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Suffolk flight anniversary this year

PUBLISHED: 05:18 28 February 2003 | UPDATED: 16:22 24 February 2010

This year marks the 70th anniversary of a historic flight in which a Hadleigh man set the world distance record. ALISON WITHERS reports.



NOWADAYS we think little of getting on a plane and flying off to long haul destinations for a couple of weeks' holiday.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of a historic flight in which a Hadleigh man set the world distance record. ALISON WITHERS reports.

NOWADAYS we think little of getting on a plane and flying off to long haul destinations for a couple of weeks' holiday.

It is easy to forget that only 70 years ago air flight was a novelty that captured the imaginations of the young men of the time and it was possible for records of height, distance and speed to make national – if not international – news.

Hadleigh man Oswald Gayford was one of those young men and set a world distance record of 5,309 miles for his continuous flight from Cranwell in Lincolnshire to Walvis Bay in South Africa.

Air Commodore Oswald Gayford was born on May 18, 1893, into the family of one of the town's two main employers, Gayfords' corn merchants.

The family owned a corn milling business in Corks Lane next to the River Brett, in the building that is now the headquarters of Babergh District Council.

They lived in the Pink House, Angel Street, now the home of John Bloomfield, who has an extensive library of information about its former occupant, including a copy of a Pathe newsreel of the historic flight that was shown in cinemas across the country.

Oswald Gayford's service career began not in the RAF - it did not exist until April 1918 - but in the navy.

He enlisted in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1914 and his first role was an unusual one, he worked on the RN armoured trains in France and Belgium.

He managed to get to sea in 1915 aboard destroyers and later sloops patrolling the North Sea and in 1916 transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service and was based in the Aegean.

By the end of the First World War he had transferred to the RAF and in late 1918 his squadron was sent to South Russia.

Postings that followed, punctuated by brief returns to the UK, were in Sudan and Egypt, where he organised and led the third RAF return flight from Cairo to Cape Town.

His experience in the Middle East and Africa came together when he was appointed officer in charge of the RAF Long Range Flight and it was from this post that Oswald Gayford and his co-pilot Flt Lt Gilbert Nicholetts made their historic flight to South Africa.

The two set off in a Fairey long range monoplane from Cranwell, Lincolnshire, on Monday, February 6, 1933, when it was deemed that the weather was right for the attempt.

The huge plane lifted off at 7.10am after a 1,200 yard ground run lasting 58 seconds, according to reports at the time.

It was to take 57 hours and 25 minutes before the two landed in South Africa.

En route the autopilot had gone wrong and had to be disconnected, leaving the two men to fly the plane in alternate three-hour stretches using instruments for guidance as they could not see the horizon line at night.

Their flight broke the previous record held by the USA by 328 miles.

There is a story that Gayford had been told by the politicians that he could carry out long distance flying to prove the case but not go for records, but a secret signal from the chief of staff at the time had said "never mind the politicians, go for the record".

His feat was front page news in the Daily Sketch and the Daily Mirror and a Pathe news reel report said: "Just think of those two flying for two and a half days and nights through all kinds of weather over land and sea…once again showed what British Engineering, brains and pluck could do."

Once he got back, of course, the political attitude had changed and he landed to a reception committee led by Lord Londonderry, the Secretary of State for the Air Force.

But the Pathe newsreel report showing films of his arrival in Hadleigh said: "nothing could have pleased him more than this homely greeting by the inhabitants of Hadleigh, from every man, woman and child who could be there on his 40th birthday."

The whole town had turned out to greet him at the town's station and a citation was read to him by Philip Wilson, a member of the town's other corn merchants family.

Then members of the crowd attached ropes to his open-topped car, although the engine worked perfectly well, and towed him all the way from Station Road to his mother's house in Angel Street for a massive birthday party.

Gayford was to make an even longer flight five years later, from Ismailia, Egypt, to Darwin, Australia, winning the Royal Aero Club's Britannia Challenge trophy for the RAF.

After that flight he took over command of RAF Wattisham for a time before another stint in the Middle East then AOC of No 33 base Bomber Command at Waterbeach, Mepal, Witchford and Woodbridge, retiring from the RAF in 1944.

On his retirement he was appointed regional controller for the Eastern Region of the Ministry of Fuel and Power, but was only in the job for a short while before dying at the age of 52 in 1945, living long enough to witness the end of the war in Europe but not the final surrender of the Japanese.

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