Squadron Leader Hedley G Hazelden DFC & Bar

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Hedley George Hazelden, universally known as ‘Hazel’ was born on 7th June 1915 in Sevenoaks, Kent. Before he was born his father had lost an arm in a sawmill accident and consequently was frequently unemployed so with little money coming into the household Hazel endured a pretty tough time growing up. At the age of 10 he secured a scholarship to the Judd School in Tonbridge. Seen as a bright pupil with potential he was urged to go on to University in order to further his education but family finances unfortunately did not permit this so upon leaving full-time education he got a job as a clerk in the London office of Standard Life Assurance Company, studying to become an actuary. However, this wasn’t something he relished and he had two or three attempts to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) for a short service commission. He once recalled that at one interview he was asked what work his father did. Given his father occasionally worked for a building firm, Hazel replied ‘He’s a painter’. To which he got ‘Oh, yes, landscape or portrait?’. ‘Neither, he’s a house painter’. The interview was terminated fairly quickly. Hazel once quipped they couldn’t possibly have anyone like that in the Officers Mess in those pre-war days!

With the clouds of war beginning to gather in Europe he was successful in obtaining Standard Life’s permission for leave of absence and in May 1939 was finally accepted into the RAF Volunteer Reserve, learning to fly on Avro Ansons at No.12 Flying Training School located at RAF Redhill in Surrey. He qualified as a Sergeant Pilot just in time to be called up on 2nd September 1939.

In 1940 his three-decade association with Handley Page began as he was posted to No.44 Squadron flying Handley Page Hampden twin engine bombers from RAF Waddington. He managed to walk away unscathed from a couple of crash landings during his first operational tour, one of which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) when he had to crash land his Hampden at a fog-bound Boscombe Down when returning from a mine-laying sortie off the French harbour of St. Nazaire. Upon completion of his first operational tour he was sent to No.14 Operational Training Unit at Cottesmore as an instructor – which he once said, was somewhat more dangerous than operations against Germany!

In 1941 he moved to RAF Finningley in Yorkshire to complete Avro Manchester conversion training. Following conversion, he joined No.83 Squadron based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire and remained with No.83 when they exchanged their pretty poor Avro Manchester’s which had unreliable engines and suffered a high accident and operational attrition rate for the mighty four-engine Lancaster bomber. Whilst many did not, Hazel survived the Manchester tour on one occasion losing an engine over the Heligoland Bight. He managing to get the stricken bomber and his crew back home for which he received a bar to his DFC. In early March 1941 he was particularly relieved to return from a bombing mission over Germany as he was getting married the next day. On his return to the squadron a week later he said he was shocked to find that seven crews had been lost in just three nights.

Hazel completed his second tour with No.83 Squadron on the Lancaster and it was during this period he took part in the first of Sir Arthur ‘bomber’ Harris’s mass raids on Cologne and Bremen. In July 1942 after completion of his second tour with No.83 he was ‘rested’ and posted to another training unit (11 OTU) as assistant chief flying instructor at RAF Oakley on the Vickers Wellington. Not to his liking he constantly requested a post back to operations but acknowledging his raw talent and skill, his Commanding Officer posted him to RAF Boscombe Down to join the inaugural course of the newly-formed Empire Test Pilots School (ETPS). Another great ‘Hazel’ anecdote he used to tell was that shortly before reporting to the ETPS he fell off a motorcycle injuring his leg and then fell out of a Wellington injuring his elbow. So this so-called talented and skilled pilot arrived for his first day wearing a sling and walking with the aid of a stick… perhaps not the best first impression for a budding test pilot! Of course Hazel completed the course and passed out at the end of February 1944 with the acclaimed title of ‘Test Pilot’. He once commented that while some may have felt this was an easy option at a time when one in three bomber crews were being lost on operations, test flying was no easy path and five of the thirteen pilots on the first course subsequently lost their lives.

With his test flying career in full swing at the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE), he received command of the new Civil Aircraft Test Squadron, which had been charged with the task of establishing airworthiness standards for the first generation of post-war airliners. It was while involved in this work that he was offered and accepted a job as test pilot for Handley Page Ltd, replacing James R. Talbot who had been killed when the prototype Hermes G-AGSS crashed on its maiden flight. Joining Handley Page in April 1947, his first main task was to conduct the flight test programme for the new RAF transport, the Hastings. This was followed by development of its civil counterpart the Hermes II, which became the first pressurised airliner built in the United Kingdom. This led to development of the Hermes IV, of which 25 were ordered by British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and subsequently the Hermes V. Undoubtedly though one of the highlights of his career was the flight testing of Handley Page’s jet V-bomber, the HP.80, which became known as the Victor. Hazel completed the first flight of the crescent winged V-bomber on Christmas Eve 1952. Hazel went on to conduct an exhaustive flight test programme which continued right up until the first aircraft was ready for entry into RAF service in late 1957.

