ForewordIn the mind of many old military aviators is the question, what happened to a particular aircraft he had flown? Usually it is because of an interest in an aircraft resulting from a significant event, or one has been partnered with a specific aircraft for an extended time. Mr. Robin Helliar-Symons’ historical and detailed account of Auster TJ 343 illuminates the life and times of an old warbird that refused to die or to be sentenced to the scrap heap. Some of our army aviators will identify with Robin’s account having themselves either been involved in restorations or have been reunited with an old warbird with a tail number that brings back memories. Unfortunately, those members of 665 Squadron who flew TJ 343 are no longer with us. This story revives a small part of their service.
Robin has included details of the WWII and post-war employment of the Auster and the Taylorcraft aviation activity in the UK. We are grateful to Robin Helliar-Symons for providing this history of TJ 343, from his private writings. Mr Robin Helliar-Symons resides in the UK. Auster MkV TJ 343 is located at White Waltham aerodrome near Maidenhead, UK.
LCol A. Victor Coroy, Coordinator, Canadian Army Aviation Website
The history of Auster Air OP Mk V TJ 343 / G-AJXC
Taylorcraft Aeroplanes (England) Limited built this aeroplane during the Second World War, as a part of contract 4232. The type was known as the Taylorcraft Model J, or Auster Mk V. Their main factory and Airfield was in Leicestershire at Rearsby (off Gaddesby Lane, Ordnance Survey map reference SK658136. postcode LE7 4YJ), but TJ 343 was built at a satellite factory: the Britannia Works at Thurmaston, Leicester. The construction number allocated was 1409. The date of the aeroplane’s first flight is not known, but would have been late in 1944 from the Company’s Rearsby aerodrome, as the aeroplane was first issued to No 20 Maintenance Unit, Royal Air Force at Aston Down, near Stroud, on 30th December 1944. The cost of an Auster during the Second World War was about £1,000, a very small amount compared with the cost of most aeroplanes of this era.
It is very likely that the aeroplane was ferried from Rearsby to Aston Down by a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary. The ATA’s headquarters was at White Waltham aerodrome, near Maidenhead, but there were a number of other bases, one of the busiest being at Ratcliffe, very close to Rearsby. A large number of ATA pilot’s were women, who had gained their Private Flying Licences before the war started.
The Taylorcraft company was set up by A.L.Wykes, who was so impressed by the American Taylorcraft Model A bought by the County Flying Club (of Leicestershire), of which he was a member, that he approached the American firm and negotiated a licence agreement to build the type in England. Lance Wykes had been a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. C.G.Taylor, an Englishman from Nottingham, had started aeroplane manufacture at Bradford, Pennsylvania in the United States of America in 1927. He was the designer of the world famous Cub design, the first example of which first flew in 1930.
However, Taylor’s company was bankrupted during the 1930s recession and the assets were bought by W.T.Piper. Apparently he gave Taylor a half share in the new company, but they didn’t always agree and Taylor left in 1936. The company name was changed to the Piper Aircraft Corporation. The Piper Cub was built in large numbers for the U.S. military during the Second World War and there were many other Piper high-wing designs based on this original design. The Piper Aircraft Corporation was very successful and it still building another famous design, the low-winged Cherokee today. Having sold out to William Piper, Taylor moved to Alliance, Ohio and set up the Taylor-Young Corporation to build a high-wing, side-by-side seating aeroplane, the Taylorcraft Model A. This company also did not last for very long, as Taylor sold out to the Fairchild Corporation in October 1938. However, one Model A found its way to the United Kingdom and started the Auster story.
Taylorcraft Aeroplanes (England) Limited was first registered on 21st November 1938 and the registered office was at the Britannia Works, Thurmaston, Leicester. This was the manufacturing site of Crowthers Limited, of which A.L.Wykes was the Managing Director. Crowthers built textile machinery and the first aeroplanes were built in a shed behind the main works. A number of changes to the design were incorporated, including the use of British T45 45 ton steel tubing in place of the American 22 ton tubing and a wing spar of double thickness. It is believed that these changes, to strengthen the structure, were required by the Air Registration Board, as the company did not have facilities for design and stress analysis. The design was referred to as the Taylorcraft Plus Model C (based on the Taylorcraft Model B). Initially, the new aeroplanes were test flown from Ratcliffe aerodrome, until 1940 when this operation was transferred to the aerodrome at Rearsby, which had opened on 23rd July 1938. The first Plus C flew on 3rd May 1939, only nine weeks after the manufacturing process had commenced.
The Taylorcraft Plus C had an American Lycoming 0-145 55 hp engine. Following the outbreak of war and the need for more important cargos to be carried across the Atlantic, the design was changed to incorporate the Blackburn Cirrus Minor engine of 90 hp. This design became the Taylorcraft Plus Model D and was used by the Army for trials as the Air OP Mk I.
The Air Ministry had a policy of naming aeroplanes and the generic name Auster was allocated by them to all marks of the aeroplane from Air OP Mk I through to Air OP9 (and the T Mk 10 trainer). Apparently A.L.Wykes had suggested the name Icarus, after the early mythological aviator and son of Daedelus. However, the Ministry pointed out that it was Icarus who flew too near to the Sun, thus melting his wings. The Ministry’s suggestion was the name given in Roman times to a warm, dry, south-westerly wind and thus the Auster was born.
Without flaps and with its low-powered engine the Army did not find the Air OP Mk I aeroplane ideal, so the Air OP Mk III was produced with split flaps and the more powerful De Havilland Gipsy Major 130 hp engine. The Air OP Mk II was a similar Airframe, but with a Lycoming 0-290 130 hp engine. As the Lycoming engine was not readily available, because of German U-Boat action in the Atlantic, the Air OP Mk III was the one put into quantity production and 469 were produced and successfully used in action. However, the rearward view was not considered ideal and a further improvement resulted in the Air OP Mk IV fitted with the Lycoming 0-290-3 engine and an attitude trimmer of the vane type fitted under the port tailplane. 255 Air OP Mk IV aeroplanes were built. Subsequently the Air OP Mk V was produced to the same basic specification, but with a more normal trim tab on the port elevator; a standard six-instrument, blind-flying panel in the centre of the instrument panel (so that it might officially be used as a communications aeroplane); and a tailwheel instead of a tailskid. The Air OP Mk V became the definitive wartime Auster with 790 being built between 1944 and 1946 and it remained in service until 1954. The fuselage of the Air OP Mk V was built on an electrically-powered production line that produced four fuselages a day.
