The flight today (1 August) by the Shuttleworth Collection‘s de Havilland DH88 Comet, G-ACSS Grosvenor House, the aircraft’s first in over a decade, is aptly timed.
In only a few weeks it will be 80 years since the aircraft, flown by Charles Scott and Tom Campbell Black, won the MacRobertson Air Race from England to Australia.
Launched by the Australian confectionary tycoon Sir MacPherson Robertson – whose company had in 1930 invented one of my childhood chocolate favourites, the Freddo – the race offered a $75,000 prize to the pilots that could travel the fastest from Mildenhall in Suffolk to Melbourne, 11,000 miles away.
Scott and Campbell Black, flying the red Grosvenor House – so named after the posh London hotel whose managing director, Albert Edwards, bought the aircraft for the race and hired the two pilots to fly it – were the first to get there.
They flew Grosvenor House across oceans, mountains and deserts in two days, 23 hours and 18 seconds – the fastest time anyone had ever flown to Australia.
Even in an age when speed and distance records in aviation were set and broken regularly as pilots, aircraft manufacturers and nations competed for glory and dominance in the air, this time-shrinking achievement captured the imagination.
And it was de Havilland’s sleek twin-engine aircraft, now preserved by the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden, which got them there.
That spot of rural Bedfordshire is an appropriate home for the Comet, which last flew in 2002 and has undergone restoration over many years.
The Shuttleworth Collection was started in the 1930s by Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, a racing driver and pilot, who’d inherited Shuttleworth College and Old Warden Park, the grounds in which the airfield sits, in 1928.
Shuttleworth was killed in August 1941 in a flying accident in Oxfordshire whilst serving in the RAF, but his collection – also including numerous historic vehicles, naturally – was put into trust by his mother before being opened to the public after the war.
Grosvenor House fits the Collection like a silk glove worn by an inter-war aviator of Scott, Campbell Black and indeed Shuttleworth’s stock: it’s right that an aircraft from an era of record-setting and breaking is part of a collection started by a pilot who was himself part of that glamorous age of speed.
With its rakish Art Deco lines, in the 1930s the Comet caught the eye just like a matinee idol from the then still nascent Hollywood. It still cuts a dash today.