Monday, 22 June 2015

Austin Robinson – World War One aviator - Part 1

Most people are probably unaware that Sir Austin Robinson, famous Cambridge economist, was an aviator with the Royal Naval Air Service during World War One. As we are now in the midst of the 100th anniversary commemorations relating to this conflict I thought it might be interesting to draw upon some of the documents and unique unpublished photographs held in the Marshall Library archives to illustrate the flying career of this prominent Cambridge economist. In this and subsequent posts I'll describe his entry into military aviation, his training and experiences of combat and, finally, his time as a RNAS test pilot.

Austin had just entered the Upper Sixth at Marlborough College when war broke out in 1914. He remained there for a further two years before applying to the RNAS - a decision prompted, no doubt, by his fascination with all things mechanical - he had dismantled and rebuilt an old Humber motorcycle at school - and a desire for speed.

Late in 1916 he was accepted for pilot training but was allowed to defer joining up until after sitting the scholarship examination at Cambridge in which he won a scholarship in classics to Christ's. In February 1917 he was appointed Probationary Flight Officer and ordered to report to HMS President - the RNAS establishment at Chrystal Palace - for basic training.

Austin's letter of appointment as Probationary Flight Officer with the RNAS (Austin Robinson Papers 1/2/1)

Austin’s training lasted for three weeks and consisted of parade ground drill interspersed with instruction in the theory of flight. The latter was performed by instructors with white beards who "... were much too old to have flown, and what they taught us was very little".  However doubtful he may have been about the value of the training he received at Crystal Palace, Austin does not seem to have let it dent his enthusiasm and his conduct there was described as being "very satisfactory”.
Austin's certificate of conduct from Crystal Palace (Austin Robinson Papers 1/2/2)

In March 1917 Austin was posted to the main flying training station for RNAS pilots at Chingford aerodrome. During its operational career it helped to train over 1,000 naval pilots. Opened in May 1915 Chingford aerodrome was described as 'a strip of fogbound and soggy meadowland ... between a reservoir and a sewage farm'. It was not an auspicious location for a station whose primary purpose was the initial training of neophyte aviators. The geographical constraints of the site made landings particularly difficult and a small boat was permanently moored on the nearby King George V Reservoir for the rescue of pilots who routinely crashed into its waters. Nearby Epping Forest provided another natural hazard for unwary pilots.

Austin's flying training was typical of that offered to may other RNAS trainees at Chingford. He took to the air for the first time as a passenger in a Graham White 'Boxkite' on the 31st March 1917. There followed about two months of dual instruction which culminated in Austin being allowed to taxi the aircraft alone and to make a few short 'hops'. The latter involved removing a few spark plugs from the aircraft's engine to reduce its power so that pilots could open the throttle and lift themselves, briefly, into the war within a single length of the aerodrome. On May 30th Austin made his first solo flight, although the exact duration is not known.

Rare photograph of a Maurice Farman Longhorn taken by Austin at Chingford in 1917 (Austin Robinson Papers 12/5/4)

A Henri Farman biplane flown by Austin (Austin Robinson Papers 12/5/4)

In June Austin moved onto flying the Maurice Farman 'Longhorn' and then the much more capable Avro 504. With a top speed of nearly 100 mph the Avro 504 was Austin's first experience of an aircraft with real power and altitude performance. Although by 1917 Avro 504s were being used primarily as trainers or to equip Home Defence squadrons the RNAS had originally used them in a front line capacity. In November 1914 four 504s had successfully bombed the Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen - the first ever bombing raid on Germany. Austin does not appear to have had any problems learning to fly the Avro and he went solo on it within two weeks.

An extremely rare photo of an Avro 504e taken by Austin at Chingford, 1917 (Austin Robinson Papers 12/5/4)

A much more common Avro 504k, Chingford, 1917 (Austin Robinson Papers 12/5/4)

 That Austin completed his flying training without any apparent mishaps must be regarded as something of an achievement. Although the aircraft being flown at Chingford were very slow by modern standards flight training at this time  was notoriously dangerous, and Austin's sojourn there coincided with a period dubbed 'bloody April' when an above average number of fatalities occurred. In fact, seven trainee pilots lost their lives between April and September 1917.

Another of Austin's photos, this time illustrating one of the many accidents that occurred while he was at Chingford (Austin Robinson Papers 12/5/4)

Although there is no detailed record of Austin's performance as an aviator at Chingford, his certificate of conduct for this period indicates that he conducted himself 'satisfactorily'. This was sufficient to ensure his posting, in June 1917, to RNAS Cranwell for advanced pilot training.

Austin's certificate of conduct from 'H.M.S. President II' which was the RNAS name for Chingford at this time (Austin Robinson Papers 1/2/2)