31 August 2023

Flying to the Edge – Matthew Willis


Mention ‘test pilot’ to anyone with even just a passing interest in aviation and their mind will inevitably turn to the likes of ‘Chuck’ Yeager, perhaps the astronauts of the ‘Space Race’. Widen the net and Jeffrey Quill, Alex Henshaw, Hanna Reitsch and Eric Brown are sure to be mentioned. What about Mike Lithgow, Peter Twiss, Don Lopez, Roland Beamont and, a personal favourite, ‘Mike’ Crosley? Besides the obvious Western origins, there is one thing they all share. They all came to prominence, and I mean approached being household names, for their exploits during and after the Second World War. What about Duncan Menzies? Never heard of him? Well, you have now and the opportunity to learn more is provided by a book that is a lesson in efficiency and focus.


Born to a Scottish farming family in 1905, Menzies’s future was to follow his father on the family’s land in the Scottish Highlands. What he wanted, though, was freedom and flying appeared to offer that. Perhaps seeing his future in his father made him feel hemmed in; joining the RAF offered a broadening of horizons.


Broaden they certainly did as Menzies trained in Egypt for much of 1928, flying Avro 504Ks before progressing to the ‘bomber’ flight and DH.9As. In the final quarter of the year, he was posted to No 45 Squadron, south of Cairo, to continue flying the DH.9A. Promoted to flying officer early in the new year, he was sent to No 47 Squadron in the Sudan in mid-June, but not before flying the Fairey IIIF as his old squadron began to convert to the type.


The RAF in Africa and the Middle East, and beyond, performed the role of ‘aerial policeman’ throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The Sudan was no exception although there is no evidence Menzies was involved in any raids at the time. He was certainly not underemployed, however. Flying Fairey IIIFs again throughout the region proving routes and performing aerial photography and surveys, he even tried for some endurance records. He returned to the UK in mid-1930, trained as an instructor and, as fate would have it, returned to Egypt, and the school he learned to fly at, to teach.


With hours building, Menzies found the time between instructing to hone his aerobatics; he would be called upon to perform flying displays. With the culmination of the first course, he led a flight of, interestingly, Armstrong-Whitworth Atlases to Iraq, effectively graduating the class while also acting as a show of force to the region. It is a particularly evocative part of the book, with accompanying images, as the aircraft traverse vast tracts of exceptionally inhospitable desert (and not without mishap).


An oft-expressed desire to fly a wider range of types, coupled with his instructing prowess and reputation, saw Duncan posted to the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE), the centre of the test-flying world. During his almost three years at Martlesham Heath, after finding his feet, Menzies achieved his goal, albeit most types seemed remarkably antiquated for the time. While he had glimpses of the future, including flying the Heinkel He 64, his testing career gravitated towards naval types and he was part of the team that tested what would become the Fairey Swordfish. 


Coming to the end of his medium-service commission, and now a highly regarded test pilot, Menzies took the opportunity to resign his commission to stay employed doing what he loved. Faireys took him on and he was soon back in the Swordfish programme before moving to the long-overdue Hendon bomber. It was a Fairey light bomber, however, that stole the limelight the following year, 1937, when the first Battle rolled off the production line. Menzies flew this aircraft for most of April, testing it and proving that, weighed down with operational equipment, the Battle fell short. He had his first brush with the aircraft that would define his career, the Fulmar, in mid-1937, but much of the remaining years leading to war were taken up with testing Battles.


The Fleet Air Arm desperately needed a modern fighter and ended up with the Fulmar. Underpowered and carrying a crew of two, this graceful and ‘friendly’ (important when landing on aircraft carriers) aircraft remains the highest-scoring fighter fielded by the Royal Navy. It was the typical FAA type of the period, loved by its crews but lamented for not quite being up to the job given it. This aside, Duncan Menzies was there to test all the improvements and refinements made to the type throughout its operational career, no doubt being one of the main contributors to ‘Winkle’ Brown’s comment about the ‘basic rightness’ of the Fulmar.


After a Fulmar disintegrated around him, the g-force of the destruction throwing the test pilot clear, in early February 1941, Menzies spent the next few years of the war flying whatever Fairey had on offer – prototype and early production Barracudas, reconditioned Battles and even Fairey-built Beaufighters. He worked as an FAA liaison from 1944, taking advantage of being able to spend a few days at sea, ostensibly to see how aircraft handled on and off carriers of course, away from what was becoming an increasingly technical and somewhat troublesome job. He even headed to the Far East to investigate issues with operational Fireflies.


Throughout the later years of the war, the Fulmar, despite being withdrawn from operational service, continued to feature prominently in Duncan’s life; the prototype, having languished at Faireys for some time, was rejuvenated and became the company ‘hack’. It continued in this role post-war, proving useful during the development of the Firefly trainer, a project Menzies pushed hard for upon realising the power differential between trainers of the day and new aircraft like the Sea Fury. After a year in Australia helping with the Royal Australian Navy’s new Fireflies, and 25 years after dragging an Avro 504K into the hot Egyptian air, Menzies stepped from a cockpit as pilot for the last time in February 1952. Fittingly, his last flight was in the company Fulmar. He retired in 1964 and passed away in 1997.


Flying had been Duncan’s path to freedom and it kept him gainfully employed, and challenged, for a quarter of a century. When it became overly technical and bureaucratic – constricted by gadgets, technology and rules – he felt the freedom had gone so, without any apparent qualms, he simply stopped. He did so without fanfare; quietly and modestly, he just stepped aside. That modesty is reflected in Flying to the Edge. While there are some gaps in the account of his pre-war service, per what remains of his records, the author seamlessly fills them with reference to other sources backed by intelligent analysis and conclusions. There is no padding, though, and little in the way of contextual scene setting once Menzies returns to the UK for good. It’s not needed as the focus is kept firmly on the subject.


The accounts of service in Africa are vivid, almost ‘last frontier’ stuff, and are remarkably well illustrated, not by generic photos of the era and region, but by images featuring Menzies and his colleagues. An image of the Atlases flying to Iraq over a forbidding landscape is particularly striking. The focus exhibited in the narrative extends to the photo selection throughout, each having a direct link to Menzies if he’s not actually pictured.


Pre-war test flying was, obviously, the crest of the wave and Menzies was right on it. Descriptions of the types under development with A&AEE border on the exquisite, without disappearing down any number of rabbit holes, and are the product of an author well versed in the technical, and sometimes quirky, aspects of the machines and their time. 


For a book of a modest 120 pages, it is astonishing how much is included. The thoughtful layout helps, but this is certainly a book that punches well above its weight. Like Duncan Menzies, it might have flown under the radar, especially as the author has since been ‘scooped up’ by larger, more prolific aviation publishers, but track it down and set off on a heady journey with the Faireys.


ISBN 978-1-44566-4-415