Sir Alan Cobham – The Flying Legend who brought Aviation to the Masses, Colin Cruddas

Sir Alan Cobham – The Flying Legend who brought Aviation to the Masses, Colin Cruddas

Sir Alan Cobham was one of the most famous British airmen of the inter-war period. He first came to prominence as a result of his pioneering long distance flights, including trips to India, southern Africa and Australia, all part of an attempt to prove that long range commercial aviation was a viable prospect. He then went on to run a series of successful touring airshows, popularly known as ‘Cobham’s Flying Circus’. These ran for four years in the early 1930s, and are said to have given the majority of wartime recruits to the RAF their first taste of aviation. His focus after that was on air-to-air refuelling, where he was less successful, but persistent enough to see some of his ambitions achieved in the post-war period (and the company he founded is still a world leader in the field).

It must be said many of his long range trips, successful though they were, can’t have been the best advert for long range aviation. His most famous trips, in the mid-1920s, took place before aircraft engines had become truly reliable, and were epics of improvisation, with many delays caused by engine failures and other problems. At one point there was even a suggestion for a combined air and sea route, with the ships used as a backup in case the aircraft failed! However they did make his name, and kept aviation firmly in the public’s eye, and make for a fascinating read.

Cobham’s most famous venture was the National Air Show, a touring air show popularly (but not by Cobham) known as ‘Cobham’s Flying Circus’. They were clearly very hard work to set up, but for four years Cobham and his team were able to successfully tour the country offering a mix of aerial displays and the change to go up for a short flight , giving thousands of people their first direct experience of flight. 

In the second half of the 1930s one of Cobham’s main objectives was to develop air-to-air refuelling techniques that could be used on long range commercial flights. Although his company was able to develop the technology, one can see two flaws with his thinking. The first is that the range of passenger aircraft was increasing rapidly, so by the end of the decade the first few commercial flights using flying boats had already taken place, and by 1941 the technology existed to allow large numbers of land based bombers to be ferried across the north Atlantic from American factories to their British customer. The second is reliability. The idea was that the passenger aircraft would take off with limited fuel to reduce take-off weight. It would then meet up with the tanker and take on the fuel required to cross the Atlantic (the idea of a mid-flight rendevous to take on fuel was hardly acceptable for passenger flight!). Refueling wasn’t an exact science at the time, so one can imagine occasions on which the hookup failed, and the airliner had to land back at its original airfield to refuel! Even so a number of trans-Atlantic flights using air-to-air refuelling did take place in 1939, before the outbreak of war ended the scheme. Suggestions to use the same system for Bomber Command’s attacks on Germany were impractical simply because of the number of bombers involved!

Cobham emerges as a determined character, with an impressive ability to bounce back from setbacks (or to deny they had even happened, especially on his many forced landings!). The first half of the story, up to the end of the air shows in 1935 is the most interesting,  covering the more adventurous part of his life, but the later more corporate history is also of some interest, including an interesting section on Cobham’s involvement in the Second World War, where his company initially struggled to find a role. Unusually the company he founded still exists, and even carries his name now, having never done so while he was actually in charge!

1 – Early Days
2 – A Call to Arms
3 – Berkshire and Beyond
4 – New Horizons
5 – Cape Town Calling
6 – Antipodean Adventure
7 – Forging the African Dream
8 – Cobham Comes to Town
9 – A Time of Transition
10 – The Struggle for Success
11 – The Turbulent Years
12 – A False Dawn
13 – The Breakthrough
14 – A Life Well Lived

Author: Colin Cruddas
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 304
Publisher: Air World
Year: 2018

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