Flt Lt George Stainforth
George Hedley Stainforth was the son of a solicitor, George Staunton Stainforth. He attended Dulwich College and Weymouth Secondary School. He joined the Army before joining the Royal Air Force.
George Stainforth joined the Royal Air Force on 15 March 1923 and was posted to No 19 (F) Squadron on 10 April 1924. He was promoted after four years to Flight Lieutenant on 1 July 1928, and was posted to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment (MAEE) for duties with the High Speed Flight, also known as The Flight.
1929 Schneider Trophy
Stainforth was serving with The Flight in 1929, as pilot of the Gloster VI entrant. The aircraft was withdrawn for technical reasons shortly before the competition, which was then won by his team-mate Flt. Lt. H. Waghorn in a Supermarine S.6.
George being carried ashore after a flight in the 1927 S5 The Gloster VI, a machine George preferred to the S6
On the following day, 10 September 1929, Stainforth took the Gloster VI up for an attempt at the record over a measured mile course. He achieved a top speed of 351.3 mph and a ratified world absolute speed record, averaged over four runs of 336.3 mph.
This record was held but briefly, as a later run by the S.6 managed to raise it over 350 mph.
1931 Schneider Trophy and the 400mph barrier
Flight Lieutenant Stainforth was also one of the team in 1931 when the Trophy was won for the third time in a row, and thus the competition won outright. Following the Trophy triumph on the 16th September, he had the chance to once again break the airspeed record. His first attempt was made in Supermarine S.6B S1596, in which he achieved 379 mph. Following a minor taxiing accident during testing though, he caused S1596 to turn over and sink. Although she was recovered by divers the next day, he now transferred to S1595. This was another S.6B, which could also be fitted with the same specially prepared 2,600 bhp Rolls-Royce R “sprint” engine, serial R27 and airscrew for the record attempt. The engine was using a specially prepared fuel mixture of petrol, methanol and ethyl. Starting the engine was uneasy and there was considerable danger of engine explosion.
On 29 September 1931, the record attempt was made. Due to the aircraft having no flaps, Stainforth took off from the water after a very long run up. The record was established at a height of 400 m. He made a perfect record run over the four timed miles in opposing directions and achieved an average of 407.5 mph (655.8 km/h), being the first man in the world to exceed 400 mph. For this achievement he was awarded the Air Force Cross on 9 October 1931.
Career after The Flight
Leaving the MAEE in 1935, Stainforth spent a short period as Adjutant aboard HMS Glorious. He was promoted to Squadron Leader on 1 June 1936 and served with No 802 Squadron as the Officer Commanding No 30(B) Squadron in Iraq. In February 1939, he returned to CFS Upavon (as Officer Commanding Examining and Handling Flight). On 12 January 1940, he was promoted to Wing Commander and commanded No 600(F) Squadron. In June 1940, Stainforth and Stanford Tuck, the Battle of Britain ace, were posted to Farnborough in south central England. His task was to take part in comparison trials of a captured Me-109E and a Spitfire Mark II. The tests began with Stainforth flying the Messerschmitt and Tuck flying the Spitfire in level flight, dives and turns, and at various speeds at different altitudes.
During George’s three-year tour of duty at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough as a test pilot, he was approached by Mr. Nevil Shute Norway, the founder of an infant aeroplane company, Airspeed, to test fly their new small commercial monoplane, the Courier. Norway, who had been the chief designer on the R100 airship project and, when that enterprise folded after the disaster to the rival R101, had decided to set up his own company at Portsmouth with two or three enthusiasts and with the backing of Lord Grimthorpe. Nevertheless, the new company was operating on a shoe-string with a minimum of working capital, and they had sunk every last penny in this brilliant new machine, the first plane ever to have a retractable undercarriage.
Norway could not afford to pay the high fee demanded by the well-known test pilots of the day, and had picked George on account of his reputation and because, in common with other impecunious married Flight Lieutenants, he might be prepared to accept the very small fee that they were able to offer. The Royal Air Force made no objection to George accepting the job, and he took the train down to Airspeed’s factory at Portsmouth at the beginning of April 1933.
For the whole of his first day at Airspeed, George spent sitting in the cockpit of the Courier, raised on trestles in the hangar, going over and over the controls with the chief inspector by his side, asking the same questions in an apparent daydream, much to Norway’s exasperation. George was far from being slow witted, but this was his way of memorising every detail, so in the event of an emergency his reaction would be instantaneous and effective.
Sure enough, George’s pre-flight preparation paid off. On the plane’s first flight, taking off into an easterly wind from Portsmouth aerodrome, the engine cut out completely at about 200 ft. Ahead lay the mudflats and tidal waters of Langstone Harbour. To make an orthodox emergency landing dead ahead would have resulted in considerable damage or a complete write-off of the machine in which Airspeed had gambled their fortunes and future. Instead, with the machine still climbing, George instantly had the plane forty-five degrees nose down to maintain speed in a glide, lowered the undercarriage, made a one hundred and eighty degree turn, and made a perfect landing back on the runway downwind. It was one of the most outstanding feats of airmanship that Norway, writing under his pen-name Nevil Shute, in his book ‘Slide Rule’, had ever witnessed.
George spent three weeks with Airspeed flight-testing the Courier, which then went on to become a commercial success. The design of its retractable undercarriage, too, became incorporated in the specification for the new generation of fighter planes, the Hurricane and Spitfire, of Battle of Britain fame.
Stainforth was appointed as Officer Commanding No 89 (Night Fighter) Squadron in October 1941. At the end of that year, the Squadron was posted to the Middle East, and on the night of 27 September 1942, Wing Commander Stainforth was killed in action whilst piloting the aircraft Beaufighter X7700 at Gharib, near the Gulf of Suez. He was buried with full military honours, at the British Cemetery Ismailia, Egypt.
Following his death, a dossier was compiled by his friends detailing many of his achievements, recorded remarks and memories of him by distinguished officers and men who served with him during his lifetime. It also includes extracts from his own thoughts and writings. A copy of the dossier has been presented to the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon.