The Secret Years: Flight Testing at Boscombe Down, 1939-1945

Published: May 30th, 2011     
Cover art
Cover art
Author: Tim Mason
Reviewed by: Brian R. Baker - IPMS# 43146
Company: Hikoki Publications
ISBN #: 9 781902 109145
Other Publication Information: Hard cover, 8 ½ x 12 in., 368 pages, 500 BW photos and 90 color profiles.
Price: $56.95
Product / Stock #: HK914
Product provided by: Specialty Press

The Story

Boscombe Down was the Royal Air Force's main experimental test station during World War II. In 1939, the peacetime station at Martleston Heath was moved to Boscombe Down, a World War I airfield with some permanent buildings, and everything was moved within a short time period. Shops and hangars were set up, but strangely, for nearly all of the war, the facility operated using only a grass runway area with a maximum length of 1800 yards, just over a statute mile, in any direction. I find that amazing, as they operated Halifaxes, Lancasters, Stirlings, and even Meteors and Vampires from the field regularly. Facilities included a control tower, a few hardstands, gunfire stop butts, a wind tunnel, accommodations and engineering shops, and finally at the end of the war, a paved runway. Nearby were firing and bombing ranges. The role of the facility was to test aircraft, engines, and weapons systems. Later, the beginnings of the Test Pilots' School were established. By 1944, the station had become a permanent RAF installation. This facility did not have the same function as performed by the USAAF at Wright Field or the Navy at Patuxent River. It was truly a unique installation.

The testing at Boscombe Down included nearly every type the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy operated. In addition, a number of foreign types were tested, including a few former Luftwaffe aircraft, although these were mainly examined for specific functions, such as flame damping exhausts and general flying characteristics. Strangely, many aircraft didn't reach Boscombe Down until the types were in operational service, and the test programs only aimed to evaluate specific problems encountered with the planes by service units. They didn't generally test the first prototypes, but rather, production models. Often, "rogue" aircraft were tested. These were planes that units were having problems with, and they wanted technical advice on how to solve particular issues. More than 1,500 aircraft of British, American, and German manufacture were tested, including some rather obscure types such as a Pitcairne Autogyro, the Miles M.20 fighter, and the Delanne conversion of the Lysander, which had a power turret in the rear, a truly bizarre aircraft by any standards.

The Book

This is not one of your run-of-the-mill airplane books. It is a history or a Royal Air Force station that fulfilled an essential function during the war, that of finding out specific information about aircraft, discovering faults and correcting them, and improving the efficiency of service types. It is also about the outstanding bravery of the pilots and crews that performed these exacting tasks, facing mechanical difficulties as well as an occasional enemy air raid. It begins with a discussion of the facility itself, the people involved, and the type of testing done, with aircraft and armament. The second part describes the aircraft involved, the reason why they were there, and the types of tests conducted. A fairly large number of test documents did not survive the war, so the records are incomplete as far as test results are concerned. Some planes were sent there only for the taking of in-flight photos for recognition training purposes, while other just showed up for no apparent reason. Most, but not all, aircraft were photographed while they were there, and some intriguing airplanes show up in the backgrounds of photos of standard types. The back section of the book provides aircraft performance tables, a list of senior officers, an honor roll of personnel killed in line of duty, and an extensive index.

Recommendation

This is a second edition, with the original appearing in 1998. The author, Tim Mason, had a 40 year flying career, 30 as a test pilot, with 6 of those years working at Boscombe Down. He is very well qualified to write a book of this type, and he has done extensive research on the topic, obviously with access to the appropriate records and people. The illustrations are superb, and many of the color profile drawings are done in 1/72 scale. It is extremely well written, and will even make sense to a non-pilot. This book should appeal to aviation historians and modelers alike, and I cannot recommend it too highly. Get one of these while it is still available. The first edition sold out quickly, and the prices of used copies got very high. The book can be obtained direct from Specialty Press, or from some of the better hobby shops or bookstores throughout the country.

Thanks to Marie Ray, of Specialty Press, and John Noack, of IPMS/USA for the review copy.

  • Sample page: Brewster Buffalo
    Sample page
  • Sample page: Westland Lysander
    Sample page
  • Sample page: Curtiss Seamew & Chance-Vought Corsair
    Sample page

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