After the war, on 8th March 1946, the name of Taylorcraft Aeroplanes (England) Limited was changed to Auster Aircraft Limited.
The first post-war aeroplane for the Army was the Auster Air OP Mk VI with an unusual “aerofoil” flap design and a more powerful De Havilland Gipsy Major 7 engine of 145 hp. Arabic numerals were introduced in 1947 to designate Aircraft variants. Thus, the Air OP Mk VI became the Air OP6. The Air OP T Mk7 was the two seat trainer version of the Air OP6. Perhaps it should be mentioned that when operating in the Air OP gunnery role the front passenger seat was occupied by a large valve radio, for Air-to-ground communication with the artillery battery.
In 1954, the first flight of the Air OP9 occurred. This was a new design with little in common with the earlier Austers. It was significantly larger and was powered by the Blackburn Bombadier 180 hp engine. 166 were produced: 129 for the UK; 35 for India; and 2 for South Africa. The Air OP T Mk10 was a modification of ten Air OP Mk6s to full dual control. On 1st September 1957, the Army Air Corps was formed and took over complete responsibility for the operation of Army Aircraft from the Royal Air Force.
There was one final military Auster, the E3 / Air OP11, a one-off upgrade of an Air OP9, with a larger American Continental IO470 260 hp engine. The next Air Observation Post Aircraft was to be the Saunders-Roe Skeeter helicopter, the Air OP12. All future production Aircraft for Army use were to be helicopters!
After the war Auster produced a range of aeroplanes for the civilian market, but its bread-and-butter work was the production of the Air OP Mk6 from 1946 to 1953 and the Air OP9 from 1954 to 1961. By the late 1950s, without the prospect of another military design, the company was getting into financial difficulties. There was increased competition for the civilian market from the American Cessna and Piper companies, with their new designs of all-metal, stressed-skin aeroplanes with nose-wheel undercarriages (at this time Auster persisted with a welded steel tubing fuselage, with fabric covering to both fuselage and wings and a tailwheel),
On 7th October 1960, this privately-owned company was taken over by the Pressed Steel Company, who used Auster Aircraft Ltd as the major working part of the British Executive and General Aviation Company Limited (known as BEAGLE Aircraft). F.G.Miles Ltd of Shoreham was also taken over and merged into the new company.
TJ 343 did not stay very long at Aston Down, as it was formally issued to 665 (RCAF) Squadron on 22nd February 1945 at Andover R.A.F. Andover was the home of 43 Operational Training Unit, where the pilots converted onto their Air OP Mk V Austers and developed their advanced flying skills.
665 (RCAF) Squadron was formed at Andover on 22nd January 1945 by Major Ely. He had been responsible for setting up 664 (RCAF) Squadron on 9th December 1944 and went on to set up 666 (RCAF) Squadron after handing 665 over to Major Norbert Reilander on 5th March. Tragically the designated squadron commander, Captain G.A.(Tony) Eaton, had been killed in a flying accident only two days before, when his Auster collided, at night, over Andover Airfield, with a Mosquito returning from a fighter sweep across the channel. By 6th February, the main body of Canadian Army personnel had arrived. RCAF technical personnel were initially attached to No.43 OTU to learn as much as possible about the Auster Aircraft, with which the Squadron was to be issued. British Air OP officers from operational units were also temporarily attached to assist with training the other ranks, until qualified Canadian officers were available. The first two Aircraft arrived on 12th February.
By 17th March, 665 Squadron was sufficiently well-organised to move to Oatland Hill, near Stonehenge, to train under field conditions, with minimal accommodation. Two shoots were organised at Larkhill and Alfriston ranges before they began deploying the ground crew to the Netherlands, initially to Hornchurch on 19th April before arriving at Gilze-Rijen Airport on 21st April 1945. The aeroplanes flew out on 25th April having flown from Andover to Hawkinge, for a briefing, and then across the channel to Calais, Brussels and then onto the new squadron headquarters at Gilze. “A” Flight took over support for 2nd Canadian Corps to work with 1st Polish Armoured Division; “B” Flight was deployed to Dunkirk under 21 Army Group to work with 17 Army Group Royal Artillery; and “C” Flight to Tilburg under 1st Canadian Corps for Netherlands district forces.
Operational commitments began on 26th April. The first operational flight was by Captain Ashfield on 27th April – a photo reconnaissance sortie over the River Mass. On the same day, “C” Flight carried out a shoot on enemy gun positions on Duiveland Island. Both “A” and “C” Flights ceased operations on 4th May, when the Nazis in north-west Germany capitulated. ‘B’ Flight assisted in the siege operations at Dunkirk and is credited with directing the last Canadian shot of the war on 7th May 1945. Eighteen days after the arrival of the squadron in the Netherlands, the war ended on VE (Victory in Europe) Day, 8th May 1945.
The squadron flew 58 operational sorties on active service, with 24 operational and 2,092 non-operational hours flown. Although the squadron suffered no operational casualties, one pilot was killed and three personnel injured in non-flying accidents, with the loss of three Aircraft.
The following Air OP MkV Austers were operated by 665 Squadron : TJ 202, 342, 343, 345, 346, 366, 399, 401, 402, 417, 418, 431, 459, 479, 480, 484, 519, 520, 521, 523, 533 and 534.
By 19th July 1945, TJ 343 had been taken over by 652 Squadron (based at Deilinghofen, near Iserlohn, Germany from 14th June). The Squadron moved to Hoya, in Lower Saxony, on 15th November and, from 29th April 1946, the Squadron was based at Celle, near Hannover, where it was the only AIR OP Squadron in BAOR (British Army Of the Rhine). During October 1945, ‘C’ Flight temporarily worked with the 7th Armoured Division at Berlin.
On 7th January 1946, TJ 343 suffered a category AC flying accident (i.e. one which was beyond the capacity of the Unit to repAir) at Hasselt, Germany when the tailwheel broke off when taxing on PSP (Pierced Steel Plate) tracking. It was with 412 RSU (RepAir & Salvage Unit) from 10th of January returning to 652 Squadron (at Hoya) on 24th. It was recorded as extant during the “Home Census” of March 1946.
