& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics


Sir Alan Cobham – the Flying Legend

Colin Cruddas,                                                    Pen and Sword, 2018

A biography of this seminal figure in early British civil air transport was long overdue. Cruddas is well placed to write it as he was for many years archivist for Cobham’s company – Flight Refuelling plc. Cobham himself wrote two autobiographies as well as several quickly penned accounts of his major record-breaking journeys. So the author is not short of raw material.


However the early chapters seem to be little more than rehash of Cobham’s autobiographies. (It is ironic that his secondary school relocated to Croydon Airport, in 1975). In his early career Cobham had a symbiotic relationship with Geoffrey de Havilland.


Cobham was clearly an extremely skilful pilot, but one who had more than his share of luck as he pushed sensible boundaries beyond the limit. For example he arrived at Venice one time with the cloud on the deck, and a wing almost in the lagoon. Long-distance journeys then (as in some cases now) were a matter of logistics organisation as well as pilotage. Cobham was great at logistics, and as his team grew he was clearly also a great project manager.


Cruddas also describes Cobham’s central role in establishing Australia’s civil aviation – a transport mode that did so much to stimulate economic growth in that country. Having achieved celebrity status back home in the UK, he established National Air Days, colloquially known as Cobham’s Flying Circus. Much of the staff – both air and ground  - were understandably veterans of WW1. It is therefore unsurprising that they often had a devil-may-care attitude to life, and accidents were hair-raising. This Flying Circus era provides an endless fund of adventures. The author adds colour such as when the female groupies created such emotional tension that one pilot committed suicide in flight.


Cobham was clearly a paternalistic employer in a Victorian sense – lots of rod, and a bit of carrot. And I sense that Cruddas, as a long-serving FR/Cobham plc employee is perhaps not as dispassionate as he might be. Cobham’s wife, Gladys, was  a rock, and well-liked by the work force. It was interesting that Sir Alan turned down Jean Batten – not many people did that.


As the company progressed through WW2, one cannot help but feel that it did not maximise its potential. Cobham was continually pushing his in-flight refuelling technology: really that war was a series of blind alleys for the company. Readers will enjoy Cobham’s tiff with Beaverbrook – a clash of strong-willed figures, if ever there was. Cruddas describes the various efforts made by the US to rip off the company’s intellectual property during and after the war.


Cruddas’ English  is at times a little too florid – reflecting perhaps Cobham’s era, rather than our own. Some other flaws:  Martlesham Heath is not near Norwich (it is near Ipswich). One picture is miscaptioned – Cobham is clearly standing by the prop, rather than sitting in the cockpit of an Avro 504. The seaplane refuelling attempt by the Hon. Mrs Victor Bruce (my heroine) did not end where he relates. There are some gaps in the narrative – particularly regarding  the sequence of changes in ownership of his post-war companies. The epilogue attempts to bring matters up to date (i.e. covering a period after Sir Alan’s death), yet  Cobham PLC’s more recent severe financial problems are overlooked entirely.


The reader will be left in no doubt that Sir Alan was a remarkable man.