Alan John Cobham was born on the 6 May 1894 in Camberwell. He subsequently attended Wilson’s Grammar School but failed to achieve distinction in any subjects except geography. However, he couldn’t have picked a better subject at which to excel for it was to form the basis of his future career.
After volunteering for military duty in August 1914 he found himself in exceptional circumstances that quickly led to his being dispatched to France. Having claimed to have some farming experience he was attached to the army’s Veterinary Corps and over the next three years rose to become a sergeant in charge of some 1,500 horses in various stages of disrepair.
Taking to the sky
As the war progressed, the widening dependence on mechanised forms of transport made Cobham realise that the use of horses would greatly diminish. Seeing the ever increasing number of aircraft constantly overhead also fired his imagination and he resolved to become a pilot.
During a short spell of leave he confided his ambition to his mother who immediately arranged a meeting with a Mr Grose, a high ranking civil servant who happened to live next door.
He summoned Cobham to an interview at the War Office the following day at which he was asked to explain to a room full of officers why he wanted to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. After he did so Mr Grose fully endorsed the young man’s determined application and, brooking no dissention, requested his colleagues to do the same.
Cobham now faced the unenviable task of explaining his actions to an enraged colonel who, having seen his authority undermined, told him he was a disgrace to the regiment and to get out of his sight forthwith.
Having weathered this verbal storm, he reported to the Royal Flying Cadet Depot at Hastings only to face another battle of a different nature.
Firstly, the instructing staff were at a loss as to how to deal with a sergeant who also wore three service stripes on his sleeve but who required basic training in saluting and drill alongside the new recruits from ‘civvy street’.
Secondly, his classmates were, without exception, either from university or public school and therefore far better educated. He was, however, a quick learner and with a little help from his new found friends survived the course with reasonable credit.
After the war
Cobham, having ended the war as a flying instructor, joined some twenty-two thousand pilots in a desperate search for employment. Civil aviation was in its infancy and jobs were few and far between.
A small number however, found that the more adventurous members of the public keen to fly would willingly pay for a short local ‘hop’. Cobham, along with two other war veterans, Fred and Jack Holmes, pooled their savings and purchased a war surplus Avro 504k to form the Berkshire Aviation Company to provide one of the first aerial joy-riding outfits.
Their early success in 1919 soon faded but Cobham, after a spell as a photographic pilot with Aerofilms Ltd, went on to eventually become chief pilot of the de Havilland Aeroplane Hire Service.
In addition to charter flying with de Havilland, Cobham undertook several long- distance route-proving flights to India, Burma, South Africa and Australia which gained him international fame. Following his landing on the Thames upon returning from the Antipodes in front of an estimated one million sightseers, he received a well-earned knighthood.
Bringing aviation to the masses
After forming his own company Alan Cobham Aviation, Cobham embarked on a crusade to make the government and the general public ‘air minded’.
As part of this he toured the country in a ten-seater airliner visiting 110 towns and cities and undertaking 5000 local flights carrying 50,000 passengers which included 10,000 schoolchildren. All within a twenty-one week period.
He proved to be ahead of his time for although his aim on the tour was to convince local mayors and authorities that the time had come to build local airports, apart from a few notable exceptions eg, Liverpool, Bournemouth and Leeds/Bradford, his willingness to act as ‘aerodrome consultant fell mainly on deaf ears.
After a relatively quiet period in the Twenties, public interest in the touring airshows gained impetus with Cobham’s National Aviation Day displays leading the charge from 1932 to 1935.
Though he disliked the term ‘Flying Circus’ considering it to lack the professional touch, this was the title always used by the public and press, and indeed by aspiring aircrew volunteers in World War Two when, asked if they had ever flown before, some 75% replied ‘Yes-with Cobham’s Flying Circus.’
Colin Cruddas served for many years as the official archivist of the international aerospace company Cobham Plc and is uniquely qualified to write the definitive biography of one of the greatest pioneers in aviation history. His new book, ‘Sir Alan Cobham: The Flying Legend Who Brought Aviation To The Masses‘ was published on 22 October 2018 by Pen and Sword.