In September 1946, 652 Squadron started to receive the new Auster AIR OP Mk 6 aeroplanes. TJ 343 would have been replaced by one of these and was flown to 151 RUA (RepAir Unit Aircraft) at Luneburg, Germany, by 7th November. It is next recorded with 20 MU (Aston Down) on 28th December 1946.
652 Squadron had been formed at Old Sarum on 1st May 1942 with motto “Sive aere sive campo” (In the Air and in the field). The heraldic description of its badge is: In front of wings conjoined in base, a gun barrel fesswise. Unusually for an AIR OP squadron, 652 was issued with the squadron identification letters “XM”, which were in use by 1946. TJ 343 was coded XM*O (i.e. “XM” fuselage roundel “O” for an Aircraft coded “O”). 652 Squadron landed in Normandy on 7th June 1944 (D+1) and first saw action the next day in support of the Second Army. It had the same Commanding Officer, Major R R Cobley DFC RA, from its formation until after the end of the war.
In service, the Auster had two main roles: spotting for artillery batteries; and as a communications aeroplane. In the Air observation post role, the aeroplane would operate from a field in a forward position to find and direct fire onto targets. An advance party would have found this field and advise its position to the Flight, which would then fly in. As a communications aeroplane, the Auster was used to ferry senior officers to meetings, or to review the battle situation from the Air, as well as such valuable tasks as the collection of the mail from home.
An Air OP Squadron constituted three Flights - A, B and C - normally each operating from a different position, with a fourth squadron headquarters position. These temporary forward positions were known officially as ALGs (Advanced Landing Grounds). In a fast-moving situation, a Flight might operate from several such ALGs in a short period of time, even on the same day.
Each Flight usually had four aeroplanes, with another four as the headquarters element. In line with Army thinking, each flight was divided into four sections each of which had one aeroplane; one 3-ton truck and a motorcycle, or jeep. These were staffed by the pilot who was an Army officer (usually a Captain), an Army truck driver/radio operator, an Army despatch rider/driver and two RAF personnel, a fitter and a rigger, who looked after the aeroplane. This most unusual combination of these two military services was brought about by the RAF’s eventual acceptance that it was easier to train an Army artillery officer to fly an aeroplane, than it was for an RAF pilot to learn the intricacies of controlling artillery. In addition to the staff of the three Flights, each Squadron had a Squadron Commander (usually an Army Major) and his second-in-command, two reserve pilots, a mobile workshop and a maintenance party of RAF tradesmen in a servicing Flight.
Having arrived at their forward position, a Flight would make themselves as unobtrusive as possible, by parking the vehicles and aeroplanes amongst trees and covering them with camouflaged netting. They would sometimes also surround the aeroplanes with earth banks, or dig a sloping pit, into which the aeroplane could be wheeled to give it protection from shell blasts. When taking-off, or landing, the pilot would fly around at low level in an attempt to avoid giving away the position of the Airstrip. This was known as the CATO technique (Concealed Approach and Take-Off).
In action, it was the pilot’s job to find a target suitable to the fire power of his artillery battery and radio the position of the target to the battery. He would then fly around at low level until the battery was ready to fire and, on giving the order to fire, he would zoom the Auster up to observe the fall of shot. He would then radio corrections to the artillery and observe another firing until that target was eliminated. Targets were usually troop concentrations, vehicles, buildings, encampments and suchlike. Tanks were often too well-armoured for the light guns under the control of the pilot, but he sometimes had other resources that he could bring to bear.
The usual weapon directed by the Air OP pilot was the 25 pounder gun howitzer (3.45”). Every Infantry Division was supported by three Regiments of field artillery. Each Regiment had 24 guns divided into 3 batteries of 8 guns. They could fire up to 3 rounds a minute to a maximum range of 13,400 yards (7.6 miles). In the latter part of the war, Armoured Divisions began to be equipped with 75mm guns. The majority of units in the AGRA (Army Group Royal Artillery – a grouping of field regiments of varying types and number forming a reserve of fire power in the hands of the Army Commander) were Medium Regiments, which were normally equipped with 5.5” gun howitzers that fired a 100 lb shell to a maximum range of 16,200 yards (9.2 miles) at a rate of 1 round per minute. There were also a few Heavy Regiments with the 7.2”, or 155 mm gun.
On occasions, an RAF Auster, flown by an Army pilot, could control the guns of a naval vessel operating offshore. In at least one case, an Auster is known to have directed the fire of super-heavy 15 inch rail guns, located near Dover, onto a target near Calais in France, a distance of some 42,000 yards (nearly 24 miles). This was on 17th September 1944, in support of the Canadian army. The largest number of guns to be directed by one Air OP pilot (Captain A. Lyell) was between 500 and 600 directed onto a group of about forty German tanks on 17th July 1944.
Very few Austers were lost to enemy Aircraft. This is because the Auster could fly very slowly and could out-turn any German fighter. Provided the fighter was spotted early enough, the Auster pilot would wait until the fighter was almost within gun range and then make a very tight turn, usually at low level. Indeed, the greatest protection was that the Auster spent most of its time at very low level flying around trees and only put its head “above the parapet” for short periods to find a target, or observe the fall of shot. Additionally, the aeroplanes often carried an observer in a sideways seat in the rear of the aeroplane, whose main task was to look out for incoming enemy Aircraft.
It was also very rare for an Auster to be lost to ground fire. The Germans very soon realised that, if fired upon, the pilot could quickly identify the position of the source and direct artillery fire onto them, with little of hope of them being able to escape quickly enough. The very low loss rate of the Auster to enemy action, came as a considerable surprise to the RAF hierarchy. They had had a very bad experience operating the Westland Lysander in support of the Army in France. This was in the period before the Dunkirk retreat, when about two-thirds of the 170 Lysanders deployed were destroyed by the enemy. They concluded that Air observation work was “entirely vulnerable to any enemy fighter, which cared to shoot it down”. The Lysander was a much heavier aeroplane with a higher stalling speed and was a lot less than manoeuvrable than the “little” Auster. The stalling speed of a typical Auster was 40 mph (for the MK IV and Mk V, this reduced to 30 mph with full flap) and it could make a steep turn (with about 60° of bank) of extremely small radius, which no fighter could possibly follow. The small, camouflaged, low-flying Auster must have been extremely difficult for the pilot of a fast moving fighter to spot against the background of trees, which was the Austers’ normal habitat.