The Victor programme had, like all new aircraft its ups and downs, and Hazel often said he had lady luck on his side. Besides all his wartime escapes another example he’d recite was that on the 14th July 1954, he was due to fly Victor prototype WB771 on an airspeed calibration flight in the morning before driving across to Woodley in the afternoon for an important presentation to demonstrate the capabilities of the Marathon to a Japanese admiral but he was called away unexpectedly as the admiral had arrived at Woodley early so he assigned his deputy, Ronald ‘Taffy’ Ecclestone to conduct the Victor calibration flight. Ecclestone and his crew completed several low-altitude passes along the runway at Cranfield but on one pass the tailplane detached causing the Victor to crash with the loss of all on board.

Besides the Victor, by 1955, Hazel was also busy with Handley Page’s latest new airliner project, the Herald. The first two Herald prototypes were fitted with four Alvis Leonides piston engines with Hazel making the first flight in prototype 1, G-AODE, from Radlett on 25th August 1955. It soon became clear to Handley Page that the market was favouring aircraft fitted with a turbo-prop engine and in line with the powerplant already selected for the Vickers Viscount and rival Fokker F-27, it was decided to re-engine the Herald with Rolls-Royce Dart turbo-props.

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As one of the men behind the Herald, Hazel appeared on the back cover of Herald Facts number 5

Both Herald prototypes were re-engined with the first aircraft being completed first in the spring of 1958. Hazel conducted a fairly extensive test programme on the aircraft and keen to pick-up sales it was important for the newly renamed ‘Dart Herald’ to put on a good display at that year’s Farnborough air show. With his wife, Esma, joining seven other passengers Hazel departed Woodley early afternoon on 30th August 1958 to position the Herald to Farnborough. An air to air photographic sortie had been planned with a Victor prior to arrival at Farnborough and just after completion of this while flying at 6,000ft, there was loud bang from the starboard Dart engine which promptly caught fire. Hazel cut off the fuel supply, feathered the propeller and activated the fire extinguishers all to no effect. With the wing now on fire it was clear he had to make an emergency landing as soon as possible.

 

Descending through 1,500ft the whole engine and nacelle fell away from the stricken aircraft. Hazel had now fixed his landing point, a flat looking field in an otherwise heavily wooded area just to the east of Godalming. Just before he touched down, wheels up, his perfect emergency landing was almost thwarted when he spotted 11,000-volt high tension cables in his path. He later estimated his touch down speed was 40 knots above permitted but managed to force the Herald onto the ground before reaching the cables, sliding underneath with the fin of the aircraft making contact with the lowest cable. A concealed tree stump in his path ripped a large hole in the fuselage and upon coming to a halt, he and his eight passengers used this to escape the burning wreckage. To mark his outstanding feat of airmanship and thus saving the lives of his passengers he was awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Services in the Air. As a personal mark of gratitude, Sir Frederick Handley Page presented him with a gold watch at a televised ceremony at Londonderry House which was attended by all the passengers, each of which was presented with a memento of the occasion.

 

Part of his duties for Handley Page was to lead several overseas tours with both the Hastings and Herald. Of particular note is the Herald tour of South America in 1962 when he flew alongside HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. By 1965 the test flying workload had dropped off and Hazel left Handley Page spending the remainder of his career before retirement flying for several regional airlines. He retired to Lincolnshire where he kept a healthy interest in the RAF and flying whenever the opportunity presented itself. He became a member of the Handley Page Association in 1981 and in 1998 accepted the office of President, supporting the association’s activities whenever his health allowed. 

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Getting reaquainted with a Victor bomber. Hazel on the crew entry steps of Victor XH648 at Duxford in April 1990.

During his long and distinguished career in aviation, he flew many different types, besides those already mentioned the most notable being; the Tiger Moth, Hawker Hart, Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, Fairey Firefly, Bristol Beaufighter, Douglas C-47, Vickers Viking, Shorts Stirling, Fokker F-27 and Hawker Siddeley 748. He was awarded a DFC in 1941 adding a Bar to it in 1942. He received the Air Efficiency Award in 1946, a King’s Commendation in 1947, a Queen’s Commendation in 1959 and the Royal Aeronautical Society awarded him its R.P. Alston Award Medal in 1965. Hazel married Esma May Jones in 1942 and they had a daughter, Valerie. Following Esma’s death in 1986 he married Jennie Valley, the widow of Flight Lieutenant Ralph Valley. He died on 18th August 2001, aged 86 and is buried in St. Andrew’s Church, Leasingham, Lincolnshire.

To Squadron Leader Hedley G Hazelden DFC & Bar we must say 'blue skies' Sir, we thank you for your service and all that you contributed to the history of Handley Page and British aviation.

Huge thanks to Alan Dowsett and the Handley Page Association for providing the majority of the information above.