A fantastic tale, told with love, affection and pride by a daughter. One of two books about test pilots that have no rival. This is a book that no one, who expresses interest in aviation, can afford to be without. The other book is ‘Wings on My Sleeve”, the story of that other outstanding British test pilot Capt ‘Winkle’ Brown RN. Between these two books, there is not only a great aviation story from each, but an encapsulation of British Aviation and the development of the role of test pilot. Pixton’s story is incredibly exciting and a real treat.
NAME: Howard Pixton, Test Pilot & Pioneer Aviator, The Biography of the First British Schneider Trophy Winner
AUTHOR: Stella Pixton
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: aviation pioneer, test pilot, aerial competition, Schneider Trophy, Sopwith, AV Roe, S F Cody, Bristols, Pup, Camel, Tripe, Tabloid, FE2b, DH9
DESCRIPTION: A fantastic tale, told with love, affection and pride by a daughter. One of two books about test pilots that have no rival. This is a book that no one, who expresses interest in aviation, can afford to be without. The other book is ‘Wings on My Sleeve”, the story of that other outstanding British test pilot Capt ‘Winkle’ Brown RN. Between these two books, there is not only a great aviation story from each, but an encapsulation of British Aviation and the development of the role of test pilot. Pixton’s story is incredibly exciting and a real treat.
Howard Pixton was an ultimate pioneer at the start of powered flight. Pixton was flying for A V Roe in 1910. To put that in perspective, the first powered flight had taken place in 1903 when the Wright brothers made a tenuous flight in a very frail motorised glider. In 1908, S F Cody achieved the first flight in the first machine to be built in Britain. In 1910, Pixton was already the first professional test pilot. There were no manuals, they would be written by the survivors. Control surfaces and other very basic key components were still evolving with some aircraft still depending on drums and cables to warp the wings, rather than having articulated control surfaces. Pixton must already have been impressive because S F Cody tried to poach him from A V Roe. When claiming firsts it is never definitive, but the difference between the early pioneers was that most were like S F Cody, being first of all a pioneer designer, who then had to serve as test pilot because no one else wanted the job, or because the designer was reluctant to trust his ‘baby’ to some other hands.
What makes Pixton’s story all the more remarkable is that everything we now take for granted did not then exist. He was born in 1885, the year of the car. Before that there was the steam engine and the horse. The Industrial Revolution was not two hundred years in the making. Engineers were practical engineers who were working before anyone had set out the rules. There were no stress tests, no performance tables, not even a typical tool set. For example, early petrol engines required the valves to be ground relatively frequently and failure to do this resulted in the loss of power. Some manufacturers provided grinding paste and wooden rods with a suction cup to rotate the valve in its seating to grind both surfaces smooth and gas-tight. Other manufacturers provided hardened steel cutters that shaved metal from the seating. Eventually the grinding paste method was universally adopted, then passing into history as modern engines are built to have minimal maintenance, so that re-boring and valve grinding are redundant. As with the first steam engines, prudent designers over-engineered and produced heavy products that were under-powered. The risk takers pared everything down and took other risks, frequently with fatal results. This meant that Pixton was a young man with no specific training in any aspect of flying, and before the production of aerodynamics, who was literally flying by the seat of his pants and relying on intuitive response and careful observation.
Incredibly, he was racing float planes in 1914 and becoming the first British winner of the Schneider Trophy. His association with Sopwith meant that he was a key figure in the design and testing of some of the most important aircraft of WWI. The Sopwith Tabloid was a very advanced aircraft that formed the basis of the famous Sopwith Pup that was taken into battle by the RNAS as an integrated weapon system at a time when most military aircraft were unarmed sedate platforms used for photo reconnaissance and artillery spotting. Sopwith then embarked on a very intelligent process of developing the next aircraft from the previous model. The Pup was given three new wings to become the triplane that inspired the German Fokker Triplane. From there, was developed the famous Camel that was arguably the best fighter aircraft of WWI. The Camel was then developed into the Snipe that saw the RAF migrate into a peacetime air force and colonial police force.
The heritage of the work by Pixton and Sopwith was to be the Supermarine successes in the outright winning of the Schneider Trophy and the creation of the superlative Spitfire on which so much was to depend in WWII.
This reviewer recommends reading this book and then reading ‘Wings on My Sleeve’. ‘Winkle’ Brown was to become the greatest test pilot because he created the record for the number of aircraft types flown by one pilot, a record that is most unlikely ever to be beaten. Capt Brown started his flying experience with biplanes not much different from the WWI Sopwith designs, and his pilot for his first flight as a schoolboy was the German Ace Udet. Brown then became a naval aviator, flew Wildcats off the first escort carrier, before becoming a test pilot checking out a wide range of aircraft for carrier operation, and finishing WWII by flying all the advanced jet and prop-plane aircraft captured by the Allies. Brown then went on to fly civil aircraft and advanced combat aircraft at Farnborough. ‘Winkle’ Brown has therefore neatly taken up from the pioneering work of Pixton, taking the combined experience from the first powered aircraft to jet aircraft capable of Mach 2+. The two careers very effectively demonstrate how the development of aviation has taken place and how the role of test pilot has remained critical to progress, but evolved as the knowledge of aerodynamics and structural performance has evolved. That leaves space for one more key book, showing how computers are now augmenting the test pilot by allowing an aircraft design to be flown in simulation before metal is even cut, follows the test flight program and then provides engineering simulation during the life of the aircraft, but flying in simulation many hours ahead of the real aircraft. What would be really fascinating, but now impossible, would be to know how Pixton might relate his experiences to the aviation industry today.
What we can be immensely grateful for is that Stella Pixton’s curiosity persuaded her father to contribute to this book in his 84th year. This is a very valuable account, beautifully produced by the publisher and illustrated with a fine photoplate section that includes never before published images. A great tale and an ideal Christmas present.