During the Second World War, 133 decorations were awarded to Auster personnel. 97 of these were DFCs. 37 casualties have been recorded, only six of which are thought to be due to enemy Aircraft. Three are recorded as due to anti-Aircraft fire, four to small arms fire from the ground and nine from so-called friendly fire, in other words being shot down by your own side! One must assume that the other 15 casualties were due to accidents.
The small number of casualties in Air OP operations is partly due to the way in which the aeroplanes were used, but also due to their very slow stalling and thus landing speed. One concession to the safety of pilots was the retro-fitting of some armour plating to Air OP Mk Vs from October 1944. Plates were fitted to the seat back, under the seat and to the floor under the pilot’s legs. The weight of these made a notable difference to the aeroplane’s take-off performance and was not thought to be very effective, other than psychologically. Capt Lyell fired a 0.303 bullet at a piece of this armour from a range of about 60 yards. It passed straight through and killed a horse two fields away! Pilots were also worried about possible spinal injury in a crash.
The Austers were painted in a standard camouflage scheme, in colours known as Dark Green and Dark Earth, making them very difficult to spot from the Air, when stationary on the ground, and offering good protection from enemy Aircraft above when flying slowly and close to trees. For this reason, Austers painted with black and white invasion stripes above and below their wings, soon lost those above the wing. The Auster was unusual in that the disruptive pattern camouflage was applied to the underside of aeroplanes, as well as the top surfaces.
The standard national markings were applied to most wartime production Austers, namely 45 inch diameter Type I Dull Red and Dull Blue roundels above and below the wings, the red centre being 18 inches in diameter. The roundels on the fuselage side were Type III Dull Red, White, Dull Blue, Yellow and the diameters of these were 6, 10, 16 and 18 inch respectively. The fin flash was 18 inches square in Dull Red, white and Dull Blue with the white band being 2 inches wide. Serials were in 8 inch high Night (i.e. black) figures.
TJ 343 returned to the UK late in 1946 and was back with No 20 MU by 28th December. It was struck off charge as sold to Mr Alfred Herbert Warminger of 15 Finklegate, Norwich on 29th May 1947. It had been an R.A.F. aeroplane for only 29 months of which about 22 months were on active service and only a few days in action on the battleground.
G-AJXC was first registered, by the Air Registration Board, on 11th June 1947 and its first civilian Certificate of Airworthiness (number 9644) was issued on 3rd October 1947,
Mr Warminger’s registration was cancelled on 17th April 1950 and G-AJXC was re-registered on 20th April in the name of Mr Richard Robert Jeffery (trading as Anglian Airways of 9 Lady’s Lane, Norwich). This was probably a lease of some sort as the aeroplane was de-registered on 1st September and registered to Mr Warminger again on 12th December 1950. Mr Jeffery had been flying the aeroplane from at least 15th March 1949 – maybe as an employee of Mr Warminger. The Last flight recorded in the Journey Log Book, as being flown by Mr Jeffery, was on 30th August 1950. The only flight recorded as piloted by Mr Warminger himself was on 6th February 1951. However, the official Log Book was probably only required for commercial activities and it is likely that Mr Warminger flew it at other times.
The existing Aircraft Journey Log book (Ministry of Civil Aviation Form 26) covers the periods 16/8/48 to 3/9/48 (a trip to France); 15/3/49 to 25/7/53 and 16/7/62 to 21/9/63. The aeroplane accumulated 702 hours between 1946 and 1951. It is likely that DevonAir had a separate journey recording system from 1953 to 1962, as the use of this Journey Log ceased under Maurice Looker’s ownership.
During June 1950, post war civilian flying at Chivenor resumed when the RAF agreed to lease a corner of the Airfield, close to Wrafton railway station, to the newly-formed Wrafton Flying Club. The Club erected some buildings on the site. (Wrafton railway station closed on 1st October 1966, when the Ilfracombe and Barnstaple to Taunton railway closed under the Beeching cuts.)
On 15th August 1950 an Auster (presumably G-AJEA, owned by Captain John Drabble) of Devon Air Travel Ltd made the first post-war landing on Lundy Island, followed the next day by its leased De Havilland Dragon Rapide G-AKNY flown by John Drabble.
The Lundy operation was not successful and by March 1952, Drabble had left the scene and the registration of the Dragon Rapide transferred to the North Devon Flying Club Ltd. The Rapide was repossessed six months later by the hiring company and the Auster, G-AJEA, transferred to Mr W.Bond.
In the book Lundy by Air, it is recorded that two Austers visited Lundy in November 1952, one of them being flown by Maurice Looker and the other by Walter Bond, each aeroplane carrying another club member. However, either the date is wrong, or G-AJXC was not one of the aeroplanes involved, as it was at Rearsby from October 21st to December 18th, although the purpose of this extended visit is not recorded. It was certainly back at Chivenor from 18th December, so perhaps a December visit by the two Aircraft is more likely. The purpose of the visit was to discuss the resumption of the Island Air service, under the auspices of the proposed new company DevonAir Ltd. The owner of Lundy, Martin Coles Harman, agreed to take shares in the company, which was formed with Maurice Looker as Managing Director and Chief Pilot.
On 27th January 1953, DevonAir Ltd was formed, together with the North Devon Flying Club. Following the opening ceremony of the new flying club, it was announced that it had adopted the puffin as its mascot and would be known as the Puffin Flying Club. The puffin is a sea bird, which breeds on Lundy Island.
G-AJXC is notable for having been used to operate on the Air service between Lundy Island and Wrafton Gate (as the civilian flying base at R.A.F. Chivenor was known). Air OPerations to Lundy had started before the war, but ceased completely during the hostilities.
It is interesting to note that the pre-war return Air fare to Lundy was seventeen shillings and six pence (in pre-decimal currency there were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, thus 17/6d would be 87.5p in the new currency). By 1954, the return charter fare had become £6 (for two people). A ticket exists in the Braunton museum dated 4th September 1954, a date on which G-AJXC was flying and may well have been used on this charter.
The aeroplane’s first visit to Chivenor was on 18th January 1952. On 17th March, G-AJXC flew to Rearsby, for Certificate of Airworthiness (CoA) renewal to be completed by Auster Aircraft Ltd, and returned on 25th March, with 754 flying hours. From May to October the aeroplane was operated mainly from Great Yarmouth on pleasure flying duties, as it had been the previous summer.
