This is a story of blood, sweat and pies that could only have taken place in Fifties Britain. It involves predictably dull bureaucrats who frowned on the sheer frivolity of speed records and a burgeoning cast of extras who assembled the infrastructure vital to prove the facts of the flight. Above all, the whole saga unfolded behind obsessive secrecy. Twiss and his colleagues were oblivious to Russian espionage, but they were convinced that the merest inkling of what was going on would spur on their bitter rivals in the States to steal the thunder of a sustained supersonic flight.
Speaking before his death 2011 Twiss’s memories were allied to an emotional detachment that qualified him for a test pilot’s job. But the transatlantic threat was still enough to raise his hackles. “If the Americans had got wind of it they would have gone after the record straightaway, they would have put it out of our reach.” The economic superpower cast a long shadow over Twiss’s world, where his employer, planemaker Fairey, had to persuade its customer, the Ministry of Supply, to relinquish ownership of the Fairey Delta 2 (FD2) in order to take a shot at the record.
A family-owned business with a long pedigree in aviation and a strong regard for personal courage found itself going head to head with sensible civil servants who reeled at the cost of competing in the jet age. Favours were called in, pressure was applied, ears were bent, and it does sound as if some rules were quietly ignored. “Oh yes,” Twiss recalled cheerfully, “we had to take the aircraft on our own charge, we almost paid to hire it. In flying terms it was a bit of fresh air, but financially it was an expensive thing to stage. The people at the Air Ministry didn’t see the point of it.”
Behind the romantic gesture of racing towards the record both Twiss and Fairey had their eyes on potential development of the design as a profitable fighter. But it seemed that nothing could spark the imagination of Whitehall. “The high-ups just were not interested. A lot of people saw it as excessive. We obviously, did not.” Twiss had realised that the pace of progress and the pressures on spending in Britain meant this was the UK’s last chance to seize the trophy for a few golden months. Officials who washed their hands of the bid were governed by post-imperial gloom. “The feeling from them was why do this when there are more difficult things going on in the world.”
His team was a collection of colleagues, cooperative RAF officers and one senior official of the old General Post Office (GPO), forerunner of BT. Flying at high speed was no challenge at all. The technical feat to be mastered was measuring the record bid from the ground and proving beyond doubt that Twiss had sustained the right speed on two successive runs while flying straight and level over a 9.5 mile course at 38,000 feet. This demanded launching the plane through an invisible gate in the sky and holding that exact altitude for the next 30 seconds without stealing extra velocity by dipping the nose.
Two cameras on the ground seven miles below had to catch the aircraft and time the run precisely. This meant linking up the improvised sites in an era of village telephone exchanges all managed by the GPO. Using a cover story invented by a contact in the GPO Fairey conscripted a mass of telephone engineers who converged on Southern England in little green vans to install a temporary rural phone network.
The mission proceeded under the codename Operation Metrical, but behind the secret classification Twiss struggled to cope with a Cinderella budget and an obsessive fear of opening a newspaper to read of a lightning strike on the record by the dreaded Americans. The idea of two wartime allies standing shoulder to shoulder against the spectre of Communism got short shrift from Twiss. “They were far more secretive than we were.” Surely the camaraderie of test pilots pushing the edges of manned flight eclipsed such surly attitudes? “We weren’t communicating with them, the camps were divided” was Twiss’s abrupt and damning verdict.
To kick off the speed run he had to rendezvous with a camera ship acting as an independent witness. This called for a tubby and ungainly two seater jet to marry up with the elegant silver creation Twiss refers to affectionately as “the little delta.” The resulting double act was a comical sight, “a Fred Karno formation.” A modern fast jet pilot gets computerised data fired onto a digital display right in front of him. Twiss was not so spoilt. “There were about 10 instruments, of which two or three were vital, the rest were of practical assistance.” This spartan set-up suited him. “I think you can waste a lot of money on that sort of thing.” He glanced at the view once, taking in a crystal clear day and the French coast 70 miles away, before going for the record with one eye on the fuel gauge and the need to make a second run to comply with international rules.
The atmospheric conditions were perfect for the camera teams below, and Twiss accomplished the double run and made it back to earth with the bare minimum of fuel. Then the trauma started. Terrestrial cameras had captured the double vapour trail Twiss laid across the blue March skies, but not the hurtling plane itself. It was the following morning before a phone call established that judges could gauge Twiss’s average speed of 1,132 mph from the vapour trail alone.
The hours in between were an unusual moment of introspection for Twiss, believing the bid had failed he examined whether winning the record really mattered. The continuing need for secrecy saw him facing the “soul-destroying” prospect of bearing failure alone, comforted only by a “solitary beer and pie”. In the event, he became a temporary hero in an age when pilots and aircraft were the subject of saloon bar chat. It was rare good news in a year that was about to bring national humiliation and painful proof of American clout at Suez.
In the long term his passing doubts about the value of the project were prophetic. A 1957 government policy verging on crass stupidity decreed that manned fighters had no future in an age of guided missiles and Fairey followed much of the British aircraft industry into the history books. The delta-winged FD2 inspired France’s best-selling Mirage fighter and lived on into the Sixties with research for Concorde, which inherited its flawless appearance and famous droop snoot nose.
For Twiss the speed record marked the apogee of a long flying career, but he seemed to take it all in his stride. “I look upon it as five days out of my life during which we lived the record bid from waking up until going to bed.” He bowed out of flying with very little regret, but kept an association with the high performance motor launch division of Fairey that survived to provide boats for a celebrated chase scene in the 1963 Bond film From Russia With Love.
Maybe the sheer pressure of flying early jets knocked any joy out of it, but Twiss finally livened as he recounted playing a baddie pursuing Sean Connery on location off the West Coast of Scotland. Secret agent games were an entertaining substitute for supersonic flight. “That was good fun and we made a profit out of it!”. There was no deep relationship with flying for Twiss and he spent many years out of the cockpit. Stirling Moss became synonymous with high velocity on the road and Donald Campbell was a household name after setting seven world water speed records between 1955 and 1964, but Twiss somehow faded from the limelight.
Although he finally took up gliding he regarded the prospect of light propeller aircraft as “a bit of a come down” after the FD2. Pushed on this the hard-headed test pilot explained that flying is not a very practical way to get around the UK. It is a prosaic view, there was no glimmer of poetry and slipping the surly bonds of earth in Twiss’s universe. But then taking on the best the US could muster in a decade of self-doubt demanded discipline.
In conversation Twiss came across as almost bemused to have found himself at the cynosure of technological progress for one brief episode in history. He continued to meet young test pilots. Had the 21st Century created a new, emotionally articulate breed of experimental aviator? “No, they are all after the same thing I was, all living a pilot’s life.”
All rights Media Pilot Ltd 2016