In the course of these years he had also learned to fly. In 1925 he heard about the formation of the Auxiliary Air Force, which immediately sparked his interest. By a stroke of luck, while working at Swift he met a Swift owner who was a Flight Lieutenant at the Central Air Force Staff and personal assistant to Lord Trenchard, Chief of the Air Staff. This fortuitous encounter led to an interview with Lord Grosvenor, who was in the process of setting up 601 Squadron, part of the Auxiliary Air Force then in course of formation. John subsequently went to an official interview with the selection board and was accepted for entry to the squadron in 1925.
At that time aspiring Auxiliary Air Force pilots had to gain a basic “A” flying licence at their own expense but the Air Ministry would then refund the applicant’s tuition expenses of ninety-six pounds, after which they received further tuition to bring them up to operational standard – quite an effective way of weeding out unsuitable candidates! In November 1925 John started learning to fly at the De Havilland School of Flying, based at Stag Lane airport. He was taught on two of the first De Havilland Moths ever made. In May 1926, after six months’ training, he gained his “A” Pilot’s Licence, and officially became an Auxiliary Air Force pilot. He was in fact the first Auxiliary Air Force pilot in the country to qualify by this route. Paying for those initial flying lessons must have been quite a sacrifice on the sort of salary he was getting at that time. In 1927 he gained his RAF “Wings” and a “B” commercial pilot’s licence, and in May of that year was officially authorized to wear the R.A.F. Pilot’s badge. Later, he was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant. In 1929 he was posted to the Central Flying School in Hendon to do a full RAF Instructor’s course, the first Auxiliary to do so. All of this was achieved in his spare time, because he was still working at the Rootes Group.
Most of 601’s training took place at weekends during the year, but from 1926 onwards every year in the month of August they went for more intensive training at a summer camp at Lympne airport, where they also enjoyed the lavish hospitality of Sir Philip Sassoon, (who, after the death of Lord Grosvenor in 1929, became commanding officer of the Squadron) at his home in Port Lympne. Here they alternated serious flying training and exercises with elaborate practical jokes at the expense of rival squadrons which chiefly involved bombarding each other’s airfields with items such as rolls of lavatory paper, jerry cans, matchboxes full of tiny crabs, and suchlike.
John remained a member of 601 Squadron up to the outbreak of World War II. In July 1938, on the extension of his service for four years, he applied to be transferred to from Class A to Class C of the A.A.F. Reserve, which meant that he was no longer required to carry out training. He was a member of the Squadron for thirteen years in all, from 1926 to 1939.
The flying qualifications and contacts John gained in the A.A.F. enabled him to move into the aviation industry, which had been his ambition right from his teenage years. In 1929 he left the Rootes Group and moved to Airwork Ltd., where he remained until 1936. These were perhaps the most exciting and adventurous years of his life. The Airwork Company was set up in 1928 for the purpose of constructing and operating the Heston Air Park (located near Hounslow in Middlesex) which was officially opened on 5 July 1929 . Heston was the first UK airport to have a concrete hangar and concrete aprons, thus very modern for its time. The Air Park’s activities included hosting and servicing privately owned aircraft, as well as acting as a base for the Guards Flying Club and the Old Etonian Flying Club, operating a Flying School, putting on aircraft displays and public demonstrations of new aircraft types, holding air races and “garden parties”, testing aircraft, and operating private charter flights.
Sir Nigel Norman, one of the co-founders of the Heston Air Park, was also a member of 601 Squadron and became its commanding officer for a few years in the 1930s. Thus John’s career move to Airwork came about as a result of getting to know Norman in the Auxiliary Air Force context. His seven years there gave him experience of different aspects of civil aviation, including the manufacture, servicing and repair of aircraft.
His role in the company included teaching people to fly, giving joy rides, doing demonstration flights, and flying as a charter pilot. He also did a lot of aircraft testing, particularly during the later years. Going through his flying log books for this period one gets a panorama these activities.
Some of the entries are quite dramatic: “crashed” (followed by no flying at all for six months from October 1929 to April 1930, because he had sustained a severe back injury), “engine cut out in mid-Channel, glided back to Hawkings”, “en route to Barcelona – forced landed in field, engine cut”, “engine cut out owing to broken piston after taking off – landed on aerodrome”. In 1929 most of the flights were to places in Southern England but from 1930 onwards they occasionally ranged further afield to places such as Antwerp, Le Bourget, Lyon, Cannes, Nice, and Dijon.
He was flying virtually every day, mainly several short flights per day, and in the period from August 1928 to September 1936 clocked up a total of 1142.50 hours of civilian flying, as well as about 600 hours recorded in his RAF Log Books (which remained with the RAF). This experience offered him the chance to fly a great variety of aircraft, 81 different civil aircraft/engine types between 1929 and the end of 1935.
In 1934 he found himself involved in a totally new venture. In the 1930s Alan Muntz, the Managing Director of Airwork, had embarked on creating separate companies to set up commercial air services in Egypt, Palestine, Persia and Iraq, under the technical direction of Airwork. As a result, in June and July 1934 J.J.P.’s logbook records a series of flights between Abadan, Tul-i-Bazuun, Teheran, Bahgdad, Rutlak, Gaza, Almaza (Cairo), and Haifa in Dragon and Moth aircraft. In December 1934 he took a Rapide aircraft from Heston to Teheran via Lyon, Marseilles, Tunis, Sirte, Bengazi, Almaza, and Baghdad. To give an idea of what this involved you have to remember that at that time pilots had to navigate by using a map and compass and identifying landmarks, such as railway lines, on the ground. Making sure you could fill up with fuel at the various stops could also be complicated and required advance planning.
A night in the mountains
John remained in the Middle East until February 1935, mainly in order to fly the managers of the Anglo Persian Oil Company and the Iraq Petroleum Company from one area to another. One of these flights, from Teheran to Khaniqin (north-east of Baghdad), in the Rapide he had brought from England, was particularly dramatic: J.J.P. was reluctant to embark on the flight, anticipating bad weather, but his passengers – Sir John Cadman (Chairman of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company), Mr. Gass and H.E. General Nakkijiwan — finally convinced him to take off. Four hours into the flight he found himself in a snowstorm in the mountains and the wings of the plane, flying at 18,000 feet, iced up, forcing him to descend. With very poor visibility he managed to bring the plane down to a lower altitude without hitting a mountainside and make a forced landing near Khurwar in a valley between two mountains at an altitude of 6,400 feet. His passengers were dispatched to the nearest town on donkeys guided by some Kurds who had conveniently appeared on the scene. That night he and his mechanic slept in the plane, and the next morning, with the sun shining, the Kurds were convinced to beat a makeshift runway in the snow so that they could take off and complete their journey.
In June he made a further trip to Egypt with a DH86 plane, via Lyon, Rome, Brindisi and Athens. He had another story to tell about that trip. When he reached Rome he saw what he thought was the right airport and landed. Within a few minutes a group of armed soldiers came running towards the plane and he realized that he had mistakenly landed at the military airport instead of the civilian one. His reaction was to take off again straight away “without getting involved in an argument” and fly on southwards. However, he needed to take on fuel before flying over the Mediterranean to North Africa, so ha landed again at Brindisi (hoping that the authorities there had not received a tip-off from Rome), refuelled as quickly as possible, and then left Italy without further complications. In Cairo he appears to have been training the English pilots based there to fly the DH86. In December 1935 he was again flying a Rapide in Iraq.