On October 21st 1952, it was flown to Rearsby and stayed there until December 18th when it returned to Chivenor. In April 1953, the aeroplane was back at Rearsby for its annual CoA renewal and it is notable that the Air test (on 28th April) was conducted by Les Leetham one of Auster’s test pilots. The aeroplane had flown 260 hours in the previous year, taking its total to 1,014.
Mr Warminger’s ownership continued until 1953 (de-registered on 27th July 1953) when it was sold to Mr Maurice Leslie Looker of DevonAir Ltd, The North Devon Air Centre, Wrafton Gate, Braunton, North Devon, to whom it was registered on 31st July 1953. However, Mr Looker (an ex R.A.F. pilot) was first recorded as a pilot in the Journey Log Book on 28th May 1950 and frequently flew the aeroplane until the last entry on 25th July 1953, just before he took over ownership
In September 1953, the engine was changed at Rearsby (L001482-6 replaced by L000274-6) at 1,190 hours. The work was certified by Albert Codling (Auster’s chief engineer) and the aeroplane again Air-tested by Les Leetham. It is possible that the various maintenance works on the aeroplane at Rearsby (including many 50 hour checks) was at the instigation of Mr Warminger as, once it had passed into Maurice Looker’s ownership, the next CoA renewal was at Exeter, Devon much more local to Chivenor, than Rearsby in Leicestershire.
The 1954 CoA renewal was by The Chrislea Aircraft Company Ltd, Exeter, where it spent two months from 27th April to 4thJune 1954 (with 1,302 accumulated flying hours).
The Chrislea company is notable for producing the Super Ace aeroplane with unconventional controls to eliminate the rudder pedals and “simplify” the control system. The control column was mounted on a universal ball and socket joint, which allowed up-and-down movement for the elevators; right-and-left movement for the rudder; and rotation of the control wheel for the ailerons. This was not a success and early examples were quickly modified with rudder pedals on the floor. The up-and-down movement for the elevators was, however, retained producing a most unusual control system compared with a more normal joystick, or control wheel moving in-and-out of the instrument panel. I had the opportunity to fly a Super Ace (G-AKVF) on three occasions and did not find the transition easy!
On 29th June 1955, the aeroplane was withdrawn from service for its next CoA renewal which was carried out by DevonAir themselves at Chivenor and was completed for the Air test on 18th October - the total hours now being 1,579.
From 1953 to 1955, the two Austers would make frequent trips to Lundy, taking Islanders back and forth and often flying holiday makers to the Island. Whilst in Mr Warminger’s ownership, a formal Journey Log Book was maintained and flights were recorded as totals for the day with the aeroplane’s location at the start and end of each day. Thus, many entries recorded as Chivenor to Chivenor would have included flights to and from Lundy. The flights are annotated Club, or Charter, flying and it is likely that many of the Charter flights were to Lundy.
(NB Photo of unloading baskets on Lundy labelled “Kupke” were from the local baker in Braunton.)
Lundy Island was often windswept and it is said that, in order to combat a strong wind, the aeroplane would be brought in towards the East cliff, below cliff level, and then lifting at the last possible moment to allow touch-down near the beginning of the East/West runway. The aeroplane would then be held down whilst the passengers disembarked and the aeroplane released to quickly become Airborne again. However, despite minor incidents, the Air service was remarkably free of accident, until a significant event occurred in August 1955. At this time, G-AJXC was away for CoA renewal.
On Saturday 20th August 1955, Maurice Looker was piloting G-AJEA from Lundy, with a Mrs Nonie Ross from Bideford and her son Peter on board, when the engine failed. Maurice made a successful ditching close to a Danish cargo vessel the SS Harrildsborg and managed to keep himself and his two passengers afloat until the master of the vessel could launch a boat, which was with them in about 20 minutes. The vessel was not, however, destined for Lundy, but was en route to Port Talbot in South Wales. It is doubtful that this inconvenience troubled the survivors of the ditching! Mrs Ross’ husband, Maurice had been on the previous flight away from Lundy. The official artist for Lundy, John Dyke, drew a sketch of the event, but incorrectly recorded the Aircraft registration as G-AJXC. This sketch was framed and hung in the Ross’ home.
There were, however, significant repercussions, as a result of this accident. The Ministry of Aviation held an enquiry after which commercial flying over the sea in a single-engined aeroplane was only allowed if the weather was good and with a minimum cloud base of 6,000 feet. During the rest of 1955, Maurice Looker made only four more trips to the Island with another dozen by mid 1956. At this stage, the Island’s owner decided he needed his own ferry vessel and the Lundy Gannet was acquired. Neither the Lundy Gannet, nor the M.V. Polar Bear that replaced it in 1971, could carry many passengers.
In 1969, the Island was sold to the National Trust for £150,000 and leased to the Landmark Trust for sixty years. A building programme to provide accommodation for visitors commenced and an Island Administrator appointed. From 1978 this was Colonel Robert Gilliat, who realised that he needed to attract more visitors. In October 1980, a third era of Air OPerations to Lundy was started by Castle Air Charters Ltd, a helicopter operator from Liskeard, Cornwall, that used a Bell Jet Ranger and a Bell Long Ranger. This operation continued until 1985, when a helicopter ditching on the Scilly Isles service caused a significant change in the regulations and requirements for such over water operations. It was not economically viable for Castle Air to modify its Aircraft and the service was terminated. This in turn necessitated the replacement of the Polar Bear, which could only carry 12 passengers, by a new vessel, the M.V.Oldenburg, which could accommodate 250.
For the 1956 CoA renewal, the aeroplane was back at Exeter in October/November, this time with the Exeter Aero Club, by which time it had accumulated 1,865 hours. The Airframe log book records a different engine having been fitted since the last CoA, although there is no record in the log book of the change (the early engine log books do not exist). This would have occurred at about 1,787 hours (December 1956), when a completely overhauled engine (L000291-6) was fitted.
The aeroplane did not fly after November 1957, until its CoA was next renewed in May 1958. This work was completed at DevonAir, when the aeroplane had flown a total of 2,235 hours. The 1959 CoA renewal took place on 8th May (total hours 2,440), although it is not clear by whom the work was carried out.
In 1960 DevonAir Ltd was bought by a syndicate of Coventry businessmen and the main base moved to Coventry.
