I recently got to fly this iconic 1930s racer; she’s an absolute delight in the air and has a very interesting history. As penance I had to give a Pilot Chat on the aircraft at the Shuttleworth Collection and have turned my notes into the narrative below, sourced from various online sources and from some notes kindly provided by her owner from 1999 to 2018, Roger Mills.
From 1932 Miles aircraft, based at Reading aerodrome at Woodley, were building wooden touring, club and racing aircraft of revolutionary efficiency and performance.
Their first aircraft were:
⁃ 1929 Southern Martlet (6 built, the only survivor flies at the Shuttleworth Collection)
⁃ 1930 Metal Martlet (1 built)
⁃ 1932 M.1 Satyr (1 built)
⁃ 1933 M.2 Hawk (55 built) at £395 each (£28K today)
⁃ 1934 M.2 F-T Hawk Major (64 built)
⁃ 1934 M.2E/L/U Hawk Speed Six (3 built)
…leading on to the popular 1937 M.14 Hawk Trainer III which became common in service use as the Magister (1340 built).
Unusual for the early 1930s, the Hawk was a low-wing cantilever monoplane with wings that could be folded, and had the advantage over contemporary biplanes of wings that didn’t need rigging. It looked a little like a low-wing de Havilland Moth. A number of bespoke variants were built, including a cabin monoplane (M.2A), a long-range single-seater (M.2B) and three-seat tandem versions for joy riding (M.2D). However, in 1934 it was necessary to produce an improved version, the Miles Hawk Major, due to a shortage of Cirrus engines.
M.2 Hawk Major
Looking like a Magister with a more swept fin, the Hawk Major featured refinements such as a metal engine mount for the 130hp Gipsy Major engine. Selling well to private owners, bespoke variants included two aircraft that were fitted with smoke generators to allow them to be used as skywriters.
Miles Aircraft was at the time designing really competitive aircraft for the big European air races of the 1930s. The prototype Hawk Major went on to second place in the 1934 King’s Cup Race at an average speed of 147 mph. Later that year Squadron Leader Malcolm McGregor flew a Hawk Major from RAF Mildenhall to Melbourne, Australia in 7 days, 15 hours while competing in the MacRobertson Air Race.
M.2 Hawk Speed Six
The Hawk Speed Six single-seat racer was derived from the Hawk Major with the primary refinements of more power – with a 200 hp Gipsy Six engine – and less drag through careful streamlining. Interestingly, Miles thought the extra weight of a retraction mechanism not worth the gains in reduced drag so the Speed Six retained the fixed, trousered undercarriage of the Hawk Major. Despite this it was a fearsome racing machine.
Only three were built, each to order with a slightly different build standard. Despite the limited numbers they had a huge influence on European air racing. The three aircraft were:
⁃ G-ACTE; the prototype.
⁃ G-ADGP; the subject of this piece.
G-ADOD was commissioned in 1935 by Miss Ruth Fontes and kept at Woodley. A woman owning such a machine must have been a revelation in such unenlightened times. Furthermore, G-ADOD was the only Speed Six to be fitted with a Gipsy Six R (with 223hp), developed specifically for use in the Comet Racer.
G-ADOD was sold a year later to Flying Officer Arthur Clouston and Fred Tasker; Clouston entered the aircraft into the 1936 Schlesinger Race from Portsmouth to Johannesburg. Clouston set off on 29 Sep 1936 and within 2 days had nearly made it all the way to Johannesburg – but had to make a forced landing due to engine trouble. The wreck was left in situ with the exception of the rare Gipsy Six R engine which was brought home.
This brings us on to the Shuttleworth Collection’s aircraft, G-ADGP. But first we must learn of her original owner, Luis Fontes, who was the son of a Brazilian shipping magnate and inherited his father’s fortune on his 21st birthday in 1933. He started motor racing that year and qualified as a pilot at Woodley in 1934. In the same year he took delivery of G-ADGP and competed in the Kings Cup Air Race (KCAR). Amazingly, his sister Ruth, who owned G-ADOD, was also in the lineup but registered under the pseudonym Ruth Slow, anecdotally so that her brother wouldn’t know she was racing. It seems unlikely to me that this pretence would have endured beyond the gathering of the aircraft for the race, however!
In 1935 Luis Fontes started his first, and only, full season of motor racing. Instead of working his way up through the various racing series he shot for the moon and entered the International Trophy Race, involving 100 laps at Brooklands for £1500 prize money (worth £104,000 in today’s money). When the 38 drivers, including a young chap called Richard Shuttleworth, started racing in front of a crowd of 20,000 at Brooklands, Fontes – a total unknown driving a tricky 2-seasons-old 2.3 litre Alfa Romeo – stood no chance of success.. But, amazingly, with 30 laps to go Shuttleworth and Fontes were tussling for the lead. To everyone’s surprise (and presumably the bookies’ disappointment) Fontes took the victory with an average speed of 88 mph; Shuttleworth finished in 5th.
This win turned out not to have been a fluke, however. A succession of high profile victories that year culminated in Fontes winning the 1935 24-hour Le Mans race in a 4.5 litre Lagonda driving with John Hindmarsh, the Hawker test pilot.
