Alex Henshaw was the son of a wealthy Lincolnshire family. Flying from the age of 19, he made a name for himself in aeroplane races in the 1930s.
But Alex Henshaw is best remembered as the chief test pilot of the Spitfires which were made at the Castle Bromwich aircraft factory.
Alex Henshaw’s flying career began early: in 1937 he won the first air race from London to the Isle of Man and the following year achieved the solo record for return flight to Cape Town. When the Second World War began Henshaw became a test pilot for the Vickers Armstrong company working on Wellington bombers at Weybridge. However, he did not find the work inspiring and was on the point of resigning when he was offered a job testing Spitfires at Vickers’ Southampton factory. He was transferred to Castle Bromwich in 1940 to take up the post of chief test pilot in charge of a team of 25.
Castle Bromwich was a new factory set up by the automotive magnate, Lord Nuffield and manned by car workers who did not initially cope well with the precision tasks required to construct the technically advanced Spitfire.
When Henshaw arrived at Castle Bromwich for his first test flight, he found nothing ready, and there was clearly tension between the civilian workforce, management and the RAF personnel working there.
Eventually the first Spitfire to be trialled was made ready and towed from the factory across the Chester Road and onto Castle Bromwich Aerodrome. Henshaw took it up and, decided, for the sake of morale, to show off his aerobatic skills (something that came very easily to him), to demonstrate just what the aircraft could do and hopefully to inspire the workforce with this remarkable plane.
And indeed, when he touched down, there had been an amazing change of atmosphere. It had taken over a year with many technical hitches to produce this first Spitfire and no-one at the plant had ever seen a Spitfire fly. Now everyone was congratulating each other on the success of the flight and beginning to look like a team.
Having taken a year to build the first plane, by June 1940 ten more were made and soon production figures reached 320 units a month.
At first Henshaw had been dubious about Castle Bromwich as a suitable site for the aircraft factory and his test flights. The aerodrome had only a grass strip, there were pylons, factories, houses and a sewage works, but it soon became a home from home for him and his team of test pilots. The cooling towers of Hams Hall power station became a familiar landmark to the pilots as they returned from their test flights.
If Alex Henshaw was a star turn at Castle Bromwich, he was shortly to become a Birmingham hero. When the Lord Mayor of Birmingham launched a week-long appeal in the city to raise funds for building Spitfires for the war effort, the chief test pilot was asked make a fly-past over the City Centre. Taking off from Castle Bromwich airfield he flew towards town and carried out a series of manoeuvres. His plan had been to do a number of vertical rolls over the High Street, which he did, but he ran out of height on the last one. Over the fields of Castle Bromwich that wouldn’t have been a problem, but over the City Centre with crowds of people watching from the streets below, it could have ended in disaster. Unable to complete the last roll Henshaw was flying upside down.
In an inverted position he flew the length of Broad Street towards the Civic Hall (now Baskerville House in Centenary Square) rather lower than he should, flipped the Spitfire the right way up over the Civic Hall and banked up and away.
After landing he was interviewed about the incident by the police and asked to make a statement. With his usual bravado he made light of it saying that the Lord Mayor had given him the ‘all clear’ and that was good enough for him. However, he was aware that this time he had perhaps gone too far.
Nonetheless, his showmanship had a dramatic effect on the Birmingham public and its perception of the City’s role in the war effort. In that week alone contributions to the Lord Mayor’s Spitfire fund enabled four more aircraft to be built.
Henshaw remained chief test pilot at Castle Bromwich until after the war. He later expressed surprise that his tour of duty lasted so long. His job and that of his team was to find any faults with the planes so that the RAF pilots did not discover them when in action. His job as a troubleshooter meant that he pushed the Spitfires to the limit with rolls, loops, climbs and banks and he had expected on any flight to come crashing to the ground.
During his time at Castle Bromwich, he and his team tested over 3000 planes, Spitfires and Lancaster bombers and left a lasting impression on the City. The Castle Bromwich factory built over half of the Spitfires that were ever made, as well as some 350 Lancaster bombers. The plant is now the Jaguar factory; Castle Bromwich Aerodrome is now Castle Vale housing estate.
In the year 2000, a sculpture known as ‘The Sentinel’ designed by Tim Tolkien, was unveiled by Alex Henshaw.
Representing three Spitfires in starburst formation, the aluminium sculpture stands 16 metres high and has given its name to the road junction on the Chester Road at the entrance to the Castle Vale now known as Spitfire Island.
Alex Henshaw died in 2007 at the age of 94.