For its October 1960 CoA renewal, the aeroplane was taken to Kidlington (Oxford), where the Pressed Steel Company Ltd, Aviation Department carried out the work, at 2,682 hours. It was the Pressed Steel parent company which had, only a few days before, taken over Auster Aircraft Ltd and was to incorporate it into the new BEAGLE enterprise.
In June 1961, the engine was top overhauled by DevonAir at its new Baginton (Coventry) base. About 42 hours later the engine was to fail and the aeroplane force-landed. The propeller was damaged and the engine received a shock-load inspection, but it would appear that no other damage occurred. However, a new fuel pump was fitted, which might be the cause of the engine failing. The aeroplane was dismantled and transported back to Baginton.
From October 1961 until June 1962 , the aeroplane was at Baginton for CoA renewal by Light Aircraft Servicing Ltd. The engine serial number is now recorded as L001317-6, but there are no engine log books to date the change. This engine is still fitted to G-AJXC having been overhauled by Miles McCallum 2013/14. The total hours at CoA renewal were 2,875. The long delays between the 1957/58 and 1961/62 groundings for CoA renewal probably reflect the lack of work available during the winter months and, thus, a useful cost saving.
It must have been around this time that the frequency of CoA renewals changed to every three years, with quarterly (Check II) and annual (Check III) inspections in between.
Immediately after the 1962 CoA renewal the aeroplane was operated from Halfpenny Green Airfield, near Wolverhampton, and continued to be maintained by Light Aircraft Servicing at Baginton. It flew for 23 hours between 15th July and 23rd September 1962 and a further 4 hours in April and May 1963, before its sale to John Graves.
The aeroplane was put up for sale by Rimmer Aviation, in the 2nd May 1963 edition of the Flight International magazine, for £850. Rimmer Aviation was based at White Waltham, but the aeroplane was situated at Halfpenny Green, near Wolverhampton. On 15th May 1963, the aeroplane was flown by Mr Rimmer – probably a demonstration flight to John Graves. The specification provided by Rimmer indicates that the CoA was due to expire on 24th June 1965, that the aeroplane had been painted red at its last CoA, that a towing hook was fitted and that it had four seats. This last detail was not correct as the aeroplane still had the sideways third seat in the rear of the aeroplane, until restored in the 2010s.
John Graves then acquired the aeroplane, with 27 hours since its CoA renewal and a total of 2,812 hours and flew it from Halfpenny Green to Blackbushe on 18th May 1963 moving to its new base of Thruxton the next day. Maintenance was now carried out at the Hampshire School of Flying, Thruxton. John Graves was a glider pilot and quickly pressed G-AJXC into service as a glider tug. Its first recorded tow was on 26th May 1963, probably at Thruxton.
Following the 1962 CoA renewal, a further 23 hours were flown in 1962, with 50 in 1963, 62 in 1964 and 3 in 1965 before the next CoA renewal, bringing the total hours to 3,014.
When John Graves purchased the aeroplane, the agent, Rimmer Aviation (Sales), had sold it in good faith on behalf of the supposed owner Mr Max Warner (and friends) with an address of Boutts Motors Ltd, Wolverhampton. However, the Certificate of Airworthiness was in the hands of Maurice Looker, who disputed the ownership. When John tried to register himself as the new owner, the Ministry of Aviation would not do so until Mr Looker agreed to the change of ownership, by returning the Certificate of Registration appropriately signed. In September 1964, John received a letter from Mr A.G.Bird of A.G.Bird (Transport) Ltd of Wolverhampton. It would appear from the letter that Mr Bird had been in contact with Mr Warner and was able to state that the aeroplane belonged to the Light Aircraft Servicing Ltd. It would seem that Mr Bird now owned Light Aircaft Servicing Ltd, as he writes that “I categorically state that the company of Light Aircraft Servicing Limited owns all the equity in the above Aircraft and if Mr Maurice Looker tells you otherwise tell him not to be so silly and to ‘jump in the lake’” He also states that he had “instructed solicitors to write to Looker and also the Air Registration Board, to put this matter right but in the meantime rest assured that Looker can take no action (other than be a bloody nuisance) against you, us, or about the Aircraft”.
Despite various letters from John Graves, the Ministry of Aviation would not acquiesce to his registration. In April 1965, almost two years after the sale, Rimmer wrote to Mr Max Warner, threatening to put the matter in the hands of Wolverhampton Police, although this does not appear to have happened. The aeroplane was close to the expiry of its CoA and in an undated letter from John Graves to the Ministry, it would appear that a dispensation had been granted for the CoA to be renewed without a Certificate of Registration in John’s name.
In July 1965, John provided the Ministry with copies of the Offer for Sale, Bill of Sale and the letter from Mr Bird. The Ministry then wrote to Mr Looker, who was by then the Chief Flying Instructor of the Wiltshire School of Flying at Thruxton, but did not receive a reply. On 15thOctober, the Ministry wrote again to Looker, by registered post, stating that, if he did not assert his ownership within one month of the date of the letter, his registration would be cancelled. Consequently, on 16th November 1965, John Edward Graves of 250 Kempshott Lane, Basingstoke was finally recorded as the registered owner. The registration was cancelled by the ARB, under Article 2(12) of the Air Navigation Order 1960.
Between February 1965 and August 1967, the aeroplane was completely dismantled for a major overhaul, which included the inspection and re-protection of all major components; replacement of all of the fabric coverings; and repainting in a plain white colour. A larger fin (mod 1892) was fitted at this time and it is likely that John fitted a new instrument array, as he was an instrument engineer. I believe that this work was carried out by John Graves himself, probably in his own workshop.
The CoA test flight took place on 24th July 1967 and the ARB inspector signed the renewal on 26th August.
Subsequent Check II and the annual Check III inspections were carried out by an independent engineer, A.E.Bartholomew. The annual inspections were in August 1968 (at 3,143 hours) and 1969 at 3,243 hours. The aeroplane had accumulated 3,289 hours by August 1970, when it was grounded for its next CoA, which it received in May 1971. This work was carried out by the Bath and Wiltshire Flying Club at Keevil Airfield. A further 18 hours had accumulated before its next Check II and, by the end of 1972, the total stood at 3,327. It saw very little use in 1973 (5 hours) before the Check II was due, when it was laid up until the CoA was renewed in October 1974.