Not just a dab hand in a car, Fontes was also proving his aeronautical prowess. He achieved second place in the 1935 Grosvenor Challenge Cup at Leicester at an average speed of 171 mph and winning £20 (£1400 today). Two months later he took part in the Kings Cup Air Race, a 1000 mile course around Britain, and would surely have been on the podium but a pipe came adrift leading to loss of oil pressure. Fontes had to make a forced landing during which the undercarriage collapsed and the propeller was bent.
Worse misfortune still for Fontes came exactly one month later, when his entire career came to a sudden dramatic end when he was arrested and charged with manslaughter, having killed a motorcyclist – allegedly during a road race with another car. At the subsequent trial, Fontes’ only defence was that he had had too much to drink. Predictably he was sentenced to three years penal servitude, receiving a ten-year driving ban from the date of his release, and his aviator’s certificate was withdrawn.
While Fontes was in prison others flew G-ADGP but in the 1936 King’s Cup all three Speed Sixes flew together for the last time. For the 1937 season the gear legs were shortened and moved outboard of the wing centre section. She took second place in the 1937 King’s Cup with an average speed of 184 mph, this time piloted by the flamboyant Flt Lt Tommy Rose.
For the 1938 season the centre section was removed entirely (reducing span from 36 ft to 28 ft), the fuselage rear decking was raised and a new canopy and windscreen fitted.
After early release from prison in 1938, Fontes gained a new aviator’s certificate and resumed flying, coming 13th in that year’s King’s Cup. But with war looming, G-ADGP was advertised for sale at £850 in May 1939 (£55,000 today) with only 150 airframe hours recorded – but did not sell. Just before war broke out the aircraft acquired an all-black colour scheme with white cheat line and a new low-profile bubble canopy for the 1939 King’s Cup Race at Elmdon. Unfortunately this was cancelled when war was declared.
Although the aeroplane was due to be ‘Impressed’ by the Air Ministry it somehow escaped requisitioning for RAF communications duties, for which it would presumably have excelled. Instead, Luis had it dismantled in April 1940 and it spent the war stored in a garage in Central London.
Luis joined the Air Transport Auxiliary as a civilian ferry pilot. But, aged only 27, he died in October 1940 when a Wellington he was delivering to RAF Llandow outside Cardiff crashed after an engine failure on approach. Coincidentally, this was only two months after Richard Shuttleworth was killed in a Fairey Battle, aged 31, during training with the RAF Volunteer Reserve.
After the war, G-ADGP was bought back by Miles, then campaigned by Ronald Paine1 when Miles went bust in 1947. Ron owned and raced the aircraft for nearly 18 years but was never able to beat the handicappers, coming second in several races. He did post the fastest time in the King’s Cup on no less than five occasions, winning the SBAC Trophy outright.
In 1971, after a fire (another oil pipe coming adrift) she underwent a complete overhaul and refurbishment and, with a canopy developed in the Farnborough wind tunnel, Ronald Paine once again flew her to a second place in the King’s Cup of 1972 at a speed of 195 mph.
Between 1986-1989 G-ADGP was restored back to her more eye-pleasing 1937 canopy configuration, albeit retaining the shorter wings of 1938. In 1999, having passed through the hands of seven owners since Ronald Paine, she passed into the hands of ex-Concorde captain Roger Mills who owned her until mid-2018. Unusually for an aircraft of this vintage, the original engine is still fitted. Even more unusually, G-ADGP still owns the FAI 100km closed circuit record at 192 mph! It is fitting that she should return to the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden, having spent so much of her time there.
When I saw that I was due to fly G-ADGP last month (Sep 2018) I was blissfully unaware of any of this history – I find it’s best this way since first-flights-on-type and nostalgia rarely mix well! My first concern was whether my 6’ 4” frame would fit in the cockpit; to my surprise not only did I fit, but I could also wear a helmet. The 1937 canopy definitely makes for a snug fit, the cockpit sides sculpting around the shoulers. The view is great for a taildragger, with the aerodynamically efficient narrow Gipsy Six blocking minimal real estate up front, and the controls fall nicely to hand. However the oil temperature and pressure gauges, vital in providing feedback of engine health to the pilot, are largely hidden behind the leather crash pad at the top of the panel. This may have something to do with my height but if one’s eyes were any lower the view outside would be diminished, so I expect it’s a feature.
Having established that I could wear the aircraft, I had a good look around it. It has wonderful lines with a very sleek, art deco feel to it and you are reminded what a rocket ship this would have been for a privateer in 1934. The wings are very “Magister” and with good reason, coming from the same stable, but this didn’t leave me hopeful that the roll performance would please me. The wings each contain a 20 Imp Gall fuel tank, selectable from the cockpit. The tail feathers look very conventional and the aircraft features trimming devices in yaw and pitch which are essentially useless (but not really needed). The main wheels are braked via a lever on the left cockpit wall, Chipmunk-style, but the tailwheel which was fitted when G-ADGP moved to Fairoaks with its hard runway has been replaced with the period tailskid for grass operations. At the business end the tightly cowled Gipsy Six with its neat line of exhaust stubs looks very purposeful.
