with their revolutionary engines they heralded a quantum leap in aviation technology. That they did their job so well as experimental airframes for a radically new type of propulsion unit was down to Gloster Aircraft and Power Jets Limited, headed respectively by George Carter and Frank Whittle. They and their respective teams worked tirelessly to achieve an absolutely triumphal outcome. The people and aircraft involved were truly Pioneers of the Jet Age.
PEG Sayer OBE 1905 – 1942
The first person in this country to fly a jet propelled aircraft was Gloster Aircraft’s Chief Test Pilot, Phillip Edward Gerald Sayer. Always known as Gerry (or Jerry), Sayer piloted the E28/39 W4041/G “Pioneer” on it first flight a Cranwell on 15th May 1941.
He was born at Colchester on the 5th February 1905 and after completing his education joined the RAF in 1924. Some of his early service career was served at the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Martlesham Heath (A&A E E). It was here between the war years that all Britain’s military land based aircraft were tested prior to their introduction to RAF service. Sayer development an interest in this type of flying and was briefly seconded to Westland Aircraft.
RAF pilots’ with the type of flying experience acquired at the A&A E E and the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) were much sought after by aircraft manufacturers and Sayer was no exception. Hawker aircraft asked Sayer to join them and the RAF agreed to his release, placing him on the reserve list. His time at Hawkers included showing off their aircraft at the major air shows of the period. His flying skills at these events have been described as “scintillating”.
When Hawker Aircraft took over Glosters in 1934 Sayer was officially transferred to the Gloucestershire based company, becoming their Chief Test Pilot. He became heavily involved in test flying the Gloster Gladiator, an aeroplane that was destined to be the RAF’s last biplane fighter. Sayer also test flew Gloster’s unsuccessful contender for specification F5/34 which resulted in the Hurricane and Spitfire. George Carter’s twin-Taurus engined heavily armed fighter designed to specification F9/37 was also test flown by Sayer.
As has been noted in this paper Sayer was heavily involved in the design of the E28 but in addition to this he was also daily production testing Typhoons, the main wartime output of the Brockworth factory. Just before he was killed flying a Typhoon Sayer had started taxiing trials with the next generation of Gloster jet propelled aircraft, the prototype F9/40 Meteor.
Gerry Sayer’s death was greatly mourned by the industry in general and Gloster Aircraft in particular. His boyish grin, gentle good humour and calm and professional attitude to the dangers of test flying greatly endeared him to all his colleagues. Someone noted, “Anyone who knew Gerry loved him”. John Grierson also made a particularly fulsome tribute to Sayer in his autobiography Jet Flight.
Gerry Sayers memorial service in Gloucester Cathedral was attended by hundreds of his colleagues from the Gloster works. The Bishop of Tewkesbury officiated. The funeral service for one buried at sea was read and a soloist and the works’ male voice choir sang The Holy City. A fitting tribute to a greatly missed colleague.
- Jet Pioneers, Gloster and the Birth of the Jet Age, Tim Kershaw, Sutton Publishing, 2004
- Jet Man, The Making and Breaking of Frank Whittle, Genius of the Jet Revolution, Duncan Campbell-Smith, Head Zeus, 2020
- Wings On My Sleeve, Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown, Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2006
- The Flight Testing of Production Aircraft, JA Crosby-Warren, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1943
- Action Stations, Vol 6. Military Airfields of the Cotswolds and the Central Midlands, Michael JF Bowyer, Patrick Stephens. 1990 Ed.
Copyright © J F Willock March 2021