WINSTON CHURCHILL was successful at a great many things, wartime leader, historian, Nobel Laureate in literature, artist in oils, raconteur, bon mot specialist. However, despite having an enthusiasm for aviation, he never became a pilot.
Not that he didn’t try. And not that he was averse to taking control of aircraft transporting him on crucial wartime travel. Here’s part one of two collections of Churchill’s flights.
Sir Winston Churchill, 1874 – 1965, KG, OM. CH, TD, DL, FRS, RA, first honorary citizen of the U.S.
Churchill was already 30 years old when the Wright Brothers first flew on December 17, 1904. Seven years later, when Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty, he was instrumental in establishing the British military air arm. On his 39th birthday in 1913, Churchill gave himself the gift of flying lessons.
Churchill, facing camera, in flight training aboard a Maurice Farman Longhorn, c. 1914. Image from Fact TV.
It was said Churchill was so keen about flying that he would go up as many as 10 times a day. However, pressures grew from his wife Clemmie and government colleagues when one of his instructors, Captain Gilbert Wildman-Lushington, died in a crash. Churchill gave up his flying lessons, albeit temporarily.
Churchill took to flight training again in 1919, but only until July 18 when bad bruises in a crash at what came to be Croydon Aerodrome put paid to the idea. Though Churchill continued to be an aviation advocate, and a frequent air traveler for the rest of his life, he no longer aspired to a pilot’s certificate.
Churchill’s journalistic efforts included two stories for Nash’s Pall Mall magazine: “In the Air,” June 1924, and “Why I Gave Up Flying,” July 1924. Later, however, when responsibilities required long-distance travel, Churchill found satisfaction in visiting flight decks and, at least once, in cajoling his way into control of the aircraft.
The first transatlantic flight of a world leader came in January, 1942, after Churchill attended meetings in Washington, D.C., at the onset of U.S. entry into World War II. Churchill began with a four-hour flight in the BOAC Boeing 314 flying boat Berwick from Virginia to Bermuda, where he would thank the people of this British territory for allowing construction of a U.S. base.
Soon after the flight departed for Bermuda, Churchill entered the flight deck of the Berwick. He was smoking his trademark cigar, though Captain John Kelly-Roger waived rules and even let him strike a match when the cigar went out.
Churchill at the controls of a Boeing 314 flying boat, 1942. See the video near the end of this Bernews.
Kelly-Roger offered Churchill the pilot’s seat, while whispering to his co-pilot to be prepared for anything untoward. Churchill performed a couple of well-executed slightly banked turns and was duly photographed. Later, he returned to the second officer’s seat to observe the setdown onto Bermuda’s Great Sound.
Of the continuing flight from Bermuda to Plymouth, England, Churchill said, “I had a good broad bed in the bridal suite at the stern with large windows on either side…. The motion was smooth, the vibration not unpleasant, and we passed an agreeable afternoon and had a merry dinner.” The 3300-mile Bermuda/Plymouth flight took 17 1/2 hours.
An inadvertent detour. Image from Google Maps.
There was high drama near the flight’s conclusion. When they failed to pass over the Isles of Scilly near England’s southwest tip, the crew realized that a navigational error was pointing them toward Brest, France, the most heavily defended of all German-occupied ports. Brest was only six miles off when the aircraft veered abruptly north. Luftwaffe planes scrambled to investigate the radar blip, but never found them.
Luck prevailed when the Churchill flight approached Plymouth unexpectedly from the south. This time, the flight was mistaken for a German aircraft, and six Hurricanes of the Fighter Command were dispatched to intercept the raider.
Fortunately, as Churchill noted later, “they failed in their mission.” ds