Time to fly. There are two electrical systems, one for the engine starter with a master Ground/Flight switch behind the pilot’s seat on the right. Standard procedure is for this to be switched to Ground (i.e. off) after start but I made a note that due to the orientation of the switch it would be tricky to put it back to Flight once strapped in. The second electrical system is for the radio. The engine priming controls are in the cockpit, consisting of two knobs marked P for Primer and T for Tickler. The pilot gives five pumps on the primer and then holds the tickler out while continuing to prime – until the external observer signals that fuel is dripping from the engine. At this point, depending on how much fuel has been liberated it may be prudent to move the aircraft lest the low-mounted exhausts set the grass, and hence the aircraft, on fire after start. The brakes are then set, with rudder central to ensure braking at both wheels. The stick is held back and starting itself is straightforward.
The engine sounds very nice while warming up – there’s sufficient bark to remind you of the racing heritage. You remind yourself of the flap operation – 3 stages, actuated manually by a lever on the right wall of the cockpit. This lever has a twist grip to lock the flap at the various positions, and the flaps lock up with a firm forward push on the lever.
The engine run-up is standard for a fixed-pitch Gipsy; once complete the chocks are waved away and we’re off. The Speed Six is nice to taxy, albeit the brakes aren’t quite as effective as hoped for and it’s best not to be too optimistic with tight turns. The technique for experienced aviators involves full rudder, forward stick and bursts of power but today I’m not counting myself as experienced. On a sunny day, taxying across a grass airfield in a machine of this vintage and with this history, looking out at the period registration painted in bold letters on the tops of the wings and with the sliding canopy open, you’re in a very happy place.
Once lined up on the runway we’re all out of excuses not to go flying. Full power leads to very little swing and the static RPM and oil pressure are checked as we accelerate. She lifts off cleanly at around 55 kt and the gentle acceleration continues, an 80 kt climb speed giving a rate of climb of around 1500 ft/min. The canopy can be slid closed with one hand and there’s no need to lock it shut – air loads take care of that.
Levelling off we discover the first “gotcha” – the propensity for the engine to overspeed in level flight. So we throttle back to the cruise setting of 2100 RPM which gives us around 140 kt – not bad on 200 hp in an aircraft designed by eye. If pressed she can get to 160 kt level, or a shade under 190 mph – this compares well with the speeds attained during her racing days. Vne is 195 kt but you’d have to be in quite a dive to get there, with the throttle coming back to honour the RPM limit. The Speed Six is quite simply delightful to fly – well harmonised, lightish control forces, relatively loose directionally but not too much dancing required on the rudder pedals to keep her straight. Considering the wings are “racing Magister” the roll rate isn’t too bad either (I actually used the word “revelation” in my notes, such was my pessimism given the heritage!). And she ticks along nicely. Gentle manoeuvring as befits an old lady (80 year-old wood and glue…) is glorious.
Brief handling familiarisation complete, it’s time for a quick stall before heading back for a practice display and a couple of circuits. The handling is all very predictable and ladylike with light buffet and a pitch break at 42 kt. However, the Speed Six has a 65 kt full-flap limiting speed which sits very close to the approach speed of 60-55 kt. It would, therefore, be very easy to overstress the (wooden…) flaps during either a steep approach or an overshoot, particularly on a gusty day. And being a slippery machine the flaps are required to stand a chance of touching down near the required spot; but unlike the Magister (in which the nose tucks aggressively if the aircraft is side-slipped with flap down), side-slips are a non-event.
Displaying the Speed Six is a joy, with enough energy that meaningful wingovers can be flown, converting speed to height then back again. The only criticism is that the left hand needs to be active in responding to the change in RPM with airspeed – the throttle needs to be closed coming downhill and opened going uphill. A constant-speed prop would make a big difference, but wouldn’t be historically accurate.
Circuits are predictably low-workload, other than nailing the speed around finals. There’s no real feature in front of you to use as a cue for the three-point attitude but putting the horizon around a third of the way down the engine cowling seemed to work for me. She remains easily controllable in the flare (not all do!) and after a little float touch-down, with the engine crackling away at idle, was a non-event. Once just above walking speed the brake lever can be used to assist the turn off the runway and the flaps raised.
Shutting down is “standard Gipsy” – let the temperatures settle then turn the magnetos off one at a time, smoothly opening the throttle as the engine dies. The fuel valve is closed and the brakes set if required. A gentle easing out of the cockpit commences, with care taken not to put too much weight on those parts of the structure where it isn’t welcome.
So in summary she’s a delightful machine, as evidenced by the generations of enthusiasts who have taken her on over the years, with real racing heritage. On a sunny day flying from somewhere like Old Warden, there’s nothing quite like a Speed Six.
I had the chance to fly the Speed Six in formation with the dH Comet later that day. Just to give an indication as to relative performance, the Comet was as slow as it was safe to display it (around 160 kt) which was, as you will recall from the numbers above, right at the upper end of the Speed Sixes speed range. Twice the power in an even-more-slippery package definitely makes a difference…
- Ronald Paine was a founder of Derby Airways – which became British Midland, then BMI, then was bought by British Airways ↩