It only flew for 4 hours in 1974 (including one session of glider towing at Withy). About 20 flying hours, mostly towing, took place in 1975, most of it in one week in July. The aeroplane was laid up again through the winter, as it did not fly from 8th September 1974 to 16th April 1975.
Most of the 21 flying hours during 1975 were accumulated towing gliders – probably from Keevil and mostly in one week in July, which was probably a competition week. The aeroplane was again laid up during the Winter and flew 25 hours during 1976, before being laid up in a heated hangar at R.A.F. Colerne. Most of these hours were flown during one week in August.
At Colerne, the engine was inhibited, the propeller removed and occasional visits made to check on the aeroplane’s well-being. On 6th April 1979, the aeroplane was checked (Check II) prior to the issue of a Permit to Fly. This enabled the aeroplane to be flown, possibly to Popham, on 11th April for its CoA renewal at 3,377 hours, having accumulated only 51 hours since its last renewal.
It was in 1981 that I first met John Graves. I had learnt to fly the previous year in Aeronca 7AC Champion G-BGWV, in which I had bought a share and which was based at Popham. In 1981, four members left the Aeronca Group and set up the Auster D4 Group to purchase the only Auster D4 still in the UK, G-ARLG. John Graves was recommended, as a local member of the Popular Flying Association (renamed the Light Aircraft Association in 2008) who had knowledge of and facilities to check Aircraft instruments. He worked for Smiths Industries at Basingstoke and had a workshop in his back garden, where he checked some of the D4’s instruments. G-AJXC was based at Hook at this time and G-ARLG made occasional visits to this Airstrip beside the M3 motorway.
The CoA on G-AJXC expired on 2nd August 1982 and the Aircraft did not fly again until 2014 in my ownership. It was around this time that John split up with his second wife, retired from work and decided he would move to Spain. (It was an unusual relationship in that they had seven children from previous marriages and had a further two themselves). He intended to return to the UK and renew the CoA on G-AJXC so that he could take it to Spain. However, this never happened and, on 3rd April 1989, the Civil Aviation Authority cancelled its registration.
G-AJXC remained at Hook and on 16th October 1987, a very strong storm swept across Southern England, causing considerable widespread damage. During the previous evening’s broadcast, the television weather forecaster, Michael Fish, famously predicted that England would not be troubled by this storm, as he expected it to track across Northern France. At Hook, the roof came off the hangar in which G-AJXC was kept. Hook was visited by Independent Television News following the storm and G-AJXC thus appeared on “News at Ten”. As John Graves had retired and emigrated to Spain and it was known that the aeroplane did not have a current CoA, other Aircraft owners at Hook decided that the best short term solution would be to remove the wings and store XC in the main barn at Scotland Farm, rather than leave it stand in the open.
Ownership and management of the Airstrip at Scotland Farm had become the responsibility of Audrey Hill, as her husband, John, had been tragically killed in his Minicab homebuilt, when flying a friend to photograph that friend’s house. The minicab is a low-winged design and it is likely that John stalled the aeroplane, whilst steep-turning around the friends house, and that the aeroplane dropped into a spin from which recovery would not have been possible at low-level. Audrey was not receiving rent for G-AJXC and John did not respond to her reminders. Audrey found his lack of response surprising as she had known him, through her husband, for many years and had always considered him to be a gentleman. He was probably becoming a recluse.
I made several attempts to contact John in Spain, about G-AJXC, in the early 1990s. I offered to settle his rent debt, as a part of any purchase arrangement, but did not receive a reply.
In June 1994, Audrey wrote to John at his address in Gerona, Spain. She informed him that he had not paid any rent since 1989 and during that time she had received no communication from him. The rent outstanding amounted to a not inconsiderable £2,520, and she gave John one month’s notice that she intended to sell the aeroplane.
Audrey knew that I would like to purchase the aeroplane and I contacted Hugh Jones, an Aircraft engineer with his own Auster, for advice as to the potential value of G-AJXC. He advised that without log books and stored for several years, but in good condition, would be worth in the region of £2,500 to £3,250. By this time G-AJXC had become very rusty and was not stored in ideal conditions, but I did not want there to be any later cause for John to complain and, therefore offered Audrey £3,000, which she accepted. Thus, with effect from 18th September 1994, G-AJXC passed into the ownership of Robin David Helliar-Symons, of 19 Munro Avenue, Woodley, Reading, Berkshire, RG5 3QY.
I made several further attempts to contact John Graves, I suddenly received a letter in October 1998, in which he offered me the log books. Although I asked him to post them to me and even sent him Spanish money for postage, he never sent them. Indeed some years later he returned the postage money!
In 2010, I was contacted by Geoff Graves, one of John’s sons, who told me that his father had passed away and that he had the aeroplane’s log books and other papers, if I would like to have them. I was of course delighted and collected them from Geoff in Bristol. The log books had been badly water damaged, but nevertheless provided much of the information in this record.
I was to move house early in 1994, into 599 Reading Road, which had two large garages and space for two more. I also left the Transport and Road Research Laboratory at Crowthorne at this time. I had worked at the laboratory since leaving Swansea University and had the opportunity to volunteer for “Compulsory Early Retirement”. The scheme was compulsory in that the number of staff was being reduced in order to make the establishment more attractive for privatisation (it was a part of the scientific Civil Service, effectively the research arm of the Department of Transport). The scheme was Compulsory in that a certain number of posts were to be removed, but there were far more volunteers than required to fulfil the numbers. This was the third round of redundancies and it was only shortly before this final round that I found out that I was eligible to leave on the over 50 terms, even though I was only 47, because of the date on which I joined the Civil Service and when the rules changed.
Having left TRRL, my first priority was to build another two garages at 599 Reading Road, in order to store and, I hoped, subsequently restore, G-AJXC. Once these were completed, I arranged to collect the aeroplane from Hook. I approached Winnersh Plant Hire to see if they might hire one of their beaver tailed plant lorries for the transfer and they very generously offered to do it without charge.
The transfer of the fuselage occurred on 16th December 1995. The wings were removed separately, in wing boxes, on a large trailer. At 599, the wings were stored at the back of one double length garage and the fuselage in the other.
A few days after the fuselage arrived the local Wokingham Times newspaper visited 599 and a short article and photograph appeared in the 21st December edition.
