Flying under the radar of aviation history

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By Christian Nielsen

A lad from the Australian bush ended up designing and building the slickest, quickest aircraft of the 1920/30s. How come nobody has heard of him?   

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Thursday 10 December 2015

Edgar Wickner (‘EW’) Percival had a knack for crafting sleek and modern monoplanes that outperformed anything in their class during the inter-war years. His planes shot record-breaking fliers like Charles Kingsford Smith and New Zealand’s Jean Batten to fame, yet the man behind the Percival Aircraft Company remains largely unknown… an enigma even.

“EW Percival was not given the recognition he deserved,” commented aviator Alex Henshaw after Percival’s death in relative obscurity in 1984. Henshaw once flew a Percival ‘Mew Gull’ from England to South Africa and back in record-breaking time.

Percival grew up on a farm beside a dusty landing strip in Albury and spent his spare time helping out around the hanger. In his teens, Percival dabbled with his own aircraft designs until WWI broke out and, like many farm boys, he joined the famous Light Horse Brigade.

Shortly after arriving in Europe, Percival applied for transfer to the Royal Air Force and, by the time he demobilised around 1920, had reached the rank of captain.

He returned to Australia with two aircraft in tow and spent several years as a typical flyboy of the era doing barnstorming and running charters. This wasn’t enough for Percival: he had to build his own planes. But with a British ban on the colonies producing aircraft, Percival had no choice but to return to England, sometime around 1927.

Even there, he faced stiff head winds. His first move was to register as a test pilot, offering him the chance to see first-hand the calibre of the competition and build a network that would be essential to break into the flying establishment.

Soon after, he teamed up with well-known aircraft-maker Basil ‘Hendy’ Henderson and others before eventually designing what would become the blueprint for the light, superfast single-engine monoplanes of the 1930s and ’40s – the Gull. Early models were entered in the renowned King’s Cup Air Race and immediately captured the eye of rich sportsman fliers.

“It may be difficult today to fully appreciate the impact of the ‘Gull’ on the sporting aviation community and their open cockpit biplanes. Percival entered his prototype in most significant competitions emerging from his [fast] aircraft in business suit and trilby hat to be applauded by his competitors clad in leather coats and helmets,” wrote historians who documented the complete refurbishment of a rare Percival Gull Four (G-ACGR) – see ‘Plucked from obscurity’ – which is today proudly displayed on the upper landing of the Brussels Air Museum.

From accolades to anonymity

The graceful lines and “terrifying” acceleration of the Gull propelled Percival and his team to great heights during the 1930s. In around 1935, he flew one of his own aircraft from England to Algeria and back in under a day. This clearly established the Gull as both fast and durable for long-distance leisure and adventure travel. It also proved to be a clever marketing stunt, inspiring fliers from all over the world to similar feats in various Gull models.

“To fly [a Gull] is a mixture of terror and delight… Take-off is very fast. It climbs amazingly and in flight is very stable… [But] visibility is marginal and landings are for adrenalin junkies – they’re terrifying.” – (David Beale, pilot and owner of a Gull replica, LAA Rally 2014)

Alex Henshaw, for example, not only whipped down to South Africa and back in his Mew Gull, but also won the 1938 King’s Cup Air Race at an average speed of 236 miles per hour. Kingsford Smith and aviatrix Jean Batten, meanwhile, both piloted Gulls in their famous long-distance exploits.  Battens ‘Vega Gull’ – one of around 90 produced in total – is on display at Auckland International Airport.

“Jean, you are a very naughty girl, and really I think you want a good spanking for giving us such a terribly anxious time here. We knew you could do it, but we did not want you to run the risk,” condescended Auckland Mayor Ernest Davis upon Batten’s late touchdown on 5 October 1936, after flying solo from England to New Zealand in just over 11 days.

With the spectre of war on the horizon, Percival seemed intuitively to understand that the sportsman flier market would be short-lived. He had already developed a more sedate courier plane and with the same sense of practicality developed a military communications version of the Vega Gull, called a Proctor, which could carry four people in comfort, as well as light transport and training versions (the Q4 and Q6) which could be used for civilian purposes. As orders came in for all three models, he desperately needed capital and a new production plant so took Percival Aircraft public to attract investors.

Percival wore many hats – chief engineer, test pilot, managing director – in the new company, and the strain started to show. “Suddenly, in 1939, with no official explanation ever given, Captain EW Percival resigned his three positions within the company,” noted the Brussels Air Museum in its ‘Percival Gull IV G-ACGR story’. He remained on the board until he sold his holding at the end of the War to the Hunting Group, which would eventually become part of the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) ,which was itself absorbed by British Aerospace, now BAE Systems.

Between 1939 and 1954, Percival literally went off the radar. At the outbreak of the World War II, he reportedly represented the British Ministry of Aircraft Production on missions to select US aircraft for use by the RAF.  He is thought to have returned to Australia, spent some time in New Zealand and resurfaced in England around 1953 where he attempted to launch a new company making aeroplanes for farm use, with little success as the market was flooded with modified surplus military aircraft.

As for the rest of the war and the decade that followed it, what he did and where he travelled is something of a mystery. It is hard to believe that a man of such uncanny engineering and practical skills would sit idle for 15 years during the prime of his life.

In Percival’s obituary, his brother explained that the man he knew was a timid person who often gave the wrong impression of gruffness. What remains is the legacy of a quiet but determined country boy who battled the odds, succeeded, and then promptly retreated into relative obscurity.


Famous Gull flights

October 1933: England – Australia in 7 days by Sir Charles Kingsford Smith

June 1935: England – Algeria and back in 14 hours by E.W. Percival

October 1935: England – Brazil in 2 days 13 hours by Jean Batten

May 1936: England – South Africa in 8 days by Amy Mollison

October 1936: England – New Zealand by in 11 days by Jean Batten


Percival Gull: Plucked from obscurity

Finished in an authentic two-tone blue with a plush red interior and panelling, the rescued and now fully restored ‘G-ACGR Gull IV’ bears none of the scars that marked its short life. Built to order by the acclaimed Percival Aircraft Company, named after its mercurial Australian-born owner, G-ACGR competed in the 1933 King’s Cup Air Race bearing the recognisable colours of its owner, Sir Philip Sassoon who was British Under-Secretary of State for Air.

The Gull changed hands but while many of Percival’s other aircraft were winning acclaim in competitions and daring long-haul flights, G-ACGR wound up nose down in a canal in Belgium after a short cross-channel jaunt turned sour.

It was stripped of its propeller, engine and instruments and left to rot for three decades. After years of trying, a tenacious Belgian collector, called De Deurwaerder, eventually acquired the plane which had been languishing in a barn near Nieuwpoort, West Flanders.

“Suddenly in 1973, a phone call informed De Deurwaerder that he could take possession of the aircraft but on the condition [he] take it away the very same day!” wrote historians at the Brussels Air Museum. Apparently, the barn was about to be demolished and the plane would not be spared.

It was in poor shape, and made worse by the transporting effort. It spent another two years gathering dust in De Deurwaerder’s garage until he donated it to a volunteer organisation attached to the Royal Army Museum (AELR): “It had been saved once more but many years would pass before G-ACGR would return to its pristine original state,” recounted the aircraft restorers.

Between 1978 and 1993, the team painstakingly resurrected the plane, sourcing the missing parts and remodelling others from templates and surviving examples: “Without the goodwill, ingenuity and dedication … of the team, all volunteers, this aircraft would still be a … wreck rotting away,” Brussels Air Museum Restoration Society.


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