Although I always had it in mind to restore as much of the aeroplane as I could myself, other things got in the way. I had obtained a Flying Instructor Rating on my Commercial Pilots Licence and spent three days a week instructing at Panshanger from June 1996. I also set up Auster Housing Limited with a group of retirees from Road Research. Over the ensuing years, I slowly built this enterprise until it owned six high-quality houses for letting to students at Reading University, to four of which we had added an additional two rooms in the loft. This company was sold in 2013, by which time the restoration of G-AJXC was well underway.
Having kept myself too busy with aviation and Auster Housing, I realised on reaching the age of 60 that time was marching on rather too quickly and I would soon not have enough time to enjoy flying the aeroplane, which would rather defeat the purpose of owning it at all. Therefore, I decided to approach Miles McCallum, who had restored G-AGXV some years before. I knew this aeroplane, as I had revalidated the licences of some of its co-owners (I was now a Flight Examiner) and had noted the high standard of workmanship of Miles.
Miles agreed and on 19th April 2007, he collected the fuselage from 599 Reading Road and transported it to his farm workshop at Fivehead, near Langport in Somerset. I visited the workshop for the first time on 18th June, with a car load of small parts. The wings, fuel tanks and two propellers followed on 31st October, with the wings on a trailer, which I left with Miles.
I registered the aeroplane’s ownership with the Civil Aviation Authority on 15th January 2008 but, before doing so, I gifted one third of it to my daughter Katherine Williams and one third to her husband Simon.
Simon was also a pilot, whose commercial career began with a small regional Airline, Air Wales, flying the ATR-72 and who subsequently, moved on to EasyJet to fly the Airbus A319 and A320, becoming a Captain in 2012. I had given Simon his first logable flying lesson in June 1999, when Simon and my daughter were at Swansea University. I’d flown down with some friends in a Cherokee (G-DEVS) that I then had a share in and Simon, Katy and I flew around the Gower Peninsular.
During the “naughties” (2000-2009), it was decided (probably by the Euopean Aviation Safety Agency) that it was not appropriate for the UK Civil Aviation Agency to both have design responsibility for Auster built Aircraft and at the same time be the regulatory authority. The CAA had taken over responsibility for Auster types following the dissolution of Beagle Aircraft Ltd in 1969. As no other organisation was able to take over the design authority, it was decided that all Austers were to be transferred from Certificates of Airworthiness to Permits to Fly. These could be issued either by the CAA, or the Light Aircraft Association (this organisation had changed its name from the Popular Flying Association on 1st January 2008). The LAA was responsible for the Airworthiness of homebuilt aeroplanes and many vintage and classic types.
As an engineer, Miles McCallum was much in demand for maintaining and repAiring a wide range of aeroplanes for their owners. These took priority but he always had a long term restoration project at Fivehead, which tended to be the gap-filler. His gap-filler was then a Piper Vagabond, so he did not immediately start work on G-AJXC. He gave me a very rough cost estimate of £25,000.
The restoration really started in early 2012, with dismantling and cleaning of the fuselage frame.
In April 2012, Miles found out that Tony Young (at one time the owner of Henstridge aerodrame) owned a dismantled Army Auster AIR OP Mk IV, G-ALYG, of which he wanted to dispose. This had been converted to Auster 5D standard (this involved fitting a De Havilland Gipsy engine in place of the original Lycoming O-290). The aeroplane was available without an engine, but had many parts which might usefully be used in the restoration of G-AJXC. Both fuselages were cleaned and, although YGs fuselage was in better condition and had a more interesting wartime history, I was adamant that it was G-AJXC that I wanted restored. Unfortunately, this meant a lot more welding repAirs, for which the fuselage went to Paul Grellier at Airweld near Winchester. The wings from G-ALYG were also in better condition and were used in the restoration. Afterwards, the major components left over from the restoration were sold to John Sharpe, the Project Director of the Boscombe Down Aviation Collection at Old Sarum Airfield. The Collection was pleased to obtain this Airframe, as it had once operated from Old Sarum and was a genuine wartime Auster AIR OP MK IV. They intend to restore it to Army condition, as a static exhibit.
G-ALYG had started life as Auster Air OP MK IV MT 968 manufactured in February 1944. It flew with 653 Squadron, which moved to Normandy in June 1944 and supported the Army through France and Holland, disbanding at Hoya in Germany on 15th September 1945.
Before starting serious work, on the aeroplane Miles produced a more carefully-costed estimate of £45,000 plus, in December 2011, with a time estimate of December 2012. The work proved to be considerably more time consuming and expensive than expected.
In August 2013, I applied for permission to carry military markings on the restored aeroplane, which was granted by the RAF Events Team. In turn, the CAA issued an exemption to allow G-AJXC not to carry its civil registration.
In May 2014, with the restoration almost complete, Miles sent a comprehensive summary of the work to Francis Donaldson, the LAA Chief Engineer. He raised fourteen specific queries, which were quickly resolved by Miles.
The fuselage was moved to Henstridge for final assembly on 23rd June 2014, followed the next day by the wings. Three days later Alex Allan, James Dyson and myself joined Miles to attach the wings. However it was to be some time before the aeroplane’s first post-restoration flight, as the tailplanes could not be fitted. The welder had to be called from Winchester to fit the correct sized tubing and this and other snags, including the weather, caused further delays.
By August the aeroplane was fully assembled and was weighed on 20th August. The empty weight was recorded as 1,308.7 lbs with a Centre of Gravity position 17.55 inches aft of the datum, which is the leading edge of the wing. When loaded with fuel, personnel and baggage the CoG must lie between 12.5 inches and 21.0 inches aft of the datum. Formal authorisation to test fly the Auster was sent by Francis Donaldson on 14th September 2014.
However, it was not until 9th November 2014 that G-AJXC flew, by which time, the time taken for the restoration had increased three fold, as had the cost. It made two flights on this day of 22 and 45 minutes. It next flew on 16th January for a total of 2 hours 26 minutes, before the 40 minute Permit to Fly test flight took place on 22nd January. The LAA were then very quick to process the Permit application and its first Permit was issued on 29th January 2015.
The final cost of the restoration was a ridiculous £140,800, creating an aeroplane worth approximately £25,000! Would I have done it had I known the total cost? – NO. Am I glad that I did do it and had the financial resources (thanks largely to the success of various investments, particularly Auster Housing Ltd) to complete it for the enjoyment of myself and future generations? – YES.
Auster 343 instrument panel.
Auster 343 fuselage.
Auster 343 wing stripes.
Auster 343 wing.